Best Spot For 2012?

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EAGLES
PANTHERS

The talent is all there

Fox By Ashley Fox
ESPN.com
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The talent is there. Whatever the reason for Philadelphia's dismal 3-6 start to this season -- the lockout, the new defensive coordinator, too many new faces, a lack of leadership, turnovers, the linebackers, the safeties, take your pick -- the Eagles still have an abundance of talent.

They will be dangerous in 2012.

Although fans were calling for his head a month ago, Andy Reid has guided the Eagles to three straight wins heading into the season finale with Washington. If Philadelphia wins Sunday, the Eagles will finish 5-1 against their NFC East brethren, 8-8 overall.

Even though Michael Vick has missed substantial time with injuries, the Eagles have the third-most productive offense in the NFL, averaging 399.7 yards per game. In his third season, running back LeSean McCoy is second in the league with 1,309 rushing yards and has set the franchise record for touchdowns (both rushing and total) in a season. Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson are two of the quickest receivers in the game, and tight end Brent Celek has re-emerged as a reliable receiver thanks in part to an improved offensive line that doesn't require Celek's help in pass protection.

Although the defense struggled early under new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, it has shown improvement the past three weeks, holding Dallas, the Jets and Miami to an average of 227 yards and 12 points per game and allowing only 12 of 45 third-down conversions. The run defense has improved, allowing an average of 94.7 rushing yards in that three-game stretch.

The Eagles still have issues. No. 1 is what to do with Castillo, the longtime offensive line coach who was overmatched earlier in the season. Will they franchise Jackson and then trade him or negotiate a contract extension? With Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the roster, will they re-sign Asante Samuel? And will they go against past performance and use their first-round draft pick on a linebacker or safety?

Surely this team will benefit from offseason workouts and minicamps, and from this rally that was too little, too late.

"I think you've seen the camaraderie, the football team jelling over the last few weeks," Reid said. "I think you can carry that part over through the offseason and let that drive you into the workouts, and also give you a slight picture of what you can possibly be with good, hard work the following year."

The Eagles should have no trouble being a playoff team in 2012.

Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

QB is key, and Carolina has one

Clayton By John Clayton
ESPN.com
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Like the Detroit Lions a year ago, the Carolina Panthers could be in the best position of the non-playoff teams to make a run next season.

That didn't look to be the case when they were 2-8 and not stopping anyone. The same could be said of the Lions a year ago, when they were 2-10 and quarterback Matthew Stafford was injured. Without Stafford, the Lions learned how to win games in the final month, finishing the season with four victories and carrying momentum into this season.

The Panthers' four wins in their past five games give plenty of optimism for next season, particularly with Cam Newton at quarterback. Newton shattered Peyton Manning's rookie yardage record and set new standards for all quarterbacks with rushing touchdowns. An offseason of work on his mechanics will only make him better.

With a good game Sunday, Newton could enter next season with a 4,000-yard passing season on his résumé.

As Stafford showed in Detroit, you need a quarterback to climb out of the division cellar. In 2008, the Lions were 0-16. That lost season netted them Stafford. In his third season, Stafford has emerged as one of the league's best young quarterbacks. Jim Schwartz rode his arm to a wild-card run and a 10-game improvement in three years.

Newton operates in one of the toughest divisions for quarterbacks, an NFC South that features Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman. But Newton already has proved he can hold his own.

The challenge for the front office will be the defense. Slowly but surely, coach Ron Rivera is plugging holes in a defense that has surrendered more than 25 points a game the past two years. The Panthers need to get healthy at linebacker, find upgrades at defensive tackle and get one or two cornerbacks.

If Rivera can shave four points allowed a game off their defense, the Panthers could be poised to go above .500. Newton's presence has added 13.6 points a game to the offense, which now averages 25.9.

Their non-division schedule is a little deceiving, though. They will play the AFC South, which had the worst out-of-division record in the league, and the NFC East, which underachieved this season. But Peyton Manning could be back, and the NFC East might improve.

As the third-place team in the NFC South, the Panthers might be under the radar, but they are poised to be better next season.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.