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AFC Report Card: Bengals lead the class

Marvin Lewis
Marvin Lewis and the Bengals are sitting pretty at 6-2.
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Alex Marvez

Alex Marvez is a Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com. He has covered the NFL for the past 18 seasons as a beat writer and is the former president of the Pro Football Writers of America. He also is a frequent host on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

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Report Cards: AFC | NFC

AFC SOUTH

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Indianapolis (0-9)

Summary: Two years ago, the Colts were on the cusp of an undefeated regular season. They could finish winless in 2011. Yup, Peyton Manning makes that much of a difference.

MVP: LB Pat Angerer stepped in nicely when Gary Brackett was placed on injured reserve. Angerer is credited with an NFL-high 98 tackles — the next closest contenders are tied with 76 each — and fits so perfectly in the middle of the Colts’ Cover-2 defense that Brackett may not be brought back next season.

Biggest disappointment: The impact of Manning’s loss was compounded by poor play at the quarterback position by his backups (Kerry Collins and Curtis Painter) as well as a rash of other injuries across the board.

Outlook: Will Manning (neck) play this season or ever again? Will the Colts finish with the NFL’s worst record – and will they draft Manning’s heir apparent in Andrew Luck if they land the 2012 draft’s top pick? Will head coach Jim Caldwell survive this mess? These are some of the questions that make Indianapolis one of the NFL’s most compelling teams in the second half of the season despite the impossibility of a playoff berth.

Grade: F

Houston (6-3)

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Summary: The Texans were expected to vie for AFC South supremacy even if Indianapolis QB Peyton Manning wasn’t injured. The Colts’ collapse and ongoing struggles in Tennessee and Jacksonville have cleared the way for Houston to win its first division title.

MVP: In this case, let’s call it MVC – Most Valuable Coordinator. Wade Phillips has greatly upgraded Houston’s defense with his 3-4 scheme. The NFL’s 30th-ranked defense last season now leads the league with a 274.0-yard average and is markedly improved against the pass. The Texans also are thriving despite the season-ending loss of marquee pass rusher Mario Williams to a torn pectoral muscle.

Biggest disappointment: Unless the Texans make some noise in the postseason, Matt Schaub still won’t get the respect he deserves as one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks. His passing numbers aren’t gaudy because Houston has such a strong running game, but Schaub again ranks with the very best in such important statistics as touchdown-to-interception ratio (13 to 6), average per completion (8.1 yards) and quarterback rating (92.6).

Outlook: The Texans shouldn’t just be thinking playoffs. There is a legitimate chance for a first-round bye if Houston can handle a remaining schedule that features only two opponents (Atlanta and Cincinnati) with winning records.

Grade: B

Jacksonville (2-6)

Summary: The same persistent problem in the Jack Del Rio era — a lack of a quality passing game — is helping to doom the Jaguars again this season.

MVP: RB Maurice Jones-Drew. Despite his team’s quarterback problems and the focus opponents place on stopping the run, Jones-Drew is on pace for a career-best 1,480 rushing yards.

Biggest disappointment: How the quarterbacks were handled by team management during the preseason. After giving David Garrard the majority of first-team snaps, the Jaguars’ decision to cut him just before Week 1 left the offense woefully unprepared for the regular season.

Outlook: This season has become all about taking lumps with rookie Blaine Gabbert in hopes he can become a franchise quarterback. Whether Del Rio and general manager Gene Smith will still be in Jacksonville by then is in question.

Grade: D

Tennessee (4-4)

Summary: After a surprising start, the Titans have crashed back to earth with losses in three of their past four games.

MVP: QB Matt Hasselbeck has been a godsend for new head coach Mike Munchak and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer. Hasselbeck’s solid play — 13 touchdowns, six interceptions and a 62.5 completion percentage — has allowed the Titans to groom heir apparent Jake Locker rather than having to thrust the rookie on the field.

Biggest disappointment: RB Chris Johnson has done nothing to prove worthy of the six-year, $55.3 million contract extension he signed in the preseason. One of the NFL’s most feared play-makers entering this season, Johnson is averaging 3.0 yards a carry and has just one 100-yard rushing performance since getting paid the big bucks.

Outlook: If the Titans can win seven games, they will have exceeded expectations in Munchak’s first year replacing mainstay Jeff Fisher. Based upon the past month, that’s an awfully big “if.”

Grade: C

AFC EAST

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New England Patriots (5-3)

Summary: The Patriots haven’t lost three consecutive games since the 2002 season. But that’s what New England is facing if it can’t right the ship Sunday night against the host New York Jets.

MVP: QB Tom Brady remains a viable NFL Most Valuable Player candidate if Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers stumbles and the Patriots get back on track. Brady, though, is on pace for the first 20-interception season of his 12-year NFL career.

Biggest disappointment: With nine catches and a $5.5 million salary for 2011, WR Chad Ochocinco is lucky New England’s pass defense is playing so poorly or he would garner this unpleasant distinction. A tepid pass rush, poor linebacker coverage and patchwork secondary have contributed to New England being the only team in the league to allow an average of more than 300 passing yards a game (314).

Outlook: The Patriots are still a dangerous team and a bona fide contender to earn the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed. But this squad has much bigger flaws than the one that posted an NFL-best 14-2 record last season before falling to the Jets in the playoffs.

Grade: B-

New York Jets (5-3)

Summary: They’re cold. They’re hot. They’re right back in the thick of the AFC East title race. The Jets have rebounded from a three-game losing streak to win three straight entering Sunday night’s home matchup against New England.

MVP: CB Darrelle Revis. With Philadelphia’s Nnamdi Asomugha struggling in a new defensive system, there is no debate that Revis is the NFL’s best shutdown cornerback. He has defensed 12 passes and notched four interceptions, including one returned for a 100-yard touchdown against Miami.

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Biggest disappointment: The Jets once excelled at making opposing offenses one-dimensional. New York, though, is surrendering an uncharacteristic 123 rushing yards a game and 4.2 yards a carry.

Outlook: With the defense not as dominant as usual, the Jets need QB Mark Sanchez to continue making strides in the passing game if New York is going to get over the hump and into the Super Bowl after two consecutive losses in AFC championship games.

Grade: B-

Buffalo (5-3)

Summary: A productive offense and turnover-causing defense give Buffalo a legitimate shot at making the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

MVP: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick recently earned a seven-year, $62.2 million extension with his steady play and leadership. Buffalo’s next goal should be inking Fitzpatrick’s top target — WR Stevie Johnson — to a contract extension before he is set to hit free agency next season.

Biggest disappointment: Don’t be fooled by the 15 sacks Buffalo has tallied this season. Ten came in one game against the overmatched Washington Redskins. OLB Shawne Merriman never made the impact Buffalo had hoped for before landing on injured reserve (again) with another Achilles’ tendon issue.

Outlook: With four of the next five games on the road, Buffalo risks sliding back into the pack after its 3-0 start.

Grade: B-

Miami (1-7)

Summary: Following an 0-7 start, the only suspense remaining is how soon head coach Tony Sparano gets fired and whether Miami will finish in position to select Andrew Luck with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft.

MVP: LT Jake Long. Long isn’t his usual dominant self, but he is the only member of the Dolphins’ roster who will garner Pro Bowl consideration.

Biggest disappointment: Before an unexpected explosion in last Sunday’s 31-3 rout of Kansas City, the entire offense was a train wreck. RB Reggie Bush and WR Brandon Marshall rank among the NFL’s biggest underachievers.

Outlook: Even when the Dolphins win, they lose. Each victory pushes Miami further away from drafting a franchise college quarterback like Luck or Oklahoma’s Landry Jones.

Grade: F

AFC WEST

Denver (3-5)

Summary: The Tim Tebow quarterback controversy has gotten the John Fox/John Elway regime off to a bumpy start.

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MVP: Even at age 33, Champ Bailey is still one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks.

Biggest disappointment: QB Kyle Orton. Orton entered the preseason thinking he was in line for a lucrative long-term contract. He did nothing to prove worthy before being benched after five starts.

Outlook: Tebow will remain in the starting lineup for at least another week after leading the Broncos to an upset victory Sunday at Oakland. How well he fares over the final eight games will determine whether the Broncos seek another quarterback to build around in 2012.

Grade: D+

San Diego (4-5)

Summary: It wouldn’t be the Chargers without midseason drama. This time, San Diego has dropped four straight games after getting off to its best start since Norv Turner became head coach in 2007.

MVP: Free safety Eric Weddle is the glue of the pass defense. Weddle is tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with five and also ranks third on the Chargers in tackles with 51.

Biggest disappointment: Chargers owner Dean Spanos was on point when telling NBC that QB Philip Rivers was having “an off year.” Rivers already has thrown 15 interceptions, tying his career-high in 2007, and fumbled the snap that doomed San Diego in a Week 8 overtime loss at Kansas City.

Outlook: No team is likely to run away with the AFC West. But with an upcoming game against Chicago, the Chargers are in danger of falling into a 4-6 hole unless some fixes are quickly made.

Grade: C

Oakland (5-4)

Summary: The Raiders were one of the NFL’s feel-good stories with a 4-2 record shortly after the death of team owner Al Davis. But the Raiders have lost two of three to division rivals (Kansas City and Denver) since making the mega-trade with Cincinnati to acquire QB Carson Palmer.

MVP: RB Darren McFadden was leading the NFL with 610 rushing yards before suffering a foot injury in Week 7 against Kansas City. McFadden’s return would bolster an offense now struggling as Palmer tries to get up to speed.

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Biggest disappointment: Losing QB Jason Campbell to a season-ending collarbone injury in Week 6. Although still not a top-tier passer, Campbell was playing the best football of his seven-year NFL career in a game-manager role before getting hurt. Jackson then felt compelled to acquire Palmer from Cincinnati for what could become two first-round draft picks. The controversial move likely spells the end of Campbell’s days in Oakland.

Outlook: Palmer’s slow start is a major reason for concern in Oakland. The Raiders also are killing themselves with a league high in penalties.

Grade: C

Kansas City (4-4)

Summary: Three of the Chiefs’ losses came by a combined 120-13 margin to Buffalo, Detroit and previously winless Miami. Even so, the defending AFC West champions remain tied atop the division.

MVP: LB Derrick Johnson is thriving in Romeo Crennel’s defensive scheme. Johnson leads the Chiefs with 62 tackles along with six passes defensed and an interception.

Biggest disappointment: The season-ending injuries suffered in September by running back Jamaal Charles, free safety Eric Berry and tight end Tony Moeaki. The Chiefs had big plans for all three of these young standouts before they got hurt.

Outlook: Not good. Kansas City has a brutal spate of non-division games remaining against New England, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Green Bay and the New York Jets.

Grade: C

AFC NORTH

Cleveland (3-5)

Summary: The lack of offensive talent at the skill positions is becoming more glaring by the week as the Browns slide toward their eighth losing season in nine years.

MVP: Now recovered from pectoral muscle tears suffered the past two seasons, LB D’Qwell Jackson has regained his standing as one of the NFL’s leading tacklers. Jackson was named the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Month in September.

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Biggest disappointment: RB Peyton Hillis won’t be gracing the cover of next year’s John Madden video game offering. With greatly decreased production and unprofessional off-field behavior that includes skipping a scheduled charity Halloween function for disadvantaged youths, Hillis has done nothing to prove worthy of the lucrative contract extension he is seeking. A hamstring injury also is keeping Hillis from taking the field.

Outlook: Colt McCoy has eight games to solidify himself as Cleveland’s starting quarterback or the Browns will consider drafting his replacement during the offseason.

Grade: D+

Cincinnati (6-2)

Summary: The Bengals lost last year’s starting quarterback (Carson Palmer), leading receivers (Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco) and top cornerback (Jonathan Joseph) and are a far better team in 2011. Go figure.

MVP: QB Andy Dalton. In another season, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton would be the clear frontrunner for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Dalton, though, is making this a two-man race. Thriving in the West Coast-style system installed by new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, Dalton and rookie wide receiver A.J. Green have quickly recreated the magic that Palmer and Ochocinco once provided.

Biggest disappointment: Tepid fan support. Local displeasure with the way team owner Mike Brown runs the franchise has corresponded with lousy ticket sales. Two early-season games drew crowds in the low 40,000s. Even with their strong start, expect an even larger sea of black and gold than usual on Sunday in Paul Brown Stadium when the Bengals host the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Outlook: The key to whether the Bengals reach the playoffs hinges largely on how they fare in home-and-away games against AFC North rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Houston is the only one of Cincinnati’s four other remaining opponents with a winning record.

Grade: B+

Baltimore (6-2)

Summary: At times, it has been the same old story in Baltimore with a standout defense carrying an inconsistent offense. But Ravens QB Joe Flacco came through in leading a season sweep of the Steelers.

MVP: DT Haloti Ngata. The emergence of second-year nose tackle Terrence Cody has allowed Baltimore to use Ngata in a more diverse role. Ngata has made the most impact plays of any Ravens defender, which is quite a compliment considering how well OLB Terrell Suggs, ILB Ray Lewis and S Ed Reed are playing.

Biggest disappointment: RT Michael Oher. He remains the NFL’s most penalized offensive lineman since entering the league in 2009. Athletic but sometimes physically overmatched, the Ravens may want to consider moving Oher to an interior line position during the 2012 offseason.

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Outlook: The Ravens’ chances of making a Super Bowl run will depend largely on whether Flacco and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron can get the unit humming on a steady basis.

Grade: B+

Pittsburgh (6-2)

Summary: The “old, slow and done” criticism leveled at the Steelers following a Week 1 blowout loss at Baltimore was a wee bit premature.

MVP: QB Ben Roethlisberger. Although the Steelers are traditionally known for their rushing attack, the shift to a pass-first offense is a reflection of Roethlisberger’s ample skill and the blossoming of a dangerous young wide receiver corps.

Biggest disappointment: Defensive injuries. DE Aaron Smith is out for the season and possibly headed for retirement. OLB LaMarr Woodley — who became the first Steelers defender with four straight multiple-sack games in October — missed last Sunday’s game against Baltimore with a hamstring injury. On the bright side, OLB James Harrison made a huge impact in his first game back since suffering a fractured orbital bone.

Outlook: The Steelers are likely playoff-bound but may have to settle for a wild-card berth after losing twice to Baltimore.

Grade: B+

Tagged: Bills, Bengals, Browns, Broncos, Packers, Titans, Colts, Chiefs, Raiders, Dolphins, Patriots, Jets, Panthers, Jaguars, Ravens, Steelers, Chargers, Texans, Mike Brown, Chad Johnson, Peyton Manning, Aaron Smith, Matt Hasselbeck, Champ Bailey, Ed Reed, Carson Palmer, Chris Johnson, Matt Schaub, Ben Roethlisberger, Derrick Johnson, Jason Campbell, Haloti Ngata, Eric Weddle, Jake Long, Stevie Johnson, Peyton Hillis, Pat Angerer, Colt McCoy, Tim Tebow, A.J. Green, Andy Dalton

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