Teams listed in predicted order of finishNFC EastNew...

September 04, 1998|By Sun Staff Writer Ken Murray

Teams listed in predicted order of finish

NFC East

New York

Last season: 10-5-1, first place; lost to Minnesota in wild-card game, 23-22.

Coach: Jim Fassel (10-5-1), second season with Giants.

Roll call: Kent Graham is back as backup quarterback after a three-year absence, replacing the departed Dave Brown. Gary Brown could become the power back in the running game. First-round pick Shaun Williams will help in the strong secondary.

What works: The defense was marvelous in 1997 with a league-high 44 take-aways, including 27 interceptions. The offense gave up a league-low 19 giveaways. It was a style reminiscent of the Giants' previous Super Bowl teams: dominant defense and clock-eating running game.

What doesn't: After inheriting the starting job in Week 7, Danny Kanell was a play-it-safe quarterback who held mistakes to a minimum. He ranked only 14th in the NFC in passer efficiency, and he'll have to do better than that for a playoff team.

Key stat: The Giants punted 112 times last season, most in the league.

Biggest gamble: That cornerback Jason Sehorn could handle kick return duty; he went down with a season-ending knee injury on his first preseason return.

Ticket to Miami: The Giants have a defense that could give Green Bay fits, but the offense isn't Super Bowl-primed. A first-place schedule isn't going to help their position.

Washington

Last season: 8-7-1, second place.

Coach: Norv Turner (26-37-1), fifth season with Redskins.

Roll call: The addition of run-stopping tackles Dana Stubblefield and Dan Wilkinson stabilizes the defense in the middle, where it is most vulnerable. Third-round pick Skip Hicks could prove to be a steal at running back. The Redskins' biggest loss might be special teams coach Pete Rodriguez, who left for Seattle.

What works: The Redskins are at their best when they're running the ball, not relying on the sometimes erratic arm of Gus Frerotte. On defense, it's hard to improve on the play of cornerbacks Darrell Green and Cris Dishman. They also were assessed the fewest penalty yards in the league.

What doesn't: Run defense has kept the Redskins out of the playoffs the last two years. In Turner's regime, they have ranked 27th, 29th, 30th and 28th against the run. Stubblefield and Wilkinson are supposed to fix that.

Key stat: Stubblefield, Defensive Player of the Year, had 15 sacks for the 49ers last season - equaling the total of the Redskins' defensive line.

Biggest gamble: That running back Terry Allen, at age 30, can still carry the load. He missed six games to injury last year and the Redskins went 2-4 in those games. Stephen Davis is next in line.

Ticket to Miami: To win their watered-down division, the Redskins need a big year from Frerotte.

Arizona

Last season: 4-12, fifth place.

Coach: Vince Tobin (11-21), third season with Cardinals.

Roll call: In a series of nifty moves, the Cardinals picked up kick returner Eric Metcalf and running back Adrian Murrell in trades, guard Lester Holmes in free agency, and defensive end Andre Wadsworth and safety Corey Chavous in the draft. Getting Wadsworth signed is another matter.

What works: A defensive front that features Wadsworth, Eric Swann and Simeon Rice could be all but unstoppable. On the other side of the ball, quarterback Jake Plummer established franchise rookie records for passes, completions, yards and touchdowns.

What doesn't: The offensive line was a mess last year. It gave up a league-high 78 sacks, and the running attack could only generate 78.4 yards a game. That makes Plummer's accomplishments all the more remarkable.

Key stat: Plummer averaged 7.44 yards per attempt, fourth-best in the NFC and better than John Elway, Drew Bledsoe and Dan Marino in the AFC.

Biggest gamble: That the offensive line has been upgraded enough to keep Plummer healthy. Stoney Case and Dave Brown wait in the wings in the event of injury.

Ticket to Miami: Once laughable, the Cardinals' stock is beginning to rise.

Dallas

Last season: 6-10, fourth place.

Coach: Chan Gailey, first season with Cowboys.

Roll call: Replacing safety Brock Marion and defensive end Tony Tolbert won't be easy, but nobody will miss Barry Switzer as coach. First-round pick Greg Ellis is expected to replace Tolbert. Free- agent running back Chris Warren could spell, or even replace, Emmitt Smith, and safety George Teague is at best a temporary replacement in the secondary.

What works: With cornerbacks Deion Sanders and Kevin Smith, and safeties Darren Woodson and Marion, the Cowboys led the league in pass defense a year ago but were last in interceptions with seven. Was it because other teams were content to run on them (24th against the rush) rather than throw?

What doesn't: The Cowboys were atrocious in the red zone, scoring just 19 touchdowns in 54 trips, second-worst in the league.

Key stat: Just one of 34 draft picks since Jimmy Johnson left the team has made the Pro Bowl.

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