By: Rob Maaddi
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Before they try to become the ninth team to repeat as Super Bowl champions, the Philadelphia Eagles will try to accomplish another tough task.
Winning consecutive NFC East titles is so difficult it hasn’t happened since the Eagles did it four straight seasons from 2001-04. It’s also been 13 years since the New England Patriots were the most recent team to win back-to-back championships.
On paper, the Eagles are deeper and stronger than the squad that beat Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the Patriots 41-33 in February. Franchise quarterback Carson Wentz, nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, playmaking linebacker Jordan Hicks and versatile running back Darren Sproles are returning from injuries that forced them to miss the playoffs.
They also have several new additions, including veteran defensive linemen Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata, and rookie tight end Dallas Goedert.
But the favorites don’t always come out on top and the road won’t be easy for the Eagles in a competitive division.
“Our goal every year is to win the Super Bowl. I can’t tell you how terrifically positioned I think we are,” Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said. “It’s a tough, tough league. I don’t think I’ve ever been more fired up for a season than we’re about to undertake, but with a realization that we’re also in the NFC. I compare it to the NBA West. There are many, many teams entering this season that I think can be in the Super Bowl. We have to try to collaborate and grind.”
Standing in Philadelphia’s way will be two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning and the revamped New York Giants, who added running back Saquon Barkley with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. The Dallas Cowboys expect to have Ezekiel Elliott for a full season and are looking for Dak Prescott to return to his rookie form after a so-so second season. The Washington Redskins acquired a winning quarterback, Alex Smith, to lead the way.
Things to know about the NFC East:
DOMINANT D: Wentz and a high-powered offense that won the Super Bowl with backup quarterback Nick Foles get much of the attention in Philly, but Jim Schwartz’s defense was dominant last season and should be even better. The front four led by Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham is so deep that Bennett, Ngata and Chris Long are rotational players instead of starters. The Eagles also have plenty of depth in the secondary with Pro Bowl safety Malcolm Jenkins and cornerbacks Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills and Sidney Jones. If Hicks stays healthy, this unit should dominate again and make it easier for the offense, which may be missing Wentz for a few games.
OLD MAN ELI: Manning may be the oldest player on the Giants, but he has a new offense-minded head coach — Pat Shurmur — and a talented cast of skill players to make his job easier. Barkley bolsters the running attack and gives the offense more balance. He joins star receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard and tight end Evan Engram. A defense that was stellar two years ago still has talent with safety Landon Collins, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, run stuffer Damon Harrison and end Olivier Vernon. If the offense lives up to expectations and the defense returns to form, the Giants could battle for the division.
DEPLETED COWBOYS: Jason Witten retired and Dez Bryant was released, leaving Prescott with fewer weapons. The career of 2016 All-Pro center Travis Frederick is uncertain because of an auto-immune condition, and four-time Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin injured his knee in the preseason, though it appears he’ll be ready for Week 1. Elliott’s success depends on an offensive line that’s the best in the business when healthy. Meanwhile, the defense relies on linebacker Sean Lee. With him, they’re solid, but he has a history of injuries. There’s enough talent in Dallas for the Cowboys to stay in the mix.
ALL ABOUT Ws: Smith is a winner wherever he goes. He was 69-31-1 as a starter for the 49ers and Chiefs since 2011, but only 2-5 in the playoffs. Kirk Cousins put up prolific numbers, but was 26-30-1 with a loss in his only playoff start. Losing rookie running back Derrius Guice hurt an offense lacking talent at the skill spots. Adrian Peterson is nearing the end of his career but has a shot to be a featured back once again. The Redskins will be tough on opponents but don’t have enough pieces to contend.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Eagles, Giants, Cowboys, Redskins.