SportsCenter has been running prime-time specials previewing the 2012 season for each NFL division. Tonight at 7 pm on ESPN, they will do their one-hour show on the NFC East. To help you gear up, we take a look at each of the four teams and the reasons why you should like their chances to finish on top... and why you shouldn't.
Why they'll win the East: Quarterback Eli Manning has established himself as one of the best in the league, and the most clutch. Armed with two great wide receivers in Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, Manning makes the Giants a threat to win any game that's close in the fourth quarter. They have a dominant pass rush that makes life miserable for opposing quarterbacks, even the very best ones. It's a passing league, and the Giants pass the ball and disrupt the opponent's passing game as well as anyone.
Why they won't: The Giants' up-and-down 2011 regular season had a lot to do with inconsistency on the offensive line and an inability to control the game with the run. Neither the line nor the run game appears to have been improved over last year, and that could lead to inconsistency again, in spite of the outstanding talent they have at other key positions. Also, it's not their turn. This division has had three different winners over the last three years, and no one has repeated as NFC East champ since the Eagles won the division four years in a row from 2001-04. Every team in the division has improved, so the task of repeating is not an easy one.
Why they'll win the East: Everything went wrong last year, and they still missed by only one game. They went 5-1 against division opponents. The depth they have on the defensive line may actually be more impressive than the Giants' depth there (though, without the championship rings), and they tied for the league lead last year in sacks. Assuming he stays healthy, quarterback Michael Vick is a multi-faceted weapon. LeSean McCoy is one of the best running backs in the league. And DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are super-speedy potential stars in the receiving game.
Why they won't: Almost everything rides on Vick, and he hasn't shown that he can be trusted to be (a) healthy or (b) consistently responsible in his decision-making. Even if you assume improvements on defense and in the wide receiving corps, Vick still has the potential to devastate the team with mistakes or a serious injury. They have very little behind him, and the loss of star left tackle Jason Peters for the year with a torn Achilles' tendon will make him more difficult to protect.
Why they'll win the East: They had it in their hands last year with five games to go, but lost four of those, including two to the Giants. The main culprit for the collapse was a secondary that's been overhauled with the additions of Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne at cornerback. And assuming running back DeMarco Murray comes back and remains healthy, he and Tony Romo lead an offense capable of big things.
Why they won't: They remain questionable at safety, at guard and at center. Those are structural issues that could undermine the ability of the Cowboys' great skill-position players to put up their big numbers. The Cowboys' hope is that camp competition brings out the best at those positions, but they are areas in which Dallas could conceivably struggle all year.
Why they'll win the East: The Redskins haven't won this division since the 1999 season, and they were so fed up that they dealt four high draft picks to get quarterback Robert Griffin III. If he can be half as dazzling in his rookie NFL season as he was in his final season at Baylor, the Redskins could be a surprise contender. Upgrades to the receiving corps and an imposing front seven bolstered by the return of 2011 second-rounder Jarvis Jenkins from injury also offer reasons for optimism, as does last year's 2-0 record against the Super Bowl champs.
Why they won't: Still too many question marks, particularly on the back end of that defense and in the jumbled running game. They'll need some of their safeties, cornerbacks and running backs to play over their heads if they want to contend in this very tough division race, and they'll also need their rookie quarterback to play like a veteran. Everybody loves Griffin, and for good reason, but he is a rookie, and rookies struggle to adapt.