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East meets best

More Robinson – Offseason AFC rankings

Back in March, when Tom Coughlin was having breakfast at the owner's meetings, he could see all of his problems lined up in a row. It wasn't hard. After all, two of them were sitting a few feet away.

Andy Reid was to his right. Joe Gibbs was to his left. And even though Bill Parcells was nowhere to be found, he didn't stray far from Coughlin's mind.

This is Coughlin's problem: Just when his Giants appear poised to rise to the top of their conference, the rest of the NFC East is going right along with them.

"It's like when I was in this division before," Coughlin said. "It was just as competitive when I first came in in 1988 [as the Giants' receivers coach]. It was Joe Gibbs, coach [Tom] Landry, Buddy Ryan and Bill Parcells … all with very good football teams. Knockdown drag-out games, week in and week out. That's what it is right now."

After having one of the most heated playoff races in 2005, with the Cowboys getting edged out of the postseason in the final week, the NFC East only got better from top to bottom over the last three months. The division is busting at the seams with new talent, thanks to superstar acquisitions in New York (LaVar Arrington) and Dallas (Terrell Owens) and top notch free agent and draft hauls in Washington (Antwaan Randle El, Adam Archuleta and Andre Carter) and Philadelphia (Darren Howard, Brodrick Bunkley and Winston Justice).

"There's not a team in our division that doesn't do a great job and didn't improve themselves," Gibbs said. "You watch that Philly comeback. The quarterback is healthy and the defense will knock you around. … [Then] we've got Dallas and the Giants. Six tough games there."

The talent swell has placed four NFC East teams in the conference's top five. Here is the offseason look at the NFC's rankings.

1. New York Giants – This is the season Eli Manning steps into the NFL's quarterbacking elite. Five free agent signings in the secondary will bolster the defense. The depth and talent at linebacker has been shored up with the additions of LaVar Arrington and Brandon Short, but the middle of the defensive line is looking soft with the losses of Kenderick Allen and Kendrick Clancy.

2. Seattle SeahawksNate Burleson is a nice addition, and the young defense will be even better this season with Julian Peterson. But all of the free agent losses will have an impact, particularly Steve Hutchinson, Joe Jurevicius and Marquand Manuel. As long as Shaun Alexander can continue to produce MVP numbers, the Super Bowl is still within reach.

3. Dallas Cowboys – As always, the one-season honeymoon with Terrell Owens should mean big things on offense. The loss of Larry Allen hurts, but Kyle Kosier and Jason Fabini will help solidify the offensive line. That will help Julius Jones bounce back with the kind of production most expected last season. Akin Ayodele should thrive under Bill Parcells, and all of those young defensive line additions last year will blossom this season.

4. Washington Redskins – Even with all the additions at wideout, Mark Brunell will have to grind out another quality season for Washington to stay in the playoff mix. If Sean Taylor doesn't land in jail in the coming months, he and Adam Archuleta could become the best safety combo in the NFL. Andre Carter also could end up being the most underrated acquisition of this offseason.

5. Philadelphia Eagles – Terrell Owens is gone, and that will do more good than harm. But even with a healthy Donovan McNabb, the offense isn't going to be nearly explosive with Jabar Gaffney and a host of young, developing receivers. If it can stay healthy, the defense should return to the NFL elite, thanks to the signing of Darren Howard and drafting of Brodrick Bunkley and Chris Gocong.

6. Chicago Bears – The defense should remain one of the best in the NFL, but almost nothing was done to improve the offense. The Bears must hope for more from the talent on last season's roster. Brian Griese is a reliable backup, but unless Rex Grossman, Cedric Benson and Mark Bradley can stay healthy and blossom this season, it's going to be another year of defensive battles.

7. Carolina PanthersMarlon McCree and Will Witherspoon were tough losses in free agency, but the Panthers made additions that should improve both sides of the ball. Keith Adams and Reggie Howard shore up depth, and Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis could have a huge impact immediately. Keyshawn Johnson could be the complement the offense needs to Steve Smith, but his attitude is a huge risk when mixed with Smith's volatility.

8. Atlanta FalconsJohn Abraham and Lawyer Milloy should instantly make the defense better, and rookie Jimmy Williams could be an impact player. But if the Falcons are going to return to the NFC elite, they might have to let Michael Vick return to his free-wheeling style and just deal with the injury risks.

9. Tampa Bay BuccaneersJamie Winborn was a quality signing, but some of the aging defensive stars have to slow eventually. The draft should produce some good depth on the offensive line and at least one starter between Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood. Michael Clayton has to bounce back and make life easier for Chris Simms and Carnell Williams.

10. Arizona CardinalsMatt Leinart likely won't see the field in 2006, but Taitusi Lutui, Leonard Pope and Gabriel Watson could all get significant playing time immediately. Kendrick Clancy is a solid addition and Edgerrin James will combine with Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald to create one of the NFL's most formidable skill position trios. It remains to be seen how the offensive line gels, or whether Kurt Warner can stay healthy and be consistent.

11. New Orleans Saints – Adding Drew Brees and Reggie Bush to an already impressive collection of offensive talent could make this an explosive team. But the defense isn't looking much better with the loss of Darren Howard and only serviceable free agent additions. The Saints will be better, but the playoffs are still a year or two away.

12. Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings are loaded with talent, but depending on soon-to-be 38-year-old Brad Johnson for an entire season is a huge risk, particularly with Mike McMahon as the likely backup. And while Ben Leber and Chad Greenway are good additions to the corps of linebackers, there still isn't a player in the group who can take a blocker head on and blow up a running play.

13. St. Louis RamsLa'Roi Glover and Will Witherspoon were good additions on defense. Tye Hill adds talent and youth at cornerback, but even with the additions of Corey Chavous and Fakhir Brown, the pass defense issues haven't been solved. Unless the defensive line can develop some kind of pass rush, it's going to be another season of shootouts.

14. Green Bay PackersBrett Favre is back, but the offensive weapons around him leave a lot to be desired. Rod Gardner, Robert Ferguson and Donald Driver won't strike fear into the hearts of defenses, and the collection of running backs has to prove it can stay healthy. Success is going to fall on the defense, where plenty of big additions have been made: Charles Woodson, Marquand Manuel, Ryan Pickett, A.J. Hawk and Abdul Hodge.

15. Detroit Lions – The biggest offseason additions were the revamped coaching staff, with a master motivator in Rod Marinelli and two top-notch coordinators in Mike Martz and Donnie Henderson. Putting the quarterback position into the hands of Jon Kitna and Josh McCown isn't a big upgrade from Joey Harrington. Detroit has enough talent to contend for the playoffs. It's the motivation that has been a problem. And after complaints to the NFLPA about practices, this might be a roster that needs to be cleaned out yet again.

16. San Francisco 49ers – The offseason upgrades were widespread. Vernon Davis and Manny Lawson should be plugged into starting spots, along with free agent signings Larry Allen, Antonio Bryant and Walt Harris. But the roster overhaul has just started, and there's still a talent void at the skill positions surrounding Alex Smith. This should be another year of slow growth.