Tuesday, November 5, 2013

NFL 2013 Midseason Report Card

By Brad Oremland

It's the middle of the season, and it's time to hand out grades for all 32 teams.

Denver Broncos: A

Every game is a shootout, and the Broncos have the best weapons. They are on pace to challenge or break numerous records. They lead the league — by huge amounts — in points per game (42.9) and yards per game (466.4). Denver has scored at least 33 in every game, and Peyton Manning is in top form. Only eight other QBs have half as many passing TDs as Manning. The defense is vulnerable, and it's reasonable to wonder if the 37-year-old Manning can maintain this performance all season, but halfway through the term, Denver is at the top of the class.

Head coach John Fox will leave the team for several weeks while he recovers from heart surgery. Defensive coordinator and former Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio will assume interim head coaching duties in his absence.

Kansas City Chiefs: A

The Chiefs have nearly twice as many points (215) as their opponents (111). No one has scored more than 17 against them. This week, KC's defense outscored the opposing Bills' offense, with a pair of return touchdowns. It's easy to underrate the Chiefs for two reasons: (1) They're a great defensive team, and we tend to appreciate offense more easily. (2) They went 2-14 last year. No one's going to believe in them until they start beating some playoff teams. Kansas City's opponents have a combined record of 27-48 (.360). The 5-4 Cowboys are the best of the bunch, but that was a 17-16 home win. No worries, Chief fans: win at Denver in Week 11, and everyone will rank you at the top. For now, there's no complaining about 9-0, and if the Chiefs haven't earned an A+ yet, they certainly deserve an A.

Seattle Seahawks: A-

In Seattle, they're 4-0, including a 29-3 beat-down of their most important rival, the 49ers. But they're vulnerable on the road, and some weaknesses have become apparent the last few weeks. Most obvious is the offensive line, especially the tackles. They can't block, which is a pretty big problem. The Seahawks have also allowed 130-yard rushers in each of the past two games, both by unheralded rookies. Seattle has the best record in the NFC, and Percy Harvin may join the team at some point, but there's room for improvement.

San Francisco 49ers: A-

Since back-to-back 20-point losses in Weeks 2 and 3, they've won five in a row, all by double-digits. None of those games came against top competition, but they were decisive wins, and San Francisco did beat Green Bay in Week 1. Frank Gore is still a machine, the defense plays well, and Aldon Smith has re-joined the active roster. Colin Kaepernick has been up-and-down, but it looks like the offense may have found its identity, and the Niners are serious contenders in the NFC.

New Orleans Saints: A-

Is it weird to say their biggest problem is Drew Brees? The defense is playing well this year, especially against the pass, and the many-headed run game is effective when it gets a chance. And of course, Brees is terrific. But he passes a lot. If I called plays for Drew Brees, I'd probably pass a lot, too. But running the ball more often might help the offense establish consistency and improve its good-but-not-great third down percentage. It could also help keep the defense fresh, and keep Brees healthy. For the first time since leaving San Diego seven years ago, Brees is taking too many sacks. His season-by-season sack totals with New Orleans, starting in 2006: 18, 16, 13, 20, 25, 24, 26, 40 (well, 20 so far).

The Saints have two critical home games coming up, against the Cowboys and 49ers. If they win both — and at home, they should be favored — they have a real chance to take control of the NFC playoff picture. I have to believe that whoever wins homefield advantage in the NFC will advance to the Super Bowl, and I think with the focus on the NFC West, a lot of people are underrating the Saints.

New England Patriots: B+

They're 7-2, they've scored at least 27 for four weeks in a row, and they just hung 55 on the Steelers. Rob Gronkowski is back (and still awesome), and they're getting Aqib Talib back. But their top two defensive players are out for the season (Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo), and Tom Brady really misses Wes Welker. Superb Week 9 notwithstanding, this isn't the same Patriots offense we've seen the last three seasons. The Patriots are still winning games, but not the way you expect from an A student.

Indianapolis Colts: B+

Confusing mix of signature wins (49ers, Seahawks, Broncos), disappointing losses (Dolphins, Chargers), and close wins over mediocre opponents (Raiders, Texans). The Colts are 6-2, and near-locks to win the AFC South. Andrew Luck has improved, and Robert Mathis leads the NFL in sacks. Their offensive line looked vulnerable against Houston, and it remains to be seen how they handle the loss of Reggie Wayne.

Cincinnati Bengals: B+

Confusing mix of signature wins (Packers, Patriots), disappointing losses (Dolphins, Browns), and some other games. The Bengals are 6-3, and near-locks to win the AFC North. But their best defensive lineman, Geno Atkins, and their best cornerback, Leon Hall, are both out for the season. Cincinnati only has one remaining game against an opponent with a winning record, and wins in the next two weeks — against the Ravens and Browns — would basically clinch a division title.

Green Bay Packers: B

The question is Aaron Rodgers. If he has a broken collarbone, it's tough to view the Packers as a top team or serious playoff contender. If he misses a game or returns at less than 100%, Green Bay is probably still the favorite to win the NFC North. When he's healthy, the Packers are clearly the class of the division. They have a terrific offense, including a potent run game. The defense is not impressive, but it's not bad enough to keep a Rodgers-led offense out of the playoffs. The next three games are all against teams with losing records, and two of them are at home, so there's no need to rush Rodgers back if he needs a little time to heal up. If he's out for the rest of the regular season, though, he's going to get a long rest, because Green Bay won't make the playoffs without him.

Carolina Panthers: B

The draft-day additions of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short have helped turn a defense with some good pieces into a cohesive unit that is among the best in the league. Cam Newton, after a slow start, has played at a very high level for the past month. The Panthers lead the NFC in point differential (+98), and if the season ended today, they would make the playoffs on a tie-breaker. There's room for progress, but this team is moving in the right direction.

Dallas Cowboys: B

They've faced a tough schedule, including road games against the Chiefs, Chargers, and Lions, plus their epic last-minute home loss to Denver. But they're 5-4, they lead the NFC East, and they're 3-0 in the division, with wins against each of their rivals. DeMarco Murray returned to action this week, and DeMarcus Ware should be back soon, as well. When I look at their schedule, I see 10 wins. The media keeps pretending other teams might take this division, but it would be pretty shocking if Dallas doesn't win the NFC East. The Cowboys lead the NFC in scoring (257) and turnover differential (+10).

Detroit Lions: B

Scored more than 20 points in all of their games, except Week 5, when Calvin Johnson didn't play. Reggie Bush gives the offense a new dimension, and keeps defenses honest by forcing them to honor the run and the underneath pass. Four of Detroit's remaining games are against teams that are 2-6 or worse (PIT, TB, NYG, MIN). If the Lions can sweep those and split their other four, that gets them to 11-5. The health of Johnson and Bush is paramount.

New York Jets: B

Coming off a 4-12 season, trading away Darrelle Revis, and starting a rookie QB who may have been their second choice — behind Mark Sanchez — the Jets are 5-4 and in playoff position. They're an up-and-down team, tough to figure out. They lost to the 2-6 Steelers, and rookie QB Geno Smith looked overwhelmed, but they beat the previously 5-1 Patriots and 6-1 Saints. They got blown out by the Titans (38-13) and Bengals (49-9). As you might expect with a rookie under center, a lot of it is about keeping Geno Smith comfortable. In wins, Geno has 10 TDs and 4 INTs, with 26 rushing yards per game and an 89.4 passer rating. In losses, 1 TD and 9 INTs, with 10 rushing yards per game and a 51.7 rating.

I suspect many fans still aren't sold on the Jets, but if the playoffs started today, they'd be in, and they only have one more game against someone with a winning record (at Panthers, Week 15).

Chicago Bears: B

I am not making this up: they rank 2nd in the NFL in points per game, and 29th in total defense. The Bears have scored at least 24 points in seven of their eight games, and they've topped 30 four times. They've also allowed over 20 points in every game this season. Injuries on the defensive line have decimated that unit, which allowed 199 rushing yards against the Packers. The offense, however, has thrived in Jay Cutler's absence. Cutler reportedly will play in Week 10, but Josh McCown has performed well, and it may be too late for Cutler to preserve the $100 million payday he was hoping to land from Chicago this offseason.

San Diego Chargers: B

They're a weird 4-4. They beat the Cowboys and Colts, both by more than a touchdown. They lost by double-digits to the lowly Raiders, and by three or in overtime against three pretty decent teams. The Chargers are probably better than their record shows, but it's likely to get worse. There are remaining games against the Bengals and at the Dolphins, plus Denver and Kansas City twice each. An average team probably loses five of those six. Long-term, it's encouraging to see Philip Rivers play like an elite QB again. The addition of Danny Woodhead, as with Reggie Bush in Detroit, is huge.

Tennessee Titans: B

If they can go about 9-7, they'll probably make the playoffs, thanks to tiebreaker wins over the Jets and Chargers. Third-year QB Jake Locker looks good, and the offensive line, with free agent Andy Levitre and first-round draft pick Chance Warmack, is playing better. But the big leap has come on defense. Last year, the Titans allowed the most points in the NFL. Right now, they rank 9th. Alterraun Verner (4 INT) has emerged as a star. Bernard Pollard, added in free agency, has two INTs and leads the team in tackles. But mostly, it's just the unit as a whole stepping forward.

Washington: B-

They're only 1.5 games behind Dallas, and the teams play in Washington in December. If anyone is going to top Dallas in the NFC East, it's this team. The offense averages over 400 yards a game, and weapons like Pierre Garçon and Jordan Reed are coming into their own. The defense has lived on takeaways, and you'd like to see more consistency, more stops on third down. As much as anything, the team needs to stop making mistakes and beating itself. They've allowed a defensive or special teams TD for five straight weeks.

Arizona Cardinals: B-

Carson Palmer has elevated the offense, but it's still not very good. The defense, however, is above-average, maybe top-10 with Daryl Washington back. Arizona is 4-4, including wins over the Lions and Panthers. Three of the four losses came against the best teams in the league, the Saints, 49ers, and Seahawks. The remaining schedule is tough, and they're not a strong playoff contender right now, but they're moving in the right direction and they're mostly healthy.

Cleveland Browns: B-

New head coach Rob Chudzinski has an offensive background, and new offensive coordinator Norv Turner is famous, but it's Ray Horton and the defense that are most responsible for Cleveland's surprising 4-4 record. The Browns rank 4th in total defense and 2nd in sacks. There's no one star who's emerged, so much as a few new faces doing good things and a general improvement across the board.

Baltimore Ravens: C+

Other than Peyton Manning's 7-TD performance in Week 1, the defense has held up pretty well, even without stars like Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, and Bernard Pollard. The offense, deprived of Anquan Boldin, Dennis Pitta, and Matt Birk, is a much bigger problem. Marshal Yanda is the only good player on the line, Joe Flacco is clearly not an elite quarterback, Ray Rice is having a miserable season, and no one's stepped up to fill the void created by Boldin. The Ravens have lost three in a row, and it's been a disappointing follow-up to a Super Bowl, but four of the next five are at home.

Philadelphia Eagles: C+

0-4 at home, 4-1 on the road. Those four wins are against teams with a combined record of 8-23: Washington, the Giants, Tampa Bay, and Oakland. By yardage, Philadelphia has the worst defense in the NFL, allowing 419 per game. Nick Foles has played two great games, and unless he gets injured, it would be surprising to see Michael Vick start for the Eagles again. Success doesn't come easy in the NFL, and Chip Kelly hasn't built the system he had at Oregon, but he's doing something different, and it's interesting.

Miami Dolphins: C

Started 3-0, including wins over the Colts and the Falcons when they still had Julio Jones. They're 1-4 since, including two losses to sub-.500 teams and the other two by double-digits. Big-name free agent acquisitions have improved the defense, but not by nearly as much as many anticipated. On offense, deep threat Mike Wallace has been largely invisible, partly because Ryan Tannehill can't stay upright long enough for anything to develop downfield. Tannehill leads the NFL in sacks and sack yardage lost. The Dolphins' line misses Jake Long, but it seems to me that the problem is less about getting beat on blocks than not blocking the right people. A lot of these sacks are from players who are totally unblocked, simply because Miami can't figure out its protection.

It remains to be seen how the Jonathan Martin situation will play out, but right now, it's cost the Dolphins two of their five starting offensive lineman, with Martin absent and Richie Incognito suspended by the team. I dropped Miami's grade, because the whole situation is low-class, and based on what's been reported, it's an organizational problem.

Buffalo Bills: C

Scored between 20-24 points in each of their first seven games. That is remarkably consistent for a team with so much offensive upheaval. The Bills have started three different QBs, including two rookies, and their biggest star, RB C.J. Spiller, has been limited all season. Three of their six losses are by a field goal or less.

Oakland Raiders: C

Oakland ranks 14th in yards per game, but tied for 28th in points per game. The problem, as best I can tell, is the all-or-nothing nature of a Terrelle Pryor offense. Normally, a team with lots of yards and few points has turnover problems and/or really bad red zone offense, with too many short field goals. The Raiders are -3 in turnover differential, which is tied for 21st, not terrible. They definitely don't have a lot of short field goals; Oakland actually is tied for second-fewest FGs in the NFL (9). But the team ranks 26th in third down percentage (35%), and I'm left to guess that four factors explain Oakland's failure to turn yardage into points:

1) The team has an explosive, big-play offense that gains yardage in bunches and generates some touchdowns, but doesn't sustain drives or consistently improve field position.

2) Sebastian Janikowski is having a bad year, just 9/13 on field goal attempts, including 2 misses from inside 50 yards.

3) The Raiders are still near the top of the league in penalties, and they don't have good special teams that set up field position. That's hidden yardage working against you.

4) Bad luck.

I've only seen the Raiders twice, but that's my shot at an explanation. A team that can't score and can't stop Nick Foles might normally get a lower grade than this, but 3-5 Oakland gets some credit for slightly exceeding expectations.

St. Louis Rams: C

Zac Stacy has been a pleasant surprise, but the good news ends there. With or without Sam Bradford, the passing game is a disappointment. Weapons like Tavon Austin and Chris Givens are wasted in an offense that never goes downfield. Few analysts expected St. Louis to make the playoffs, but most fans thought the offense would show some obvious improvement, and that hasn't been the case. Three of the Rams' six losses were by more than two touchdowns.

Houston Texans: D

The Texans entered this season with a Pro Bowl QB, one of the best RBs in the NFL, a brilliant wide receiver, and the best defensive player of the last 20 years. Brian Cushing is out for the season (again) and Arian Foster doesn't look like himself. They've lost some close games, and they're three plays away from being 5-3, but that's just added to the frustration. Coming off back-to-back division titles and expecting big things, there's a lot of stress in Houston. The medical condition of head coach Gary Kubiak is unclear as of this writing, but I think everyone in Houston would benefit if fans would calm down and try to keep some perspective.

Houston and Atlanta are graded on a curve, marked down for falling so far beneath expectations. Also, for failing to make deals at the trade deadline. I get that fans will riot if they play Matt Schaub again, and Case Keenum looked pretty good in Week 9, but why not try to trade Schaub? In the last five seasons, Schaub has thrown for 4,000 yards three times, never had a passer rating below 90, and made two Pro Bowls, including last season's. If you can't play him, why not try to get some value?

Atlanta Falcons: D

They opened 1-3, but the losses came to the Patriots, Saints, and Dolphins, twice on the road and all by 7 or less. That didn't seem so bad. They're 1-3 since, as well, but losing to the Jets at home, losing badly to the Cardinals, and getting embarrassed by the Panthers.

Four key absences have really hurt the team: retired center Todd McClure, injured WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones, and departed free agent John Abraham. The right side of the offensive line is a disaster, and Atlanta is averaging just 3.5 yards per rush. Matt Ryan is struggling in the red zone, because teams can double-team Tony Gonzalez and he doesn't have any other weapons. Harry Douglas has played well since Julio's injury, but he's not Julio. And the defense is awful. Last year, some problems were camouflaged by an explosive offense that kept opponents playing from behind, setting up big plays like sacks and turnovers. This year, Atlanta hasn't held anyone below 23 points, and that includes some pretty rotten offenses.

The NFL trade deadline is almost always boring, but there was one obvious move this season: send Tony Gonzalez back to Kansas City. Gonzalez joined the Falcons after 12 seasons in KC, and Atlanta talked him out of retirement with the promise of a Super Bowl run in 2013. Atlanta has tanked, and the Chiefs are undefeated but need more weapons in the passing game. Why not move Gonzalez for a mid-round draft choice in 2014?

New York Giants: D

Having their worst year since Eli Manning's rookie season, 2004. The Giants rank 30th in points per game and 31st in point differential, ahead of only Jacksonville. They're 32nd in turnover differential, -12. They've won two in a row after an 0-6 start, but the damage is done, and this team isn't going on a 7-1 run in the second half of the season. In a year with the NFC East winnable by an average team and the Super Bowl in their home stadium, the Giants have blown an opportunity. Injuries at RB have forced the team to its fifth different starter of the season.

Pittsburgh Steelers: D

Comparable to the Giants. The Steelers are always competitive, and it looked like they might have a shot at the playoffs with the Ravens rebuilding. Instead, they're having their worst season in a decade. Like the Giants, they have a terrible turnover differential (-11), but unlike New York, their problem is less about losing the ball than not taking it away. The Steelers aren't generating any turnovers, and their defense looks old and slow, as illustrated by Terrelle Pryor in Week 8. The Steelers also allowed 40 points against Chicago, 34 against the Vikings, and a franchise-high 55 against New England on Sunday. This is Pittsburgh's worst defense since Bill Cowher became head coach in 1992.

Minnesota Vikings: D

I don't like giving out so many bad grades, but teams like the Texans, Falcons, Giants, Steelers, and Vikings aren't just bad — they're disappointing. All five teams made the playoffs within the past two seasons. All felt like they had a shot this year. And all of them are out of realistic contention. Minnesota is 1-7. The Vikings have three bad quarterbacks and a defense that can't stop anyone. Every opponent has scored at least 23, and most have scored over 30. Even Adrian Peterson has struggled. His stated goal this season was 2,500 rushing yards. He's on pace for 1,422. To meet his goal, he'd have to average 223.6 yards per game.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: D-

They're 0-8, they made an ugly, public break with their starting QB, and we hear reports every week about the head coach losing the locker room and maybe getting fired. They avoid an F because I'm grading on a curve. The Jaguars have been even worse on the field, and the Dolphins have been even worse off it.

Jacksonville Jaguars: F

I wrote in depth last week about how bad the Jaguars are. They're 0-8. All of their losses are by double-digits. They have scored the fewest points in the NFL (86) and allowed the most (264). Jacksonville is on pace for the worst single-season point differential in NFL history, -356. It's really bad.

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