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NFL midseason grades: No teams with top mark, but two get an F

Monday’s Chargers-Jets game – hopefully you didn’t do yourself the disservice of watching it – marked the completion of Week 9 of the 2023 NFL season and, as the 136th game on the rundown, concluded the end of the campaign’s first half.

As with any year, this one has had its share of surprises, disappointments, key injuries, unexpected breakouts, barnburners and duds. That all gets taken into account when issuing midseason report cards, though these grades are generally issued after assessing each team against its own unique circumstances rather than simply letting brown-nosing division leaders set the curve and flunking the cellar dwellers. But none other than Bills QB Josh Allen knows the red pen will be unsparing.

‘The math’s there. It’s not pretty. It’s not going to be easy,’ Buffalo’s star said amid his team’s atypical struggles. ‘But if there’s a locker room that can handle this, it’s this locker room right here.’

There will be no math here, Josh … but yeah, better hope he’s right, Mafia.

Without further ado, 2023 NFL midseason grades for all 32 teams:

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Arizona Cardinals (1-8): C-

They’ve essentially settled where many league observers expected they would – at the bottom of the barrel, in possession of the NFL’s worst record. Yet not before hanging in as a tough out against several good teams and amid key injuries, a woeful talent deficiency, green coaching staff, absence of injured QB1 Kyler Murray and trade of QB2 Joshua Dobbs. Also, through no fault of GM Monti Ossenfort’s, that first-round pick he obtained from the Texans on draft night continues to lose value as Houston improves. All told, tip of the cap to a Cardinals club that could have rolled over for not doing so.

Atlanta Falcons (4-5): C

They’re a game out in the NFC South and a game out of the conference’s final wild-card spot. Might it be different had HC Arthur Smith’s (perhaps commendable) commitment to second-year QB Desmond Ridder not strayed toward (perhaps) stubbornness? Might it be different had Atlanta made a run at a veteran quarterback (read: Lamar Jackson) in the offseason? Who’s to say? But credit the defense for being much improved. And the offense has the play makers to take off … if new QB1 Taylor Heinicke can ignite it. With the league’s easiest remaining schedule (based on opponents’ winning percentages), the opportunity is there.

Baltimore Ravens (7-2): A-

Buffalo Bills (5-4): C

When they win, there tends to be little doubt – yet that hasn’t happened with the regularity that’s become commonplace since Allen’s rise to prominence. And he’s been dealing with a tender wing at a time when the offense seems to have gotten stale and predictable, and while the defense has been decimated by injuries. There’s still time for Buffalo (eighth place in the AFC) to start a stampede, but it’s growing critically short.

Carolina Panthers (1-7): F

They finally broke into the win column, but that hardly conceals what’s been a fairly disastrous season. No team has surrendered more points, though Carolina’s defense has consistently been put into bad spots by the offense. And that’s where the primary issues lie. Signed during free agency, RB Miles Sanders hasn’t produced. The offensive line has been horrid tackle to tackle. And the net effect has been deleterious for rookie QB Bryce Young, whose lack of protection has led to regular beatings, poor decisions and increasingly bad reads. And, now, he’s forced to hear the second guessers who, in hindsight, are ripping the Panthers for not picking C.J. Stroud first overall.

Chicago Bears (2-7): D

After a dreadful 0-4 start, they seemed to find something during a Week 5 rout of the Commanders on a Thursday night prime-time stage. DJ Moore seems to have solved the long-festering issues at wideout, too. But then QB Justin Fields injured his throwing thumb, putting any progress on pause. It’s also worth questioning GM Ryan Poles for spending another high-end second-round draft pick at the trade deadline, this time for DL Montez Sweat – a player who isn’t going to reverse Chicago’s fortunes in 2023 yet could have been pursued, along with superior pass rushers, on next year’s free agent market. At least Poles probably limited the potential damage by extending Sweat’s contract.

Cincinnati Bengals (5-3): B+

You have to commend QB Joe Burrow for playing through his early season calf injury, which clearly debilitated him and, by extension, the offense as a whole. You also have to wonder why a group with this much talent couldn’t figure out a way to work around the quarterback’s temporary limitations a bit more effectively. Regardless, Cincy persevered, has now won five of six and very much appears capable of reaching a third consecutive AFC championship game. At minimum.

Cleveland Browns (5-3): B+

They’ve probably got the league’s best defense. They’ve probably got the league’s best defensive player, DE Myles Garrett. They’ve somehow maintained the league’s third-ranked rushing game despite losing Pro Bowl RB Nick Chubb to a grisly Week 2 knee injury. And they’re currently seeded sixth in the AFC playoff picture even though QB Deshaun Watson (shoulder) has essentially played in half the games. If he settles into any semblance of a rhythm, the Browns will be a very tough proposition late in the season.

Dallas Cowboys (5-3): B-

The defense remains among the league’s best, despite the loss of CB Trevon Diggs (ACL) and embarrassing defeats at Arizona and San Francisco. But the offense has generally regressed under HC Mike McCarthy – and before you point to the Cowboys ranking third in points per game, remember five of their 23 touchdowns have come on defense or special teams, while rookie K Brandon Aubrey has been a record-setting sniper. Otherwise? QB Dak Prescott and Co. are monsters between the 20-yard lines, but minnows in the red zone – Dallas’ 43.8% TD conversion rate the league’s fourth worst. And a once-fearsome O-line continues to degrade. But don’t discount a second-half surge, the Cowboys’ upcoming schedule far more forgiving than first-place Philadelphia’s.

Denver Broncos (3-5): C-

The hiring of HC Sean Payton was understandably heralded. But the veteran coach made a rookie mistake by bringing unnecessary scrutiny to his team over the summer and also made the wrong hire at defensive coordinator given the way Vance Joseph’s unit has “performed” – surrendering 70 points in one game and the most yards per game in the league. Yet following a 1-5 start, Payton (and GM George Paton) resisted the urge to blow the roster up before the trade deadline, and the Broncos have now won two in a row – including their first defeat of the Chiefs in eight years. And while Russell Wilson has hardly been perfect, he’s much closer to the quarterback the Broncos thought they were obtaining last year than the one who so bitterly disappointed Denver fans in 2022.

Detroit Lions (6-2): B+

They’re cruising toward their first-ever NFC North crown. Youngsters like DE Aidan Hutchinson and WR Amon-Ra St. Brown are blossoming into superstardom, and this year’s draft class has probably been better than advertised. Of concern? The complete no-show in a 38-6 Week 7 loss at Baltimore, and the lack of production from 2022 first-round WR Jameson Williams. Moving forward, the Lions have a very favorable schedule, and a team that’s never hosted a playoff game at Ford Field is in very good position to secure home-field advantage in the postseason.

Green Bay Packers (3-5): D+

A talent-laden defense has improved since routinely letting former QB Aaron Rodgers down during his final year in Wisconsin … but not nearly enough to compensate for an offense headed in the opposite direction. QB Jordan Love has been consistently inconsistent, failing to stake an ironclad claim to his role the way predecessors Rodgers and Brett Favre did. In Love’s defense, he’s gotten inadequate support from his offensive line and play makers. Another offseason full of questions looms for GM Brian Gutekunst.

Houston Texans (4-4): A-

Offensive Rookie of the Year frontrunner Stroud has flourished, producing at a high level while generally making good decisions – and doing so despite often playing behind a patchwork offensive line and with a virtually nonexistent running game. Rookie HC DeMeco Ryans has elevated a bad defense to average despite a lack of name players aside from rookie DE Will Anderson Jr. and Derek Stingley Jr., the promising second-year corner close to making a return. Completely realistic this winds up as your surprise 2023 playoff team.

Indianapolis Colts (4-5): A-

They’ve been in every game save one (at Jacksonville). And bet you didn’t know Indy is the only team in the league to score at least 20 points every week. This isn’t a team studded with stars, save maybe RB Jonathan Taylor, who’s still getting his legs under him after putting his now-resolved contractual fight behind him. Credit to rookie HC Shane Steichen, who’s gotten the most out of the divergent skill sets and experience of injured rookie QB Anthony Richardson and veteran backup Gardner Minshew II. Four wins may not seem like much, but half that total at this point seemed far more realistic during training camp.

Jacksonville Jaguars (6-2): B+

They started slowly (1-2) but not nearly the early season funk they had in 2022, when they were 2-6 out of the chute. And they got hot much earlier in 2023, currently on a five-game heater spread across five different stadiums. QB Trevor Lawrence might be playing the most efficient football of his three-year career and showed toughness playing through a knee injury. He’s also gotten plenty of help from former Clemson teammate Travis Etienne. The Jags were wise to upgrade the offensive line by acquiring G Ezra Cleveland at the trade deadline. But they could certainly use more pop from OLB Travon Walker, last year’s No. 1 overall draft pick, and WR Calvin Ridley, last year’s deadline deal import.

Kansas City Chiefs (7-2): B+

The defense has almost been off the charts, the best one K.C. has had in HC Andy Reid’s 11-season tenure. The publicity around the defending Super Bowl champs has rocketed off the charts … but not for anything All-Pro TE Travis Kelce has done between the lines. Yet a typically rocket-fueled offense is squarely on the charts, appearing disjointed at times as league MVP Patrick Mahomes seeks rhythm with pass catchers not affiliated with Taylor Swift. All things considered, not much to complain about here – especially given the upward potential of Reid’s attack and fact the Chiefs are very likely to cruise to the AFC’s No. 1 seed. Again.

Las Vegas Raiders (4-5): C+

Given the tumult, it’s amazing they’re still viable. And while you can say Mark Davis’ 2022 hiring of HC Josh McDaniels was a monumental mistake for the organization, you’ve also got to credit the owner for rectifying it midway through this season despite the financial implications. McDaniels also screwed up the Silver and Black from the quarterback perspective over the past year, but maybe a new solution – rookie Aidan O’Connell – has fallen into the role. There’s still plenty to fix here, but at least it seems Davis and interim HC Antonio Pierce have salvaged the culture and gotten some key veterans to check back in.

Los Angeles Chargers (4-4): C-

Yet again, the whole seems to be significantly less than the sum of its parts, though – per usual – the Bolts are also coping with their typical inordinate amount of serious injuries. However, aside from WR Mike Williams (torn ACL), most of the key players are back in uniform. Wins over the Bears and Jets have leveled the Chargers’ record, and the defense – still the worst in the NFL against the pass statistically (286 yards per game allowed) – has finally shown up. If new coordinator Kellen Moore can get a bit more juice out of the offense, a playoff return is within reach … assuming HC Brandon Staley doesn’t have to make too many critical in-game decisions.

Los Angeles Rams (3-6): C+

The wheels have started coming off the past two weeks – not all that surprising when a cap-strapped team paying off years of draft debt loses its Super Bowl-winning quarterback, Matthew Stafford, even after nicely surviving the early season hamstring injury to WR Cooper Kupp. Prior to that, rookie WR Puka Nacua had been a revelation, a no-name (aside from Aaron Donald) defense hadn’t embarrassed itself, and LA had hung tough against some of the NFL’s best teams. But backfield injuries that crippled the run game and Stafford’s bum thumb signal a potential implosion, especially given the (desperate?) decision to add Carson Wentz to the QB depth chart. On the plus side, a team that hasn’t drafted in the first round since 2016 is currently projected to select sixth overall next year.

Miami Dolphins (6-3): B

Per Shakespeare (and the late Stuart Scott), “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Maybe that’s overly harsh, but a high-octane offense capable of scoring 70 points in a game also hasn’t shown up in a meaningful way against legit opponents – and that’s been particularly true of QB Tua Tagovailoa. WR Tyreek Hill might be the best player in the league this year, but even he came up small Sunday in Germany against the Chiefs in a game he desperately wanted to win. But keep an eye on a 12th-ranked defense run by first-year coordinator Vic Fangio. It’s shown incremental improvement and just got All-Pro CB Jalen Ramsey back from knee surgery. If Fangio’s crew can alleviate the load on the offense, the Fins might find another gear down the stretch … and maybe even take down a winning team.

Minnesota Vikings (5-4): B

They probably ought to be 7-2 but seemingly used up all of their pixie dust in 2022 – and purged some quality veterans afterward. This year’s bad luck truly spiked when QB Kirk Cousins tore his Achilles in Week 8. And yet that didn’t derail what’s become a four-game winning streak following a 1-4 start. A blitz-heavy approach has made the defense passable. And HC Kevin O’Connell did a masterful job last Sunday, in conjunction with newly acquired Dobbs, while teaching the playbook on the fly during a 31-28 win in Atlanta. While Cousins isn’t coming back in 2023, All-Pro WR Justin Jefferson will very soon – and that might be more than enough to allow the Vikes to hold on to the NFC’s final wild-card spot.

New England Patriots (2-7): D-

It’s not a shock they’re mired in the AFC East’s basement. It is surprising that six-time Super Bowl-winning HC Bill Belichick is (sort of) answering questions about his job security. Yet he deserves the probing. As good as the Patriots were for as long as they were, they have not adjusted to life after Tom Brady – whether it be during games, or constructing the coaching staff or addressing their talent shortfall. And given how heavy Belichick’s hand is, those issues all tie back to him.

New Orleans Saints (5-4): C

For the fourth consecutive season, the defense is a top-10 power. However the Derek Carr-led offense has been stuck in neutral. Belated signs it’s finally about to take off, QB/TE/FB Taysom Hill and WR Rashid Shaheed surprisingly serving as key components, while RB Alvin Kamara has settled in following his three-game suspension and an overly emotional Carr has tried to cool his jets. Yet with the league’s second-easiest remaining schedule, the NFC South leaders could be primed to go on a run.

New York Giants (2-7): F

They paid QB Daniel Jones. Then they didn’t sufficiently upgrade his weaponry. Then they didn’t block anyone in front of him. Now? Jones is out for the year with an ACL tear, an injury that may force Big Blue to search for his replacement given how much he also seemed to regress on the field – albeit amid circumstances stacked against him. Otherwise? DL Dexter Lawrence has been a standout … which pretty much distinguishes him from the remainder of the roster.

New York Jets (4-4): B

Philadelphia Eagles (8-1): A-

Hard to argue with the results of the league’s only eight-win team. But, from a cosmetic standpoint, only three of those triumphs have come by more than one score. Jalen Hurts is hobbling around the field, and the offense might be overly reliant on tush-pushing a quarterback who’s otherwise got a virtual target lock on WR A.J. Brown. Defensively, Philly has been lights out against the run … and lights decidedly on against the pass. If it seems like I’m nitpicking the reigning NFC champs, let’s wait and see how they hold up following a Week 10 bye – after which is a murderers’ row that serves up Kansas City, Buffalo, San Francisco, Dallas and Seattle in succession.

Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3): B-

Statistically, their offense and defense are among the league’s worst. OC Matt Canada remains under fire, his unit outgained by nearly 800 yards through eight games. And yet the defense makes the big plays – sacks and takeaways – while QB Kenny Pickett seems to deliver the clutch throw right when Pittsburgh needs it. Numerically, not a great team. In reality, a squad no one can afford to take lightly. And the return of All-Pro DL Cam Heyward should only help.

San Francisco 49ers (5-3): B

A 5-0 start has been tempered by a three-game losing streak, during which QB Brock Purdy has looked mortal while turning the ball over six times. And yet some of that can seemingly be explained away by injuries to All-Pro LT Trent Williams and WR Deebo Samuel … and the still questionable decision to move on from veteran K Robbie Gould. Presumably, the Niners’ bye week was rejuvenating, but it was definitely fortifying – DE Chase Young rented for a song and, perhaps, sticking around as part of the long-term plan. And what should be an elite (but 10th-ranked) defense will need to step up with five of the next seven games against teams that are in or share first place in their respective divisions.

Seattle Seahawks (5-3): B-

They’re tied with San Francisco atop the NFC West. And yet a 20th-ranked offense has been a bit disappointing, QB Geno Smith not playing nearly as well as he did in 2022, and a run game featuring second-round RBs Kenneth Walker III and Zach Charbonnet underwhelming. Good to see Bobby Wagner back on D, the Hall of Fame-caliber linebacker good as he’s ever been – even at age 33. Losing LB Uchenna Nwosu hurts, but the defense has gotten a boost from recent draft picks like LB Boye Mafe and CB Devon Witherspoon plus the return of S Jamal Adams. Solid squad overall, but feels like it should be better in a top-heavy NFC. Doesn’t project as much more than the one-and-done playoff outfit the Seahawks were last season.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-5): C+

The offense hasn’t experienced a tremendous dropoff post-Brady, QB Baker Mayfield and Co. fresh off a 37-point outburst. However HC Todd Bowles’ defense has gone over a cliff, no NFC team less effective defending the pass. A 3-1 start suggested the Bucs could again win the NFC South. A four-game losing streak has brought them back to earth, indicative they probably would’ve benefited long-term by unloading some guys at the trade deadline.

Tennessee Titans (3-5): D+

Maybe it was incumbent on HC Mike Vrabel to give such a veteran-heavy squad another chance to recapture its 2021 form, when the Titans were the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed. But didn’t it seem obvious that they needed to pivot to one of their younger quarterbacks weeks ago? Aren’t they going to regret not getting something for RB Derrick Henry when they had the opportunity? Few coaches get more out of a roster than Vrabel does, but just feels like major opportunities were squandered here.

Washington Commanders (4-5): D+

They don’t really own a quality win. They started dismantling the defense at the trade deadline, spinning off Young and Sweat – not that either had made a significant impact on a unit ranking 28th. OC Eric Bieniemy doesn’t even attempt to run the ball, and opposing defenses enjoy a turkey shoot each week when rushing QB Sam Howell. And yet the Commanders are just a game out of the projected playoff field, largely because Howell has thrown the ball pretty effectively when he’s had the time to let it go. The upcoming schedule suggests Washington won’t stick around much longer … but who knows?


Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on X, formerly Twitter @ByNateDavis.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY

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