Parity has defined the NFC East over the past six years, a span in which the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants each won two division titles but none back-to-back. That competitive balance now seems destined to become a thing of the past as Philadelphia looks poised to repeat as division champs -- perhaps for years to come.
What are the Eagles up against? The Redskins, the lone exception to the division's recent equality, have had just two winning seasons in the past 11 years. The Giants, who've lost six straight meetings with Philly, faded down the stretch in each of the past two seasons and missed the playoffs. After turning a 1-7 start into a 6-10 finish last season, the Cowboys could be in the mix for their third division crown in five years, but only if their defense comes together under new coordinator Rob Ryan and a young offensive line plays beyond its years.
For the Eagles, who were favorites even before they anointed themselves as a Dream Team in late July, anything less than a division title would be a nightmare.
Philadelphia led the league in quick-strike drives last season, scoring 11 touchdowns in three plays or fewer. With so many offensive weapons -- quarterback Michael Vick, running back LeSean McCoy and wideouts DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin -- it's no wonder that the Eagles ranked second in total yards and third in points scored last season. With the addition of former Giants receiver Steve Smith and former Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown, Philadelphia should only see improvements in both its passing game (ninth in the NFL in 2010) and ground attack, which ranked fifth in total yards and first in yards per carry.
It was addressed when Philadelphia signed free agent Nnamdi Asomugha and traded for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to join forces with four-time Pro Bowler Asante Samuel in the defensive backfield. While the Eagles finished third with 23 interceptions last year, they also gave up 31 touchdown passes, second-most in the league.
A rookie out of Oregon, the 6-foot-1, 232-pound Matthews was taken in the fourth round of this year's draft -- 116th overall -- and immediately given the responsibilities of a first-rounder. He'll start at middle linebacker, relaying calls in the huddle to a unit that improved its secondary and front line (end Jason Babin and tackle Cullen Jenkins were notable acquisitions), but could have a glaring weakness in the heart of the defense.
The Eagles are built to withstand the grind of the regular season and win the division. But with so many new players on defense -- and with a new defensive coordinator, Juan Castillo, who was Philly's offensive line coach for the past 13 seasons -- it's imperative that they not just be on the same page, but also on the same line, same word, and same letter going into the postseason. If not, opponents will exploit a mismatch and the big-name team could stumble in a big game.
Which is really to say: What
The Cowboys ranked 23rd in total defense last year and surrendered 27.2 points per game, second-most in the NFL. Yet they return 10 of 11 starters, including a trio of Pro Bowlers in cornerback Terence Newman, linebacker DeMarcus Ware (last year's league sacks leader with 15½) and nose tackle Jay Ratliff. The difference-maker will have to be new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who has not only implemented a new 3-4 scheme but also inspired an aggressiveness that was lacking last year.
First-round pick Tyron Smith, a 6-5, 307-pound behemoth out of USC, is expected to start at right tackle. And he won't be the only youngster trying to protect Romo from taking the kind of vicious, uncontested shot that ended his season a year ago. Fellow rookies Bill Nagy, David Arkin and Kevin Kowalski could see time this year. Three other linemen -- Phil Costa, Sam Young and Jermey Parnell -- are entering just their second season.
Nine of the Cowboys' first 12 games are against opponents who had a losing record in 2010, a favorable stretch that could put them in position to contend for the division title over the final month of the season. At the very least, they could be in position for a wild-card berth, which would be an incredible turnaround from last season's debacle.
The Giants ranked sixth with 2,200 rushing yards last season, and sixth with 17 rushing touchdowns. Ahmad Bradshaw established himself as the feature back, carrying the ball 276 times for 1,235 yards. It was the first time in four years that he had more touches and more yards than Brandon Jacobs, who rushed 147 times for 823 yards. Despite their backs being on opposite ends of the position's career arc, the Giants run the ball best when the slashing Bradshaw, 25, and the bruising Jacobs, 29, attack defenses with a contrasting one-two punch.
The Giants led the league with 42 last year -- 25 interceptions and 17 fumbles. The defense did its best to negate them, leading the league with 39 takeaways. New York won 10 games but still missed the postseason. It's amazing it even finished above .500 considering how many times they gave the ball away.
The aw-shucks, ho-hum Manning created a bit of a stir in August when he told a New York radio station that he thought himself to be an elite quarterback in the same company as Tom Brady. Both have won Super Bowls, and Manning did earn his by leading an improbable comeback over the Patriots to spoil their perfect season and win Super Bowl XLII. Unlike Brady, Manning has led the NFL in interceptions twice in the past four seasons.
Although he's thrown for more than 4,000 yards in each of the past two seasons, and although his completion percentage (62.9) was higher last year than ever before, Manning's career-high 25 picks doomed the Giants in 2010. He needs to protect the ball this year, even if it means taking more sacks. The Giants allowed just 16 last year, the fewest in the league, but Manning can't afford to scramble and try to make something out of nothing -- especially after losing wideout Steve Smith to the Eagles and tight end Kevin Boss to the Raiders. Now more than ever, Manning must prove himself to be an elite QB. First and foremost, that means protecting the football.
The Giants have suffered late-season collapses in each of the past two years, and the second half of the 2011 slate is a brutal gauntlet. Starting with a Week 9 showdown against the Patriots, New York's final nine games include five playoff teams from a year ago, a cross-country trip to play the 49ers">49ers, back-to-back meetings with the past two Super Bowl champions, and four pivotal division games.
Quarterback Rex Grossman told a local TV station in August that the Redskins were "just waiting in the wings, ready to take over the NFC East." Running back Tim Hightower told
Washington ranked 18th in total offense last year. It became pass-heavy and predictable, ranking fourth in pass attempts and second-to-last in rushing attempts. It also ranked second-to-last in total defense, allowing more passing yards than all but one team. That pretty much sums it up.
The biggest burden, however, will fall on whomever Shanahan chooses as his quarterback. Grossman hasn't started a full season since 2006 with the Bears, but found himself in a tight quarterback race with John Beck, who has never won an NFL game and hasn't taken a regular season snap since 2007. Once a decision is made, the competition must cease completely. After working so hard to turn the locker room around, the last thing Shanahan needs is a quarterback controversy creating discord among the troops.
Washington was 5-5 through their first 10 games last year, then dropped five of its last six. But the Redskins were in many of those games. Excluding a 31-7 blowout loss to the Giants in early December, four of their final five losses were by an average margin of less than a field goal (2.75 points). Of their five victories, four came in overtime. After hanging tough last year, Washington picks up a few more wins but falls just short of .500.