What once was a powerhouse division that provided three playoff teams in both the 2006 and 2007 seasons, has sent only its division winner to the postseason the past two years. In 2011, it was the New York Giants.
It was indeed a peculiar season for G-Men, who wound up vanquishing the top two NFC seeds on the road in the playoffs before KO’ing the AFC’s top dog, New England , in the Super Bowl.
But were the Giants a fluke? Along the way, they also were the first championship team in league history to be outscored during the regular season and to lose four straight games. Not to mention being the first title club since the 1957 Lions to actually have a worse record than the previous season when it didn’t even qualify for the postseason (10-6, 9-7).
Here’s a look at how this season figures to play out, with teams listed in order of predicted finish. There likely won’t be a Wild Card team coming from this group yet again, especially considering each team has to face the fierce AFC Central and all teams in the NFC South.
The Eagles are widely acknowledged to have one of the most talented rosters in the league, much less the division. But that was the case last year, too, when Philadelphia lost eight of its first 12 games and finished second at 8-8.
Despite being the only team in the league in 2011 that ranked in the top 10 in total offense (fourth) and total defense (eighth), the team was a bust in fourth quarters, blowing five leads in the final period en route to defeat. A lot of the blame can be put on an offense that had the second-most turnovers in the league with 38. That’s unlikely to happen again.
Assuming QB Michael Vick makes it through summer drills safely, he should again provide the Eagles with dynamic playmaking along with RB LeSean McCoy, who finished fourth in the league in rushing last season and elusive WR DeSean Jackson, who has resolved his contract squabble and might not be distracted this season.
Defensively, the addition of ex-Houston standout LB DeMeco Ryans should bolster an already stout defense, but one that allowed six 100-yard rushers last year, which tied for third most in the league.
The schedule-maker, however, has been cruel to the club. A record-tying four times the Eagles will face a team coming off a bye, including a third straight season traveling to Washington after the Redskins come off a nap. Also, in both games against Dallas , Philly will be working on a short week off a MNF game, including one in New Orleans.
With just a little bit of good fortune, it could well have been the Cowboys flying the 2011 NFC East pennant in JerryWorld. Dallas blew three double-digit leads in losses last season, tied for most in the league, in their 8-8 season. Included was a gruesome 34-30 home loss to Detroit in which Dallas squandered a 24-point third-quarter edge.
Offensively, Dallas appears vibrant – if its guys can remain healthy. QB Tony Romo, the league’s fourth-rated passer, should have a healthy Miles Austin to work with as well as lumbering TE Jason Witten. With running sensation and Las Vegas native DeMarco Murray recovered from a broken ankle, Dallas could be hard to stop. Its offensive line isn’t great, but appears to have been upgraded substantially over last year’s unit.
On defense, the team’s weak link was its secondary, but Coach Jason Garrett dismantled last year’s unit and acquired veterans Brodney Pool, Brandon Carr and No. 6 overall draft pick Morris Claiborne out of LSU.
A boon to the Cowboys is their third-place schedule and the addition of backup QB Kyle Orton, who gives Dallas a sound leader in an emergency.
New York Giants
A seemingly endless stream of dominoes fell right for the Giants last year en route to the title. Now we’ll see how the team does without barrel-chested RB Brandon Jacobs and clutch WR Mario Manningham. Also, will WR Victor Cruz be more than a one-year wonder who liked to preen in the end zone?
In the 2007 season, the first time QB Eli Manning directed the Giants to a title, New York improved by two games the next season to 12-4 in winning this division. But the Giants went down feebly in their first playoff outing, which triggered back-to-back non-playoff seasons before last year’s stunning postseason run after a 9-7 season.
New York’s defense is much-heralded for its collection of pass rushers, but that unit also allowed a stunning 18 TD drives of 80 yards or longer in the regular season, most in the division. And against Green Bay in the divisional round, not once did the Giants hold the Packers to a three-and-out. In fact, in an earlier meeting with the Jets, the Giants couldn’t get off the field, allowing the Rex Ryan’s team to run an AFC-high 89 plays.
Thanks largely to winning the division last season, the team has the league’s toughest schedule in 2012 based on last year’s records (140-116). A season earlier, their foes’ cumulative mark was 126-130.
The Redskins had their moments last year during a 5-11 season including a sweep of the Giants that made them the team with the worst record in history to go 2-0 against the eventual Super Bowl champs. At one point the Redskins were 3-1 overall and talking division title – at least QB Rex Grossman was – until losing their next six during in a season-ending death spiral that landed them in last place for the fourth straight season.
Should Washington slump into the cellar for a fifth straight season, it would match a feat last accomplished by Denver from 1963-1967 in the old AFL. Heralded rookie QB Robert Griffin III, the Heisman Trophy winner, should be the opening-day starter. That will be fine for the long haul but not necessarily good out of the gate for a team that’s lacking quality wide receivers.
Defensively, coordinator Jim Haslett seems to be well respected, but then again how come his teams have gone 1-6 against the past two seasons against QB starters who were rookies or backups?
Meanwhile, head coach Mike Shanahan will be entering his third season in D.C. after a long stint in Denver , where he led the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl wins in 1997-98 regular seasons. But it’s beginning to look more and more that he’s no genius. In Shanahan’s last five years as coach, his teams have gone 35-45, including a dreadful 30-48-2 ATS.
(Next week: The AFC East).