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Monday, December 29, 2008
NFC East team evaluations


Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
No matter what Wade Phillips says, this team believed it was a Super Bowl contender. It feels like the Cowboys have packed three seasons into one and the embarrassing loss to the Eagles was a punch to the gut. They started out hot, but the cracks began to show in losses to the Redskins and Cardinals. Tony Romo's broken right pinkie finger kept him out for three games, and it exposed the club's decision to enter a season with Brad Johnson as its backup. Jerry Jones will now try to use the Romo injury as an excuse.

Romo led the Cowboys to a win over the Redskins in his first game back, but it was the arrival of the defense that almost saved the season. Along the way, the Cowboys dealt with the Pacman Jones suspension and T.O.'s alleged jealousy of Romo and Jason Witten's relationship. In most seasons, a trade for an elite wide receiver such as Roy Williams would qualify as a big deal, but in 2008, it only served as an interesting footnote. Jones has given Phillips his vote of approval, which is baffling. Grade: D-

Biggest surprise: Cowboys rookie Tashard Choice has been one of the bright spots in a season full of distractions. First-round pick Felix Jones was brilliant at times early in the season, but a toe injury landed him on injured reserve. When Marion Barber suffered a toe injury, Choice was thrust into a starting role. He responded in a big way and the Cowboys could end up with a three-man rotation similar to what the Giants have in 2009.

Biggest disappointment: The fact that Terrell Owens has become an ordinary receiver. His apologists will point to his 10 touchdowns as evidence of his relevance, but in reality, teams figured out how to eliminate him for the most part. He had two huge games -- the first game against the Eagles and the home game against the 49ers. Other than that, he put up numbers befitting a solid No. 2 receiver. The aforementioned Williams should also share in the disappointment. For whatever reason, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett couldn't get him involved in the offense, and so far, the trade was the closest thing the Lions had to a win this season.

Biggest need: Someone who will actually hold players accountable, but apparently that hire won't be made. The Cowboys will probably lose Zach Thomas, so they could use more depth at inside linebacker. It would also help to bring in some reliable help at safety. There's no guarantee they bring back Roy Williams at that position.

Best moment of the season: The win against Tampa Bay sort of gets lost in the shuffle now, but it went a long way in stopping the bleeding caused by Romo's absence. Wade Phillips was instructed by Jerry Jones to take over the defensive play calling, which was something Phillips didn't admit until he was certain the defense was succeeding a few weeks later. The Cowboys battered Jeff Garcia for much of the game, and for the first time in weeks, the team had an identity.

New York Giants (12-4)
We've tried to bury this so many times that it's become comical. The retirement of Michael Strahan and a season-ending injury to Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora caused prognosticators (me) to downgrade the defending world champs. But from the first game of the season against the Redskins, it was obvious the Giants weren't going away. They nearly ran away with the NFC's No. 1 seed, but the loss of Plaxico Burress due to a bizarre set of circumstances helped contribute to a two-game skid to the Eagles and Cowboys. For a short time, the Giants looked vulnerable. But an overtime win over the Panthers (12-4) restored the swagger and now New York has home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

The combination of Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward has given the Giants the best running game in the league. And the offensive line has become an absolute force. Tom Coughlin has kept this team focused through a series of off-the-field distractions, and the Giants should be the favorites to repeat as Super Bowl champions. On defense, Justin Tuck has emerged as a worthy replacement for Strahan, and Mathias Kiwanuka has filled in nicely for Umenyiora. Coughlin is the ultimate team-first guy and the Giants live by that philosophy. I can't wait to see what's on the coach's next motivational T-shirt. Grade: A-

Big
gest surprise
: You can't say enough about how well Jacobs and Ward have complemented each other this year, but the thing that has impressed me the most is the Giants' secondary. Corey Webster was benched early last season because he couldn't cover anyone. But he was forced back into the starting lineup in the playoffs because of injury and responded in a big way. Now, he's one of the highest-paid corners in the league and he's playing like an All-Pro. On the other side, Aaron Ross has become the picture of consistency and the Giants haven't missed a beat without safety Gibril Wilson, who signed with the Raiders in free agency. James Butler and Michael Johnson have been solid as starters. And rookie Kenny Phillips is a star in the making. General manager Jerry Reese has done an amazing job of creating depth at almost every position.

Biggest disappointment: You have to go with the Plaxico Burress situation. He gets rewarded with a lucrative extension on the first night of the season and has a great game against the Redskins. From that point on, he was a nightmare. He went AWOL after a game and was suspended. Then he was benched in a game because of his outburst on the sideline and behavior toward an official. Burress' accidental shooting of himself effectively ended his season. He's never had his affairs in order, but this season he hit a new low. Now the Giants are forced to defend their title without Eli Manning's most dangerous target.

Biggest need: The Giants are in pretty good shape across the board. I suppose they could use another pass-catching threat at tight end, but that's being greedy. This team is stocked right now. It will be interesting to see what happens if Ward leaves in free agency.

Best moment of the season: The Panthers game put the Giants back on the right path, but I think a road win in Pittsburgh is what forged the identity of this team. It was a huge moment for Manning, who made a couple of clutch throws in the fourth quarter of a 21-14 win. It was brutal game in which the Giants easily could've folded, but Manning dialed up some late magic and the defense made life miserable for Ben Roethlisberger.

Philadelphia Eagles (9-6-1)
The Eagles must feel like the luckiest team in the league following their improbable day Sunday. They whipped the Cowboys, so that wasn't the surprising part. It was the fact that the Texans and Raiders helped the Eagles squeak into the playoffs. Now, the Eagles have a chance to put some lipstick on what has been a messy season at times. The benching of Donovan McNabb at halftime against the Ravens was the season's flashpoint. The Eagles responded with three consecutive wins and McNabb stopped throwing interceptions. A loss to the Redskins seemed like a huge setback, but the Eagles were able to qualify.

When healthy, Brian Westbrook is one of the most dangerous players in the league. When he's not, the Eagles are an average team. If Reid will lean on Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter and not abandon the running game, the Eagles could get hot in the playoffs. They'll beat the Vikings on Sunday and that will set up a rematch with the Giants. Grade: C+

Biggest surprise: Had to be the benching of McNabb. Andy Reid and McNabb have been in lockstep for a decade, so the move sent a strong message to the team: If he'll do it to McNabb, he'll do it to anyone. The team seemed to respond favorably to the tactic, although Reid was heavily criticized.

Biggest disappointment: I think you'd have to point to the receiving corps. It put up decent numbers, but players like Reggie Brown were non-existent for much of the season. The Eagles ended up having to put too much pressure on promising rookie DeSean Jackson and it showed later in the season.

Biggest need: It's time to start retooling this offensive line. Shawn Andrews is the Pro Bowler, but he had issues related to his depression and then he suffered a back injury. I'm not sure why the Eagles never put him on injured reserve. Left tackle Tra Thomas and right tackle Jon Runyan's contracts are both up. The Eagles better have some recourse in mind if they lose both of those players.

Best moment of the season: Sunday against the Cowboys. The Eagles were given new life and they knew exactly what to do with it. In drilling the Cowboys, 44-6, the Eagles once again reminded us how dangerous they can be. It was a wonderful day to be an Eagles fan.

Washington Redskins (8-8)
On the surface, an 8-8 record in Jim Zorn's first season as head coach doesn't look too bad. But the way it happened is a huge disappointm
ent to the organization and its fans. The 6-2 start was one of the most compelling story lines of the season. Everything Zorn touched turned to gold and his unorthodox approach seemed like the perfect fit.

Then the team was beaten up by the Steelers and Clinton Portis never fully recovered from nagging injuries. The Redskins' offensive line that had dominated the line of scrimmage in the first half of the season looked broken down and old in the end. Executive director of football operations Vinny Cerrato has to address the offensive line either via free agency or the draft. And the Redskins should bring in reinforcements on the defensive line.

We overestimated this team's talent when it made the playoffs and then followed up with the fast start in 2008. So far, the Redskins have whiffed on the three second-rounders from the '08 draft and that's a huge problem. Devin Thomas, Fred Davis and Malcolm Kelly better be ready to go this offseason because their lack of development stunted this offense's growth. Zorn's first priority is still quarterback Jason Campbell. Four seasons into his career, we're still not sure what Campbell can become. Zorn has to get him to the next level while making his West Coast offense more explosive. It became way too simple to load up the line of scrimmage to stop Portis. Grade: C-

Biggest surprise: I think you have to go with strong safety Chris Horton. The seventh-rounder was the one player from the 2008 draft class to make a major impact. He's always around the ball and he's a good tackler. Horton started the season by catching everything in his vicinity. He had stone hands in college, so it was a surprising development. He's a great fit at a position where the Redskins could've really struggled.

Biggest disappointment: I know he played well in the win over the Eagles, but Jason Taylor was a huge disappointment. Even he admitted that he's not worth the $8 million the Redskins would owe him in 2009. A scary calf injury derailed his season from the start, but even when he was close to healthy he was a non-factor. In Miami, the defense was built around him. With the Redskins, he never seemed to embrace the scheme and just looked like another guy. At 34, I don't see any reason the Redskins would bring him back.

Biggest need: With Pro Bowler Chris Samuels starting to show his age (31) and right tackle Jon Jansen on his last leg, it's time to draft some young linemen. You also have Pete Kendall starting at left guard. At some point, you need to see what Chad Rinehart can do. This is a team that flourished when the running game was working. In its current form, the offensive line can't get you through and entire season. Reinforcements are needed. The Redskins need help up the middle on defense and they'll need a viable pass-rusher off the edge.

Best moment of the season: I thought a win on the road in Dallas early in the season was a big moment. Campbell was superb in protecting the ball and Portis ran over the Cowboys. It was smash-mouth football and it was the first time that the Cowboys showed some major flaws. The Redskins went on to beat Philly on the road the following week. They were staring 7-1 in the face before running into the Rams.