Is your favorite NFL team making the grade? Let's find out with Alex Marvez's annual FOXSports.com midseason report card:
Carolina (1-6): F
Summary: Center Ryan Kalil took out a full-page newspaper ad during the preseason touting the Panthers as a Super Bowl contender. They have never looked the part as the franchise stumbles toward a fourth straight season without a playoff berth. MVP: The defensive line has done a nice job rushing the quarterback. With 20 sacks already, the Panthers are on pace to exceed last year’s mark of 31. Biggest disappointment: Don’t call it a sophomore slump. That’s being too kind for how poorly Cam Newton has fared compared to his NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year showing in 2011. He has thrown for just five touchdowns in 212 passing attempts and committed eight turnovers. Newton’s woe-is-me demeanor also has raised concerns about his leadership and maturity, both of which are needed to succeed as an NFL quarterback. Outlook: General manager Marty Hurney was recently fired. Head coach Ron Rivera and his staff will be next if the Panthers don’t get on a late-season run.
Kansas City (1-6): F
Summary: A popular preseason pick to reach the playoffs, Kansas City is instead headed toward the No. 1 pick in April’s draft. The Chiefs are the first team since 1940 to not hold a lead in regulation through the first seven games. Adding to the air of incompetency was head coach Romeo Crennel’s post-game admission that he didn’t know why running back Jamaal Charles had only five carries in last Sunday’s loss to Oakland. MVP: Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson has almost double the number of tackles (60) as the next closest Chiefs defender. Biggest disappointment: Quarterbacking ineptitude has given Kansas City the NFL’s worst turnover ratio (minus-18) by a wide margin. Matt Cassel, who has committed 16 of them through interceptions and lost fumbles, is back under center because replacement Brady Quinn suffered a concussion last Sunday against Oakland. The only other option is second-year neophyte Ricky Stanzi, who was unimpressive during the preseason. Outlook: The number of Twitter followers calling for mass front-office firings on @SaveOurChiefs will probably soon exceed the roughly 116,000 who follow the team’s official account @KCChiefs. Crennel is a good man but again seems hopelessly overmatched in his second NFL head coaching stint. Unless his team rises from the NFL dead Lazarus-style, Chiefs owner Clark Hunt would have to willingly buck public opinion and face further backlash by giving general manager Scott Pioli one final chance to right the ship in 2013.
Jacksonville (1-6): F
Summary: New head coach, same results. Under Mike Mularkey, the 2012 Jaguars are actually on track to finish with a worse record than last year’s 5-11 squad. MVP: Middle linebacker Paul Posluszny (58 tackles) is one of the few bright spots on a team that continues to have problems rushing the passer. Jacksonville ranks last in the NFL with seven sacks. Biggest disappointment: How the 2012 season has unfolded for running back Maurice Jones-Drew. Even before landing on crutches from a foot injury suffered in Week 7 against Oakland, MJD had no shot at defending the NFL’s rushing crown with offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski errantly shifting him from a work-horse role. Jones-Drew did himself no favors with a preseason contract holdout that failed miserably. He didn’t get a new contract and fell behind in trying to integrate himself with a new offense. Outlook: This is the Season of Blaine in Jacksonville. The Jaguars have nine games to determine whether Blaine Gabbert has the makings of a bona fide franchise quarterback. If he doesn’t, the position must be addressed again early in the 2013 NFL draft where Jacksonville is headed for a high selection barring an unexpected turnaround. Gabbert has clearly made strides but must keep improving to minimize interest in a top prospect like Southern Cal’s Matt Barkley. One mitigating factor: Gabbert is playing without Jones-Drew and wide receiver Laurent Robinson (concussion). Rookie wideout Justin Blackmon’s inconsistency hasn’t accelerated Gabbert’s development, either.
New Orleans (2-5): D
Summary: The offseason bounty scandal set the tone for what was to come on the field. The Saints are hopeless on defense and rudderless without suspended head coach Sean Payton in the fold. MVP: No player has tried to carry the load more in Payton’s absence than quarterback Drew Brees. He ranks second in the NFL in passing yards (2,310) and touchdowns (20). Biggest disappointment: The Saints’ bounty suspensions were unprecedented. So is the manner in which New Orleans’ defense is leaking. No team has ever allowed 3,323 yards through seven games before like the Saints under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Outlook: 2013 can’t come quickly enough.
Cleveland (2-6): D
Summary: Victories in two of the past three games has slightly lessened the sting of an 0-5 start. MVP: Brandon Weeden’s NFL career couldn’t have started any worse with a 5.8 passer rating in Week 1 against Philadelphia, but the rookie quarterback deserves credit for not going into the tank. Weeden has thrown just one interception in the past three games after tossing nine in the first five. The emergence of rookie wide receiver Josh Gordon and return to health of Trent Richardson has helped matters, too. Biggest disappointment: Being out of the playoff hunt – again – by the middle of October. Outlook: With new owner Jimmy Haslam now at the helm, the Browns need a strong finish in the second half of the season to keep head coach Pat Shurmur from being replaced. Even then, there are no guarantees.
St. Louis (3-5): D+
Summary: The Rams ended a dubious streak by moving above .500 for the first time since 2006 but then lost two straight games to slide back into the NFC West basement. MVP: Kickers rarely garner this type of honor, but not many are as special as Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein. The 2012 sixth-round draft pick wasted little time making an impact, connecting on the first 15 field goals of his NFL career. He also became the first kicker ever to make two field goals of 58-plus yards in the same game. Zuerlein’s range has helped the Rams compensate for some of their offensive woes. Biggest disappointment: Rams head coach Jeff Fisher has publically said the team wouldn’t trade running back Steven Jackson before Thursday’s NFL deadline. Fisher should reconsider if the right offer came along. Jackson is no longer the bell-cow back in St. Louis, sharing carries with rookie Daryl Richardson. He also can opt out of his contract at season’s end to become a free agent after nine seasons with the Rams. Outlook: Fisher hasn’t made the Rams instant playoff contenders, but improvement across the board and an influx of young talent should put St. Louis back in the mix next season.
Washington (3-5): D+
Summary: Robert Griffin III has provided the magic long lacking at quarterback for the Redskins. But while he was called “Black Jesus” by teammate Fred Davis for his play-making prowess, Griffin doesn’t have the ability to heal the injuries that are wrecking Washington’s season. MVP: Griffin has posted the best statistics of the NFL’s five rookie starting quarterbacks. He is completing 66.8 percent of his attempts and averaging a healthy 7.97 yards per completion with eight touchdowns and three interceptions. Griffin also has rushed for 476 yards and six scores. Biggest disappointment: Among the Redskins on injured reserve are two of the best defenders (outside linebacker Brian Orakpo and end Adam Carriker) and the leading receiver (tight end Fred Davis). Wideout Pierre Garcon, the team’s top free-agent signing in the offseason, remains sidelined by a toe injury that has limited him to only two games. Outlook: The Redskins were 3-2 the past two seasons under Mike Shanahan before finishing with a combined mark of 5-17. A rugged four-game stretch in Weeks 11 to 14 against all three NFC East foes and Baltimore will determine whether Washington is headed toward that same fate.
New York Jets (3-5): D+
Summary: What can go wrong has for the Jets. The best defensive player (cornerback Darrelle Revis) and wide receiver (Santonio Holmes) were lost for the season to injury. The addition of Tim Tebow has muddled the offense rather than bettered it as the Jets had hoped. And the defense is a shell of the stingy units the Jets fielded in head coach Rex Ryan’s first two seasons in New York. MVP: Cornerback Antonio Cromartie. “Cro” took his game to new heights when Revis tore his anterior cruciate ligament in Week 3 against Miami. Although there is valid concern about overuse and injury exposure, giving Cromartie a few more snaps at wide receiver may not be a bad idea to add some life to the offense. Biggest disappointment: The entire offense from first-year coordinator Tony Sparano on down the line. It’s hard to evaluate just how much of the blame falls directly on the shoulders of quarterback Mark Sanchez because his supporting cast is so poor. The “ground-and-pound” running game has gotten pounded by opposing defenses. Excluding a 251-yard outburst against Indianapolis, the Jets have averaged 89.6 rushing yards in their seven other games with two touchdowns. The topper — Tebow is a non-factor with Sparano unable to duplicate his Wildcat magic from his 2008 days as Miami’s head coach. Outlook: Dismal. The schedule eases up in December, but New York will likely be well below .500 by then. How much fight the Jets show the rest of the season will go a long way toward determining the 2013 futures of Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum.
Cincinnati (3-4): C-
Summary: The month of October was not kind to the Bengals. They went 0-3 to fall back into the middle of the AFC pack. MVP: A strong argument can be made for A.J. Green being the AFC's best wide receiver halfway through the 2012 campaign. He has 44 catches for 636 yards and seven touchdowns, scoring at least once in six straight games. Green isn't close to a finished product yet either in only his second NFL season. Biggest disappointment: A toss-up between the league's 21st-ranked defense and No. 23 rushing attack. Injuries have contributed to the shortcomings of both, particularly in the secondary and along the offensive line. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who left New England for a three-year, $9 million contract, hasn't filled the shoes of predecessor Cedric Benson. Green-Ellis is averaging a pedestrian 3.4 yards on his 125 attempts and also has lost the first fumbles of his NFL career. Outlook: The Bengals had better show some roar in upcoming home games against Denver (Sunday) and the New York Giants (Nov. 11). Otherwise, Cincinnati will continue sliding toward extending a 30-year-long streak of failing to reach the playoffs in consecutive seasons.
Detroit (3-4): C-
Summary: The Lions were expected to fare better, but at least they don’t make things boring. All seven games have been decided by eight points or less. MVP: With the Lions fielding a lackluster rushing offense (again), quarterback Matt Stafford is forced to carry a bigger load. Although he went seven games before throwing a touchdown pass in the first half, Stafford has finished games strong. No other quarterback is within 300 yards of the 954 that Stafford has thrown for in the fourth quarter. Biggest disappointment: Maybe there really is something to the Madden Curse. Calvin Johnson’s receiving numbers – 41 catches for 638 yards – are almost identical to what he posted at this point last season. The big difference: scoring. “Megatron” has one touchdown catch compared to 10 through seven games in 2011. Outlook: Because of the ongoing problems in Detroit’s secondary, Lions games are likely to continue going down to the wire for the rest of the season. The club does get a break by playing at home for five of its final seven games.
Dallas (3-4): C-
Summary: The Cowboys are the NFL's best example of average, having gone 14-14 dating back to the final five games of the 2010 season. MVP: Inside linebacker Sean Lee was enjoying a breakthrough year before suffering a season-ending toe injury in Week 7 against Carolina. Biggest disappointment: The unconventional way in which the Cowboys continue to fall short in close games under head coach Jason Garrett. Dallas has lost contests in which it fielded three 100-yard receivers (New York Giants) and generated 229 rushing yards (Baltimore). The Cowboys are 7-7 since last season in games decided by one score or less. Outlook: I wrote in my 2011 midseason report card that the Cowboys had all the trappings of an 8-8 team and that’s how they finished. A year later, nothing has changed.
Philadelphia (3-4): C-
Summary: After having won three of their first four games by a combined four points, the Eagles have dropped three straight and enter Monday night’s game at New Orleans in free-fall under embattled head coach Andy Reid. The firing of defensive coordinator Juan Castillo during the bye week shows just how desperate Reid is to get his team turned around before the ax falls on him. MVP: DeMeco Ryans has helped shore the linebacker problems Philadelphia experienced in 2011. Acquired in an offseason trade with Houston, Ryans leads the Eagles in tackles with 56. Biggest disappointment: Quarterback Michael Vick is on the verge of losing his starting job to rookie Nick Foles. Vick committed 13 turnovers in the first six games and ranks 26th in the NFL with a 78.6 passer rating. Whoever is under center for the rest of the season would be aided by better use of running back LeSean McCoy. The Eagles have won all three games in which “Shady” had at least 20 carries and 0-4 otherwise. Outlook: Reid has experienced dark days in Philadelphia before but never like this. Eagles owner Jeff Lurie said during the preseason that an 8-8 record (or worse) would be unacceptable. Philadelphia has nine games remaining to avoid that fate or Reid’s 14-year head coaching tenure is destined to end.
Oakland (3-4): C-
Summary: The Raiders have played much better the past three weeks after a 1-3 start under first-year head coach Dennis Allen. Quarterback Carson Palmer looks increasingly comfortable running play-action rollouts than earlier in the season in coordinator Greg Knapp’s West Coast-style offense. MVP: The best defensive player is also Oakland’s biggest bargain. Signed to a one-year, $700,000 contract during the offseason, outside linebacker Philip Wheeler has notched at least seven tackles in six of his seven starts. The former Indianapolis Colts starter won’t come so cheaply in 2013. Biggest disappointment: Darren McFadden was expected to thrive in a zone-blocking system, but the running back has averaged 2.8 yards or less per carry in five games. On the bright side, at least McFadden is finally healthy (knock on wood) and coming off a season-high 114-yard performance against Kansas City. Outlook: Let’s not get too carried away about the Raiders. The past two victories have come against one-win teams in Jacksonville and Kansas City. But with a relatively benign schedule the rest of the way, Oakland could push for a wild-card spot. The next two games against Tampa Bay and at Baltimore will provide a good feel about whether the Raiders are for real.
San Diego (3-4): C-
Summary: Just like last year, the Chargers are nose-diving after a strong start to the season. Just like the past few years, a large portion of the team’s fan base is screaming for head coach Norv Turner’s firing. MVP: Free safety Eric Weddle remains San Diego’s best defensive player. He has registered a team-high four turnovers (two interceptions, two fumble recoveries) while also ranking second in tackles with 39. Biggest disappointment: Philip Rivers posted a triple-digit quarterback rating in three of San Diego’s first four games. He hasn’t hit those heights since. The past six quarters in losses to Denver and Cleveland were especially brutal. Rivers wasn’t helped against the Browns when wide receiver Robert Meachem dropped a certain touchdown pass in a 7-6 loss. Outlook: For the third consecutive year, the Chargers are guaranteed to enter the midway point of the season at .500 or worse. San Diego didn’t make the playoffs in 2010 or 2011. A three-peat would assuredly cost Turner and general manager A.J. Smith their jobs.
Tampa Bay (3-4): C-
Summary: Greg Schiano’s first season with the Bucs has been bumpy – attacking the “Victory” formation?!? Really?!? – but he’s starting to get results. Tampa Bay has won two of its past three games after losing three straight by an average of five points. MVP: After regressing last season, it’s starting to look like 2010 again for Josh Freeman. He is the first quarterback in Bucs history to have thrown at least three touchdown passes in three consecutive games entering Sunday’s matchup at Oakland. The free-agent addition of Vincent Jackson and continuing maturation of fellow wide receiver Mike Williams have given Freeman quality tools to work with. Biggest disappointment: The Bucs have now lost both of their Pro Bowl guards with Carl Nicks joining Davin Joseph on injured reserve earlier this week. Cornerback Aqib Talib and running back LaGarrette Blount also continue to squander their athletic gifts. Talib, who has a laundry list of off-field problems, is finishing a four-game suspension for the banned use of Adderall. Blount, a 1,000-yard rusher as a rookie in 2010, failed to win the trust of Tampa Bay’s new coaching staff. He has only 33 carries behind impressive rookie starter Doug Martin and is the subject of trade rumors approaching Thursday’s NFL deadline. Outlook: All three of Tampa Bay’s next opponents (Oakland, San Diego and Carolina) have losing records. If the Bucs can string together some wins, the NFC South race will get a lot more interesting. Tampa Bay still has two games remaining against Atlanta (7-0).
Buffalo (3-4): C-
Summary: A season that entered with so much promise has taken a dark turn that Buffalo fans are far too familiar with during 13 straight seasons without a playoff appearance. This year’s biggest issue is a stunningly bad defense that ranks 31st in yards allowed (424.1 average) while allowing an NFL-high 32.4 points a game. MVP: C.J. Spiller has rebounded from a slow start to his NFL career to become the league’s best big-play running back. No rusher since 1960 has posted a gaudier per-carry average (7.2 yards) at least 70 carries into a season than the No. 9 overall pick in the 2010 draft. Spiller also leads the Bills in scoring with five touchdowns and has 19 catches out of the backfield. Biggest disappointment: As the highest-paid free-agent signing at his position in NFL history, end Mario Williams has taken the most abuse for Buffalo’s underachieving defense. However, there’s plenty of other blame to go around on the first unit in NFL history that surrendered 300 passing and 300 rushing yards in the same game against San Francisco. The group looks undisciplined with poor gap control and assignment busts. Outlook: With such a large middle-class of AFC contenders, the Bills are in the playoff hunt. But defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt must patch holes if Buffalo will remain there for much longer. That won’t be easy with the Bills playing on the road the next two weeks against Houston and New England, which hung 52 points on Buffalo in Week 4 at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Tennessee (3-4): C-
Summary: The Titans saved their season with a Week 6 home upset of Pittsburgh. Since then, the offense has clicked under quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who is replacing an injured Jake Locker. Chris Johnson also has found his groove once again, rushing for 385 yards in his past three outings after gaining just 45 in the first three. MVP: Hasselbeck deserves props on many levels. First, he handled the preseason demotion behind Locker with class. Hasselbeck then provided a spark after re-building chemistry with Tennessee’s wide receiver corps. Without him, the Titans would be cooked. Biggest disappointment: The inability to cover opposing tight ends heavily contributed to Tennessee’s horrendous defense in the first five games. Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Dante Rosario, Brandon Pettigrew, Owen Daniels and Kyle Rudolph caught a combined 34 passes with seven touchdowns. Outlook: Head coach Mike Munchak has a difficult quarterbacking decision to make in a few weeks. Should he stick with Hasselbeck or revert to Locker once the former is sufficiently recovered from a left (non-throwing) shoulder injury? Hasselbeck gives Tennessee the best chance of making the playoffs; Locker needs playing time to develop in his second NFL season. The best-case scenario for Titans brass would be Locker returning and the offense doesn’t skip a beat. The worst-case — Locker plays as poorly as earlier in the season and the Titans slump again. My choice: Stick with Hasselbeck as long as Tennessee is in the postseason race.
Seattle (4-4): C
Summary: When the Seahawks are at home, they can defeat any team in the league. On the road? Not so much. Seattle is 1-4 away from Qwest Field, including two straight losses to San Francisco and Detroit that have dropped the Seahawks back to .500. MVP: His name doesn’t immediately roll off the tongue during a conversation about the NFL’s elite running backs, but Marshawn Lynch has earned that respect. Lynch ranks second in the league in rushing with 757 yards, continuing a tear that began in Week 9 of the 2011 season. Biggest disappointment: Matt Flynn is becoming the next Charlie Whitehurst. The fact that Seattle held an open quarterback competition shortly after Flynn was signed to a three-year, $19.5 million contract ($10 million guaranteed) was an early sign of buyer’s remorse. Rookie Russell Wilson won the job and is now entrenched in the spot. Outlook: The Seahawks have a good enough defense to make some noise in the postseason, but they first have to secure an invitation to the party. Being 0-3 in the NFC West so far could hurt Seattle in potential playoff tiebreakers. Back-to-back road games against Miami and Chicago in Weeks 12 and 13 are no picnic either.
Arizona (4-4): C
Summary: The excitement generated by a 4-0 start is long gone with four consecutive losses and no end in sight to Arizona’s offensive problems. MVP: Inside linebacker Daryl Washington and defensive end Calais Campbell have emerged as two of the NFL’s best players at their respective positions. Washington leads all interior linebackers with eight sacks to go along with his 68 tackles. The 6-foot-8, 300-pound Campbell is a modern-day version of 1960s terror Ernie “The Cat” Ladd. Campbell possesses rare pass-rush skills for a 3-4 end. Biggest disappointment: Quarterbacking would lead the list, but John Skelton and the injured Kevin Kolb haven’t had a prayer playing behind an offensive line that has surrendered an NFL-high 39 sacks. The Cardinals also can’t alleviate some of the pressure on the passing game because the ground attack is missing its top two running backs (the injured Ryan Williams and Beanie Wells). Outlook: Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt has now spent three seasons trying to unsuccessfully replace Kurt Warner at quarterback. Whether he gets a fourth is becoming more and more in doubt with the putrid offense Arizona is fielding.
Pittsburgh (4-3): B-
Summary: Few teams respond to adversity better than the Steelers. Pittsburgh hasn't lost consecutive games under head coach Mike Tomlin since December 2009. MVP: Offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Dink. Dunk. Succeed. Haley's tweaks to Pittsburgh's system have brought out the best in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Thriving in a scheme that places far greater emphasis on short passes than under departed coordinator Bruce Arians, Roethlisberger has thrown 14 touchdowns with three interceptions while on track to finish with the highest completion percentage (66.8) of his nine-year NFL career. An even more important statistic: Roethlisberger has gotten sacked only 13 times -- the lowest seven-game total since the 2005 season. Biggest disappointment: Pittsburgh's projected first-team defense entering the season has taken the field together just once (in Week 5 against Philadelphia) before injuries again sent starters to the sideline. Outlook: If the Steelers can get healthier defensively and at running back, they will become one of the AFC's most dangerous teams down the stretch.
Denver (4-3): B-
Summary: The Broncos are reflective of their new team leader. After a rough start, Denver and Peyton Manning are both clicking with wins in three of the past four games. MVP: Manning is on one of the greatest four-game runs of his Hall of Fame career. He has completed 75.4 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and two interceptions while also crossing the 300-yard mark against Oakland, New England, San Diego and New Orleans. Biggest disappointment: Outside linebacker D.J. Williams is on the verge of ruining his NFL career with deviant off-field behavior. Williams recently had three games added onto a six-game drug suspension because of his second DUI offense since 2004. When he does return, Williams will likely have one final chance for redemption with the Broncos needing linebacker depth now that Joe Mays (leg) has landed on injured reserve. Outlook: With a far easier schedule in the second half of the season, the Broncos look ready to start pulling away in the AFC West title race.
Indianapolis (4-3): B-
Summary: The Colts truly are #chuckstrong. Even with first-year head coach Chuck Pagano sidelined by treatment for leukemia, Indianapolis has continued to surprise by already doubling last year’s win total. MVP: Wide receiver Reggie Wayne. The Colts didn’t make every right decision when it came to keeping veteran players in the fold (see below). But the re-signing of Wayne couldn’t have worked any better. The 33-year-old has greatly helped in the quick development of rookie quarterback Andrew Luck by enjoying what may become the most productive NFL season of his 12-year NFL career. Wayne has 54 catches for an NFL-high 757 yards through seven games. Biggest disappointment: Outside linebacker Dwight Freeney. Unlike teammate Robert Mathis (five sacks), Freeney’s transition from defensive end has become an expensive flop for the Colts. Freeney has only four tackles and one sack in five starts (he missed two games with an ankle injury) at a 2012 salary of $14 million. Outlook: Despite ongoing struggles along the offensive line and in the secondary, the Colts (4-3) are in position to make a wild-card push. In a scheduling quirk, Indianapolis plays AFC South-leading Houston twice in the final three weeks. It’s great to see Pagano back attending staff meetings for the Colts, although it will take more time before a return to the sideline.
Minnesota (5-3): B
Summary: Having finished 3-13 in 2011, the Vikings were the NFL’s biggest surprise through Week 5 with a 4-1 record. Minnesota, though, may be coming back to earth with losses in two of its past three games. MVP: Adrian Peterson is human. The running back’s amazing recovery from a serious knee injury would indicate otherwise. Peterson has regained his old form while leading the NFL in rushing with 775 yards. Biggest disappointment: The Vikings have little at wide receiver other than Percy Harvin, who is enjoying an outstanding 2012 campaign himself. Harvin has 60 catches. The rest of Minnesota’s wideouts have combined for 43. Outlook: The Vikings need second-year quarterback Christian Ponder to pull out of a mini-slump to make a playoff push. Ponder has committed six turnovers in the past three games and opponents have grown wise to his penchant for short passes. This is putting too much strain on a defense that is now having depth problems at cornerback following the loss of starter Chris Cook (wrist).
Green Bay (5-3): B
Summary: Any chance for repeating last year’s 13-0 start ended in the season-opener when the Packers suffered a sobering home loss to San Francisco. Green Bay hit bottom when squandering an 18-point second-half lead to Indianapolis in Week 5 but has since rebounded with three straight wins. MVP: The Packers have overcome issues with their pass protection and running game thanks to quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player has paced Green Bay’s three-game winning streak with 11 touchdowns and no turnovers in that span. Honorable mention goes to outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who is neck-and-neck with Houston defensive end J.J. Watt for consideration as the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. Biggest disappointment: The Packers should be 6-2 but the replacement referees botched the call that gave Seattle a 14-12 victory in Week 3. The loss could have repercussions down the road when it comes to playoff seeding. On the bright side, at least the debacle served as the tipping point to end the NFL’s officiating lockout. Outlook: As injured starters like wide receiver Greg Jennings (groin) and safety Charles Woodson (collarbone) work their way back onto the field, the Packers are poised for a run in the second half of the season.
Miami (4-3): B
Summary: I get it – new head coach Joe Philbin used stunt doubles and actors on "Hard Knocks" instead or real players to disguise just how good the Dolphins were going to be. Miami is the league’s most pleasant early-season surprise with a fierce defensive front seven led by end Cameron Wake (7.5 sacks), outstanding special teams and a better-than-expected offense under rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. MVP: How about general manager Jeff Ireland? Nobody in the media was more critical of Ireland than me, but some of his draft picks like cornerback Sean Smith, strong-side linebacker Koa Misi and wide receiver Brian Hartline have finally developed into impact players. That also speaks volumes about the current coaching staff and may say something about the Sparano regime. Biggest disappointment: The inability to win in overtime in Weeks 3 and 4 against the Jets and Arizona could haunt the Dolphins down the road. Outlook: Miami probably doesn’t have enough quality depth to weather any future injuries at wide receiver and along the offensive line. But if they can stay healthy and Tannehill keeps improving, the Dolphins are a legitimate playoff contender. Forging at least a split in two upcoming games against the Patriots would help their postseason cause.
New England Patriots (5-3): B
Summary: After an uncharacteristic 3-3 start, the Patriots are back in their usual spot atop the AFC East. The offense has changed with more emphasis on the running game but remains as prolific as ever. The defense has its issues that were exposed when losing fourth-quarter leads against Baltimore and Seattle. MVP: Now in his 13th NFL season, quarterback Tom Brady remains at the top of his game. The offseason addition of wide receiver Brandon Lloyd and a greatly improved rushing attack could make Brady even more lethal down the stretch. Biggest disappointment: With so many sharp coaching/personnel minds and a cadre of extra draft picks each season, why do the Patriots seem incapable of assembling a top-notch secondary? New England’s young defensive backs continue to get burnt far too frequently on deep throws. Outlook: This is the same time last season when the Patriots got hot and didn’t lose again until reaching Super Bowl XLVI. Unless Miami (4-3) surprises New England in at least one of their two impending matchups, the Patriots are headed to the playoffs again.
Baltimore (5-2): B+
Summary: The Ravens have the conference's second-best record but storm clouds are on the horizon with all of the injuries on defense. Cornerback Lardarius Webb and inside linebacker Ray Lewis are out for the season while safety Ed Reed and defensive end Haloti Ngata are slowed by respective shoulder and knee ailments. MVP: Running back Ray Rice has accounted for at least 93 combined yards rushing and receiving in six of seven games. The exception was in Baltimore's worst loss of the season, a 43-13 drubbing by the Houston Texans in Week 7. Biggest disappointment: Just how poorly the Ravens have played in three road games compared to home. Baltimore was outscored (73-45) and outgained (1,244 to 799) while posting a 1-2 record. This doesn't bode well if the Ravens can't overcome the two-game deficit they now face when trying to catch the Texans in the battle for the AFC's top playoff seed. Outlook: The return of outside linebacker Terrell Suggs from an Achilles' tendon injury helps, but the defense is still a shell of the quality units Baltimore normally fields. It's time for the offense to carry the Ravens down the stretch or they may get caught by Pittsburgh in the AFC North title race.
San Francisco (6-2): A-
Summary: The 49ers have proven that last year’s success wasn’t a fluke. MVP: Alex Smith’s miraculous rise from draft bust to being a difference-making quarterback continues in his second season playing under head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Smith came one incompletion away from perfection in last Monday night’s 24-3 win at Arizona by connecting on 18 of 19 attempts with three touchdowns. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree, another high first-round draft pick who previously underperformed, has blossomed into Smith’s top receiving target. Biggest disappointment: Considering how much the 49ers talked about wanting to avenge last season’s NFC Championship game loss, it was stunning just how poorly San Francisco played in a 26-3 home defeat against the New York Giants in Week 6. Outlook: The 49ers are starting to get separation in the NFC West, but tough non-division games against Chicago and New England await as well as a Week 16 road rematch against Seattle that could decide the division champion.
New York Giants (6-2): A-
Summary: The defending Super Bowl champion is playing the part with the Giants having won all four of their games in October. MVP: Eli Manning isn’t just a viable candidate for NFL Most Valuable Player honors. He also may be the league’s best quarterback. Biggest disappointment: The defense is ranked an uncharacteristically low 24th overall in yards allowed largely because of hit-or-miss play against the pass. New York has helped compensate by producing a league-leading 24 turnovers. Outlook: The Giants were 6-2 each of the past two seasons before hitting a skid in November. New York will try to avoid doing the same in upcoming home games against Pittsburgh (Sunday) and Green Bay (Nov. 25).
Chicago (6-1): A
Summary: The Bears haven’t fielded a defense this dominant since 2006. That’s also the last time Chicago went to the Super Bowl. The same could be happening again, especially because Chicago’s offense has more punch than it did six seasons ago. MVP: Weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerbacks Charles “Peanut” Tillman and Tim Jennings are all worthy candidates. Briggs is playing the best football of his 10-year NFL career – which is saying something considering he’s reached seven Pro Bowls – and leads the team in tackles with 44. Jennings has an NFL-best six interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown that sparked last Sunday’s 23-22 victory over Carolina. Tillman has returned both of his interceptions for scores and is smothering wide receivers in coverage. Biggest disappointment: The offensive line remains a work in progress with Jay Cutler having gotten sacked 25 times already this season. That is the NFL’s third-highest total behind Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (28) and Arizona’s Kevin Kolb (27). Outlook: Chicago will experience a brutal stretch between Weeks 10 and 15 highlighted by games against Houston, San Francisco and Green Bay. If the Bears can survive that, a first-round playoff bye is likely in the offing.
Houston (6-1): A
Summary: The Texans are off to the best start in franchise history thanks to a dominating defense and efficient offense. MVP: Defensive end J.J. Watt. Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor was the last defensive player to win NFL Most Valuable Player honors in 1986. Watt has a legitimate shot at ending that drought. He has 9.5 sacks and 10 tipped passes already this season. Biggest disappointment: Special-teams coverage could prove costly if this area isn’t shored before the playoffs. The Texans are surrendering way too high an average on kickoffs (26.4) and punts (10.6) as well as allowing two scores. The return game has lacked as well. Houston ranks 30th on kickoffs with an 18.4-yard average, which is one of the reasons Trindon Holliday was cut after an outstanding preseason. Outlook: The Texans are on track to gain the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed. A good litmus test of how good Houston is will come in road games against Chicago (Nov. 11) and New England (Dec. 10).
Atlanta (7-0): A+
Summary: The 1972 Dolphins can’t pop the champagne quite yet. That’s because the Falcons remain undefeated at 7-0 for the first time in franchise history with a retooled offense and more aggressive defense. MVP: Baltimore’s Joe Flacco entered the season touted as the league’s best fifth-year quarterback. No more. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan has earned that distinction with his best campaign to date. Thanks to a new offensive system and three tip-top receiving targets (Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White), Ryan is playing the best football of his career to become a legitimate NFL MVP candidate. Biggest disappointment: The Falcons are struggling with the run on both sides of the football. Atlanta is hoping the return of defensive tackle Corey Peters can help the unit better its 136.4-yard average. Offensively, running back Michael Turner is on pace to finish with his lowest yardage, per-carry average and touchdown totals since joining Atlanta in 2008. Turner also was arrested on a DUI charge following a Week 2 victory over Denver. Outlook: For the Falcons, this season is all about January. Atlanta could go 16-0 in the regular season and it wouldn’t matter if the Falcons fail to win their first playoff game under head coach Mike Smith. Atlanta has gotten bounced quickly three times in the past four seasons.