Eagles are slight favorites to win NFC East slugfest

DeSean Jackson punt return over Giants

Just when you think the NFC East might not be the league’s toughest, the New York Giants, who barely won the division title, made a monstrous raid on the Super Bowl and took all the candy. The Giants are not the favorites to defend their title in the NFL’s most competitive division.

The 2012 Beast of the East will not have football’s best record. NFC East teams run a gauntlet against each other and the NFC North where even the Cleveland Browns have a rugged defense.

The betting crowd favors the Philadelphia Eagles to retake the division after its 2011 swoon. The Eagles are in the same division as Daniel Snyder, yet failed to heed the adage, “You can’t buy a championship.” That talent infusion will pay off this year, now that the Eagles have had a full offseason to jell. The Eagles, especially the defense, came on strong to finish the season with four straight wins. Philadelphia’s 17 sacks during that run was one-third of the year’s total.

The 2012 Eagles moved ahead by standing pat. Owner Jeff Lurie resisted calls to fire Andy Reid, as he usually does. Reid had the spine to resist the lynch mob calling for defensive coordinator Juan Castillo’s head. The front office shored up talent by locking in WR DeSean Jackson and RB LeSean McCoy to long-term extensions. The Eagles are a happy crowd ready to make the best use of its talent.

For all the heat fired at Castillo, his linebackers were deficient. The Eagles that shored up by signing DeMeco Ryans and rookie Mychal Kendricks. Ryans is a casualty of the Texans’ new look defense. Philadelphia welcomes him as the savvy middle linebacker to steady an oft’ flustered unit. The wide-9 defense should be meaner, and that should relieve pressure on Michael Vick to win games.

Andy Reid does not like to run the ball. He had little choice last season with declining performances from a pouty DeSean Jackson and Vick’s regression. RB LeSean McCoy carried the team, but passing is the name of the game for Reid. Look for him to revert to form in 2012.

The offensive line suffered a blow with the loss for the season of LT Jason Peters (Achilles). The Eagles backfilled with T Demetress Bell. O-line coach Howard Mudd calls the unit “maybe the best I’ve had.” Mudd is talking a good game.

The Beast is the Eagles to lose. Last year, they lost it. This year, Eagles are the close favorites, again.

The dynastic New York Giants beg to differ. They overcame early injury to fill the Eagles’ void and win the Super Bowl with a weak secondary and Tom Coughlin’s strength of will. If anything, the Giants are a stronger team now.

Mario Manningham was not the receiver the Giants expected him to be. Neither was Victor Cruz. The difference explains why Cruz is the toast of New York while Manningham is in San Francisco. Cruz and Hakeem Nicks give New York the one-two receiving threat to match Philadelphia. Both gained 1,000 yards during the season. The G-men look to rookie Reuben Randle to replace Manningham in the slot.

If the Eagles are known for their passing attack, the Giants’ style is to smash you on the ground. Brandon Jacobs faded as New York’s feature back. Ahmad Bradshaw fills into the role with rookie David Wilson stepping into the role of change of pace. Wilson is on a learning curve, so Jacobs will carry the weight on the ground in New York’s versatile attack.

To read the press clippings, all of the Giants’ secondary problems are solved by the return of CB Terrell Thomas and the full health of Prince Amukamara who is rebooting his rookie season after missing most of 2011. Thomas is a proven talent. We’ll know his health soon enough. Amukamara still has something to prove.

The Eagles have more talent if you go by the player vote in the Top 100 Players of 2012. The Giants make up for that with the mental toughness to win championships, a commodity sometimes lacking in Philadelphia and Dallas.

Dallas Cowboys fans are down on Tony Romo again, mostly because he is not Troy Aikman who had the good fortune to run far more talented teams. Romophobic fans bash him for perceived failings in the clutch. Yet, a study by Cold Hard Football Facts shows Romo has a better fourth-quarter comeback record than Aaron Rodgers. Dallas does not need a better quarterback. They need a better running game and a defense that holds leads.

The Cowboys said good-bye to much maligned corner Terence Newman and added free agent Brandon Carr (ex-Chiefs) and first round rookie Morris Claiborne. On paper, that’s an upgrade over Newman and Mike Jenkins who was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list. His future in Dallas is not certain.

Focus on the secondary tells all you need to know about 2011’s fault lines. The strength on defense remains Dallas’ front seven led by LB DeMarcus Ware, arguably the NFL’s best pass rusher.

DeMarco Murray may be the rusher Dallas has been looking for since Emmett Smith, but over-reliance on Romo will continue unless the interior lineman open more holes for Murray between the tackles. That’s a problem Aikman and Smith rarely faced.

The Cowboys need a receiving one-two punch to match the Eagles and Giants. Dez Bryant was having his best offseason when news broke of his arrest for assault…charged by his mother. The more this story emerges, the more it appears to be family dysfunction rather than criminal. The authorities and NFL may not agree, but the team supports Bryant in what’s shaping up as a private matter.

Bryant’s growth as a receiver leaves the Cowboys more dependant on the passing game. That is an odd disadvantage against the Eagles and Giants.

Mike Shanahan enters his third season as Washington Redskins head coach, only the second coach to do so in Dan Snyder’s ownership. Three years in a coaching regime is time enough to tell if a team is headed in the right direction. Media pundits forecast a three or four-win season for the Redskins. That’s plain wrong. Washington has averaged seven wins per season since 1992. They did not become a worse team in the offseason.

The media buzz around Robert Griffin III is off the chart. Griffin is as deft with the media as the Redskins hope he shall be on the field. But, Washington’s prospects for the year rest with talent imported by Shanahan since 2010, and the few remaining stars – London Fletcher, Fred Davis, Santana Moss – from the Joe Gibbs-Vinny Cerrato years.

Washington’s defensive front seven is on par with the rest of the Beast and may mask weakness at safety. The Giants won a Super Bowl with a questionable secondary, but they had a Manning at quarterback who was rounding into his own as a clutch performer.

Pity poor RG3 and the defenses that face him. RG3 cannot escape You Tube videos and shoe commercials that tout him as a runner. Fear of elusive running quarterbacks holds defenses in place. But, Griffin’s senior performance at Baylor and early reports from mini-camp show him to be a deadly accurate passer stingy with turnovers.

That may surprise Redskins opponents, and points to the low standard expected of Griffin. He does not have to beat Cam Newton’s rookie performance. He just has to beat Rex Grossman. Do that Washington could finish 8-8 and have a say in who wins the Beast.

About Anthony Brown

Lifelong Redskins fan and blogger about football and life since 2004. Joined MVN's Hog Heaven blog in 2005 and then moved Redskins Hog Heaven to Bolguin Network. Believes that the course of a season is pre-ordained by management decisions made during the offseason. Can occasionally be found on the This Given Sunday blog and he does guest posts.