It’s easy to pick the winner of the NFC East: It’s always the team you least expect.
When the Eagles sign a slew of big-name free agents, they play terribly. When they stack their chips and try to rebuild, they play well. The Cowboys are always at their best the moment they are written off. If the Giants -- who face Dallas in Wednesday night's season opener -- are an injury-riddled mess at the start of the season and on the brink of elimination in early December, they are a virtual lock to win the Super Bowl. And no team tries harder to make big leaps forward than the Redskins, which of course means they always take huge steps backward.
As usual, the Giants will use tortoise tactics to outfox the three hares. That will be more difficult this year than it was last year: The Eagles are more cohesive, the Cowboys fixed their biggest weakness and the Redskins have their best quarterback since the moment Lawrence Taylor broke Joe Theismann.
New York Giants
Tweet-sized Preview: The Team in the Blue Flannel Suit treats a Super Bowl repeat like another trip to the office.
Biggest Change from 2011: A minor skill-position reshuffling sent Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs to San Francisco; rookies Reuben Randle and David Wilson are faster, cheaper replacements with more upside. Keith Rivers and Martellus Bennett reinforce injury-plagued linebacking and tight-end units. But the most noticeable change at Giants headquarters is the validation that comes from two championships in five years. The doubters and naysayers are silent, or else following the Jets.
Overblown Story: Ice Tub Initiations: It sounds like a really lame reality series, but in fact it was a really lame attempt to brew a camp controversy out of some videos of rookies being forcibly chilled. For a few days, tomfoolery that wouldn’t raise a summer camp counselor’s eyebrows was trumped up into a “hazing” incident. The brouhaha underscored the difference between the Giants and Jets: The Jets would have to throw rookies into a wood chipper to cause a ripple over at Camp Chaos.
Undersold Story: Injuries are as common in Giants camp as Tom Coughlin scowls, but this year’s injury rash sapped the depth from both the defensive line and the secondary. Injuries to cornerbacks Terrell Thomas and Prince Amukamara and linemen Marvin Austin, Chris Canty and Shaun Rogers will limit the Giants’ ability to use their two favorite defensive strategies -- the mix-and-match on the defensive line, and the “heavy nickel” three-safety look in the secondary.
Telling Stat: The Giants used their heavy nickel and other five-defensive back alignments on 64 percent of snaps, the highest figure in the league. The departure of Deon Grant, a four-game suspension for second-year safety Tyler Sash and the injuries at cornerback put the heavy nickel in jeopardy. Then again, if the Giants gave up on strategies because of injuries, they wouldn’t have any strategies.
Breakout Player: David Wilson has exceptional speed, good hands and enough power in his 5-foot-9, 205-pound frame to run between the tackles without shattering. He should get the 150 carries Brandon Jacobs left behind, with fewer touchdowns but many more receptions.
Bottom Line: This has been a typical Giants camp, right down to the brutal plague of injuries. The team’s 2012 motto is “Build the Bridge,” but a Super Bowl repeat is probably a bridge too far. PREDICTION: 10-6.
Tweet-sized Preview: Less dream. More team.
Biggest Change from 2011: Some of the impulse purchases from last season’s spending spree (Ronnie Brown, Vince Young, Steve Smith) were returned for store credit. Asante Samuel was shipped to Atlanta after a season of discontent. DeMeco Ryans gives the team the big, capable middle linebacker it has lacked since Jeremiah Trotter got old. Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and his controversial Wide-9 defense are back, but at least the team had a full offseason to learn it.
Overblown Story: Recasting the untimely death of Garrett Reid as just another team storyline or some inspirational “rallying point” is condescending, ghoulish and frankly insulting to the intelligence and sensitivities of players, coaches and fans. But rest assured that it will happen.
Undersold Story: Michael Vick played 12 snaps and suffered two injuries in the preseason. The Philly Phaithful are unconcerned, because rookie Nick Foles played like Andrew Luck’s big brother throughout the preseason. Everyone loves the backup quarterback, especially in Philadelphia, but some folks need to dig through the closet, find the Bobby Hoying jersey, and take a deep breath. Foles has long-term potential. But if he makes more than a spot start or two this year, the Eagles are doomed.
Telling Stat: Both the offensive and defensive lines had boom-or-bust seasons in 2011. The offensive line helped rushers average 5.1 yards per carry, but Eagles backs were stuffed for a loss on 25 percent of their carries, the highest rate in the NFL. The defensive line allowed 4.4 yards per rush but recorded 50 sacks and stuffed rushers 23 percent of the time, the third highest rate in the NFL. The hot-and-cold performances on the lines spread to all other elements of Eagles football.
Breakout Player: Damaris Johnson, wide receiver. Johnson, a 5-foot-8 rookie from Tulsa, has a lock on the punt-return job but can do much more. He has an incredibly quick release, makes sharp cuts when running routes, and can make defenders miss. His size limits him to a slot role, but the Eagles pass so often that a slot receiver can easily haul in 60 passes.
Bottom Line: The Eagles are more organized and prepared than they were in 2010, and their talent is better distributed. But the Eagles always seem to have a built-in Achilles’ heel. Last year, it was the Wide-9. This year, it may be the offensive line. Or quarterback injuries. Or the Wide-9. PREDICTION: 9-7.
Tweet-sized Preview: The rebuilt secondary arrived too late: The Cowboys are too old to ride the Romo Coaster.
Biggest Change from 2011: Cornerbacks Brandon Carr and rookie Morris Claiborne upgraded a secondary that got burnt worse than Robert Pattinson playing Lawrence of Arabia last year. The loss of Laurent Robinson at wide receiver did not seem like such a big deal until Dez Bryant started acting like a Jimmy Cagney villain and Jason Witten suffered a spleen injury. Tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free are switching sides, a promotion for Smith and a red flag for Free.
Overblown Story: Dez Bryant’s Rules of Engagement, which may have been imposed by the team, Bryant’s own handlers, or a future Dez who traveled back in time to warn him of a universe shattering “strip-club apocalypse.” Bryant gets in the most trouble when he is with his family or at the mall, making him the one Cowboys receiver in history whose virtue won’t be protected by a nightclub ban. And if we are trying to keep NFL players out of trouble, why not start with full-time chauffeurs, who would have the added advantage of keeping the rest of us safe? Also, Tony Romo navel-gazing has gotten stale after six seasons. We know there will be ups and downs. The Cowboys must make sure they win all of the “ups.”
Undersold Story: The offensive line is a major concern. Smith is adapting well at left tackle, but there are questions everywhere else. The team lost two centers to injuries in camp and pulled veteran Derrick Dockery off the waiver wire to quell an emergency at guard. Center Phil Costa has returned, and others are expected back soon, but even the healthy starters won’t be mistaken for Mark Stepnoski or Larry Allen. Protecting Romo is paramount, of course, but the Cowboys also like to pound the ball from the I-formation. With this interior line, it’s the backs who will get pounded.
Telling Stat: Blitzing is a birthright for the Ryan brothers, but the Cowboys rushed just three defenders on 18.3 percent of pass plays, the highest rate in the NFL. When one of those three defenders is DeMarcus Ware, Ryan can get the pass rush he needs while still providing extra support in coverage.
Breakout Player: Kevin Ogletree. Ogletree has been a preseason All-Pro for years in Dallas: good enough to make the roster, not good enough to earn a role. Ogletree worked with the starters while Miles Austin nursed a hamstring injury and should at least earn the third receiver role. With Witten sidelined indefinitely, Ogletree could become Romo’s top possession target.
Bottom Line: As usual, the Cowboys are top-heavy with Pro-Bowl talent but critically thin in several important areas. The secondary is now solid, but the offensive line is springing leaks, and skill-position depth is suddenly nonexistent. The Cowboys could win either West division going away, but a team with this many flaws is doomed to get picked apart in the NFC East. PREDICTION: 7-9.
Tweet-sized Preview: Dan Snyder acquires RGIII, declares mission accomplished, spends next two drafts hoping other Redskins problems solve themselves.
Biggest Change from 2011: Robert Griffin III gives the Redskins a dynamic young franchise quarterback for the first time in a generation. The team also acquired several overpriced free agents and traded away many draft picks, but neither of these acts qualifies as a “big change” for the Redskins, who do those things every year.
Most Overblown Story: RGIII is truly an outstanding prospect, so calling him “overblown” is unfair. Then again, Redskins fans have already penciled in three or four MVP awards for him, so a bit of hype deflation is in order.
Undersold Story: The defensive front seven has an intriguing mix of young and old talent. Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan, Jarvis Jenkins and Perry Riley lead the young crop: Kerrigan and Orakpo are outstanding bookend rushers, Riley is a playmaker inside, and Jenkins will provide a huge boost if he returns to full speed after an ACL injury. The old guard is led by London Fletcher, who played for George Allen in Super Bowl VII. The defensive line and linebacker corps are the strongest units on the team right now -- quarterback included.
Telling Stat: Redskins quarterbacks were sacked 41 times last year, but they also suffered 79 non-sack hits, the highest figure in the league. RGIII’s mobility will help. An offensive line that had four projected starters miss much of the preseason will not.
Breakout Player: Josh Morgan, wide receiver. Morgan spent three years in San Francisco on the verge of breaking out but was always held back by the Niners’ offensive dysfunction. He (and the Niners) started to put it all together last year until Morgan fractured an ankle. The Redskins made him a priority signing, and while he missed some time with a camp hamstring injury, he is finally paired with a quarterback who can throw 30 yards downfield without a running start.
Bottom Line: Mediocre skill-position talent, a weak secondary and the traditional Redskins lack of depth will keep RGIII from reaching the playoffs as a rookie. Still, a nation that never wants to see Rex Grossman or John Beck play football again will have much to cheer about. PREDICTION: 6-10.