For the third straight year, the NFC East champion beat Buffalo in the Super Bowl. The Dallas Cowboys followed in the footsteps of the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins. The division, which has produced five of the last seven Super Bowl champions and is the strongest in football, also had two wild-card teams (Washington and Philadelphia) in the playoffs.
Dan Reeves, who played and coached in Dallas, returns to the division as the head coach of the New York Giants. This is a fresh start for Reeves, who's happy he no longer has to deal with John Elway. Reeves quickly is putting his stamp on the team (cutting Pepper Johnson was one example) and should have the Giants back on a playoff level in short order.
Coach on the bubble
Joe Bugel, in his fourth season as the Phoenix Cardinals coach, has been told by owner Bill Bidwill he's got to win nine games to save his job. Even though the team is improving, that's a tall order in a tough division, especially since two defensive starters, Eric Hill and Robert Massey, will miss at least the first three games in holdouts and RB Garrison Hearst, the team's top draft pick, held out and missed most of training camp.
Is it Emmitt Aikman or Troy Smith? Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith complement each other so well that it's difficult to tell which one is more valuable for the Dallas Cowboys. Smith's ability to run sets up the passing game for Aikman. The only problem is that Smith may miss several games in a bitter holdout.
Team on rise
The Phoenix Cardinals are getting better now that Bob Ackles is running their draft and George Boone is no longer around to pick clunkers. With Hearst running the ball and Steve Beuerlein throwing to Gary Clark, the Cardinals have the makings of a good offense. The only problem is that they may not get better quick enough to save Bugel's job.
Team in decline
Will the last player to leave Philadelphia please turn off the lights? The Eagles were hit harder by free agency than any other team. They're still paying the price for the fact that Buddy Ryan turned so many players against management. They may have to rebuild from scratch.
What will the fallout be from Emmitt Smith's holdout? Smith will eventually have to come in. He needs to play at least six games to get credit for the season so he's eligible for free agency next year -- although the Cowboys may slap him with the franchise player designation. But if owner Jerry Jones forces Smith in on his terms -- which is less than what the top offensive lineman is being paid -- it could be devastating to team morale. Jones could win the battle and lose the war.
The Cowboys are the best team, but they'll probably have to settle for a wild-card spot because of all the traditional post-Super Bowl problems and the Emmitt Smith holdout.
That leaves the Washington Redskins the logical team to win the division if Mark Rypien rebounds and if Moe Elewonibi can stay healthy and handle the left tackle spot in place of ailing Jim Lachey. After last year's 9-7 season, it's easy to forget the team did win the Super Bowl just a year ago.
The Giants, Eagles and Cardinals figure to be in a spirited race for the third spot. The Giants figure to rebound under Dan Reeves while the Eagles are in decline, but still have enough left to be dangerous (things are likely to get worse next year when Clyde Simmons and Seth Joyner are expected to walk). The Cardinals are a hard team to figure. They appear to have improved on paper, but they still have a habit of limping in last on the field. Which brings up the question: How would Gary Clark react to playing on a losing team?