I’ve found out that “surprise/unexpected” difference makers can really lift a team’s hopes, helping enhance its chances to exceed expectations. Sure you can count on the Westbrooks, Owenses, Romos, Burresses, Wittens, and Cooleys to get the job done on Sundays – just remember they can’t do it by themselves nor are they supposed to (consistency is hard to maintain, see: Brady/Moss in last year’s Super Bowl vs. Giants).
On the contrary, how about the (DeSean) Jacksons, (L.J.) Smiths, (Omar) Gaithers, (Lorenzo) Bookers, (Chris) Cantys, (Bradie) Jameses, (Greg) Ellises, (Felix) Joneses, (Kenny) Phillipses, (Ahmad) Bradshaws, (Domenik) Hixons, (Devin) Thomases, and (Santana) Mosses? All you have to do is just look at recent history of the Super Bowl’s finest playmakers to see that not always the winning team’s superstars make the standout play that turns the game around. Pay attention to the “unsung heroes” who impose their will on a certain game, whether it be against a division rival or in a close, hard-fought battle to determine who makes the Playoffs or advances on.
Not only do you come to realize these undervalued performers decide important die-or die games in crunch time situations, they also boost the morale and intensity of their respective clubs, energize veteran leaders, along with destroying hopes of the opposition, placing them in utter shock and disbelief. When it matters the most, you can expect the unsung heroes who no one believed to deliver the game-changing play in the first place to get the job done in some way or another. It is their game-changing plays which make them so valuable, for they seem to make the difference between winning the division or just missing out.
Think role players who excel as members of the so-called “supporting cast”, guys like the Tyrees, Tucks, Websters, Rosses, and Bosses, who ultimately step up during key moments to aid their team when it needs something more than just the “usual production” from their franchise players.
In this era of touchdown celebrations/end zone dance moves, Madden, commercials, big contracts, and shoe deals, don’t forget about the role players who help catapult their championship squads to reach the top. You know – the players who are not supposed the be the ones to expect a big play out of, so it happens unexpectedly to the other team – the “momentum shakers”.
It seems to happen every year, so prepare for the unexpected to make the difference in a rough NFC East, a division which consists of four strong teams who all have a shot to be called the victorious winner of the NFL’s most difficult 17-week race – “the fight for supremacy in the NFC East”. It doesn’t come down to numbers, stats, or franchise players – it just seems every time to come down to the solid, unexpected players who make the unexpected plays which are unexpected – and these are the plays only thought to be made by the players who are expected to make ’em.
In such a tight-squeezed division as the NFC East presents, I believe the team with the best chance will be the team with the most unsung heroes, thus making my choice not the most obvious and talented.
1. Philadelphia Eagles 11-5: This could be the final season in which both Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb have the opportunity to run the show in Philly. So, I feel like the Eagles will have a true, undivided sense of urgency when they step out onto the field, more so than the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. They will have a complete, balanced squad prepared each & every Sunday, unlike the Washington Redskins.
I also believe under the radar players like DeSean Jackson (think: Devin Hester impact/rookie year), Omar Gaither, L.J. Smith, Lorenzo Booker, Brodrick Bunkley, and Quintin Mikell will be the difference makers to help get this team to football past December. Donovan McNabb may not have the true #1 wide receiver Tony Romo has in Terrell Owens, but he knows it’s the “last hurrah” if he doesn’t get the Eagles back to the Playoffs.
The offense has the most versatile running back in the NFL with Brian Westbrook, an offensive line that controls the line of scrimmage, and a defense that’s only going to get better with the addition of Asante Samuel. Whoever wins the head-to-head match-ups between Philly and Dallas will win the NFC East. Philly has to get back to forcing turnovers and being more aggressive on the defensive side of the ball if they want to beat Dallas.
The success and momentum coming at the end of 2007 will carry over into 2008, and the pressure of overcoming an 8-8 season and missing the playoffs for a second year in a row will be answered by McNabb, Westbrook, and Reid. The key, deciding factor for how far the Philadelphia Eagles fly: Hunger, will to win.
2. Dallas Cowboys 10-6: Arguably one of the most talented teams in the NFL, “America’s Team” exited last year’s Playoffs via an upset, as they got outplayed, outcoached, and outmuscled in front of their home fans by their nemesis – division rival and SB Champion New York Giants. The hype is there, the opportunity to go to Miami along with it, and the mass media attention that crowds ’em is only evident that this team has something special in the making.
But there’s something missing – is it group chemistry, the ability to win close games, the T.O. distractions, or the often-echoed inability of star QB Tony Romo to thrive under difficult pressure-packed situations? Forget for a moment how many Hawaii representatives they have on their roster, thrown out the window for a second their prestige, traditions, and storied franchise history, and block out the 12-year famine (drought) without a playoff victory (1996, Minnesota) and see that this team has a great chance to win not only the NFC East, but the entire NFC.
The team’s success all starts up front with the massive OL and it’s amazing pass protection of Tony Romo (though keep in mind OG Kyle Kosier is hurt). Does Romo ever get dirty? If the offense is dynamite, figure Marion Barber to be just down-right explosive with that power running style and effective stiff-arm of his (changed the rules).
Jason Witten and Terrell Owens are top-notch pass catchers who are tough to take down in the open field. On defense, DeMarcus Ware is the best pass rushing LB in the league and the DL is improving with the emergence of Jay Ratliff and Chris Canty. Defending the pass is a bit of a problem with hard-hitting safeties Roy Williams and Ken Hamlin proving to be inept, but both Anthony Henry and Terrance Newman when healthy (concern), are above-average.
With all this being said, I figure Dallas’ tough schedule to factor in to losing six games. Also, keep in mind they have five games under the spotlight, and only four early Sunday contests – it will take its toll. The wildcard: Felix Jones, as an electrifying return man and 3rd down back.
3. New York Giants 9-7: No Osi Umenyiora or Michael Strahan. That’s the storyline, and this can be the case made for why the Giants don’t make the Playoffs, and rightfully so. Especially when the team did not get any better in the off-season, if anything they regressed rather than progressed. For a defensive line that was so dominant and extremely lethal against Brady’s Bunch in the Super Bowl, you figure the defense will decline and lose a step or two without the tandem of Osi & Strahan.
Justin Tuck, a star in the making, will now see double-teams every play and the much added pressure to be the leader. Mathias Kiwanuka, who was once considered top-5 talent at B.C., will help fill the void left by Osi, and I believe he is fit for the job.
But here’s where it starts to get confusing: An already shaky LB core loses Kiwanuka, who was supposed to fill in for the departured Kawika Mitchell, so that means inexperienced Zak DeOssie and Danny Clark have the two starting jobs next to standout MLB Antonio Pierce – that’s a downgrade.
At safety, Gibril Wilson is replaced by rookie Miami Hurricane Kenny Phillips – that’s a downgrade. With everything the defensive line did in making the secondary’s job easier, it won’t be the same, as youngsters Corey Webster and Aaron Ross will be counted on to do more – that’s two CB’s expected to cover man-to-man, a downgrade. Sure they are talented and made strides during the postseason, but who’s to say they will step up to the challenge and task at hand? The linebackers will be counted on to blitz and produce more often, and ultimately the DL will rely on Tuck and Kiwanuka to generate the pass rush.
Overall, the defense has some gigantic shoes to fill. I like the overall youth added to the club, but there are too many questions and not enough playmakers to answer ’em – and remember, the defense was relied heavily upon in route to Arizona to upset the greatest regular season team ever.
So, it was a stretch if the same defense returned for the job to be duplicated, what happens now that there is a new defense, and lots of holes to cover? With all this being said, Eli Manning, Brandon Jacobs, and Plaxico Burress are going to have to bring their A-game, game in and game out. With the excellent OL they have, expect the Giants to ride Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw 30-35 times a game – if they want to keep the defense fresh and challenge for the division crown. Less room for error for the Champs, who have to put more emphasis on the turnover battle like they did in the Playoffs.
4. Washington Redskins 7-9: It seems like the ‘Skins either overachieve raising eyebrows or they underachieve while everyone wonders why with all the money they spend during free agency. Last season Joe Gibbs’ squad started off strong, flopped, and then concluded the regular season with a four-game winning streak en route to a surprise playoff appearance. An emotional finish after the loss of Sean Taylor. Now head coach Jim Zorn is the new sheriff in charge and brings an offensive mind/game plan, being a former NFL QB with Seattle.
Jason Campbell is still the starter and it’s his last year to make an impression, and he’s loaded with talent. Devin Thomas, Malcom Kelly, and Fred Davis were added through the Draft as targets to help re-energize and lift a reeling offense. Now the burning questions is: Can the defense complement the new offense?
This team is not good enough on either side of the ball to win games, so there needs to be a balanced of offense/defense. Defensively, the secondary is the strong point with Landry, Springs, and Rogers, a trio that’s pro-bowl caliber. The front seven is aging, but they still specialize in getting to the ball carrier (see: Fletcher and McIntosh). Getting to the QB is a different story, but that’s why Jason Taylor was brought in – hopefully he stays healthy (out 2 weeks). Obviously there’s talent, but can the front seven bring enough pressure to force takeaways for this bend-but-don’t break defense?
In the end, Washington is still quite away from the rest of the division. Their offense is getting better, yet not dynamic enough. On defense, you have a group that can get the job done, but is too conservative and yet again, just not good enough. It will be a long year filled with mediocrity and inconsistent play, and it’s expected with a new coach and an offense in transition.
The first game at New York will tell a lot where the team is at – because it’s a very winnable game. To overachieve and have another shot at the Playoffs, Clinton Portis will have to have an MVP-type year like he had in the past with Denver. If the offense doesn’t put up 23-24 points a game, look for many 20-17, 23-20 games – with the team on the losing end.
A renewed connection between Jason Campbell and Santana Moss will factor in to what type of offense shows up in ’08. And if the offense gets on track and is Top-10 material, maybe the defense won’t have to be on the field so much. In the Nation’s Capital the key to success is the team’s adjustment to the new offense/defense put in place and of course, balance.