NFL Nation: 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.

NFC East team evaluations

December, 29, 2008

Posted by's Matt Mosley

Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
No matter what Wade Phillips says, this team believed it was a Super Bowl contender. It feels like the Cowboys have packed three seasons into one and the embarrassing loss to the Eagles was a punch to the gut. They started out hot, but the cracks began to show in losses to the Redskins and Cardinals. Tony Romo's broken right pinkie finger kept him out for three games, and it exposed the club's decision to enter a season with Brad Johnson as its backup. Jerry Jones will now try to use the Romo injury as an excuse.

Romo led the Cowboys to a win over the Redskins in his first game back, but it was the arrival of the defense that almost saved the season. Along the way, the Cowboys dealt with the Pacman Jones suspension and T.O.'s alleged jealousy of Romo and Jason Witten's relationship. In most seasons, a trade for an elite wide receiver such as Roy Williams would qualify as a big deal, but in 2008, it only served as an interesting footnote. Jones has given Phillips his vote of approval, which is baffling. Grade: D-

Biggest surprise: Cowboys rookie Tashard Choice has been one of the bright spots in a season full of distractions. First-round pick Felix Jones was brilliant at times early in the season, but a toe injury landed him on injured reserve. When Marion Barber suffered a toe injury, Choice was thrust into a starting role. He responded in a big way and the Cowboys could end up with a three-man rotation similar to what the Giants have in 2009.

Biggest disappointment: The fact that Terrell Owens has become an ordinary receiver. His apologists will point to his 10 touchdowns as evidence of his relevance, but in reality, teams figured out how to eliminate him for the most part. He had two huge games -- the first game against the Eagles and the home game against the 49ers. Other than that, he put up numbers befitting a solid No. 2 receiver. The aforementioned Williams should also share in the disappointment. For whatever reason, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett couldn't get him involved in the offense, and so far, the trade was the closest thing the Lions had to a win this season.

Biggest need: Someone who will actually hold players accountable, but apparently that hire won't be made. The Cowboys will probably lose Zach Thomas, so they could use more depth at inside linebacker. It would also help to bring in some reliable help at safety. There's no guarantee they bring back Roy Williams at that position.

Best moment of the season: The win against Tampa Bay sort of gets lost in the shuffle now, but it went a long way in stopping the bleeding caused by Romo's absence. Wade Phillips was instructed by Jerry Jones to take over the defensive play calling, which was something Phillips didn't admit until he was certain the defense was succeeding a few weeks later. The Cowboys battered Jeff Garcia for much of the game, and for the first time in weeks, the team had an identity.

New York Giants (12-4)
We've tried to bury this so many times that it's become comical. The retirement of Michael Strahan and a season-ending injury to Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora caused prognosticators (me) to downgrade the defending world champs. But from the first game of the season against the Redskins, it was obvious the Giants weren't going away. They nearly ran away with the NFC's No. 1 seed, but the loss of Plaxico Burress due to a bizarre set of circumstances helped contribute to a two-game skid to the Eagles and Cowboys. For a short time, the Giants looked vulnerable. But an overtime win over the Panthers (12-4) restored the swagger and now New York has home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

The combination of Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward has given the Giants the best running game in the league. And the offensive line has become an absolute force. Tom Coughlin has kept this team focused through a series of off-the-field distractions, and the Giants should be the favorites to repeat as Super Bowl champions. On defense, Justin Tuck has emerged as a worthy replacement for Strahan, and Mathias Kiwanuka has filled in nicely for Umenyiora. Coughlin is the ultimate team-first guy and the Giants live by that philosophy. I can't wait to see what's on the coach's next motivational T-shirt. Grade: A-

gest surprise
: You can't say enough about how well Jacobs and Ward have complemented each other this year, but the thing that has impressed me the most is the Giants' secondary. Corey Webster was benched early last season because he couldn't cover anyone. But he was forced back into the starting lineup in the playoffs because of injury and responded in a big way. Now, he's one of the highest-paid corners in the league and he's playing like an All-Pro. On the other side, Aaron Ross has become the picture of consistency and the Giants haven't missed a beat without safety Gibril Wilson, who signed with the Raiders in free agency. James Butler and Michael Johnson have been solid as starters. And rookie Kenny Phillips is a star in the making. General manager Jerry Reese has done an amazing job of creating depth at almost every position.

Biggest disappointment: You have to go with the Plaxico Burress situation. He gets rewarded with a lucrative extension on the first night of the season and has a great game against the Redskins. From that point on, he was a nightmare. He went AWOL after a game and was suspended. Then he was benched in a game because of his outburst on the sideline and behavior toward an official. Burress' accidental shooting of himself effectively ended his season. He's never had his affairs in order, but this season he hit a new low. Now the Giants are forced to defend their title without Eli Manning's most dangerous target.

Biggest need: The Giants are in pretty good shape across the board. I suppose they could use another pass-catching threat at tight end, but that's being greedy. This team is stocked right now. It will be interesting to see what happens if Ward leaves in free agency.

Best moment of the season: The Panthers game put the Giants back on the right path, but I think a road win in Pittsburgh is what forged the identity of this team. It was a huge moment for Manning, who made a couple of clutch throws in the fourth quarter of a 21-14 win. It was brutal game in which the Giants easily could've folded, but Manning dialed up some late magic and the defense made life miserable for Ben Roethlisberger.

Philadelphia Eagles (9-6-1)
The Eagles must feel like the luckiest team in the league following their improbable day Sunday. They whipped the Cowboys, so that wasn't the surprising part. It was the fact that the Texans and Raiders helped the Eagles squeak into the playoffs. Now, the Eagles have a chance to put some lipstick on what has been a messy season at times. The benching of Donovan McNabb at halftime against the Ravens was the season's flashpoint. The Eagles responded with three consecutive wins and McNabb stopped throwing interceptions. A loss to the Redskins seemed like a huge setback, but the Eagles were able to qualify.

When healthy, Brian Westbrook is one of the most dangerous players in the league. When he's not, the Eagles are an average team. If Reid will lean on Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter and not abandon the running game, the Eagles could get hot in the playoffs. They'll beat the Vikings on Sunday and that will set up a rematch with the Giants. Grade: C+

Biggest surprise: Had to be the benching of McNabb. Andy Reid and McNabb have been in lockstep for a decade, so the move sent a strong message to the team: If he'll do it to McNabb, he'll do it to anyone. The team seemed to respond favorably to the tactic, although Reid was heavily criticized.

Biggest disappointment: I think you'd have to point to the receiving corps. It put up decent numbers, but players like Reggie Brown were non-existent for much of the season. The Eagles ended up having to put too much pressure on promising rookie DeSean Jackson and it showed later in the season.

Biggest need: It's time to start retooling this offensive line. Shawn Andrews is the Pro Bowler, but he had issues related to his depression and then he suffered a back injury. I'm not sure why the Eagles never put him on injured reserve. Left tackle Tra Thomas and right tackle Jon Runyan's contracts are both up. The Eagles better have some recourse in mind if they lose both of those players.

Best moment of the season: Sunday against the Cowboys. The Eagles were given new life and they knew exactly what to do with it. In drilling the Cowboys, 44-6, the Eagles once again reminded us how dangerous they can be. It was a wonderful day to be an Eagles fan.

Washington Redskins (8-8)
On the surface, an 8-8 record in Jim Zorn's first season as head coach doesn't look too bad. But the way it happened is a huge disappointm
ent to the organization and its fans. The 6-2 start was one of the most compelling story lines of the season. Everything Zorn touched turned to gold and his unorthodox approach seemed like the perfect fit.

Then the team was beaten up by the Steelers and Clinton Portis never fully recovered from nagging injuries. The Redskins' offensive line that had dominated the line of scrimmage in the first half of the season looked broken down and old in the end. Executive director of football operations Vinny Cerrato has to address the offensive line either via free agency or the draft. And the Redskins should bring in reinforcements on the defensive line.

We overestimated this team's talent when it made the playoffs and then followed up with the fast start in 2008. So far, the Redskins have whiffed on the three second-rounders from the '08 draft and that's a huge problem. Devin Thomas, Fred Davis and Malcolm Kelly better be ready to go this offseason because their lack of development stunted this offense's growth. Zorn's first priority is still quarterback Jason Campbell. Four seasons into his career, we're still not sure what Campbell can become. Zorn has to get him to the next level while making his West Coast offense more explosive. It became way too simple to load up the line of scrimmage to stop Portis. Grade: C-

Biggest surprise: I think you have to go with strong safety Chris Horton. The seventh-rounder was the one player from the 2008 draft class to make a major impact. He's always around the ball and he's a good tackler. Horton started the season by catching everything in his vicinity. He had stone hands in college, so it was a surprising development. He's a great fit at a position where the Redskins could've really struggled.

Biggest disappointment: I know he played well in the win over the Eagles, but Jason Taylor was a huge disappointment. Even he admitted that he's not worth the $8 million the Redskins would owe him in 2009. A scary calf injury derailed his season from the start, but even when he was close to healthy he was a non-factor. In Miami, the defense was built around him. With the Redskins, he never seemed to embrace the scheme and just looked like another guy. At 34, I don't see any reason the Redskins would bring him back.

Biggest need: With Pro Bowler Chris Samuels starting to show his age (31) and right tackle Jon Jansen on his last leg, it's time to draft some young linemen. You also have Pete Kendall starting at left guard. At some point, you need to see what Chad Rinehart can do. This is a team that flourished when the running game was working. In its current form, the offensive line can't get you through and entire season. Reinforcements are needed. The Redskins need help up the middle on defense and they'll need a viable pass-rusher off the edge.

Best moment of the season: I thought a win on the road in Dallas early in the season was a big moment. Campbell was superb in protecting the ball and Portis ran over the Cowboys. It was smash-mouth football and it was the first time that the Cowboys showed some major flaws. The Redskins went on to beat Philly on the road the following week. They were staring 7-1 in the face before running into the Rams.

NFC South team evaluations

December, 29, 2008

Posted by's Pat Yasinskas

New Orleans Saints (8-8)
The Saints gambled that this was the year they could challenge for the Super Bowl. They turned out to be very wrong. Trading for linebacker Jonathan Vilma and tight end Jeremy Shockey wasn't enough to put them over the top and they still have to pay the price for missing on draft picks. Too bad, because they'll need them to overhaul their defense for the second straight year. Although Vilma helped and rookie defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis had some bright moments, the defense wasn't much different than last year. Injuries on defense, poor play in the secondary, inconsistency in running the ball and a brutal schedule all took a toll on the Saints. Even with a huge year from quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints weren't able to get to the playoffs. Grade: D+

Biggest surprise: Lance Moore emerged as the team's No. 1 receiver out of desperation. A former undrafted free agent, Moore became Brees' favorite target after injuries left the Saints with few other options on offense. The speedy Moore was the only consistent receiver the Saints had.

Biggest disappointment: Marques Colston. It wasn't all his fault because an early thumb injury cost Colston significant time. But, even after he returned, Colston wasn't the same receiver he was the previous two seasons.

Biggest need: Once again, it's defense -- just about everywhere on defense. The Saints couldn't defend the pass, couldn't rush the quarterback and didn't stop the running game. Other than that, they were flawless on defense. Vilma, Ellis and strong safety Roman Harper are the only defensive players whose jobs should be safe. A free safety and cover corner are the biggest priorities, but speed at linebacker and another pass rusher to challenge the underachieving Charles Grant and Will Smith would help.

Tip to Sean Payton: Go get a real running back. Let Deuce McAllister go because he's not in your plans and admit that Reggie Bush is not a true feature back. Use Bush as a combination of a receiver and runner, but don't count on him to play every down. This year showed you can go out and throw for around 5,000 yards, but it won't get you anywhere if you don't have a running game.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)
Somehow, the Bucs got off to a 9-3 start. But it turned out to be nothing but smoke, mirrors and Antonio Bryant. Once the rest of the league figured out the Bucs were old on defense and had nothing but Bryant on offense, the Bucs collapsed and squandered what appeared to be a certain playoff berth. That's a bitter way to head into an offseason that's not looking like a lot of fun. The Bucs are losing defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and that's just the start. Because of age and the way this season disintegrated, this roster is going to be blown up. The Bucs may have had a winning record, but part of that was luck and part of it was coaching. The reality check at the end of the year means the Bucs will be starting from scratch in a lot of places. Grade: D+

Biggest surprise: Bryant. The wide receiver spent all of 2007 out of the league and some thought his career was over. The Bucs took a shot on him and gave him a one-year contract worth just more than minimum and it paid off. Adding Bryant was the best move the Bucs made as he became the go-to receiver and the only bright spot on offense. Now, they've got to make sure they re-sign him to a much bigger deal before he can get to the free-agent market.

Biggest disappointment: Joey Galloway. Bryant's rise came because Galloway couldn't get on the field during training camp. Galloway got so buried in coach Jon Gruden's doghouse that he wasn't even a factor after he got healthy. Losing playing time to Bryant wasn't that sad, but not being able to get ahead of Michael Clayton and Ike Hilliard in the rotation showed that Galloway's time in Tampa Bay is over.

Biggest need: Stability at quarterback. The Bucs haven't had that in forever and the team might as well just let Jeff Garcia walk. He did some good things in his Tampa Bay tenure, but he's old and it's obvious coach Jon Gruden never was sold on Garcia. Brian Griese, Luke McCown and Josh Johnson aren't the answer.

Tip to Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen: You messed up in one huge way this season. If you were going to enter the Brett Favre sweepstakes (and we know you did), you HAD to get him. You didn't and it ruined Garcia and, ultimately, your season. Decide early on if Donovan McNabb or Matt Cassel is your flavor of the month. Then go out and make certain you get him.

Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
The Falcons are in the playoffs and that's one of the biggest miracles of this season. Scary part is, they have a real chance to do some damage in the postseason because they're carrying momentum and have shown an ability to get better each week. All this seemed inconceivable back at the start of the season when the Falcons had a roster that looked bare and a new coach (Mike Smith) that almost nobody had ever heard of. But every move Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff made seemed to be a home run. They drafted quarterback Matt Ryan and signed free agent running back Michael Turner and those two moves alone might have been the best any team made before this year. Grade: A-

Biggest surprise: Ryan. Yeah, it's tough to call a guy who was drafted third overall a surprise. But nobody could have pictured Ryan being this good this fast. The quarterback had to take on the job of being the face of a franchise and playing right away and he did it flawlessly. The Falcons didn't have to dumb-down their playbook. In fact, they opened it all the way and kept adding to it. None of that slowed down Ryan, who became the best rookie quarterback since Dan Marino.

Biggest disappointment: Jamaal Anderson. The second-year defensive end wasn't able to generate a pass rush even as opposing offensive lines devoted all their resources to trying to slow down John Abraham. Anderson still has great physical tools and the Falcons aren't quite ready to give up on him. But they'll bring in another pass rusher and, if Anderson doesn't show something by the start of next season, he could be on his way out.

Biggest need: Without a name player, other than veteran safety Lawyer Milloy, the Atlanta secondary had a shockingly good year after unloading cornerback DeAngelo Hall. But that's more a tribute to coaching and Abraham's pass rush than the personnel. The Falcons need to upgrade here because Milloy is near the end of his career. Cornerback Chris Houston came on nicely and Domonique Foxworth showed he can be a solid third corner. But the Falcons can use another starter at cornerback and a play-making safety.

Tip to Mike Smith: You ran the heck out of Turner this year and got fantastic results. But you can't run any running back nearly 400 times a season and expect him to hold up for long. Sure, Turner's the centerpiece of your offense, but you need to go a little easier on his workload next year. Either give Jerious Norwood some more carries or add another running back.

Carolina Panthers (12-4)
Coach John Fox entered the season on the hot seat. Now, he's as safe as any coach in the league. The Panthers are in the playoffs and they did that by getting back to Fox's basic style of running the ball consistently on offense and stopping the run on defense (aside from in the loss to New York). Carolina's as solid as any team in the NFL and could go a long way in the playoffs. Fox and general manager Marty Hurney took some big chances by not bringing in a proven alternative to quarterback Jake Delhomme, who was coming off major elbow surgery, and by trading back into the first round to draft right tackle Jeff Otah. Their moves worked out solidly and that's why they're off the hot seat. Grade: A-

Biggest surprise: There was a school of thought that the Panthers would immediately hand the starting running back job to top draft pick Jonathan Stewart and forget about DeAngelo Williams. They didn't. They made Williams, who hadn't done a lot in his first two seasons, the starter and he produced huge numbers.

Biggest disappointment: Carolina fans got all excited when the Panthers signed receiver D.J. Hackett. As it turned out, they could have just kept Keary Colbert and Drew Carter around because they got virtually nothing out of Hackett, who fell behind veteran Muhsin Muhammad and second-year pro Dwayne Jarrett.

Biggest need: Despite a solid season from Muhammad, the Panthers will continue their annual search for a complement to No. 1 receiver Steve Smith. Muhammad's getting older and can't do it forever and there's no guarantee Jarrett is ready for a larger role.

Tip to John Fox: Don't change. You've taken heat for being stubborn. But that's why you stuck with Delhomme and gave Williams the first crack at the running back job.

NFC North team evaluations

December, 29, 2008

Posted by's Kevin Seifert

Minnesota Vikings (10-6)
The Vikings converted an offseason spending spree into their first division title since 2000. Most notably, the additions of defensive end Jared Allen (14.5 sacks) and receiver Bernard Berrian (964 receiving yards) turned a .500 team into a 10-win group. The Vikings still have some areas to work on, but they will enter the playoffs with victories in five of their past six games while boasting arguably the NFL's best player in tailback Adrian Peterson. Grade: B+

Biggest surprise: Coach Brad Childress benched protégé Tarvaris Jackson after an 0-2 start, a shocking admission that the quarterback Childress groomed as his starter was not ready to take the reins of a playoff-caliber team. Even more surprising, backup Gus Frerotte -- whom the Vikings coaxed away from retirement in the offseason -- replaced Jackson and won eight of 11 starts. Jackson has since regained the starting job, but it would have been hard to predict such a turn of events at the game's most crucial position.

Biggest disappointment: The Vikings have one of the NFL's best placekickers in Ryan Longwell, but overall their special teams were a surprising liability this season. Opponents scored seven special teams touchdowns against them, a league record. Some of the issues could be traced to individual mistakes -- punter Chris Kluwe dropping a snap or an incorrect alignment on field goal protection -- but for the most part the breakdowns were across the board. The Vikings missed coverage demon Heath Farwell, who suffered a season-ending knee injury during the preseason, and created some disarray by failing to settle on return men for either kickoffs or punts.

Biggest need: Years of heavy offseason spending has left the team fairly well stocked, but one area of concern is right tackle. Ryan Cook was rarely effective in his 15 starts, and the Vikings tried to replace him with utility backup Artis Hicks before Hicks suffered a torn triceps muscle. Cook's three-year conversion to right tackle has been bumpy and the Vikings should consider replacing him in the offseason.

Second-guessing: Why did Peterson fumble nine times on the way to the NFL rushing title? Peterson's theory is that his strong running style leaves him upright more than most running backs, giving defenders more time to pop the ball loose. There is some merit to that explanation, but it doesn't explain every fumble. The bottom line is that Peterson at times lost focus on one of his primary jobs -- protecting the ball -- in his effort to break long runs.

Chicago Bears (9-7)
The Bears took early control of the NFC North but missed a chance to create a deep cushion after giving up leads against Carolina, Tampa Bay and Atlanta. And yet even with those missed opportunities and a 1-3 stretch in late November, the Bears could have earned a wild-card berth had they won their season finale at Houston. That failure should jump-start a number of self-scouting exercises, especially to figure out why their defense slipped in nearly every area two years after leading the team to the Super Bowl. Grade: B-

Biggest surprise: There was a general consensus that Matt Forte could be a 1,000-yard back in the NFL. But Forte not only rushed for 1,238 yards, but he also led the team with 63 receptions. Those weren't all dump passes into the flat, either. Forte showed a natural ability to position his body for red zone receptions and was by far the most important player on the Bears' offense this season.

Biggest disappointment: The Bears finished the season ranked No. 30 against the pass, failing to mount much of a pass rush from its defensive line and displaying little coverage savvy in the back end. Cornerback Nate Vasher was a complete non-factor and might not return next season, while multiple other players alluded to frustration with defensive coordinator Bob Babich's schemes. The Bears blitzed more than any team in the NFL, according to STATS, an approach that too often left the secondary exposed for big plays.

Biggest need: Fantasy players need the Bears to upgrade their receiver position, which boasts no one who should be considered a No. 1 or No. 2 receiver. But until they get their defense rectified, it's not going to matter how many offensive weapons they add. The Bears should look for defensive game changers -- no matter what position they play -- this offseason. No position, other than that of Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs, should be considered untouchable.

Second-guessing: Was Devin Hester's performance as a receiver -- 51 receptions, 665 yards and three touchdown -- worth reducing his threat as a returner? There was no way Hester would have kept up the scoring pace of his first two seasons (11 touchdowns). But he never came close to returning a kickoff or punt for a touchdown this season. There has to be some connection. Right?

Green Bay Packers (6-10)
It was reasonable to expect some drop-off following the departure of quarterback Brett Favre, but few could have predicted a second-half collapse that would leave the Packers with a 6-10 record. The defense fell into an injury-induced tailspin, and while quarterback Aaron Rodgers produced solid statistics, he didn't take over in the fourth quarter of close games as Favre often did. This team had far too much talent to finish with a losing record. Grade: D

Biggest surprise: Tramon Williams stepped from obscurity into a substantial role as a part-time starting cornerback. He ranked third on the team with five interceptions while displaying solid coverage skills and undeniable big-play ability. Williams excited enough people that it seems possible the Packers will move veteran cornerback Al Harris during the offseason and install Williams as a full-time starter alongside Charles Woodson.

Biggest disappointment: Safety Atari Bigby seemed on the verge of big things at the end of last season, but he was never healthy in 2008. He managed only 21 tackles and one interception in seven games before being placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury. The ripple effect of his injuries were notable throughout the defense. Backup Aaron Rouse struggled, and eventually the Packers were forced to use Woodson at safety for three games. Bigby is a tremendous athlete with big-time hitting ability but, like the Packers, had a very unlucky year.

Biggest need: It's a toss-up between offensive tackle and defensive line, but the need for defensive help seems more immediate. The Packers played most of the year with three healthy defensive tackles and they would be taking a huge risk if they count on former first-round pick Justin Harrell for anything next season. The Packers need to improve not only their interior run defense but also on the edge in passing situations. The losses of Cullen Jenkins (injury) and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (ineffectiveness) left Aaron Kampman all alone in disrupting opponents' passing attacks.

Second guessing: The decision to part ways with Favre was defensible. Allowing the divorce to extend well into training camp was not. Because they didn't believe Favre really wanted to play for another team, the Packers decided to hold tight and assumed he would eventually go away. When Favre refused, the Packers were left with a monstrous distraction at a crucial time of team-building. No matter what anyone said at the time, the drama disrupted the team and played a role in the general confusion and miscommunication that has plagued the team all season.

Detroit Lions (0-16)
There are 16 reasons why Detroit will undergo yet another rebuilding program this offseason. The first 0-16 season in NFL history exposed a poorly-constructed team that needs help at nearly every position, most notably along both lines. They'll have two first-round draft picks to jump-start the process, including the No. 1 overall, but first will have to replace fired head coach Rod Marinelli. Grade: F

Biggest surprise: President and general manager Matt Millen had kept his job for so long, amid so much losing, that it seemed he had a lifetime appointment. So while his firing was not undeserved, it was downright stunning to see owner William Clay Ford -- with prompting from son Bill Ford Jr. -- pull the trigger after the Lions opened 0-3. Even Ford could see where Millen's incompetence had led the franchise. And if you're looking for the Lions' second-biggest surprise, it would be Ford's decision to retain Millen's top two subordinates -- interim general manager Martin Mayhew and chief operating officer Tom Lewand -- to rebuild the team. If there was ever a time for a clean slate, it's now.

Biggest disappointment: There are so many choices, but the best place to start is quarterback Jon Kitna. When the season began, you could have made an argument for Kitna as the best quarterback in the NFC North. But he was average at best during the first month of the season and never seemed comfortable with new offensive coordinator Jim Colletto. The Lions essentially fired Kitna by placing him on injured reserve with a relatively mild back injury. The move left the team shuffling through four different quarterbacks, and it's possible that none of them will be in Detroit next season. The Lions ended the season with the division's worst quarterback situation.

Biggest need
: The Lions' defense gave up almost 170 rushing yards per game and got pushed around on a weekly basis. The first step to rebuilding the defense is finding some defensive linemen who can control the line of scrimmage. You can't always add a star at this position, but there are plenty of free agents and likely draft picks who could add some muscle and physicality there.

Second-guessing: Why did Marinelli think that Colletto could transition the offense from Mike Martz's passing attack to a zone-blocking run scheme? First of all, the zone-blocking scheme can take several years to install. Marinelli should have known he didn't have that long. Second, Colletto had never been a coordinator in the NFL. As the season progressed, it didn't look like Colletto had many schematic answers for the way the Lions were playing. Colletto is a well-known offensive line coach who might have been in over his head in this job.

NFC West team evaluations

December, 29, 2008

Posted by's Mike Sando

Arizona Cardinals (9-7)
Winning a division title for the first time since 1975 stands as progress, but the last few weeks have reminded the Cardinals that their work is only beginning. The Cardinals need to address their future at quarterback. They will have to navigate choppy waters once receiver Anquan Boldin inevitably renews complaints about his contract. They have a decision to make on franchise player Karlos Dansby. The coming offseason will be pivotal for the Cardinals. The organization has much to prove. Grade: B

Biggest surprise: Kurt Warner went from Matt Leinart's backup to legitimate MVP candidate in two months. Warner's production late last season went largely unnoticed because the Cardinals weren't winning regularly and they recommitted to Leinart entering camp. Warner surprised just about everyone by passing for more yards than during his 1999 MVP season.

Biggest disappointment: The Cardinals' inability to keep their focus after clinching the division title cost them momentum on and off the field. The schedule stiffened to the point that Arizona was going to lose some late-season games no matter what. But in collapsing so profoundly, the Cardinals invited self-doubt. They have raised questions about their ability to sustain success. Celebrating the NFC West championship with champagne and hats seemed justified given how long the organization had gone between division titles. In retrospect, a more serious approach might have been more appropriate.

Biggest need: Bolstering the ground game has to stand as a top priority. To do that, the Cardinals need to strengthen their offensive line from the inside out. They need to consider other options at running back, perhaps early in the draft. And they need to upgrade at tight end. The Cardinals also need to acknowledge that their ground game died partially from neglect. That should never happen with Russ Grimm coaching the offensive line. A stronger commitment to the ground game is essential.

Saying goodbye: Edgerrin James' diminished role this season suggests the Cardinals might release him during the offseason. While James wants to continue playing as part of a Hall of Fame push, Warner has yet to decide on his future beyond this season.

San Francisco 49ers (7-9)
The last several games proved the 49ers were wrong when they retained Mike Nolan and installed J.T. O'Sullivan as quarterback heading into the season. The 49ers appear closer to establishing a sustainable on-field identity with Mike Singletary and Shaun Hill in those roles. Singletary deserves credit for helping the 49ers match their personnel to their schemes. If offensive coordinator Mike Martz departs, the organization must hire a top-flight offensive staff. Grade: C

Biggest surprise: Isaac Bruce proved he can remain a productive receiver at age 36. His overall numbers aren't dramatically better than they were last season. But with 35 receptions in his last six games, and with seven touchdown passes overall, Bruce showed staying power. He finished last season with 23 receptions in his final six games. Looking ahead, it's unclear how Bruce might adapt if the 49ers went away from a Martz-type offense.

Biggest disappointment: The 49ers appear likely to make another change at offensive coordinator, and they still cannot know if they have the right quarterback. It's hard to make progress when every forward step follows one or two steps backward. Frequent turnover at offensive coordinator has doomed the 49ers in recent seasons, diminishing their ability to develop Alex Smith or any other quarterback.

Biggest need: The 49ers need a starting right tackle to solidify their offensive line. Jonas Jennings, Barry Sims and Adam Snyder have taken turns at the spot this season. Jennings' release appears likely. Sims is a solid backup and swing tackle. Snyder is more guard than tackle. The 49ers appear solid at left tackle and center. Improved play at right tackle would give the 49ers more flexibility in using their tight ends as receivers. The 49ers also need another pass rusher, but those are harder to find and every team wants one.

Words of caution: "It says a lot about the direction of the team." That's what Nolan said after the 49ers closed the 2006 season with two upset road victories in their final three games. The team went 7-16 over the next 23 games before firing Nolan. The 49ers needed to hire Singletary because he's the right man for the job, not because the team won a few games and felt good about itself.

Seattle Seahawks (4-12)
Mike Holmgren's final season as Seahawks coach stands as a failure on almost every front. The team failed to learn the severity of Matt Hasselbeck's back injury until it was too late. The team failed to develop young receivers fast enough to compensate adequately once injuries wiped out the position. The defense failed to meet expectations, appearing exposed once the offense failed to do its part. While the Seahawks can accurately point to an unusual number of injuries, they could have fought through them better. Grade: F

Biggest surprise: The Seahawks knew rookie John Carlson would provide an upgrade at tight end. No one could be sure Carlson he would become this good so quickly, particularly with instability at quarterback. While Carlson has been a productive receiver since early in the season, he has become a more complete player in recent weeks. Carlson is catching the ball more consistently, getting his assignments correct more frequently and blocking effectively. He has Pro Bowl potential.

Biggest disappointment: With the exception of defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, the defensive line has fallen far short of expectations. The problems go beyond losing top pass rusher Patrick Kerney to a season-ending shoulder injury. Defensive tackle Rocky Bernard dropped off even though this was a contract year. Darryl Tapp and Lawrence Jackson produced only sporadically, if at all.

Biggest need: Wide receiver is the obvious answer after injuries wiped out the position, but the Seahawks also need help on their defensive line. Kerney's long-term health is in question. Bernard could leave in free agency. The Seahawks' weak pass rush too often exposed their linebackers and especially their secondary. Upgrading the defensive line would help Seattle realize more return on substantial investments in the back seven.

Transition watch: Incoming head coach Jim Mora will bring energy and a more aggressive approach to the defense. He also needs to bring more victories. Holmgren's larger-than-life presence and Super Bowl credentials allowed him to weather tough times better than other Seattle head coaches. Mora will have a harder time if the Seahawks start poorly next season.

St. Louis Rams (2-14)
The Rams' victories over the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys in consecutive weeks showed how badly they underperformed in the 14 remaining games. The team changed head coaches and briefly changed starting quarterbacks, but the Rams' problems ran deeper than they realized. New owner Chip Rosenbloom appears determined to shake up the organization, but will he put the right pieces in place? Grade: F

Biggest surprise: Rookie receivers from college programs with unsophisticated offensive schemes aren't supposed to flourish in coordinator Al Saunders' offense. Donnie Avery, the Rams' second-round choice from Houston, became one of the most productive rookie receivers in Rams history. Injuries slowed Avery at times, but he demonstrated starting-caliber talent and an ability to stretch defenses.

Biggest disappointment: It's hard to single out just one, but the Rams' offensive line failed to meet expectations even when Orlando Pace was in the lineup. Keeping Pace healthy stood as arguably the Rams' top priority heading into the season. By December, coach Jim Haslett was calling guard Richie Incognito his best offensive lineman. The Rams were overmatched at center. Right tackle Alex Barron proved unreliable. Left guard Jacob Bell failed to make the desired impact. As a result, quarterback Marc Bulger never got comfortable.

Biggest need: The Rams needs to become a tougher, more physical team on both sides of the ball. That means upgrading their offensive line and strengthening the middle of their defense. The Rams will once again hold the second overall pick in the draft. They could do worse than using that choice to find the next cornerstone for their offensive line, even if they think Pace has a couple more seasons.

Search time: The Rams' nosedive probably removes Haslett from serious consideration for the coaching job beyond this season. Newly appointed general manager Billy Devaney is leading the search. The sooner the Rams can name their next coach, the sooner they can move forward and ou
t of their current mess.