2014 NFL Midseason Grades: The Arizona Cardinals, with a league-leading 7-1 record, earn top marks, while the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, both in downward spirals this season, get failing marks.
In what has now become an annual tradition, we are swapping out this week's Power Rankings for first-half grades.
The goal of these grades is to balance a team's record and current standing with what was expected of it before the 2014 season kicked off. So, you are going to notice the curve -- a few teams in playoff contention have not necessarily performed as they should, while some rebuilding squads have done a nice job.
With that, we press onward ...
John Abraham, Calais Campbell, Karlos Dansby, Darnell Dockett and Daryl Washington ranked one through five in sacks for this team last season. Only Campbell remains on the active roster (Abraham and Dockett are hurt, Washington suspended and Dansby playing for the Browns), and even he missed multiple games with a knee injury. Yet, Arizona's defense has been better in 2014 than 2013 (19.5 points allowed, down from 20.25). The offense has a healthy collection of talent, too. An incredible start from the team with the NFL's best record.
The dismal NFC South leaves the Falcons with something to play for in the second half, but it appears that they're drifting toward another lost season. How many more chances will they get with the Matt Ryan-Julio Jones-Roddy White trio? How many more offseasons will it take to fix an atrocious defense?
The Ravens have been decent this season, thanks in large part to the arrivals of WR Steve Smith, RB Justin Forsett and impressive rookie LB C.J. Mosley. Gary Kubiak's play calling has helped too, more or less. But "decent" currently gets you last place in the AFC North.
A 5-3 record with Sammy Watkins making a Rookie of the Year push? Yeah, the Bills gladly would have taken that offer at the start of the season. They might have preferred it to happen with EJ Manuel emerging at quarterback, but if Kyle Orton's mustache is what this team needed ...
The preseason scouting report on Carolina said that the receivers, offensive line and defense all were worse than in 2013. Well, here we are. While rookie Kelvin Benjamin has helped save the reputation of the wide receivers, the Panthers are getting pounded everywhere else. Their current 1-5-1 slide might be only the beginning.
An argument could be made that Chicago is the most disappointing team in the league through eight games. Heck, the Bears offense alone might be the unit falling furthest from its expectations. Despite surrounding Jay Cutler with Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett, the Bears have yet to crack 30 points in any game.
Perhaps this is a bit harsh given the Bengals' 5-2-1 record and perch atop a tough division -- something they've accomplished despite A.J. Green missing multiple games (props to Mohamed Sanu for his emergence in the meantime). The defense, though, has been downright average to date and that's the unit that must carry this team where it wants to go.
Mike Pettine is on the fringe of the Coach of the Year race, and deservedly so, with a 5-3 record and an emphatic win over the Steelers. Adding Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner positively altered Cleveland's defensive reputation -- that duo plays a very physical game up the middle. Milking a decent offense out of an all-hands-on-deck depth chart might be the real secret to early success.
Consecutive losses and Tony Romo's back injury make it a lot easier to doubt Dallas. That said, there is no erasing that stunning 6-1 start from the record books. Again, these grades are meant to measure performance versus preseason expectations. Few teams entered 2014 with the bar set as low as the Cowboys did.
Save for that 43-point debacle in New England, the Broncos' reworked defense has been quite promising. DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller are wreaking havoc off the edge, as Aqib Talib helps clean things up in the secondary. We all know what the offense is capable of accomplishing. Can the Broncos put it all together when it counts?
Teryl Austin's defense gets an A-plus-plus -- the Lions rank first in both points and yards allowed. The Lions! The first-half recap is not as rosy for Detroit's offense, which has been underwhelming with or without injuries. Turning 6-2 into a playoff spot or NFC North title will require that side of the football to hit its stride, and soon.
In spite of sitting in second place with an 0-1 mark against the North-leading Lions, Green Bay kinda-sorta still feels like the division favorite. Less duds over the second half would be advisable if the Packers are to maintain that impression. They fell flat against Seattle, Detroit and New Orleans, and that critique includes the potent Aaron Rodgers-led offense.
It's tough to appreciate progress, thanks to the win-now mentality of the NFL, but that's exactly what's happening in Houston. But taking the next step into playoff contention will require the Texans to knock off some teams above them, and they still need an upgrade at quarterback to make that happen.
Andrew Luck & Co. are en route to running away with the AFC South again, and Luck is building himself an MVP case -- at 342.7 yards passing per game, he's currently on pace to break Peyton Manning's single-season passing mark by six yards. The problem: Indianapolis' defense has been lit up by the three best offenses it's faced.
It's hard to find much of a silver lining, even if it feels like Gus Bradley has this team headed in the right direction. The defense has been more competitive in recent weeks and Denard Robinson stands as a pleasant surprise. However, the Jaguars need to see more from Blake Bortles at quarterback ... and there are not a lot of strengths elsewhere.
A playoff team in 2013, Kansas City is back on track for another appearance in 2014. Whether enough people have noticed or not, the Chiefs are 5-1 in their last six games and are knocking on Denver's doorstep in the West. Justin Houston's remarkable first half paced the defense; keeping Jamaal Charles fed will be the key down the stretch.
The Dolphins took a circuitous route to 5-3 -- a sloppy 2-3 start followed by a three-game win streak -- but they now look like a serious playoff contender. Their D-line is as legit as they come, and the Ryan Tannehill/Bill Lazor combo on offense has started to click.
True, the Vikings have yet to beat a team with a .500 record or better, but head coach Mike Zimmer clearly has Minnesota playing with more resolve than it did in a 5-10-1, 2013 season. That improvement starts up front, courtesy of Zimmer's formidable defensive line (plus possible Rookie of the Year Anthony Barr). If Teddy Bridgewater continues to develop, this team could be back in contention next season.
This would have been around a D after Week 4 (as in "Brady is Done"), what with the Patriots at 2-2 and all. They've been perhaps the best team in football since, hanging an average of 40.2 points on their last five opponents en route to the AFC's top record. Brady's far from finished, and thanks to a healthy Rob Gronkowski and the arrival of Brandon LaFell, he has better weapons around him than he did last season.
Three encouraging outings in a row (one-point loss in Detroit, then routs of Green Bay and Carolina) have cleared some of the clouds. New Orleans has first place to itself at 4-4. Better yet, the Saints play five of their final eight at home, where they remain borderline unbeatable. Rob Ryan's defense has stabilized following a brutal first few weeks.
The schedule has been extremely unkind, with all five of the Giants' losses coming to teams with at least six wins already. Of course, that hammers home the NYG plight: Neither the defense nor the offense (especially the offense) is on par with the league's true contenders.
An unmitigated disaster. Had the Jets not recovered an Oakland onside kick late in Week 1, we would be talking about their push for 0-16, not the Raiders'. Aside from the Sheldon Richardson-Muhammad Wilkerson combo, the talent present here is being misused.
Considering how much money Oakland spent this offseason signing veterans so it could be more competitive, an 0-8 mark ought to be worthy of an F grade. So why isn't it? Because the Raiders have found themselves a quarterback in Rookie of the Year candidate Derek Carr.
The Eagles have had to scratch and claw their way to 6-2, the only easy win coming against the Giants. We can look at that in one of two ways: 1. Philadelphia has survived a stretch of injuries and inconsistencies and the second half should be better; or 2. This is a flawed team beating up on even more flawed teams. Mark Sanchez's return to a starting lineup will be one of the second half's most fascinating storylines.
The Steelers' bandwagon offered ample seating before the season. Back-to-back forgettable 8-8 campaigns and a roster trying to mix inexperienced talent with haggard vets left a murky picture. Yet all of a sudden, Pittsburgh is playing like an AFC threat, paced by an electrifying passing attack.
No team in football was playing as well as the Chargers in Weeks 2-5. Few have been as bad since then -- San Diego is 1-3 in its past four, complete with a nail-biting win over Oakland and humiliating 37-0 loss at Miami last Sunday. Injuries have ravaged the defense, just as Philip Rivers has hit a slump.
From three consecutive NFC title games to a deserved 4-4 start, all as rumors about head coach Jim Harbaugh circulate. The absences of Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman have hindered the defense, but not nearly as much as issues along the line. And overall, Greg Roman's play calling has stifled the offense.
Don't be surprised if the Seahawks catch fire in the second half, enough to make a run at another Super Bowl. Right now, however, teams no longer are afraid of playing the defending champs. Dallas' win in Seattle and an ensuing upset by St. Louis proved that point. Injuries have been a factor here as well (where haven't they been?), but the defense is not dominating as it did in 2013 and the offense has been unable to pick up the slack.
There have been some moments of brilliance, like a Week 7 win over Seattle and the defensive line's long-awaited breakthrough versus San Francisco. Austin Davis hasn't been half bad at quarterback, either. No one will want to play the Rams over the season's second half ... but sometime soon, St. Louis has to be more than a spoiler.
Not only were the Buccaneers almost universally declared one of the winners of the offseason, they tricked many an expert into picking them for the playoffs. That's why they play the games. Just about every move Tampa Bay made over the summer has backfired, perhaps up to and including the hire of Lovie Smith. His game of musical chairs at quarterback, between Josh McCown and Mike Glennon, further points to the lack of answers.
Ken Whisenhunt could not salvage Jake Locker's Titans career, so now he will try to mold Zach Mettenberger from the ground up. Any hope for a quick turnaround in 2014 has melted into a full-on rebuild. Until the offense shows signs of life -- it's scored 17 points or less in six games -- the road is going to be rough.
This was a 3-13 team last season and has been through three different starting quarterbacks so far in 2014. If you were expecting anything more than a six- or seven-win season, you were aiming too high. Washington is just a roller coaster right now, be it at that quarterback position or on defense -- the Redskins stuffed Dallas with a brilliant scheme in Week 8, then could not get off the field at Minnesota in Week 9.