Packers, Saints, Lions, 49ers stand out
Here are my NFC team grades for the regular season. For my AFC grades, click here.
Green Bay Packers: GRADE: A+
The Packers almost had a perfect season, but there was no question they had the perfect quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. Even though he didn't throw for 5,000 yards, he still had 45 touchdown passes. Rodgers' performances covered for a defense that gave up 411.6 yards a game.
Detroit Lions: GRADE: A
Matthew Stafford deserves NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors for a season in which he threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns. The defense committed too many dumb penalties, but coach Jim Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew have turned a franchise that went 0-16 in 2008 into a playoff contender in just three seasons.
Chicago Bears: GRADE: C
General manager Jerry Angelo may have lost his job, but he did sign a great pass-rusher, Julius Peppers, along with getting the quarterback, Jay Cutler, who guided the Bears to a championship game last season and a 7-3 record this season before he got hurt. The lack of a backup quarterback cost the Bears the season, because they lost five straight after Cutler went down.
Minnesota Vikings: GRADE: F
Last season, the Vikings lost the roof over their home field. This season, the roof collapsed on their roster. Ownership is struggling to get a new stadium at a time it also needs to totally revamp the roster. The biggest disappointment was a secondary that couldn't cover anyone.
New York Giants: GRADE: B-
No one in this division deserves a great grade. The Giants snuck into the playoffs at 9-7 despite ranking 27th in the league on defense and having an offensive line that struggled during the first part of the season. Eli Manning put together an MVP-type season, which is why nine wins is an underachievement.
Dallas Cowboys: GRADE: C
Play calling in the fourth quarter was a problem. The defense failed in critical parts of games. Quarterback Tony Romo is taking too much heat for the disappointing 8-8 season. He threw for 4,184 yards and 31 touchdowns despite injuries. What more could he do?
Philadelphia Eagles: GRADE: C-
What a nightmare for the so-called "Dream Team," as the Eagles were labeled by backup quarterback Vince Young. Ownership invested over $100 million in free-agent contracts to watch the team go from 10-6 to 8-8. Michael Vick came back after missing three games with a rib injury to salvage a respectable finish but his body seems to be up to only a 13-game regular season.
Washington Redskins: GRADE: D
After following up a 6-10 season in 2010 with a 5-11 record this season, coach Mike Shanahan admitted the team wasn't as deep as he thought. Still, his decision to go with interception machine Rex Grossman and John Beck as his quarterbacks kept the offense handcuffed, even though Jim Haslett did a great job improving the defense.
New Orleans Saints: GRADE: A
In past years, Saints quarterback Drew Brees had trouble with Cover 2 defenses, but the additions of tight end Jimmy Graham last season and halfback Darren Sproles this season allow him to beat any defense. Is a Green Bay-New Orleans showdown in the NFC title game inevitable?
Atlanta Falcons: GRADE: B
A three-game drop-off from a 13-3 season in 2010 appeared to be inevitable, and a draft-day trade for wide receiver Julio Jones didn't stop the drop. Jones did his part with 54 catches and a 17.8-yard average, adding close to a yard to Matt Ryan's yards-per-attempt average and getting him to 4,177 yards this season. The disappointment is the Falcons scored almost a point less per game and were in pass defense.
Carolina Panthers: GRADE: B
The Panthers saved the franchise with the selection of quarterback Cam Newton, who threw for 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns, sparking a four-game improvement. Ron Rivera's next mission as head coach is fixing a defense that had too many injuries and gave up too many yards.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: GRADE: F
Raheem Morris lost his job as head coach because he lost his team. The Bucs went on a 10-game losing streak in which they weren't competitive toward the end of the season. The biggest concern is the drop-off in the play of quarterback Josh Freeman, which will likely lead to the hiring of an offensive head coach.
San Francisco 49ers: GRADE: A
Jim Harbaugh was the coach of the year with a league-high seven-game improvement, accomplished with Alex Smith as his quarterback. Other than Wade Phillips of the Texans, no one did a better job of improving a defense than Vic Fangio, who came from Stanford with Harbaugh. It was a team coaching effort.
Arizona Cardinals: GRADE: B
Though 8-8 is pretty average, Ken Whisenhunt accomplished a lot this season. Ray Horton installed the Steelers-style defense and it took effect in the second half of the season. The Kevin Kolb trade didn't have the hoped-for impact, but Whisenhunt now has an offseason to improve the offensive side of the ball, which got better with Beanie Wells as a runner.
Seattle Seahawks: GRADE: B
Tarvaris Jackson proved to be good enough to get the team to the seven-win mark, and Pete Carroll established he knows what he's doing on defense. He also knows he had the second-youngest roster in football and has established young defensive prospects such as defensive end Red Bryant, cornerback Brandon Browner and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
St. Louis Rams: GRADE: F
The rebuilding process was all wrong. The Rams were the third-oldest team in football, which isn't right when the trend has always been to get younger when you're rebuilding. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels put in a scheme that didn't fit the blocking and receiving talent and resulted in ruining quarterback Sam Bradford's body and confidence.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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