Vikings, Eagles, Saints stand out
Here are my NFC team grades for the regular season. For my AFC grades, click here.
Minnesota Vikings: GRADE: A-
Brett Favre delivered a No. 2 playoff seed and 5.7 more points a game to an offense (29.4 ppg. in '09) that was only one-dimensional under Tarvaris Jackson. With nine Pro Bowlers, the Vikings have the richest roster for talent in the conference and helped themselves with a great draft that included wide receiver Percy Harvin and right tackle Phil Loadholt.
Green Bay Packers: GRADE: A
Aaron Rodgers matured, throwing for nearly 4,500 yards and proving he can win big games. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers guided a successful switch to a 3-4 defense that is stout against the run and solid against the pass, making Green Bay a dangerous wild-card playoff team.
Clayton's Report Card
ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton hands out final regular-season grades for all 32 teams. Watch
Quarterback Jay Cutler turned into an assistant coach killer by throwing interceptions, tuning out those around him and throwing off his back foot. Six offensive coaches, including coordinator Ron Turner, were dismissed Tuesday. A defensive core group that has been together for seven years continues to fall apart, and with needs on offense more pressing, it might not get reinforcements.
Detroit Lions: GRADE: D
By season's end, only 20 players from the 2008 0-16 team were left on the 53-man active roster. Detroit improved by only two games, a major disappointment. The team did have a good draft with quarterback Matthew Stafford, tight end Brandon Pettigrew and safety Louis Delmas, but it might need two more good drafts to be competitive.
Dallas Cowboys: GRADE: B+
The offense that couldn't shoot straight in December games for years turned itself around right before Christmas. Wade Phillips most likely saved his job by motivating the defense. Tony Romo, who didn't have to deal with a Terrell Owens headache, showed more leadership down the stretch and favorite target Miles Austin had a monster season.
Philadelphia Eagles: GRADE: A
Even though the Eagles lost the division title to the Cowboys during the final week of the regular season, they had a great year. Andy Reid developed young offensive stars DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy, and Donovan McNabb looked as sharp as ever. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott filled in nicely for the late Jim Johnson.
New York Giants: GRADE: D
The defense battled injuries all season and fell apart after a 5-0 start. The loss of Plaxico Burress wasn't as bad as thought because young receivers Hakeem Nicks, Steve Smith and Mario Manningham were solid. But Tom Coughlin might have to start rebuilding an aging offensive line.
Washington Redskins: GRADE: F
Jim Zorn couldn't get many points out of the offense, and Jason Campbell couldn't get the team over the top in the many close, low-scoring games he played in. Dan Snyder has had his eyes on Mike Shanahan for months. He's set to let him run the show.
New Orleans Saints: GRADE: A
Drew Brees and head coach Sean Payton were the heroes in New Orleans, operating an offense that led the league with 31.9 points a game. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams delivered on Payton's investment, chopping three points a game (24.6 ppg. to 21.3) off the Saints' 2008 average and generating turnovers.
Atlanta Falcons: GRADE: B-
The tougher schedule and a mini-sophomore slump by Matt Ryan led to a two-game drop from an 11-5 season, but Ryan & Co. brought Atlanta its first back-to-back winning seasons. Five defensive starters were replaced during the offseason, but Mike Smith must find answers for the left cornerback spot and add more playmakers along the D-line.
Carolina Panthers: GRADE: C
While 8-8 teams usually deserve only an average grade, John Fox can take credit for turning around a season. A suspect defense gave up only 46 points in the final four weeks. Jake Delhomme will be back next year to compete for the starting job despite 18 interceptions, but Fox must find pass-catching options to pull double coverage away from Steve Smith.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: GRADE: F
The Bucs couldn't come up with enough money to convince Bill Cowher to leave broadcasting, so Raheem Morris gets a second chance. Morris fired two coordinators and watched the team go from 9-7 to 3-13. He started to get better production from the defense in the second half and rookie QB Josh Freeman showed promise.
Arizona Cardinals: GRADE: B+
Though the 10-6 record was only a one-game improvement over last season, Ken Whisenhunt made the Cardinals more formidable on the road by going 6-2 and found his power back in Beanie Wells, who averaged 4.5 yards a carry. New defensive coordinator Billy Davis sliced 6.3 points a game off a defense that surrendered 26.6 ppg. last season.
San Francisco 49ers: GRADE: B
Mike Singletary made an impact in several areas, developing a hard-hitting defense that wouldn't back down and getting great seasons from Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Aubrayo Franklin and others. Alex Smith salvaged his young career by completing 60.5 percent of his passes and worked well out of the shotgun, which gives him a future.
Seattle Seahawks: GRADE: D
The only bright spot from a 5-11 season was a 41-0 Week 5 home win over the Jaguars. A banged-up Matt Hasselbeck could never get the offense in rhythm. The defense was picked apart for a 65.8 percent completion percentage and a 93.4 quarterback rating.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
2009 NFL PLAYOFFS: ROAD TO MIAMI
Colts 30, Jets 17
Saints 31, Vikings 28 (OT)
Vikings 34, Cowboys 3
Jets 17, Chargers 14
Saints 45, Cardinals 14
Colts 20, Ravens 3
Jets 24, Bengals 14
Cowboys 34, Eagles 14
Ravens 33, Patriots 14
Cardinals 51, Packers 45 OT
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