Ravens, Bengals, Texans make grade
Here are my AFC team grades for the regular season. For my NFC grades, click here.
Baltimore Ravens: Grade: A-
By beating the Steelers twice, the Ravens ended a three-year run as wild cards and won the AFC North. The Ravens were 8-0 at home and have proved that Joe Flacco can win playoff games on the road. Despite problems on the offensive line and Flacco's inconsistency, the Ravens have a great chance of getting back to the AFC title game.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Grade: B+
To gut out a 12-win season despite injuries to key defenders, offensive linemen and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a testament to the stability of the organization and coach Mike Tomlin. The Steelers will be $22 million over the cap going into next season, so they will be getting younger on defense.
Cincinnati Bengals: Grade: A
That's an A for Andy Dalton. The Bengals were lucky to have Dalton fall to them in the second round, and now his young arm is taking them to the playoffs -- something Carson Palmer couldn't do last season. It was a blow to lose cornerback Johnathan Joseph to free agency, but the team used its money wisely to bring in cornerbacks Nate Clements and Kelly Jennings and linebackers Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson to help the defense.
Cleveland Browns: Grade: D
The lack of playmaking ability at wide receiver and the Madden curse that spoiled Peyton Hillis' season turned the Colt McCoy offense into a pop-gun offense. Drafting fourth and averaging only 13.6 points a game, the Browns have to decide what to do at quarterback. Trade up for Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III? Try to sign Matt Flynn?
New England Patriots Grade: B
The offense gets an A. Tom Brady threw for 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns and tight end Rob Gronkowski developed into an offensive superstar. The defense pulled down the grade because it gave up 411.1 yards a game and 26 touchdown passes.
New York Jets: Grade: C-
That's the grade Rex Ryan gave the team Monday, and he is spot-on. It was unfair to make Plaxico Burress the No. 2 receiver. After two years in prison, he was more of a No. 3 red zone threat. The team was older and slower on offense, couldn't block on the right side of the line and was slower at stopping running offense on the perimeter.
Buffalo Bills: Grade: B-
As disappointing as it was to see the Bills go from 5-2 to 6-10, they made progress this season under Chan Gailey. Despite the interceptions, Ryan Fitzpatrick helped the two-game improvement from last season by proving that Gailey's three-receiver offense can be potent. Promoted defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt must decide whether to improve the defense as a 4-3 or a 3-4. Expect the 4-3 to be the winner.
Miami Dolphins: Grade: C-
The Dolphins became the Bermuda Triangle this year. The Chad Henne era failed. Former offensive line coach Tony Sparano was fired and left a tattered offensive line. The defense still can be good, but the next coach had better find a quarterback or he will be fired by his third season.
Houston Texans: Grade: A
Gary Kubiak needed to make the playoffs to save his job, and the Texans have their first playoff season ever. Kubiak's patience allowed the team to rebound from injuries to Matt Schaub, Mario Williams and others. The key to the season was the hiring of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who turned the team into a 3-4 defense that gave up 9.3 fewer points a game than it did a year ago.
Tennessee Titans: Grade: B
The combination of coach Mike Munchak and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck gave the Titans a respectable 9-7 record, a three-game improvement from a year ago. The lack of pass rush will have to be addressed in the offseason. It's interesting that Munchak hinted that Chris Johnson may have lost a step this season after so many carries in the two previous seasons.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Grade: F
A new owner. A new coach. A damaged new quarterback. The biggest disservice former coach Jack Del Rio and the organization did was releasing starting quarterback David Garrard and starting Blaine Gabbert when he wasn't ready. Putting in requests to interview five offensive coordinators indicates that the team's rebuilding effort is focused on salvaging Gabbert.
Indianapolis Colts: Grade: F
Losing Peyton Manning to neck surgery figured to drop the Colts from 11 or 12 wins a season to four or five, but the fall to 2-14 cost Bill and Chris Polian their jobs in the front office. Getting the first pick is good luck because owner Jim Irsay can draft Andrew Luck. If Manning is healthy to play in 2012, Irsay will keep him and have quarterbacks of the present and future.
Denver Broncos: Grade: B
The Tim Tebow story was one of the most exciting parts of the 2011 season. Tebow went 7-4 with five fourth-quarter comebacks. That helped offensive coordinator Mike McCoy get an interview for the head-coaching job in Jacksonville and earned John Fox coach of the year consideration. Fox's biggest contribution was turning the defense into a solid unit.
Oakland Raiders: Grade: C-
First-year coach Hue Jackson talked about turning the Raiders' defense into bullies, but that talked turned out to be bull. Opposing quarterbacks passed for 251.4 yards a game against the Raiders. Other embarrassments: trading away a No. 1 and No. 2 for Carson Palmer and losing the division to Tebow.
San Diego Chargers: Grade: C
To be honest, the defensive roster isn't all that talented. The big disappointment was seeing quarterback Philip Rivers force throws that resulted in 20 interceptions. The Chargers, once annual playoff contenders, have become an average team.
Kansas City Chiefs: Grade: C-
The three-game drop to 7-9 was predictable, given the fact that the Chiefs' schedule was tougher and injuries to halfback Jamaal Charles, quarterback Matt Cassel and tight end Tony Moeaki handcuffed the offense. Interim coach Romeo Crennel should be the leading candidate for the full-time job if owner Clark Hunt is willing to accept a 64-year-old head coach.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
MORE NFL HEADLINES
- Source: Bears to start Clausen over Cutler
- 49ers release McDonald amid investigation
- 49ers' Harbaugh 'considering' Michigan job
- Rivera: NFC South champ worthy of playoffs