NFL team grades for September: Dolphins get an A, Bears get an F

We’re now 49 chapters into the NFL’s 272-game regular-season schedule, roughly one-sixth of the way to determining the playoff field for 2023. It’s been a wild month of September – catastrophic injuries, high-impact rookies and some amazing offensive and defensive performances among factors already shaping the league’s 104th campaign.

Thursday night’s NFC North showdown between the Lions and Packers at Lambeau Field was the final game of the month, Detroit assuming sole possession of first place in the NFC North. With that contest concluded, no reason to further delay the reveal of initial progress reports – grades! – for all 32 teams. (And just to be clear, these aren’t power rankings – where every club is essentially evaluated on the same scale. These assessments are intended to be more an acknowledgement that not every team is expected to perform at the level of a National Honor Society student taking AP calculus. And, admittedly, others will require help to get through woodshop.)

So, without further ado, let’s break out that unforgiving red pen:

Arizona Cardinals (1-2): A-

If you thought they were going to be a weekly walkover – hand raised – whether or not injured QB Kyler Murray returned, guess again. The Cards are shockingly just a few breaks from being 3-0 and decidedly knocked the Cowboys off a high-riding perch. Arizona still won’t scare you if you’re assessing the team on paper – but we’re reminded games aren’t played there. (Imagine marrying this team’s intangibles to the Chargers’ talent.) Will the Cardinals wind up in the playoffs? Almost certainly not. But they’ve earned the right to be respected, and you can expect the point spreads of their games to drop significantly … after this week (at San Francisco).

Atlanta Falcons (2-1): B

Toughness and physicality can take you a long way in the NFL – particularly when it means the ability to play solid defense and/or run the ball down an opponent’s throat. And yet you’re probably only going to get so far in this day and age if you’re hamstrung in the passing game, especially given the downfield weapons Atlanta has. High floor, low ceiling.

Baltimore Ravens (2-1): C+

The offense was supposed to evolve into an attack with more aerial fireworks but has still pretty much been propelled by QB Lamar Jackson’s legs. But give it some more time, particularly since the former MVP didn’t take any snaps in preseason. S Kyle Hamilton is a budding star for the always reliable defense. Mainly, the Ravens need to squash the injury bug that’s once again bitten so many players – hopefully temporarily – though RB J.K. Dobbins was lost to an Achilles blowout in Week 1. (And one demerit for losing to the Colts … in Baltimore … regardless of the weather.)

Buffalo Bills (2-1): B+

A second-ranked defense should be bolstered at some point by the return of LB Von Miller. They’re actually running the ball, RB James Cook third in the league with 267 rushing yards. And QB Josh Allen has only turned the ball over once the past two weeks after giving it away four times in the opening-night loss to the Aaron Rodgers-less Jets. Week 4’s visit from Miami will be quite a litmus test for the Bills, who won their past two contests by a collective score of 75-13, but Buffalo appears to have recaptured the Super Bowl-caliber form it lost late in the 2022 season.

Carolina Panthers (0-3): F

Not only are they winless, they haven’t been especially competitive – and the main reason is that No. 1 pick Bryce Young is lagging significantly behind his first-round quarterbacking peers and holding this offense back in the process. He’s also been unable to quiet concerns about his durability, a problem amplified by the fact Carolina's attack was at its most potent with QB2 Andy Dalton on the field. And if that’s not bad enough, the rest of the team hasn’t been nearly good enough to give Young support and margin for error while he gets his professional bearings.

Chicago Bears (0-3): F

Justin Fields #1 of the Chicago Bears reacts after fumbling the ball against the Green Bay Packers during the second half at Soldier Field on September 10, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois.
Justin Fields #1 of the Chicago Bears reacts after fumbling the ball against the Green Bay Packers during the second half at Soldier Field on September 10, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois.

Maybe it’s the coaching. Maybe it’s QB Justin Fields. Maybe it’s the chaos that seems to be swirling through Halas Hall. But not trying to throw anyone under the bus here.

Cincinnati Bengals (1-2): C

They’ve become infamous for early season unexcused absences during the Joe Burrow era. This time, the quarterback’s summer calf injury has really hampered the Stripes holistically – making it hard to dole out too much praise or criticism. But encouraging signs of life in Monday’s night win over the Rams, perhaps mostly courtesy of a stifling defensive performance and WR Ja'Marr Chase’s emergence from witness protection, the disappearance not really his fault. Should be better days (and higher marks) ahead.

Cleveland Browns (2-1): B+

Don’t look now, but they own the league’s No. 1 defense – a unit that’s surrendered one touchdown this season. Coordinator Jim Schwartz might have been the perfect guy to run it, and his scheme married to DE Myles Garrett’s talent could equate to Defensive Player of the Year hardware. RB Nick Chubb’s season-ending knee injury is hardly a plus, but QB Deshaun Watson played his best game as a Brown with Chubb out – accurately distributing the ball in a dominant win over Tennessee. Cleveland suffered the biggest injury in an already battered AFC North but may also be equipped to best weather its blow.

Dallas Cowboys (2-1): B

The offense has been fine with HC Mike McCarthy calling plays – and that was sufficient prior to Sunday’s stunning loss at Arizona, when QB Dak Prescott’s first interception came at a most inopportune time on Dallas’ final drive. A fourth-ranked defense had been dominant prior to the Cardinals loss, and maybe a letdown was inevitable in the days following CB Trevon Diggs’ season-ending knee injury. Yet such a stumble also gives pause given the Cowboys have yet to face any of the teams in the league’s upper echelon. As it always does, win or lose, this team warrants close monitoring.

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Denver Broncos (0-3): D-

Let’s acknowledge that QB Russell Wilson has generally been playing much better than he did during his inaugural Rocky Mountain season. Otherwise? Just about universally cataclysmic, from HC Sean Payton’s summer interview with USA TODAY Sports prior to training camp through Sunday’s 50-point meltdown at Miami.

Detroit Lions (3-1): B+

Good start knocking off the Chiefs on the road in the opener, though Detroit caught the champs without their second- and third-best players. Losing to the Seahawks for the third straight season could come back to bite the Lions (again). But they’ve rebounded with their best performances of the season over the past five days, taking the wood to both the Falcons and Packers. A defense that ranked last in 2022 appears markedly improved, and TE Sam LaPorta has been the best of their heralded rookie class. And if RB David Montgomery, LT Taylor Decker – both played Thursday – and DB C.J. Gardner-Johnson get back to full health, and WR Jameson Williams provides a boost when his suspension ends in Week 7? Still a lot more upside to be realized here, especially on offense.

Green Bay Packers (2-2): B

The obvious question entering the season was how effectively QB Jordan Love would replace Rodgers. So far, not bad at all – even with Love providing a few humorously viral lowlights. And given how much time key players like CB Jaire Alexander, LT David Bakhtiari, G Elgton Jenkins, RB Aaron Jones and WR Christian Watson have missed early on? The Pack could most definitely wind up back atop the NFC North if Love continues to progress, though Thursday's loss to Detroit highlighted the current gap.

Houston Texans (1-2): B-

They’ve been hamstrung by an offensive line missing 80% of its projected starters – and that’s been manifested in an AFC-worst 2.8 yards per rush. And yet C.J. Stroud has been the most effective and most durable of this year’s rookie quarterbacks, maximizing what had been a lightly regarded (by most) receiving corps – WRs Nico Collins, Robert Woods and rookie Tank Dell pulling down 15 balls apiece. And like the offense, new HC DeMeco Ryans’ defense has progressed from putrid in 2022 to passable in 2023, rookie DE Will Anderson Jr. living up to his advance billing so far.

Indianapolis Colts (2-1): B+

If Stroud has been the most polished of this year’s rookie quarterbacks, then Indy’s Anthony Richardson has been the most explosive – accounting for four touchdowns in less than six full quarters of work. And that’s basically the rub as the Colts need to be extra mindful of protecting Richardson from defenders and himself given his youthful propensity to bolt the pocket. But even with prized first-rounder and All-Pro RB Jonathan Taylor out, new HC Shane Steichen has gotten the most from understudies like QB Gardner Minshew II and RB Zack Moss while his defense has generated pressure and takeaways.

Jacksonville Jaguars (1-2): D

A team widely expected to retain its 2022 AFC South crown has been incrementally worse game to game since its Week 1 escape at Indianapolis. The offensive line, which is missing LT Cam Robinson (PED suspension), has struggled. Last year’s No. 1 pick, OLB Travon Walker, continues to largely be a non-factor. And WR Calvin Ridley isn’t playing like Batman but more like the Robin who feasted opposite Julio Jones in Atlanta. Don’t know what the exchange rate is for wins in London, but maybe a two-week European vacation is just what the Jags need.

Kansas City Chiefs (2-1): B

They’ve had personnel issues – TE Travis Kelce’s Week 1 knee injury, DT Chris Jones’ contract, new RT Jawaan Taylor’s barrage of penalties – which are at least partially responsible for a bit of a sputtering start for a team that usually storms out of the gate. But nothing here that can’t be overcome from a football perspective … and we’d guess they could also survive the wrath of Swifties if Kelce’s budding new romance doesn’t survive autumn.

Las Vegas Raiders (1-2): D

It seems like they’ve been dealing with major issues for months – whether they be injuries, RB Josh Jacobs’ contract, WR Davante Adams’ apparent misgivings in the aftermath of former QB Derek Carr’s departure, HC Josh McDaniels’ bizarre strategizing Sunday, or whatever’s going on with absent DE Chandler Jones. Tough to see much reason for near-term optimism with fragile QB Jimmy Garoppolo already getting beaten up and Jacobs effectively MIA from a production standpoint.

Los Angeles Chargers (1-2): D+

They’re quite likely one fortunate carom from being winless. And despite a second-ranked offense, its inability to execute – or the play calling, whatever the case may be – at the end of games is probably the primary reason the Bolts aren’t 3-0. And HC Brandon Staley’s application of analytics continues to baffle – like going for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 24-yard line with Sunday's game in the balance even when his team had shown no ability to run all game. (The Chargers didn’t convert, but that deflected interception bailed Staley out.) Regardless, LA once again seems to be adding up to less than the sum of its parts.

Los Angeles Rams (1-2): B

Maybe a bit Cardinals-lite, insomuch as they’ve been much more competitive than their roster as a whole might suggest – and especially so given WR Cooper Kupp (hamstring) hasn’t played yet. Yet rookie Puka Nacua and third-year WR Tutu Atwell have been revelations while collectively filling in for Kupp, and a seventh-ranked defense has proven to be far more than Aaron Donald and a bunch of dudes … even if you probably can’t name more than two of them.

Miami Dolphins (3-0): A

In terms of both points scored (43.3 per game) and yardage output (550.3 per game), their offense is a few standard deviations better than the next-best teams – those figures obvious skewed by Sunday’s 70-20 trampling of Denver. And while those numbers surely are not sustainable, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect this track team to stay atop the charts all season. And just imagine how good the Fins might get if LT Terron Armstead, LB Jaelan Phillips, CB Jalen Ramsey and WR Jaylen Waddle get and/or remain healthy, Ramsey (meniscus surgery) hoping to return late in the season. New coordinator Vic Fangio has some defensive issues to iron out, and Miami has to prove it can beat the elite – Buffalo on Sunday? – rather than just blow through the patsies. But HC Mike McDaniel’s team looks locked in for the long haul … assuming QB Tua Tagovailoa remains upright, of course.

Minnesota Vikings (0-3): D+

A 27th-ranked defense is obviously problematic, as are the seven fumbles they’ve already coughed up. But overall, they’ve been highly competitive – they’re simply losing the close shaves they monopolized on the way to the NFC North title last year. Yet this isn’t the same team, several key veterans purged from the roster during the offseason, ostensibly for cap reasons. Still, QB Kirk Cousins is arguably playing as well as he ever has – though bit of a familiar theme where the numbers don’t equate to wins. Still, despite the 99-to-1 odds stacked against them, he could get this thing turned around for a playoff push … or become a valuable bargaining chip in his last season under contract in the Twin Cities.

New England Patriots (1-2): C

Very good defensively. No explosiveness offensively. Probably won’t beat themselves, and Bill Belichick’s brain could always be the difference in a close contest. Pretty much what we thought they’d be – and that probably means not good enough to get back to the postseason.

New Orleans Saints (2-1): B+

If Carr doesn’t injure his throwing shoulder Sunday with his team up 17-0 in the second half at Green Bay, the Saints are very likely 3-0. And while offensive continuity may still be a few weeks off – depending on how much time Carr misses and amid the end of RB Alvin Kamara’s September suspension – New Orleans is once again rocking a top-10 defense, the first Carr has ever played with. Bonus: WR Michael Thomas, whose ability to contribute literally seems like a bonus after so many lost years.

New York Giants (1-2): D+

A surprise wild-card entry in 2022, they’ve basically been no-shows in two of their first three games, albeit against quality opponents (Dallas, San Francisco), and needed their biggest comeback in nearly 75 years to overcome the Cardinals in Week 2. A roster that did not appear appreciably approved from last season ranks near the bottom of most significant statistical categories, has yet to take the ball away (-5 turnover differential) and is maybe learning injured RB Saquon Barkley is as valuable as he thinks he is.

New York Jets (1-2): C-

They lost their most important player, Rodgers, after four snaps to an Achilles tear. The NYJ then showcased what’s still an impressive talent quotient by beating the Bills, one of the league’s premier teams. Yes, they’re getting knocked around now for not having a more effective backup plan than Zach Wilson, but that hardly seems fair. Would things be going that much better in Kansas City, Buffalo or Philadelphia if those teams lost their quarterbacks? There won’t be the long-awaited valedictory here Jets fans had hoped for, but this team still has the personnel to be a factor … and time to pivot to a Plan C QB.

Philadelphia Eagles (3-0): B+

Their roster is as good as anyone’s, though they are incorporating two new coordinators and key contributors like RB D’Andre Swift and several newcomers right down the middle of the defense. The passing game hasn’t clicked, and they’ve surrendered eight TDs through the air – more than anyone save Denver. And yet Philly hasn’t lost and has played better each successive week. The Iggles’ eight takeaways also pace the NFC. Based on the upcoming schedule, it seems the reigning NFC champs are in perfectly good shape and probably don’t really need to hit their stride before Week 7’s visit from the Dolphins.

Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1): B-

Now in his third season, OC Matt Canada has yet to engineer a 400-yard game … however, the attack was more potent in Sunday night’s win at Las Vegas than it had been the first two weeks. But, per usual, it appears Pittsburgh’s calling card will be its defense – and it’s been dominant the past two games despite the ongoing absence of All-Pro DT Cam Heyward (IR/groin). Its No. 28 ranking will doubtless improve, but any time you generate 10 sacks and seven turnovers over two weeks, you’re going to give your struggling offense a chance.

San Francisco 49ers (3-0): A+

They’ve sat atop our power rankings since the games commenced. They’re winning by an average of 16 points a week, and it seems like they’re cruising to those comfortable margins without all that much exertion. Sure, you could nitpick the blocking – which needs to improve to the right of all-universe LT Trent Williams – but it hasn’t stopped RB Christian McCaffrey from leading the league in rushing (353 yards) or the Niners from crafting a fourth-ranked offense while scoring the third-most points through Week 3.

Seattle Seahawks (2-1): B-

A playoff team in 2022, the Seahawks ought to reach that benchmark again given the ability oozing from their depth chart. But getting blown out at home in Week 1 by the Rams set off an alarm bell. And despite the recent draft resources invested into the defense, including the acquisition of S Jamal Adams in 2020, hard to square how that unit ranks 29th overall and in points allowed. The offense is loaded with weaponry, but that probably isn’t going to get Seattle to the promised land given how good the top NFC teams are defensively and overall.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1): B+

They’re minimizing turnovers, QB Baker Mayfield is generally playing with efficiency, the offense is far more balanced than it was last year with now-retired Tom Brady – even if the Bucs still aren’t running effectively – while the defense is manned with studs, even if it was whipped Monday night by the Eagles. The Bucs probably aren’t going to scare you, but they also don’t appear prone to beating themselves – and that might be enough to surprisingly keep them in the mix for a third consecutive NFC South title.

Tennessee Titans (1-2): D+

Much of the core from a team that was the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed in 2021 remains – and that may be the issue. QB Ryan Tannehill and RB Derrick Henry, both on expiring contracts, look like fading players. OLB Harold Landry III hasn’t recaptured his Pro Bowl form following last year’s ACL tear. And WRs DeAndre Hopkins and Treylon Burks, who weren’t members of the 2021 AFC South champs, have made scant impact. Almost always competitive regardless of circumstances, Tennessee was steamrolled in Week 3 by a Browns team that just lost its best offensive player. Continues to be worth wondering if these Titans will be sold off for parts by the trade deadline.

Washington Commanders (2-1): B-

Unsurprisingly, it seems a promising group’s fortunes will rise or fall with second-year QB Sam Howell, who was pretty good the first two weeks but dreadful (4 INTs) in Sunday’s 34-point beatdown from Buffalo. And, as nice as the season-opening wins against Arizona and Denver were, the Commanders will generally be facing much tougher opponents for the balance of their schedule, including Philadelphia in Week 4.


Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on X, formerly Twitter @ByNateDavis.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL team grades for September: Bears get an F, Lions get a B+