NFC East Preview

More big names have made their way into the NFC East than a Lakers home game. <BR><BR>

Like in Hollywood, some don't even need their full names to be recognized: T.O. (Terrell Owens), Clinton (Portis), The Freak (Jevon Kearse). That's not including Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs or Tom Coughlin. The East also boasts this year's Numero Uno pick, Eli Manning. And big stars from the past, such as Mark Brunell, Keyshawn Johnson, Eddie George, Marcellus Wiley, and two-time MVP Kurt Warner. Call it Hollywood East. Here's a breakdown of the Giants' main competition for this coming season.

Philadelphia Eagles

2003 Record: 12-4, 1-1 playoffs

SUMMARY: By going 12-4, the Eagles cruised to their third-straight division crown. Despite the winning record, however, there were holes. The offense finished 18th. Top receiver, James Thrash caught just 49 balls and scored once. Leading rusher, Brian Westbrook, ran for only 613. Still, the Eagles led the NFL in rushing touchdowns with 32. Defensively, the Birds' mad blitzing scheme covered up the fact that they finished a distant 20th in total defense.

WHAT'S NEW: You don't need pom-poms to know T.O. is in the house. The other acquisition, Kearse, is nicked up but should be fine. Meaning, he better be. N.D. Kalu is lost with an ACL and a handful of linemen are day to day. With Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent gone, look for young CBs Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown to step up.

STUDS: T.O. will be looked at to carry an average receiving corps. He has the arrogance to handle it. Kearse needs to return to Freak status. The key stud, however, is Westbrook. With Correll Buckhalter done, the rushing attack falls on his 5-8, 200-pound shoulders. Westbrook missed last year's playoffs with an injury, so staying healthy is a must.

RISING STARS: CBs Brown and Sheppard have plenty of pressure taking over for Taylor and Vincent. Also, with Owens receiving double coverage, look for receiver Freddie Mitchell and tight end L.J. Smith to blossom.

FIRST FOUR GAMES: As everyone knows, the Eagles begin the season hosting the Giants, then another home game vs. the Vikings before relatively easy road games against the Lions and Bears. Oh my. The Eagles could start out 4-0.

BOTTOM LINE: Last season, the Birds took both games against the Giants. With Coughlin in control, the Giants best bet is to run the ball against the Eagles suspect line. Whether Kurt Warner is behind center in Week 1 or rookie Eli Manning, the Eagles will blitz. That means tight end Jeremy Shockey needs to get open. Quick. Defensively, former Eagle linebacker Carlos Emmons will be more than happy to shut down Westbrook. In the passing game, the Wills (Allen and Peterson) must contain Owens.

Dallas Cowboys

2003 Record: 10-6, 0-1 playoffs

SUMMARY: Under first-year coach Bill Parcells, the Cowboys surprised a lot of folks by going 10-6 and making the playoffs. Despite a mediocre 15th-ranked offense, the Cowboys were able to put enough points on the board because of their superb defense. The Dallas D ranked 1st in total defense, 1st in pass defense and 3rd against the run.

WHAT'S NEW: For the Cowboys what's new is old. Forty-year old Vinny Testaverde takes over for Carter; 32-year old Keyshawn Johnson replaces Bucs-bound Joey Galloway; and running back Eddie George, 31, along with rookie Julius Jones, should bolster the ground game, if George can improve on last year's pathetic 3.3 average. On the D-side, former Charger Marcellus Wiley should further strengthen the pass rush.

STUDS: Safety Roy Williams is perhaps the Cowboys' best player. The young Pro Bowler will just get better. Linebacker Dat Nguyen has done the impossible. The undersized MLB found an unlikely fan in Parcells, who normally hates smallish LBs.

RISING STARS: Keep an eye on tight end Jason Witten. Last year's 3rd-round pick has had a great camp. Rookie back Jones could have a big year. Parcells didn't bypass higher-ranked backs just to snag him and keep him on the bench.

FIRST FOUR GAMES: The Pokes start with a tough road game at Minnesota, followed at home with Cleveland, then a Monday Night showdown at Washington. Strangely, they have a bye before hosting the Giants in Week 5. With both road losses a possibility, Dallas could easily be 2-2.

BOTTOM LINE: The Cowboys release of Carter may keep them out of the playoffs. Testaverde isn't the same QB he used to be. The key for the Giants will be shutting down the Cowboys suspect offense, and opening up the passing game with Shockey and Amani Toomer. Despite Williams and 2nd-year CB Terence Newman patrolling the secondary, the Giants could flourish in the air by isolating on the other CB, Pete Hunter, and Darren Woodson, who missed all of camp with a herniated disc.

Washington Redskins

2003 Record: 5-11, no playoffs

SUMMARY: Steve Spurrier proved to be the latest costly acquisition to take Dan Snyder's money and run. Spurrier's stubbornness to adapt to the NFL, like refusing to max protect his quarterbacks, produced a 23rd-ranked offense. Unfortunately, the defense was 25th. A preseason injury to run stopper Brandon Noble hurt the unit, and the team ranked 26th in sacks partly because it benched pass-rush specialist Regan Upshaw so aging Bruce Smith could get the all-time sack record.

WHAT'S NEW: Besides the return of Gibbs, Clinton Portis gives the Skins an instant home-run threat. Former Giant Cornelius Griffin, who never reached his potential in New York, will try to anchor a porous defensive line. There's also quarterback Mark Brunell, former Giant Mike Barrow and Eagles receiver James Thrash.

STUDS: With Gibbs's legendary reputation for running the ball, Portis has a chance for a 2,000-yard season. On defense, Pro Bowl linebacker LaVar Arrington will be more of a force playing on the weak side. He will also rush the passer from a three-point stance.

RISING STARS: Rookie Sean Taylor is the talk of camp. He's already picked off two passes, caused a fumble, and scored a touchdown during preseason. Regular season may prove more difficult. The other rising star is free agent linebacker Marcus Washington. He's proving to be quite an acquisition.

FIRST FOUR GAMES: Look for the Redskins to start slow. A tough home opener against Tampa; the Giants on the road; Monday Night at home vs. the Cowboys; then in Cleveland. The Redskins could be 2-2, or worse.

BOTTOM LINE: After playing the Giants in Week 2, the teams don't face each other again till Week 13. Look for a markedly different game later on. With new coaches, there will be a transition period before either squad feels comfortable with the new systems. The Giants will attack the Redskins soft defensive line, while the Redskins' blitz scheme under assistant head coach Gregg Williams should disrupt the Giants new QBs.


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