NFC 'Easter

August 28, 2009 6:35 PM

Facing East: The Road to the Super Bowl comes through the NFC East

By Chris Murray

For TheNFC-Easter

To say that anybody can win the NFC East is a gross understatement. In the last three years, at least two teams from the division made the playoffs. In the last two years, a representative from the NFC East has played for a conference championship. In 2009, the road to the Super Bowl will definitely come through the NFC East.

The hard part is trying to figure out which one. You can certainly make an argument for all four teams. It's not too hard to go out on a limb and say that three teams from the East will make the playoffs. All four teams have upgraded their talent and are capable of winning it.

After they finished beating each other up during the regular season, this is how it's going to end up come January. Three of these teams will be in the playoffs.

1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)

2. New York Giants (10-6)

3. Dallas Cowboys (10-6)

4. Washington Redskins (9-7)

The Philadelphia Eagles (2008: 9-6-1)

Coming into training camp, almost every major publication had the Philadelphia Eagles penciled in as the winner of the NFC East and a leading contender to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

After all, the Eagles, who saw their season in the NFC title game against the Arizona Cardinals, had the best off-season of the four teams in the division in both the draft—most notably wide receiver Jeremy Maclin-- and in off-season acquisitions with left tackle Jason Peters. The Birds made headlines during the course of their first pre-season game with the controversial signing of Michael Vick, who was recently released from a federal penitentiary after serving time for dogfighting.

Even during the midst of fans protesting and threatening to sell their season tickets on Ebay, fans and the Eagles offensive brass—Andy Reid, Marty Mornhinweg, and quarterback Donovan McNabb are excited about Vick's athleticism and what it can do for the Birds on offense.

But before we punch the Eagles ticket to Super Bowl or even the division title, the Birds have some chinks in their armor that are worth noting and if they don't figure out a way to fix it before the regular season, they could have a tough time.

The big worry for the Birds on offense is their injury-riddled offensive line. During their last pre-season game against the Indianapolis Colts, four out of five their offensive lineman did not make the trip to Indianapolis because of injury. Guard Todd Herremans is out with a foot injury and could miss the first two games of the season, Stacey Andrews has an injured knee. Meanwhile, right tackle Shawn Andrews, who has yet to practice with the team or play any preseason game, didn't play because of a bad back and left tackle Jason Peters, who was acquired in the off-season has struggled in the preseason.

Eagles fans got a very grim glimpse at their backups on the offensive line against the Colts and it wasn't good. Second-year tackle King Dunlap (6-foot-8, 310 pounds) was taken to school by veteran defensive end Dwight Freeney, who spun his way past the former Auburn star into the grill of McNabb, who fumbled on the play.

Because it is still the preseason, the Birds are banking on the speedy recovery of their O-line in time for the regular season. But they have a small window of time to establish chemistry.

Seemingly lost in all the hoopla surrounding Vick and the offensive line, running back Brian Westbrook is still the catalyst of this offense and his health will determine how far this team will go.

On defense, the Eagles have some serious questions in their linebacking corps and in their secondary. With the season-ending injury to middle linebacker Stewart Bradley, the Eagles are struggling to find an adequate replacement. The Birds coaching staff are looking to Joe Mays (5-11, 246) to fill the void for Bradley's loss. But he doesn't have Bradley's size or ferocity to be a force in the middle. Neither does Omar Gaither, who played the Mike linebacker position in 2007 when he replaced Jeremiah Trotter.

In the secondary, free safety Quintin Demps has the monumental task of filling Brian Dawkins shoes, but he's being pushed by rookie Macho Harris. At that position, he has to be an enforcer in the running game while being able to stay with a team's best receiver on deep routes. In their pre-season game against Indianapolis, Peyton Manning carved up the Eagles first-team secondary with a pair of touchdown passes.

If the Birds can heal from their injuries on the offensive line and if they establish a personality on defense, they could be that team to beat in the East.

The New York Giants (2008: 12-4)

When former Giants wide receiver left the team late last season because of his legal problems, the G-men lost three out of their last four games Not having a game-breaking receiver made Eli Manning and the Giants a one dimensional offense and it ultimately bit them in their loss to the Eagles in the divisional playoffs.

If the New York Giants can find a receiver who can A—stretch the defense and B—a receiver who can be a good possession receiver to keep the chains moving, they could win their second straight NFC East title.

Hoping to fill that voids at the receiver spot for the Giants are Domenik Hixon, who caught 43 passes for 596 yards and two touchdowns and former USC wideout Steve Smith (57 receptions, 574 yards and two touchdowns. Both players are looking to fill shoes left by the departures of Burress and Amani Toomer. At this point of the season, they are listed as the starters, but they're going to have competition from a couple of rookies.

First-round draft choice Hakeem Nicks (6-1, 215 pounds) and third-round pick Ramses Barden (6-6, 227) are going have to learn the Giants offense and the NFL game quickly before they can make an impact.

The emergence of the receivers will make an already formidable New York's Giants running game even better. The G-men, now minus Derrick Ward, will certainly run the football with the tandem of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw.

With all the talk about the receivers needing to lift their game, the pressure will still be on Eli Manning, who signed a six-year, $97-million contract extension. After completing 60 percent of his passes and throwing for 21 touchdown passes against 10 interceptions during the regular season, he came up small in the Giants playoff loss to the Eagle with a pair of interceptions.

Manning is going to have to show he can make the players around him better in the way that Tom Brady, who won Super Bowls with a group of average receivers before the arrival of Randy Moss and Wes Welker.

On defense, the Giants, who were fifth in the NFL in total defense last season, will return defensive end Osi Umenyiora who missed the entire 2008 season with a knee injury. If he can be the player he was back in 2007 when he had 13 sacks, the Giants defense will be even better in 2009. That's a scary prospect for the rest of the division. Additionally, the Giants added even more depth to the line with the free-agent signing of former Cowboy Chris Canty.

The Dallas Cowboys (2008: 9-7)

Even with a much ballyhooed $1 billion, state-of-the art new stadium in Arlington, the 2009 version of the Dallas Cowboys have managed to fly under the radar. With their volatile former wide receiver Terrell Owens up in Buffalo playing with the Bills while doing his VH-1 reality show, things have been relatively quiet in Cowboys camp.

This year all eyes will be on quarterback Tony Romo and folks want to know whether or not he can lead this team on the field now that the distraction that apparently was Owens is gone. Another question along that same line is whether he and Roy Williams can be as dangerous a combination as Romo to Owens and Romo to Jason Witten.

For all the drama that TO supposedly caused in the Cowboys locker room, he did have 69 receptions and 10 touchdowns. He was always a threat to go deep for the Cowboys . Dallas is hoping to get the same from the Romo-to-Williams combination. Over the last two years , W illiams has n not average d over 13 yards per catch . O nly four of his last 100 catches , have been over 40 yards.

Now that might be a function of playing with a Detroit Lions squad that had nobody else but him and an offensive line that couldn't protect anybody. Last season, Williams came to the Cowboys in the middle of last season and didn't have enough time to develop any chemistry with Romo.

With mini-camps , organized team activities and training camp behind them, the Cowboys are hoping that Romo-to -Williams can at the very least keep the chains moving. Dallas is hoping speedster Miles Austin, who averaged 21.4 yard per catch on 13 receptions, can be to the Cowboys in the deep passing game that Alvin Harper was back during the Super Bowl run of the 1990s .

Meanwhile, the Cowboys should be solid in the running game with the return of Felix Jones, Marion Barber and Tashard Choice . If the offensive line can stay intact and avoid injury—easier said than done, the Cowboys can be what the New York Giants had when they had a three -headed monster at running back with Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw.

Keeping the offensive line healthy is going to be a big challenge for the Cowboys this season. Last season, when left guard Kyle Kosier missed 13 games last season, it definitely showed. While the team is comfortable with its s tarting five, they 're going to be hard pressed to find somebody to come and do well if the Cowboys are bit with the injury bug on the offensive line

Offensive line coach Hudson Houck has said he likes the depth on his offensive line with players like Montrae Holland and Corey Proctor ready to step in case something happens to one of his starters. Meanwhile, the Cowboys are looking for a better year from 34-year-old veteran Flozell Adams, who reportedly slimmed down to about 335 pounds. If he has a good year and cut down on his penalties, Adams will help to make the Boys a serious contender for the conference title.

On defense, head coach Wade Phillips is going to call the defensive signals to go along with his duties as a head coach. The Cowboys ranked eighth in the NFL in total defense last season, but had a monumental collapse in the season's final two regular games against the Baltimore Ravens and the Philadelphia Eagles.

The good news is that the Cowboys have outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who led the NFL was 20 sacks last season. Dallas is also expecting good years out of linebacker Bradie James and the newly acquired veteran linebacker Keith Brooking.

Last season, the Cowboys gave up a lot of plays in the secondary primarily because Terrence Newman missed several games last season. With the departure of safety Roy Williams, Dallas is looking veteran safety Ken Hamlin to fill the void of Williams loss. That translates into better pass coverage something Williams often struggled with during his time in Big D.

The Cowboys got a solid effort from second-year corner Orlando Scandrick and rookie Mike Jenkins. Cowboys defensive coaches are becoming more and more comfortable with Scandrick opposite Newman. This season those players have to cutback on the number of Big Plays that they give up.

Dallas certainly has the talent, but do they have the mental toughness to avoid the December swoons of the last three years? That will ultimately falls on the shoulders of Phillips and Romo. We'll see.

The Washington Redskins (2008: 8-8)

If you're Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell, you should probably come into the season with a big chip on your shoulder.

Not only did the team lose six of its last eight games, Redskins brass talked about finding a quarterback to replace Campbell. There was even talk that the Redskins would try to move up to draft former USC star Mark Sanchez. It was also rumored that Campbell would traded to Denver for Jay Cutler, who ultimately moved on to the Chicago Bears.

When the Redskins take on the New York Giants at the Meadowlands in the season-opener on Sept. 13, Campbell, the guy nobody apparently wanted, will be under center.

This could and should be a breakout year for Campbell, who completed 62.3 percent of his passes but threw just 13 touchdown passes against six interceptions last season. He passed for 3,245 yards and had a 84.3 quarterback rating. Campbell's mediocre stats was probably the reason his team was trying to shop him around.

But it wasn't all Campbell's fault in the passing game. Outside of Santana Moss and Chris Cooley, Campbell didn't have a good go-to possession wide receiver. Wide receivers Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly didn't contribute to the Redskins during their rookie in the way the franchise was hoping they would.

Injuries in the Redskins offensive line, coupled with the fact that Campbell was learning his fifth offensive system in five years made things a bit difficult last season. Injuries also slowed down Clinton Portis as well.

According to all accounts, Kelly and Thomas have been improving their play at the wideout spot for the Redskins. Some observers say Thomas reportedly has the edge in that battle for the No. 2 receiver spot while others are saying Kelly has the inside track for that spot. Head coach Jim Zorn recently told the Washington Post that both players are even. The Redskins will have Antoine Randle-El in the slot along with All-Pro tight end Chris Cooley.

The Redskins will run the ball with Portis and Ladell Betts, but the thing that will put this team over the top will be their ability of the offensive line to protect Campbell and give him time to find his receivers downfield. To improve the pass blocking, the Skins brought in Derrick Dockery from the Buffalo Bills to play at the left guard spot. Thirty-two-year-old left tackle Chris Samuels has to stay healthy. When he wasn't last season, the Redskins offense struggled and it hurt them in the second half of the season.

Meanwhile, the Redskins, who had the NFL's No. 4 defense, improved themselves with the acquisition of defensive end Albert Haynesworth and first-round draft pick linebacker /defensive end Brian Orakpo.

What the Redskins like about Orakpo is his speed to the ball. Some of teammates like Samuels said Orakpo reminds him of Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware with his ability to come hard off the edge. If he plays up to all the endorsements of his teammates and the media hype, the Redskins defense will be even better.

Even with the loss of veteran cornerback Shawn Springs, the Redskins secondary will be a solid group with players like second-year safety LaRon Landry, who is fast becoming an intimidating presence in the Redskins secondary. DeAngelo Hall and Carlos Rogers are a solid set of corners for Washington.

The Redskins road to the playoffs will depend on the performance of their offense. If the offensive line stays healthy and if Jason Campbell has a break out year, Washington has a good shot to be one of three teams from this division that will be in the playoffs this season.

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