Why they fell short: An amazing second-half comeback fell short in Sunday’s 32-25 loss to Arizona. After overcoming an 18-point deficit to take a 25-24 lead, the Eagles couldn’t stop a game-winning scoring drive that consumed most of the fourth quarter. Philadelphia’s offense was unable to answer, sending QB Donovan McNabb to his fourth NFC Championship game loss in five career appearances.
Biggest need area: Wide receiver. The Eagles still haven’t reached a Super Bowl since McNabb had a bona fide No. 1 receiver in Terrell Owens. DeSean Jackson enjoyed a great rookie season, but at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, he may be best suited for a complementary role.
Player/coach to watch: FS Brian Dawkins. He is a potential Hall of Fame selection who is headed to his seventh Pro Bowl in 13 Eagles seasons. But at age 35, Philadelphia management has to decide how much Dawkins has left in the tank as he heads toward free agency.
Projected cap space: $24 million. If the Eagles grant McNabb’s request for a new contract, much of this cap space will get chewed up. Besides Dawkins, two other graybeards — starting tackles Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan — are set to become unrestricted free agents. Runyan, 35, could take his string of 213 consecutive starts into retirement. Thomas, an 11-year starter, turns 35 in November. Oft-injured TE L.J. Smith, who was the team’s franchise player in 2008, is a goner.
2009 outlook: Good. With their late-season surge, McNabb and coach Andy Reid deserve the chance to return next season. The defense is chock full of young talent but the offensive line may need an overhaul.
Why they fell short: A rookie quarterback could only take this team so far. Joe Flacco’s brilliant first NFL campaign ended with a three-interception performance in Sunday’s 23-14 loss to Pittsburgh.
Biggest need area: Cornerback. Two 30-something mainstays (Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle) could either be gone or reduced to backup roles because of mounting injuries and high salaries. CB Fabian Washington, an offseason trade acquisition from Oakland, had a breakthrough season but needs some coverage help.
Player/coach to watch: Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. By the time you read this, Ryan’s four-season stint running such a dominating unit is likely to be over. Ryan is expected to become the head coach of the New York Jets, leaving coach John Harbaugh in search of a replacement with huge shoes to fill.
Projected cap space: $25 million. The Ravens have three star linebackers set to hit free agency and only one franchise tag to guarantee the services of Terrell Suggs, Bart Scott or Ray Lewis for 2009. Scott seems like the odd-man out, as Suggs is too dominating a pass-rusher to let leave and it’s hard to imagine Lewis in another uniform. Still, negotiating with multiple players at the same position will be tricky for Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. The Ravens also risk losing Jason Brown — the AFC’s best young center — in free agency.
2009 outlook: Very good. The Ravens are getting a bit old on defense, but the offense should be Baltimore’s most potent this decade under Flacco’s guidance.
Note: Salary cap figures will be adjusted once calculations on contract clauses from 2008 like incentives are finalized in February. The league-wide 2009 cap is set at $123 million.