- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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You asked for it, you got it. Our season predictions roll out today, and I hereby present to you that for which you have been asking me since before the draft: My predictions for the NFC East. Now, as you read these, I will go hide for five days and wait for it all to blow over. See ya.
1. New York Giants (12-4)
I'm not buying the tough-schedule stuff. We don't know which teams are going to be good. No one thought having the 49ers on your schedule last year was going to be tough. I say the Giants have the coach, the quarterback, the wide receivers and the defensive line to beat anyone in the league in any given week. Will they look worse at times than they should? Of course. Could they go through another brutal stretch like the one that nearly sank them last November? Anything's possible. But what the Giants showed us all last season is that they have as much ability to handle and rebound from adversity as any team in the league. And on the presumption that every team will have to handle adversity at some point, I'm casting my lot with the team that handles it best.
For me, this came down to a choice between the Giants and the Eagles, and in the end I went with Eli Manning, who plays every game, over Michael Vick, who's in danger of being knocked out for a month on every play. When I went through the schedules, I had the Giants and Eagles tied at 11-4 going into the final week. And while I know full well that the Eagles have had the Giants' number over the past four years in the head-to-head matchups, I'll take the defending champs at home for all the marbles.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)
Top to bottom, the most deep and talented roster in the division. If Vick is healthy and on the field for all 16 games, they could be the best team in the league. I think their defense will play better this year with DeMeco Ryans in the middle of it. I think their defensive line gives the Giants' defensive line a run for its money as the best in the league, and that it probably has more depth. I love LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin and what I think DeSean Jackson can do if he really is more focused and serious this year. (We'll see on that.) I think they have, easily, the best offensive line in the division, in spite of the absence of star left tackle Jason Peters. I just feel like the gap between best-case and worst-case scenarios at the quarterback position is significant enough to merit a slight downgrade in preseason predictions. I still have the Eagles making the NFC playoff field as a wild card, and one no one would want to play if they go in healthy.
3. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)
Just too flimsy in too many spots for me, this year's Cowboys. I like what they're building on defense, and you know I like their skill-position players on offense, including (heck, maybe especially) DeMarco Murray. But all of those guys, including Tony Romo, come with a history of health question marks, and there's very little behind them in terms of proven talent. There's also very little in front of them in terms of offensive line, and I think that has a way of wearing down and frustrating players like Romo, Murray, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten even if they manage to perform in spite of it. On defense, yes, they should be much improved at cornerback. And I think they look really good at linebacker, too. But I have to see what they bring up front in terms of a pass rush this year to complement DeMarcus Ware before I believe it. They seem to think being better at cornerback will help the pass rush. I think that works better in the other direction (See: Giants, New York). But we'll see. Overall, I think this is a team looking more down the road than it is at 2012, and I think if you see guys like Murray, Sean Lee, Morris Claiborne and of course Bryant take big steps toward stardom this year, that's about the best for which Cowboys fans can hope.
4. Washington Redskins (8-8)
No, I don't have RG3 fever. I like rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, and I think he's going to be a very good player. I also like wide receiver Pierre Garcon and tight end Fred Davis, and I think they'll find something at running back. But the reason this prediction is so much more optimistic than a lot of what you're seeing on the Redskins right now is that I really like their defensive front seven. I mean, a lot. With Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan as the pass-rushing outside linebackers and London Fletcher and Perry Riley as the inside guys playing behind a deep, huge, strong rotation of defensive linemen led by Barry Cofield, Stephen Bowen, Adam Carriker and Jarvis Jenkins, I think this is a defense that will put pressure on quarterbacks, physically beat up offensive lines and be strong against the run as well. What holds me back from liking them even more is that there are questions in the secondary, especially at cornerback. But the Redskins don't isolate their corners in coverage very much, and I think they can do some things with their safeties and linebackers to minimize the exposure. They should give up some big plays, but I think they're going to be physically very tough for people to handle this year, and I think they'll surprise a lot of people. I have them beating each of the other three teams in the division once.
So there you go. One year after no one in the NFC East won 10 games, this year no one finishes under .500. Maybe I'm nuts. Maybe preseason football has finally got to me. But I thought a lot about this and looked at it a lot of different ways. And I put it off as long as I could, in spite of all of your requests. Now that it's here, I hope you have enjoyed my division prediction. Check out my picks for the rest of the league, as well as those of all of our other fine NFL scribes, on our NFL page today.