by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

PHILADELPHIA (8-8 in 2011)...After an aggressive offseason in the lockout year of 2011, newly-added Philly QB Vince Young (now with the Bills) was brash enough to call the Eagles a “Dream Team.” It’s usually a bad idea in sports to brag on yourself. And that turned out to be true once again as Philadelphia played itself out of contention with a star-crossed 4-8 start to the campaign. The Eagles then won their last four games, but to little avail except to avoid a losing season.

Slippery RB LeSean McCoy turned out to be a favorite of fantasy football geeks with 1309 yards rushing and 20 total TDs. But Michael Vick (59.8%) was inconsistent as a passer (again), with 14 ints. vs. 18 TDs, and big-play WR DeSean Jackson caught only 58 balls for 4 TDs.

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New defensive coordinator Juan Castillo initially drew a lot of flack after moving over from offense. His unit gained cohesion as the season progressed, leading the league in sacks--but allowing 27 TD passes despite the pressure applied by the likes of Jason Babin (18 sacks) and Trent Cole (11). DT Cullen Jenkins had 5½ sacks and now will be aided by prized interior pass rusher, 295-pound Fletcher Cox, Philly’s top draft choice from Mississippi State. The unfortunate death of Andy Reid’s son Garrett might help focus the team, as Garrett (who worked with the conditioning coaches) was close with many Eagles, including Vick.

Yes, Philly has built a team that is flashy on the attack. But, more importantly, it is strong in the pits. Vick (out seven games the last two years) has durability, accuracy and consistency issues, despite his brilliant elusiveness. He is not out favorite QB. But Philly’s strength in the interior might be enough to edge the G-Men and Cowboys if only Vick can ascend another half-step.

DALLAS (8-8 in 2011)...Don’t forget that the Cowboys were playing for the NFC East title in their regular-season finale last season in N.Y. despite injuries sustained by their key playmakers all season. Tony Romo’s fractured ribs early. Miles Austin’s hamstring. Felix Jones’ shoulder, ankle and hamstring. Impressive rookie RB DeMarco Murray’s broken ankle in the first showdown game with the Giants four weeks earlier. Then Romo’s banged-up hand for the second showdown. Still, the division title was there for Dallas’ taking in Game 16. Every team suffers injuries in the meat grinder that is the long season of the NFL. But Dallas nearly overcame all its key losses on offense.

Of perhaps greater concern, however, were the failures on the Cowboy defense, which had a nasty habit of blowing late leads. And Dallas was 0-4 in crucial divisional meetings vs. the Giants and explosive Eagles.

The Cowboys have made dramatic moves to rectify those situations, adding talent in the secondary in proven CB Brandon Carr from K.C. and trading up to get coveted LSU CB Morris Claiborne. Many felt Jerry Jones “reached” to select DE Tyrone Crawford from Boise State in Round Three, but the former Bronco has flashed a pass-rushing knack in camp. Veteran Kyle Orton is now around in the event Romo is felled for a game or two, while Bill Callahan has been added to provide his touch to a younger, quicker offensive line (which has exhibited some major concerns in camp). But the Giants will find it difficult to make it back to the Super Bowl (just ask the Packers, or the previous five Lombardi winners before Green Bay). If Dallas keeps its key core players healthy in 2012, it’s no major surprise if the Cowboys pull ahead of New York.

NEW YORK GIANTS (9-7 in 2011 Regular Season; Won Super Bowl)...Let’s not forget that the G-Men barely made it to the playoffs last season, but then won four straight to capture their second Super Bowl victory in four seasons, both over the favored Patriots. When the banged-up Giants stood 6-6 early last December, many in New York were calling for the ouster of head coach Tom Coughlin. But the beleaguered mentor was then able to goad his team to three wins in the last four weeks, including one over the desperate Jets and two over the hated Cowboys, thus eking out the NFC East championship. Then, after beating the Falcons to start the playoffs, N.Y. followed with three straight upsets--at Green Bay, in OT at San Francisco, and in the Super Bowl--many of those who had called for his dismissal were wondering if Coughlin were not Hall of Fame material instead.

Still, one must wonder whether N.Y. can duplicate some of its impressive feats of 2011. Eli Manning defied his remaining critics by tossing a record 15 TD passes in the fourth quarter last season. He engineered six fourth-quarter comebacks in the regular season, and another in the Super Bowl. The Giants were last in rushing in the regular season, and they became the first 9-7 team to capture the Lombardi Trophy. That’s gonna be a tough parlay to hit again.

Plus, the Super Bowl champs always get picked apart a bit in free agency, with the Big Blue losing the likes of Super Bowl WR hero Mario Manningham, power back Brandon Jones, and once-promising former No. 1 pick DB Aaron Ross. TEs Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum both suffered torn ACLs in the Super Bowl. And the defending champions always get everybody’s best shot the next season. No surprise here if the G-Men have a fight on their hands just to get to the Wildcard Round in 2012.

WASHINGTON (5-11 in 2011)...With the marvelous and rapid Robert Griffin III as its new centerpiece, Washington finally seems headed in the right direction. Griffin appears to have all the tools needed to be a premium NFL QB--good arm, terrific speed, level head, poise under pressure, and ability to learn. Mike Shanahan’s old misdirection offense and moving pocket seems perfectly suited to the wunderkind, and the HC, along with offensive coordinator son Kyle, have reportedly added some Pistol action and useful RG3 plays from his days at Baylor.

But this is the NFL. And Griffin is a rookie who is taxed with carrying a heavy load. The Redskins are not blessed with great supportive talent at RB or receiver. And 40% of the team’s projected OL is on the shelf with threre weeks to go before the start of the season. Remember, the greatly physically gifted Cam Newton spoke openly of the dreariness of his 2-8 start last season in Carolina after so rarely previously feeling the sting of defeat in his checkered college career.

The strengthening Washington defense will help keep the Redskins within reach in most games, and it will put RG3 in position to cut his teeth, earn his spurs--and all the other cliches--in his first year. With Shanahan finally having some premium QB talent to operate his expanded, mobile offense, Griffin is likely to win more than a few games. But not enough to challenge to the end in the 2012 NFC East race.


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