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Tuesday, January 8
 
AFC final report card

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

The following are my grades for the AFC:

CLAYTON'S ALL-AFC TEAM
OFFENSE
Pos. Player Team
T Jonathan Ogden Ravens
T Walter Jones Seahawks
G Steve Wisniewski Raiders
G Alan Faneca Steelers
C Kevin Mawae Jets
TE Tony Gonzalez Chiefs
WR Rod Smith Broncos
WR Jimmy Smith Jaguars
QB Kordell Stewart Steelers
RB Curtis Martin Jets
FB Tony Richardson Chiefs
DEFENSE
Pos. Player Team
DE John Abraham Jets
DE Marcellus Wiley Chargers
DT John Randle Seahawks
DT Sam Adams Ravens
MLB Ray Lewis Ravens
OLB Jamir Miller Browns
OLB Jason Gildon Steelers
CB Charles Woodson Raiders
CB Sam Madison Dolphins
S Rodney Harrison Chargers
S Lawyer Milloy Patriots
SPECIAL TEAMS
Pos. Player Team
K Jason Elam Broncos
P Shane Lechler Raiders
Ret Jermaine Lewis Ravens
Special Ian Gold Broncos

Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
The Ravens survived Elvis Grbac's turnovers to make the playoffs as the fifth seed at 10-6, two games worse than a year ago. Grbac will have to play error free into the next round or two to make defenders forgot about the luxury of having Trent Dilfer protecting the ball and managing leads. The offensive turnovers put the defense in tougher positions to prevent scores. Injuries and the salary cap made the defense thinner and really hurt the offensive line. Special teams were thin, too. Despite all the problems, though, the Ravens are a dangerous team in the playoffs that most higher-ranked teams don't want to meet.
Grade: C.

Buffalo Bills (3-13)
Gregg Williams finished the season with two wins in Buffalo's final five games. Many of the Bills' young, unknown defensive players were respectable down the stretch. Alex Van Pelt, who tentatively agreed to a five-year extension, proved the West Coast offense has a chance to suceed in Buffalo. Van Pelt had a better completion percentage than former Bills star Doug Flutie (58 percent to 56.4). Shawn Bryson created a nice halfback battle for next summer against promising rookie Travis Henry. Opposing coaches remarked how hard the Bills played in the final month. Despite that, it will be interesting to see how the five-game dropoff from 8-8 to 3-13 will play on season-ticket sales.
Grade: C.

Cincinnati Bengals (6-10)
Season-ending victories over the Steelers and Titans gave the Bengals their best season (6-10) since 1997 and showed a two-game improvement over a year ago. Jon Kitna at least kept the offense scratching and clawing in the final month even though he needs to cut down on his interceptions (22). Left tackle Richmond Webb and Pro Bowl alternate right tackle Willie Anderson forced a solid outside to the blocking scheme. Takeo Spikes led a defense that finished an amazing ninth statistically. Not bad considering the Bengals have one of the shakiest cornerback situations in the league. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski got good reviews for his spread formation. Add a tight end and maybe another interior lineman or two and maybe the Bengals can inch closer to .500.
Grade: B-minus.

Cleveland Browns (7-9)
Butch Davis squeezed about as much as anyone could out of this overmatched roster. Seven wins is a remarkable achievement, particularly because Davis had to place more than a player a week -- 18 total -- on injured reserve. Tim Couch grew as a franchise quarterback, but he still needs another threat on the other side of Kevin Johnson. Davis left the season with the same unanswered questions at running back. The big disappointment was the offense line, which may need as many as three new starters. Foge Fazio looked as though he was pulling rabbits from his hat designing defensive schemes that forced 33 turnovers and gave the team a plus-nine turnover ratio.
Grade: B.

Denver Broncos (8-8)
Where do you start with the disappointments? The team with the highest payroll dropped three games from last year's 11-5 playoff season. Brian Griese got worse instead of better. Rod Smith's incredible 113-catch season is even more amazing considering he had virtually no help from the other wide receivers. Good thing coach Mike Shanahan raised the salaries of most of the offensive line, because they needed the bucks to pay their many fines for illegal blocks.
Grade: D.

Indianapolis Colts (6-10)
If Peyton Manning could run the league's second-ranked offense, imagine the numbers he'd put up against his team's defense. This was one of the worst tackling units in years. Virtually every big play Manning created was trumped by two or three allowed by the defense. Watching the defensive tapes, you wonder if those video clips of Jim Mora questioning talk of the playoffs should be edited to "Layoff? What do yu mean, layoffs?" The Colts need serious help at cornerback and on the defensive line. Grade: D-minus.

Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10)
Mark Brunell had a fine year. The rest of the squad didn't. Fred Taylor turned into the best scout team halfback in league history because of a groin injury that killed his and Tom Coughlin's season. Gary Moeller's defense may be considered soft, but that's what happens when you get hit hard by the salary cap. Jimmy Smith had an amazing season by catching 112 passes after having his stomach torn up by surgeons during the spring. Tony Brackens proved he's still a pretty good pass rusher. Now come more cap cuts. Suddenly, the Jaguars' stock is going down as quickly as Enron's.
Grade: C-minus.

Kansas City Chiefs (6-10)
After starting 2-7, the 4-3 finish offers confidence that Dick Vermeil's system is catching on with his players. Quarterback Trent Green will cut down on his interceptions once Vermeil adds another impact receiver this offseason. Priest Holmes proved to be the right running back for the Chiefs' offense. The big disappointment is that the defensive line -- except for Eric Hicks -- was invisible all season. Grade: C-plus.

Miami Dolphins (11-5)
Of the playoff teams from a year ago, the Dolphins were one of the few that didn't suffer in the win column -- finishing 11-5 like they did last year. Unfortunately, that wasn't good enough to win the AFC East. Lamar Smith waited until the final week to get his running game going, but will it be enough to ignite the offense in the playoffs? We'll see. Quarterback Jay Fiedler will really miss outgoing offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, because his schemes made Fiedler a respectable playoff quarterback. Rookies Chris Chambers and Travis Minor made major contributions in the final two months. Chambers has all the looks of being a star.
Grade: B.

New England Patriots (11-5)
By finishing with the second seed, Bill Belichick may have locked up AFC coach of the year honors. Rams coach Mike Martz said the Patriots were the best team they faced all season. Belichick accomplished that with great schemes and getting his players to hit hard on every down. What great success stories? Tom Brady goes from sixth-round obscurity a year ago to the Pro Bowl this year. Antowain Smith comes off the Buffalo scrapheap to rush for 1,157 yards. Troy Brown leads the team with a record 101 receptions.
Grade: A-plus.

New York Jets (10-6)
Herman Edwards finally ended the Jets' recent past of collapsing in the final weeks of the season. Though he needed a 53-yard field goal by John Hall to do it, Edwards got the Jets into the playoffs his first year, an accomplishment that shouldn't be overlooked. Curtis Martin put up MVP-like rushing numbers and the defense held together through tough times. Edwards still needs to figure out if Vinny Testaverde can come back next year or if coordinator Paul Hackett should open up his offensive game plan even more. Looks like he might have to find a replacement for defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, who might head to San Diego.
Grade: B.

Oakland Raiders (10-6)
What a horrible finish. They lost four of their final six and their last three games. Jon Gruden's West Coast offense looked like a poor version of the Run-and-Shoot in the sense that it put up good numbers between the 20-yard lines but not in the red zone in the final month. Zone defenses seem to prevent the Raiders from making explosive plays. The lack of an inside running game hurt, too. In recent weeks, the Raiders' defense tightened up against the run, but poor angles by their safeties continue to turn 10-yard plays into touchdowns. The Raiders have gone from Super Bowl contenders to possible busts.
Grade: D.

Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)
In the past two games, Kordell Stewart looks as though he needs a transfer pass to get back on The Bus. Jerome Bettis' absence was even more noticeable than during the final two games. Stewart started throwing interceptions again. Despite that, the Steelers had a phenomenal season, finishing with the league's top defense. Getting that honor over the Ravens was even that much more satisfying. Plaxico Burress started playing like a former No. 1 choice, Hines Ward almost went to the Pro Bowl and Kendrell Bell will probably be the defensie rookie of the year.
Grade: A.

San Diego Chargers (5-8)
A nine-game losing streak is embarrassing. A nine-game losing streak when you have three Pro Bowl defensive starters and a rookie of the year canidate at halfback is ridiculous. No wonder Mike Riley lost his job. They kept losing close games. Last year they could blame the lack of play-makers, but there was no excuse this year. The talent level of the team has improved, but the organization must decide whether to keep Doug Flutie as the starter or go with rookie Drew Brees.
Grade: F.

Seattle Seahawks (9-7)
If only Mike Holmgren had started Trent Dilfer one more game, they'd likely be in the playoffs. Dilfer finished 4-0 as the starter. Face it, he's the best quarterback on the team, no matter how much ability Matt Hasselbeck showed this season. Shaun Alexander proved to be Pro Bowl worthy, gaining 1,318 yards filling in for Ricky Watters. Darrell Jackson is one of the better young receivers in the league. Finishing 20th on defense was an improvement, but not as strong as Holmgren had hope when he signed veteran stars such as Levon Kirkland and John Randle.
Grade: B-minus.

Tennessee Titans (7-9)
They went 4-6 in the AFC Central. Jeff Fisher has prided himself in recent years on winning a majority of division games. Perhaps the best thing to come out of this season is letting Steve McNair air the ball out and prove he can win games with his arm. Eddie George's many injuries allowed that to happen. McNair was fabulous even though he was so banged up that he often couldn't practice during the week. George should bounce back after his injury-plagued 939-yard season. The secondary was horrible and lots of changes may be coming in the offseason on defense.
Grade: D.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.







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