2011 NFC East Division Preview and Predictions

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By Mike Ivcic

1) Philadelphia Eagles
Despite all of the offseason moves the Eagles made, I’m really rather sketchy with this pick. I think both the Giants and Cowboys will surprise people, mostly because no one expects either team to really be all that good and everyone seems to already be crowning the Eagles kings of the division. But the linebacking corps is very week, a position in which the top defensive teams (Patriots, Steelers, Packers, Jets, Ravens) are usually outstanding. Yes, Philly bodes three extremely good cornerbacks, but I’ve watched Asante Samuel try to tackle big running backs, and it’s usually advantage guy with the ball. Running on the Eagles will be paramount, because it will force the safeties to cheat up into the box and leave more one-on-one coverage outside where there’s a least a chance of a completion, or even better – more zone coverage. Either way, Philadelphia will only go as far as their run defense will take them because of the severe disparity between the linebackers and the secondary.

The other wild card here is Michael Vick. Only once has he started 16 games in a season, and I wouldn’t expect this to be the second season it happens. He plays the game in such a fashion that he’s bound to get hurt, and the Eagles can only hope it’s not at a point where he’ll be missing critical regular season or postseason football. The schedule shapes up will, as the Eagles get the Jets, Patriots, Bears, and Cardinals all at home, leaving only Atlanta as a truly difficult road game outside of the division. Yes, Seattle and St. Louis are loud and usually are very good homefield crowds, but if this Eagles team has Super Bowl aspirations, those should be wins 9 out of 10 times – minimum. The only difficult aspect of the schedule is facing the Giants and Cowboys both at home first, meaning a loss in the first matchup to either team would put the Eagles behind the 8-ball heading on the road for the rematch. That’s especially true for the Cowboys series, and Philadelphia will be in Dallas on Christmas Eve in week 16, a game that has the potential to be the deciding factor in who wins the NFC East.

2) New York Giants
While I believe both Dallas and the Giants have the ability to surprise the league this year, I have to give the nod to New York because of better quarterback play. No, Eli is not his brother, but he doesn’t have to be. The Giants have quietly let some bigger names walk and surrounded Manning with some young talent, and the tandem of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw is, hands down, THE most underrated running back duo in the NFL. They complement each other perfectly, and Tom Coughlin has finally figured out how to use each to maximize their efficiency, making the Giants offense that much more dynamic. It’s hard to see Manning having another year with 20+ interceptions, so look for the offense to score more than they already do this season and really get some games into full-blown shootout mode.

It might be good, though, that New York plans on playing some high scoring games this season, because they might not have a choice. Without Osi Uymeniora for at least the first couple of games, Big Blue’s defense isn’t exactly operating at a Lawrence Taylor-like level. The secondary took a couple of big hits in the preseason, and overall this unit wasn’t that good last year to start. Out of any NFC team, the Giants defense is the single biggest question mark that could chance the entire outlook of the postseason picture. If New York can get Osi back and cover all of the holes, this could be a 12-4 football team, which would be one of the bigger shocks in recent memory. The flip side is if the defense plays like it did in the fourth quarter of last year’s meeting with the Eagles at the Meadowlands all season long, which would scream 5-11 and the end of the line for Coughlin. I have to imagine mediocrity will save the day, so let’s say 9-7, which could mean playoffs in this year’s NFC…

3) Dallas Cowboys
A year after winning the division, sweeping three games from Philadelphia, and winning the franchise’s first playoff game since Troy, Emmitt, and Michael, the Cowboys fell flat, losing Tony Romo to injury and Wade Phillips to the firing squad. New coach Jason Garrett now will be tasked with returning both Romo and the Cowboys to the top of the standings, but it won’t happen this year. Garrett did make a number of smart offseason moves, cutting high-priced veterans like Roy Williams, Marc Columbo, and Marion Barber in order to free up some money and roster space for younger, hungrier players. The new coach served notice that everyone will be held accountable, a bit of a change from the happy-go-lucky attitude that Phillips allowed to permeate the locker room.

The task now will be finding those low-cost, high-ceiling players to fill the holes left by the roster shakeup. All-pro center Andre Gurode might be the most difficult to replace, and that was before he was released. Romo and company could be in for a long year on offense, but for the first time in a while I think Jerry Jones did the right thing in hiring a young head coach who proved his effectiveness as a coordinator. The Cowboys will be better off in the hands of someone who will change the culture in Dallas to one where players feel like they expect to win because of the hard work and preparation, not simply because of the talent present on the roster.

The schedule does not open kindly for the Cowboys, who will be tasked with playing in the most emotional game of the season – September 11, Sunday night football, in New York against the Jets. After that, however, the Cowboys should be able to pick up some wins and momentum, playing at the 49’ers before hosting the Redskins and Lions and then heading off to their early bye week. They’ll need it with the Patriots waiting on the other side – in New England – but if the final wild card were to come down to the Giants and the Cowboys, it will be earned on the field against each other, as they’ll play both meetings over the final four weeks of the season. Those that like random, pointless facts might like this – in the history of the “Flex” games for Sunday night football on NBC, no division rivalry has appeared twice in primetime (prior to “Flex,” the NFL simply wouldn’t schedule it at the start of the year, so there was no chance of moving it later). This year, however, the Giants and Cowboys will meet on NBC on December 11 in Dallas, then again in week 17 in New York. That game is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. on FOX, but since it will be played that final weekend, by rule FOX cannot chose to protect that game with one of its five selections – week 17 is exempt from protection rules. Thus, if the Giants and Cowboys come down to the final weekend with the final playoff spot up for grabs, it might be the first time in NFL history that both games of a division rivalry series are played in primetime. You heard it here first.

4) Washington Redskins
If it were possible to pick a team fifth in a four-team division, I would. Despite fulfilling the “head coach” section of the blueprint outlined in the Buffalo Bills preview, the Redskins have missed on just about every other section on that list, and Mike Shanahan doesn’t play a down of football on either side of the ball. Which, quite frankly, is a shame, because he’s probably still better than half of the options he otherwise has. John Beck is a serviceable quarterback who’s best suited in backup and relief, which is where he’ll start the year, but he’s probably got a higher upside than Rex Grossman, anointed the starter earlier this week. Everyone already knows what Grossman is, and yet with all of the money Daniel Snyder spends, it’s the best he could do at the most important position on the field. It’s really not a coincidence that winning teams have good quarterbacks, and good quarterbacks play for winning teams. Rare is the team that makes the playoffs with a quarterback in the bottom half of the league’s starters, and even Super Bowl winners like Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer were in the 10-15 range in the years where they won it all. Grossman isn’t even top 20 and might be worse than a handful of backups, so this team isn’t going anywhere. The bright side is they ditched Donovan McNabb and Albert Haynesworth-less, freeing up some money that Snyder will subsequently spend on two more veterans who won’t help Washington win a single thing. Sound familiar?

If you haven’t noticed the theme yet, usually this paragraph is where I analyze the team’s schedule, because in no sport is the schedule more vital to a team’s success than in football. Think of it this way – there are 31 possible opponents. Any given team will play three of those opponents twice, ten of those opponents once, and 18 opponents – yes, more than half the league – a grand total of zero times. When there are more teams that you don’t play than you do, that’s when the schedule becomes significantly more important than any other single factor.

Why did I just explain that to you here, in the 24th team preview of the week? Because that explanation warranted more ink than a look at Washington’s schedule. But, if you insist, the chances for the Redskins to win games are actually quite frequent. If the ‘Skins can somehow find a way to win opening day at home against the Giants (the other big September 11 game), it could fuel them to a possible .500 record. Think I’m joking? This team gets the NFC West (could go 4-0) as well as Carolina, Buffalo, Minnesota, and Miami, plus they always play Dallas tough at home. Somehow, someway, I just found 10 possible wins for the Redskins this season (they’ll lose to the Giants and Cowboys on the road, Jets and Patriots at home, and both Philly games) which I think would qualify as my first miracle for sainthood, should it happen.

On second thought, let me look at that roster again…

Yup, just as I thought. 2-14.

Monday, September 5: AFC North
Monday, September 5: NFC North
Tuesday, September 6: AFC South
Tuesday, September 6: NFC South
Wednesday, September 7: AFC East
Wednesday, September 7: NFC East
Thursday, September 8: AFC West
Thursday, September 8: NFC West
Friday, September 9: Playoffs and Super Bowl

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