For 16 weeks of the 2011 season, the NFC East was arguably the NFL's most disappointing division. The Giants lost four straight midseason to fall to 6-6; the Redskins fell in six consecutive games to turn a 3-1 start into a 3-7 mess; the Eagles were a letdown from Week 2 on. Only the Cowboys seemed to have their act together, scratching and clawing their way to a 7-4 record through November. And then, the wheels fell off for them too, allowing the Giants to sneak away with the East title.
From there, of course, New York erased the division's season-long failures, rolling through Atlanta, Green Bay, San Francisco and New England to capture a Super Bowl title. There is impressive talent littered throughout the NFC East again in 2012. But will that potential translate to a stronger all-around division?
Two teams (Minnesota and Philadelphia) finished the 2011 regular season with more sacks than the Giants, but it's hard to find a defensive line that had more impact than New York's. That was especially true in the postseason, when the Giants' front four suffocated Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Alex Smith and Tom Brady en route to a Super Bowl title. The returns of Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul at defensive end ensure that plenty of opposing QBs will feel the hurt this year, even with Chris Canty slowly coming back from knee surgery. The only potential wrench in New York's plan to pressure up front? Injuries. They've already done a number on the Giants' defensive tackles this preseason.
Obviously, this isn't an offense built to "ground and pound" opponents, like the in-city rival Jets (think they) have. Even with Mario Manningham packing up and heading out to San Francisco, the Giants are loaded with pass catchers, including Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Rueben Randle. But still, last year's running game was embarrassingly bad at times and finished dead last in the NFL in yards (1,427 ... or about 160 fewer than Maurice Jones-Drew had on his own). The Giants replaced departed free agent Brandon Jacobs with versatile rookie David Wilson. Will that swap plus a healthy Ahmad Bradshaw lead to better production?
For as long as Terrell Thomas remains sidelined by the knee injury that cost him all of the 2011 season (New York re-signed him this summer anyway), Amukamara figures to start opposite Corey Webster at cornerback. That's a big task for Amukamara, who was the Giants' first-round pick in the 2011 draft but saw minimal action after hurting his foot last preseason. New York faces some potentially explosive offenses in September, too -- Dallas, Carolina and Philadelphia -- so Amukamara has to hit the ground running. Aaron Ross stepped up and filled Thomas' shoes last season; Amukamara will be asked to do the same, at least for a few weeks.
We just talked about how tough the Cowboys' schedule is. Well, the Giants' road isn't exactly a stroll through a field of daisies, either. In addition to the usual home-and-home against the rest of the NFC East, New York also faces road games at Carolina, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Atlanta and Baltimore. This Giants team has proven, though, that it does not intimidate easily. Amazingly, the Giants are flying completely under the radar despite, you know, winning the Super Bowl. Everyone wants to talk about RGIII, Michael Vick and the Cowboys' hopes. Heck, even in New York, the Giants have been Tebowed out of the headlines. And you know what? That's just fine with this team.
LeSean McCoy was the straw that stirred the drink last season, rushing 273 times and catching 48 passes to account for about 41 percent of Philadelphia's total offensive plays. But the 2011 Eagles were far from a one-man show. DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek and Jason Avant all had more than 50 catches and only Avant finished below 800 yards receiving. Add in Michael Vick's dual-threat ability (3,300 yards passing; 589 rushing), and you can understand how the Eagles finished fourth in yards and eighth in points last season. Everyone's back in 2012, too, so if Vick leaves his one-injury-per-game streak behind in the preseason, Philadelphia should boast one of the league's most potent attacks yet again.
In five of their first six losses last season, Philadelphia had a lead at either halftime or the end of three quarters. Granted, in two of those games -- Week 2 at Atlanta and Week 3 vs. the Giants -- Mike Kafka had to relieve an injured Vick, but the point is that the Eagles were a few more good quarters away from being a 10- or 11-win team last season. Aside from when Vick had to hobble off the field, the late flops didn't make a lot of sense, either. With McCoy capable of grinding out yards and the defense leading the NFL with 50 sacks, Philadelphia seemed built to put teams away. They need to make that a reality this season. We also would have accepted "Protecting the quarterback" as the answer to what Philadelphia must get better at -- Eagles QBs were sacked 32 times in 2012.
The Eagles looked to have all the talent in the world on defense last season, but the pieces never really fit together. Their use of the wide-nine look up front -- which spreads out the defensive line more than a traditional set -- put a lot of pressure on the linebacking corps to step up and make tackles. When that failed to happen consistently enough, it opened things up for opponents. To solve that problem, Philadelphia traded a fourth-round pick to Houston for Ryans, who suffered an Achilles tear last year and then struggled in Houston's 3-4 attack. He is a much better fit in the middle of the Eagles' 4-3, and with rookie Mychal Kendricks looking like the real deal at an outside linebacker spot, Philadelphia could be much stronger at the second level.
The ceiling for the Eagles would see Vick stay healthy for 16 games, the offense and defense perform to their capabilities, and end with a Super Bowl run. But the floor features an injured Vick and another year of underachieving on the defensive side of the ball. Philadelphia has the look of a team that could go 12-4 and run away with the NFC East. Unfortunately, last year's failures are hard to look past. This team should be in the hunt all season. Whether or not that leads to the playoffs depends on Vick and how cut-throat a mentality the Eagles develop.
There remains a large group of people out there who want to blame all of the Cowboys' ills on Tony Romo (you can't see it, but I'm rolling my eyes). And while Romo has yet to take this franchise to the promised land, the truth is that he continues to put up terrific numbers when he's healthy. He did it again in 2011 (4,184 yards, 31 touchdowns, 10 interceptions), despite Miles Austin missing six games and Dez Bryant being hobbled for a decent chunk of time. Dallas still finished with the seventh-most passing yards and fifth-most passing TDs in football.
The Cowboys probably would have made the playoffs last year if not for an anemic secondary. In losing four of their final five games, Dallas allowed an average of 306 yards through the air. It did what it could to address the problem this offseason, paying big bucks for Brandon Carr and trading up in the draft for Morris Claiborne. Carr picked off two passes in Dallas' second preseason game, so
Laurent Robinson was a savior for Dallas' passing game last season -- he caught 54 balls and scored 11 times to help the Cowboys overcome Austin's ailments. Robinson turned that breakthrough season into a lucrative contract in Jacksonville, leaving the Cowboys without their safety net. Enter Ogletree. Now in his fourth year with the team, Ogletree has the inside track on the No. 3 gig, ahead of guys like Danny Coale and Dwayne Harris. Given the attention the Cowboys' big boys draw (not to mention Jason Witten's spleen injury), Ogletree should get every opportunity to prove himself.
Consider this a little bit of bet hedging. If all of the Cowboys' weapons (including DeMarco Murray, who might be ready for a huge season) stay on the field and the secondary makes some steady improvement, this is a team that can win the division. However, it all has to go right ... and the schedule does them no favors. Dallas opens on the road against the Giants and Seahawks, then finishes with a trying December (Philadelphia, at Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, at Washington). The Cowboys were right there last season, 7-4 and headed toward a division crown, before it all fell apart. This season likely will depend on the closing stretch again.
If things go according to plan, what the Redskins actually do best will have something to do with Robert Griffin III, in 2012 and well beyond. The strength of last year's team, though -- and one of the apparent strengths of this year's squad -- is at the linebacking spot in the 3-4 setup. Last year's leading tackler, London Fletcher, is back at one of the inside spots and will line up next to rising youngster Perry Riley. On the outside sit Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, the team's leaders in sacks with 9.0 and 7.5, respectively. Washington has not always had answers on the defensive line or in the secondary, but the team's linebackers are stout.
Too obvious? Probably. But the fact of the matter is that Robert Griffin III is in D.C. this season because the Redskins franchise has been in search of a definitive No. 1 quarterback for about two decades. The QB issues have been almost comical in recent years, with Jason Campbell giving way to Donovan McNabb who, in turn, handed things off to the two-headed monster of Rex Grossman and John Beck.
The Redskins' problems running the football (25th last season) have gone hand-in-hand with the dreadful QB play. Defenses have just loaded the box against Washington, forcing Mike Shanahan's club to the air. Last season, the Redskins attempted more passes than all but four teams ... and threw more interceptions than all but three.
Take your pick along Washington's offensive line. The Redskins are having enough trouble just putting five healthy bodies out there together for back-to-back practices, let alone getting the group to gel in front of Griffin. They signed Polumbus last November, and he was, to be honest, pretty miserable in limited action for the remainder of the 2011 season. With projected right tackle Jamaal Brown on the PUP list, his return uncertain, Polumbus could wind up starting by default. For Griffin's sake and the sake of the entire offense, Washington must be better protecting up front.
Griffin makes the Redskins a much more dangerous team, as does the addition of Pierre Garcon at wide receiver. That said, it's easier to see Washington challenging for a playoff spot in 2013 or 2014 than it is 2012. After a difficult Week 1 trip to New Orleans, the Redskins face a critical three-game stretch to close out September -- at St. Louis, vs. Cincinnati, at Tampa Bay. All three games could go either way. If Washington can go 2-1 or 3-0, the timetable for success might get moved up.