NFC East: More or Less
After running the numbers, ESPN.com pro football writer John Clayton arrived at a win total for every team in the division for 2012. Is the figure too high, too low or spot-on?
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: As disappointing as last year's Eagles were, they managed to win eight games. Upgrades to the linebacker corps, a tightening-up of the coverage schemes and an improved comfort level in the new defense all stand as reasons to believe that things will be better in Philadelphia this year. They appear to be loaded with top athletic talent at every position, and on paper (yes, we've heard those words before) they look like the best team in the division and one of the best in the league. After last year, I am far from sold, and I think a lot of this uncertainty rides on quarterback Michael Vick and his ability to limit the turnovers that were so costly during September's slow start.
As for the schedule breakdown, Clayton has the Eagles going 4-2 in the division. They were 5-1 in the division last year, and I don't see any good reason to think they should do much worse. I guess the Redskins should be better, but it's hard to see how the Cowboys (who weren't in either game) or the Giants will be much tougher to beat than they were a year ago. And out of the division, Clayton has the Eagles 6-4. Tough road trips to Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Arizona loom, but road games in Cleveland and Tampa Bay don't look so tough.
More or less? You guys know I don't like to make predictions this early, but because I must, I'm saying Clayton's number for the Eagles turns out to be a bit low.
NEW YORK GIANTS: This would, of course, match the Giants' win total from last year, when they became the first team to win the NFC East and the Super Bowl with fewer than 10 wins in a non-shortened regular season. It also would be one fewer than their win total from 2010, when they missed the playoffs. With Eli Manning at quarterback, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz back at wide receiver and all of those great pass-rushers back for another year, the Giants are strong where it counts, and that's the reason for their year-to-year consistency. But within the confines of the 2011 regular season, they were anything but consistent. They looked terrible twice against the Redskins but beat the Cowboys twice when it counted, then of course got on that January roll that carried them to their second championship in five years.
Clayton has the Giants 3-3 in the division, which is a fair expectation. (I mean, we can't assume they'll beat the Redskins until we see it, right?) And he has them 6-4 outside the division, where they play at San Francisco (they were 1-1 there last year, of course, in two very close games), and have back-to-back trips to Atlanta and Baltimore in December. Free agency ate at their depth, and the Giants will need to do some work to replace the production of important 2011 pieces such as Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs. I guess the question is whether they'll be the playoff-tough team we saw in late December and the postseason or the team that struggled so badly in November against the tough part of its schedule.
More or less? From this far out, this just doesn't strike me as a Giants team that should win as many games as it won last year. For that reason, I say John's nine-win figure is a bit high. But I fully acknowledge the folly of picking against the Giants.
DALLAS COWBOYS: The Cowboys' defense -- particularly their secondary -- imploded completely during the final month of the season, and that and the two losses to the Giants were the reasons they finished 8-8 and missed last year's playoffs. They attacked the secondary by signing Brandon Carr and trading up to draft Morris Claiborne, and they added an inside linebacker in Dan Connor. But the rest of the team looks basically the same -- a potentially elite offense with Tony Romo throwing to Miles Austin and Dez Bryant and handing off to DeMarco Murray, but the same old questions in the middle of the offensive line and on defense.
Clayton has the Cowboys going 3-3 in the division, which again seems fair for a team that looks to be around the middle of the league pack. And with out-of-division games against the Bears, Falcons, Ravens, Steelers and Saints, it's not hard to imagine that a 6-4 record outside the NFC East is possible. If the upgrades at cornerback really do help the pass rush and put less pressure on the safeties, the Cowboys could make a leap. The Romo-led offense should score more than enough points. I just don't feel as though this Dallas team has elevated itself to the top echelon of the league's defenses.
More or less? Clayton's number seems about right to me. I don't think the Cowboys will go 0-2 against the Giants again.
WASHINGTON REDSKINS: The Redskins' biggest need was, of course, quarterback, and they dealt four high draft picks to get one. Robert Griffin III carries the hopes of a desperate fan base and the promise of being better than Rex Grossman, even as a rookie. The Redskins also outfitted him with a pair of new free-agent wide receivers, Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, and will team him with a young defense. Will it be enough to vault Washington into actual playoff contention? Clayton thinks no. And in fairness, as great as Griffin projects to be, he is a rookie, and rookies tend to struggle. Questions remain in the running game, on the offensive line, at receiver and in the secondary. There's more work to be done in Washington before the Redskins can threaten to reach the playoffs, most likely.
As for the breakdown, Clayton has the Redskins at 2-4 in the division, which is what they were last year, and 4-6 outside of it. They feel as though they should have won both of the Cowboys games, and it's not ridiculous to think they can win one this year, but regardless of the joke I made earlier, it's hard to imagine them beating the Super Bowl champs twice in the same year again. I just don't think their non-division schedule looks all that terrifying. A road game in Pittsburgh and home games against the Ravens and Falcons, sure. But I think the opener in New Orleans looks ripe for a fired-up team with a new quarterback, what with the Saints' coaches all suspended and especially if the Jonathan Vilma suspension holds up. It's not too hard to squint and find five or six potential non-division wins if the Redskins play slightly better than they did last year.
More or less? I think the Redskins will win more than six. But again, it's June, and I reserve the right to make my real predictions at the proper time.
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