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What lies ahead (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday August 28, 2007 4:30PM; Updated: Tuesday August 28, 2007 4:49PM
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NFC East

Though his preseason numbers have been modest, Donovan McNabb has impressed merely by playing the last two games after knee surgery put an early end to last season.
Though his preseason numbers have been modest, Donovan McNabb has impressed merely by playing the last two games after knee surgery put an early end to last season.
AP

1. Philadelphia Eagles

A reason to believe: By now it's apparent that the Eagles won't be held back this season by the state of Donovan McNabb's surgically repaired right knee. Philly's veteran quarterback has been so sharp this month that questions about it now sound hopelessly dated. Next topic?

The thing that makes you nervous: Newly installed starting middle linebacker Omar Gaither doesn't have the run-stopping pedigree just yet of the departed Jeremiah Trotter, and that's not all that comforting to consider given that the Eagles finished 26th against the rush last season.

2. Dallas Cowboys

A reason to believe: We happen to think that old re-tread Wade Phillips was a pretty inspired choice to be the Cowboys' head coach, because his history of success with the 3-4 defense melds perfectly with the talent that Dallas has on that side of the ball. I expect the Cowboys' dominating front seven to be one of the early season stories in the NFL, and Phillips to generate some coach of the year buzz by October.

The thing that makes you nervous: The Cowboys' secondary was a concern already, but things look a bit bleaker now that No. 1 cornerback Terrence Newman is suffering from a case of plantar fascia that figures to linger all season to some degree. The job of covering up safety Roy Williams' deficiencies in pass coverage depends somewhat on how well Newman handles his role.

3. Washington Redskins

A reason to believe: The Redskins' defense still seems almost afraid of takeaways, but Washington will put a better product on the field with the addition of rookie safety LaRon Landry and free-agent linebacker London Fletcher, and the return to health of tackle Cornelius Griffin.

The thing that makes you nervous: That Redskins offensive line, which was bolstered via a trade last week for veteran left guard Pete Kendall. With starting left tackle Chris Samuels missing the entire preseason with a knee injury, the line's early play could be pivotal in how things start off this year for both young quarterback Jason Campbell and the Washington running game.

4. New York Giants

A reason to believe: Count me among those who think the addition of quarterbacks coach Chris Palmer to Tom Coughlin's staff is going to translate into Eli Manning's best, most consistent NFL season yet. Maybe not slam-dunk Pro Bowl material, but Manning's game will smooth out under the direction of the well-grounded Palmer.

The thing that makes you nervous: No matter how much the Giants try to keep the focus on the field, something inevitably comes along to distract them from the task on hand. Either it's Tiki Barber's retirement, Barber versus Coughlin, Michael Strahan's absence, or Barber versus Manning. That's the sign of a team with a fatal flaw in the chemistry department.

NFC North

1. Chicago Bears

A reason to believe: The loss of defensive tackle Tank Williams supposedly made the defensive interior line a question mark, but even that concern has been mitigated by the acquisition of veteran Darwin Walker and the emergence of Dusty Dvoracek. This is the deepest defense in the conference and it's possible it still hasn't played its best football.

The thing that makes you nervous: The Rex Factor. How much longer can the roller coaster ride that is Rex Grossman at quarterback continue? The Bears don't need great quarterbacking to win their division. They just can't have their starter harming their cause with turnovers.

2. Detroit Lions

A reason to believe: The Lions should finally scare some people on offense. With coordinator Mike Martz having Roy Williams, Calvin Johnson, Mike Furrey, Tatum Bell and Jon Kitna together, there's no way Detroit shouldn't be more explosive than in any time in recent memory. The running game has yet to show up this month, but it should come in time.

The thing that makes you nervous: Whatever hopes the Lions have of contending for a playoff spot in the weak NFC this season, they revolve around protecting Kitna at quarterback. Reserve J.T. O'Sullivan played the whole game against the Colts last weekend and proved himself a journeyman. Dan Orlovsky isn't much of an option either. It's Kitna or else.

3. Green Bay Packers

A reason to believe: The Packers have this much going for them: They play in the weakest division in the NFL. Green Bay went 5-1 in the division last season and that made up a huge part of its surprising 8-8 finish. The Packers faced bleak prospects entering last season and wound up overachieving, so you can't rule them out of wild-card competition this year.

The thing that makes you nervous: We're less than two weeks away from the regular season and the Packers running game is a mess. Rookie second-round pick Brandon Jackson suffered a concussion Sunday, and veteran Vernand Morency has missed the entire preseason with a patella tendon problem. Green Bay is down to three healthy backs, and none have proven track records.

4. Minnesota Vikings

A reason to believe: Rookie running back Adrian Peterson gives the Vikings offense the home-run threat it lacked throughout coach Brad Childress' first season on the job. Peterson's ability to get outside should make opposing defenses respect the run, which should add options to second-year quarterback Tavaris Jackson's game.

The thing that makes you nervous: Jackson is still largely unproven, and the Vikings finally conceded this week that they need more of an insurance policy at backup quarterback than Brooks Bollinger. Monday's trade for Kelly Holcomb gives Minnesota a Plan B should Jackson's development this season be painfully slow.

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