Don't let the Rams' 7-9 2013 record fool you, this is a dangerous team heading into the 2014 season. For starters, consider that the Rams won those seven games while playing in the league's best division. While the Rams went 1-5 against the Seahawks, 49ers and Cardinals, they won six of 10 from the rest of the league. Couple that with their pair of first-round picks (No. 2 and No. 13), and the Rams seem well set for the future.
The question mark for the Rams remains at quarterback, though, where former first-overall pick Sam Bradford is still trying to establish himself as a dependable franchise player. Bradford was playing well in 2013, his fourth year in the league, before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 7. Though the team was 3-4, Bradford threw 14 touchdowns versus only four interceptions in those games, by far the best ratio of his career. His 90.9 quarterback rating was also a career high.
The Rams have also done all they can to help Bradford and the offense, adding the dynamic Tavon Austin in the draft last season, along with running back Zac Stacy, who emerged as a viable starter. Austin was finally given a chance to shine in the final four weeks of the season, when he totaled 346 yards from scrimmage. Over the season's first 12 games, he only accounted for 223 such yards. Stacy, meanwhile, was solid, though unspectacular, in rushing for 973 yards on 3.9 yards per carry.
The Rams' strength, though, is on defense, specifically in their pass rush. The Rams' 53 sacks ranked third in the league, thanks to a breakout seasons from former first-round pick Robert Quinn, who finished second in the league with 19.0 sacks on his own. Another pair of former first-round picks, Chris Long and Michael Brockers, finished second and third, respectively, in sacks on the team with 8.5 and 5.5.
That defensive line will no doubt test the Eagles offensive line, considered one of the league's best and coming off a season in which all five starters started all 16 games.
Meanwhile, the Rams linebackers are talented and athletic enough to chase LeSean McCoy and the Eagles running backs across the field, thanks to James Laurinaitis in the middle and 2013 first-round pick Alec Ogletree returning for his second season. In the secondary, Janoris Jenkins is one of the better young playmakers at cornerback in the league, though he does get burned on occasion.
The Eagles' final game before the bye will come on primetime in Sunday Night Football as they welcome in the division-rival Giants. The Giants' 2013 season was a mess. After starting the year 0-6, New York managed to win seven of its final ten games, but the rough start was just too much to overcome. The story of the season was turnovers, all 44 of them. The Giants committed 10 more turnovers than any other team (Detroit and Washington each had 34). Quarterback Eli Manning threw a league-worst 27 interceptions, the running game was almost non-existent and wide receiver Hakeem Nicks couldn't find his way into the end zone.
As a result, long-time offensive coordinator Kevin GIlbride retired amidst speculation of being fired. Nicks has also moved on, signing a contract with the Indianapolis Colts. Those two weren't the only offensive casualties- tight end Brandon Myers, wide receiver Louis Murphy and guard Kevin Boothe have all moved on, but one constant remains. Through the good and band, Manning has been under center. Three times he has been named to the Pro-Bowl and twice he has hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. Throughout his 10-year career, Manning has found a way to win when it matters most. He's defeated the Eagles nine times in 20 regular season matchups, throwing 36 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions. He is also 6-3 in regular season games that he has started at Lincoln Financial Field.
Manning's supporting cast has a much different look than it has in the past few seasons. Familiar names like Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle and Jerrel Jernigan remain on the roster, but as mentioned, Hakeem Nicks is now an Indianapolis Colt. To help fill in his void the Giants turned back to an old friend. After spending the past two seasons with San Francisco, Mario Manningham has returned to the Giants wide receiving corps. The Giants have also upgraded their backfield, adding running back Rashad Jennings to the mix. Jennings spent 2013 with the Oakland Raiders, and he was the only Eagles' opponent to individually rush for at least 100 yards, picking up 102 yards on the ground in Week 9. New York also signed guards John Jerry and Geoff Schwartz and tackle Charles Brown to help beef up the offensive line that struggled to protect Manning last season. With former Green Bay assistant Ben McAdoo taking over as offensive coordinator, there's no telling exactly what the Giants offense will look like until the season gets underway.
The Giants also went out and revamped their defense during free agency, especially their secondary. Former Eagle Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was the Giants biggest pickup, inking a five-year deal with the team. After two forgettable seasons in Philadelphia, DRC had a huge bounce-back season in Denver, intercepting three passes and emerging as Denver's best cover man as the Broncos rolled to the Super Bowl. New York also brought in cornerback Walter Thurmond, a role player from Seattle's 2013 Super Bowl defense, as well as inside linebacker Jameel McClain, defensive end Robert Ayers and cornerback Zach Bowman. The biggest departure of note for the Giants is Justin Tuck, who signed with Oakland this past offseason. Tuck may have been getting up there in terms of age, but he has recorded 7.5 sacks against the Eagles in his career, and the Eagles must be glad to not have to worry about him twice a year.
The last meeting between these two division rivals at Lincoln Financial Field came in October of 2013. The Giants came away with a 15-7 victory in what became one of the lowest points of the Eagles season. The Giants kicked field goal after field goal, and thanks in part to injuries to Nick Foles and Michael Vick, the Giants led 15-0 late in the fourth quarter. With about four minutes to play, a snap sailed over the head of Giants punter Steve Weatherford, and Najee Goode recovered the ball in the end zone for the first Eagles touchdown of the game. The Eagles would get one final chance to tie the game, but a Matt Barkley desperation pass was intercepted, and the Giants left Philadelphia with just their second win of the season in eight games.
A year after the Cardinals traveled to Philadelphia for the Eagles' first game after the bye, the Eagles will travel to Arizona for their post-bye game once again. Chip Kelly will do his best to extend his winning streak of post-bye games to two.
Last season's tilt between former NFC East rivals was a memorable one that produced controversy, bad blood and a 24-21 Eagles victory in which they built up a 24-7 lead and held on at the end to thwart the Cardinals' comeback bid. Zach Ertz had five catches for 68 yards and two touchdowns, his first multi-touchdown game as a professional, in that game, while Nate Allen and Cary Williams had one interception apiece. The two teams won't have to wait long to renew hostilities, as the rematch is set for the 2014 season, this time at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
Left tackle Jared Veldheer was signed away from the Oakland Raiders to protect Carson Palmer's blind side. Speaking of Palmer, he returns for his second season as Bruce Arians' starting quarterback and will have his same top two wide receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and 2013 breakout star Michael Floyd. The Cardinals offense will also feature second-year running back Andre Ellington in an increased role following the retirement of Rashard Mendenhall. Ellington, who led all qualified ball carriers with 5.5 yards per carry last season, is a shifty, dynamic runner with big-play ability and is also a dangerous receiver out of the backfield. He added 371 yards on 39 catches and totaled 1,023 yards on 157 total touches.
The backbone for the Cardinals in 2013, however, was its defense. Under first-year coordinator Todd Bowles, the defense ranked first in the NFL in rushing yards allowed (84.4 per game), sixth in total yards allowed (317.4 per game), sixth in sacks (47), tied for sixth in takeaways (28) and seventh in points allowed (20.3 per game). The unit boasts bona fide stars in cornerback Patrick Peterson, defensive end Calais Campbell and inside linebacker Daryl Washington, as well as long-tenured defensive end Darnell Dockett and outside linebacker John Abraham, who had a renaissance season in 2013 as a 3-4 edge rusher (11.5 sacks). The Cardinals made one notable addition to the defense, signing Antonio Cromartie to play cornerback opposite Peterson.
Out with the old, in with the new, has been a reasonable description of the Texans' offseason. Following a two-win season in 2013, Gary Kubiak was dismissed after eight seasons as head coach. Quarterback Matt Schaub was likewise jettisoned after seven seasons as the team's starter.
The first void was filled early, as Bill O'Brien returned to the NFL after shepherding the Penn State football program for two seasons. The hole at quarterback, however, has yet to be filled long-term, though the Texans do hold the first-overall pick in May's NFL Draft. The Texans did sign veteran signal-caller Ryan Fitzpatrick, who may be the starter on paper with Case Keenum and T.J. Yates behind him.
As for that No. 1 pick, the Texans could address the quarterback position, or focus instead on supplementing already solid units along the offensive line or defensive front seven.
Roster-wise, the Texans' 2013 season is certainly misleading. This is a team that averaged 9.25 wins per year over the last four seasons while making the playoffs in both 2011 and 2012. Up front, Duane Brown is a premier left tackle for a solid offensive line. Arian Foster remains one of the league's most reliable running back and Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins form a nice duo of experience and youth on the outside at receiver.
Defensively, J.J. Watt is one of the league's best players, period. The former first-round pick had only 10.5 sacks in 2013, a year after busting out for 20.5. The 3-4 defensive end plays the position like no one else in the league and will no doubt be a thorn in the side of both Jason Peters and, primarily, Lane Johnson.
The real story here, though, is the trip back home for an impressive stable of former Texans. Over the last two offseasons, the Eagles have become sort of a Texans-East. There are, in fact, eight former Texans on the current Eagles roster, all of them acquired since the end of the 2012 season: Connor Barwin, Bryan Braman, Roc Carmichael, James Casey, Andrew Gardner, Donnie Jones, Jeff Maehl and DeMeco Ryans. While it's possible that all eight of those players won't be on the roster come game time, the Eagles will surely bring some experience to NRG Stadium.