2011 Division Preview: NFC East
The Eagles appear set to be in control of the division for the forseeable future
An improved Cowboys O-line must keep Tony Romo upright to stand a chance
Eli Manning will have to cut down on his league-leading interception total
SI.com is previewing all eight divisions throughout the week in anticipation of the 2011 season kicking off. (Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org)
Parity has defined the NFC East over the past six years, a span in which the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants each won two division titles but none back-to-back. That competitive balance now seems destined to become a thing of the past as Philadelphia looks poised to repeat as division champs -- perhaps for years to come.
What are the Eagles up against? The Redskins, the lone exception to the division's recent equality, have had just two winning seasons in the past 11 years. The Giants, who've lost six straight meetings with Philly, faded down the stretch in each of the past two seasons and missed the playoffs. After turning a 1-7 start into a 6-10 finish last season, the Cowboys could be in the mix for their third division crown in five years, but only if their defense comes together under new coordinator Rob Ryan and a young offensive line plays beyond its years.
For the Eagles, who were favorites even before they anointed themselves as a Dream Team in late July, anything less than a division title would be a nightmare.
What the Eagles do best: Find the end zone in the blink of an eye
Philadelphia led the league in quick-strike drives last season, scoring 11 touchdowns in three plays or fewer. With so many offensive weapons -- quarterback Michael Vick, running back LeSean McCoy and wideouts DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin -- it's no wonder that the Eagles ranked second in total yards and third in points scored last season. With the addition of former Giants receiver Steve Smith and former Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown, Philadelphia should only see improvements in both its passing game (ninth in the NFL in 2010) and ground attack, which ranked fifth in total yards and first in yards per carry.
What the Eagles must improve: Their secondary
It was addressed when Philadelphia signed free agent Nnamdi Asomugha and traded for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to join forces with four-time Pro Bowler Asante Samuel in the defensive backfield. While the Eagles finished third with 23 interceptions last year, they also gave up 31 touchdown passes, second-most in the league.
Which Eagle needs to step up: Linebacker Casey Matthews
A rookie out of Oregon, the 6-foot-1, 232-pound Matthews was taken in the fourth round of this year's draft -- 116th overall -- and immediately given the responsibilities of a first-rounder. He'll start at middle linebacker, relaying calls in the huddle to a unit that improved its secondary and front line (end Jason Babin and tackle Cullen Jenkins were notable acquisitions), but could have a glaring weakness in the heart of the defense.
Predicted finish: 11-5
The Eagles are built to withstand the grind of the regular season and win the division. But with so many new players on defense -- and with a new defensive coordinator, Juan Castillo, who was Philly's offensive line coach for the past 13 seasons -- it's imperative that they not just be on the same page, but also on the same line, same word, and same letter going into the postseason. If not, opponents will exploit a mismatch and the big-name team could stumble in a big game.
What the Cowboys do best: Throw the ball
Which is really to say: What should the Cowboys do best? There's very little to build upon from last season, which featured a 1-7 start, a head coaching change and a season-ending injury to quarterback Tony Romo (collarbone). At most, Dallas returned itself to respectability by going 5-3 over the second half of the season and gave itself a truly clean slate going into a new year. Back to full health, Romo has talked about entering "the second phase" of his career, stepping up and becoming a better leader. He has two talented wideouts in Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. His relationship with them will not only key the Cowboys' success this year, but also begin to shape, or redefine, his legacy. The second phase of Romo's career won't be complete until he starts consistently winning playoff games.
What the Cowboys must improve: The defense
The Cowboys ranked 23rd in total defense last year and surrendered 27.2 points per game, second-most in the NFL. Yet they return 10 of 11 starters, including a trio of Pro Bowlers in cornerback Terence Newman, linebacker DeMarcus Ware (last year's league sacks leader with 15½) and nose tackle Jay Ratliff. The difference-maker will have to be new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who has not only implemented a new 3-4 scheme but also inspired an aggressiveness that was lacking last year.
Which Cowboy needs to step up: The entire offensive line
First-round pick Tyron Smith, a 6-5, 307-pound behemoth out of USC, is expected to start at right tackle. And he won't be the only youngster trying to protect Romo from taking the kind of vicious, uncontested shot that ended his season a year ago. Fellow rookies Bill Nagy, David Arkin and Kevin Kowalski could see time this year. Three other linemen -- Phil Costa, Sam Young and Jermey Parnell -- are entering just their second season.
Predicted finish: 9-7
Nine of the Cowboys' first 12 games are against opponents who had a losing record in 2010, a favorable stretch that could put them in position to contend for the division title over the final month of the season. At the very least, they could be in position for a wild-card berth, which would be an incredible turnaround from last season's debacle.
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