Back in the saddle again

So everyone, including myself, is jumping on the “NFC East is the toughest division in football” bandwagon. And maybe that’s a curious trend. Because the argument could be made that the division was one of the weakest in the league last year-not because of talent level or even overall records, but because most of the division self-destructed near the end of the season, leaving a not-quite-ready Giants squad and a Washington team riding a hot streak as the NFC East’s playoff representatives.

But looking up and down the East this year, you see the potential for each team to win the division and/or make the playoffs. If T.O. is healthy and Drew Bledsoe holds up. If Eli Manning really is another year better and the Giants’ D can hold up. If Washington’s offense realizes that it’s not 1987. If Philadelphia is over its yearlong hangover.

Those are a lot of ifs, but the potential is there for everyone. Maybe the “toughest division in the NFL” hype is just our way of saying, “Screw it, it’s a crapshoot, I have no idea who the hell is going to take this one.” That would make sense. So I’ll take a crack at it.

1. Dallas Cowboys (11-5)

Terrell Owens just made his first poo; Parcells nonplussed. Terrell Owens has a new bunion on his pinky toe-you know the same one that went wee, wee, wee all the way home.

Terrell Owens has a hangnail. Parcells worried. Terrell Owens calls mother on phone, talks for 17 minutes. Parcells upset. Terrell Owens has cramp, may be out for season; Cowboys doomed. Terrell Owens joins rodeo circuit; Jerry Jones has no comment. Terrell Owens wakes up, farts, has a cup of coffee and eats a delicious bowl of Grape Nuts; Parcells fuming.

Those are just some expected headlines I expect to see this season. Which is fine by me, a devoted Cowboys fan. Sure, the T.O. saga has been the most ridiculous development of the offseason, as every single member of the national media has remained huddled around Cowboys camp reporting on?absolutely nothing. Seriously guys, that’s not journalism. But in doing so, it has made many people ignore the fact that the Cowboys could have one of the top 3-5 defenses in the NFL this year, and that Owens, baggage aside, completely revitalizes the Dallas offense. Do I sound excited? I forget my place. Still, on sheer talent level I’m not sure anyone in this division matches Dallas. And if Parcells can keep the team from falling apart?well, we’ll just wait and see.

2. New York Giants (10-6)

People have quickly forgotten how dazzling Eli Manning was for a few weeks last season, before the team gradually broke down and he started to have the typical young QB struggles. But if those games-including that fourth-quarter comeback against the Broncos-are any indication of things to come, there’s no reason to believe that Manning won’t continue to make the rise up the ranks of the NFL’s best QBs. He led the Giants to a division title last year before getting shut out by Carolina in the playoffs?maybe he’s ready for a deeper run this time around.

And I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Tiki Barber is the best running back in the NFL. This is a recent development, but if you look at the last two seasons (ever since he changed the way he carried the ball and solved his fumbling problem), he has been the most complete back in the league, a player capable of doing just about anything and clearly the most important skill player on this team. Shaun Alexander is great, and LaDaianian Tomlinson is the very best when he’s at his best, which is maybe half the time. Over the last two years, Barber has 17 100-yard games, three 200-yard games and a grand total of 3,378 yards (not to mention 106 catches) and 26 touchdowns. And he’s still got two to three good years left.

3. Washington Redskins (9-7)

The Skins were a trendy pick over the summer-until, of course, people saw them play in the preseason and started to realize what many of us had already figured out: that the Redskins had a hot month of December and stumbled into the playoffs because the NFC stunk like yesterday’s diapers.

Yes, their defense is pretty stout-it has been for a few years now. They’re hard to beat simply because of their defense. But Mark Brunell and Co. simply have an outdated, low-scoring offense that won’t hold up against the Cowboys and Giants.

4. Philadelphia Eagles (7-9)

It’s easy to point to the Eagles’ pre-Terrell Owens days as proof to why Philly could return to the top of the division this year. But the problem is, since that point (when the Eagles went to three-straight NFC title games), the team’s secondary and defensive lines have been depleted, veterans have gotten older and/or moved on, and the receiving corps is even worse off (unless Reggie Brown lives up to the hype the team has bestowed upon him). Yes, they still have a great coach and a still-underrated quarterback-but that makes them competitive; it doesn’t make them good.