Pats, Steelers, Chiefs earn high marks
Here are my AFC team grades for the regular season. For my NFC grades, click here.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Grade: A
For the Steelers to go 12-4 without Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games of the season, Mike Tomlin deserves consideration for coach of the year and the Steelers deserve a high grade. Rashard Mendenhall developed into a dependable feature back this season, and the defense improved its tackling, limiting opponents to 62.8 rushing yards a game.
Baltimore Ravens: Grade: B+
Despite the loss of cornerback Domonique Foxworth at the start of training camp, the Ravens overcame major concerns at the position. Joe Flacco continued to evolve as a top NFL quarterback with 25 touchdown passes, and the experienced hands of Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh made the receiving corps consistent.
Eric Mangini may have improved the competitiveness of the defense, but the offense was a disaster. Despite making a big hit on the Peyton Hillis trade, the 2009 moves to trade Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow left the Browns without true offensive threats and stunted the development of the many quarterbacks Mangini used in two seasons.
Cincinnati Bengals: Grade: F
To go from AFC North champs to 4-12 was an embarrassment. Terrell Owens hurt the chemistry of the offense and Carson Palmer dropped from the elite class of quarterbacks with 20 interceptions, including five returned for touchdowns. The defense gave up 31 yards and almost a touchdown a game more than last season.
New England Patriots: Grade: A
Bill Belichick did a masterful job of retooling the offense after trading Randy Moss during the season. Tom Brady went to a two-tight-end approach and worked the middle of the field masterfully, not committing turnovers but still coming up with big plays. The defense is younger and more athletic.
New York Jets: Grade: B
The Jets weren't as dominating as Rex Ryan bragged all season, but no one can complain about a two-game improvement in the team's record. The lack of a top pass-rusher, the drop-off of 24 yards per game in the rushing offense and Mark Sanchez's inconsistency are concerns, but Ryan has established this team as a solid playoff threat.
Miami Dolphins: Grade: C
The 20,000 fans who didn't bother to attend some of the Dolphins' final home games weren't the only no-shows for the team this season. Missing was a running game that lost 36.7 yards a game from last season's average. Missing were downfield throws by Chad Henne. Missing was team effort during a season-ending three-game losing streak.
Buffalo Bills: Grade: C
First-year coach Chan Gailey got the most out of his roster, including 23 touchdowns and 3,000 passing yards from Ryan Fitzpatrick, but the Bills didn't have the personnel to make the adjustment to a 3-4 defense and paid the price.
Indianapolis Colts: Grade: B
Despite a number of injuries at the skill positions, Peyton Manning led the Colts to their ninth consecutive trip to the playoffs. Looking ahead, the Colts have to improve their run-blocking talent and find ways to stay healthier on defense.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Grade: B
Jack Del Rio almost lost his job because of the three-game losing streak at the end of the season and his inability to stop the leakage on a defense that gave up 371.8 yards a game. General manager Gene Smith has put together solid drafts and the roster is a year or two away from being playoff-worthy.
Houston Texans: Grade: D
Letting cornerback Dunta Robinson slip away in free agency allowed the league's youngest secondary to have one of the worst seasons ever, giving up a staggering 267.5 passing yards a game. Gary Kubiak must get the Texans off to faster starts in games and soon-to-be-added defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has to figure out whether to turn the Texans into a 3-4 team.
Tennessee Titans: Grade: D
From offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger's battle with cancer to the immaturity of quarterback Vince Young, the Titans fell apart and lost their focus. Owner Bud Adams' desire to bring back Young for another season could rip apart the team even more.
Kansas City Chiefs: Grade: A
Todd Haley might be coach of the year for creating an environment that helped the Chiefs win six more games than they did last season. The concern for the future might be the loss of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who left for the University Florida after helping Matt Cassel post a Pro Bowl-caliber season. The Chiefs took advantage of the league's easiest schedule.
Oakland Raiders: Grade: B
As predicted, the Raiders were one of the surprise teams, improving by three wins to go 8-8, their first non-losing season since 2002. The combination of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and quarterback Jason Campbell added 13.3 points and 88.5 yards a game to the offense.
San Diego Chargers: Grade: D
The Chargers blew it. Philip Rivers had a career season but the slow start, the poor special-teams play and the inability to consistently beat losing teams left the Chargers one win shy of a division title, wasting a season and making people wonder if the window is closing for this team.
Denver Broncos: Grade: F
Josh McDaniels destroyed what was considered to be one of the league's prime head-coaching jobs. John Elway is being brought in to rebuild the shattered organization as the vice president of football operations, but it might take a couple of years to repair the damage McDaniels caused.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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