Most of the divisions in the NFL this year seem fairly straight forward, at least at the top. There's little doubt, for example, that Seattle will win the NFC West, Indy will top the AFC South, or Denver and San Diego will scrap for the AFC West crown. It gets much more complicated, however, when you look at the NFC East. It doesn't take much digging to find an ‘expert’ that will make an argument that each of the four teams is destined to win it all. With all the different opinions it can be hard to figure out what will happen. I don't have firm answers, but I can look at best and worst-case scenarios for each team in the division.
Part of the problem is that all of the teams have definite strengths, and they all have problems that make you pause. The odds are no help, either. The Cowboys are the current betting favorite to win it all at 8/5, but the gap between them and the fourth choice, the Redskins (11/4), is tiny. Compare that to the NFC West, where the Seahawks are 1/4 and the 49ers are 20/1 (and far from a bargain at that).
Dallas Cowboys (8/5)
Best case - Drew Bledsoe stays healthy and flourishes with all the offensive tools around him. Terrell Owens shows why he is worth all of the trouble. The ridiculously talented young defense grows into itself and dominates. Smart defensive moves, like shifting Greg Ellis from an undersized and overmatched defensive end to a strong side linebacker, will pay dividends. Twelve or 13 wins isn't out of the question. Home field would be a huge advantage for this team in the playoffs.
Worst case - Owens explodes. The team is very vulnerable without him. Terry Glenn is a much better fit as a second choice than the primary receiver, and no one else on the roster is ready to step into the No. 2 spot. Running back could be another issue. Julius Jones and Marion Barber are both reasonably talented, but neither have so far shown that teams need to be scared of them like they do a true premier back. DeMarcus Ware is being relied upon to be a foundation of the 3-4 offense for years to come, but he slumped a bit midseason last year before picking it up again at the end. Tony Romo looked great in the preseason, but he has no regular season experience, and the game is different when teams actually care. A Bledsoe injury would definitely set the team back. Back as far as six or seven total wins.
My guess - I think Parcells will keep it together so he can go out on a high note. Owens will be fine this season, just like he was in his first year in Philly. I think they win 11 games and take the division.
New York Giants (9/4)
Best Case - Eli Manning keeps progressing, while his main weapon, Tiki Barber, contributes like he did last year and Jeremy Shockey gets his head together and steps up his game. The addition of several defensive players, highlighted by big name LB LaVarr Arrington, fixes the problems the team had. The D-line is still the sack machine it has been for a few years now. The team wins 11 or 12 games.
Worst case - They fall behind with a tough start to the season (Indianapolis, at Philadelphia, at Seattle) and never recover. The players brought in to fix the disastrous pass defense - R. W. McQuarters and Sam Madison - show their age and don't plug the holes which desperately need to be plugged. Manning doesn't advance significantly from last season, perhaps not fully recovered by a disastrous end to last season. Arrington hasn't significantly contributed to a team for at least two seasons, and it's more than possible that he may not be able to. Tiki Barber shows his age and can't maintain the offensive pace that was crucial to last year's success. The team only wins six or seven games.
My guess - Manning is solid, but not substantially better than last year. Barber shows some age and his production tails off to merely mortal levels. The defensive secondary will be better, but still far from elite. The Giants win nine games and make a strong claim for a wild card spot.
Philadelphia Eagles (5/2)
Best case - Last year is just a mulligan and the team moves on and returns to earlier glory days. The offensive line is improved, the defense is deep if not overwhelming and they start the season healthy. If they can stay that way, they will already be way ahead of last season. The defense was terrible last year, but draft picks and free agents should reverse that trend. Before last year the team had won at least 11 in five straight seasons. They could do the same thing again.
Worst case - The injury bug is still in the system. The schedule could be too much for the team - besides the divisional rivals they play Carolina, Indy and Tampa Bay. The offense is better but still not good enough. They only end up with seven wins.
My guess - Owens is gone, but they didn't really replace him. Without a primary target it could be a long year for McNabb. The Eagles would be a decent team in most conferences, but I don't see how they compete in this one. A record of 8-8 would be a success and the playoffs are out of the question in my mind.
Washington Redskins (11/4)
Best case - Al Saunders joins Joe Gibbs’ staff after five seasons in Kansas City. He turned the Chiefs into an offensive powerhouse, and made superstars out of both Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson. Clinton Portis has the tools to become even better under Saunders. The receiving corps is much better with the additions of Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd, and TE Chris Cooley continues to improve. The pass rush is acceptable and the defensive secondary is very good. The team could win 10 games and make the playoffs as a wild card.
Worst case - Mark Brunell struggles like he did at the end of last season, and no one else is ready to take his place. The Saunders offense performs more like it did in preseason (no points by the first team offense) than it did in Kansas City. Portis doesn't bounce back from his preseason shoulder injury as fast as anyone hoped. The team struggles to 6 wins.
My guess - I don't get a good feeling from the ‘Skins. Too many questions, especially at QB. I expect seven or eight wins and a new coach next season.
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