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fordfixer
09-21-2008, 12:38 AM
Eagles will be good to measure Steelers
By Scott Brown
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, September 21, 2008
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsbu ... 89313.html (http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/steelers/s_589313.html)

The Cowboys are the defending NFC East champions and a trendy pick to represent their conference in the Super Bowl. Yet, they needed quarterback Tony Romo, one of eight players on Dallas' offense that made the Pro Bowl in 2007, to engineer a late touchdown drive to beat the Eagles this past Monday night.

"We felt we were the better team and should have won," Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb said of the 41-37 shootout won by the Cowboys. "We lost that game."

McNabb's statement is as much a testament to the strength of the NFC East as the Cowboys' star-studded roster and the shiny Super Bowl rings the Giants received a couple of weeks ago. The Eagles, after all, were the only team in the NFC East that missed the playoffs last season. And, as McNabb said, they could make a legitimate case that they let one get away in Dallas.

"They're definitely playing the overall best football in the league," NFL Network analyst and former Steelers great Rod Woodson said of the NFC East. "Everyone thought the Giants would be the last (place) team in the East, but I still think they're plenty strong."

The Steelers will find out how strong the Giants are as well as the rest of the NFC East starting today when they visit the Eagles for a 4:15 p.m. game. How they fare against the four teams in what is arguably the toughest division in football could go a long way toward determining whether the Steelers are legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

"That's the main reason why everyone said we had a tough schedule," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said, "playing the NFC East."

The Steelers are on a level playing field in one sense since their division rivals also have games against every team in the NFC East.

Holding their own against the NFC East won't be easy for the AFC North teams since the latter division appears to be as lacking as the former is loaded.

The Cowboys are 2-0. So are the defending world champion Giants, who can still punish opponents with their running game and pass rush despite the loss of several key players. The Redskins, like the Eagles, are 1-1. And after they beat the Saints this past Sunday, it was hard to tell whether the Redskins had improved that much from the first week to the second or whether they had looked so bad in their season opener because they had played against the Giants.

"Do I play in the toughest division in football?" McNabb said. "Yes, I would say yes."

That the NFC East is at least prominent in that discussion can be traced to the head coaching hires teams made to keep pace in the division. As recently as 2006, the four head coaches in the division were Bill Parcells (Cowboys), Joe Gibbs (Redskins), Tom Coughlin (Giants) and Andy Reid (Eagles).

Gibbs has won three Super Bowls and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Parcells has won two Super Bowls and is a future Pro Hall of Famer.

Coughlin, meanwhile, added the one thing missing from his coaching resume when he guided the Giants to an improbable Super Bowl title last season. And all Reid has done in nine seasons in Philadelphia is win five division titles and a conference championship.

While Gibbs and Parcells are no longer coaching -- they were replaced by Jim Zorn and Wade Phillips, respectively -- their impact on the division is evident by how strong it has become.

"I think right now we're at a point where all the teams are highly competitive," McNabb said, "and teams that people are definitely watching across the league."

Stellar play at the most important position in football is a big reason why for each of those.

Romo has blossomed into a star in Dallas, and Giants quarterback Eli Manning stepped out of the shadow cast by his older brother, Peyton, by winning the Super Bowl last season. Jason Campbell has shown promise, and the Redskins will only go as far as the 2005 first-round draft pick takes them.

None of those three quarterbacks are older than 28, which makes McNabb, 31, the graybeard of the group.

Not that McNabb, perhaps the most underappreciated quarterback in the NFL, has looked like he is on the downside of his career even though he is in his 10th season. McNabb leads the NFC with 642 passing yards and has thrown four touchdown passes and no interceptions.

"He's throwing the deep ball as well as I've ever seen him throw it," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

The Eagles have one of the NFL's premier running and receiving threats in Brian Westbrook, and rookie wideout DeSean Jackson has given Philadelphia another big-play threat in the passing game as well as the return game.

The Eagles' offense will test a Steelers defense that finished first in total defense in 2007 and has yet to give up a meaningful touchdown this season.

Then again, the entire NFC East will be the equivalent of the bar exam for the Steelers and not just because the offenses in the division can score points in bunches.

"I think defenses, physically, in the NFC East, (are) closest probably to the AFC North," said Steelers safety Ryan Clark, who played for the Giants in 2002-03 and the Redskins in 2004-05.

Whether any other division comes close to matching up with the NFC East will be determined during the course of the season. As several Steelers said last week the NFC East looks great on paper but that doesn't always translate to success on the field.

"I guess that's why they play these AFC-NFC games," Clark said, "to see who is the best."

Scott Brown can be reached at sbrown@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432.