Following are my grades for the AFC teams midway through the 2002 season:
Baltimore Ravens (3-5)
Brian Billick has done a great job making a young roster competitive, and his decision to use Mike Nolan's 3-4 defensive scheme has kept the team surprisingly difficult to move the ball against. To think that the defense can rank 18th and miss the services of linebacker Ray Lewis and defensive end Michael McCrary is remarkable. Billick's most interesting decision is whether he should stay with more experienced Jeff Blake at quarterback or go back to Chris Redman, who has a bad back. The key to the second half is keeping Jamal Lewis healthy. His 646 yards rushing have formed the base of the offense. Tight end Todd Heap has been exceptional.
Buffalo Bills (5-4)
The blowout loss to the Patriots was a letdown, but it can't damper an exciting start to the season. No one thought of the Bills being a playoff contender coming into the season. Quarterback Drew Bledsoe passed for 2,802 yards and did a remarkable job of getting the ball to the outside receivers. Eric Moulds had 62 receptions for 853 yards and Peerless Price was right behind him with 60 receptions for 838 yards. The success on offense made Bills fans forget the problems on defense, which resurfaced against the Patriots. The schedule toughens in the second half, but Gregg Williams has a great chance to get this team to eight or nine wins, which is a big step after a 3-13 season.
Cincinnati Bengals (1-7)
What a disaster. Dick LeBeau had to guarantee a victory just to put one win on the board. Halfback Corey Dillon threatened retirement next year if Bengals management doesn't get a plan to make this team better. This is a hopeless franchise. The schedule gets easier in the second half, so LeBeau might be able to salvage a four- or five-win season. But there is too much talent for such repeated failure. Owner Mike Brown refuses to look outside to bring in football minds to turn the team around. Until that happens, the non-playoff string will continue.
Cleveland Browns (4-5)
The lack of a running game continues to plague the advancement of this former expansion team. Rookie William Green wasn't ready to be a starter and has been a major disappointment with only 161 yards on 71 carries. Jamel White won the job, but he's a better receiver than runner. Injuries in the secondary have led to breakdowns in the second halves of games, which puts the team a disappointing 25th in the league. The offensive line is finally healthy. Too bad it has taken until the middle of the season for that to happen. The Browns had hoped to be one of the surprise teams, but too many close losses have prevented that.
Denver Broncos (6-2)
Mike Shanahan survived the toughest first half of the schedule with impressive numbers. He's 6-2. The offense ranks fifth in the league. The defense ranks third. The Broncos made a lot of progress on offense the past month. Clinton Portis established himself as a Rookie of the Year candidate with 562 yards in eight games. Brian Griese, meanwhile, is gaining momentum. He has been consistent. The team hasn't scored fewer than 22 points, and he has a 65.8 percent completion rate along with a 90.1 quarterback rating. Still, the defense is the big story with this team. Ray Rhodes has done a masterful job coordinating one of the toughest defenses to run against.
Houston Texans (2-6)
Expansion teams don't win many games, and the Texans have done a little better than expected in a 2-6 start. Quarterback David Carr survived a 46-sack first half, but can his body take the pounding in the second half? As expected, Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme filled with experienced players has been tough for offenses to drive against. The Texans play only one team with a winning record the second half of the season, so they should be able to squeeze out another win or two. During the second half, either James Allen or rookie Jonathan Wells need to take firmer control of the halfback position to take some pressure off Carr.
Indianapolis Colts (4-4)
Injuries at the halfback position have put this team into a freefall. The Colts entered camp with two potential 1,000-yard runners -- Edgerrin James and Dominic Rhodes -- and two other options. They enter the second half picking up players off the waiver wire to start. James looked good making moves at the line of scrimmage, but he couldn't get downfield. Now he has hamstring problems to go with a sore knee. And Rhodes is out for the season with a knee injury. Peyton Manning hasn't been able to put this offense over the edge. Despite the lack of playmakers on defense, Colts coach Tony Dungy's "Cover 2" scheme cut 10 points off the scoreboard from a year ago, allowing 21 points a game. But the offense has been too slow in starting and is averaging only 20. The other troubling thing has been too many three-touchdown, first-half deficits. The Colts have been outscored 105-74 in first halves.
Jacksonville Jaguars (3-5)
The Jaguars aren't good enough to survive slumps, and Mark Brunell can't shake his. Since his concussion suffered a month ago, the Jaguars haven't had a 20-point game. Brunell might say he's fine, but the offense isn't. The Jaguars are in the midst of a four-game losing streak. A few weeks ago, wide receiver Jimmy Smith complained that the offense was too conservative and the team isn't going downfield enough. This isn't a happy unit. Fred Taylor has been healthy enough to average 20 carries and 86 yards a game, but he hasn't had a history of lasting 16 games. If Taylor goes down, things get uglier.
Kansas City Chiefs (4-4)
It's hard to believe the Chiefs are averaging 32 points a game and have completed only 38 passes to wide receivers Eddie Kennison and Johnnie Morton. The Chiefs have been one of the most exciting teams of the season, but their defense has given them heart attacks. Fourth quarters, though, have been a blast. They have outscored opponents 109-102 in fourth quarters. The last team with the ball usually wins games involving the Chiefs. Quarterback Trent Green fulfilled Dick Vermeil's confidence that he could be a top quarterback. Tight end Tony Gonzalez and halfback Priest Holmes have been unstoppable.
Miami Dolphins (5-3)
The Dolphins were sitting on top of the world when they beat the Broncos 24-22, but they found out after the game that Jay Fiedler broke his right thumb. The Dolphins haven't won since and the prospects don't look good until his return at the beginning of December. Ray Lucas produced only 20 points and complicated matters with an offense that had 10 turnovers in the first two games without Fiedler. Now, Lucas' status is uncertain because of a shoulder injury. Ricky Williams isn't as effective without a quarterback working the play-action magic, but he's still running hard and successfully. He's on pace for a 1,500-yard season, but the 100-yard games may be at a premium until Fiedler returns. Cris Carter looked rusty coming out of retirement to help the receiving corps. The defense will have to carry the Dolphins and shut out opponents to muster any kind of winning streak.
THINGS TO WATCH
1. The Patriots should make their playoff run over the next month. The only team with a winning record that they play until the season-ending game against the Dolphins is against the Bills, whom they beat in Buffalo last Sunday. They have three games this month against the three losing teams in the NFC North.
2. The Raiders should know in the next two weeks whether their Super Bowl run is dead or alive. They face the Broncos and Patriots in a six-day period (Nov. 11 and 17. Two losses would doom their chances. The pressure is on. Offensive players aren't happy about the number of times they touch the ball week in and week out. The Raiders have winnable games against Arizona and the New York Jets on Nov. 24 and Dec. 2, but if they enter those games at 4-6 on a six-game losing streak, the season is over.
3. The Dolphins think Jay Fielder should be back by either the Dec. 1 game against Buffalo or the Dec. 9 Monday night game against Chicago. Can the Dolphins survive the next three games against the Jets, Baltimore and San Diego with two wins?
4. The Broncos should have a good month of running the ball. They face the Raiders, Seahawks and Colts over the next three games. They have been using Clinton Portis in two-back sets and Mike Anderson in one-back formations for most of the carries.
5. It will be interesting to see how the cold weather affects the Drew Bledsoe passing offense. Bledsoe put up incredible numbers during his first nine games, but over the next six he has to make trips to Kansas City, the Jets, New England and Green Bay. That's tough for any passing offense.
— John Clayton
New England Patriots (4-4)
The Patriots were 4-4 against a tough first-half schedule of opponents with a combined record of 41-24. The second half is much easier, so maybe the Patriots can follow last year's pattern and get hot after being around .500 at midseason. The concluding schedule is against teams that are a combined 27-37, and the fact that the Patriots came out of the bye week with more running plays should help their offensive balance. The big concern in the second half is stopping the run. Giving up 132 rushing yards and 4.5 yards per carry isn't what Bill Belichick expected in the first eight games. Quarterback Tom Brady is still a major force with his short passing offense, particularly now that Troy Brown has fought off early-season knee problems.
New York Jets (3-5)
As painful as the first eight games were for the Jets, fans have a few things to cling to for hope. Quarterback Chad Pennington has been great. He's completing 70.8 percent of his passes and has been getting eight yards an attempt. If halfback Curtis Martin can get hot, Herman Edwards might be able to start a mini-run. The defense has been the disappointment. The Jets, who entered the season with six starting changes, seem to fade in the second half of games. They have been outscored 127-54.
Oakland Raiders (4-4)
What a mess. After a 4-0 start, the Raiders lost their focus. The offense seems to be more like a run-and-shoot attack, moving from 20 to 20 on short passes but stalling in the red zone. The Raiders, one of the best teams in the red zone last year, are now among the league's 10 worst. The defense can't stop teams in the second half on third downs. During the four-game losing streak, the Raiders couldn't get opponents off the field and allowed long drives. Things don't get better. The Raiders have one of the league's toughest finishing schedules (vs. teams that are a combined 38-26), playing four teams with winning records.
Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3)
Tommy Maddox has been one of the major stories over the past month. He has won four of five starts. His ability to release passes quickly has the offense on a roll. The Steelers have taken control of the AFC North and play only two teams with winning records during the second half of the season. They have a great chance to get a playoff bye. The concern has to the health of the backfield. The Steelers need a healthy Jerome Bettis for the playoffs. He has missed two games with a knee injury, and it looks like a 1,000-yard season is out of the question. Amos Zereoue has filled in well for Bettis, but he's probably not going to be the 25-carry guy the Steelers need in cold-weather games.
San Diego Chargers (6-2)
Marty Schottenheimer turned this franchise around with discipline and smart coaching. In losses to the Broncos and Jets, the Chargers showed they aren't configured to be a come-from-behind team. Like the Steelers, they need the lead, since their strategy is to wear down defenses with the running of LaDainian Tomlinson. Quarterback Drew Brees has show that he can generate late-game comebacks as long as it's more than 14 points. The second-half schedule is much tougher than the first half, so coming out with a 4-4 finish is realistic. But that means a 10-win season and a chance at the playoffs.
Tennessee Titans (4-4)
Last Sunday's victory over Indianapolis shifted the AFC South momentum to the Titans. They play only one game against a team with a winning record in the second half, and they should have Jevon Kearse back at defensive end no later than next week. Eddie George is back to his 100-yard rushing pace in the past three games. Quarterback Steve McNair is playing well behind an offensive line that is jelling. The defense has been riddled with injuries, but the combination of a healthy Kearse and the solid play of Kevin Carter could put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.