NFC East Preview

EAGLES HOPE TO DOMINATE NFC EAST

One thing the NFC East has always been known for is competitive balance. It seems like every preview every summer talks about all four teams are at least pretty good...and it would be a surprise for any of the four would win the division.

Maybe one franchise takes a dip every so often, like Washington seems to be doing now. Maybe injuries kill a team within a given year...but they bounce back strong the next when they get healthy (which is what Dallas is hoping to do with a healthy Tony Romo back at quarterback). But, in general, the NFC East is going to be seen as a very tough division full of legitimate or semi-legitimate contenders.

Here in 2011, that's not really the sense you're getting from the football universe though.

  • Philadelphia, who visits the Pittsburgh Steelers tonight in a nationally televised game on FOX, made several prominent offseason acquisitions that may have put them in the driver's seat not just for the division, but for the whole NFC. They started calling themselves "the dream team," and it was hard to argue. Michael Vick had quite an impact last year once he was allowed into the starting lineup. The Eagles definitely have a chance for a monster campaign.

  • Dallas has created a lot of enthusiasm at least in Texas media because Romo spent so much time working with teammates during the lockout. This may be a team that's finally ready to live up to its hype. Nobody's talking about the cathedral of a stadium. Nobody's talking about which blond starlet Romo is dating (he's married now). Nobody's talking about an old head coach who's out of touch with the game (Wade Phillips is an assistant elsewhere, and Jason Garrett still looks like a red-haired golden child). Time to focus on football!

  • The New York Giants are being downgraded in many spots because of acquisitions that WEREN'T made, and receiving issues that weren't fixed. Who's Eli Manning going to throw too? How are these guys going to get better if they didn't upgrade a non-playoff team from 2010? If Philly and Dallas are going to win more, doesn't that mean the Giants are going to win less?

  • Washington looks to be an also-ran. If there's talk that John Beck is going to be your starting quarterback during the season, things are already pretty bleak. If the other option is Rex Grossman. Ugh! This is not an owner that people trust. Head coach Mike Shanahan doesn't look like he's inspiring his players, even if some of the clubhouse poisons are gone. More than six wins would be a surprise.

So, we have anti-parity. A clear power...a plausible dangerous darkhorse...a team that's probably sinking...and one that's already sunk. That's your typical AFC East write-up, or AFC North. It's something new in the NFC East.

Let's see if any numbers from last year will change our minds about the possibilities for this year.

2010 FINAL NFC EAST STANDINGS
Philadelphia: 10-6 (+9 turnovers, 13th schedule)
NY Giants: 10-6 (-3 turnovers, 20th schedule)
Dallas: 6-10 (even turnovers, 16th schedule)
Washington: 6-10 (-4 turnovers, 15th schedule)

It's easier to forget that the Eagles and Giants tied last year. And, Philly needed a huge comeback to steal a win from the Giants or New York would have been in the playoffs at 11-5 while the Eagles sat home and watched. Let's note though that Philadelphia did face the top schedule of the group, and managed to get the best of the risk-reward challenge while doing so. Eli Manning's interception tendencies have been frustratingly stubborn for Giants fans. They're not going away. Dallas and Washington weren't hurt by unfair schedules. Dallas was hurt by bad injury luck.

OFFENSIVE DRIVE POINTS PER GAME
Philadelphia 14.3
NY Giants 13.1
Dallas 12.5
Washington 10.5
Notebook: As we've mentioned in our earlier previews (check the archives for the NFC West, AFC West, and AFC East), a number around 12 is league average. Philadelphia was strong, but not quite super-elite in terms of the whole league with New England and San Diego up around 17-18. They were neck and neck with New Orleans for best in the NFC, even though they played a lot more games in poor scoring conditions. The Giants had production, but gave some of that back with turnovers. Dallas can't be ashamed with "league average" for the year when Romo missed so much time. That would suggest a jump up to 14 or so this year if he can stay healthy.

DRIVE POINTS ALLOWED PER GAME
NY Giants 9.8
Washington 10.9
Philadelphia 12.9
Dallas 13.9
Notebook: Philadelphia often has a great defensive reputation even if they aren't playing up to standards. There was some of that last year in this stat. And, that mattered in the playoffs because Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay weren't really facing a great defense...but one that was vulnerable to long distance scoring. Obviously the full season standings were much more in line with offense than defense in this division. That gives you a sense of how important the quarterback position has become these days. Having the best defenses in a tough division didn't get you into the playoffs.

OFFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
Dallas 41%
Philadelphia 40%
NY Giants 36%
Washington 29%
Notebook: The whole division needs to work on this if they want to have an impact across the league. We're looking at around 40% for the league norm. So, Philadelphia was only average at moving the chains even with their productive offense (big plays helped overcome the lack of cohesion). Dallas managed a decent number considering their quarterback situation. Having a head coach who's a former quarterback is a strong influence there. Poor data for Eli Manning considering his tenure in the league. A disaster for Washington...and probably the biggest sign that the coaching staff and offense never figured out what it was supposed to be doing. Replace Donovan McNabb with Beck or Grossman, and it's hard to see dramatic improvement.

DEFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
NY Giants 32%
Washington 35%
Philadelphia 38%
Dallas 40%
Notebook: We do have some good third down defenses in the mix though. Dallas was worst at league average. The Giants helped make up for what Eli wasn't doing with a defense that shut people down and got them off the field. To the degree this is still a smash mouth division, you see it in these numbers.

2011 NFC EAST OUTLOOK

We outlined that at the top, then didn't see anything in the numbers that would change our minds. PHILADELPHIA has upgraded parts of its vulnerable defense...and certainly hasn't gotten worse at anything. They're the clear favorite to win the division...maybe even making a run at something dramatic in terms of won-lost record. The hype might have been overdone. Didn't anyone learn anything from the Miami Heat in the NBA?! Nobody can argue with Vegas futures assessments that the Eagles are a conference favorite.

DALLAS has the look of a Wildcard contender at this point. Maybe Romo is going to flame out again. He does look to have matured though...and mature quarterbacks do a lot of damage in this league.

The vibe for the NEW YORK GIANTS is definitely negative at the moment. More was supposed to happen in the offseason. If the players are expressing their disappointment, it's hard to be enthusiastic about the season.

Maybe WASHINGTON will catch some opponents napping because nobody's taking them seriously enough. Maybe they'll catch US by surprise! We'll keep an eye on the quarterback situation to see if any "shock the nation's capital" elements are in play. For now, not much to like here.

That wraps up our look at the NFC East. We'll continue our divisional previews on TV weeknights to line up with games you'll be watching from the comfort of your couch. Weekends are reserved for college football conference previews this summer. Here's the schedule for the next few days...

Friday: NFC South Preview (to get you ready for Atlanta/Jacksonville on FOX)
Saturday: MAC East Preview (as our mid major conference previews continue)
Sunday: MAC West Preview
Monday: NFC North Preview (to get you ready for Chicago/NYG on ESPN)

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