SI.com is previewing all eight NFL divisions, beginning today with the AFC East and NFC East. The AFC South and NFC South follow Wednesday, AFC North and NFC North on Thursday and the AFC West and NFC West on Friday.
The NFC East perennially is considered to be the toughest division in football, and with good reason. All four teams have been in the playoffs over the past five years and all four teams are legitimate playoff contenders once again this season. Last year's division champion, the Dallas Cowboys, are widely considered to be the favorite by many based upon how they finished the 2009 season, dominating the Philadelphia Eagles in back-to-back weeks on their way to their first playoff victory in over a decade. Their preseason has been long and rough, however, and the injuries and poor play that have plagued them throughout August can't remain if they hope to stay atop the division again in 2010. The beauty of the NFC East is because it is so competitive, there is no machination of the final standings in 2010 that should surprise anyone.
What the Redskins do best: Play defense.
The Redskins have very quietly had one of the better defenses in the NFL over the past few years and they expect to build upon that as they switch to a 3-4 base front under new defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. Haslett believes the Redskins have the personnel, especially in prototypical pass-rushing outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Andre Carter, to successfully make this transition. With those two getting after the quarterback and veteran linebacker London Fletcher leading the run defense, the 'Skins should be stellar again in the front seven. If they can coax Albert Haynesworth into playing at a high level, they could be dominant. The 'Skins need this group to not only play well, but also force a lot of turnovers, something it hasn't done a great deal of in recent years and is the prime reason Haslett made the switch away from the 4-3.
What the Redskins need to improve: The passing game.
The passing game in Washington has not been up to snuff in recent years. They replaced Jason Campbell with Donovan McNabb at quarterback and brought in a coordinator who is fast earning a reputation as one of the brightest young offensive minds in the NFL: Kyle Shanahan. His specialty is the play-action passing game and the Redskins will use it to get big plays from a rather pedestrian group of wide receivers. The 'Skins hope to make up for their lack of elite receivers by getting big chunks of yardage from their dual athletic tight ends, Chris Cooley and Fred Davis.
Which Redskin needs to step up: Wide receiver Anthony Armstrong.
The 'Skins are expecting a significant contribution this season from the relatively unknown first-year player from West Texas A&M. Armstrong has been the breakout star of training camp, easily passing by former second-round picks Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly on his way towards the top of the depth chart. Based on Joey Galloway's age and the manner in which he flopped last season in New England, Santana Moss is the only sure-fire receiver on this team. Armstrong is quick in and out of his breaks and has played well enough this preseason that he is expected to be a key contributor, starting in Week 1.
Predicted record: 10-6.
The Redskins were a much more talented team than their 4-12 record from a year indicated and all they did this offseason was add a future Hall of Fame head coach, Mike Shanahan, and a quarterback who is still one of the 10 best in the NFL. Additions like that boost the confidence in the locker room. If they can use that confidence to get off to a fast start, they have as good a chance to win the division as any of the other teams. Seemingly every year in the NFL there is one team that goes from last to first. This year it is the Redskins.
What the Cowboys do best: Harass quarterbacks.
In an increasingly pass-happy league, the Cowboys may have the best tandem of outside pass rushers in the league. DeMarcus Ware has long been the gold standard among outside linebackers when it comes to rushing the passer and 2009 was no different as he notched double-digit sacks for the fourth consecutive year. What was different in 2009, especially down the stretch, was the emergence of former first-round pick Anthony Spencer. He had six sacks in the final six games of the regular season before continuing that trend in the postseason, when he tacked on an additional sack in each one of those contests. Supplementing the dynamic duo on the inside is Jay Ratliff, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle who can win most one-on-one matchups as well.
What the Cowboys need to improve: Offensive line play.
The Cowboys offensive line finished the 2009 season with a disappointing performance in the playoffs against the Minnesota Vikings. In the offseason Dallas jettisoned long-time starting left tackle Flozell Adams and replaced him with the relatively inexperienced Doug Free. The good news is Free appears capable of holding up at left tackle. The bad news is both left guard Kyle Kosier and right tackle Marc Colombo sustained injuries during camp that they will have to fight back from. Their replacements, Montrae Holland and Alex Barron, are average at best and the injuries have left the 'Boys with very little depth heading into the opener.
Which Cowboy needs to step up: Safety Alan Ball.
The only new starter on defense is Ball, who takes over at safety for former Cowboy Ken Hamlin. The Cowboys think Ball is a better athlete with more range and are confident he can make plays on some of the passes that Hamlin simply could not. Their hope is Ball's athleticism will help make up for his inexperience.
Predicted record: 10-6.
The Cowboys simply have way too many playmakers at important positions not to be in the thick of things until the very end. The problem is they are already beat up entering the season with injuries to safety Gerald Sensabaugh and linebacker Keith Brooking, in addition to Colombo and Kosier. Limping into a season, and playing so poorly in the preseason, is not the start they anticipated for a season in which the push is to reach a Super Bowl that will be played in their own stadium.
What the Giants do best: Go deep on the defensive line.
The Giants believe very strongly that the most important position group on a team, outside of the quarterback, is the defensive line. As usual, they have continued to fortify the ranks in this regard.
In April they added first-round pick Jason Pierre-Paul and second-rounder Linval Joseph to a rotation that was already considered among the deepest in the NFL. The idea is to keep those linemen fresh throughout the game and healthy over the season so they can return New York to its 2007 dominance down the stretch and in the postseason. With questions marks behind it, this unit needs to be as good as advertised if the G-Men hope to make it back to the postseason after a one-year hiatus.
What the Giants need to improve: Running the football.
Once thought to be the strength of the team, the running game was not nearly as effective in 2009 as in the previous two seasons. Whether it was the running style of Brandon Jacobs or the signs of age showing on the offensive line, the bottom line was that the unit underperformed. It won't be easy to get off on the right foot this season as starting linemen Shaun O'Hara, Chris Snee, Kareem McKenzie and Rich Seubert have all missed time this preseason. This unit needs to get healthy in a hurry and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride needs to find a way to get the ball in the hands of running back Ahmad Bradshaw as much as possible because of his speed and elusiveness.
Which Giant needs to step up: Linebacker Michael Boley.
With serious question marks at the other two linebacker positions next to him, Boley needs to become the elite playmaker he can be. He possesses truly unique speed and athleticism for the position and could become one of the best outside linebackers in the NFL if he can stay healthy and focused. As the only known commodity at the second level of the defense for Big Blue, he'll need to do exactly that.
Predicted record: 9-7.
The Giants have too much talent and prideful personalities in their locker room not to bounce back from last season's disastrous finish and have a winning season. Their problem is that they reside in the toughest division in football and already seem to be losing the battle of attrition. If their injured veterans can return to action and stay healthy for a full 16 games, they could squeeze into the playoff picture, but that's a big if.
What the Eagles do best: Skill positions.
Seemingly overnight the Eagles have compiled the best stable of young skill position players in the league. Wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin have big-play ability while Jason Avant is exactly what the Eagles are looking for in a slot receiver. Tight end Brent Celek established himself a year ago and has the ability to stretch the middle of the field. Running back LeSean McCoy appears ready to handle everything asked of him after serving a one-year apprenticeship under Brian Westbrook. Simply put, the Eagles are loaded at the skill positions and just need new starting quarterback Kevin Kolb to get them the ball in space and let them create.
What the Eagles need to improve: Intimidation factor.
The defense took a step back last year under first-year defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and must get back to being the intimidating crew that the late Jim Johnson created during his tenure in Philly. The Eagles got a number of reinforcements this offseason after trading for linebacker Ernie Sims from the Detroit Lions and using their first two draft choices on defensive end Brandon Graham from Michigan and safety Nate Allen from South Florida. All three are expected to start from day one. The defense also returns rock-solid middle linebacker Stewart Bradley after he missed all of the 2009 campaign with a torn ACL.
Which Eagle needs to step up: Quarterback Kevin Kolb.
The Eagles handed the keys to the franchise to the fourth-year player out of Houston on Easter Sunday and don't anticipate him to have a steep learning curve after being in the system the past three seasons. Philadelphia has a division championship-caliber squad at every position and it is up to Kolb to show that includes the quarterback position as well. No matter how much potential he has shown, he is still a first-year starter in a rabid NFL market that won't have much patience this season. How he responds to those lumps will determine the fate of this season in Philadelphia.
Predicted record: 9-7.
Just like every other team in this division, the Eagles simply have too much talent and are too good not to be in the mix come Week 17. Unlike every other team in this division, the Birds enter this season with a question mark at quarterback. No matter how high they are internally on Kolb, he still has to prove he can get it done week after week when the pressure is on. Doing that is his first year at the helm is asking a lot.