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Column: Playing teacher in the AFC: Grading every team in the conference

NFL Columnist

Published: Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, December 3, 2013 23:12

Approximately 16 weeks make up an average college semester, which is somewhat ironic because 16 games equate to a season for an NFL team (a regular season, at least; somewhere, the Browns can be heard saying, “wait, there’s something after the regular season?”). Despite the fact that we still have four weeks to go until the playoffs begin, one can make a pretty accurate assessment of a squad based on the months of September, October and November.

As college pupils around the country start preparing for final exams, it’s only right that we inspect each AFC team, review their body of work this year and hand out the letter grades that they’re deserving of. Disagree with my grading system? I may or may not be holding office hours and tutoring sessions. If that doesn’t float your boat, make some home-run selections in the draft, sign a couple of high-impact free agents and simply get better. This is one class you do not want to flunk out of.

New England Patriots (A-): In the first few weeks, Tom Brady had a better chance helping Aaron Hernandez escape from prison than putting up solid numbers—this was due to a fairly incompetent receiving unit and the absence of party boy Rob Gronkowski. Gronk has only appeared in six games this year, but he ranks second on the Patriots in receiving yards (560) and is tied for the team lead with 4 touchdowns. The defense has suffered a few crippling injuries (linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork are out for the year, to name a few), but for the most part they have held their own. For now, at least—doesn’t the secondary always seem to choke in the playoffs?

Miami Dolphins (B-): The Dolphins were a trendy pick to break out in 2013, and a 3-0 start legitimized most of the buzz. Since then, they’re 3-6, lost 40 percent of their starting offensive line due to an ugly bullying scandal, and have lost four games by four points or fewer—including to the lowly Bucs, which marked Tampa’s first victory. QB Ryan Tannehill has been sacked more than any other quarterback, possibly hindering his progress in year two, and the running attack has put up a couple stinkers. Besides all that, they’re right in the thick of the AFC wildcard race.

New York Jets (B-): Losers of three straight, you might be thinking the Jets should get a “C” or worse. When you consider their preseason prognostications, however, it’s a relative miracle that New York has five wins at the moment. The defensive unit is young, and they’re truly among the NFL’s elite, particularly in the running department. A lack of skill players on offense, plus a quarterback that defensive backs dream about facing, has put the Jets at No. 31 in the league in points scored per contest. Seriously, do they once again draft a quarterback?

Buffalo Bills (C): C.J. Spiller has been a disappointment, but did anyone really expect him to average six yards per rush again? Rookie QB E.J. Manuel hasn’t been terrible when healthy (9 TD, 4 INT), and Buffalo has a real Rookie of the Year candidate in linebacker Kiko Alonso. Overall, the Bills are just blah. They’re not fun to watch, they’re probably not going anywhere playoff-wise in the foreseeable future, but they’re not awful, either.

Cincinnati Bengals (B+): The Bengals will ride their undefeated home record to the wildcard round, where they will most likely host the Chiefs. While Cincinnati has developed a culture in which a campaign that doesn’t culminate in the playoffs is a lost season, I don’t know if they’ll ever get over that hump by joining the AFC’s elite. Like the Patriots, the Bengals have lost a few defensive studs to injuries. One stud that is alive and well is on the offensive end: wide receiver A.J. Green (1,103 yards, 7 TD).

Baltimore Ravens (B-): Even with a severe Super Bowl hangover (and I’m not talking about a different one than Gronkowski hitting the club after losing to the Giants), Baltimore would be the conference’s sixth seed if the regular season culminated today. The defense, fortified by the likes of Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Daryl Smith, has been very effective this year. Not only are they No. 7 in the NFL in lowest points allowed per game, but they also rank inside the Top 10 in fewest yards yielded. The Ravens’ running game is invisible, and some of their wide receivers require nametags, but getting back to the playoffs is all they need. That’s where Joey Flacco makes his money—literally.

Pittsburgh Steelers (C+): Pittsburgh was on quite a roll before losing a heartbreaker to the Ravens on Thanksgiving. Luckily for them, you can’t talk about the wildcard saga without mentioning Big Ben and the boys. Their next three games: Dolphins, Bengals and Packers, possibly with Aaron Rodgers back. It’s not going to be easy, of course, but they have plenty of opportunities to obtain a huge victory and get momentum back on their side. Unless Coach Mike Tomlin decides to trip more opponents, that is.

Cleveland Browns (C): The best move they’ve made all year is trading Trent Richardson to the Colts for a first-round pick. Also, Josh Gordon is a budding star as long as he remembers to screw his head on correctly each morning—the guy was suspended to begin the year, yet he has 1,249 yards and seven scores! Once again, recall the quarterbacks (if you want to call them that) that are throwing to him. Should Cleveland address the QB issue, perhaps by nabbing Johnny Manziel, Browns fans may be able to show their faces over the next decade.

Indianapolis Colts (B+): I wanted to give the Colts a grade in the “A” range, I really did. But they’ve followed up a sensational opening, one that included wins over the Broncos, Seahawks and 49ers, with losses to the Rams and Cardinals. And they weren’t simply losses, as Indy lost the two by a combined score of 78-19. The rushing defense contains too many holes, and it’s becoming more apparent by the week that losing the veteran presence of Reggie Wayne has slowed down the offense. As I’ve said all year, I would pay good money for a Broncos-Colts rematch in the playoffs.

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