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Dallas class of NFC, but Giants, Pack (and Eagles?) not far behind

  • By Cris Collinsworth Special to NFL.com
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The Patriots and the Colts face off this week in an epic game, but they will only be one half of the Super Bowl puzzle come February. So who will be the team coming out of the NFC?

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that the Cowboys were probably the best team that I have seen in the NFC and I still feel that way. They are big and physical on both sides of the ball. One of the keys for them this season has been the free-agent signing of Leonard Davis from Arizona, and moving him from tackle to guard to provide a presence in the running game for guys like Marion Barber. I really like Barber and I love the way he runs so hard, especially around the goal line. Combined with Julius Jones, and the Cowboys have a great running attack that will be important in the playoffs.

The Cowboys offense has been good even without Terry Glenn, and if you can get him pack to combine with Terrell Owens and Jason Witten, who has been good, they have some weapons for quarterback Tony Romo who just signed a huge contract extension this week.

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Romo has made a big statement this season, that he was able to get it back together after his playoff fiasco last year. But Romo has been there smiling and laughing the whole time. It’s amazing that a young guy has been able to piece it back together so well. But one caveat that was unsettling to me was the demeanor he had during that Monday Night game at Buffalo. He seemed a little overwhelmed by the big stage and that would concern me a little bit. But overall, I fall in line with owner Jerry Jones and believe that Romo is going to be good for this team for a long time.

The defense also continues to get better and better, and the return of Greg Ellis has been a huge boost. If they ever have cornerbacks Anthony Henry and Terence Newman on the field at the same time, they could be really good. Free safety Ken Hamlin also adds a lot of athleticism to a position where I thought the Cowboys really needed some help.

The Cowboys are my front-runner, but the signs point to the New York Giants being right behind them. To me, there are two football seasons -– the kind you play in September/October and the football you play in November/December/January. Teams that run the football are always better in the later months and the Giants are built to run with Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Reuben Droughns. Jacobs showed in that game in London that he was a true mudder, a guy who can take over a game when the weather is bad. Just like he did against the Dolphins. That gives the Giants an edge. Flopping David Diehl to left tackle also has helped this team.

Receiver Plaxico Burress has been playing better than ever, and I don’t think that he has practiced at all this year. That amazes me because he and quarterback Eli Manning have such great timing. The Giants have started to look like the old Giants with the strong running game. The Giants are not winning and losing with Manning, who has taken on a Phil Simms-like role where he only throws the ball when he has to.

The defense also has looked like its old self under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. The Giants have looked electric with Osi Umeniyora, Michael Strahan and Mathias Kiwanuka rushing the passer, masking the weakness in the secondary by getting to the quarterback. Middle linebacker Antonio Pierce is the glue that holds that whole thing together.

The Packers are a defensive team, although it is easy to get caught up in the Brett Favre magic, who has overshadowed the Packers defense this year. But make no mistake, this is a defensive team first and foremost. Al Harris and Charles Woodson have been great. Atari Bigby has been a great addition. The front seven can really play, led by linebacker A.J. Hawk. When the defense can keep Favre in the game, he will beat you more times that not, as evidenced on Monday night. The defense held the Broncos when they had to, allowing Favre to make those key throws. With a great group of young receivers and an offensive line that is improving, the Packers would be really dangerous if they could ever get a running game.

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It would be foolish to count the Eagles out of the NFC race.

While I like the Cowboys, Giants and Packers, I believe that it’s important not to overlook the Philadelphia Eagles. One of the things I look for is a team that is ranked in the top 10 in both offense and defense, as it’s rare to find teams that are good at doing both. The Eagles, for as bad as they have played, rank eighth in the NFL in offense and ninth in total defense. The problem has been the ability score touchdowns, instead settling for just field goals. The Eagles still had to settle for too many field goals against the Vikings, but if they can ever get consistent in the red zone they can beat anybody. They did get two touchdowns from Brian Westbrook and if he heats up, look out. All three of these NFC East teams have a legitimate chance to make a run.

I still have a hard time believing that the Lions are for real. The offense has many weapons with Roy Williams, Calvin Johnson and Kevin Jones. But the key will be the defense. The Lions have some talented players on defense including Ernie Sims, Shaun Rogers and Dewayne White. They currently rank 28th in total defense, but if they could crack into the Top 15, they would really have something going. For right now, I’m going to put them into my "To Watch" list.

The Seattle Seahawks have a long way to go before they can be considered a legitimate contender. The Seahawks need to reestablish the running attack, because they have become too one dimensional on offense. The decline seemed to start when Steven Hutchinson left to go to the Vikings. And since then, Shaun Alexander has not looked like Shaun Alexander. The defense is tremendously fast, led by Julian Peterson and Lofa Tatupu, and really good. But until they can find an offensive identity –- and that identity is running the football –- they will not be a true Super Bowl contender.

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Jeff Garcia and the defense give Tampa Bay a chance and what can you say about Joey Galloway? He might still be playing when he’s 70. But they also have questions at running back. Carolina probably doesn’t have much of a chance without Jake Delhomme.

So that means that the Saints, with the way they have played recently, are probably the favorites in the NFC South. New Orleans has been able to piece together its season, looking to become the first team since the Chargers in 1992 to start the season 0-4 and make the playoffs. The Saints offense is back in rhythm. Drew Brees looks a lot more comfortable at quarterback and Marques Colston seems like he is healthy again. Good thing, too, because I still have a lot of questions about that secondary. The Saints need to score 30 points to win, and they struggled earlier because they weren’t putting up those points. But if the Saints can consistently score points like they did last year, they could be a contender in the NFC.

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