NFC EASTArizonaLast season: 4-12, 5th place.Playoffs...

August 31, 1996

NFC EAST

Arizona

Last season: 4-12, 5th place.

Playoffs: None.

NFC rankings: Offense, 11th; defense, 13th.

Coach: Vince Tobin, first season as a head coach.

Offense: Old Boomer Esiason (35) has replaced even older Dave Krieg (37) at QB (Krieg is now the Bears' backup), inheriting an offense that tied for 27th in scoring and finished next to last in rushing. Esiason is the team's eighth starting quarterback in eight years. RB Garrison Hearst was waived, leaving the starting job to rookie Leeland McElroy and the backup role to speedster LeShon Johnson. Frank Sanders and Rob Moore are respectable wide receivers and Larry Centers last year became the first running back to catch more than 100 passes, but will Esiason have time to find them? The line allowed 55 sacks last year, third worst in the league. A bright spot: LT Lomas Brown, a good one, was signed as a free agent.

Defense: Dead last against the run and in points allowed last year, but there is some fine talent to build around in DT Eric Swann (who bounced back from a poor 1994 season), LB Eric Hill and CB Aeneas Williams. Plus, hopes are high for DE Simeon Rice, the third overall pick of the draft. But there are too many holes to expect dramatic improvement.

Extra point: The Cardinals haven't had a winning season since 1984 and haven't won a playoff game since 1947.

Dallas

Last season: 12-4, 1st place.

Playoffs: Beat Eagles in divisional, 30-11; beat Packers in NFC championship, 38-27; beat Steelers in Super Bowl, 27-17.

NFC rankings: Offense, 4th, defense, 4th.

Coach: Barry Switzer (24-8, .750), third season with Cowboys.

Offense: The Cowboys' dynasty has been based mainly on QB Troy Aikman, RB Emmitt Smith and WR Michael Irvin operating behind the game's best offensive line. But Irvin will miss five games on a drug-related suspension and TE Jay Novacek (back) may be out for the season. The Cowboys hope the foursome of Deion Sanders, Kevin Williams, Kelvin Martin and rookie Stepfret Williams will fill the void. Age is a concern on the line, with LG Nate Newton 34, LT Mark Tuinei 36 and C Ray Donaldson 38.

Defense: Four starters were lost to free agency: DT Russell Maryland, LBs Dixon Edwards and Robert Jones and CB Larry Brown, the Super Bowl MVP. The Cowboys did add LBs Fred Strickland and Broderick Thomas through free agency and traded for S Roger Harper but figure to be thinner and weaker overall. The line should be strong at tackle with Leon Lett, Chad Hennings and Tony Casillas re-signed, but DEs Tony Tolbert (knees) and Charles Haley (back) are coming off injuries.

Extra point: The Cowboys have lost 22 free agents in the past three years.

New York

Last season: 5-11, 4th place.

Playoffs: None.

NFC rankings: Offense, 15th; defense, 7th.

Coach: Dan Reeves (135-96-1, .584), fourth season with Giants, 16th overall in NFL.

Offense: The Giants finished dead last in the league in passing, next-to-last in total offense and 24th in scoring last year. Improvement rides mostly on the progress of QB Dave Brown, who is in the put-up-or-else stage as he enters his third season as starter. Help was added at wide receiver by signing free agent Lawrence Dawsey and drafting Michigan's Amani Toomer, who had an impressive preseason. Rodney Hampton and Tyrone Wheatley form a fine one-two punch at RB, but the offensive line, which lost Jumbo Elliott to free agency, is in disarray. G Ron Stone could help in that area.

Defense: The Giants took DE Cedric Jones with their No. 1 draft pick to help a line that was porous against the run (27th in the league) and managed only 29 sacks. The situation at linebacker, traditionally a Giants strength, is even worse, thanks in good measure to the departure via free agency of Michael Brooks. One bright spot is the secondary, especially CBs Phillipi Sparks, a rising star, and Thomas Randolph. Depth, however, is a problem.

Extra point: Last year, the Giants lost four games they were leading going into the fourth quarter, most in the league.

Philadelphia

Last season: 10-6, 2nd place.

Playoffs: Beat Lions in wild card, 58-37; lost to Cowboys in divisional, 30-11.

NFC rankings: Offense, 12th; defense, 2nd.

Coach: Ray Rhodes (10-6, .625), second season with Eagles.

Offense: The Eagles were great on the ground but awful in the air last season. RBs Ricky Watters and Charlie Garner gave them one of the league's best 1-2 duos, helping the Eagles finish fourth in rushing. But they were next-to-last in passing with Rodney Peete throwing just eight TD passes. WRs Irving Fryar and Mark Seay were signed to provide better targets (second-year man Chris T. Jones also had a terrific preseason), and veteran OT Richard Cooper, plus 320-pound No. 1 draft choice Jermane Mayberry, should make for better blocking.

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