Going into the 2006 NFL season, the NFC East looks to be the deepest division in all of football. The Giants won the division a year ago, while Washington won a playoff game. Dallas
has been solid in recent years, and added Terrell Owens, while Philadelphia is only a year removed from a Super Bowl
appearance. The questions in the division are whether they can survive into the postseason after beating up on one another, and, of course, what effect the NFL’s most controversial player will have on his team, his division, and his league. If T.O. holds up, Dallas has to be considered a serious contender for the NFC championship.
(2005 Regular Season Records in Parentheses)
Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
The pre-season coverage of the Cowboys has, as expected, revolved around wide receiver Terrell Owens, his hamstring, and his potential for an explosion this year. Whether T.O. can handle Dallas depends on two factors: can he get the ball, and can the Cowboys win? If Dallas can get Owens the ball, and live up to expectations on offense and defense, they can expect to be a top-ten unit on both sides of the ball and to challenge seriously for the NFC East title and beyond.
The Cowboys return the heart of an excellent defense that finished tenth in total defense a year ago; led by an excellent secondary featuring Terrence Newman and Roy Williams, they should continue to stop opponents this season. A healthy, and happy, Owens will upgrade an offense that finished in the middle of the pack a year ago. With Julius Jones and Marion Barber in the backfield behind a rebuilt offensive line, the Cowboys will have weapons all over the field for quarterback Drew Bledsoe, and he should have more time to get the ball to his receivers. Bledsoe led the NFC by taking 49 sacks a year ago; while he deserves some of the blame (he holds on to the ball way too long way too often); if the Cowboys can cut that number, their passing attack will thrive in 2006.
Bill Parcells is running out of time for his third Super Bowl ring, and this may be his last, best opportunity. The Cowboys face a challenging schedule, but as third-place finisher a year ago, they get the Lions and Rams, in addition to their divisional matchups. The slightly easier schedule, and the addition of Owens, give the Cowboys the pre-season nod.
2006 Prediction: 11-5, NFC East Champions, Super Bowl loss to Colts
Washington Redskins (10-6)
The Redskins a trendy Super Bowl pick after closing the 2005 regular season with five straight wins and giving eventual NFC champion Seattle a tough game in the divisional playoffs. In the off-season, Washington added DE Andre Carter and safety Adam Archuleta to a top-ten defense, while picking up wide receivers Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle-El to take the pressure off of breakout star Santana Moss. On paper, the Redskins look ready to challenge for the NFC title.
The pre-season injury to Clinton Portis, however, has to be a concern, and like their division counterparts, the Redskins face a difficult schedule, with divisional matchups against the NFC East and South and AFC East. The offense struggled mightily in the playoffs a year ago, and even with his new weapons, Mark Brunell turns 36 in September and has lost at least a step. The Week 2 matchup at Dallas looms large in setting the pace early; with the Redskins and Cowboys dueling the stretch, and Joe Gibbs and Bill Parcells at the helm, it will feel like the old days in the NFC East. Parcells gets the edge in 2006, however, and the ‘Skins will have to settle for the wild-card spot again. Washington may get another playoff win, but a Super Bowl run seems a bit premature.
2006 Prediction: 10-6, wild card
New York Giants (11-5)
Last year’s NFC East champion looks to defend their crown in 2006 against what shapes up to be one of the NFL’s best divisions. With all eleven starters returning from last year’s third-ranked offense, and the continued development of Eli Manning, Giants fans are looking at 2005 as a stepping stone to things to come. Defensively, the G-men added a number of veterans to a defense that was solid a year ago, but simply overwhelmed by injuries down the stretch. The Giants’ best acquisition was OLB Lavar Arrington, a supreme talent who struggled in Washington. If Arrington stays motivated and plays smart, he could be the impact linebacker the Giants have lacked for years. If not, the Giants could have depth issues at the position.
There are more concerns for the Giants. Tiki Barber is coming off a career year, and, at 31, cannot be expected to provide another 1,800-yard season. Many of the Giants’ stars – Barber, Michael Strahan, Amani Toomer, and Sam Madison – are on the wrong side of 30, an age at which NFL stars often slow down, and sometimes deteriorate quickly. The Giants’ biggest concern is their schedule; New York may have the most difficult schedule in the NFL with six games against their own tough division, plus four each against the NFC and AFC South, in addition to games against 2005 division winners Chicago and Seattle. The Giants play ten games against teams with winning records in 2005 – six of them on the road.
Every year, at least one division champion seems to fall apart the season after. With so many question marks, the Giants may get some good wins, but the schedule is simply too tough. With Washington and Dallas charging, the Giants will slip to at least third in an excellent division.
2006 Prediction: 7-9
Philadelphia Eagles (6-10)
It all fell apart quickly for the Eagles a year ago, who suffered through injuries, tough losses, and the Terrell Owens media circus en route to a frustrating, miserable 6-10 season. It doesn’t look to improve much for the Eagles in 2006, a consensus pick to finish last in the talented NFC East.
That’s not to say the Eagles will be a bad team; with returning stars like Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook, and Jevon Kearse, the Eagles still have talent, and Philadelphia will be a dangerous team from week to week. But with ten games against the Redskins, Cowboys, Giants, Colts, Jaguars, Panthers, and Bucs, they will struggle to reach even 8-8 in 2006.
For all the T.O. hype, it was Philadelphia’s defense that let them down a year ago, finishing 27th in the NFL in points allowed in 2005. The return of CB Lito Sheppard from injury and the addition of DE Darren Howard will help, but not enough. McNabb lacks weapons and experience at wide receiver, and there’s little depth behind starting RB Brian Westbrook. The Eagles will show flashes of their three straight NFC Championship Game appearances, but it won’t be enough in a deep, physical NFC East division.
2006 Prediction: 7-9