It’s hard to believe, but some teams have reached the midway point in their schedules for the NFL 2016 Season. Already, fan bases have glanced at the next crop of rookies entering the draft, who may elevate their floundering franchises. Other groups have their sights set on the postseason with a trip to the NRG Stadium in Houston as the ultimate wish.
Where does your team stand between Weeks 8 and 9?
We’ll assess and evaluate each team with a corresponding grade for their performances thus far. Don’t expect clubs to receive an extra bump for trying hard. It’s a production-based business with rewards for those who accomplish goals. If we grade on effort, most teams would earn A. Actual results separate the elite, good, average and the terrible squads.
What’s the criterion for grading each team?
- Wins and losses
- Strength of schedule or win difficulty
- Winning or losing trends
- Personnel moves
It’s very simple at the top. As Hall of Famer Bill Parcells once said, “You are what your record says you are!” Records at .500 or above will elevate the overall grade. Teams don’t have control of whom they play, but similar to the NCAA, it’s easy to separate two winning teams with identical records based on who they’ve beaten through the weeks.
Trends serve an important evaluation tool because it indicates a team’s season outlook for the second half of the year. Finally, analyzing personnel moves provide an understanding of how transactions either helped or hindered a team’s success.
We’ll start with the AFC and travel East to West through the divisions. Here are the midseason grades for each team in 2016.
New England Patriots: A
Shocking news here, right?
Many thought the New England Patriots would start the season 1-3 or 2-2 without quarterback Tom Brady. Instead, head coach Bill Belichick coached his team to a 3-1 record and lost a division matchup with a third-string rookie quarterback who started in a shutout victory a week prior. Take that Deflategate conspirators!
Many teams and their fans point to injuries as an excuse for their subpar play, but the Patriots started two quarterbacks who had never started an NFL game, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett, to beat the competition.
Despite the single loss, there’s no need to worry about the Patriots with Brady back under center. The 39-year-old quarterback has thrown 12 touchdown passes and zero interceptions since returning to action. New England still owns the AFC East without a doubt.
Skeptics scratched their heads over the decision to trade linebacker Jamie Collins. But when you ask for more than $12 million per year as a non-quarterback (h/t NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport), Belichick laughs and sends you to Cleveland without hesitation. This isn’t the first time the Patriots have dealt a prominent player. They’ve traded Pro Bowl talents such as Chandler Jones, Richard Seymour and Logan Mankins in the past. Reserve your judgment on Belichick’s personnel move for another three or four weeks.
Buffalo Bills: B
The Buffalo Bills season started off on the wrong foot. The team released running back Karlos Williams, who reported to training camp overweight and the league suspended him for violating the substance-abuse policy. Defensive tackle Marcell Dareus also served a four-game suspension for missing a drug test. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins only played two games before landing on injured reserve with a foot injury. By the way, the team also fired offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
It sounds like a recipe for a lost season, right? Wrong.
After losing their first two games and firing Roman, the Bills won four consecutive games with an old-school offensive game plan and avoiding turnovers. New offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn simplified the offensive design down to handing off to running back LeSean McCoy, who ran until his hamstring tightened up on him.
Buffalo lost its previous two outings with McCoy at less than 100 percent and without the eighth-year running back in the lineup. At an even 4-4 record, it’s fair to question whether the Bills backfield can sustain success pounding the football and averaging fewer than 200 passing yards per game. Nonetheless, give this team credit as the only squad to beat the division-leading Patriots.
Miami Dolphins: C
When Adam Gase arrived in South Florida and took over the head coaching position, we all thought he would bring the best out of quarterback Ryan Tannehill. To this point, most people don’t realize Tannehill threw for 4,000-plus yards and doubled his touchdown-to-interception ratio in the two previous seasons. However, most people understand the Dolphins signal-caller must crank his game up a notch to take the offense to new heights.
Despite a talented wide receiver trio, the Dolphins found success running the ball with Jay Ajayi over the past two weeks. With 54 carries for 418 yards and three touchdowns over the past two games, he’s become the engine that keeps the offense clicking on all cylinders.
Miami fielded a lifeless offensive attack for the first few weeks; Ajayi finally gives the unit an identity behind an underachieving front line. At 3-4, coming off a bye week, we could see Tannehill pick his spots as defenses prepare for the run.
Two weeks ago, the team deserved an F. After beating the Pittsburgh Steelers with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger playing (albeit playing hurt) for most of the game and then a red-hot Bills team, the Dolphins hit midseason as a mediocre club.
New York Jets: D+
After a 10-6 season, the New York Jets seemed primed to challenge for the AFC East crown after finally signing their starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. However, the bearded wonder’s career season turned out to be fool’s gold.
Through eight games, Fitzpatrick leads the league in interceptions (11) and the coaching staff benched him for Geno Smith, who tore his ACL in Week 7. The Jets have nowhere else to turn at quarterback, which doesn’t bode well for their season outlook based on Fitzpatrick’s seven starts.
Cornerback Darrelle Revis’ ability to blanket wide receivers in man coverage made the Jets defense tough on the perimeter. Now, he’s a shell of himself at the position and should begin working on his transition to safety. New York ranks dead last in pass defense.
The Jets won consecutive games, beating two teams on lengthy losing streaks, which includes the only winless squad in the league. Overall, Gang Green struggles to move the ball through the air, running back Matt Forte averages 3.5 yards per carry, and the defense can’t stop opposing passing attacks. New York holds onto one bright spot; they’re No. 1 in run defense. Other than that, there’s trouble at Florham Park.
Pittsburgh Steelers: B
As quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s health goes, so does the Pittsburgh Steelers chances of running away with an AFC North title. He went down with a knee injury in Week 6. As expected, the team followed with a loss to the Patriots.
Backup quarterback Landry Jones isn’t completely ineffective under center, but the Steelers need Roethlisberger on the field to compete with the better teams in the league.
Every year, the Steelers lay a few eggs in matchups against lesser competition. The Philadelphia Eagles squashed the Steelers in Week 3. Roethlisberger played most of the game against the Dolphins and the offense sputtered before his exit.
Fortunately for Pittsburgh, the AFC North reeks with mediocrity in second and third place. The Steelers look far better than their division rivals, but it’s a slightly better than average team with a shot at randomly disappointing you in any given week.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Ray Fittipaldo confirmed with players that Roethlisberger practiced on Monday, which bodes well for the team going forward.
At 4-3 with talent stacked at the skill positions, the Steelers still list as one of the better squads across the NFL landscape. If Jones starts another game, expect him to hand off to running back Le’Veon Bell 20-25 times.
Cincinnati Bengals: C
The Cincinnati Bengals should be better than their record with a high-powered offense. Quarterback Andy Dalton ranks No. 4 in passing yards (2,349) with a productive tandem at running back in the backfield. The Bengals have accumulated the sixth-most yards on offense, but they’re not as potent in the red zone.
Furthermore, the defense has struggled on both levels. The first-round pedigrees at cornerback and the pass rush haven’t prevented opposing offenses from moving the ball up and down the field.
In Week 8, the Bengals traveled to the United Kingdom and surrendered 546 total yards in a tie against the Washington Redskins. If the Bengals plan on reclaiming the AFC North crown, the defense must pick up the slack in the second half of the season. The tie could either hurt or help Cincinnati in what should become a two-team race for a home playoff game.
At the moment, the Bengals don’t have an impressive win, but tight end Tyler Eifert’s return could help the offense win a few shootouts in close games. Cincinnati goes into its Week 9 bye as a mediocre team that performs well on one side of the ball. Head coach Marvin Lewis must crack the whip on his defensive unit.
Baltimore Ravens: C-
The Baltimore Ravens gave hope for a turnaround season and then slumped on a four-game losing streak. The Ravens beat up on poor teams early in the season and folded to better competition over the past month. Fortunately, Baltimore hung around during all its losses, but the offense struggled before and after firing offensive coordinator Marc Trestman.
This team also cut ties with running back Justin Forsett, who flashed as a one-year wonder. Terrance West leads a crowded backfield loaded with two dual-threat running backs behind him on the depth chart.
Surprisingly, wide receiver Mike Wallace returned to the AFC North and now leads the team in receiving yards and touchdowns. It’s likely new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg could right the ship with a plethora of weapons at the wideout and tight end positions. Though, wide receiver Steve Smith Sr.’s return would certainly provide a much-needed boost to the passing attack.
Baltimore has only played one division game through the first seven weeks. The Ravens field a top-10 defense in yards and points allowed, which gives this team hope to knock off the Bengals or Steelers in head-to-head matchups. The Ravens will match up against the Steelers fresh off their Week 8 bye.
Cleveland Browns: F
After each Cleveland Browns loss, you hear the same nauseating narrative. Well, they’ve played hard, fought tooth and nail until the end but came up short. We’re not giving a good grade for effort here. Please, stand on the participation line for ribbons at your nearest elementary school gym.
The Browns haven’t won a game yet. Sure, head coach Hue Jackson’s players compete day in and day out, but they’re not getting the job done. They’ve led during some games and lost four by six points or fewer. Nonetheless, it’s a team without much to celebrate for the 2016 season at its midway point.
After passing on the draft pick that would’ve landed Carson Wentz, the Browns chose to place quarterback Robert Griffin III back under center. He put together an inconsistent preseason, but the coaching staff still named him the starter over journeyman quarterback Josh McCown and rookie signal-caller Cody Kessler—what a shocker.
Griffin couldn’t stay healthy long enough to establish a rhythm with his receivers and landed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. Nonetheless, whether Griffin played or not, this team would go through growing pains with a new regime. Without a win, it’s sad to see this organization headed for another early draft pick where they’ll likely put hope in another quarterback to resuscitate the franchise.
Houston Texans: B
The Houston Texans list as the most impressive team in the division, but it doesn’t say much for the AFC South.
Ongoing discussions about quarterback Brock Osweiler’s time in Denver and his $72 million contract have overwhelmed his mediocre play during his career.
Osweiler left his previous team as an average signal-caller and arrived in Houston as the same flawed quarterback. Now, as the clear-cut starter, the microscope focus has zoomed in on his inefficiencies. The Texans’ inconsistent play at quarterback will hinder wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins’ numbers as he seeks to earn a new deal.
Right now, the Texans must design the offense around Lamar Miller, who runs and catches out of the backfield, until Osweiler feels comfortable under center.
Fortunately, the Texans still have a decent defense without three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. The front seven struggles against the run, but the secondary holds passing attacks to the bare minimum.
The Texans have enough talent to overcome Osweiler’s shortcomings, but the defense must sew up the holes on the interior. Defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney has picked up his game as a pass-rusher and run defender in Watt’s absence. Houston already won two matchups within the division.
Tennessee Titans: B-
Every week, we know what to expect from the Tennessee Titans. They’re going to move the ball on the ground and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will unleash the blitz.
The Titans’ consistency gives them an identity, but it’s not a guarantee for victories. Sometimes the plan works out in their favor, other times it falls flat. Nonetheless, they’re probably one of the most physical teams in the league who’ve come to terms with their strengths and weaknesses.
The coaching staff should’ve tried harder to help wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham along before trading him to the Philadelphia Eagles. However, wideout Rishard Matthews continues to make strides as the secondary target to tight end Delanie Walker.
Many depicted the Titans as a desperate team when they acquired disgruntled running back DeMarco Murray from the Eagles. However, the transaction assisted Tennessee in establishing its exotic smashmouth offense. With two versatile offensive tackles and quarterback Marcus Mariota’s ability to escape pocket pressure, the Titans have a viable offensive attack. Tennessee ranks ninth in total yards gained.
The Titans must improve on their 1-2 division record to earn a chance at toppling the Texans for a home playoff game in January.
Indianapolis Colts: C-
Aside from quarterback Andrew Luck’s impressive statistical numbers and 33-year-old running back Frank Gore on pace for his ninth 1,000-yard rushing season, the Indianapolis Colts don’t have much to celebrate through eight weeks.
Past missteps on draft picks and rifts between general manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano have finally caught up with the Colts. The defense struggles in pass and run defense. Indianapolis has allowed 400 or more yards in five of its eight games.
Opposing defenses have sacked Luck 31 times, which leads the league. If he continues to stand in the pocket as a piñata, the Colts will risk losing him for significant time in consecutive seasons.
The Colts have an identity, which focuses on outscoring teams, but the poor protection around Luck adds tremendous risk to the philosophy. Despite drafting a center and shifting bodies across the offensive line, the team hasn’t figured out how to keep their best asset out of harm’s way.
At 3-5 with a 1-2 division record, the Colts look up to the Titans and Texans, who show more consistency in their week-to-week performances. Though, it’s possible for the offensive line to pull together as the season progresses through the second half.
Jacksonville Jaguars: D-
Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan met with coaches and players before their Week 8 Thursday night matchup with the Titans. After the loss, the team fired offensive coordinator Greg Olson. Quarterback Blake Bortles has shown regression over the past year. The offensive line has also struggled to open lanes for the running backs.
The Jaguars 2-5 record serves as a backdrop to all the negative press surrounding the team’s poor direction. This team came into the season with additional veteran assets and budding talents on both sides of the ball that put this squad in the sleeper category.
Nonetheless, Jacksonville looks far less impressive on the field than on paper. Many projected this team to venture into top-10 territory among offenses, but it’s currently ranked in the bottom third. Once viewed as a promising quarterback, Bortles often looks frantic and confused in the pocket.
The Jaguars defense doesn’t give up the deep ball too often, but rank last in takeaways.
Head coach Gus Bradley already sits on a seat that’s about 110 degrees Fahrenheit and another bad loss could abruptly end his tenure in Jacksonville. We’re halfway through the season, and the Jaguars don’t have a home victory.
Denver Broncos: A-
The Denver Broncos have exceeded expectations after all the offseason changes and still hold the key to the AFC West. After losing Osweiler, linebacker Danny Trevathan and defensive lineman Malik Jackson, most people thought the Broncos would take a huge step backward after winning the Super Bowl.
Nonetheless, the defense re-tooled and still ranks as one of the best in the league. The organization made a bold move to start quarterback Trevor Siemian over veteran signal-caller Mark Sanchez, who later signed with the Dallas Cowboys.
Siemian isn’t exactly tossing the pigskin all over the field, but he’s thrown eight touchdown passes to four interceptions in seven starts. The Broncos lean heavily on their running backs as ball-carriers, receivers and pass protectors to optimize the offense. Despite losing running back C.J. Anderson due to an injury, rookie Devontae Booker filled in adequately in Week 8.
The Broncos lost two consecutive games, including one division loss, but quickly recovered for an impressive 6-2 record in the face of personnel changes. The defense has held its top-10 status for a year and a half, which is another noteworthy positive. The mini two-game skid lists as the only blemish on Denver’s 2016 resume.
Oakland Raiders: A-
The Oakland Raiders finally have an early MVP candidate on the roster in quarterback Derek Carr. The team also put together five consecutive road victories with a brutal travel schedule to start the 2016 season.
Head coach Jack Del Rio has gambled on fourth downs with his offense and won more times than not. When you’re coaching a top-tier offensive unit, why not? The 6-2 Raiders hadn’t enjoyed a record this good since the 2001 season when the team started with the exact current record through eight weeks.
A 6-2 start would indicate an easy A, but Del Rio’s group has only logged one victory against a team with a .500 record or better and penalties remain an issue. Oakland owns the record for most penalties in a single game (23) after a sloppy overtime win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 8.
The Raiders field a bend-but-don’t-break defense that ranks No. 31 in yards allowed, but depends on turnovers to stop opposing offenses. Through eight weeks, Oakland forced 13 turnovers to elevate the unit’s performance from poor to decent. It’s risky to bank on takeaways, but it’s worked thus far. At the midway point, the Raiders have a 1-1 division record heading into a Week 9 showdown with the Broncos.
Kansas City Chiefs: A-
Due to an early bye week, the Kansas City Chiefs record falls slightly behind the Broncos and Raiders. Nonetheless, this team quietly remains competitive in a tough division. The Chiefs have already won two games against AFC West opponents, including one victory over the Silver and Black.
The Chiefs maintained their methodical offensive identity despite running back Jamaal Charles playing in limited action for three contests. Fellow ball-carrier Spencer Ware has led the backfield, averaging five yards per carry.
Kansas City lost cornerback Sean Smith and needed to replace edge-rusher Justin Houston as he recovered from ACL and LCL surgery. The Chiefs avoided a drop off after a remarkable 10-game regular season win streak during the previous year.
Quarterback Alex Smith continues to pick his spots to throw darts and minimize turnovers to keep the offense rolling downfield. The Chiefs don’t win in a fashion to appease your love for a fast-paced offense that accumulates chunk yardage, but they’re winners with a conservative approach.
Despite missing defensive pieces, the group still ranks No. 8 in points allowed. A solid defense can travel anywhere on the road with a chance to pull out a victory. Since the Chiefs rarely commit turnovers, there’s very little margin for error for opposing offenses.
San Diego Chargers: C
After a 1-4 start and repetitive defensive lapses and fourth-quarter miscues, San Diego Chargers head coach Mike McCoy landed on the hot seat. Then, the Chargers pulled out a shocking win over the Broncos in Week 6 and followed with an overtime victory against the Atlanta Falcons on the road.
The Chargers could’ve easily hit the midway point as an average team with a B grade. Despite two impressive wins against winning teams, the Chargers poor pass defense has been their Achilles’ heel in 2016.
With quarterback Philip Rivers at the helm, the offense continued to roll after losing wide receiver Keenan Allen and running back Danny Woodhead to injuries. San Diego’s passing attack kept the team in games and in most cases decided the outcome.
On a brighter note, the Chargers first-round pick, defensive lineman Joey Bosa, logged four sacks in four games after his extended holdout. After all the bickering behind closed doors and through the media between Bosa’s camp and the front office, it seems the Chargers made the right choice at No. 3 in the previous draft.
With a 1-3 record in the AFC West, San Diego fell behind their rivals early, but there’s enough overall roster talent to finish 3-3 among their division opponents.
Dallas Cowboys: A
Remember when we thought all those offseason suspensions for the defense and quarterback Tony Romo’s absence would sink the Dallas Cowboys in the first half of the season? Skeptics also felt owner Jerry Jones reached for running back Ezekiel Elliott with other pressing defensive needs coming into the 2016 calendar year.
Months later, Elliott leads the league in rushing yards (799) and the defense ranks No. 7 in points allowed. By the way, rookie quarterback Dak Prescott took the reins and Romo may not take another snap under center for America’s team again.
After losing their season opener, the Cowboys won six-straight, including two games within the division. Wide receiver Dez Bryant missed three games due to injury, but his absence didn’t hurt the offense in dramatic fashion. The Cowboys struggled to move the ball with explosive plays, but Elliott’s four-game stretch with 134-plus rushing yards propelled the team to impressive victories.
Two rookies have led a resurgent charge in Dallas. Prescott and Elliott expedited the process toward future. After pushing the Cowboys to victory, in some cases without Romo or Bryant, the front office should feel confident in a playoff bid and sustained success. Kudos to the coaching staff for redefining cornerback Morris Claiborne’s career before he suffered a groin injury.
Washington Redskins: B
The Cowboys sit atop the NFC East and then comes a competitive three-team race for second place. The Washington Redskins have shown improvement in offensive efficiency and increased their brashness in the secondary with cornerback Josh Norman.
Washington lost a Week 2 matchup to the Cowboy,s but earned victories over the other two division rivals. Through the ups, downs and a tie, quarterback Kirk Cousins resembles a decent long-term solution at quarterback. No, he’s not Brady, Rodgers or Luck, but Mr. “You Like That” shows competence in the pocket with various offensive weapons at the skill position. At the current pace, the Redskins will have to pay Cousins longevity money unless they plan to bring in a veteran replacement.
Norman doesn’t completely change the pass defense, but he certainly helps near the red zone. The Redskins rank No. 6 in passing touchdowns allowed. He’s still the same trash-talking, play-making cornerback we saw with the NFC Champions last year.
After winning the NFC East, many pointed out the Redskins didn’t beat a team with a winning record. This year, they logged two wins against winning teams within their division. With a productive passing attack, a top-tier cornerback and 4-3-1 record, it’s time to give props to the Redskins.
Philadelphia Eagles: B
The Philadelphia Eagles earn the same grade as Washington with a similar 4-3 record. The Eagles lost a hard-fought battle to the Redskins, but most analysts felt this team would finish with four wins for the entire season.
After trading quarterback Sam Bradford and rolling out Carson Wentz in his rookie year, the Eagles could’ve easily labeled this a trial-and-error season for the No. 2 pick. Instead, Wentz looked impressive in the first three weeks, which includes a decisive 34-3 victory over the Steelers. Philadelphia also handed the Minnesota Vikings their first loss in Week 7.
Over the past four games, the Eagles lost three. However, Wentz didn’t look terrible in those losses, just a bit conservative against better defenses. He still looks comfortable in the pocket and doesn’t force too many poor throws. The Eagles quarterback completed 65 percent of his passes and only threw three interceptions through eight weeks.
Fortunately for Wentz, the defense ranks No. 4 in yards allowed and No. 8 in points surrendered, which gives the offense a good starting position. Despite changes at the cornerback position, the Eagles have shown great resistance in pass defense.
Philadelphia started the season as the unanimous choice to finish last in the division. Now, we’re not completely sure about that.
New York Giants: B-
The New York Giants have a similar win-loss record to the Redskins and Eagles at 4-3, but the optics and trends don’t look good for Big Blue.
We’re not talking about the off-field drama. It’s about head coach Ben McAdoo’s sluggish and turnover-prone offense. Starting running back Rashad Jennings averages 2.7 yards per carry. Quarterback Eli Manning has thrown six interceptions and he’s finished three games without throwing a touchdown pass.
Manning’s inconsistencies stand out as a surprise due to his talented trio at wide receiver. Of course, Odell Beckham leads the group, but Sterling Shepard cooled off after a promising start in the first three weeks. Victor Cruz finally returned to action as a full-time contributor. Manning’s touchdown rate doesn’t even come close to the previous two seasons.
General manager Jerry Reese spent $200 million on the defense with marginal results through the first half of the season. The Giants rank No. 31 in sacks (9) and still give up a generous amount of yards. With defensive end Olivier Vernon’s huge contract and pass-rusher Jason Pierre-Paul tabbed with the franchise tag, the Giants should be reaping more benefits.
Despite surrendering more points than scored, the Giants have a winning record with a division win over the Cowboys in Week 1.
Minnesota Vikings: B+
The Minnesota Vikings lead the division, but they’re in a mini slump. After winning five consecutive games, the offense scored 10 points in an all-out struggle over the past two contests. The Vikings have placed three offensive tackles on injured reserve. Another perimeter offensive lineman, Alex Boone, entered concussion protocol after the team’s Week 8 matchup. Opposing defenses lines have elected to blitz and force Sam Bradford to throw under extreme duress.
Without elite assets on the perimeter, the Vikings depend heavily on wideout Stefon Diggs to stretch the defense. First-round pick Laquon Treadwell doesn’t have a single reception for the season.
On a brighter note, it’s impressive to see the Vikings field one of the best defenses in the league and put together five wins without their quarterback Teddy Bridgewater or running back Adrian Peterson.
Bradford must develop a rapport with at least one more intermediate receiving option or hope for running back Jerick McKinnon’s speedy recovery. The Vikings can’t sustain a winning record with just a dominant defense. Eventually, they must put up at least 20 points per game.
With a stingy defense, it’s too early to jump off the Vikings bandwagon after consecutive losses. However, the losing trend suggests Minnesota won’t run away with another NFC North title so easily.
Green Bay Packers: B
The Green Bay Packers have disappointed those with lofty expectations, but they’re still a decent football team. There’s an enormous overreaction to quarterback Aaron Rodgers because he’s not exceptional. The Packers quarterback still has 17 touchdown passes, which ranks No. 3 in the league, and only four interceptions. Most quarterbacks would’ve produced their best start with Rodgers’ half-season stat line.
The Packers need to find a solution in the backfield. Running back Eddie Lacy landed on injured reserve with an ankle injury, which allowed Ty Montgomery to show off his skills as a versatile ball-carrier and receiver similar to Percy Harvin. The Packers dual-threat offensive weapon missed the team’s Week 8 matchup with an illness, though.
Despite Rodgers’ productivity in the pocket, Green Bay still needs offensive balance to beat the better teams in the league. As mentioned, Rodgers boasts good numbers, but he’s not spectacular and the offense sputters at times.
More importantly, the Packers must patch up their secondary after injuries ravaged the cornerback position. The team placed Sam Shields on injured reserve after he suffered a concussion. It’s unclear when Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins will return to action.
Despite the injuries, no team will have pity on Packers. The front office and coaching staff must fix the issue or lose another NFC North crown to the Vikings.
Detroit Lions: B
Who thought the Detroit Lions would be a game behind the Packers at the halfway point? Quarterback Matthew Stafford’s play comes as an even bigger surprise without wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
When Megatron retired, some fans felt like the front office should’ve traded Stafford for more assets. Proponents of sending Stafford on his way concluded Johnson made the quarterback more effective. Thus, expecting his production would significantly drop without a physically dominant receiver.
However, Stafford answered critics with one of his best seasons through eight weeks. He’s thrown 16 touchdown passes and only four interceptions while completing 66 percent of his passes. Marvin Jones and Golden Tate lead the wide receiver group. The Lions also lost their starting running back Ameer Abdullah, which somewhat handicaps the offensive balance.
The Lions haven’t played exceptionally well in any facet, but they accomplished enough on game days to pull out four victories. Nonetheless, Stafford spreads the ball well among his passing options; five players have already logged 260 or more receiving yards.
With an even 4-4 record, Detroit could help decide the balance of power in the NFC North. They have a crucial divisional game against the Vikings in Week 9.
Chicago Bears: D+
Before their Monday Night Football matchup with the Vikings, the Chicago Bears probably would’ve earned the second F in these midseason grades. According to teammates, via ESPN’s Jeff Dickerson, quarterback Jay Cutler gave a fiery pre-game speech, which lit a fire under his teammates. It makes you wonder if Ray Lewis dressed up as Cutler for Halloween to deliver the pep talk.
The Bears came out and attacked the Vikings under the bright lights. Bradford never looked comfortable throwing in the pocket. Despite running back Jeremy Langford’s return, fellow running back Jordan Howard totaled 202 yards on a big stage to help move the offense down the field.
Chicago has a 2-1 record within the division, which carries meaning for the long run. While Chicago doesn’t look like a playoff team, the quarterback has something to prove. This season couldn’t be Cutler’s last opportunity to prove himself with his current team. The front office may have a wandering eye with Romo available or a top-15 draft pick next year.
The Bears could go with a more conservative approach to rattle off wins going forward, featuring Howard and spotty throws from Cutler to wideout Alshon Jeffery. An emotionally-invested quarterback and a primetime win could spark some momentum.
Atlanta Falcons: B+
Quarterback Matt Ryan deserves midseason MVP praise for his play under center. The Atlanta Falcons have opted to outscore teams with their No. 1 passing offense in yards and points scored.
The onus no longer rests solely in wide receiver Julio Jones’ hands to stretch the defense vertically. Before missing Week 8 with an injury, running back Tevin Coleman ranked second on the team in receiving yards. He also shared the load in the backfield with Devonta Freeman.
As a high-scoring team, the Falcons will win and lose some shootouts. When the offense doesn’t deliver, defensively-sound teams can leave the field with a victory. If the opposing quarterback escapes pressure and throws, Atlanta will give up the yards downfield. They’re ranked No. 27 in passing yards allowed.
On the positive side, the resistance against the ground attack has significantly improved. The Falcons field a much tougher interior defense. Overall, Atlanta racked up the sacks through eight weeks with 18 in total. The front office also made a good decision in signing 36-year-old Dwight Freeney as a situational pass-rusher. Defensive lineman Vic Beasley leads the team with 7.5 quarterback takedowns.
The Falcons can run away with the NFC South crown with consistency, but the defense will need to make a few critical stops along the way.
New Orleans Saints: C
The New Orleans Saints started the season with impact additions on the defensive side of the ball, but injuries put the team at a disadvantage. Cornerback Delvin Breaux broke his leg in the season opener. First-round pick Sheldon Rankins hasn’t played a snap due to a broken fibula. Linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha tore his ACL in the offseason after he logged four sacks last season.
The Saints season started rough with all the injury losses, but it’s no excuse when it’s next man up. Yet again, the Saints defense looks as strong as wet tissue paper. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley can’t plug all the gaps alone. Pass-rusher Cameron Jordan has flashed at times, but the interior defense still needs another piece to legitimize the front seven.
As usual, quarterback Drew Brees continues to keep this team alive with his arm against the toughest defenses in the league. New Orleans earned a 25-20 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in a tight Week 8 matchup. Running back Tim Hightower rushed for 102 yards in the previous game and he could offer much-needed balance on offense.
Rankins could return at some point this season, which bodes well for the Saints interior defense and a push for the NFC South title. The passing offense already torched the defending NFC South champions in Week 6.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: C-
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers front office fired Lovie Smith to promote Dirk Koetter to head coach to progressively develop quarterback Jameis Winston in his second year. Unfortunately, Winston’s marginal improvements haven’t accelerated the Buccaneers’ overall offensive success. The team fields an average passing attack likely hindered by a mediocre ground attack.
Tampa Bay won consecutive games with running back Jacquizz Rodgers handling the majority workload in the backfield. Fellow ball-carrier Doug Martin suffered a setback with his recovery from a hamstring injury; his timetable to return remains unclear. With Rodgers dinged with an ankle injury, the team signed running back Mike James, who hasn’t played since the 2014 season.
Without the offensive balance, Winston will probably continue to struggle. Speaking of inconsistencies, the Buccaneers might be at their wits end with second-round pick kicker Roberto Aguayo who missed his fifth field goal in Week 8 against the Raiders.
In summary, the Buccaneers have a mediocre offensive attack with three running backs on the shelf and a struggling rookie kicker. It doesn’t sound good, but they’re 2-0 within the division. The Buccaneers No. 25 ranked defense must raise the bar to help the offense with good field positioning. Tampa Bay faces the Falcons on Thursday night.
Carolina Panthers: D
For those who underestimated Norman’s role within the Panthers secondary, it’s safe to say his ability shade half the field matters. The Panthers thought a strong front seven would overcompensate for inexperienced or rookie cornerbacks on the back end. The front office has been sadly mistaken on that call.
There’s not enough pocket pressure to completely overwhelm opposing quarterbacks to take pressure off the youth in downfield coverage. Eventually, Daryl Worley and James Bradberry may develop into solid perimeter defenders, but the Panthers have paid for the growing pains through the first half of the season.
Carolina’s pass defense ranks No. 30 in yards allowed. In contrast, the run defense lists No. 3 in yards surrendered. Offensive coordinators have opted to reel back and throw darts as opposed to testing the Panthers front seven against the Panthers.
This Panthers squad has an opportunity to climb back into the NFC South race, but the offense must protect quarterback Cam Newton and the football. The team has committed 17 turnovers, which ties for No. 2 in the league. Defenders have dropped Newton behind the line of scrimmage 16 times.
The young defensive backs have to grow up quick and the offensive line must pull together to protect the franchise quarterback whether Commissioner Roger Goodell hears his plea for more roughing the passer flags or not.
Seattle Seahawks: B
The Seattle Seahawks unimpressively lead the NFC West with only one signature win for the season. The Falcons griped about the referees swallowing their whistles on a pass interference call on cornerback Richard Sherman in a Week 6 matchup, but the Seattle Seahawks earned a victory over a red-hot Falcons team.
Other than that, it’s been a ho-hum season for the Seahawks. With head coach Pete Carroll in the saddle, you can expect a tough, stingy defense that gives up scraps to the best offenses in the league. However, Seattle’s offense hit major roadblocks as the team transitions from run-oriented to a more balanced approach.
Quarterback Russell Wilson is on pace to throw more than 500 passes in a season for the first time in his career. However, he’s only thrown five touchdown passes in seven games. It’s worth noting, Wilson doesn’t seem to be 100 percent. At one point, he wore an ankle brace and knee brace simultaneously.
We won’t beat a dead horse and discuss the ongoing issues with the offensive line, but it’s clear Wilson’s ability to create on the move would optimize an offensive attack focused on throwing the ball more than usual. The Seahawks defense keeps the score relatively close, which allows the offense to rank No. 29 in points scored and still win football games.
Arizona Cardinals: C
The losing team in the previous NFC Championship Game continues to flounder around without clear-cut direction. With all the firepower on offense and the added pass-rushing assets, the Arizona Cardinals don’t resemble a playoff team yet.
Head coach Bruce Arians doesn’t sugarcoat his assessments, which means he’s lighting his guys up with harsh criticisms on their play as of late. The Cardinals don’t have a victory against a winning team, and they blew an opportunity to knock off the division-leading Seahawks via Chandler Catanzaro’s missed field goal.
Arizona’s run defense looks average, but defensive linemen Markus Golden and Chandler Jones have a combined 11 sacks through eight games. Thanks to development and an offseason acquisition, the Cardinals effectively bolstered a subpar pass rush.
However, it’s shocking to see their relatively constant offense struggle to score points in the current campaign. The culprit for the regression traces back to the offensive line, which allowed 24 sacks with quarterback Carson Palmer under center. He braced himself for 25 sacks for the entire 2015 season.
Despite running back David Johnson’s spectacular start as a ball-carrier and receiver, Arizona needs an offensive identity between Palmer’s arm and Johnson’s legs. With the Seahawks lethargic offense, the Cardinals still have enough time to claim the NFC West title.
Los Angeles Rams: C
At one point, the Los Angeles Rams looked formidable with quarterback Case Keenum under center. Then, the wheels came off over the past few weeks with three consecutive losses.
The Rams brushed off a season-opening shutout loss and won three games, including one impressive slugfest with the Seahawks. Strangely, Los Angeles matches up well against the better teams in the division.
Just when you thought head coach Jeff Fisher would finish a season with a record above 7-9, the Rams drop to 3-4, which puts the team on pace to hit their head coach’s mark. Though, we should give Fisher credit for fielding a team that didn’t look competitive on paper.
The No. 1 overall pick in the draft, quarterback Jared Goff, hasn’t played a single snap. Running back Todd Gurley doesn’t have a single 100-yard rushing performance. The Rams have successfully angered impatient fans waiting to see their coveted draft pick and fantasy owners waiting to see Gurley break out with a huge performance. Nonetheless, Los Angeles finds themselves in the thick of the NFC West title race halfway through the season with two division victories.
The Rams will have to ante up on the defensive end to contend with the Seahawks and Cardinals toward the end of the season. The offense ranks No. 30 in yards gained and points scored—that won’t change with Goff taking over at quarterback.
San Francisco 49ers: F
Here comes the other failing grade on this report. The San Francisco 49ers came out firing against the Rams in a 28-0 home victory. They’ve hit rock bottom after that. Six consecutive losses and a quarterback change later, it’s clear the 49ers will headline the 2017 NFL Draft with the Browns picking No. 1 and No. 2.
The decision to start quarterback Colin Kaepernick only serves as a evaluation period for head coach Chip Kelly and the front office. At this point, the 49ers should wipe the slate clean at the position. Signal-caller Blaine Gabbert fumbled his second opportunity at proving himself as a starter in the league. Since taking over for Gabbert, Kaepernick has completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes.
As the better pure talent with a track record for winning under Jim Harbaugh, Kaepernick will likely finish the season as the starter. However, barring a complete turnaround, the sixth-year signal-caller will likely hit the free-agent market in the offseason.
There’s a small bright spot in all the gloom surrounding the organization. With decent young defensive talent and an offensive guru in Kelly on the sideline, a franchise quarterback in the draft could immediately change San Francisco’s fortune. When viewing the Eagles’ competitive outlook with Wentz and a solid front seven, the 49ers could mirror the same pathway back to relevance.
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