NFC East Preview: The Champ and The Challengers

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Aug 31, 2012



By Justin Henry
Cold, Hard Football Facts NFC East-A-Bunny


NFC East teamsThe New York Giants, winners of Super Bowl XLVI, could very easily have been watching the big game from home this past February.

At 9-7, the Giants posted the worst record of any champion in NFL history. Finishing just behind them in the NFC East at 8-8 were the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys.

Philadelphia was eliminated from contention in Week 16, by virtue of the Giants beating their stadium-rival New York Jets. A week later, the Giants would dispose of Dallas themselves, 31-14, to claim the division title, and the final playoff berth.

The Washington Redskins, meanwhile, were 2-10 over their final twelve games, leaving their fans with more time to clip their nails, as opposed to biting them.

 

New York Giants (Over/under: 9.5)

Last Year: O/U 9.5 (UNDER, 9-7)

THE CASE FOR THE OVER

It’s the Same Team
The team that won seven of their final eight games (including the postseason) is returning eighteen of its twenty-two Super Bowl starters. The only losses are tight end Jake Ballard (Patriots), tackle Kareem McKenzie (free agent), corner Aaron Ross (Jaguars), and safety Deon Grant (free agent).

They Win When it Matters
The Giants also proved in 2011 that they’re a franchise that can overcome early adversity, and hunker down when it matters. Despite allowing 25 points per game for the season, the Giants only gave up 14 points per game over its final six games, all of which were must-win situations. This includes the Wild Card matchup with the Falcons, when they held Atlanta to a safety.

THE CASE FOR THE UNDER

History Hurts
It’s been eight seasons since a Super Bowl Champion has repeated (Patriots, 2004). In fact, New England is the only team since the 2002 season to have won any playoff games in the year after they appeared in a Super Bowl (3 in 2004, 1 in 2005). The 2002 Patriots, 2003 Buccaneers, and 2006 and 2009 Steelers all missed the playoffs the year after winning it all. The 2007 Colts, 2008 Giants, 2010 Saints, and 2011 Packers all lost their first game the following postseason (the Saints were the only team on the road; the rest lost as a No. 1 or 2 seed).

Against Similar Competition since 2002
Vs. NFC East Foes: 34-26 (only losing record is against the Eagles; 8-12)
Vs. AFC North: 4-4 (split 1-1 with each team)
Vs. NFC South: 9-10 (1-4 vs. New Orleans, whom they play in Week 14)

Did You Know: Eli Manning is one of only two quarterbacks in the NFL that in the midst of 90 straight starts or more? Manning has started 119 straight games going back to his rookie season in 2004. In a somewhat distant second is San Diego’s Philip Rivers, who’s sitting on 96 straight games, dating back to opening weekend 2006.

Analysis: It’s a “passing league” these days, which is a bit evident in that last year’s Super Bowl Champions had the worst rushing offense in the league (89.2 YPG). As of press time, head coach Tom Coughlin hasn’t exactly decided who his starter will be between incumbent Ahmad Bradshaw and first-round pick David Wilson, but this much is clear: New York will not be resting on any inadequacies.

The Giants lost five of six games in November and December last season, averaging 82.7 YPG rushing in that stretch. The Giants may have performed better with their backs to the wall come the home stretch, but Coughlin’ll be damned if it comes to that. Even the champions had room to improve, and by addressing it with a first round pick, they’re leaving nothing to chance in 2012.

OVER 9.5. Until the rest of the division proves they can match the champs, they’re still the champs.


Philadelphia Eagles (Over/under: 10)

Last Year: O/U 10.5 (UNDER, 8-8)

THE CASE FOR THE OVER

De-Fense! De-Fense!
The Eagles defense, despite being run by former offensive line coach Juan Castillo, had the best percentage of plays resulting in a sack or interception in 2011, with an 11.44 percent success rate. With fifty sacks as a team, additions like Jason Babin (18) and Cullen Jenkins (5.5) supplemented trusted veteran Trent Cole (11) in keeping opposing quarterbacks on their toes.

Defensive Inadequacies Fixed?
The Eagles were seventh in the league in 2011 in points scored vs. opponents points scored (24.75 to 21.98), and could have been a playoff team if not for stupid losses early in the season. The gap between those totals could widen with the addition of consistent linebackers (DeMeco Ryans and rookie Mychal Kendricks), and better play from embattled offensive stars like Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson.

THE CASE FOR THE UNDER

Vick and Company Prone to Errors
Eagles quarterbacks in 2011 committed 29 turnovers, third worst in the league behind Tampa Bay and Washington (30 apiece). This includes 14 interceptions from Michael Vick, 9 from Vince Young, 2 from Mike Kafka in one quarter, and four lost fumbles.

Before Defense Can Fly, Must Find Consistency
The defense itself was in flux, shifting around linebackers after the early season struggles (only Brian Rolle (13) and Jamar Chaney (16) started more than ten games). The Eagles averaged 15.85 yards per point allowed, fourteenth best in the league, and considerably behind better teams like San Francisco, New England, and Green Bay.

Against Similar Competition since 2002:
Vs. NFC East Foes: 38-22 (5-1 vs. their division last season, but 8-8 overall)
Vs. AFC North: 4-3-1 (2-0 vs. Cleveland, .500 or worse against the rest)
Vs. NFC South: 13-6 (9-2 in regular season vs. Atlanta and Carolina)

Did You Know: Michael Vick’s performance lifted considerably in the final four games he played last season? During his first nine starts, the Eagles were 3-6 (79.7 rating, 244 YPG, 11 TD, 11 INT), but 4-0 after returning from a rib injury (97.3 rating, 278 YPG, 7 TD, 3 INT).

Analysis: The “Dream Team” jettisoned many of the name-brand players brought in a year ago (Vince Young, Ronnie Brown, Steve Smith), and are working to build a defensive presence that’ll take the pressure off the oft-injured Vick. Vick’s injuries this preseason will be a question mark long-term, but there’s a capable kid behind him in rookie Nick Foles if it comes down to it.

Through the draft, the Eagles selected Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry, and Mychal Kendricks, while adding leaders like DeMeco Ryans and Oshimogho Atogwe otherwise. Add to that a more mistake-free performance from the offense, and the Eagles could finally live up to something more resembling a championship billing this season.

EVEN 10: 9 isn’t befitting of the revamped defense, and 11 seems a bit too risky. Vegas may have nailed it.


Dallas Cowboys (Over/under 8.5)

Last Year: O/U 9 (UNDER, 8-8)

THE CASE FOR THE OVER

Underrated Romo
Tony Romo may catch a lot of Hell from those who despise Dallas, but guess what? He’s coming off the best statistical season of his career. With a rating of 102.5, Romo threw 31 touchdowns to a paltry 10 interceptions. In fourteen of his sixteen starts last year, Romo threw one or less interceptions, and even had a four game stretch without a pick.

A Solid Line Even More Solidified
The Cowboys also demonstrated great offensive line consistency in some aspects in 2011, ranking ninth in rushing yards per attempt (4.43), twelfth in avoiding negative passing plays (91.6 percent success rate), and eleventh in third down success (39.4 percent). The addition of Nate Livings at left guard will provide even more interior power to improve on these marks.

THE CASE FOR THE UNDER

Giving Up Big Plays
As favorable as Dallas is on converting third downs, they’re virtually as inept on the defensive side of the ball. The team from Big D has the eleventh worst percentage of forcing fourth downs (39.7 percent), as was evident in the final game of the season against the Giants. With the NFC East title at stake, New York converted seven third downs, and dominated time of possession.

Run Hasn’t Established Itself
In addition, despite Romo’s career year, the team is thirteenth worst in the league in yards per points scored (16.3). By comparison, the 15-1 Packers had an 11.6 average, best in the league. In five of the team’s last seven games (3-4), Dallas was held to under 90 yards rushing five times. Passing league or not, the lack of balance helped ultimately upset them.

Against Similar Competition since 2002:
Vs. NFC East Foes: 29-31 (only favorable record is vs. Washington at 13-7)
Vs. AFC North: 3-5 (winless vs. Baltimore and Pittsburgh)
Vs. NFC South: 13-6 (A whopping 6-0 over Carolina in the regular season)

Did You Know: The Dallas Cowboys in 2011 had 1807 rushing yards as a team, yet only five rushing touchdowns (2 for DeMarco Murray, 1 each for Felix Jones, Tony Romo, and Phillip Tanner). Oddly enough, the Giants had a league-worst 1427 yards rushing in 2011, but 17 total rushing scores. Ahmad Bradshaw alone had nine rushing TDs, almost double the entire Cowboys output.

Analysis: If Dallas’ two biggest issues are lacking a strong running game and preventing third down conversions, they’ve worked to remedy both situations. For the running game, fullback Lawrence Vickers replaces Tony Fiammetta and second year player Shaun Chapas. In the secondary, cornerback Brandon Carr adds solid man-coverage, and emerging safety Barry Church impressed enough this offseason that Dallas cut free agent signing Brodney Pool in favor of him.

Dallas is 47-33 since 2007, and 1-2 in their 2 playoff berths. Injuries hamper their offensive stars (lacerated spleen for Jason Witten, usual hamstring issues for Miles Austin), and others are plagued with legal issues and controversy (his name rhymes with “Pez”). If Dallas is really as good as they look on paper, they’d better pull it together now.

UNDER 8.5. As it stands now, there’s too many questions with injuries and unprovens.


Washington Redskins (Over/under 6.5)

Last Year: O/U 6.5 (UNDER, 5-11)

THE CASE FOR THE OVER

RGIII Changes the Dynamic
In the last 10 seasons, Washington has lacked a quarterback capable of making plays with his feet. Jason Campbell has the most rushing yards in a season for a QB during that stretch, with 258 in 2008. John Beck, of all people, is the only quarterback with more than one rushing touchdown (2) in a season, which he achieved last year. Adding Robert Griffin III could do for Washington what Cam Newton did for Carolina a year ago, and that’s add a layer of unpredictability to the offense.

Linebackers Doing Work
The Redskins defense had the ninth best percentage of plays ending in a sack or interception in 2011 (9.82 percent), which included 41 sacks, tenth best in the league. The linebackers played a huge part in this show of force, with Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan posting 9 and 7.5 sacks respectively. Kerrigan even had a pick six, while timeless veteran London Fletcher made two interceptions himself.

THE CASE FOR THE UNDER

Griffin Welcomed the Hard Way?
If Griffin has the expected growing pains (Newton had 17 interceptions last year), it would be more of the same for a Redskins offense that saw their quarterbacks commit 30 turnovers, the worst in the league next to Tampa Bay. Rex Grossman threw 20 picks, John Beck tossed 4, and the duo combined for 6 fumbles behind an offensive line addled by injuries and drug suspensions.

Safety Situation Not So Safe
The safety situation is grossly in flux with the depatures of Oshimogho Atogwe (cut) and LaRon Landry (left for the Jets). The defense with the ninth worst defensive passer rating (opponents had an 87.4 rating against them in 2011) will now rely on former New England/Chicago outcast Brandon Meriweather and aging veteran Madieu Williams (only 9 tackles in San Francisco last year) at safety.

Against Similar Competition since 2002:
Vs. NFC East Foes: 19-41 (7 wins vs. Dallas is their best showing)
Vs. AFC North: 1-7 (lone win vs. Cleveland in 2008, 14-11)
Vs. NFC South: 6-13 (managed to beat the Saints in 2006 and 2008)

Did You Know: Mike Shanahan, since taking over the Redskins, has been unable to sustain early season momentum. In both 2010 and 2011, the Redskins started the year 3-2. In 2010, the Redskins lost 8 of the last 11 games (average margin of loss: 10 pts), while losing 9 of the last 11 a year ago (average margin of loss: 12 pts).

Analysis: Almost every ounce of offseason hype for the Redskins has centered around No. 2 pick Robert Griffin III. And why not? The Redskins are 65-95 over the last decade, with two lone playoff appearances. When Redskins fans and bloggers skew their owner and former executive VP, Daniel Snyder and Vinny Cerrato, more than Raiders fans could have ever done to Al Davis, you know Jack Kent Cooke’s doing somersaults in an oaken casket somewhere.

This is a team that needs to find an identity, particularly a true mission statement. Griffin will dictate the offense, and the Shanahans, presumably, will mold everything around his capabilities. Until everything solidifies, which could be a while, if ever, the Redskins aren’t likely to do much in 2012.

UNDER 6.5. If Cam Newton could only get six wins in his rookie season, RGIII should do about the same, although the flashes and promise for 2013 and beyond will be evident.


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