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NFL midseason report card: NFC grades

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Alex Marvez

Alex Marvez is a Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com. He has covered the NFL for the past 18 seasons as a beat writer and is the former president of the Pro Football Writers of America. He also is a frequent host on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

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NFC | AFC

New Orleans Saints (8-0)
Grade: A+

Making the grade: The Saints are making it look easy in the Big Easy. The offense is virtually unstoppable and an opportunistic defense has shown dramatic improvement under new coordinator Gregg Williams. Most valuable player: QB Drew Brees. He is the NFL's top-rated quarterback. Although he won't be challenging Dan Marino's single-season passing record like in 2008, Brees doesn't have to throw so much for the Saints to win. A revamped running game also has made Brees even more dangerous. Biggest disappointment: The run defense is slipping. New Orleans has surrendered 480 yards in its past three games. The absence of DT Sedrick Ellis, NT Kendrick Clancy (injured reserve) and SLB Scott Fujita hurts. Health status: Ellis (knee) should return by month's end. A groin injury could sideline CB Jabari Greer Sunday against St. Louis, but Fujita (calf) appears ready to return after a three-game absence. Second-half forecast: The Saints have shown the ability to handle adversity (i.e. early deficits) and success. An undefeated record isn't realistic, especially with upcoming road games against NFC South rivals Atlanta and Carolina. New Orleans, though, has enough cupcakes on its remaining schedule to clinch a first-round bye.

Minnesota Vikings (7-1)
Grade: A

Making the grade: The Vikings were one turnover-filled fourth quarter against Pittsburgh from an 8-0 start. Minnesota has played sound football throughout the season and swept Green Bay in Favre Bowls I and II. Most valuable player: QB Brett Favre. Give props to Vikings coach Brad Childress. He recognized that Favre has a lot more left in the tank than many people thought (including me). With 16 touchdowns and three interceptions, Favre's stellar play gives him the edge over two other worthy contenders on the same roster — DE Jared Allen (10.5 sacks) and RB Adrian Peterson (784 rushing yards, 9 TDs). Biggest disappointment: Because of lingering hamstring problems, Bernard Berrian isn't as favored a passing target as fellow wide receivers Sidney Rice and rookie sensation Percy Harvin. Berrian hasn't played badly, but is on pace for the lowest per-catch average (11.1 yards) of his six-year NFL career. Health status: Star CB Antoine Winfield (foot) should return within the next few weeks. The roster is healthy otherwise. Second-half forecast: The Vikings have a legitimate shot at a 10-1 record with three consecutive home games upcoming against Detroit, Seattle and Chicago. In a perfect world, Minnesota wins the NFC North and clinches a first-round playoff bye early enough to let Favre rest his 40-year-old bones before the postseason begins.

Dallas Cowboys (6-2)
Grade: B+

Making the grade: With a four-game winning streak, the Cowboys are starting to get their swagger back. Most valuable player: WR Miles Austin. It's no accident that Dallas hasn't lost since Austin entered the starting lineup in Week 5 against Kansas City. Austin has 22 catches for 531 yards and six touchdowns in the past four games. Biggest disappointment: WR Roy Williams. On the flip side, Austin's emergence has pushed Williams into the shadows even more. He did have his best game of the season (five catches for 75 yards) in last Sunday's 20-16 win at Philadelphia, but Williams has a long way to go before justifying the five-year, $35 million contract he signed last season. Health status: The Cowboys have avoided the rash of injuries that marred last year's squad. Second-half forecast: Winning a critical NFC East matchup at Philadelphia in prime time was big for a team that tended to fade in marquee games. The next step toward maturity is not getting big-headed and remembering the season doesn't end in November — a lesson the 2007 Cowboys learned the hard way.
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Philadelphia Eagles (5-3)
Grade: B

Making the grade: Being an Eagles fan must be maddening. Philadelphia hasn't fired on all cylinders for much of this season — a Week 6 road loss to Oakland was inexcusable — but the Eagles still seem headed for a playoff berth. Most valuable player: WR DeSean Jackson. An interesting tidbit from the New York Times about the NFL's most explosive player: Jackson is only the third player in league history with seven touchdowns of 50-plus yards before his 23rd birthday. The other two were Randy Moss and Gayle Sayers. Pretty nice company, eh? Biggest disappointment: QB Michael Vick. Kudos to Vick for straightening out his life and making it back into the NFL. The only problem is that he hasn't done much since being reinstated in Week 3. Vick has yet to regain the explosiveness he possessed before missing two seasons because of his involvement in a dogfighting ring. Seeing action on only a handful of plays each game (at best), Vick has a far more limited role than many of us envisioned when he joined the Eagles. Health status: Injuries have wracked the Eagles since the preseason. RB Brian Westbrook (concussion/ankle), CB Ellis Hobbs (neck/injured reserve) and OLB Akeem Jordan (knee) are among the latest casualties. Second-half forecast: In 2008, the Eagles went on a late-season roll after a 5-5-1 start. This year's group could do the same if Philadelphia can finally get healthy and build some continuity.

Atlanta Falcons (5-3)
Grade: B

Making the grade: Despite their record, the Falcons haven't impressed as much as expected after last year's surprising 11-5 mark. None of the five teams Atlanta has beaten has winning records. Most valuable player: TE Tony Gonzalez. With 38 catches and four touchdowns, Gonzalez still shows no signs of slowing down in his 13th NFL season. Biggest disappointment: QB Matt Ryan. He hasn't played badly, but much more was expected from Ryan after a phenomenal rookie campaign. Ryan didn't come through when Atlanta needed him most, throwing a combined five interceptions in road losses to Dallas and New Orleans. Health status: The defense was damaged by season-ending knee injuries suffered by CB Brian Williams and rookie DT Peria Jerry. Second-half forecast: After upcoming road matchups against Carolina and the New York Giants, the Falcons get a streak of three consecutive home games and end the season playing Buffalo and Tampa Bay. I'm predicting a 10-6 finish and wild-card berth.

Arizona Cardinals (5-3)
Grade: B-

Making the grade: Coming off a Super Bowl appearance, Arizona's inconsistency is baffling. The Cardinals are 4-0 on the road — a stunning accomplishment considering how poorly the team played away from home in 2008 — yet 1-3 inside University of Phoenix Stadium. Most valuable player: QB Kurt Warner. He isn't working the same magic as last season, but Warner has done a solid job considering the pressure placed on him by Arizona's lack of a consistent running game. Warner's next goal is getting WR Larry Fitzgerald on track with deep passes. Fitzgerald's longest catch this season is 27 yards. Biggest disappointment: WR Anquan Boldin. Slowed by a high ankle sprain, Boldin has a modest (by his standards) 35 catches for 404 yards and one touchdown. But the bigger concern is Boldin's ever-growing "me first" attitude. By spouting off to the media about being declared inactive Sunday against Chicago, Boldin rekindled memories of his post-NFC championship celebration absence and stole the spotlight that should have gone to his teammates after a 41-21 road victory. Health status: The Cardinals haven't suffered any major season-ending losses and should have the services of Boldin and LB Gerald Hayes (back) available for Sunday's game against visiting Seattle. Second-half forecast: The Bears victory could mark the turning point in an erratic season. The NFC West is so poor — San Francisco, Seattle and St. Louis have nine wins combined — that a 4-4 finish for Arizona should clinch a second consecutive division title.

New York Giants (5-4)
Grade: B-

Making the grade: No team has experienced a larger fall from grace. New York was considered the cream of the league after a 5-0 start. But the Giants haven't won since a blowout loss at New Orleans because of a porous secondary and QB Eli Manning's accuracy issues. Most valuable player: WR Steve Smith. He isn't the same caliber play-maker as the now departed Plaxico Burress, but Smith has helped carry the passing game with 61 catches for 719 yards and five touchdowns. Biggest disappointment: Manning. The Giants hope a strong effort in last Sunday's 21-20 loss to San Diego has Manning back on track. In the previous three games, Manning completed only 49.5 percent of his attempts with six interceptions. Manning says a heel injury he suffered in Week 4 hasn't affected his play, but the numbers say differently. RB Brandon Jacobs hasn't helped matters with a disappointing season. Health status: The Giants still haven't found an answer at safety since losing Kenny Phillips (knee) in Week 2. Two of New York's top free-agent signings — OLB Michael Boley and DE Chris Canty — have missed a combined 12 games because of injuries. CB Aaron Ross (hamstring) still hasn't played this season. Second-half forecast: The bye couldn't have come at a better time for coach Tom Coughlin's reeling squad. First-year defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan is under pressure to formulate a strategy that can minimize his team's pass-coverage deficiencies. With five of New York's seven remaining opponents having winning records, the G-Men could find themselves out of the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

Chicago Bears (4-4)
Grade: C

Making the grade: The Super Bowl hype that followed the offseason acquisition of QB Jay Cutler from Denver has ended. The Bears run the risk of not even making the postseason after losing two of their past three games by 20-plus points. Most valuable player: Cutler. He hasn't played as efficiently as his Broncos replacement Kyle Orton, but Cutler is doing a fine job playing with a shaky offensive line and young wide receiver corps. Biggest disappointment: DT Tommie Harris. The Bears made Harris one of the NFL's highest-paid defensive tackles with a four-year, $40 million contract in the 2008 offseason. Harris has yet to prove worthy of the cash. A low point came in last Sunday's loss to Arizona when he was ejected less than two minutes into the game for punching Cardinals G Deuce Lutui. Health status: The season began on a sour note when star MLB Brian Urlacher was lost to a dislocated wrist. The hits haven't stopped coming with CB Charles Tillman (safety), safety Al Afalava (shoulder) and backup RB Garrett Wolfe (kidney) the latest Bears going down against Arizona. Second-half forecast: Bears coach Lovie Smith will probably return in 2010. But now three seasons removed from a Super Bowl appearance, time is running out on Smith to get Chicago back in the playoffs. That won't happen this year without wins in six of the final eight games.

Green Bay Packers (4-4)
Grade: C

Making the grade: While being .500 is better than last year's 6-10 mark, this season has become even more disastrous on some levels. The Packers lost both editions of the Favre Bowl against Minnesota and were embarrassed last Sunday in a 38-28 loss against previously winless Tampa Bay. Green Bay's four victories have come against teams with a combined record of 7-25. Most valuable player: QB Aaron Rodgers. Playing behind a leaky offensive line and holding onto the football for too long sometimes has contributed to Rodgers taking a beating. But even though he has gotten sacked an NFL-high 37 times, Rodgers still has a quarterback rating over 100. Biggest disappointment: OLB Aaron Kampman. This isn't Kampman's fault. Packers management made a terrible talent evaluation when projecting that Kampman could make the successful shift from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker. Kampman — who averaged 12 sacks the previous three seasons — only has 2.5 so far. Overall, Green Bay is tied for 29th in sack production with 13. Health status: The offensive line is a mess with C Jason Spitz on injured reserve and LT Chad Clifton battling season-long ankle problems. Second-half forecast: The season is probably lost if Green Bay doesn't defeat visiting Dallas on Sunday. The seat isn't quite hot yet, but it's getting uncomfortably warm for head coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson, especially after Brett Favre extracted his revenge on the Packers for trading him in 2008.

Carolina Panthers (3-5)
Grade: C-

Making the grade: The collapse in last year's playoff loss to Arizona was no fluke. Just like QB Jake Delhomme, the Panthers have failed to rebound despite returning almost the entire starting lineup intact. Most valuable player: RB DeAngelo Williams. Even with Carolina's passing game a mess, Williams is starting to surge. He has outings of 149-plus rushing yards in three of the past four games. Biggest disappointment: DE Julius Peppers. Delhomme is a worthy candidate, but Peppers gets the nod for a different reason. His effort is far too spotty for an amazingly gifted player earning a whopping $16.7 million salary in 2009. Health status: The season-ending knee injury suffered by OLB Thomas Davis in last week's loss to New Orleans is a devastating blow to a defense that had shown significant improvement from earlier in the season. Second-half forecast: A postseason berth is unlikely with only two teams on the remaining schedule (Miami and Tampa Bay) having losing records. Delhomme could be playing his final games in Carolina despite inexplicably receiving an offseason contract extension. Will head coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney be going with him?

San Francisco 49ers (3-5)
Grade: C-

Making the grade: San Francisco's inability to win close contests is ruining what began as a promising season. Four of San Francisco's losses have come by a touchdown or less. Most valuable player: LB Patrick Willis. There is no better inside linebacker in football. Willis leads the 49ers with 77 credited tackles, 2.5 sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. Biggest disappointment: QB Shaun Hill. An inability to make big plays in the passing game led to Hill losing his starting job to Alex Smith. Health status: The 49ers are a battered team, especially along the offensive line. Two of San Francisco's best players — LT Joe Staley (knee) and CB Nate Clements (shoulder) — are probably out through November. Second-half forecast: After the first month of the season, it appeared the NFC West title would be on the line when San Francisco hosted Arizona on Dec. 14. But after four consecutive 49ers losses, the Cardinals will probably have the division locked up by the time that game rolls around.

Seattle Seahawks (3-5)
Grade: C-

Making the grade: Life after Mike Holmgren hasn't gone smoothly. The Seahawks are 0-3 on the road and needed to rally from a 17-point deficit at home last Sunday against Detroit. Most valuable player: QB Matt Hasselbeck. Hasselbeck's best days are behind him, but the 34-year-old is the saving grace on an offense lacking a good offensive line and effective running game. Biggest disappointment: WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh. He has done more complaining than producing since signing a five-year, $40 million contract this offseason. Seahawks WR Nate Burleson is having a better year. Health status: Injuries have made this a difficult first season for Holmgren replacement Jim Mora. MLB Lofa Tatupu and LT Walter Jones are on injured reserve and CB Marcus Trufant spent the first six weeks on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Second-half forecast: As dark as the Seattle sky. An upcoming three-game road trip that starts with visits to Arizona and Minnesota should knock the Seahawks from playoff contention.

Washington Redskins (2-6)
Grade: D

Making the grade: I rarely watch the NFL Network's league-friendly propaganda, but a sound byte from Week 2 programming still echoes through my mind. Facing a 4th-and-1 late in a 9-7 win over lowly St. Louis, Redskins coach Jim Zorn called a Clinton Portis sweep that was stuffed. Afterward, Zorn lamented how the Rams could stonewall his bread-and-butter rushing play. Hmm ... no wonder Zorn was relieved of his play-calling duties after Week 6. Most valuable player: John Riggins. He retired 24 years ago, but the Hall of Fame running back-turned-media/YouTube personality struck a chord with Redskins faithful by slamming team owner Dan Snyder. Regardless of whether Riggins was justified in his vicious verbal assault — accusing Snyder of being a "bad man" and having a "dark" heart — the gauntlet was tossed for Washington to correct its front-office mess. Biggest disappointment: QB Jason Campbell. The Redskins hitched their wagon to the underwhelming Campbell by not acquiring another starting-caliber player in the offseason. Big mistake. Campbell shows no big-play ability while ranking 18th in NFL quarterback ranking. Health status: The offensive line is a disaster with two veteran starters (LT Chris Samuels and RG Randy Thomas) on injured reserve. Campbell is also unlikely to have the services of Portis and TE Chris Cooley for Sunday's game against Denver. Second-half forecast: As Phish might lament, watching the Redskins is Chalkdust Torture. I wonder if a bidding war may ensue between Washington and Cleveland for Mike Holmgren to oversee their dysfunctional organizations.

St. Louis Rams (1-7)
Grade: F

Making the grade: The NFL's longest active losing streak ended at 17 games when the Rams upset Detroit before the bye. That's the best news St. Louis can take out of yet another lost season. Most valuable player: RB Steven Jackson. With an NFC-best 784 yards, Jackson has a legitimate shot at winning the NFL's rushing title on the worst team for the first time since George Rogers captured the honor with the 1981 Saints (4-12). Biggest disappointment: QB Marc Bulger. He is on pace for career lows in completion percentage (55.8), yards per attempt (5.6) and quarterback rating (68.2). The Rams passed on using their top five pick the past two drafts on Matt Ryan in '08 and Mark Sanchez in '09 in hopes that Bulger could recapture his previous magic. The incoming crop of college quarterbacks is too deep for St. Louis to make the same mistake again. Health status: The Rams should have every key player available for Sunday's game against visiting New Orleans. Second-half forecast: Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney inherited one of the NFL's biggest rebuilding projects. Plenty of reconstruction remains, but Rams players have responded positively to Spagnuolo's approach.

Detroit Lions (1-7)
Grade: F

Making the grade: Well, at least Detroit has won a game. That's more than can be said about the 2008 Lions. Most valuable player: WR Calvin Johnson. His receiving statistics are pedestrian (24 catches for 352 yards and one touchdown), but Johnson is Detroit's only offensive threat. Biggest disappointment: RB Kevin Smith. In May, Smith blogged that Detroit would "definitely" make the playoffs. Smith hasn't done his part to get the Lions there. He's averaging only 3.3 yards a carry and hadn't busted a run of 30-plus yards until last Sunday's 32-20 loss at Seattle. Health status: Johnson and rookie QB Matthew Stafford are now back from injuries. Second-half forecast: In a rebuilding year like this, the key is seeing improvement as the season unfolds. That's why the Lions will continue to take their lumps with Stafford, who is averaging one interception every 10 throws.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-7)
Grade: F

Making the grade: The only highlight so far was last Sunday's 38-28 upset of Green Bay. That may be the last time the Bucs get into the win column for 2009. Most valuable player: CB Aqib Talib. He's a knucklehead off the field, but the Bucs have tolerated Talib's immaturity because he's so talented. Talib is becoming a bona fide shutdown cornerback when matched against an opponent's No. 1 receiver. He has five interceptions to boot. Biggest disappointment: DE Gaines Adams. The Bucs were counting on Adams developing into a quality pass rusher under new defensive coordinator Jim Bates, who helped groom Jason Taylor in Miami. Adams was such a disaster that the Bucs shipped him to Chicago just before the last NFL trade deadline. Selecting him with the fourth overall pick in the 2007 draft was a disastrous move by Tampa Bay's previous front-office regime. Health status: WR Antonio Bryant (knee) should be back for Sunday's game at Miami. The special teams unit will sorely miss S Will Allen, who was placed on injured reserve Wednesday following thumb surgery. Second-half forecast: The winning debut of rookie QB Josh Freeman gives Tampa Bay hope for the future. That's all the Bucs have right now while trying to avoid finishing with the NFL's worst record.

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