A: Denver, Seattle, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Green Bay, New Orleans
These teams are all where they need to be at the halfway mark of the season. With the way things look now—barring the worst of unforeseen catastrophes—I’m willing to say that each one of them will make the playoffs.
While the Broncos have stumbled a bit of late in the first half—see Jacksonville, Indianapolis, and Washington—and even suffered their first loss of the year against Indy, they have still shown off an impressive array of offensive weapons, headlined by the consistent play of Peyton Manning and Knowshon Moreno who is on pace for nearly 1,500 total yards and a whopping 18 touchdowns. And with the return of their elite pass rusher Von Miller from suspension, the defense has gotten a needed boost.
Seattle barely squeaked by the Rams last night, but that’s of little consequence. The Seahawks have only gotten stronger as the season has worn on and are now on a three-game win streak. They can boast a +80 scoring margin, the number one rushing attack in the league, and an elite pass defense.
Indianapolis cut the Broncos low at home; they’re a legitimate threat. They will coast to a division title as the rest of the AFC South is just dreadful.
Fact: Kansas City is the only undefeated team in the NFL. Don’t believe they’re for real? Well, I do—and I’ve already stated my reasons in a separate piece.
The Pack is back. Top five in passing, rushing, and run defense is a good place to be. Green Bay has ripped off four wins in a row and the weak remaining schedule will make that less of a trend and more of the norm.
New Orleans hiccupped late against the Patriots two weeks back, but Brees and the boys have nothing to fear. They’re the crème de la crème de la NFC South.
B: Detroit, Carolina, San Francisco, Cincinnati
Detroit beat the Cowboys in unlikely fashion on Sunday—but then again, who hasn't? The Lions still have the premier aerial attack—Calvin Johnson is just a machine—but shoddy defense has continued to be an issue, making what could be blowouts tight finishes. They get a "B," however, because they’ve managed to put themselves in position for a wild card run.
Carolina has been a pleasant surprise, in the sense that they’ve actually won some games. For that they get a provisional "B," but they haven’t yet proven that they can beat a good team. Let’s see how they fare in San Francisco two weeks from now. That will be the litmus test this grade needs.
It must be conceded that the Niners have yet to win a difficult match-up. They barely beat Green Bay at home in week one when the Packers were still sputtering to a start. Since then they’ve lost to the Seahawks and Colts, and beaten the Rams, Texans, Cardinals, Titans, and Jaguars. This blogger needs to see more.
Cincinnati absolutely blasted the Jets on Sunday, but they don’t get an "B" simply because of that. Cincy has legitimate weapons on both sides of the ball, not limited to A.J. Green and Geno Atkins. If the Bengals can continue to control the line of scrimmage effectively, don’t be surprised if they’re 9-2 when their bye comes. Ultimately, I believe the Bengals make the playoffs—having Baltimore, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh to contend with certainly helps. Still, I’d like to see more out of the Bengals before launching them into the class of the NFL elite.
C: San Diego, Oakland, Tennessee, Chicago, Arizona
Not much to see here. This is truly the middle of the pack, where ups and downs abound. The Chargers, Raiders, and Cardinals picked the wrong divisions. Tennessee won’t be overtaking the Colts and they won’t be getting a wild card spot as long as the Chiefs and Broncos keep up their winning ways. Chicago remains consistently inconsistent; I can’t bear it any longer.
D: The entire NFC and AFC Eastern Divisions—yes, including the Patriots—St. Louis, Baltimore, Cleveland, Atlanta, Houston, Pittsburgh
The NFC and AFC Eastern Divisions are painful to watch on a weekly basis. We hold that truth to be self-evident. Even the Patriots make the list. Why? Poor play over the last four games. Despite the 6-2 record the Pats are 2-2 in the last four, including a loss to the Jets. In those games, Tom Brady has averaged 202 yards passing, a 62.6 QB rating, a 53 percent completion percentage, and has thrown two touchdowns to four interceptions. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s not a winning formula. If it weren’t for a miraculous last-second win against the Saints and a quick turnaround against the Dolphins on Sunday, the Pats very well could have lost four in a row.
St. Louis has lost Sam Bradford for the year to injury and replaced him with Kellen Clemens, Baltimore has disappointed, and Cleveland remains lost and on a three-game skid. Atlanta and Houston are kissing the playoffs goodbye as high expectations whisk away in the winds of NFL change.
Pittsburgh remains in the cellar of the AFC North. After beating up on the mediocre Jets and the disappointing Ravens, the Steelers went out and lost to the Raiders on Sunday, conceding to Terrelle Pryor the longest run EVER by a quarterback. These aren’t your Steelers of old. They can cover with the best of them and air it out, but they can’t run the ball and they can’t stop the run. Still, their play of late merits a promotion from the "F" I gave them the first time around.
F: Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, Minnesota.
Poor Jacksonville. The Jags are going nowhere fast. It’s time to cut bait with Blaine Gabbert and rebuild through the 2014 draft, in which they should hold the first pick. They have some pieces to work with in Maurice Jones-Drew, Justin Blackmon, and Cecil Shorts on offense, but with the likes of Chad Henne and Gabbert getting them the ball, well, that explains the 0-8 record and an astonishing -178 point margin. Why the NFL schedule-makers thought it would be a good idea to showcase a Jags-49ers game in London is beyond comprehension.
Tampa Bay has yet to buck the losing trend and now there are signs popping up around Tampa calling for Greg Schiano’s firing. It’s been a weird year for the Bucs, from MRSA outbreaks to Josh Freeman’s ugly release. Schiano vows a turnaround, but it’s time to pack in it.
Minnesota has gone from a "D" grade in my first quarter report to an "F," the only team to do so. Adrian Peterson is all they have—really.
Conclusion: Parity isn't the strength of the NFL this year. It seems that there’s little space between good and ugly, or contender and pretender. The playoffs are already starting to take shape. Let’s hope there will be some unexpected drama to give us even greater reason to keep our eyes glued to the screen.