Commentary

QB quality, pressure defenses propel NFC East

Thanks to the Giants' Super Bowl upset and three other teams that can compete with anyone, the NFC East is the best division in football, writes John Clayton.

Originally Published: September 4, 2008
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Eli Manning & Tony RomoRob Tringali/Getty ImagesQBs Eli Manning, left, and Tony Romo are two reasons the NFC East has become a dominant force.
By upsetting the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, the Giants elevated the credibility of the NFC and cemented the NFC East's status as the top division in the sport.

Thanks in part to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, the AFC has dominated interconference play in recent years and entered last season's Super Bowl with six victories in seven previous title games.

But in 2007, the NFC managed a 32-32 regular-season record against AFC competition, and the Giants broke that tie with their stunning upset in the Super Bowl.

Despite the apparent reversal of fortunes, I'm not ready to say the NFC has completely caught or surpassed the AFC. As it did in the 1980s, the AFC has the better quarterbacks. What I am saying is the NFC East, now that it boasts the defending Super Bowl champion, is the best division in the league.

Although some might argue that the AFC South is better because it has four playoff contenders that finished 8-8 or better last year, the NFC East tops the AFC South for several reasons. The biggest reason is the competitive nature in the division.

The Giants won the Super Bowl, yet many -- including me -- forecast them this year for a third- or fourth-place finish in the division. This was before the season-ending knee injury to Osi Umenyiora. In the AFC South, it's still going to take a monumental effort for the Jaguars, Titans or Texans to catch the Colts, who have won the division for five consecutive years.

The road to the Super Bowl in the AFC goes through New England or Indianapolis mainly because of Brady and Manning, two guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Famers. Those two players alone have changed the way the game is played.

The NFL used to be a league in which teams won with defense and a strong running attack. Credit the NFC East with promoting that style. Bill Parcells and Joe Gibbs established that winning model during the 1980s, when they battled each other with the Giants and Redskins.

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Thanks to Manning and Brady, scoring offense became just as important as a great defense. In 2006, the Colts became the first team since 1983 to win a Super Bowl without having a top-10 scoring defense. The Giants followed the same model last year. No matter how good the opposing defense might be, Manning or Brady can put together two scoring drives at the end of a game and pull out a victory.

It didn't hurt that Giants coach Tom Coughlin had a Manning available. Eli Manning finally arrived as a franchise-caliber quarterback and put the Giants in position to compete against top AFC teams. Eli still hasn't topped the 60 percent completion level, but he has been good enough to keep the Giants in the scoring range (22 to 26 points per game) necessary to compete against top AFC teams.

Where the Giants also graduated as a top franchise able to compete against the AFC's best is on defense. The Giants led the league in sacks last season with 53, but it was the way they pressured quarterbacks that made their Super Bowl rings shine. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo spread four defensive ends with pass-rushing skills along the defensive line in passing situations.

The Giants made Brady uncomfortable in the Super Bowl by keeping constant pressure on him every time he dropped back to pass. One way to beat Peyton Manning and Brady is to pressure them into mistakes. Few teams can do that. The Giants did it against Brady.

Mindful of what the Giants did, the rest of the division is doing its best to copy the formula. The Eagles have six defensive ends on their roster who can rush the passer, so you figure defensive coordinator Jim Johnson will load up the number of rushers on the field in passing situations. The Redskins added Jason Taylor to go with Andre Carter and should watch their sack totals soar into the mid-40s by having two potential double-digit sack-masters.

Last year, the AFC South and NFC East had identical records (26-14) against other divisions, but the NFC East is superior because it now knows how to compete against Peyton Manning and Brady. The upstarts in the AFC South still haven't mastered that challenge.

Credit Parcells, Coughlin, Gibbs and Andy Reid for formulating the foundations of these teams. During his tenure as the Cowboys' coach, Parcells established a physical, 3-4 defense and found a hot, hard-throwing quarterback in Tony Romo. Gibbs taught aggressive Redskins owner Dan Snyder how to win and make trips to the playoffs.

Here is a detailed breakdown of why the NFC East is ahead of the curve.

•  The NFC East understands the value of a quarterback. Romo directed an offense that led the NFC with 28.4 points a game last season. Though undrafted, he played like a first-round quarterback. Donovan McNabb (Eagles), Eli Manning and Jason Campbell (Redskins) were first-round picks. To win in the Brady-Manning dominated NFL, you need quarterback play and you need offensive scoring. All four NFC East teams get it, and Jim Zorn is doing his best in Washington to take Gibbs' 20.9-points-a-game offense to the 23- or 24-point level.

•  All four NFC East teams try their best to pressure the quarterback. Last season the Giants, Cowboys and Eagles ranked in the top nine in sacks. The Redskins had only 33, but they traded for Taylor. Although the Giants lost Umenyiora and Michael Strahan, they signed Jerome McDougle from the Eagles to add another potential pass-rusher and will do their best with schemes to make up for the 22 sacks Umenyiora and Strahan produced.

•  Because the NFC East is located in four of the top nine television markets, the division is the darling of the television networks. Seventeen NFC East games are featured in prime-time games. The next closest division is the NFC North with 12. The AFC South has 10 games in prime time. Houston is the only AFC South team in a top-10 television market.

• The NFC East should only get more competitive in the next couple of years. The Giants and Cowboys are building new stadiums. The Eagles and Redskins play in recently built stadiums that put them among the top revenue teams in the league. While AFC South teams must constantly check the bottom line, the NFC East can spend big dollars to keep top players or sign top free agents.

Is the AFC still supreme as a whole? Yes. But because the NFC East uses the AFC formula, it ranks as the best division in football.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer