NFL Division Preview: NFC East is a Beast, Top to Bottom

In the beast they call the NFC East, its belly seems to be able to handle all the hitting Lavar Arrington plans to deal to his former Washington Redskins and the jawing Terrell Owens will do in Philly. The laughing fit Bill Parcells will have when his Dallas Cowboys stand atop the division in the end is because he’s defeated not only his old team the Giants, but also his longtime foe in Joe Gibbs in Washington. In the belly of the beast, only the strong survive and in the case of 2006, the NFC East will go down to the final weeks. Dallas will qualify early in about week 14, but the Giants and Redskins will go down to week 17, when they meet each other for the final Wild Card spot in the NFC. That’s how it should be, unless Philadelphia has anything to say about it. They will, but it will be too little and too late for them by week nine once Donovan McNabb has seen his offensive line beaten and further injured.

Dallas 11-5
N.Y. Giants 9-7
Washington 9-7
Philadelphia 7-9

DALLAS (9-7, 3rd NFC East)
OFFENSE
The Cowboys are stocked and loaded for bear (literally). Quarterback Drew Bledsoe must feel like he’s got the biggest gun in the universe, having Terrell Owens AND Terry Glenn to throw to. But that’s not all, folks; He’s also got one of the best young tight ends in the game in Jason Witten and if running back Julius Jones can stay healthy, well, there’s no telling how far the Pokes can go in 2006. But here’s the kicker; not only does Dallas have an arsenal of weapons, but they also have some guns coming off the bench. In his first NFl season, rookie Marion Barber averaged nearly 4 yards a carry and had 5 touchdowns, and that was primarily in spot duty when Jones was injured. Rookie Anthony Fasano is going to make the transition from tight end to fullback. On the offensive line Kyle Kozier comes over from Detroit to lend a helping hand, and Flozell Adams takes over for Larry Allen, who left his bulk in San Francisco. The only worry on offense is the O-line, which only goes two-deep.

DEFENSE
Chris Canty leads a front three that needs more playmaking. They may get it from Marcus Spears, who looks to be the next big thing in Big D. At linebacker, all eyes will be on DeMarcus Ware, who looks to repeat his 2005 campaign when he had 10 sacks from the right outside spot. Also projected to help is Akin Adoyele, who came over from Jacksonville. And steady veteran Greg Ellis provides the depth at the position. Roy Williams is the sheriff in the secondary, but he’s got some good deputies in Terrence Newman, Keith Davis, Anthony Henry and Aaron Glenn.

SPECIAL TEAMS
Mike Vanderjagt is the all time leader in the league in terms of accuracy, but his six-shooter may have to wait since he is injured and may not play in week one, though nothing has been announced. Mat McBriar is back, too, giving the Pokes a nice 1-2 combo. And Tyson Thompson basically obliterated opposing teams on kick returns, netting 1,399 yards in 2005. Speedy Jamaica Rector takes over on punt returns with Terrence Newman.

IN SUM
From top to bottom, all units on the Cowboys look solid and it’s somewhat disconcerting that even in this division, most prognosticators pick Dallas second or third. With all the weapons Dallas has, the only way this team will go down in a shootout is if they run out of bullets, particularly on the offensive and defensive lines and at wide receiver. A favorable early-season schedule makes a winning season and a playoff berth likely, especially if the Cowboys set the tone right from the start. It gets tougher in the second half, when teams like Carolina and Indianapolis draw their six-guns, hence the reason for the five losses on the season.
PREDICTION: 11-5, 1st NFC East

N.Y. GIANTS (11-5, 1st NFC East)
OFFENSE
There’s only one team capable of staying with Dallas in terms of overall weaponry, and that team is the Giants. Quarterback Eli Manning bounced back from a terrible rookie year to throw for 3,700 yards and 24 touchdowns. He is still learning how to be an NFL quarterback as evidenced by his 17 interceptions, but if running back Tiki Barber lands anywhere near his 1,800 yard-plus performance last year, considerable weight will again be taken off the shoulders of Eli and the Giants will again be reckoned with. Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer and Jeremy Shockey all return, giving the Giants a three-headed combination in the air that will be hard to slay. And once rookie Sinorice Moss is good to go, teams should watch out for him, too. And probably one of the more underrated players, though not to fantasy football owners, is Brandon Jacobs, the 264-pound wrecking ball who scored 7 touchdowns in 2005. The offensive line all returns from last year, including Luke Petitgout and Kareem McKenzie.

DEFENSE
Michael Strahan comes off a monster season in which he had 11.5 sacks and assisted on 22 more. Osi Umenyiora had 14.5 sacks as well, however the main concern in the Big Apple is inside the tackles where two relative newcomers will start, one player with some NFl experience and the other a rookie out of Northwestern. Linebacker is a bit more cozy, now that LaVar Arrington has arrived. The former Redskin brings tenacity times three and paired with Carlos Emmons, should rival any linebacking unit in the league. Arrington’s production has slipped in past years so any kind of rebirth in terms of filling the stat sheet would be welcome news in NYC. And Will Demps is in the building, having arrived from Baltimore where the motto is: There is no defender we didn’t like. The Ravens churn out more talent for other teams than other teams. The same is true of Demps, who may break out after being in such a defender-friendly environment. Demps will help out youngsters Gibril Wilson and Corey Webster, though R.W. McQuarters lurks in Webster’s spot. Sam Madison fills out a good unit, though it is young.

SPECIAL TEAMS
Jay Feely is back in Hackensack and that’s a fact. (Well, it’s a ways from Hackensack, but work with meâÂ?¦) Feely is known for OK accuracy, though his 83 percent clip last year was his best. Jeff Feagles holds it up for all the punters, entering year No. 20 in the NFL and still bopping the ball 42 yards per kick. Chad Morton is a threat to hit paydirt on every punt and kick ran back.

IN SUM
There are enough questions in the Giants lineup to warrant only the Wild Card spot in the division. The lack of depth in defense is one reason though the offense will steal the show and keep the Giants from going down too far in the standings, even if there are injuries. A grueling opening three weeks of the schedule could leave New York winless up to the bye week. After that the Giants should be back to .500 by midseason and in the second half they have Dallas at home and then go to Carolina for two marquee games out of eight. 9-7 should be easy to reach and in a tough NFC East division, it will be enough for the final Wild Card after they defeat the Redskins on the final week of the season.
PREDICTION: 9-7, 2nd NFC East

WASHINGTON (10-6, 2nd NFC East)
OFFENSE
The Mark Brunell show rolls on for at least one more go-round and why not? He threw for more than 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns in his 13th season, matching or eclipsing all but five good statistical years he had with the Jaguars. Will it continue in 2006? Yes, and it may even be better, considering the Skins were able to pick up Brandon Lloyd from San Francisco to go with speedy Santana Moss. Not only can Brunell continue to stretch defenses, but he can now go over the middle toward the sure-handed Lloyd. Backing up Moss and Lloyd are David Patten, James Thrash and Antwan Randle-El. And Chris Cooley hopes to equal his prolific stats of 2005 at the tight end spot. But the big issue is at running back, where Clinton Portis had a great year but is already on the injured list, leaving one writer to ponder whether or not the Redskins were lucky, or just good. The answer to both questions is yes, which means it really will be a crapshoot as to who goes through to the playoffs, the Giants or these Skins since the offensive line is back, too.

DEFENSE
Andre Carter comes over from the 49ers looking to rework his career and get to where he was in 2002. He will form a potent unit with Philip Daniels at the other end, and beefy Joe Salavea and Cornelius Griffin will provide the run-stopping. Marcus Washington will step in as the linebacker leader since Arrington went the Uncle Tom route, bailing for New York. The other two backers have smaller stats but did appear in all 16 games in 2005. But the real pop in the personnel will come from safeties Sean Taylor, who rang up opponents on 60 tackles last year, and Adam Archuleta who knows a little about ringing bells and winning rings. At right corner Shawn Springs enters 2006 with his bell rung, but he’ll get up and beat the count and the receiver to the ball.

SPECIAL TEAMS
John Hall had his best statistical year in 2005, knocking field goals at an 85 percent average. Derrick Frost returns after a decent year at punter. Ladell Betts is a top-notch kick return man, netting more than 600 yards in 2005 and scoring one touchdown.

IN SUM
The fortunes of the Redskins rest on the arm of Mark Brunell, the vision and stability of Clinton Portis and the health of the offensive line protecting both. Though the loss of Arrington to New York will hurt the defense, Carter is the type of player capable of making an impact as well as Marcus Washington. The first half of the schedule provides little relief, but the second half is filled with games the Skins should win. As predicted the Skins and Giants battle for the last playoff spot in week 17 with the Giants prevailing on the final day.
PREDICTION: 9-7, 3rd NFC East

PHILADELPHIA (6-10 4th NFC East)
OFFENSE
Now that T.O. has stepped out the door, it’s up to quarterback Donovan McNabb to locate another target and from the looks of it, former Saint Donte Stallworth will fill those shoes along with soph Reggie Brown. Look for Greg Lewis and Hank Baskett to make some noise before the season is over. At tight end L.J. Smith will be the difference maker. He scored seven touchdowns in 2005. Brian Westbrook hopes to increase his 600-yard output of a year ago at running back. The offensive line is a bit green on the right side and Tra Thomas is out indefinitely. But keep an eye on Jeff Garcia, who is now McNabb’s backup.

DEFENSE
Certain members of the Philadelphia defense have had as much publicity as the Cincinnati Bengals team leading up to the 2006 season. By no means does this mean the Eagles don’t have a stingy defense, or that they can’t be playoff contenders. But so many things must go right it almost seems wrong to support them. But they won’t go easy, and the main reason for that is Jevon Kearse. The D-line is young and inexperienced, however look for a somewhat angry Jeremiah Trotter to do the bootstomp on everyone in his path. Other linebackers in the starting spot will be Dhani Jones and Matt McCoy. Brian Dawkins fronts a secondary willing to destroy anything in their way (the starters combined for more than 200 tackles in 2005).

SPECIAL TEAMS
David Akers struggled in 2005, as did a few of his teammates. Punter Dirk Johnson only appeared in seven games last year, but both are expected to improve on their numbers in 2006. And all of special teams struggled last year. To boot their rookie speedster Olympian Jeremy Bloom is on injured reserve and as of press time may sit out the season.

IN SUM
If McNabb returns to form he had in 2004, before he was injured, the Eagles could be the surprise team of the year. But I think that honor will go to New Orleans, and the offensive line and its struggles will effectively cost the Eagles any chance at the postseason. In addition the defense and its losses in the offseason may have weakened on of the best units in the NFL. Finally, the schedule features Indianapolis, Carolina and three division foes in the final eight weeks.
PREDICTION: 7-9, 4th NFC East

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