This is the peak of prediction season, as NFL analysts attempt to forecast final records and playoff teams for the regular season to come. Of course, accurately divining how a notoriously tough-to-predict league will play out is something of a fool's errand -- and no division illustrates this better than the NFC East. Featuring three teams that could legitimately finish on top and one wholly unknown quantity (more or less), the division is truly up for grabs.
Predicting the 2013 NFL season
Consider that of the 11 analysts who predicted this season's playoff teams on NFL.com, five picked the Dallas Cowboys to win the East, three went with the New York Giants, two liked the Washington Redskins and one opted for the Philadelphia Eagles. Compare that to the unanimous prognostications for the NFC South (Atlanta Falcons), AFC East (New England Patriots) or AFC West (Denver Broncos), and the fact that no other division featured all four teams receiving a vote.
With that in mind, I thought this would be a good time to run through the four teams in NFC East. Though I ordered the squads according to how I think they'll finish, I could see the top three in any combination.
1) DALLAS COWBOYS
A team needs three ingredients to be successful: a top-flight quarterback, an outstanding coaching staff and the ability to create takeaways on defense.
As for the second: Dallas made some very good changes, bringing aboard coordinator Monte Kiffin and line coach Rod Marinelli on defense, as well as receivers coach Derek Dooley and running backs coach Gary Brown on offense.
As for the third: Last season, Marinelli was defensive coordinator for a Chicago Bears team that finished the season with eight defensive touchdowns and 24 picks. The Cowboys will spend a lot of time playing Cover 2 and Cover 3, and I think the turnovers will come. A healthy Sean Lee should have a Pro Bowl-caliber season at middle linebacker.
2) WASHINGTON REDSKINS
This is a 9-7 team that could easily finish 10-6. The Redskins didn't make many offseason moves ... but they return most of the key pieces from a group that finished the 2012 regular season on a seven-game winning streak.
Mike Shanahan is considered one of the best coaches in the NFL. Second-year running back Alfred Morris rushed for 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns as a rookie -- interestingly, of his 335 attempts, Morris was brought down on first contact just three times. And, of course, phenom Robert Griffin III has been announced as the starting quarterback for Week 1 less than a year after having reconstructive knee surgery.
The Redskins' defense, which finished the season with 21 interceptions, is getting back a Pro Bowl-caliber player in Brian Orakpo, who missed most of 2012 with injury. After giving up 31 touchdown passes, Washington drafted three defensive backs, including David Amerson, who led college football with 13 picks for N.C. State in 2011. Veteran defensive coordinator Jim Haslett does a great job, and a fully healthy Orakpo should boost the team's sack production. That has the potential to make a huge difference. I'm a huge believer in the importance of sacks. At the end of the year, the teams with the biggest sack differentials are usually the ones ruling the standings.
3) NEW YORK GIANTS
The biggest plus for the New York Giants is Tom Coughlin, who deserves Hall of Fame honors once his coaching career ends. And his staff has its share of gems, as well. Few casual observers know who Pat Flaherty is, but he might be one of the best offensive line coaches in the NFL. Last year, his unit gave up just 20 sacks (the lowest number in the league), and though he's been forced to deal with injuries lately, I expect the O-line to again be a strength of this team. Then there's tight ends coach Mike Pope, who seems to develop a solid starter every season.
It's hard to believe Eli Manning is 32 years old and starting his 10th NFL season. The quarterback has a very good group of receivers at his disposal, starting with Victor Cruz, who caught 86 passes and scored 10 touchdowns in 2012 and was handsomely rewarded. Second-year receiver Rueben Randle has been a bright spot in the preseason. The running game, which is especially important toward the end of the season, when weather becomes more of a factor, is something of a question mark; veteran Ahmad Bradshaw's now with the Indianapolis Colts, while Andre Brown is out with a leg injury. Second-year running back David Wilson must step up. He's had a tendency to fumble, but he can run. Ultimately, the Giants' offense won't keep them from winning this year.
The defensive line has always been a trademark of successful Giants teams, and that will have to again hold true if they want to win in 2013. Will Jason Pierre-Paul, who had 10 fewer sacks in 2012 than he did in 2011, be fully healthy? What about 30-year-old defensive stalwart Justin Tuck? And who will replace Osi Umenyiora? The play of this group will most likely go a long way toward determining the Giants' win-loss record.
4) PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
Kelly comes into the NFL without ever having played or coached football at the highest level. History is littered with the names of highly celebrated college coaches who fizzled in the pros, like Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier. Jimmy Johnson, however, might be the more appropriate comparison; with a similar background to Kelly's, Johnson went 1-15 in his first season coaching the Dallas Cowboys -- and then proceeded to win two Super Bowls.
Harrison: Power Rankings
With the 2013 campaign finally upon us, Elliot Harrison compiles his first Power Rankings of the regular season. More ...
The Eagles have some offensive playmakers, including running back LeSean McCoy and receiver DeSean Jackson. Philly allowed 48 sacks in 2012, but the offensive line should be much better with first-round pick Lane Johnson and a healthy Jason Peters in the mix. Rookie tight end Zach Ertz should help the unit score more; the Eagles very easily could boost their point total by 150 or so after taking poor care of the ball last season. That seems especially likely when one considers that Kelly's Oregon Ducks topped 40 points in 11 of 12 regular-season contests in 2012.
By the way, Kelly's Oregon team last year ran 642 running plays and passed just 373 times. I was amazed to see just how much more frequently Kelly took to the ground than he did the air.
The other million-dollar question in Philly -- after "What will Chip do?" -- pertains to the health of veteran quarterback Michael Vick. Can he play a full season without incident, or will he again miss a handful of games, as he's done the past few years?
Ultimately, I see this as a six-win team.