Buffalo Bills (3-5)
What they’ve done well: The Bills know how to intercept passes. Led by rookie safety Jairus Byrd, they had nine picks in their two-game winning streak over the Jets and Panthers, the most the team had recorded in a two-game span since 1967. Byrd, the son of former Chargers defensive back Gill Byrd, had two more in the 31-10 loss to the Houston Texans and has 7 at the halfway point. He is in position to challenge Dick “Night Train” Lane’s all-time record of 14 pick in one season.
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What needs improvement: The Bills’ offense is inconsistent and that won’t change until quarterback Trent Edwards (concussion) is back. Buffalo has been using backup Ryan Fitzpatrick behind center and he doesn’t have the accuracy, consistency or arm strength to get the team rolling. The Bills rank 27th on offense and that unit could only muster 204 yards against the Texans.
Miami Dolphins (3-4)
What they’ve done well: The unconventional. Other teams try the Wildcat offense, but it’s the Dolphins who do it best with Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown. They are also a resourceful crew who can get badly outplayed badly -- like in Week 8 against the Jets -- but can still win thanks to special teams play. Also key? They also are converting 50.5 percent of their third-down attempts, second in the league.
Needs improvement: Tony Sparano’s coaching gaffes are getting laughable. His timeout at the end of the first half in Week 7 gave the Saints the chance to score on Drew Brees’ 1-yard run. Otherwise the clock would have run out. He followed that up by going for a 2-point conversion with his team up by 11 against the Jets, and failing. Had the Dolphins kicked the extra point, the Jets would have needed two touchdowns to beat them. Instead, a touchdown, 2-point conversion and a field goal would have tied it up. The Jets couldn’t execute, but Sparano’s blunder gave them new life.
New England Patriots (5-2)
What they’ve done well: Instead of dropping to mediocrity after losing to the Jets and Broncos, the Pats laid a 59-0 whipping on the Titans and followed that with a 35-7 win over Tampa Bay. Even if Tom Brady isn't fully healthy, this team remains explosive. Shutting down Brady, Randy Moss and Wes Welker remains a near-impossible task. The Pats are No. 1 in the league in time of possession (34:22) and No. 3 in yards per game (406.0).
Needs improvement: If it seems easy for opposing quarterbacks sit in the pocket, survey the field and find open receivers against the Patriots, that’s because it is. New England ranks 26th in quarterback sacks, with just 13. Trading Richard Seymour to the Raiders before the start of the season has cost them significantly. The Pats are ordinary at run defense, allowing 109.4 yards per game, 15th in the league.
New York Jets (4-4)
What they’ve done well: This team appeared elite when it opened the season 3-0 behind the bluster of rookie coach Rex Ryan and apparent maturity of rookie quarterback Matt Sanchez. That didn't last, but what has remained is the running game. The Jets rank first in the league with 1,421 rushing yards, averaging a powerful 4.7 yards per carry and 12 rushing touchdowns. Thomas Jones continues to carry this team.
Needs improvement: Sanchez began the season like the next glamour quarterback in New York, but he has much to learn about reading defenses and understanding coverages. This has manifested itself in the Jets’ inability to convert third downs. They’ve converted only 34.8 of their third-down attempts, 23rd in the league. The loss of stud defensive tackle Kris Jenkins (torn ACL) means that Sione Pouha, Mike DeVito and Howard Green have to fill in, and that’s a significant dropoff.
Baltimore Ravens (4-3)
What they’ve done well: Instead of the usual moribund offense Ravens fans are used to, John Harbaugh’s team has occasionally lit up the scoreboard. The Ravens are rolling off 378.7 yards per game, 7th in the league, and making opponents prepare for the strong-armed Joe Sacco and super-quick running back Ray Rice. Their 28.4 ppg is fourth best in the NFL. With an offense that can dominate at times, the previously dominant defense only needs to be good.
Needs improvement: There was a time when backs couldn't even dream about running 100 yards against Baltimore. No runner had done it since 2006. Yet Cedric Benson and Adrian Peterson both topped the century mark this season. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis, a future Hall of Famer, has lost a step and the team misses former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. The once-dominant defense is giving up 313.7 yards per game, and is allowing 19.6 points per game, 12th in the league. These are unacceptable numbers for this proud unit.
Cincinnati Bengals (5-2)
What they’ve done well: Carson Palmer has started to look like the Carson Palmer of old. He's led the Bengals to three come-from-behind wins, and four drives in the last two minutes have either tied the game or given the Bengals the lead. Cincinnati's getting consistent production from former running back washout Cedric Benson and Chad Ochocinco is back to form. The Bengals are rolling to 20.1 first downs per game, good for 9th in the league. That may be due to a powerful and aggressive offensive line that has given up only 11 sacks through seven games. By this time last year the Bengals had given up 27.
Needs improvement: The Bengals' defense needs work, particularly against the pass. They're 31st in the league with 253.3 passing yards allowed per game, ahead of only Tennessee. The Bengals are aggressive in going after the ball having been credited with 38 passes defensed (tied for 7th) but they have to do a better job of holding their opponents’ passing game in check.
Cleveland Browns (1-7)
What they’ve done well: The Eric Mangini disaster has taken root in Cleveland, except on defense. If the Browns' defense was teamed with a better offense, they'd actually be OK. For example, the Browns are dead last with 409.1 yards allowed, but that’s the function of an offense that is almost never on the field. The defense is on the field for more than 33 minutes a game, and usually allow a chunk of yards late in games. However, they rank 16th in sacks with 16 and rank 7th in passes defensed.
Needs improvement: There have been awful quarterbacks in the NFL, but it’s hard to believe there’s been a worse duo than Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn. Neither has thrown a touchdown pass to a receiver. Additionally, no Cleveland running back has rushed for a touchdown. The Browns are last in passing yards per game (121.5) and 31st in first downs an outing (12.9). Much of this falls on Mangini who has created an atmosphere of distrust. There don't appear to be any solutions, either.
Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2)
What they’ve done well: The Steelers do many things well, but it is an absolute given that they will stop the run. They rank second against the run, allowing 76.6 yards per game. Pittsburgh's running game has started to come into its own behind Rashard Mendenhall, who is averaging 5.4 yards per carry and taking the heat off QB Ben Roethlisberger.
Needs improvement: The Steelers are struggling against the pass, but it doesn’t appear that coach Mike Tomlin or defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau are worried. Their passing defense numbers (214.4 per game, 17th overall) were inflated when safety Troy Polamalu was injured. His absence also is reflected in the Steelers’ interception total. They have only 5 going into the second half of the season, ranking 23rd in the league.
Houston Texans (5-3)
What they’ve done well: The Texans are an elite passing offense. Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson is perhaps the league's top quarterback-receiver combo and produces the bulk of their 374 total yards. Johnson shrugs off injuries and makes Schaub better. The running game with Steve Slaton and Ryan Moats is capable, though Slaton has a fumbling issue.
Needs improvement: The Texans must play better at home, which is troubling for a team with playoff aspirations. That falls on coach Gary Kubiak, who has to make his players feel that playing at home should be an opportunity to dominate. And where is the pass rush? Any team with Mario Williams should rank significantly better than 29th in sacks (11 through eight games).
Indianapolis Colts (7-0)
What they’ve done well: The obvious and correct answer is Peyton Manning, who is a remarkable passer, quarterback and leader. The team has rolled to four straight road victories and has won 16 consecutive regular-season games. Rookie coach Jim Caldwell is the first coach in the modern era to win his first seven games. But the most shocking area of success has been the play of the Colts' defense. Indianapolis is the No. 1 team in the league in points allowed, averaging 13.0 ppg.
Needs improvement: The Colts really have no major weaknesses, but they are average against the run, giving up 112.0 yards per game and ranking 17th in the league. The Colts would also like to be more physical around the ball. They have forced seven fumbles, ranking 13th overall.
Jacksonville Jaguars (3-4)
What they’ve done well: Maurice Jones-Drew spearheads a great rushing attack. He can break a big gain at any time, whether it's getting to the outside running between the tackles. Jacksonville amasses 135.6 rushing yards per game (8th in the league), but could run even more. They are tied for 2nd in yards per carry at 5.4 yards per attempt. With all of that, you'd think David Garrard would be a more effective passer. He has as many touchdown passes as interceptions (5).
Needs improvement: Is the Jaguars’ defense in the witness protection program? Everyone vanishes when it comes to stopping opponents. Jacksonville ranks 25th in overall defense, giving up 370.7 yards per game, and nearly a 130 rushing yards a game. They are dead-last in sacks with just 5 for the season and it’s no surprise they have only 5 interceptions on the season.
Tennessee Titans (1-6)
What they’ve done well: Not much. When Tennessee owner Bud Adams issued an edict to coach Jeff Fisher to start Vince Young a 23-game absence, it resulted in the team's first win. Score one for the owner. The best asset that Young has to work with is the running game. With speedster Chris Johnson leading the way, the Titans average 162.3 yards per game and rank second in the league. That has meant little since the Titans haven't gotten the chance to grind out a win.
Needs improvement: The Titans were a 13-3 team a year ago and most expected them to contend with the Colts for the AFC South title again this year. When they dropped the season opener at Pittsburgh, everything fell apart. Tennessee stopped playing defense (it allows 394.9 yards per game) and has given up at times. Without Albert Haynesworth in the middle of the defensive line, the defense isn't as physical. The secondary also has struggled covering receivers and creating turnovers.
Denver Broncos (6-1)
What they’ve done well: After a tumultuous offseason, it’s obvious coach Josh McDaniels had a better understanding of his team than anyone else. Kyle Orton is a capable game manager and directs the offense without many mistakes, but defense has been the difference. Linebacker Elvis Dumervil has 10.0 sacks and Broncos are No. 2 in scoring defense (13.7 ppg) and .No. 1 team in yards allowed (266.7). More than the numbers is the aggressive way the Broncos storm to the football and tackle well. Few teams in the league match Denver’s fervor when it comes to gang tackling.
Needs improvement: The Broncos caught plenty of breaks, which may not continue. In order to make up for that, the running game must improve. The Broncos are running for 123.1 yards per game, ranking 11th. If that gets better, it'll give Orton more time to find Brandon Marshall, who remains an elite talent at receiver.
Kansas City Chiefs (1-6)
What they’ve done well: This may be damning the Chiefs with faint praise, but of all the painfully woeful teams in the NFL (and there are many), the Chiefs play the hardest. Except that brat Larry Johnson. Focus on players like Dwayne Bowe, Matt Cassel, Tamba Hali, Bobby Wade and Glenn Dorsey. While the Chiefs rank 27th in points allowed per game at 25.9, they don’t give in easily. They have been credited with 36 passes defensed, putting them tied for 10th with the Broncos, Steelers and Cardinals.
Needs improvement: They need to actually pick off a few of those passes. Through their first seven games, they have three picks in 233 passing attempts. The team record for fewest interceptions in a season is 11, so that mark is in jeopardy. And if not for Cleveland, people would point to the Chiefs as the most anemic offense, averaging 251.6 yards per game.
Oakland Raiders (2-6)
What they’ve done well: A 38-0 Week 7 loss to the Jets may have given the Raiders a glimpse into their future. After yet another ineffective performance by JaMarcus Russell, backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski played with an awareness and urgency that Russell badly lacks. When Darren McFadden returns from his early-season arthroscopic surgery, the running attack of Justin Fargas and McFadden may cause problems for opponents.
Needs improvement: The Raiders continue to get nothing from Russell, who has to be one of the all-time NFL draft busts. The No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft appears to be the Raiders’ version of Ryan Leaf, minus the churlish personality. The biggest problem is that Russell can’t throw an accurate pass. On the defensive side, the Raiders get pushed around regularly, giving up 373.3 yards per game and ranking 27th overall.
San Diego Chargers (4-3)
What they’ve done well: The Chargers have to try to chase down the surprising Broncos, but they have a great chance thanks to quarterback Phillip Rivers and an underrated crew of receivers. San Diego is one of the league's best passing teams, ranking in 4th in passing yards per game with 276.3. Rivers is a gunslinger who will hold on to the ball, take the hit and deliver a strike to wide receiver Vincent Jackson or tight end Antonio Gates.
Needs improvement: San Diego needs more from LaDainian Tomlinson. A couple of seasons ago, Tomlinson was considered the best all-around back. Now he looks like an old man. The only time the running game gets a lift is when Darren Sproles plays. The defense doesn't have any bite, either. The Chargers are giving up 132.1 rushing yards per game (27th in the league) and opponents are running all over linebacker Shawne Merriman.
Dallas Cowboys (5-2)
What they’ve done well: The running game is solid with Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice, but the passing game hit another gear when Tony Romo found a new favorite receiver in Miles Austin. As result, Dallas is now second in the league with 411.1 yards per game. When it comes to scoring, the Cowboys are 6th in the league with 28.1 ppg and they appear to be getting better. Perhaps more impressive is that Romo is not turning the ball over. He has only thrown four interceptions.
Needs improvement: The Cowboy defense has been fertile ground for opponents. Dallas is giving up 342.1 yards per game. The biggest problem for this unit is poor tackling form. The Cowboys rarely wrap up. They try to set opponents up for the big hit and they swing and miss. The Cowboys also struggle in pass defense. They have only 4 interceptions, ranking 28th in the league.
N.Y. Giants (5-3)
What they’ve done well: The Giants' offense is productive (N.Y. is fourth in net yards), which has been a nice boost after losing key players like Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer and Derrick Ward from last season's group. Eli Manning's young receivers have been a nice surprise, particularly Steve Smith, whose 53 receptions leads the league. Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham have emerged as guys capable of making big plays.
Needs improvement: Confidence is down after suffering three straight losses. The Giants were pushed around at New Orleans and Philadelphia, so there may be a crisis of confidence that coach Tom Coughlin has to address. The rush defense appears is on holiday (113.1 rushing yards allowed per game, 19th in the league) and despite having 18 sacks on the season, most came early when the Giants feasted on lesser opponents.
Philadelphia Eagles (5-2)
What they’ve done well: Sometimes the best thing that can happen to a team is to get hit in the face. Instead of pounding the pitiful Raiders in Week 6, the Eagles sat there and took a 13-9 beating. Apparently that game got their attention because they took apart the Redskins 27-17, then put on a masterpiece in dominating the Giants 40-17. The Eagles have speed to burn at receiver with DeSean Jackson (who averages more than 20 yards a catch) and at the running back slot with LeSean McCoy. On the defensive side, the Eagles are giving up 19.0 points per game (8th in the league) and have yet to play their best football.
Needs improvement: Donovan McNabb has decent numbers (9 TD passes, 1 interception), but has been inconsistent. He must stay healthy and continue to hit Jackson and Jeremy Maclin for big plays. The Eagles need to strive for consistency. They are averaging 344.4 yards per game, ranking 15th in the league. With McCoy and Brian Westbrook running the ball, they have the ability to take pressure off of McNabb and become a truly balanced team.
Washington Redskins (2-5)
What they’ve done well: Nobody had an easier schedule than the Redskins, yet they have just two wins. If the Redskins couldn’t beat the Chiefs or the Lions, do they really have any chance at being competitive? Washington runs for just 93.4 yards per game, ranking 26th in the league. Embattled head coach Jim Zorn needs to get the ball to Clinton Portis more often if the Redskins have any chance of playing better.
Needs improvement: The passing game just is not good enough. The Redskins average 202.6 passing yards per game, 20th overall. Jason Campbell -- whether it's a lack of coaching or ability -- isn't getting it done. The defense allows just 283.4 yards per game and ranks 4th in the league, but it does not create big plays. The defense has a league-worst 3 interceptions.
Chicago Bears (4-3)
What they’ve done well: Jay Cutler has brought the Bears' passing game into the 21st century. He's been troubled by frequent interceptions –- 11 of them -– but he can get away from on rushing defensive linemen and find a way to make something happen on his own. The Bears throw for 226.9 yards per game, which ranks 14th in the league. While that’s not much to brag about, being a middle of the road passing team is an improvement for this team.
Needs improvement: The offensive line has fallen apart. Veteran center Olin Kreutz is still the best blocker, but he’s not the player he once was. Ex-All-Pro Orlando Pace is just going through the motions. On the defensive side, the loss of Brian Urlacher in Week 1 has taken away much of this unit’s ability to intimidate the opponents. Outside linebacker Lance Briggs may be an elite defensive player, but his teammates struggle in support. The Bears can’t put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, ranking 20th with 15 sacks.
Detroit Lions (1-6)
What they’ve done well: It came in a Week 3 win against Washington. Since then, the most positive development has been the play of rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford, who has the arm strength and attitude to become a good quarterback. coach Jim Schwartz has put together an aggressive secondary, a unit that has batted away 35 passes, ranking 14th in that category.
Needs improvement: It’s hard to win when you don’t stop the other team from scoring. The Lions are giving up 29.3 points per game. The only team worse is the Titans. The Lions struggle to move the ball, averaging 4.4 yards per snap, and can't protect Stafford and backup quarterback Daunte Culpepper. They have given up 24 sacks midway through the season and they show no signs of getting better.
Green Bay Packers (4-3)
What they’ve done well: Forget Brett Favre. Green Bay has a great asset in Aaron Rodgers. He is a quarterback who can win games because he finds big-play receivers like Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. If only the Packers could protect him a little bit, then this team would have a chance to contend for the playoffs. The Packers have shown significant improvement on defense as they are giving up 283.4 yards per game, ranking 4th in the league.
Needs improvement: The play of the offensive line has been disastrous. The Packers have given up a league-high 31 sacks and to his credit, Rodgers shows no signs of shying away or changing the gameplan. But if that continues, Rodgers may not last. The poor offensive line play is having a significant impact on the running game. They are averaging 114.0 yards per game, 16th overall.
Minnesota Vikings (7-1)
What they’ve done well: The Vikings' decision to partner with Brett Favre has paid off in a big way. Minnesota is still Adrian Peterson’s team and the running game is in great shape, but Favre has been the one to make big plays. He still has the arm strength and has tempered his gunslinger instinct. Favre's 16 touchdowns to 3 interceptions makes him a legitimate MVP contender. Receiver Sidney Rice has proven to be a fine big-play target and rookie Percy Harvin is a playmaker as a receiver and a return man. On the defensive side, Pat Williams is a behemoth against the run and Kevin Williams deserves Pro Bowl consideration.
Needs improvement: While Minnesota can slow the run, they have been vulnerable through the air. The Vikings are giving up 332.6 yards per game. They also have 6 interceptions on the season, ranking 15th overall.
Atlanta Falcons (4-3)
What they’ve done well: The growth of quarterback Matt Ryan continues. He's completing 59.7 percent of his passes and has been even more decisive in his leadership than he was as a rookie. Part of the reason for that is tight end Tony Gonzalez who continues to make big catches at key moments. Gonzalez has caught at least one pass in 138 consecutive games.
Needs improvement: Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has been unhappy with mistakes, such as dropped passes by receivers like Roddy White. He has shown the ability to get open but he doesn’t always look the ball into his hands and that leads to costly drops, such as the one he had in a one-sided win over the 49ers. The Falcons running game has lost much of it depth (injuries to Jerious Norwood and Ovie Mughelli) is still effective, if one-dimensional under Michael Turner.
Carolina Panthers (3-4)
What they’ve done well: As the Panthers struggled to start the season, defensive end Julius Peppers called a team meeting and demanded more from his teammates. What made his speech effective was that he called himself out for making excuses and playing poorly. Since then, the Panthers have responded. The Panthers rank 7th in overall defense, giving up 288.1 yards per game. They have registered 17 sacks.
Needs improvement: It’s been a long year for quarterback Jake Delhomme. When he goes to bed at night he needs to say a special prayer of thanks that John Fox is his coach. For some reason Delhomme remains the starter despite the Panthers ranking 22nd in yards per pass attempt (5.3) and a 5-to-15 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Much of the responsibility falls on Delhomme’s shoulders because the offensive line is blocking well in the running game.
New Orleans Saints (7-0)
What they’ve done well: The Saints are on their way. Drew Brees directs an explosive offense, which is now backed by a hard-hitting defense. New Orleans ranks 1st in yards per game (427.3) and are 3rd in average yards per play (6.3 yards). The Saints simply can outscore every opponent. Their 39.0 points per game is nine points per game better than the 2nd-ranked Vikings. On the defensive side, the Saints rank 11th in yards allowed per game and have forced the issue with 13 interceptions.
Needs improvement: The Saints are not a perfect team but they have established a strong offense, an effective defense and fine special teams play. They will be tested in the marathon sprint that is the NFL. What worked in September and October does not always work in December and January. Can the Saints sustain their early success? The pass defense is vulnerable, giving up 214.3 yards per game and ranking 16th overall.
Tampa Bay Bucs (0-7)
What they’ve done well: Zilch. There is little receiving talent and poor blocking for new quarterback Josh Freeman.The Bucs have played hard on defense, and they are just average, allowing 214.0 yards per game, 15th in the league.
Needs improvement: The Bucs struggle to block whether it’s for the running game or the passing game. That’s a tough way to try to win football games. Tampa Bay is averaging 272.3 yards per game, (28th overall) and just 4.6 yards per play.
Arizona Cardinals (4-3)
What they’ve done well: The Cardinals have a couple of big-play receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin and a gutsy/aging quarterback in Kurt Warner. But one thing coach Ken Whisenhunt also has is an effective defense, which has continued to grow since Arizona's surprising run to the Super Bowl last season. Beating the Giants on the road in Week 7 was confirmation of that. The Cardinals are playing well against the run, giving up an average of 96.4 yards per game, 9th in the league.
Needs improvement: The Cardinals have a hard time sustaining their effort from week to week. After a playing a tough, gutsy and emotional game against the Giants and coming away with the win, they came home and dropped a 34-21 decision to the Panthers. In the game, Warner threw five interceptions and the Cardinals also lost a fumble. Arizona has more turnovers than takeaways this season.
San Francisco 49ers (3-4)
What they’ve done well: The 49ers are a work in progress, but the defense is playing hard and physical football on a consistent basis. The defense is not at the top of the heap yet, but it makes its mark against the opponent’s running game. The 49ers are averaging 84.9 rushing yards allowed per game, good for 2nd in the league.
Needs improvement: The pass defense needs to get more consistent. While the 49ers hit hard after opposing receivers catch passes, they allow far too many big plays. The offense is being handed to Alex Smith because he had a solid relief appearance against the Texans in Week 7, but he’s got much to prove before he can be considered dependable. At least he has dependable running back Frank Gore.
Seattle Seahawks (2-5)
What they’ve done well: There’s not much for coach Jim Mora to feel good about. Future Hall of Fame tackle Walter Jones is on injured reserve with knee problems for the second year in a row and linebacker Lofa Tatupu has a torn left pectoral muscle. The Seahawks do have a solid quarterback in Matt Hasselbeck, but he has been fragile throughout his career and this season. If Hasselbeck can stay in the lineup, the Seahawks can use his right arm and a fairly productive pass rush to try to compete.
Needs improvement: The Seahawks' secondary is sub-par. Seattle allows 224.4 passing yards per game, ranking 18th overall. They also can’t close the deal on interceptions. The Seahawks have just three picks on the year and are tied for last in that category with the Chiefs. While the Seahawks have some speed on defense, they don’t seem to match up well with bigger blockers.
St. Louis Rams (1-7)
What they’ve done well: Coach Steve Spagnuolo may be a keeper for the franchise. When a team loses its first seven games and does so by significant margins each week, there’s usually talk of dissension throughout the team. Nobody is pointing fingers, which resulted in a win against the Lions. Steven Jackson gives the Rams a viable ground game, averaging 116.1 yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry.
Needs improvement: The Rams can’t throw the ball, can’t stop the run and can’t stop their opponents from passing. That kind of play will make victories few and far between.