As the NFL season reaches the end of the first quarter, it’s time to reflect on the first four weeks of the season and grade each team as they get ready for their midterm exams.
Plenty of drama has taken place already in 2011 from devastating injuries to triumphant returns, surprise teams to overrated clubs and lots more.
These first-quarter grades will be issued based on the following criteria: preseason expectations, free-agent acquisitions, personnel moves, strength of schedule and play on the field.
So which teams are passing with flying colors and which teams need to hit the books for fear of flunking out?
Here are the 2011 NFL first-quarter report cards:
No doubt here about who’s the head of the class.
The defending Super Bowl champion Packers have the league’s most explosive and highest scoring offense coupled with a hard-hitting defense built on takeaways.
Aaron Rodgers looks to be a lock for the NFL MVP award come January. He has already thrown for 1,325 yards and accounted for 14 touchdowns. He is human after all—he’s thrown two interceptions.
Things are looking great in Green Bay as the Packers appear to be primed and ready for another deep run in the playoffs.
New Orleans is back for another run at the Lombardi Trophy.
What appeared to be the toughest division in the NFL before the season began slowly has the Saints rising to the top of the class.
Drew Brees continues to lead a potent aerial attack with 1,410 passing yards and 10 touchdowns. The ground attack has yet to get off to an explosive start, but Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas continue to pick up tough yards when they’re needed.
The Saints defense has also done a great job causing pressure. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has done a phenomenal job dialing up odd blitzes causing bad throws and turnovers.
The Brady-Welker connection has produced 40 receptions for 616 yards and five touchdowns. Again, this is the first-quarter report card. Should this rate continue, Welker would finish with 160 catches for 2,464 yards and 20 touchdowns. Is it likely? No, but who knows.
The Patriots defense has been overshadowed by this ridiculous offense. If The Pats can post 30 points a week, the defense will have plenty of cushion to work with.
New England looks scary and out on a mission.
The Detroit Lions are one of two undefeated teams left in the NFL. It’s not like they haven’t tried to lose though.
In Weeks 3 and 4, the Lions were down by 20 points each contest and managed comebacks to win both games. It’s amazing what the Lions can do with the football with a healthy Matthew Stafford.
Detroit’s defense has also stepped up for the occasion. The Lions have seven interceptions and nine team sacks. Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch has three sacks and two forced fumbles himself.
Detroit is getting A’s on all its paper but is waiting until the night before to get it done.
Minus one little slip up against the Tennessee Titans Week 2, the Ravens have perfect attendance.
In their latest showing Sunday night against the New York Jets, the Ravens flexed their guns by scoring three defensive touchdowns. Those who doubt Ray Lewis and Ed Reed because of their age simply have lit the fire that fueled both in that performance.
The offense has shown positive moments at times as well. Joe Flacco has managed to lead the Ravens right on the cusp of being a top 10 passing team while Ray Rice has Baltimore nearly a top five rushing team. Together, the team is averaging 28.3 points per game.
The Bills have taken this course for the last four semesters and had to drop it within three weeks each time.
This year, the Bills are turning in their homework on time and look like they just may finish with a passing grade.
The story fueling the Bills has been the emergence of running back Fred Jackson. Jackson has 369 yards on just 64 touches for an insane 5.8 yards per carry average. Ryan Fitzpatrick has also thrown the pigskin effectively. He’s clipped a 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns in four weeks.
Three defensive backs are tied for the team lead with two interceptions. If teams make a mistake deep down the field, a Bill will find it.
Philip Rivers and his Chargers usually rack up tardies early in the semester and have to fight for perfect attendance just to pass the course.
This semester, San Diego is off to a piping hot start and looks to have matured into legitimate students.
Puns aside, it is amazing that the Chargers have finally figured out how to win early. The mix of a top 10 passing attack and two running backs in Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert help take pressure off the defense.
With the Chiefs and Broncos struggling in the AFC West, this could be San Diego’s year to lock things up earlier than usual.
It’s about time the Houston Texans receive credit for the hard work they’ve put in all semester long.
In 2010, the Texans defense was laughable. This season, they’re dangerous and out for a vengeance.
The addition of former Dallas Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips as the team’s new defensive coordinator has made a substantial difference. Houston resides in the top 10 of league averages for yards allowed.
Scoring hasn’t been a problem for this team with Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Arian Foster, but how this team blew leads and allowed comebacks was like a leak in a boat.
Wade Phillips may have been the solution to keep the ship from sinking.
Tampa Bay is a solid team that puts forth good effort and is doing just enough to earn a B+.
The Bucs have renewed their commitment to defense and are seeing that dedication start to pay dividends. Tampa is a middle of the road offensive team that has a disciplined defense built on takeaways.
The tough part of being the Buccaneers will be winning in the NFC South. Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina all have great quarterbacks that will burn the Buccaneers if they’re not rushed. How well Tampa Bay does in 2011 could come down to how much defensive pressure they generate.
The youngest team in the NFL is experiencing some minor growing pains. Fret now Bucs fans, for they will be good for a long time.
It didn’t take long once Rex Ryan turned the New York Jets defense into his personal work of art that teams started cheating off of him as if he had all the answers for that night’s homework.
The big weight holding back the Jets from being an elite team in 2011 is quarterback Mark Sanchez. Sanchez is struggling to protect the ball this year. To date, he has five interceptions and six fumbles. That’s not going to get it done in the AFC East.
The defense is playing well but with no offensive support, there’s only so much the J-E-T-S can do to balance the lopsided attack.
Very similar to the Jets, the Pittsburgh Steelers have spent more time doodling in class than taking notes on how to keep their quarterback unharmed.
Following Sunday’s loss at Houston, its amazing Ben Roethlisberger was able to walk off the field on his own two feet. No protection from the offensive line doesn’t just hurt Big Ben but Rashard Mendenhall as well.
The Steel Curtain looks like it can withstand most blows this year however. The Steelers are the best passing defense and feature the second-best overall defense in yardage allowed with 277 yards per game.
Just like New York, the defense can only carry a team so far.
The Washington Redskins have moved up from sitting in the back of the classroom to the front and all of a sudden can follow directions.
With the NFC East appearing upside down right now, the Redskins are in the driver’s seat with their own fate. The Giants, Eagles and Cowboys all have issues to solve. If the Redskins can play solid defense and score just enough to get by, they should be okay.
The Redskins defense is a top five in the NFL allowing less than 300 yards per game. The eye-popping statistic for Washington is the NFL-best 13 forced fumbles. It’s easy to win when teams take the ball away regularly.
Matt Hasselbeck has returned to school for his Master’s Degree and is crushing the competition.
The logic in signing Hasselbeck at first was to have a veteran NFL quarterback manage the team and teach his good friend Jake Locker the ropes. Hasselbeck seems like he’s in no rush to pass the torch. Hasselbeck in leading a top 10 passing attack with 281 yards and two touchdowns per game.
Chris Johnson finally had a solid rushing week in Week 4, going over 100 yards for the first time in 2011. Having sat out all of the preseason demanding a new contract has taken an early season toll on CJ2K. It’s about now he should get back to his normal self.
In a bad AFC South, Tennessee could contend for the division crown.
Darren McFadden has taken it back old school to the 1980s with his nickname, Run-DMC.
The ground game has carried the load. Oakland is averaging 179 yards rushing a gametops in the NFL. McFadden and Michael Bush take all the pressure off of Jason Campbell who is really the definition of a game manager. His duties are simply to hand off the football accurately.
At 2-2, the Raiders have a winnable schedule ahead in the next four weeks. The Black and Silver will host three of the four next games against the Browns, Chiefs and Broncos. The lone road game is at the Texans. Sprinkle in a Week 8 bye and the Raiders could be 5-3 by November.
The Giants aren’t getting the grade they’d like even with a winning record.
What’s costing New York some points off their GPA? The injuries.
The Giants are so banged up at corner it’s affecting their defensive totals. Teams are tossing for 244 yards a game on average against the Giants while running for nearly 100 more.
It’s not their fault their first-round draft pick cornerback Prince Amukamara is out with a broken foot, Justin Tuck is battling a bad groin and Mario Manningham has a concussion.
While some issues may be out of their hands, it’s costing the team as a whole.
The Chicago Bears are making a bad habit out of cramming for an exam the night before. Some weeks, it pays off while others it comes back to bite them.
Game planning has been a big discussion point with the Bears—especially on offense with Mike Martz and his lack of a running game. A misfit offensive line has struggled to keep Jay Cutler from harm’s way against good NFC teams. Not getting defensive pressure from the front four has also held the Bears back.
The schedule has been tough so far. Chicago has played Atlanta, Green Bay and New Orleans in the early going. All three were playoff teams from a year ago. A 2-2 record isn’t the worst thing in the world right now.
It’s been an awkward start for an NFC South team that looked primed for another deep playoff run. Through four weeks, the Falcons have yet to spread their wings and fly.
The NFC South is a very offensive-minded division. Being able to stop the Saints, Panthers and Bucs will make or break a campaign. In the first quarter, Atlanta is surrendering 373 yards a game. It’s tough to win when giving up yardage like that.
Atlanta’s offense has struggled to be consistent as well. Offensive line protection has been an issue. Matt Ryan is still throwing for 261 yards a week, but Michael Turner has been hit or miss. Julio Jones and Roddy White have basically the same stats, but neither has seen the end zone regularly.
Whenever lightning strikes one year, it rarely repeats itself the next.
Take for example Peyton Hillis who is seeing a decrease in carries and yardage. With just 54 touches, Hillis has 197 yards and two scores. That kind of consistency will make winning difficult.
The introduction of Pat Shurmur as head coach should have benefitted Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy. The Browns passing game is middle of the road at best. Not having any offensive weapons to fear makes it easy for defenses to pin their ears back and come blitzing on every down.
There’s always the Madden curse, too. Whichever excuse is more believable.
Not many students are better at finding ways to bomb tests than the Dallas Cowboys.
Opening night against the Jets where quarterback Tony Romo cost the Boys the game late was the start of what seemed like another disappointing season for “America’s Team.”
Dallas does a fine job scoring points at nearly 25 a game. The passing offense is far more successful than the rushing attack. Romo is hurling 331 yards weekly.
Where the Cowboys are hurting is defensively. Dallas on defense allows the same number of weekly points they score. The loss of Wade Phillips has made the Cowboys the new Houston Texans and the Texans the new Dallas Cowboys.
It hasn’t been a sexy semester for the 49ers, but Sunday’s upset win in Philadelphia provides a spark and a glimmer of hope for what could be in 2011.
There’s no surprise the NFC West is having another down season. The division has been bad for a long time. If San Fran can dominate takeaways and run the ball with Frank Gore effectively, there’s no reason the West can’t be theirs.
Where the 49ers need to improve is in the passing game. Alex Smith has flirted with 300 yards just one week. If they do manage to get to the postseason and happen to trail early, they could be an easy one-and-out in the playoffs.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
The Eagles looked like they would set the curve for the rest of the class. After stubbing their toes and starting 1-3, they find themselves now fighting just to stay alive in the NFC playoff race.
What doesn’t help Philly here is the fact they haven’t played well at Lincoln Financial Field.
Turnovers have absolutely grounded the Eagles from taking off. Philly has a minus-six turnover ratio. It’s not so much as the Eagles offense is giving the ball away as much as it is the defense isn’t causing takeaways.
Additionally, the Eagles have the third-worst rushing defense in the league. They give up nearly 140 yards every week.
Cam Newton is living up to being the brightest freshman in the class. His statistics are outstanding, and the Panthers offense has done a great job moving the football.
Despite all that, Carolina has managed to blow three games they could have won. All three losses were by seven, seven and five points. One touchdown made all the difference in those games.
The hole in the Panthers is in the rushing defense, which is second-worst in the NFL. Carolina is allowing way too many yards on the ground which kills them in the time of possession battle.
One side of the team is revved up and raring to go. The other is allowing far too much yardage.
The Bengals are an interesting bunch. When they pass an exam, they pass just less than comfortably. When they fail, they do so by points.
In Cincinnati’s two wins, the Bengals have won by 13 total points. In the team’s two losses, they’ve fallen by five total points.
Cincinnati is in every one of its games. As weird as it sounds, the Bengals could very easily be 4-0 right now and atop the AFC North.
In such instances as this, very minor adjustments stand between teams winning and losing close ball games. Should Cincy be able to hang around every game, they’ll find a way to win a few here and there.
If teams received wins for blowing leads late in the game, the Cardinals would be 3-1, nearly 4-0.
Arizona barely won their first game 28-21 against the Panthers. Cam Newton nearly came back and took the game, but the Cards managed to hold out just long enough to win. The next three weeks were lost by a total of eight points.
What would help the Cardinals stay in games longer would be to run the ball more effectively. Beanie Wells is healthy again and is getting just enough to get by. Wells has 321 yards on 59 carries. He has surprisingly found the end zone five times.
Right behind the Cardinals are another NFC West team—the defending division champion Seattle Seahawks (pause for laughter).
The Seahawks have really struggled to contain their opponents. Seattle is -39 points in point differential and minus-four in turnovers. The Seahawks have just five sacks and two interceptions. Not being able to take the ball away has cost them in the clock game as well—nearly 10 minutes of difference.
In addition to the dismal defense, the offense is the worst in the NFL at 254 weekly yards. The signings of Sidney Rice and Tavaris Jackson looked bad when they were announced in August. Now, they really look poor as October begins.
The biggest concern for the Broncos heading into the season was getting off to a hot start because if they didn’t, the calls for Tim Tebow would come loud and proud.
The Denver fans have spoken.
Not many cities go through the effort to publically display their feelings about who they want to quarterback their team quite like the Broncos fans did.
The defense for Denver is once again a problem, ranking 23rd in the NFL. The offense from 2010 is not back in 2011 to make up for the defensive woes. Even with a bad division, these Broncos are bound for the glue factory rather than the playoffs.
Why the Jaguars decided to release David Garrard in a season where Peyton Manning will miss almost the entire season still makes no sense.
The move was to save money towards the salary cap. The problem with that logic though is that the Jaguars really didn’t do anything meaningful with that $9 million.
The solution Jacksonville set into motion to band-aid their quarterback problems was Luke McCown for two weeks and rookie Blaine Gabbert for the other 14.
Had the Jags kept Garrard and ate the money, they wouldn’t have offensive concerns nearly as badly as they do right now. The AFC South is wide open, and Jacksonville willingly put the class’ dunce cap on their own noggins.
The Rams get the award for the best team to not win a game yet. They should be proud of receiving such hardware.
One fear coming into 2011 would be that standout rookie Sam Bradford would suffer a sophomore slump. Tough to blame this season strictly on Bradford’s performance. St. Louis is the most banged up team in the entire league.
How bad are things in the Rams organization? St. Louis is at the bottom of the league in important categories such as passing yards per game and total yards allowed per game.
The one bright spot? The rushing attack which ranks 22nd in the NFL. Even Stephen Jackson has missed time this year with injury though.
Who would have thought the Colts would go four weeks without winning a single game?
The fate of the entire AFC South rests on one man’s neck. Peyton Manning may not see the field at all in 2011 which opens the door wide open for the Jaguars, Titans and Texans.
Poor management by the Colts front office is to blame for their poor grade. They had to know the day Manning wasn’t able to play would come eventually, and they got caught with their pants down.
Whether its Kerry Collins or Curtis Painter, things look dismal in Indy with Manning’s replacement. This is a year to flush out of Colts' history.
To say the Miami Dolphins have struggled without Ronnie Brown and a consistent offense would be an understatement. Adding in that, the defense surrenders 415 yards each week doesn’t make things easier.
Miami is missing running back Ronnie Brown right about now. Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas have failed to live up to Brown’s standard of play. Letting Brown leave for the Philadelphia Eagles via free agency might have been their 2011 downfall.
Plus, the aforementioned defense is failing to get the job done. Forcing two fumbles and two interceptions quite frankly isn’t good enough to win.
Remember the Dolphins play six games against their AFC East division foesNew England, New York and Buffalo. Those are three pretty decent offensive squads.
The ship has sailed for the Vikings, and they missed it by 20 minutes.
As ridiculous as it sounds, Minnesota has stopped using their best player regularly. Running back Adrian Peterson didn’t get any of the workload in the second half of the Viking’s Week 3 game versus the Lions. What happened to Minnesota’s 20-point lead? It evaporated, and they lost.
Peterson still has the Minnesota rushing offense amongst the top three in the league but how often they rely on him to carry the load is suspect to criticism.
Leslie Fraizer better be careful how he handles things for the rest of his rookie coaching gig, or he won’t be there much longer.
The season for the Chiefs basically ended when Jamaal Charles' did.
Kansas City through four weeks is the only team in the NFL to not have a rushing touchdown. There's obviously no way to prepare for a franchise player to get injured, but the Chiefs are just going to have to deal with it like the Colts are with the absence of Peyton Manning.
The defense has been horrendous as well. Kansas City surrendered 89 points the first two weeks alone. No matter who's healthy or hurt, it’s nearly impossible to win a game in which a team trails 48-3.
Brett Lyons is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or from official interview materials.
Follow Brett Lyons on Twitter @BrettLyons670.