Nfc

September 07, 2001|By Previews compiled by Ken Murray | Previews compiled by Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

EAST DIVISION

Arizona Cardinals

Last season: 3-13, fifth place.

Coach: Dave McGinnis (1-8), second season with Cardinals.

Strength of schedule: Tied for 13th.

Starting QB (W-L): Jake Plummer (18-32).

Best move: Starting over on a defensive line that finished 30th in rush defense. The Cardinals let DEs Simeon Rice and Andre Wadsworth become free agents, and will have four new starters up front.

Weakest link: The Cardinals haven't exactly replaced Rice and Wadsworth. With the second pick in the draft, they went for OL Leonard Davis.

Pressure's on: Plummer, who has thrown 65 interceptions the past three seasons against 39 touchdowns. In his fifth season, it's time for him to emerge.

Biggest question: Will an upgraded offensive line and the return of Geep Chryst as quarterbacks coach significantly boost Plummer's production?

Key statistic: The Cardinals allowed the opposition to convert 47.3 percent of its third-down plays, worst in the league.

Ticket to New Orleans: Arizona has some excellent weapons on offense, but has too many holes on defense to be considered a playoff contender.

Dallas Cowboys

Last season: 5-11, fourth place.

Coach: Dave Campo (5-11), second season with Cowboys.

Strength of schedule: Tied for 16th.

Starting QB (W-L): Quincy Carter (0-0).

Best move: The Cowboys have positioned themselves for the top pick in the draft through attrition and bad decisions. The release of QB Tony Banks makes the offense less competitive, but gives rookie Carter a chance to learn on the job.

Weakest link: The Cowboys had the worst run defense in the league and didn't make any significant moves to improve it. They ranked third against the pass, a deceptive number because no one needed to pass against them.

Pressure's on: Campo, who is in the rebuilding mode for an owner, Jerry Jones, who doesn't use the word. It's hard to imagine Campo could survive a 2-14 debacle, which is possible for this bunch.

Biggest question: Will the Cowboys ruin the career of Carter, or expedite it by playing him now?

Key statistic: The defense allowed three 200-yard rushers and a league-worst 4.9 yards per carry. That's defenseless.

Ticket to New Orleans: Only in their dreams.

New York Giants

Last season: 12-4, first place, lost to the Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV, 34-7.

Coach: Jim Fassel (37-26-1), fifth year with Giants.

Strength of schedule: Tied for 10th.

Starting QB (W-L): Kerry Collins (38-34).

Best move: Selectively upgrading the defense at DE (Kenny Holmes) and CB (Will Allen). The Giants ranked second in the league against the run, had 31 takeaways and rolled up 44 sacks. Led by DE Michael Strahan, that will continue to be their calling card.

Weakest link: The Giants' first two picks in the draft were cornerbacks, a concession to their No. 16 ranking in pass defense. They allowed 212 passing yards a game and a total of 23 touchdown passes.

Pressure's on: RB Ron Dayne, the first-round draft pick who was a disappointment as a rookie (3.4 yards a carry). He has to shoulder some of Tiki Barber's load.

Biggest question: Was Collins a one-year wonder or is he the real deal?

Key statistic: The Giants ranked second in rush defense (72.3 per game) and third in rush average (3.2 per carry).

Ticket to New Orleans: A return trip will depend on another strong year from Collins and increased productivity from Dayne.

Philadelphia Eagles

Last season: 11-5, second place, lost to New York Giants in divisional playoff, 20-10.

Coach: Andy Reid (16-16), third year with Eagles.

Strength of schedule: Tied for 28th.

Starting QB (W-L): Donovan McNabb (13-9).

Best move: Drafting Freddie Mitchell and signing free agent James Thrash to improve McNabb's passing game. With holdover WR Todd Pinkston, the Eagles will have speed outside to extend opposing defenses and make McNabb more dangerous.

Weakest link: The Eagles lost RB Duce Staley after five games to a foot injury, and ranked only 20th in rush offense. To make a playoff run, they need Staley because the alternative is fourth-round draft pick Correll Buckhalter.

Pressure's on: Staley, not only to stay healthy, but to return to his 1,273-yard rushing form of 1999.

Biggest question: Can the Eagles halt a nine-game losing streak against the Giants, their biggest threat in a watered-down division?

Key statistic: McNabb's 7.3-yard rushing average was the highest of any player with 400 rushing yards.

Ticket to New Orleans: The Eagles appear poised to take the next step. The defense looks solid and the offense will revolve around the playmaking McNabb.

Washington Redskins

Last season: 8-8, third place.

Coach: Marty Schottenheimer (145-85-1), first year with Redskins, 16th in NFL.

Strength of schedule: Tied for 30th.

Starting QB (W-L): Jeff George (46-76).

Best move: Calling CB Deion Sanders' bluff and recouping some of the $8 million signing bonus they squandered on a has-been.

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