Eagles' renewed inward focus will lead them back to top of NFC East

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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The Eagles added top defensive tackle prospect Fletcher Cox (91) to help tighten their defense. (Getty Images)  
The Eagles added top defensive tackle prospect Fletcher Cox (91) to help tighten their defense. (Getty Images)  

Defensive end Justin Tuck says the New York Giants are talking "dynasty," but they should be talking the Philadelphia Eagles instead. Because while the Giants are the defending Super Bowl champions, they're not the team to beat in their own division.

The Eagles are.

I know, here we go again. That's exactly what we said about last year's "Dream Team," and look what happened -- nothing. The Eagles were a monumental disappointment that turned high expectations into mediocre results, with the club forced to win its final four games just to finish .500.

It wasn't a lack of talent that sabotaged Philadelphia; it was a lack of chemistry, with the team not jelling until it was too late. That had to be corrected, and the Eagles are trying -- with Philadelphia going out of its way this offseason to take care of the guys who deserve it most.

Their own players.

A year ago, they spent megabucks on free agents, and the plan fizzled as disgruntled holdovers wondered why they weren't next in line. A fractured locker room led to a fractured season, and you know the rest.

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So the Eagles changed tactics and returned to a practice that worked for them years ago, extending the contracts of productive young players who help form the core of the club. That includes star running back LeSean McCoy, who gained a five-year extension Thursday to join wide receiver DeSean Jackson, defensive end Trent Cole and offensive lineman Todd Herremans as recipients of big money that last season went to outsiders.

By paying them, the Eagles accomplish three things: 1) They lock down key contributors; 2) They smooth over any hard feelings left over from last season; 3) They send a message to others that the club will take care of those who excel.

That last point was underscored in free agency when the Eagles again looked inward, making their biggest splash by re-signing guard Evan Mathis, a guy who started 15 games and was this close to leaving for Baltimore.

Read the tea leaves, people. With all those moves the Eagles are telling you what they think of last year's players, and what they think is that they're good enough to win.

Granted, the defense is uncertain, the offense can't repeat its slew of turnovers, Michael Vick absolutely, positively must stay in the lineup, and there's the loss of left tackle Jason Peters. I get all that. But this is what I also get: No Andy Reid team ever went two consecutive seasons without making the playoffs. In fact, the last Eagles club that finished 8-8 was in the NFC Championship Game the following year, and it's not a stretch to think that could happen again.

The talent is there, and it was there a year ago. But the chemistry wasn't. So the Eagles made the necessary changes, and I say it's enough to make them the NFC East favorite.

To reach the top, of course, they must catch the Giants. OK, fine. They split with them a year ago, winning with Vince Young, and have won seven of their past eight meetings, including the playoffs.

Now let's look at the division. There hasn't been a repeat winner since 2004, or the last time Philadelphia won back-to-back titles. New York was last season's champion, but Philadelphia -- a team that couldn't hold on to the football, blew fourth-quarter leads and too often looked uninterested -- still finished only one game behind.

Now let's move on to the Giants themselves. With two games left last year, they were 7-7 and their coach was on the hot seat. Then they ran the table by relying on a familiar weapon, a ferocious pass rush that produced the team's second Lombardi Trophy in five seasons.

But the Giants don't have the best pass rush in the division. The Eagles do, with a league-best 50 sacks in 2011. OK, so that defense has issues, with most of them involving tackling opposing backs. But Philadelphia took a step forward there, too, trading for middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, a tackling machine when Houston ran a 4-3.

People who know the Texans tell me Ryans is as good in the locker room as he is on the field, and score another for chemistry.

But why stop there? The Eagles added Fletcher Cox, the top defensive tackle in the draft, to help plug the middle, and traded away cornerback Asante Samuel to allow Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to return to their natural positions in the secondary.

The biggest hole, of course, is on the offensive line, where the Eagles lost Peters for the season. Maybe Demetress Bell plugs the hole. When he replaced Peters in Buffalo, coaches there told me they thought he had the talent to be another Peters.

He wasn't, but it wasn't talent that held him back. It was injuries. He has missed significant portions in two of the past three years. If he can stay healthy, Philadelphia might have dodged a bullet.

I guess what I'm saying here is that the Eagles seem to have straightened themselves out -- on the field and off -- and let's see what happens.

Reid is under orders to win or else, which means there's a sense of urgency that hasn't been there since Reid was hired in 1999. Owner Jeff Lurie won't tolerate another so-so finish, and he made that clear at a postseason news conference in January.

"You've got to have the anger," Lurie said then. "You've got to have the motivation and the dedication and the focus and the talent."

The Eagles had the talent. They had the anger, too. They just didn't have the motivation and the dedication and the focus until it was too late. Maybe now they do. Hey, motivation and dedication and focus worked for the Giants last season. So why can't it work for Philadelphia now?

I say it can. I say it will.

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