NFC East preview (cont.)
What the Giants do best: Run the football
The Giants ranked sixth with 2,200 rushing yards last season, and sixth with 17 rushing touchdowns. Ahmad Bradshaw established himself as the feature back, carrying the ball 276 times for 1,235 yards. It was the first time in four years that he had more touches and more yards than Brandon Jacobs, who rushed 147 times for 823 yards. Despite their backs being on opposite ends of the position's career arc, the Giants run the ball best when the slashing Bradshaw, 25, and the bruising Jacobs, 29, attack defenses with a contrasting one-two punch.
What the Giants must improve: Turnovers
The Giants led the league with 42 last year -- 25 interceptions and 17 fumbles. The defense did its best to negate them, leading the league with 39 takeaways. New York won 10 games but still missed the postseason. It's amazing it even finished above .500 considering how many times they gave the ball away.
Which Giant needs to step up: Quarterback Eli Manning
The aw-shucks, ho-hum Manning created a bit of a stir in August when he told a New York radio station that he thought himself to be an elite quarterback in the same company as Tom Brady. Both have won Super Bowls, and Manning did earn his by leading an improbable comeback over the Patriots to spoil their perfect season and win Super Bowl XLII. Unlike Brady, Manning has led the NFL in interceptions twice in the past four seasons.
Although he's thrown for more than 4,000 yards in each of the past two seasons, and although his completion percentage (62.9) was higher last year than ever before, Manning's career-high 25 picks doomed the Giants in 2010. He needs to protect the ball this year, even if it means taking more sacks. The Giants allowed just 16 last year, the fewest in the league, but Manning can't afford to scramble and try to make something out of nothing -- especially after losing wideout Steve Smith to the Eagles and tight end Kevin Boss to the Raiders. Now more than ever, Manning must prove himself to be an elite QB. First and foremost, that means protecting the football.
Predicted finish: 9-7
The Giants have suffered late-season collapses in each of the past two years, and the second half of the 2011 slate is a brutal gauntlet. Starting with a Week 9 showdown against the Patriots, New York's final nine games include five playoff teams from a year ago, a cross-country trip to play the 49ers, back-to-back meetings with the past two Super Bowl champions, and four pivotal division games.
What the Redskins do best: They believe
Quarterback Rex Grossman told a local TV station in August that the Redskins were "just waiting in the wings, ready to take over the NFC East." Running back Tim Hightower told SI: "I really feel like we could be a Super Bowl team. That's the expectation of the people in this locker room, and to me it's just a matter of time." The Redskins, of course, haven't won the division since 1999. They've had just two winning seasons over the past 11 years and seven head coaches during that stretch of futility. Entering his second year in Washington, coach Mike Shanahan has infused the locker room with a new energy, a new work ethic and a new attitude. Whether or not it translates into new results remains to be seen.
What the Redskins must improve: Everything
Washington ranked 18th in total offense last year. It became pass-heavy and predictable, ranking fourth in pass attempts and second-to-last in rushing attempts. It also ranked second-to-last in total defense, allowing more passing yards than all but one team. That pretty much sums it up.
Which Redskin must step up: Everyone
The biggest burden, however, will fall on whomever Shanahan chooses as his quarterback. Grossman hasn't started a full season since 2006 with the Bears, but found himself in a tight quarterback race with John Beck, who has never won an NFL game and hasn't taken a regular season snap since 2007. Once a decision is made, the competition must cease completely. After working so hard to turn the locker room around, the last thing Shanahan needs is a quarterback controversy creating discord among the troops.
Predicted finish: 7-9
Washington was 5-5 through their first 10 games last year, then dropped five of its last six. But the Redskins were in many of those games. Excluding a 31-7 blowout loss to the Giants in early December, four of their final five losses were by an average margin of less than a field goal (2.75 points). Of their five victories, four came in overtime. After hanging tough last year, Washington picks up a few more wins but falls just short of .500.