AFC midseason report cards

AFC grades | NFC grades


This type of report card won’t get special attention on the NFL’s refrigerator door.

For the first time since 1959 — a time when 20 of the league’s current 32 franchises didn’t even exist — there isn’t an undefeated or one-loss team nine weeks into the regular season. That means no clubs are worthy of receiving an “A” in my midseason report card.

What we have instead are some Bs, a bunch of Cs and Ds, and Fs for the three teams in their division basements — Buffalo, Carolina and Dallas.

Baltimore (6-2)

Summary: A punishing defense and offense with an almost perfectly balanced pass-run ratio (265 throws to 261 rushes) have put the Ravens into the AFC North driver’s seat.

MVP: Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. Already a dominating run-stuffer, the 6-foot-4, 350-pound Ngata has developed into a quality pass-rusher with a career-high five sacks.

Biggest disappointment: Along with the returning Derrick Mason and newcomer Anquan Boldin, wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Donte’ Stallworth were supposed to provide Baltimore’s passing game a boost. But Houshmandzadeh has only 11 catches for 162 yards, and Stallworth has missed almost the entire season with a foot injury.

Outlook: After reaching at least the second round of the playoffs the past two years, this could be the season that Baltimore’s John Harbaugh makes his first Super Bowl appearance as Ravens head coach.

Grade: B

Buffalo (0-8)

Summary: Not even an improving offense has managed to overcome the league-high 233 points surrendered by Buffalo’s defense.

MVP: Wide receiver Steve Johnson. Lee Evans finally has a nice complement on the opposite side. Johnson has touchdown catches in five of the past six games and posted a career-high 11 catches for 145 yards in last Sunday’s 22-19 loss to Chicago.

Biggest disappointment: Outside linebacker Aaron Maybin. Even if running back C.J. Spiller hasn’t made the impact that was expected, at least Buffalo’s 2010 first-round draft pick is making a contribution. The same can’t be said of Maybin, who is looking like a major bust as the No. 11 overall pick in 2009. Ineffective last year as a 4-3 end, Maybin’s transition to outside linebacker has gone so poorly that he was a healthy scratch the past three games.

Outlook: The recent acquisition of outside linebacker Shawne Merriman off waivers from San Diego should bolster a pass rush that has generated only 12 sacks. The Bills are good enough to avoid a winless season — the past three losses have each come by three points — but that is little consolation for a fan base that hasn’t had a playoff team to cheer for since 1999.

Grade: F

Cincinnati (2-6)

Summary: The defending AFC North champions haven’t looked sharp from the get-go. The offense isn’t good enough to overcome a spate of penalties, dropped passes and turnovers. The Bengals also have far too much young defensive talent for a No. 18 NFL ranking. The lack of sacks (only seven) is particularly dismaying.

MVP: Wide receiver Terrell Owens. T.O. has proven me and other naysayers wrong by rebounding from a mediocre 2009 campaign in Buffalo. Owens is the NFL’s hottest wide receiver, with 41 catches for 618 yards and seven touchdowns in the past five games. Amazingly, the Bengals are 0-5 in those contests.

Biggest disappointment: Right tackle Andre Smith. He has a long way to go before being able to capably fill the shoes of the last Bengals offensive lineman to wear No. 71 (Willie Anderson). Smith has five penalties in his past three starts and is still missing too many blocking assignments.

Outlook: In what has become one of the NFL’s toughest divisions, the Bengals again appear incapable of stringing together two consecutive seasons with a playoff appearance. Don’t be surprised if head coach Marvin Lewis walks away from Cincinnati in the offseason without having won a playoff contest in eight years at the helm.

Grade: D

Cleveland (3-5)


Summary: With back-to-back victories over New Orleans and New England, the Browns are rebounding from a poor start.

MVP: Running back Peyton Hillis. Discarded by Denver, Hillis has re-emerged as a battering ram to carry Cleveland’s offense. After last Sunday’s 184-yard effort against the Patriots, Hillis is rumbling toward a 1,300-yard rushing campaign.

Biggest disappointment: Injuries at the quarterback position have sidelined veterans Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace. But this also has created an opportunity that rookie Colt McCoy has seized. In weathering three of the NFL’s most complicated defenses (New England, New Orleans and Pittsburgh), McCoy has shown early earmarks of being the franchise quarterback Cleveland has lacked since Bernie Kosar.

Outlook: Eric Mangini, who entered the season on the hot seat under new team president Mike Holmgren, is once again showing why he was considered one of the NFL’s top young head-coaching prospects a few years back. A win Sunday against Mangini’s former team — the New York Jets — would cement Cleveland as a dark-horse playoff contender.

Grade: D+

Denver (2-6)

Summary: The late-season slide that ruined Josh McDaniels’ inaugural season in Denver has continued in 2010. The Broncos are 4-14 in their past 18 games.

MVP: Quarterback Kyle Orton. Thanks to Orton’s solid performance in lieu of a strong running game, wide receiver Brandon Lloyd is in the running to win NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors. Lloyd has a league-high 878 receiving yards. Fellow wideout Jabar Gaffney is on pace for a career year, too.

Biggest disappointment: McDaniels. After a rocky inaugural offseason, the Bill Belichick disciple seemed to have the Broncos headed in the right direction with last year’s 6-0 start. Since then, McDaniels is better known for trading the team’s best players – quarterback Jay Cutler, wide receiver Brandon Marshall, running back Peyton Hillis and tight end Tony Scheffler – than producing a winner.

Overall: McDaniels will probably get a third Broncos season in 2011 unless there are more embarrassments like the 59-14 home loss to Oakland in Week 7. The problems, though, go beyond coaching. McDaniels would be wise to reassess his personnel department and the scattershot way Denver’s roster is being put together. Otherwise, McDaniels may suffer the same ignominious fate that Belichick did during his first head coaching go-around with Cleveland in the 1990s.

Grade: D

Houston (4-4)

Summary: The uneven play that has marred Gary Kubiak’s five seasons as Houston’s head coach has continued in 2010. The Texans have squandered a chance to pull ahead in the AFC South with two consecutive losses.

MVP: Running back Arian Foster. In this era of advanced scouting, it’s amazing how a talent like Foster can slip through the cracks. The undrafted second-year player leads the NFL in rushing with 864 yards and has kept Houston’s offense from becoming too one-dimensional, as it was in 2009.

Biggest disappointment: The defense. Houston is last in total yardage allowed (399.5 yards a game) and third-worst in points surrendered (28.2). Even a high-powered offense like Houston’s will have a hard time scoring enough points to overcome those deficiencies.

Outlook: The Texans have a tough remaining schedule with upcoming nondivision games against the Jets, Ravens and Eagles as well as two AFC South matchups versus Tennessee. It’s fair to wonder how much more patience team owner Bob McNair will have with Kubiak if the Texans miss the playoffs for a ninth straight season since the franchise’s 2002 debut.

Grade: C

Indianapolis (5-3)

Summary: A group of Colts more nondescript than the 45s sitting in a convenience-store beer cooler have helped Indianapolis remain in the AFC South title race.

MVP: Quarterback Peyton Manning. Whether he’s throwing to a star (Reggie Wayne) or peon (Blair White), Manning is still completing 65 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions.

Biggest disappointment: The Colts are so wracked by injuries that a guard (Jacques McClendon) was converted into a tight end for last Sunday’s 26-24 loss to Philadelphia.

Outlook: Even if 21 starters were sidelined, I get the feeling Indianapolis would remain a playoff contender as long as Manning was standing. But with the Texans and Titans sporting solid squads, the Colts may find themselves on the postseason outs for the first time since 2001.

Grade: B-

Jacksonville (4-4)

Summary: As quarterback David Garrard goes, so go the Jaguars. Garrard posted a quarterback rating of at least 122.5 in all four Jaguars victories and was at 62.7 or below in all three losses. (He missed one start because of a concussion.)

MVP: Kicker Josh Scobee. He has made all 18 extra points and 13 field-goal attempts, including a 59-yard kick that gave Jacksonville a 31-28 upset win over Indianapolis.

Biggest disappointment: Defensive end Derrick Harvey. He is the poster child of why teams should never think they’re “one player away” from a Super Bowl. In 2008, the Jaguars sent their own first-round selection as well as two thirds and a fourth to Baltimore for the chance to land Harvey with the No. 8 overall pick. With six career sacks – including just 0.5 in 2010 – Harvey is such a bust that he was pulled from the starting lineup prior to Jacksonville’s last game against Dallas.

Outlook: Jacksonville’s yo-yo performances from week to week are a telltale sign of a team that will likely finish 8-8 or 7-9. That might not be good enough to save head coach Jack Del Rio’s job.

Grade: C

Kansas City (5-3)

Summary: A massive rebuilding project spearheaded by GM Scott Pioli and head coach Todd Haley is finally paying dividends. Kansas City is playing the type of fundamentally-sound football that could result in the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2006.

MVP: It wouldn’t be fair to celebrate Jamaal Charles without fellow running back Thomas Jones. The duo has carried a rushing attack that leads the NFL at 179.6 yards per game.

Biggest disappointment: A knee injury and on-field performance have kept defensive end Tyson Jackson from fulfilling the expectations inherent in being the third-overall pick in the 2009 draft. The Chiefs are optimistic that Jackson will someday get the drift of Romeo Crennel’s new defense, like greatly improved 2008 first-rounder Glenn Dorsey.

Outlook: By playing ball-control offense and disciplined football, Kansas City has just a good a chance as Oakland and San Diego to win the AFC West.

Grade: B-

Miami (4-4)

Summary: Inconsistent play is reflected in Miami’s home-and-away records. The Dolphins are 0-3 at Sun Life Stadium and 4-1 on the road.

MVP: Kicker Dan Carpenter. The Dolphins have been forced to rely on field goals as drives stall near and inside the red zone. Carpenter has delivered by making 19 of his 22 attempts.

Biggest disappointment: Quarterback Chad Henne. Entering his first season as a full-time starter, Henne was expected to prosper like fellow Class of 2008 members Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan. Henne, though, has more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (eight) and is struggling to hit deep passes. Henne’s problems are especially surprising with the Dolphins acquiring wide receiver Brandon Marshall during the offseason and Davone Bess blossoming as one of the league’s top slot wide receivers.

Outlook: Should the Dolphins lose Sunday against visiting Tennessee (5-3), head coach Tony Sparano must take a long look at playing backup quarterback Chad Pennington for Miami to keep pace in what will be a tight AFC playoff race.

Grade: C

New England (6-2)

Summary: New England’s offense has made amends for a young defense still experiencing NFL growing pains.

MVP: Quarterback Tom Brady. Even without the services of deposed wide receiver Randy Moss, Brady keeps clicking with his pinpoint short- and intermediate-range passing. Brady’s work makes him an NFL MVP favorite.

Biggest disappointment: As the league’s No. 29 defense in yards allowed, the Patriots are on pace for their lowest ranking since the NFL became a 32-team league in 2002.

Outlook: Cleveland became the latest team to expose New England as vulnerable to a power rushing attack. If the Patriots can solve that problem, another Super Bowl appearance may be in the offing.

Grade: B

New York Jets (6-2)

Summary: For the most part, the Jets are backing head coach Rex Ryan’s big-talking ways. New York weathered the storm of disappointment surrounding the season-opening loss to Baltimore by winning six of its next seven games.

MVP: Running back LaDainian Tomlinson. Much like another player known by his initials (Terrell Owens), Tomlinson has rebounded from a disappointing 2009. L.T. is averaging a healthy 4.9 yards a carry while splitting snaps with Shonn Greene. Tomlinson’s work ethic also is setting a great example for younger players.

Biggest disappointment: The release of running back Danny Woodhead — only to see him become a key part of New England’s offense. From watching his push to make New York’s roster during “Hard Knocks,” the Jets should have known better than to waive a talented youngster with a Vince Papale-like desire to make it in the NFL.

Outlook: Just like last season, the Jets will go as far as quarterback Mark Sanchez can take them. His clutch performance in last Sunday’s 23-20 overtime victory over Detroit reaffirmed Sanchez is on the right path to become a franchise quarterback. Whether the second-year standout can reach the end of that road by the postseason will largely determine whether the Jets reach Super Bowl XLV.

Grade: B

Oakland (5-4)

Summary: To borrow a line from my San Francisco radio buddy Damon Bruce, the Raiders are no longer the Silver and Blacked-out. Oakland’s resurgence generated a rare sellout last Sunday against Kansas City. Raider nation was further invigorated by a 23-20 overtime victory.

MVP: Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. Transforming a once-dysfunctional Raiders offense into an efficient unit despite quarterback turmoil should move Jackson onto the short list of NFL head coaching candidates. Jackson also has benefited from the emergence of Darren McFadden as a Pro Bowl-caliber running back.

Biggest disappointment: Why couldn’t this team catch a break earlier in the season? Oakland would be cruising toward an AFC West crown without stumbling in winnable games against Arizona and San Francisco.

Outlook: Props to Raiders head coach Tom Cable for staying the course on one of the NFL’s loosest ships. Oakland has the talent for a playoff run but Cable and Jackson face a tough long-term decision about whether Jason Campbell or Bruce Gradkowski should start at quarterback.

Grade: C+


Pittsburgh (6-2)

Summary: Entering the season, a 4-4 record would have been considered peachy considering quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was serving a four-game suspension for off-field conduct issues. The Steelers instead exceeded expectations with a 3-1 start in Roethlisberger’s absence and have continued to play at a high level.

MVP: Running back Rashard Mendenhall. Even with the Steelers starting four different quarterbacks so far (Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich, Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon), Mendenhall’s production has remained consistent. Possessor of a lethal spin move, Mendenhall has rushed for 702 yards and seven touchdowns. His biggest carry was a 50-yard jaunt for a touchdown in the season-opening overtime win against Atlanta.

Biggest disappointment: Kicker Jeff Reed. The Steelers cherished Reed enough to designate him their franchise player in 2010. Reed, though, isn’t performing like a kicker worthy of a one-year, $2.8 million deal. Reed has made a measly 70 percent of his field-goal attempts and missed a 46-yard attempt Monday night against Cincinnati.

Outlook: The Steelers will only get better as Roethlisberger grows increasingly comfortable in the offense. Roethlisberger already looked in midseason form dodging Bengals defenders in a 27-21 victory.

Grade: B

San Diego (4-5)

Summary: With victories in their past two games against other serious playoff contenders (Tennessee and Houston), San Diego seems ready for its customary late-season push in what has become a wide-open AFC West.

MVP: Quarterback Philip Rivers. Injuries at tight end and wide receiver have left Rivers throwing to a ragtag collection of targets. Even so, Rivers is still flourishing and on pace to break Dan Marino’s single-season passing record of 5,048 yards.

Biggest disappointment: Special teams. This unit’s all-around problems played a major role in San Diego’s awful start.

Outlook: After returning from this week’s bye, the Chargers have the chance to gain ground in the AFC West with upcoming rematches against Oakland (Dec. 5) and Kansas City (Dec. 12). Besides those two squads, Indianapolis is San Diego’s only other remaining opponent with a winning record.

Grade: C-

Tennessee (5-3)

Summary: The Titans have successfully compensated for running back Chris Johnson’s decline in production through the emergence of wide receiver Kenny Britt, quarterback Vince Young and a fierce defensive line.

MVP: Britt. With touchdowns in five consecutive games, Britt was emerging as the elite wide receiver that Tennessee’s Jeff Fisher has lacked for most of his 17-year coaching tenure. Britt could be even more dangerous upon his return from a hamstring injury provided wide receiver Randy Moss makes the type of positive impact hoped upon his arrival via waivers.

Biggest disappointment: It’s for the fantasy football owners who believed that Johnson’s announced intention for a 2,500-yard rushing season carried any validity. He’s on track for a more modest 1,442-yard effort. Like Britt, Johnson should greatly benefit from less defensive attention if Moss fulfills expectations.

Outlook: The Moss acquisition seems like a boom-or-bust proposition for a Titans team with the talent to make noise in the postseason.

Grade: B-