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The Philadelphia Eagles were the only NFC East team that failed to make the playoffs last season. Now they expect to win the division.
A healthy Donovan McNabb should play a big role in that quest, and he'll begin his 10th season under center for the Eagles on Sunday when they open against the St. Louis Rams.
Oddsmakers from Sportsbook.com have made Eagles –7.5 point spread favorites (View NFL Football odds) for Sunday’s game (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 69% of bets for this game have been placed on Eagles –7.5 (View NFL Football bet percentages).
The 31-year-old McNabb enters the season at full strength, unlike last year when he was coming off ACL surgery. Late in the 2007 season, though, he started playing like the scrambling star quarterback of his Pro Bowl years before injuries derailed his career.
"I felt good this preseason," McNabb said. "To be healthy, obviously, is important, but nothing overwhelming. I've approached this preseason, maybe, a whole lot differently, because of my health. ... It's an important season for all of us."
The Eagles ended last season with three straight wins behind McNabb's resurgence, but it came too late. Their 8-8 record was the worst in the NFC East while the New York Giants won the Super Bowl, Dallas won the division and Washington earned a wild-card spot.
"We beat the Cowboys last year. The Redskins, we should have beaten them the first time. The Giants, we should have beaten them both times," McNabb said. "It's not just teams in our (division), it's the NFC, period. I feel like we can compete with all of them.
"If you ask those teams, they'll tell you the same, that we have the type of team you have to look out for."
McNabb rediscovered his scrambling ability last season as he got healthier, rushing 29 times for 166 yards in his final six starts. However, he missed two games and most of another due to a sprained ankle, marking the fourth straight year he played less than a full season.
His production again proved vital to Philadelphia's success. In six losses, McNabb completed 57.3 percent of his passes for 1,231 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions. In seven wins - games he finished - he completed 66.9 percent for 2,059 yards with 15 TDs and two interceptions.
Some consider Brian Westbrook to be just as important for Philadelphia. He led the NFL with a franchise-record 2,104 total yards from scrimmage and became the first Eagles rusher with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons since Duce Staley in 1998-99.
The Eagles signed Westbrook to a new deal during the offseason to keep the All-Pro happy, something the Rams had to do with star runner Steven Jackson.
He was a holdout until signing a six-year, $44 million deal on Aug. 20, with St. Louis realizing he's needed to have any shot of bouncing back from a 3-13 record. Jackson, coming off his third straight 1,000-yard season despite playing only 12 games, is expected to carry a full load in the opener.
"He's ready to go," Rams coach Scott Linehan said. "He's gotten in two weeks of real solid conditioning along with the reps. We're going to play him like we always do. He looks like his same old self to me."
Jackson can be as important to the passing game, having recorded 90 receptions in 2006, just as Westbrook did last season to lead the Eagles.
While Westbrook remains one of McNabb's top targets, Philadelphia was criticized for not adding an impact wide receiver via free agency, especially considering the only year it made the Super Bowl during McNabb's tenure was Terrell Owens' only full season with the team.
Second-round pick DeSean Jackson could help, but Kevin Curtis is out following hernia surgery, Reggie Brown is recovering from a hamstring injury and neither projected starter is considered a No. 1 receiver.
The defense, though, made a big addition by signing former Patriots All-Pro cornerback Asante Samuel to a $57.14 million, six-year contract. Samuel joins a talented secondary - former Pro Bowler Lito Sheppard isn't even starting after the team failed to trade him - led by veteran safety Brian Dawkins.
Plus, Chris Clemons was signed after having eight sacks as a reserve for Oakland last season, giving Philadelphia a solid pair of defensive ends along with Pro Bowler Trent Cole.
"This is one of the most excited I've been going into the season," Dawkins said. "In 2004 (when Philadelphia made the Super Bowl), I was jacked up because I felt great about that year. I feel great where this team is headed right now."
The Rams certainly appeared to be going in the wrong direction last season, finishing with the NFC's worst record and the franchise's worst since 1991.
However, injuries were a big part of that debacle. Jackson and starting quarterback Marc Bulger each missed four games, and All-Pro tackle Orlando Pace sat out all but one. With all of them healthy, and new offensive coordinator Al Saunders taking over, there is hope the St. Louis offense will return to the glory days of earlier this decade when it was among the most feared in the NFL.
"I think when you see the attitude, our ability to run and protect up front, there's a lot of positives you can draw from in what's going to be a really good offense," Linehan said.
The defense, though, remains a concern. The Rams allowed 27.4 points per game last season, second-most in the league, and is counting on a lot of youngsters.
They took Michigan defensive end Chris Long with the second overall pick in this year's draft and he's joined on the line by 2007 first-rounder Adam Carriker. The secondary includes safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, who topped the NFC with eight interceptions in 2007 in his third NFL season, and cornerback Tye Hill, a first-round pick in 2006.
"You worry about injuries and depth and we've got a lot of young guys," defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. "But it could be a good group."
These teams last played in 2005 and the Eagles won 17-16.
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