NFC East preview: Quarterbacks set the tone

For much of the last quarter of the 20th century, the NFC East was the strongest division in the NFL; between the 1977 and 1995 seasons, NFC East teams won nine of 19 Super Bowls.

Under the radar's Gil Brandt has identified four underrated players in the NFC East who will bear watching this season:

Miles Austin
WR, Dallas

He has already excelled returning kickoffs and has the speed, height and hands to be an outstanding receiver once he returns from a knee injury.

Bryan Kehl
LB, N.Y. Giants

A fourth-round pick this year who could prove quite valuable because he plays weak or strong side and is athletic enough to play every down.

Chris Gocong
LB, Philadelphia

A smart player with great athletic ability, he creates matchup problems because he can line up with his hand on the ground or play in space.

Rocky McIntosh
LB, Washington

A second-year starter who had 105 tackles last year and has emerged as a defensive leader.

The division hit a fallow period after the departures of coaches Bill Parcells, Joe Gibbs and Jimmy Johnson in the first half of the '90s, but has made a comeback the last couple of years. In 2007, all four teams finished 8-8 or better and the New York Giants became the NFC East's first Super Bowl winner in more than a decade and the first NFC wild-card team to win the title.

Last year, the four NFC East teams compiled a 28-12 record against non-division opponents. Division champion Dallas' only defeat outside the division came against New England.

Quarterbacks have brought the division back. The Cowboys and Giants have rising young stars Tony Romo, the NFC's top-rated passer last year, and Eli Manning, the Super Bowl MVP. The Redskins are developing Jason Campbell. And Donovan McNabb remains an effective leader in Philadelphia.

Historically, the division also has been known for its strong defenses, and it was the play of their defensive line that keyed the Giants' championship run. New York led the league with 53 sacks in the regular season and sacked Tom Brady five times in the Super Bowl.

Team on the rise

Washington. Joe Gibbs left a good team behind for his successor, Jim Zorn, and if Zorn can develop Campbell, the Redskins should have an explosive offense. There remain some questions about the defense, which was severely lacking in big plays –- sacks and interceptions -– a year ago, but Jason Taylor should still have a good year left in him provided his knee injury does not prove serious.

Team in transition

Philadelphia. After playing in four consecutive NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl, the Eagles lost their way the last couple of years. One major reason, of course, was the fallout after their failed affair with Terrell Owens, and another has been McNabb's injury history and reduced effectiveness. In fact, over the last three years, the Eagles are only two games better with McNabb (17-16) than without him (7-8). But Philly has done a good job of addressing its deficiencies, and two new players -- Asante Samuel and DeSean Jackson -- plus the experience gained last year by young linebackers, may re-energize the Eagles.

Coach in the spotlight

Wade Phillips of Dallas. Phillips' easy-rider style works well with most players, but it surely will be tested with the high-profile players he now has and the pressure of being a conference favorite. Further, Phillips has a high-profile assistant, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, who is a head coach in waiting and expected by many to take over after the season.

Star on the rise

Defensive end Justin Tuck, New York Giants. Tuck had 10 sacks last year, playing as a part-timer behind Michael Strahan. Now, Tuck, a player somewhat in the Strahan size mold, moves into the starting lineup and will have a chance to make a significant impact.

Impact rookie

Safety Kenny Phillips, New York Giants. The secondary was a problem last year but will be significantly better with Phillips in the lineup. The coaches have been gushing over Phillips, the No. 31 pick in the draft, and wondering how he could have slid that low. He's able to anticipate plays and close fast, covering a lot of ground.

Count on it

There will be an implosion at some point in Dallas because the high expectations will lead to high pressure on a team filled with combustible personalities. There already were reports of Terrell Owens saying he was not used properly in the playoff loss to the Giants.

Don't be surprised if ...

The offensive line proves to be a downfall for Philadelphia. The Eagles have addressed problems in other areas, and McNabb looks good again, but the Eagles have two old tackles, and the NFC East still has some tough speed rushers for them to combat.

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