Who Will Come Out On Top In The NFC East In 2012?
Entering the 2011 season, many expected the NFC East to be the dominant division in the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys, who are expected to compete in the playoffs just about every year, were ready for Tony Romo and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to lead them back into postseason success. The Philadelphia Eagles were fresh off of one of the more glamorous offseasons in recent history, making some huge splashes with signings such as Nnamdi Asomugha and Jason Babin. The New York Giants, a team that seems to consistently get overlooked as Super Bowl contenders, still had a Super Bowl winning quarterback and a ferocious pass rush. Then there was the Washington Redskins, who… well, ok, maybe nobody expected anything from the Washington Redskins last year, but nonetheless, the NFC East was seemingly stacked heading into the 2011 campaign.
What followed was big, fat train wreck. If not for the Giants getting hot towards the end of the season, finally rounding into form and rolling through the playoffs for Eli Manning’s 2nd Super Bowl victory, it would have been much worse. The Eagles “Dream Team” looked more like a nightmare and the Dallas Cowboys and Tony Romo did nothing to shed the “chokes under pressure” label slapped on their forehead. The Redskins were once again the ugly duckling of the division, running out Rex Grossman and John Beck to play quarterback. Only the Giants finished the season with a winning record, finishing the regular season at 9-7. The Cowboys and Eagles each finished at 8-8 while the Redskins wound up at 5-11.
Despite the disappointing showing by the NFC East in 2011, however, there are few who know football that would argue with the notion that this division just might be the strongest in the NFL in 2012, with apologies to the AFC North. But with such high expectations coupled with so much uncertainty surrounding these teams, it begs the question: Who’s the favorite?
New York Giants?
It would be easy to say the New York Giants, the defending Super Bowl Champions who boast a quarterback in Eli Manning who has proven he can win big games in big moments. The Giants will head into 2012 with the Super Bowl roster largely intact, with a few subtle changes.
If the Giants expect to repeat as NFC East division champions in 2012, however, they will need to get off to a much fast start than their 2011 campaign. Expecting the Eagles and Cowboys both to struggle through mediocre records again is asking too much, as both teams loaded up on defense via free agency and the draft in the offseason. The Giants, who parted ways with running back Brandon Jacobs, will be leaning on Ahmad Bradshaw and rookie David Wilson to help give the running game a shot in the arm to take some of the pressure off of Eli Manning early in the season.
The Giants also added receiver Rueben Randle at the bottom of the 2nd round, which should help lessen the sting of the loss of Mario Manningham. This passing attack is as good as advertised, and there’s no reason to suspect them to slow down anytime soon. The key to the Giants’ success within their division will come down to how they respond to the revamped defenses in Philadelphia and Dallas, not to mention the solid defensive unit in Washington. If the Giants get off to a rocky start, there may not be enough time for a ferocious comeback as was the case in 2011.
The Washington Redskins haven’t gotten very much respect in recent years, but all that will soon change with RG3 in town. The Redskins got their franchise quarterback this offseason, and simply having a competent quarterback on the field will make this team much, much better. Are the Redskins contenders for the NFC East this year? No. Will they be contenders next year or the year after that? Probably.
Even if Washington doesn’t contend for the division title in 2012, playing the Redskins will no longer mean an easy victory for any team in this division. Robert Griffin III brings an element to the Redskins’ offense that is quite frankly extremely difficult to prepare for, no matter how good your defensive unit is. Just look at what Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers did to the Houston Texans’ defense last year.
Whether you like it or not, Daniel Snyder threw around some big money this offseason to help improve a pretty bad wide receiver unit, as well as the back end of the defense. Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan were brought in to shore up the Redskins at receiver, and it remains to be seen whether the likes of Cedric Griffin and Brandon Meriweather will stick at safety. Regardless, expect to see a much-improved product on the field in Washington this season, but don’t expect too much. This team is still at least two years away.
The Philadelphia Eagles thought they had all the pieces for an elite defense heading into 2011 after the additions of Nnamdi Asomugha and Jason Babin. They forgot two things: linebackers and chemistry.
The supposed Dream Team flopped, and Asomugha had a disappointing year playing in a new coverage scheme. Although the pass rush was stellar for Philly, with Jason Babin leading the way with 18 sacks, the Eagles were soft up the middle. Young players like Casey Matthews were forced into starting roles where they were simply overmatched. The defensive unit failed to gel, and the offense struggled with inconsistency, ultimately leading to a mediocre season and an 8-8 record.
But all that could change in 2012. The Eagles finally got serious about the interior of their defense, bringing in veteran inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans in a trade with the Houston Texans and drafting defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and linebacker/freak of nature Mychal Kendricks. The Eagles got, faster, smarter, and more athletic up the middle, so it is put up or shut up time for Juan Castillo and the Eagles’ D.
Assuming the Eagles’ defense performs as expected, Philadelphia’s success will ride on the health and consistency of quarterback Michael Vick. At 32 years of age, the Super Bowl window is rapidly closing for Vick, who relies heavily on his athletic ability to move the chains. Vick has improved drastically as a pocket passer, but make no mistake, he’s not the same player without his wheels. If Vick can stay healthy and the Eagles’ defense can deliver, all this talk about having a “sense of urgency” in Philadelphia might actually lead to some success.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the Dallas Cowboys’ secondary was their Achilles heel in 2011. The Cowboys finished 23rd overall against the pass in 2011, but the fade down the stretch for this defense was the more alarming trend.
The front office knew it, and they wasted no time this offseason in aggressively addressing their pressing needs. The Cowboys resolved to reinforce the defensive side of the ball, and boy did they ever.
First, the Cowboys landed the top-rated defensive back on the market, signing Brandon Carr away from the Kansas City Chiefs. The Cowboys also signed inside linebacker Dan Connor away from Carolina to help shore up the inside linebacker position. Then, the Cowboys shocked everyone by trading up to the #6 overall pick in the draft to take cornerback Morris Claiborne, far and away the best defensive player in the draft.
With running back Demarco Murray set to return from injury and some reinforcements along the offensive line, it’s safe to say that the Cowboys plugged some big holes and added some much-needed depth to help support a deep playoff run and a possible NFC East division title.
The pieces are now in place for Rob Ryan and the Cowboys’ defense, and we all know the offense will be there with Tony Romo slinging passes around to Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, and Miles Austin. The real question is, can the Cowboys come through when it matters most? Tony Romo has, to some extent, received an unfair amount of blame for the choke jobs the Cowboys have put on display in recent years. The blame must also be laid on the shoulders of the defense and the offensive line, who have consistently failed to come through in one form or another down the stretch of a playoff run.
The Dallas Cowboys have all the pieces in place to win the NFC East and possibly a Super Bowl. Now they just have to go out and do it.
So who do I think will take home the NFC East crown? In the NFC East, any prediction is a bold one, as things are never as they seem in this division. One thing I can say for certain is that I do not expect a combined record of 30-34. With all the talent within this division, even the Redskins have an outside shot of finishing at .500.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to never count out the New York Giants. Time and again, the Giants get overlooked, much like last year, only to catch everyone napping and go win a Super Bowl before anyone knows what happened. However, I can’t ignore the impressive offseason the Dallas Cowboys have had. As good as the Eagles’ defense will be this year, consistency on offense is my main concern in Philly. The Cowboys already have a Super Bowl-caliber offense, and I expect their defense to make a leap into the NFL’s top 10 this season. For that reason, the Dallas Cowboys are my pick to take home the NFC East crown in 2012.