Arizona Cardinals

Last season: 6-10, fourth.

Coach: Vince Tobin (26-38), fifth season with Cardinals.

Strength of schedule: tie for 28th.

Starting quarterback: Jake Plummer (15-21).

Best move: By selecting RB Thomas Jones of Virginia in the first round, the Cardinals addressed one of their more glaring needs. Jones should jump-start a ground game that ranked 29th in 1999.

Missing piece: There still is no bona fide tight end on the roster, which will not help Plummer. Inexplicably, there was no serious interest in Ben Coates. Sorry, Terry Hardy and Chris Gedney are not the answers.

Pressure's on: Now that the injuries that ruined last season are behind them, Tobin has to get this team back to the playoffs, where they appeared and won a game in 1998. The weak schedule should help.

Biggest question: The free-agent addition of C Mike Gruttadauria should help a line that could not provide running room and nearly got Plummer killed, but is one upgrade enough to improve the team's weakest link?

Key statistic: On nine occasions last year, the Cardinals managed 14 or fewer points. They went 2-7 in those games. The offense was among the league's bottom three in rushing, scoring and total offense. Ticket to Tampa: Plummer needs to assume his 1998 form, but without steady protection and a productive tight end, just getting Arizona within shouting distance of a wild-card berth will be an achievement.

Dallas Cowboys

Last season: 8-8, second, lost in wild-card round to Minnesota, 27-10.

Coach: Dave Campo (0-0), first season with Cowboys.

Strength of schedule: tie for 15th.

Starting quarterback: Troy Aikman (90-64).

Best move: Giving Campo a chance to turn around the Cowboys was a wise course. Campo has been one of the league's better defensive coordinators for years, and he has the trust and respect of his players already.

Missing piece: It's no wonder the team drafted three cornerbacks. Deion Sanders bolted for rival Washington and Kevin Smith has decided to retire after nine seasons. Invaluable athletic experience and athletic ability at two critical positions is gone.

Pressure's on: Aikman, sometimes criticized for relying too much on the retired Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith, is running out of time to prove he can carry an offense that is aging and running out of punch.

Biggest question: WR Joey Galloway got a $42 million contract to take over Irvin's role. Can Galloway be nearly as productive. He is small at 5-11, has never had more than 1,100 receiving yards in a season and is not known for going over the middle.

Key statistic: The reports of Emmitt Smith's demise were exaggerated. He led all NFC rushers with 329 carries while producing 1,397 yards and 11 TDs, second in the conference on both counts.

Ticket to Tampa: Aikman, Smith must stay healthy, Galloway must produce and those young cornerbacks had better grow up in a hurry.

New York Giants

Last season: 7-9, third.

Coach: Jim Fassel (25-22-1), fourth season with Giants.

Strength of schedule: 20th.

Starting quarterback: Kerry Collins (26-30).

Best move: Grabbing RB Ron Dayne with the 11th draft pick was the ideal choice. Dayne is a 250-pound bruiser who should thrive in the cold weather and in Fassel's grinding offense.

Missing piece: With four new starters on the OL, including overrated LT Lomas Brown, continuity up front will be lacking, at least early in the year. Dayne might have a tough time getting untracked.

Pressure's on: Collins finally appears to have found a home in Fassel's offense. Can he keep his off-the-field problems from hindering further progress?

Biggest question: Cornerbacks Jason Sehorn and Conrad Hamilton missed a combined 19 games with injuries last year. Can they stay healthy and keep a good secondary intact?

Key statistic: Largely due to an off year from DE Michael Strahan, the Giants finished tied for 27th for fewest sacks with just 32.

Ticket to Tampa: A consistent 16-game performance from Collins - who signed a four-year, $16.9 million contract a year ago-and an improved pass rush could mean a wild card berth.

Philadelphia Eagles

Last season: 5-11, fifth.

Coach: Andy Reid (5-11), second season with Eagles.

Strength of schedule: 31st.

Starting quarterback: Donovan McNabb (1-5).

Best move: It's a tie. Signing LB Carlos Emmons and drafting DT Corey Simon added two exceptional athletes to the front seven of a defense that led the NFL with 46 takeaways.

Missing piece: An anchor on the OL. Former Ravens C Steve Everitt was cut after three ineffective seasons with Philly, and he's been replaced by Bubba Miller, who is limited at best.

Pressure's on: Someone must emerge as a dependable pass catcher at TE to enhance Reid's West Coast offense. Jeff Thomason is the most likely candidate after coming over in a trade with Green Bay.

Biggest question: Is someone among the WR kiddie corps of Todd Pinkston, Na Brown, Gari Scott and Dameane Douglas-all 24 or under-going to emerge as the no. 3 receiver? Torrance Small and Charles Johnson need help.

Key statistic: The Eagles negated their league-high 46 takeaways by committing 39 turnovers, tied for fourth-most in the NFL.

Ticket to Tampa: McNabb looked sharp last year, looks better this year and has a young, underrated defense. A wild-card sleeper.

Washington Redskins

Last season: 10-6, first, lost to Tampa Bay in divisional playoffs, 14-13.

Coach: Norv Turner (42-53-1??), seventh season with Redskins.

Strength of schedule: tied for 11th.

Starting quarterback: Brad Johnson (25-14).

Best move: The most season-altering move in a flurry of them was the addition of CB Deion Sanders, which has bumped the ageless Darrell Green-still a great cover guy-into the no. 3 slot. Now that's depth.

Missing piece: Player personnel director Vinny Cerrato took a questionable risk by cutting kick returner extraordinaire Brian Mitchell, allowing him to land with divisional rival Philadelphia.

Pressure's on: Turner has no excuses now. Owner Dan Snyder has furnished him with enough upgrades that Turner probably has to win the NFC title to retain his job. He has the most talent-laden roster in the NFL.

Biggest question: Will much-heralded OLB Lavar Arrington play up to expectations and energize an average pass rush, and will DTs Dan Wilkinson and Dana Stubblefield produce performances that justify their enormous price tags?

Key statistic: In his first full season as a starter, Johnson made his first Pro Bowl by staying healthy and throwing for 4,005 yards and 24 scores, with only 13 interceptions.

Ticket to Tampa: The Redskins have improved themselves in so many ways that a divisional title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs are realistic.

Division glance

Best rookie: DT Corey Simon, Eagles.

First-round risk: RB Ron Dayne, Giants.

Best free agent: CB Deion Sanders, Redskins.

Up-and-comer: QB Donovan McNabb, Eagles.

Biggest gamble: WR Joey Galloway, Cowboys.

Most overrated: DT Dana Stubblefield, Redskins.

Most underrated: FS Shaun Williams, Giants.

Hot assistant: Dave McGinnis, Cardinals' defensive coordinator.

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