NFL Nation: AFC team evaluations

AFC East team evaluations

December, 30, 2008
Posted by's Tim Graham
Miami Dolphins (11-5)
Not even Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga thought they could accomplish anything close to an AFC East championship. Huizenga admitted Sunday he thought a .500 record was something to aspire to after they went 1-15 last year. His team will host a playoff game Sunday. The Dolphins pulled off the greatest turnaround in NFL history. Bill Parcells' arrival as football operations boss begat head coach Tony Sparano and quarterback Chad Pennington eventually dropped into their laps. That, plus linebacker Joey Porter's revival, turned them into a force. Grade: A

Biggest surprise: Porter was viewed as the biggest bust of the 2007 free agency class. The Dolphins landed him with a five-year, $32 million contract with $20 million in guarantees. He answered with 5.5 sacks, giving him 12.5 in his previous two seasons. But Porter thrived under new defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni and generated defensive player of the year buzz for much of the season. Porter finished with 17.5 sacks, most in the AFC and second to DeMarcus Ware for the NFL title.

Biggest disappointment: The Dolphins made Ernest Wilford one of their first free-agent signings for four years, $13 million with almost half of that guaranteed. He finished the regular season with three catches for 25 yards and was a healthy scratch for nine games. The only reason he played in his last five games was because top receiver Greg Camarillo suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 12. For the critical season finale, Wilford was in street clothes again.

Biggest need: A big receiver with yards-after-catch ability would be nice. The Dolphins' game-day receiving corps is comprised of undrafted overachievers and one drafted player (Ted Ginn) many are still wondering about.

Biggest innovation: While several organizations will look upon the Dolphins for inspiration when it comes to rebuilding, many teams already have swiped their Wildcat offense and implemented it. The Dolphins caught the NFL's attention with the gadget offense in Week 3, and it became all the rage.

New England Patriots (11-5)
To finish 11-5 was nothing short of spectacular given the series of injuries that befell the Patriots from the start. To not make the playoffs was a wicked fate. The Patriots were overshadowed in the AFC East by the Dolphins' amazing U-turn and the Jets' appalling collapse. But coach Bill Belichick somehow kept winning with his patchwork roster and unheralded quarterback.

Tom Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury on opening day, spurring predictions of a Patriots collapse. However, Matt Cassel dropped his clipboard and executed the offense. Rookie linebacker Jerod Mayo emerged as a stud. Second-year safety Brandon Meriweather helped Patriots Nation get over the loss of Rodney Harrison. Undrafted rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis contributed to victories. It didn't seem to matter who the Patriots inserted. They just won. Grade: A

Biggest surprise: For the Patriots, for the NFL, for the universe, Cassel is the obvious choice. He looked awful in training camp, and if not for a rookie being the Patriots' next best option, Cassel might not have made the roster. When Cassel stepped in for Brady, even casual fans learned he hadn't started a game since high school. Everybody snickered when Belichick declared his confidence in Cassel, who now has won 10 NFL starts and might become a free agent if the Patriots don't put the franchise tag on him.

Biggest disappointment: Benjamin Watson, a first-round pick in 2004, never factored in the Patriots' offense. He finished with 22 catches, his lowest output since he played one game his rookie season. Watson gained 209 yards and scored two touchdowns. He caught two passes over the final four games.

Biggest need: Tedy Bruschi is nearing the end of the line. The veteran inside linebacker finished the season with a knee injury. The options behind him were Junior Seau, signed late in the season out of desperation, and undrafted rookie Gary Guyton.

Shoulder shrug: There wasn't much more the Patriots could have done. Every one of their five losses was legit. They were beaten by the two best teams in the AFC (Colts, Steelers) and two other playoff teams (split with Dolphins, Chargers) and New York when the Jets were playing like world b

New York Jets (9-7)
Although the Bills' scalding start and frigid finish would give the Jets competition, Gang Green proved to be the AFC's biggest tease. They had so much momentum. They looked so impressive in knocking off the Patriots and Titans on the road in consecutive weeks. Brett Favre and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer seemed to have melded and found their happy place. Favre was making throws. Thomas Jones was dominant on the ground. All of those big-ticket offseason acquisitions were paying off.

Then -- poof! -- those Jets vanished, never to return. The Jets should have lost each of the last five games. Had backup quarterback J.P. Losman not fumbled away a probable Bills victory, the Jets would have finished with a .500 record. Grade: B-

Biggest surprise: The Jets' reluctance to pound the ball when Favre began to flounder defied logic. Thomas Jones had one of the greatest seasons in Jets history with 1,312 rushing yards and 15 combined touchdowns. The offensive line was built to run.

Jones had 30 attempts in the sudden-death victory over the Patriots and 27 attempts to help his team beat the Titans. Over the last five games he carried 16, 10, 20, 16 and 10 times. And if his number was called because defenses were keying on him, then Favre's season-ending slump becomes even more unforgivable.

Biggest disappointment: When the Jets needed him most, Favre was horrible over the final five games. He threw two touchdown passes and nine interceptions. He was uninspiring at best. With the season and his career possibly on the line Sunday against the Dolphins, his pregame pep talk essentially was "Meh ... Let's go see what happens."

Biggest need: Regardless of what the MRI reveals about Favre's arm or what he decides about retirement, the Jets must address football's most important position. Owner Woody Johnson and general manager Mike Tannenbaum said at Monday's news conference they want Favre back, but even if they can convince him to return, they need a backup plan because he can't be relied upon.

Kellen Clemens showed little when given the opportunity to supplant Chad Pennington in 2007 and couldn't win the job in training camp even though the Jets didn't want Pennington to be their quarterback.

Most thrilling player: Win or lose, Leon Washington sure was fun to watch. Whether he was running, catching or returning, he was electric. He rushed for 448 rushing yards, a 5.9-yard average and six touchdowns, including runs of 47, 60 and 61 yards. He had 47 catches for 355 yards and two touchdowns. He also had a 94-yard kick return for a score and was almost as sensational fielding punts.

Buffalo Bills (7-9)
What do the Bills have to show for all the early season buzz they created? Nothing, not even a modest improvement from last year's record. Three straight seasons of 7-9 are what the Bills have provided. One win shy of average -- good enough to stay out of the top 10 if the NFL draft order yet still losers.

Meanwhile, the rest of the AFC East has retooled itself and lapped the stagnant Bills, who have gone nine straight seasons without a playoff game. The Dolphins went from 1-15 to division champs. The Jets went from four wins to nine and went into the final week with a shot at the postseason. The Patriots went 11-5 while grooming new stars. The Bills remain on the treadmill of mediocrity. Grade: D+

Biggest surprise: While the Patriots could go four deep at running back and still have a player who could rush for 100 yards, Fred Jackson was all the Bills had behind workhorse Marshawn Lynch. Many observers found that disconcerting until Jackson, who three years ago was playing in the United Indoor Football League, emerged as a viable weapon. He ran 131 times for 571 yards and three touchdowns and caught 37 passes for 317 yards.

Biggest disappointment: After the Bills opened their season 5-1, all they needed to do to make the playoffs was go a tad better than .500 over their final 10 games. A 6-4 record -- with even a couple victories over the Patriots or Dolphins -- would've put them at 11-5, perhaps knocked the other AFC East teams down a peg and given them tiebreakers. Instead they went 0-6 against the division.

Biggest need: The Bills are desperate for depth. They were lauded for their balanced roster at the start of the season -- a team with no superstars who could win with offense, defense or special teams any given week. But an injury here and an injury there and the Bills seemed overwhelmed. Their starters were above average, but most backups were a huge drop in talent. Some blamed the Bills slump on the temporary loss of No. 2 receiver Josh Reed. Now, that's a bad sign.

Didn't get any better than this: Bills linebacker Kawika Mitchell came up with a crucial interception of Philip Rivers to seal a Week 7 victory over the Chargers. The Bills raised their record to 5-1 and were capturing their fans' imagination. That was Oct. 19. There has been little to cheer about since.

AFC North team evaluations

December, 30, 2008

Posted by's James Walker

Baltimore Ravens (11-5)
The Baltimore Ravens turned out to be one of the biggest surprises in the NFL by posting 11 wins and making the playoffs as a wild card. Not much was expected of the Ravens after a downtrodden and injury-riddled 2007. But the Ravens are back and in the playoffs, starting with Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins. With a stout defense and an improving offense, Baltimore has a puncher's chance to make a run in January. Grade: A-

Biggest surprise: If it were not for the equally impressive development of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, rookie quarterback Joe Flacco would receive a lot more credit on a league-wide scale for helping turn the Ravens from a 5-11 team in 2007 to 11-5. Flacco joined a rookie head coach in John Harbaugh to post a double-digit winning season, an amazing feat. These two came to Baltimore in the same year and expect to be linked together for quite some time.

Biggest disappointment: The only blemishes for the Ravens were their inability to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in two tries. That is the difference between a first-round bye and fighting through the postseason on the road as a wild-card team. Baltimore lost those two games by a combined total of seven points.

Biggest need: After 12 years of existence, the Ravens have finally found their long-term solution at quarterback. Now it's time to build the offense around the attributes of their young signal-caller. Flacco has a strong arm but lacks the necessary deep threats. Derrick Mason is a terrific possession receiver but not a speed burner. Mark Clayton can be that player, but his production has not been consistent over 16 games. With bruising backs and a solid, young offensive line, a dynamic wideout and depth at the position are all the offense needs to take it to the next level.

Prospect for '09: Promising. The Ravens are looking solid for next year as long as they're able to retain their own free agents. Linebackers Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs are terrific players who are scheduled to hit the open market this offseason. General manager Ozzie Newsome has some huge decisions to make in that regard, as these three players will take up a lot of available cap room. As mentioned earlier, look for Baltimore to add some depth at receiver and perhaps a cornerback through the draft and free agency. If the Ravens continue to build and make the right moves, they could develop into a strong title contender in 2009.

Cincinnati Bengals (4-11-1)
The Cincinnati Bengals' 2008 season was doomed from the start. The major offseason story lines included the arrests of receiver Chris Henry and linebacker Odell Thurman, numerous trade demands from Chad Ocho Cinco, and the eventual cutting and re-signing of Henry before the team ever played its first game in the regular season. Things didn't go much better once the season started. Cincinnati lost franchise quarterback Carson Palmer to an elbow injury that kept him out of 12 games. The only good news is the team finished the year relatively strong. Grade: D+

Biggest surprise: Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh played without Palmer for most of the season and still had 92 receptions for 904 yards. That feat is even more impressive than last year's 112-catch year because a majority of Houshmandzadeh's catches in 2008 came from backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Houshmandzadeh, an unrestricted free agent, will certainly cash in this offseason with the Bengals or another team.

Biggest disappointment: Ocho Cinco had arguably the worst season of his career for Cincinnati with 53 receptions for 540 yards. It started with the aforementioned trade demands in the offseason, then he needed ankle surgery in July, suffered a preseason shoulder injury in August, and had a poor statistical year this fall. Ocho Cinco also was deactivated and sent home for "conduct detrimental to the team" before his Week 12 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bengals need to figure out if it's worth keeping Ocho Cinco around or cutting ties moving forward.

Biggest need: The Bengals need a stellar draft, whi
ch is something they haven't had in a long time. Last year the team selected 10 rookies and only first-round pick Keith Rivers was consistently productive before breaking his jaw in Week 7. Cincinnati is not a team that spends a lot of money in free agency. That approach is fine as long as you know what you're doing every year in the draft. The Bengals oftentimes do not and it's created a downward spiral that is hard to overcome. Let's see if this team can nail the draft in 2009.

Prospects for '09: Poor. Despite finishing the season on a three-game winning streak, the Bengals still need help. About the only sure thing this organization has is a franchise quarterback, and even Palmer is coming off an injury to his throwing elbow. It's time for Cincinnati to stop holding onto the past with players such as Houshmandzadeh, Ocho Cinco and Levi Jones. Those vets and career Bengals will be more productive somewhere else. Cincinnati needs to see if it can build a new core in the next 2-3 years to make one more run with Palmer, 29, before it's too late.

Cleveland Browns (4-12)
The Browns spent the past four years building the team to make a run this season. Yet it all came crashing down in the worst way. Cleveland suffered its third double-digit losing season in four years in 2008. Coming off a 10-6 campaign in 2007, the Browns entered the year with playoff expectations. Instead, they were one of the biggest disappointments in the NFL this season and now the team is unsure of its future. Grade: F

Biggest surprise: The Browns throttled the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants 35-14 in Week 6 on "Monday Night Football." That performance had people shaking their heads and wondering whether that was the real 2008 Cleveland team or simply an off night for the Giants. By the end of the year, everyone had the answer.

Biggest disappointment: Neither Brady Quinn nor Derek Anderson took hold of the quarterback position this season. The Browns are calling Quinn the franchise signal-caller of the present and future, but did he really instill a high level of confidence? He was 1-2 as a starter with two touchdowns, two interceptions, and he was benched in his final game. Quinn also is coming off season-ending finger surgery on his throwing hand. Anderson, coming off a Pro Bowl season, was expected to build off last year and, at the very least, increase his trade value. But an inconsistent season hurt the Browns in both performance and the trade market next year.

Biggest need: The Browns are in need of a culture change. Neither the players, coaches nor the front office are happy with the ways things have gone in Cleveland. Cleveland has major chemistry and philosophical issues that needs to be worked out before this team develops into a consistent winner. Browns owner Randy Lerner said everything is up for review, and he's already started by firing former general manager Phil Savage and head coach Romeo Crennel.

Prospects for '09: Murky. Last year's 10-6 run is looking like a fluke. It's very doubtful this team can consistently compete in the AFC North with the likes of the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. This also puts the Browns in an odd spot. Do they try to trade players such as Anderson, tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. and receiver Braylon Edwards in an effort to start over? That will certainly set the Browns back another couple of years. Or do they keep these key players who nearly led the Browns to the playoffs and try for another run next season? A case can be made either way. But, without a doubt, it will be an interesting offseason in Cleveland.

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
The Steelers have posted double-digit wins for the fourth time in five years and have a legitimate shot to win a Super Bowl for the second time since the 2005 season. Stability is the key in Pittsburgh. Despite a relatively new head coach in Mike Tomlin, the Steelers have rallied around him with the same toughness and winning mentality they've always had. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has dealt with injuries all year to keep the offense afloat, and he hopes to return for the playoffs. Pittsburgh's defense is tops in the NFL. Grade: A-

Biggest surprise: The Steelers overcoming injuries and adversity to master the NFL's toughest strength of schedule. Pittsburgh was expected to face heavy competition within the division. The Ravens were strong contenders and the Browns were expected to be much tougher, but Pittsburgh fended off all challengers to go 6-0 in the division, winning its second straight AFC North title and clinching the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. Most experts predicted Pittsburgh would win just nine or 10 games.

Biggest disappointment: When punter Daniel Sepulveda went down with a knee injury in training camp, most people didn't think it was a big deal. But Pittsburgh's punting has been inconsistent, although it's stellar defense masked that issue. Rest assured, the Steelers
will appreciate Sepulveda's return to training camp next year.

Biggest need: The offensive line has been Pittsburgh's only consistent and glaring weakness the past few seasons, and it's time the Steelers finally address that need. Pittsburgh passed on several quality offensive linemen on the first day of the draft last year, and it would be shocking if the team did it for the second year in a row. Left tackle Marvel Smith has back issues and likely will leave as a free agent. Max Starks was given the transition tag and his future in Pittsburgh remains uncertain, as well.

Prospects for '09: Tremendous. The Steelers know how to build a team from within. They have a franchise quarterback, depth at nearly every position, and a core on defense that will be good for years to come. If this year's rookie class -- with players such as tailback Rashard Mendenhall and receiver Limas Sweed -- develop in their second year, Pittsburgh will be golden. Add another draft class and a couple of solid hits in free agency, and the Steelers will be primed to make another Super Bowl run in 2009.

AFC South team evaluations

December, 30, 2008

Posted by's Paul Kuharsky

Houston Texans (8-8)
The Texans ultimately showed the progress they expected on offense, becoming one of the league's most threatening units. And for a hot stretch late in the season, they turned aggressive on defense despite some personnel weaknesses. But they failed to make the jump into playoff contender that they expected. Hurricane Ike shook them up early and an injury to Matt Schaub cost them continuity. Ultimately, their inability to close out close games against Indianapolis and Jacksonville highlighted their biggest issue: they are not competitive enough against their division rivals. Will the late-season upset of Tennessee prove to be a big turning point in that department? Grade: C

Biggest surprise: Whether they will admit it now or not, there were plenty of players in the Texans locker room that thought Steve Slaton would be a nice change-of-pace, third-down back. Instead, the rookie was a revelation, topping 1,000 yards and lining up as a Pro Bowl alternate. The slippery Slaton held up to the pounding and worked beautifully behind the first-year of the zone-blocking scheme under Alex Gibbs, who coordinates the run game. The Texans have their No. 1 receiver in Andre Johnson and now they have their lead back in Slaton. Next they need to find the right guy to take some of the carries so he's not overworked.

Biggest disappointment: Amobi Okoye didn't make the Year One to Year Two jump he and the team expected, with a high ankle sprain hampering him. That meant Mario Williams often had insufficient help from the middle of the line and it meant that middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans had more traffic to sort through because blockers weren't having as hard a time dealing with Okoye. He'll be out to re-prove himself in 2009, but like Williams, he'll benefit from upgrades along the rest of the line.

Biggest need: The Texans would really benefit from a dynamic safety who could contain the run, get downfield to help in coverage and deliver big hits after catches. Even when they get who they have healthy, the group is insufficient.

Thing that has to change: Schaub has proved an effective and productive quarterback, but needs two major improvements to approach elite status. The first is to stay healthy, which certainly involves some better fortune but also requires him to recognize hopeless situations or evaluate risk and reward and throw the ball away more often. The second is to stop throwing the ball away to the other team. Turnovers remain a big issue for the Texans, and fewer picks by their quarterback has to be the starting point for a major reduction.

Indianapolis Colts (12-4)
Early season struggles like the Colts went through undo many teams. They could have easily given into the idea of a down year, conceded their string of playoff appearances would end and felt a bit sorry for themselves. Instead, they kept grinding, figured Peyton Manning would come around and talked about stringing together a win streak. And here they are, locked in as the No. 5 seed in the AFC field, riding an eight-game winning streak. Their ability to regain their balance and find ways to win close games was remarkable -- but their trouble running the ball keeps them from a top mark. Grade: B+

Biggest surprise: The secondary's ability to hold together even without top personnel. Safety Bob Sanders played just seven games and starting right cornerback Marlin Jackson was lost for the season after six games. Their other starting corner, Kelvin Hayden, went down for a six-game stretch. The Colts beat the Patriots without their three top cornerbacks. Players like Melvin Bullitt and Tim Jennings did admirable work filling in and now provide the team with quality and experienced depth in the defensive backfield.

Biggest disappointment: Yes, the offensive line dealt with a bunch of injuries early and had to scramble to patch things together. The group never got guard Ryan Lilja back from a knee injury that cost him the entire season. Whether it's been the line, the backs or the way teams have defended the run, the Colts have been a very poor rushing team, which means too much falls on the shoulders of Manning and the receivers. The 2007 Colts were hardly masters of the run game, but they averaged nearly 30 yards more than the 79.6 this group has gotten. Joseph Addai's been banged up, but his production is down and that's a concern heading into the playoffs and looking toward 2009.

Biggest need: This depends
on what the team decides about Marvin Harrison. He can still make a contribution, but he's not going to run away from people. It's possible the Colts cut ties with the future Hall of Famer and while they have other areas they needs to address, another threatening pass catcher to go with Reggie Wayne, Anthony Gonzalez and tight end Dallas Clark could be a priority. Defensive tackle rates as a big need -- the Colts need some size to help their run defense. But the kinds of guys that can fill the job for Indianapolis don't necessarily need to be high draft picks.

Area of uncertainty: When they are finished, Tony Dungy will spend time with his family in Florida, then meet with president Bill Polian to tell him if he wants to coach the Colts in 2009 or if he's ready to hand over the reins to Jim Caldwell. It's hard to imagine such a successful coach giving up the job with such a talented roster, but Dungy is wired differently than most guys with his job and if he feels called to walk away, he will.

Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)
The Jaguars failed to live up to expectations, and those expectations may have been a big part of their problem. This team gained an unrealistic confidence out of the playoff upset in Pittsburgh last season. Then the pieces it added to help against the Colts and Patriots didn't pan out. The pass rush was the big defensive issue, and the two top draft picks, Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves, were hardly the difference makers the team sought in its quest to sack quarterbacks. On offense, the Jaguars needed to be more threatening downfield and newcomers Jerry Porter and Troy Williamson did little to alter their limitations in that department. Offensive line injuries right at the start of the season meant the Jaguars couldn't run like they were accustomed to and everything came apart from there. Grade: D

Biggest surprise: Critics look at his 11.7-yard average and three-game suspension and downgrade him. But Matt Jones was never going to be a huge downfield threat. His legal troubles could have been the final straw and the team was not sure at the start of training camp that he would make the roster. Even though he only played in 13 games, Jones will finish the season as the Jaguars' leading receiver with 65 catches for 761 yards and early in the season when they were still competitive, he made a bunch of key third-down conversions -- eight yards on a third-and-seven aren't a bad thing. That catch total is the most for a Jacksonville wide receiver since Jimmy Smith was around. In a terrible season, there weren't a lot of options for this category.

Biggest disappointment: No, it's not fair to pin the disappointing season on David Garrard. His line included several backups, his weapons were insufficient and the defense didn't play up to expectations. Still, there were plenty of occasions when Garrard had the ball in his hands late in a game when he could have moved his team to a tie or lead and too often, he failed. While his contract assures him of time to again prove he's the right guy to lead the offense, he will have to do much more.

Biggest need: The needs are the same as they have been, which is disappointing. Jacksonville needs a dynamic downfield playmaker who can get the team a big chunk once in a while and it needs to upgrade personnel to help pressure quarterbacks. They undervalued Marcus Stroud and could use a physical defensive tackle that demands attention and helps motivate and free up John Henderson. Khalif Barnes' time is probably up as the starting left tackle and a reconstruction of the offensive line needs to be started.

Rebuilding project: Team chemistry was a major issue. This group never jelled in the right way and shifting guys around the locker room like Jack Del Rio did during the season was hardly enough to fix things. All the team's offseason moves need to be made with leadership and chemistry in mind. Del Rio didn't push the proper buttons and his in-season feud with linebacker Mike Peterson further fractured an already broken team.

Tennessee Titans (13-3)
Quick turnarounds in Miami, Atlanta and Baltimore were big surprises, but don't let them overshadow what the Titans did against expectations. They were a playoff team in 2007 that was expected to slip, and once Vince Young took himself out of the picture in the season opener and Kerry Collins was inserted as
the quarterback, who expected a 10-0 start, a 13-3 record, an AFC South title and the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs? This team is greater than the sum of its parts, lacking major star power but featuring a confident and poised mentality that trickles down from Jeff Fisher. He and his staff did some of their best work with this group, which has set itself up to be rated a failure if its season ends with anything less than a trip to the Super Bowl. Grade: A

Biggest surprise: When Collins took over, many presumed he would take more sacks than Young would have. But calm and efficient in the pocket, he simply wouldn't allow people to take him down. It started with top-flight protection from an offensive line that also run-blocked quite well. But Collins also mastered check downs and throwaways and only got sacked eight times. He didn't give the ball away very much either, with just seven interceptions.

Biggest disappointment: Receiver Justin McCareins was inefficient as the starter opposite Justin Gage. While McCareins made solid contributions as a run blocker and had his moments pulling in balls on the sideline, he was the symbol of what the Titans simply don't get often enough from their wideouts. He rarely got good separation, dropped too many passes and gave up too early on others where he seemed more interested in getting back to the huddle or the sideline than selling out and hoping to make something big happen. He's a good guy and a good player, but this spot can be and should be easily upgraded.

Biggest need: An answer at quarterback. Collins is a free agent to be, as is third-stringer Chris Simms. Meanwhile Young waits in the wings and is expected to get at least one more big chance at the starting job. But there is great uncertainty at the spot now for 2009. The Titans deserve credit for drafting Chris Johnson, and they were far more explosive because of him. No Matter who's at quarterback, the logical next step is to find a dynamic receiver to go with Johnson.

Pending shakeup: Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will be on the list of hot prospects for a number of head coaching jobs that will open up. If he leaves, it will be interesting to see if he is able to take anyone else from Jeff Fisher's staff with him. Fisher's got multiple options to fill the spot, starting with his linebackers coach Dave McGinnis, his defensive backs coach Chuck Cecil and his old coordinator, Gregg Williams.

AFC West team evaluations

December, 30, 2008

Posted by's Bill Williamson

San Diego Chargers (8-8)
Did the San Diego Chargers underachieve with an 8-8 record? Of course. This is a team that was expected to win 11, 12 or even 13 games. Does it matter at this point? No, not at all. The Chargers are going back to the playoffs and, at this point, that is all that matters. San Diego's 4-8 start has been forgotten. It is in the playoffs and it heads to the postseason as one of the most dangerous teams in the 12-team tournament. San Diego has won four straight games and it is clicking. And that is all that matters as the calendar turns to NFL playoff time. Grade: C+

Biggest surprise: It has to be San Diego's slow start. The Chargers talked about starting fast for all of 2008. San Diego started slow in 2007. It was 5-5 at one point before it won its final six games of the regular season. The Chargers' 2007 season ended in the AFC Championship Game. This season, the Chargers started even slower. They were 4-8 before finally regrouping with four straight wins to end the regular season, becoming the first 4-8 team to rebound to make the playoffs. It all ended well, but still it is surprising the Chargers put themselves in this position for the second straight season.

Biggest disappointment: The San Diego run game lost its groove in 2008. And it came without much notice. While LaDainian Tomlinson still got his 1,000 yards, the Chargers' run game was not as fearsome over the course of the season as it has been in recent seasons. It is not all Tomlinson's doing. He suffered through a turf toe injury for the first half of the season. In addition, San Diego's run blocking was off for much of the season. Tomlinson is not done, but it certainly wasn't the season in San Diego that was expected.

Biggest need: The Chargers need some help on defense. The unit really missed star linebacker Shawne Merriman, who missed all but one game because of season-ending knee surgery. There are several young linebackers available, and the Chargers, who play a 3-4 defense, need to pick one up. If San Diego gets another standout linebacker, it should be strong again on defense in 2009.

Missing Merriman: The Chargers knew they would miss Merriman when he was put on injured reserve after the first game with a knee injury. However, the Chargers did not know they would miss him that much. The Chargers' pass rush went from fearsome to inconsistent at best. The Chargers' pass defense was ranked at or near the bottom of the NFL all season. For those who thought the Chargers could be the same without Merriman, this had to come as a shock. There is now no doubt that Merriman is crucial to San Diego's defense.

Denver Broncos (8-8)
This season will not be remembered for the progress made in Denver during never-ending adversity. It cannot be remembered for the positives. It has to be remembered for the collapse. The 2008 Denver Broncos will forever be remembered as the team that fall apart. Denver had a three-game lead in the AFC West with three games to go -- and it blew the division title, losing to San Diego. Denver's dive ties the biggest collapse in NFL history. Denver will not be remembered for the youngsters it developed or having survived despite putting 16 players on injured reserve. It will be remembered for blowing the division and for nothing else. Grade: C-

Biggest surprise: No team got as much production from their rookies as Denver did in 2008. Nine rookies played key roles for Denver this season. First-round pick, left tackle Ryan Clady, and second-round pick, receiver/returner Eddie Royal, were both among the best rookies in the entire NFL this season. With the play of the youngsters in 2008, the future looks very bright in Denver in the near future.

Biggest disappointment: The Broncos were ravaged by injuries. Denver put 16 players on the injured reserve list this season. By contrast, San Diego put four players on the shelf during the season. Denver lost seven tailbacks to injured reserve. It also played a long stretch without all three starting linebackers and it had to play seven games without its best defensive player, left cornerback Champ Bailey.

Biggest need: The Broncos are going to concentrate on defense as they try to upgrade in 2009. The team will try to get better at defensive end, defensive tackle, middle linebacker and safety. Yet, their biggest need is a defensive tackle. Denver has long been looking for big men in the middle to set the tone for the entire defense, especially in run support. Don't be surprised if the Broncos end up being major players in the Albert Haynesworth sweepstakes during free agency. If Haynesworth ends up in Denver, the defense will instantly be upgraded.

The Shanahan Factor: This collapse has worn on Denver coach Mike Shanahan. Prior to the San Diego game, Shanahan said the organization was "disgusted" that it put itself in this position. Shanahan was confident going into the season. He strayed from his typically conservative word usage and said on a Denver radio station during training camp that Denver would make the playoffs. For Shanahan to say something like that, he must have truly believed it. Yet, for the third straight season, Denver did not advance to the postseason. Shanahan, who has coached Denver for 14 seasons, but only to a 24-24 record in the past three seasons, surely has been shaken by this collapse.

Oakland Raiders (5-11)
In the end, it was just another disappointing Oakland Raiders season. But this one stood out because expectations were high in Oakland. The Raiders were committed to changing their losing ways. Oakland was the busiest team in the offseason adding veterans. Oakland spent more than $255 million in contracts and bonuses in 2008. In the end, though, the spending didn't change the culture of losing in Oakland. The Raiders became the first team in NFL history to lose at least 11 games for six straight seasons. Grade: D

Biggest surprise: The DeAngelo Hall saga was strange even by Raiders' standards. In one of the craziest developments of the season, Oakland cut Hall after eight games. Hall was signed to a huge contract after he was acquired from Atlanta for second- and fifth-round picks. But the cornerback was not very good for Oakland and the Raiders abruptly cut him. In the end, Oakland surrendered two draft choices and $8 million for eight games of service from Hall.

Biggest disappointment: Receiver Javon Walker. He was signed to a six-year, $55 million contract in the offseason. The huge contract caused shockwaves around the league. Many league insiders thought Walker would have to sign a modest one-year contract to prove that he was healthy. Walker was cut from Denver in February after an injury plagued 2007 season. Walker's health issues in Oakland continued. He was often criticized by coach Lane Kiffin, who was fired after four games and Walker was talked out of retirement by Oakland owner Al Davis during camp. Walker's tumultuous first season in Oakland ended after 15 catches and a season-ending ankle surgery. It wouldn't be a surprise if Walker is cut in the offseason.

Biggest need: The Raiders have many needs, particularly on the offensive line. But it also needs a reliable receiver. The Raiders' receiver play was among the league's worst in terms of production. Oakland has a good running game, but young quarterback JaMarcus Russell needs a go-to receiver. Perhaps Oakland could try to get Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree in the draft or trade for one such as Chad Johnson or Anquan Boldin in the offseason. However it is addressed, Oakland needs to find a receiver in 2009.

Hire a quarterback guru: The Raiders are looking for a head coach again. Interim coach Tom Cable will likely be considered, but the team is also looking at other coaches. The new coach needs to be a quarterback expert. Russell, who will be entering his third season, needs someone with expertise in that area. He hasn't been getting it in Oakland. He needs his head coach to know quarterbacks.

Kansas City Chiefs (2-11)
The 2008 Kansas City Chiefs will be remembered for two things: The changing of the guard and the blown leads. Of course, the two are connected. Had it not been for the frustration created by the blown games, there likely wouldn't be the change that is going to occur in Kansas City in the next few weeks. In a nine-game stretch from Oct. 26-Dec. 21, Kansas City blew six late leads. Some of the blown leads were huge. It was the day after the game against San Diego on Dec. 14, in which the Chargers came back from being down 11 points at the 2-minute warning to win, that it was announced general manager Carl Peterson will be leaving the team after 20 years, effective at the end of the season. With Peterson now gone, the odds are strong head coach Herman Edwards will also leave, marking the beginning of a new era in Kansas City. Grade: D-

Biggest surprise: Quarterback Tyler Thigpen came in and made Kansas City competitive. The team started playing well when he took over Oct. 26 against the Jets. After season-ending injuries to Brodie Croyle and Damon Huard, Thigpen, the No. 3 quarterback, was given the job because the Chiefs had no other choice. The team even talked to veteran Daunte Culpepper, but after he turned them down to go to Detroit, the job was Thigpen's. While he wasn't perfect, Thigpen created an instant bond with star tight end Tony Gonzalez who flourished with the young quarterback throwing balls to him. The Chiefs used the spread offense because it fit Thigpen's comfort level. Gonzalez wants Thigpen back, but with a new regime, his future as the starter is up in the air. If the Chiefs won more games with Thigpen, it would be an easier sell.

Biggest disappointment: First-round pick Glenn Dorsey. The Chiefs had a strong draft with many rookies playing well. But Dorsey was the showcase of the Kansas City draft. He was expected to make an instant impact, but it never happened. The No. 5 overall pick from LSU was just another rookie defensive tackle. The Chiefs expected him to be so much more. It is way too early to label Dorsey as a bust. Young defensive tackles often need time to develop. And that will be the case for Dorsey, a player who many league observers thought was the jewel of the draft.

Biggest need: The Chiefs have plenty of needs, but their greatest area of they need to address is at defensive
end. Kansas City needs an impact pass-rusher. It had one in Jared Allen but he was traded for several draft picks in April. The Chiefs missed him. Kansas City had 10 sacks, which set an NFL record for fewest sacks.

Keep Gonzalez: While the Chiefs are entering a state of change, there needs to be one constant from the past. The team has to convince Gonzalez to stay. Even at 32, he is their best player. Gonzalez wanted to be traded in October, but potential deals near the deadline were scuttled. He said earlier this month that he'll need to see what direction the team is going in before deciding to ask for a trade again or whether he wants to return. If he believes the Chiefs can contend in 2009, Gonzalez will likely come back. The new Kansas City brass has to convince Gonzalez the team will win immediately. Losing its best player would be a major blow for Kansas City as it enters a new era of leadership.