Yesterday, I ran through the league’s eight divisional leaders and tried to figure out which of them were most likely to hold on to their spots over the 11 weeks to come. Sorry for jinxing you, Colts and Patriots.
Today, I’m going to run through the opposite side of the spectrum. There are 20 teams on the outside of the NFL playoff picture that need to make some hay over the next 11 weeks to find themselves playing meaningful football in January. There’s plenty of time for them to do so, of course; I mentioned yesterday that the Panthers and Chargers were each below .500 after Week 6 last year, but the duo combined to finish 17-5 and make the playoffs.
There’s probably another sub-.500 playoff team lurking in the NFL right now. Let’s see if we can find it. I’m going to run through those 20 teams in descending order of (my estimate of) their playoff chances. These aren’t power rankings, since playoff possibilities depend upon things unrelated to a team’s level of play, like their future schedule and the records of the other teams in their division.
For reference, the 12 teams that hold playoff spots through the end of Week 6 are seeded below:
You won’t be surprised to see that the list starts with winless teams and goes from there …
32. Oakland Raiders (0-5)
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (0-6)
Well, it would be unprecedented. No NFL team has ever made the playoffs after starting 0-5, and only one team — the 1992 Chargers1 — has made the playoffs after an 0-4 start.
They were a classic regression-toward-the-mean team, by the way. The 1991 Chargers went 2-8 in games decided by a score or less and underperformed their Pythagorean expectation by 1.9 wins; the 1992 Chargers then followed their 0-4 start with an 11-1 finish to win the AFC West.
Neither of these teams has a prayer unless its rookie quarterback gets incredibly hot, but there’s a simpler way to think about it. The Jaguars are one injured quarterback (Andrew Luck) away from having their division thrown into chaos. The Raiders need two (Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning) or perhaps even three (Alex Smith) quarterbacks ahead of them to suddenly get the yips to open up their path to the AFC West. Unless Steve Blass disease is contagious, these two are probably already looking toward 2015.
30. St. Louis Rams (1-4)
The Rams are about three drives away from 4-1; replace those late-game interceptions by Austin Davis against the Cowboys and 49ers with scores, and sneak in one more big play late in the fourth quarter against the Eagles, and we’re talking about the Rams as a stunning sleeper team. The margin between wild success and routine disappointment is just that thin in the NFL.
The Rams are now three games back of the Cardinals with the 49ers and Seahawks between them; it’s almost impossible to imagine them winning a cheap division title at 8-8 or 9-7, and they’ll almost surely need 10 wins or more to come up with a wild-card berth, meaning they have to go 9-2 over their next 11 games. It’s possible, I guess, just not very likely.
Monday night’s broadcast touched on the fact that the Rams have reached a staggering low in the one place they were expected to dominate in 2014. It was reasonable to suggest before the season that the Rams would have the best pass rush in football; they returned arguably the best pair of ends in football in Chris Long and Robert Quinn, spent a first-round pick on a devastating interior pass-rusher in Aaron Donald, and hired blitzing wizard Gregg Williams to run their defense.
That hasn’t happened. Through five games, the Rams have just one sack. One. They’re not even just the worst pass rush in football. They’re the least-productive pass rush in recorded history. Since the league started tracking sacks as an official stat in 1982, every team managed to record at least two sacks through its first five games until these Rams came along. They lost Long to short-term IR after Week 1, but Quinn has zero takedowns after producing 19 sacks last year. Donald, the promising rookie, has the team’s only sack, a takedown of Josh McCown in Week 2. That probably shouldn’t even count.
You have to wonder whether Williams was the right hire. Robert Mays and I fretted before the year that Williams would try to implement exotic pressures with a defense that was built to rush the passer with its front four, but nobody could have imagined it would be this ineffective. ESPN Stats & Information notes that the Rams have blitzed opposing quarterbacks on 44.5 percent of their dropbacks, the second-highest rate in football. A year ago, when the Rams sacked opposing quarterbacks on 9.2 percent of their (the third-highest rate in football), they blitzed on 32.7 percent of dropbacks, which was just above the league average of 31.8 percent.
To put this sack drought in context, if you believed that the true expectation for the Rams’ sack rate in 2014 was that 9.2 percent figure from a year ago, the chances they would have one sack or fewer on their opponent’s first 143 pass dropbacks are 66,828-to-1, or 0.001 percent. Hell, even if you thought they weren’t any better than the league’s worst pass rush from a year ago and assign them the 5.2 percent sack rate produced by the Philadelphia Eagles, the chances they would go 1-for-143 or worse is still 244-to-1. They’ll get better, but given the talent involved, this might be the worst sack drought in NFL history.
29. Washington (1-5)
It was only three weeks ago that Washington was 1-1 and in possession of a 76 percent win expectancy over the Eagles with 11 minutes remaining. From there, it unraveled pretty quickly; that drive ended in a shanked field goal, a memorable fistfight ensued on the next play, the Eagles drove down the field for a touchdown, Kirk Cousins threw a pick on the first play of the next possession, and that was that. Washington lost that game and each of its next three, and the Cousins experience has improved on the original model without solving the turnover bug:
The Eagles and Giants both hold tiebreakers over Washington, and with those losses, it will be tough for Washington to catch up.
Washington has come back from the dead before; it started 3-6 in 2012 before winning its final seven games after the bye to lock up the NFC East. It is also 4-18 since then. I thought Washington could sneak to the top of the division if Robert Griffin stayed (mostly) healthy and the pass rush overwhelmed the opposition; even with Ryan Kerrigan playing well, Washington’s been a mess.
28. New York Jets (1-5)
It’s hard for a team to be all in by Week 7, but the Jets might already be done, and they’ll almost certainly be finished if they can’t come up with a victory against the Patriots on Thursday night. A loss in Foxborough would leave the Jets four games back with 10 to play and the tiebreaker leaning in New England’s favor, which certainly seems insurmountable for a team as erratic as these Jets.
I don’t think the Jets are going to win Thursday, but I should point out that it wouldn’t be unprecedented. The Patriots are 9.5-point favorites at home. They were also 9.5-point favorites when the Jets traveled to New England in the 2010 playoffs, only for Rex Ryan & Co. to come away with a 28-21 victory. The Jets also took the Patriots to overtime before losing by a field goal as 10.5-point underdogs in 2012 and lost by a field goal in regulation as 11.5-point underdogs in Week 2 last year. We expect a blowout, and that’s not unreasonable given how the two teams have played, but it’s far from guaranteed.
And hey, if the Jets were to win, they would be right back in it. They would be two games back of the 4-3 Patriots at 2-5 with the tiebreaker in hand. A win could galvanize the team and turn around its season.
27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-5)
The Buccaneers have a point differential of minus-84, which is 35 points worse than anybody else in the NFC. And sure, most of that comes from two games, the 42-point loss to the Falcons and the 31-point defeat at the hands of Joe Flacco and the Ravens on Sunday. That’s true.
You know what? That’s still brutal. They lost by 42 points to a Falcons team that is 2-4. They let Flacco throw for five touchdown passes before afternoon nap time. Even their close losses have come to teams quarterbacked by Derek Anderson and Austin Davis. And a three-point win over the Steelers isn’t exactly something to write home about these days.
A report before Sunday’s blowout loss to the Ravens suggested that the Buccaneers were having trouble learning Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 defense, which is a hard sell, given that the defense is named after Tampa Bay because Tony Dungy taught it to this very same franchise in the mid-’90s. I understand that these players weren’t around then, but you figure there would be a page or two of the old playbook floating around or a stray pattern-matching concept painted onto a bathroom wall or something.
They’ll continue to learn Smith’s defense, and they’re still just 2.5 games out of first place in a wide-open NFC South, but this has not been an impressive football team at any point in 2014, Gerald McCoy aside.
26. Minnesota Vikings (2-4)
Losing your franchise player after one week, as it turns out, is not a recipe for success. The Vikings are the anti-Browns as a team that only really plays blowouts; they have double-digit wins over the Falcons and Rams and double-digit losses to the Lions, Packers, Saints, and Patriots.
The good news is that there’s still a lot of young talent percolating and developing here, so even if they’re a year away, it’s not the end of the world. The Vikings also get a relatively easy stretch over the next three weeks, as they travel to Buffalo and Tampa Bay and host Washington before their Week 10 bye. If they can go 3-0 or even 2-1 during that stretch, they’ll have something to play for during a post-bye run that includes a three-game homestand and four games against the NFC North.
I don’t think the Vikings will make the playoffs, but they have the sort of schedule and ability to leap forward in terms of young talent that makes their path more plausible than others.
25. Tennessee Titans (2-4)
How do the words “holding on for dear life against the Jaguars” sound to you? If you’re a Titans fan, they sound like the sweet caress of victory. After a four-game losing streak, I can’t really blame Tennessee fans for being happy with a win over anybody, regardless of how it arrived. It took two red zone takeaways and a blocked field goal from 55 yards out with 12 seconds left to seal Tennessee’s first win since it blew out the Chiefs in Week 1.
It’s hard to see the Titans as a serious contender, given that they’re stuck cycling through highly questionable quarterbacks and have Ken Whisenhunt arguing that their expensively assembled offensive line needs an undetermined amount of time to jell.2 At 2-4, though, they’re just two games out of first place in the AFC South. Their schedule’s going to be easy the rest of the way, so even if they’re not a great team, more 16-14 squeakers could be on the horizon.
Yes, they just replaced the injured Michael Roos with first-round pick Taylor Lewan at left tackle, but as Paul Kuharsky noted, the interior of the line has been together for 15 games now. At the very least, they should look like they’re working in lockstep. And they’re not.
24. Miami Dolphins (2-3)
23. Buffalo Bills (3-3)
The Bills are ahead of Miami in the standings by virtue of their win in hand, and they beat the Dolphins comfortably in Week 2, but I think they’re basically neck-and-neck in terms of playoff hopes in the AFC East. Indeed, Bovada has their chances of winning the division at an identical +900. For both, their best chance of making the playoffs appears to be a Patriots collapse, as it’s difficult to imagine either of these teams getting to 10 wins.
I’d give the slightest edge to the Bills, if only because they’ve already played the Chargers, which the Dolphins will do in Week 9. The Bills need to reestablish themselves as a good team soon, though, because things get awful in December. They have three road games over the final four weeks, and while they get to play the Raiders, their other three matchups are against the Patriots, Broncos, and Packers. Anything can happen in the NFL, but if the Bills are anything worse than 8-4 heading into that final month, their hopes would be dim.
22. New York Giants (3-3)
The Giants don’t have an impressive win on their record, with victories over teams that are a combined 6-12. Their best single-game performance might actually have been in Week 2, when they outplayed Arizona for most of the game before drops and unforced errors handed the game to Drew Stanton & Co. on a silver platter.
Against Arizona, Detroit, and Philadelphia, the Giants are 0-3 and have been outscored by 59 points. And over their next five games, they get the Colts, 49ers, Seahawks, and a pair of matchups against the Cowboys. Those teams are a combined 16-7. Sure, if they’re still standing after that five-game run, they finish up with the Jaguars, Titans, Washington, and the Rams before hosting Philly in Week 17, so if they could even win two of their next five games, they could make a run against four of the worst teams in football.
With Dallas and Philly already at 5-1, though, a nine-win season from the Giants might not be enough, even if they were able to get there.
21. Kansas City Chiefs (2-3)
The Chiefs would rate higher in a pure power rankings approach, given that they have comfortable victories over New England and Miami and narrow losses to good teams in Denver and San Francisco. This is a very competent football team, regardless of how bad it looked against Tennessee at home to start the year.
Unfortunately for Andy Reid & Co., the Chiefs are stuck in an extremely tough division and have a difficult schedule to come. On a much-needed bye this week, the Chiefs come back to play the Chargers in San Diego. After that, they still have a home game against the Chargers, one more against the Broncos, and out-of-division tilts against Seattle and Arizona. They have to win at least one of those games to have any prayer of coming away with a wild-card spot, and that would be assuming they sweep their other six games against inferior competition. If they slip up even once against the Jets, Bills, Rams, Steelers, or in their pair of games against the Raiders, the season’s probably done.
20. Atlanta Falcons (2-4)
Atlanta got off to a promising start, but a three-point win over the Saints and a blowout victory over the Buccaneers both seem less special now than they did in September. Atlanta’s four losses have each been by double digits, and it might have one of the worst pass defenses in football. It has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 65.5 percent of their passes while averaging 8.6 yards per attempt, which isn’t too far off from Peyton Manning’s rate stats (66.5 percent completion percentage, 8.0 yards per attempt) this year.
The saving grace is, of course, the NFC South. For all of their problems, the Falcons are just 1.5 games out of first place, and they already hold a 2-0 divisional record, which will help immensely in tiebreakers as the season goes along. The Chiefs are a better team than the Falcons, but they have virtually no chance of winning their division and will likely need a minimum of nine, probably 10 wins to claim a wild-card berth. It’s not crazy to imagine the Falcons winning the NFC South at 8-8. That’s a huge advantage for Atlanta.
19. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3)
It’s even better if you’re Pittsburgh, as the Steelers can afford to be the worst team in the AFC North and still have a very viable path toward a playoff berth, starting with their impending three-game homestand against the Texans, Colts, and Ravens before road trips to play the Jets and Titans. They could enter their Week 12 bye at anywhere from 3-8 to 8-3; they should be narrow favorites or slight underdogs in each of those five contests. Flip a coin five times and you can guess what the Steelers will look like by their bye.
My best guess is they hit that bye at 5-6. It’s not clear the Steelers are much of a team this year. Steelers devotees will undoubtedly point to their 18-point victory over the Panthers, one of the most impressive road victories of the year, and I wouldn’t blame them. It was an excellent performance. It also sticks out like a sore thumb on their résumé, which otherwise consists of two narrow wins over questionable teams (Cleveland and Jacksonville), two blowout losses (Cleveland and Baltimore), and an embarrassing home defeat at the hands of Tampa Bay. They won’t need to be a great or even a good team to beat the Titans, Jets, and Texans, but it would sure help.
18. Cleveland Browns (3-2)
Currently in the middle of the softest stretch in their season, the Browns are on a two-game winning streak and still have Jacksonville, Oakland, and Tampa Bay to come over the next three weeks. The schedule gets a little tougher after that, but it’s far from impossible to imagine the Browns hitting the middle of November at 6-2. 6-2! The Browns! The last time the Browns made it to 6-2 or better was when Bill Belichick was coaching this team in 1994. That seems like a lifetime ago, right? Well, the last time the Browns started 6-2 or better before that was during Jim Brown’s final season with the team, in 1965. Hell, the Browns haven’t topped six wins in a 16-game season since 2007.
Mike Pettine’s bunch have been better than Pittsburgh so far; they have four close games that came down to one drive and their blowout victory over the Steelers last week. They also have an early Thanksgiving present that the Steelers don’t: Josh Gordon, who is eligible to return in Week 11. Their schedule ends with a relatively tough stretch against Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Carolina, and Baltimore, but even if Gordon needs a week or two to adjust from the rigors of everyday life as a car salesman, he should be ramped up and ready for that four-game slate.
17. Chicago Bears (3-3)
When Mays can’t figure out the Bears, I’m downright hopeless. What would you make of this team, a group that has lost to the Bills at home and beaten the 49ers on the road in consecutive weeks? They got back on track with a win over the Falcons in Atlanta on Sunday, but after playing the Dolphins this weekend, they’ll play consecutive road games against the Patriots and Packers, split by a bye. They’re well-positioned to compete for a wild-card spot and still have a lot to say about the division with five NFC North games still to go, but check back in on these Bears in four weeks.
16. Houston Texans (3-3)
The Texans have thrown away a 3-1 start with sloppy play over the past two weeks; they were a drive away from beating both the Cowboys and Colts, which would have given them a commanding push toward a playoff spot at 5-1. Now, they’re back at .500 and down a game on the Colts, needing to win at Indy in Week 15 to claw back that head-to-head tiebreaker to a draw.
Houston is not a great football team. It has a few stars and an incandescent monster in J.J. Watt, mixed with a bunch of subpar starters who make mental mistakes and blow basic assignments. Getting Jadeveon Clowney back soon should help a lot, as should playing four games against the Titans and Jaguars.
They also have four more games to play against the AFC North, including this Monday night at Pittsburgh. The second-place team in the AFC West appears to be locked into one wild-card spot, leaving the Texans competing against the rest of the AFC North for the other slot. Any wins they could compile against future competition for the sixth seed, if only for tiebreaking purposes, would have outsize value.
15. New Orleans Saints (2-3)
If you’re a Saints fan, you hope Rob Ryan did something during the bye to stop this defense’s bleeding. Jairus Byrd is gone and wasn’t especially effective while he was around, so somewhat oddly, losing one of their most expensive players shouldn’t matter. Losing Jimmy Graham for two to three weeks to a shoulder injury should matter much more.
Even if the Saints are still flawed, though, they can win in a rapidly decaying NFC South. They’ve been one of football’s biggest disappointments and they’re somehow just 1.5 games off the division lead. My one concern is the schedule, which resumes with Detroit and stays tough. Green Bay, Carolina, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Baltimore wrap up one of the toughest six-week stretches any team will face all year. The Saints will probably look better after the bye, but then again, so will the teams they face.
14. Seattle Seahawks (3-2)
13. Green Bay Packers (4-2)
We finish up with the two teams that kicked off the 2014 season in Seattle, both of whom are surprisingly out of the playoff picture at the moment. I don’t think that will last, and I suspect I’m not the only one. The Packers are tied with the Lions and are only out because Detroit holds the tiebreaker after beating Green Bay in Week 3. Given that Green Bay will host the rematch between the teams in Week 17, I’m picking the Packers to win the NFC North until the Lions establish a multi-game lead. With Calvin Johnson out and the Detroit offense floundering, it’s more likely the Packers will just take over first place sooner rather than later.
Seattle makes for a more curious problem. It’s struggling with injuries from Sunday’s loss to the Cowboys, with Byron Maxwell out for a few weeks with a high ankle sprain, Bobby Wagner out indefinitely with a turf toe, and Russell Okung playing through a painful torn labrum in his shoulder. They’ve yet to put together an impressive win since beating these very Packers in Week 1, and they’ve been comprehensively outplayed in their losses to the Chargers and Cowboys. Has the rest of the league caught up to the Seahawks?
Not really. Even if you don’t want to give them credit for being quite as good as they were a year ago, the Seahawks can still deliver one of the deepest rosters in football on a weekly basis, leaving them better equipped to deal with injury problems. (Remember that injuries and suspensions to their other cornerbacks opened up a door for Maxwell last year.) Russell Wilson will also be fine; his 47.6 passer rating against the Cowboys was the worst single-game figure he’s posted since his Week 7 loss to the 49ers during his rookie campaign, but he also put up stinkers last year and recovered. There were no hangover effects from his subpar days against the Texans (49.7 passer rating) and Cardinals (49.6), and a couple of weeks later, both losses were forgotten.
The problem for the Seahawks is that there’s a lot to navigate in the NFC wild-card race. As currently constructed, it looks like there will be four teams competing for two wild-card spots: the second-place team in the East (currently the Cowboys), the second- and third-place teams in the West (49ers and Seahawks), and the second-place team in the North (Packers). Throw in the divisional winners and it’ll be seven teams competing for five playoff spots, with the South unlikely to produce a wild-card team. A couple of very good teams are going to miss out. Right now, the Seahawks are one of them. I don’t think that’ll be the case in January, but after their postseason berth looked like a foregone conclusion for just about the entirety of 2013, the Seahawks still have to clear a path to that comfortable playoff spot in 2014.