NFC East Battle Should Go Down to Wire

Please take us around the NFC East. How do the Giants match up with the other teams in the division?

t's hard to predict what will happen in a particular division because there are so many factors to contend with like injuries, new players and coaching decisions, just to name a few. But, we can safely say the NFC East will be a very competitive division. This has the makings of a dogfight that could go down to the final game of the regular season. On the surface it looks like every team improved in the offseason. There have always been fierce rivalries in the East and this year should be no different. It will be exciting and we can't wait to get it on.

Here's a closer look at the Giants' three division rivals:

Dallas – Bill Parcells recently turned 65. It's hard to imagine him staying in coaching much longer. So expect him to pull out all the stops to win a championship. Not that he hasn't gone all out in the past, but this is sort of a last hurrah situation. That's why he has been so outwardly docile toward his star antagonist T.O. He knows Owens can deliver the goods. The question is will he deliver them before or after he wrecks the team? We know he will at some point, it's only a matter of time. So, soap opera aside, the Cowboys are the trendy pick this year to win it all. Could they win it all? We suppose they could, but they're far from a lock.

Strengths – WR is a strength with the addition of T.O. to team with Terry Glenn. They need another WR to step up. That could be Patrick Crayton or Sam Hurd, a rookie free agent they like a lot.

They have a sound defense. They seem to be adapting to the 3-4 defense that was installed last year. DeMarcus Ware is a stud LB in the mold of L.T. He's not nearly in Taylor's class yet and may never be but he has a chance to be very special. First round pick Bobby Carpenter should help them at some point this year. He plays the game the way it should be played.

TE Jason Witten is becoming a terrific receiver. He will be another force to contend with on the Cowboys offense. In Julius Jones and Marion Barber they have two young running backs that have talent. Jones has to prove he can stay healthy, but they are a plus.

They added Mike Vanderjagt, who is known for his regular season accuracy, but just as well known for the ability to choke under pressure in the playoffs when the game is on the line.

Weaknesses – Just like T.O. is a strength he is also a weakness for the obvious reasons. Don't forget, it's not a question of "if," it's a matter of "when." The blowup will happen and the meltdown may come from frustration with Drew Bledsoe and his inability or desire to get the ball to T.O. The biggest weakness the Cowboys have is their offensive line. It is highly questionable. They lost Larry Allen and there are major questions at right tackle. Flozell Adams is coming off a major injury as well. Bledsoe, an immobile QB to begin with, will not function well if he doesn't get proper time to throw. He does not improvise well.

On defense, they have concerns in the secondary. They still need an upgrade at free safety next to Roy Williams. When Anthony Henry was injured last year they did not have an adequate replacement and they still don't. Their corner depth is poor. If you slow down their pass rush, they will give up big plays, just as they did last year. They just aren't good enough.

Summary – A lot of pundits like them to win the East, but they are not a certainty. The T.O. situation itself should cast some doubt, plus they have some areas of the team, like OL and DB, that are questionable. The Giants should match up well with them. I like the Giants' chances with their pass rush going against a suspect OL and an immobile Bledsoe.

Philadelphia – Just as many are picking the Cowboys to win the East, those same people are picking the Eagles to finish last again this year. We are not sure either of those predictions is truly valid. The post T.O. era has begun. There should be more harmony in the locker room and Donovan McNabb can try to reclaim his role as team leader. He lost a lot of credibility and respect as a leader when he backed away from the T.O. fiasco. There is a lot of confident talk coming out of Philly these days and we wouldn't expect anything different from them. The first thing they will try to do is improve against their East foes. Last year they were 0-6 against the Giants, Cowboys and Skins. That cannot happen again if they expect to be in the race. While they did improve during the offseason we aren't sure they improved as much as their rivals did.

Strengths – Without question, they have one of the best defensive backfields in the league, led by veteran safety Brian Dawkins. Lito Sheppard, Sheldon Brown and Michael Lewis complete a formidable group. Those three were all added in the 2002 draft when they mass drafted DBs. That plan really worked well for them.

They have a solid OL even though they have some age at both tackles. William Thomas and Jon Runyan, Strahan's nemesis, are getting up in years but they are still effective.

They expect TE L.J. Smith to have his breakout year. He has become a favorite target of McNabb. They added Matt Schobel and he brings depth and another option for the QB.

We obviously will list McNabb as a strength, as he has led them to several division and conference championships. We will see, however, how much he still wants it. This team came so close to winning it all so many times without ultimate success that there is a tendency to think that the window of opportunity has closed for them.

David Akers is among the best place-kickers in the league. He is deadly accurate from basically any distance.

Weaknesses – The team that lives by the blitz, dies by the blitz, and the Eagles under Jim Johnson are a blitz happy team. In the past it has been a successful style of play. Last year it was not. They had trouble getting to the passer and it exposed their secondary. They made some significant changes on the defensive line with the most notable additions being Darren Howard and Brodrick Bunkley. They should be better stopping the run.

As good as McNabb can be he can also be inaccurate. He will go through long stretches where he cannot put the ball on target. McNabb's inaccuracy caused them to lead the league in "three and outs." That, in turn, taxed their defense. Couple that with a less then stellar receiving corps, and that's trouble. Remarkably, Andy Reid insists on a pass happy offense and largely disdains the run. They basically have one dangerous back, Brian Westbrook, who is used a lot as a receiver, but he has been injury prone. This is an offense that could struggle.

Summary – Let's see what the after-effects of T.O. are. His legacy may be lingering and they still may not be straightened out as a team. The Giants had their number last year. McNabb is not the scrambler he once was and the Giants' pass rush should be effective against them. They cannot let him get comfortable in the pocket. On offense, if the Giants can pick up their blitzes they will be successful. The Giants will have balance in their offense and that will take away some of their blitz impact.

Washington – The Skins are strong at almost every position with the exception of the most important one – QB. They have some obvious concerns there. Their QB play will determine if this will be a very good year or a not so good year. Again, they spent plenty of offseason dollars to improve their team. Perhaps their most important acquisition was the addition of offensive coordinator Al Saunders. He was the mastermind behind the Chiefs' offensive success. It remains to be seen how quickly they can adapt to his methods.

Strengths – They improved their receiving corps dramatically with the addition of Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle El. With Santana Moss and David Patten already in the mix they have a very good group.

Their offensive line has had some health issues, but when they are healthy they can dominate a game. Chris Samuels, Jon Jansen and Randy Thomas are very solid. Derrick Dockery and Casey Rabach are young and improving players.

They have a very good and active defense. They are strong in the secondary. Led by Sean Taylor, they are formidable. Adam Archuleta was an acquisition that completed them. Their safeties are both big hitters, but they do lack somewhat in pass coverage. Corner Carlos Rogers looks like he will become a great one at some point.

Their defensive line is very good. Ex-Giants' DT Cornelius Griffin has become an excellent interior DT. They can generate a strong pass rush with Phillip Daniels and Andre Carter. They also have very good depth.

Weaknesses – If Clinton Portis misses substantial playing time due to the injury he suffered in pre-season that will hurt. Despite trading for T.J. Duckett, Portis is an important part of their attack.

We are not sold on their QB Mark Brunell. In addition to being injury prone, he is not the same QB he once was. He has veteran savvy but physically he is not the same. Their QB of the future, Jason Campbell, may or may not be ready. Most likely he won't be and they would like him to spend another year learning before he is pressed into duty.

Summary – The Giants will have some match-up problems with the Skins. These games should be intense. A lot will depend on how they control Brunell. The battle between the Giants pass rush and the Skins offensive line will be worth the price of admission.

So who is the Beast of the East? We can make as good a case for the Giants as we could for any of the teams. It should be a dandy race. Our predicted order of finish is: 1. Giants. 2. Cowboys. 3. Eagles. 4. Redskins. The Giants have the makings of being a special team. We expect a substantially improved Manning as well as a return to the glory days by the defense. If those two things happen there is no telling how high their ceiling can be.

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