2012 NFL Division Previews

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By Clark Judge | CBSSports.com Senior Columnist

The preseason consensus is that Philadelphia, not the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, is the team to beat in the NFC East, and count me in. The Eagles have a raft of talent, but unlike last season, they seem to have the chemistry, too.

That was an issue the first half of 2011 when the Eagles sputtered, floundered and fizzled, losing eight of their first 12. But then something strange happened. They pulled together, won their final four and vowed to show people that that who they really are.

Well, here's their chance.

Philadelphia's hopes rest with a brittle quarterback, which is why some people keep coming back to the Giants. Eli Manning not only is a two-time Super Bowl winner; he hasn't missed a start in his pro career. Plus, he plays with one of the best set of pass rushers anywhere, and if last year's playoffs demonstrated anything it's that a great pass rush trumps a great quarterback.

Dallas is right there too, but a step behind the Giants and Eagles, with Washington bringing up the rear. Most people see this as a three-team race, with the Redskins on the outside looking in, and I'll go for that. Washington hasn't been to the playoffs since 2007, and the weight of the world is on the shoulders of its rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III.

Nevertheless, it should be Philadelphia's time.

"We have so much talent on this team," said linebacker DeMeco Ryans, "that the sky's the limit."

Ah, but the Eagles learned that talent isn't everything. That lesson should pay off now.

  
 

Post-camp outlook: The injuries to Michael Vick have to be a concern. The Eagles said they're determined to do what they can to keep him on the field, then Vick gets hurt in each of the first two preseason games. Not a good omen. If he can stay in the lineup, the Eagles should stay at or near the top of the division. But this just in: Vick has completed only one 16-game season in his career.

Best that could happen: The Eagles pull together as they did down the stretch in 2011 and win the division, go deep into the playoffs and save Andy Reid's neck. They have the material. Now, they just have to keep Vick under center for most of the season.

Worst that could happen: Vick suffers a serious injury, the club deconstructs and it's 2011 all over again. I worry about Vick, not so much because of his history but because the Eagles have King Dunlap/Demetress Bell protecting his back. That's not a knock on Dunlap or Bell. It's just an admission that Jason Peters never looked better than he does now.

Last word: This is supposed to be put-up-or-shut-up time for Reid, and he's blissfully unconcerned. I don't blame him. First of all, he has the players. Second, he always stayed above the fray in Philadelphia. And third, he has the credentials. Owner Jeff Lurie said 8-8 won't save Reid, but so what? Reid only had four non-winning seasons in his tenure as the Eagles' head coach, including 2011, and he never missed the playoffs in the year that followed. I say he keeps that record intact.

  
 

Post-camp outlook: It's hard to ignore what's going on with the Giants' secondary, and what's going on are injuries. First, it was cornerback Terrell Thomas who reinjured a bad knee. Then, it was cornerback Prince Amukamara suffering a high ankle sprain. Once, the Giants looked so deep at that position they could afford to let Aaron Ross walk. Now, they look thin, and that's not good in a division that features Michael Vick, Tony Romo and Robert Griffin III as quarterbacks. Yeah, I know, they still have that pass rush, but I'm worried there, too. Already there's talk that Justin Tuck's shoulder is bothering him again, while Chris Canty remains sidelined. There's a reason Super Bowl winners rarely repeat, and the Giants may find out the hard way.

Best that could happen: The Giants win the division again and go deep into the playoffs. It could happen. The last time these guys were defending Super Bowl champions, they won 11 of their first 12 the following season. Then Plaxico Burress happened, and we all know the rest of that story. The Giants believe they have the players to repeat, but one big difference from this year's model and the 2008 Giants: Those Giants led the league in rushing; these Giants will not.

Worst that could happen: Injuries catch up to them, they can't formulate a formidable running game, their offensive line springs leaks and Eli Manning is asked to carry too much of the offense. That's how you sink in the division, and considering the schedule these guys drew, it could happen. In a word ... it's brutal. Nobody has one more difficult.

Last word: It's an oft-asked question but a good one: Are these Giants the guys who were 7-7 a year ago or the team that won its last six, including the Super Bowl? Players insist the momentum they gained at the end of last season will carry through into 2012, and they can only hope. They have an unforgiving schedule that includes seven 2011 playoff teams in their final 11 games, and that doesn't include a Philadelphia club that most people outside the organization -- including former running back Brandon Jacobs -- have ticketed for the top of the division.

  
 

Post-camp outlook: The early signs here are not good. Miles Austin is hurt. Jason Witten is hurt. Dez Bryant is hurt. Those, folks, are the team's top three receivers, and it's disturbing when all are absent from the final two preseason games. The Cowboys should have at least one of them -- and conceivably all three -- in the lineup for the Sept. 5 opener against New York, but that doesn't mean there aren't issues. The defense must pull together. Fourth-quarter leads must be protected. And quarterback Tony Romo must act like a leader. Check those boxes this season, and the Cowboys have a shot.

Best that could happen: The Cowboys finished one game behind the Giants last season, so, yeah, they could win the division. In fact, they should have won it a year ago but fizzled down the stretch, dropping four of their final five starts. To move forward, they must improve the league's 23rd-ranked pass defense, and the early signs look promising for the secondary. Now, Dallas must work on the front end, finding a pass rusher other than DeMarcus Ware.

Worst that could happen: Third or fourth place. Dallas is one of three teams that should contend for the top, but it's not that far removed from last-place Washington to think a fourth-place finish isn't at least possible. It is; it's just not likely. The Cowboys have too much talent. More than likely, they're looking at third ... or higher.

Last word: Owner Jerry Jones earlier this summer invited fans to come to Dallas to "see us beat the Giants' asses." I guess that means it's now or never for second-year coach Jason Garrett. Jerry Jones is an impatient man, and the Cowboys haven't been to the playoffs for two seasons. Another whiff, and he might make changes. Not enough defense kept the Cowboys out of the playoffs last season, but Dallas made substantial changes on that side of the ball -- particularly in the secondary -- and thinks it has the material to contend for the division title. Stay tuned.

  
 

Post-camp outlook: This season is all about one guy, and I'm not talking about Mike Shanahan or Daniel Snyder. It's Robert Griffin III, the team's first-round draft choice and the man who is supposed to save this franchise. For Griffin's sake, I hope so. There is enormous pressure on him to succeed immediately, and that can be difficult for a rookie quarterback -- especially when you're heading the fourth-best team in the NFC East. Griffin has looked good, not great, in preseason, but cut him some slack. First of all, it's preseason. Second, he's a rookie. Third, it's the Redskins.

Best that could happen: Griffin pulls a Cam Newton, and the Redskins push for the top of the division. Despite Newton's gaudy numbers, Carolina still finished 6-10, but part of that had to do with a rotten defense. The Redskins are better, much better, on that side of the ball, so at least there's a chance.

Worst that could happen: Griffin pulls a Ryan Leaf, and the Redskins go nowhere. Now, let's get something straight, I'm not comparing Griffin to Leaf. The only thing they have in common is that both were the second picks in their drafts. But Leaf flopped, and it's always possible Griffin could, too ... but I wouldn't bet on it.

Last word: Griffin is enormously talented, but football is not a game of solitaire. He must have good people around him, and that's what concerns me. I'm not sold on the offensive line. I wonder about his receivers. I wonder about Roy Helu and Evan Royster as the backs to improve the league's 25th-ranked run offense last season, too. Mike Shanahan's teams usually have no trouble running the ball. The Redskins could. Again. Beware, RG3, this game is not as easy as it may seem.

 
 
 
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