In the NFL, playoff teams turn over every season. In fact, since the league went to a 12-team postseason format in 1990, at least four teams have replaced playoff teams from the previous season every year, and over the past decade, the average has been five.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of last season’s playoff squads are struggling in the early part of the 2019 season, but the ways in which some of them lost on Sunday were cause for alarm.
Seven of last year’s postseason teams appear to be solidly in playoff contention, if not bona fide Super Bowl contenders: the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks, Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans and even the Andrew Luck-less Indianapolis Colts.
(We’re giving the Chiefs a pass, for now, despite back-to-back home losses to the Colts and Texans, who found a way to slow Patrick Mahomes. Defenses are matching up more in man-to-man coverage against Kansas City, and Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson burned the Chiefs’ porous run defense as well as through the passing game Sunday. Still, the Chiefs are clearly the most talented AFC West team and will win the division. Coach Andy Reid will find a way to run the ball better and make life easier for Mahomes.)
But what about the remaining five? We ranked them from most cause for concern, to least.
1. Los Angeles Chargers
They dropped to 2-4 after a Sunday night loss to a Pittsburgh Steelers team starting its rookie third-string quarterback — a stunning fall for a team that was 12-4 a season ago, averaging 27 points per game and allowing just 20.
But the past two weeks have exposed so many problems. First, you start with the injuries. You can’t expect to lose left tackle Russell Okung, center Mike Pouncey and safety Derwin James to injuries, miss halfback Melvin Gordon for four games with a holdout and wait for five weeks to get back tight end Hunter Henry from a knee injury and expect a repeat of a 12-win season.
The Trent Scott-Sam Tevi tandem at offensive tackle isn’t working out. The receiving corps has been banged up. Rivers is struggling in the red zone and the offense is averaging 20 points a game and has been shut out in the first half of the past two games.
To make matters worse, the Chargers are 1-3 at home with a three-game losing streak and have had more opposing fans at their games than Charger fans. The AFC provides more opportunity to catch up in the playoff race than the NFC does, but the Chargers have reason to worry.
2. Los Angeles Rams
After a 3-0 start, the Rams have fallen to third place in the NFC West and are on a three-game losing streak. More concerning is how the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers have caught up to them after they had such a position of dominance in the division.
The 49ers totally neutralized Sean McVay’s offense in Sunday’s 20-7 victory at the Coliseum. McVay still hasn’t found answers to the problems defenses have caused for them since the Detroit Lions put up a six-man defensive front against them last year in early December — a model the Patriots replicated in their Super Bowl victory. Take away the running attack, and you take away the key to an offense that can score more than 30 points a game.
On Sunday, the 49ers primarily used a four-man rush to limit the Rams to 109 meaningless yards rushing and held Jared Goff to 13 of 24 passing for 78 yards. Todd Gurley was out with a groin injury, but when healthy he’s been bad in pass-blocking and hasn’t had more than 16 carries in any game this year.
The Rams clearly look like the third-best team in their division — something no one would have expected even three weeks ago.
3. Chicago Bears
At 3-2, the Bears are still in a strong position to make the playoffs, but they have to worry about how competitive the NFC North is this year, with all four teams having winning records. The Green Bay Packers really improved their pass rush with the additions of Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith, and of course, they have Aaron Rodgers at quarterback.
Chicago feasted on the league’s easiest schedule during last year’s 12-4 campaign, but this year it has one of the four toughest schedules in the league. The offensive line has struggled and quarterback Mitchell Trubisky was up and down before suffering a clavicle injury. The Bears could have a tough time earning a Wild-Card spot if the Packers run away with the division title.
4. Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles (tie)
I put these two teams together because they are both 3-3 and face each other next Sunday night. The loser will drop to 3-4. That’s a problem, because the combined records of their next six opponents are 22-8 — meaning the team that doesn’t win the NFC East could have a hard time earning a Wild-Card bid.
For the Eagles, the biggest problem is injuries, particularly on defense. Starting cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Avonte Maddox are hurt and cornerbacks Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones have been inconsistent in coverage. They are thin at linebacker and banged up along the offensive line.
For the Cowboys, the answer appears to be simple: We’ve overhyped them. They started the season 3-0 against teams that had combined records of 3-14. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore was able to get away with more creative plays than this offense has seen in years because the defenses they faced weren’t any good. Over the recent three-game losing streak, the Cowboys are averaging 19 points a game, after averaging 32 the first three games. Injuries at offensive tackle haven’t helped, and the defense, which is very talented, is simply giving up too many yards and points.
This is the third straight year the Cowboys are 3-3 after six weeks under Coach Jason Garrett, who is in the final year of his contract.
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It’s easy to see why the Cleveland Browns are 2-4. I was on their sideline for their 32-28 loss to Seattle, and it’s clear that they are their own worst enemy. They suffer way too many self inflicted wounds on offense. Maybe it’s unfair, but much of that points back to first-year coach Freddie Kitchens.
The offensive line, which isn’t good, commits too many penalties that put Baker Mayfield into tough down-and-distance situations. Pass-catching has been inconsistent despite having Pro Bowlers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry on the team. Balls keep bouncing off the hands of Cleveland pass catchers and into the hands of defenders.
Cleveland has a bye week followed by a road game at New England followed by a schedule that gets much more manageable in the second half. With team owner Jimmy Haslam being at recent practices, you have to wonder if Kitchens will make it to a second season.
The hot seat just got hotter for Atlanta Falcons Coach Dan Quinn. The Falcons are 1-5 after a 34-33 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. While a coaching change might not happen in the next week, something could happen by their bye in Week 9. The Falcons have home games coming up against the Rams and the Seahawks. The defense is giving up more than 30 points a game.
After six weeks, Russell Wilson is the league MVP. He is carrying a team that is still figuring things out on defense to a 5-1 start. On Sunday, he patiently brought the team from behind to win at Cleveland. He’s completing 72.5 percent of his passes for 1,704 yards and has 14 touchdown passes and no interceptions.
It’s becoming clearer there will be QB changes in Carolina, Tampa Bay and Tennessee. With Cam Newton out with a foot injury, Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen won his fourth consecutive start in London to beat the Buccaneers, 37-26. Newton is 0-8 in his last eight starts. In a 16-0 loss to the Denver Broncos, Titans QB Marcus Mariota was benched in favor of Ryan Tannehill. Jameis Winston threw five interceptions and had a lost fumble in the loss to Carolina, bringing his career total to 87 turnovers. Odds are narrowing for Mariota and Winston getting contract extensions. They are free agents after this year.
The “Duck” Devlin Hodges story isn’t quite Gardner Minshew mania, but it’s close. Pittsburgh’s rookie third-string QB only threw the ball further than 10 yards downfield twice all game, but he was nonetheless impressive in a 24-17 win over the Chargers. The smart coaching move was moving him into the pistol formation on occasion, and letting the running game do the heavy lifting.
On the broadcast, NBC estimated that roughly 80 percent of the fans in L.A.’s stadium were Pittsburgh supporters. On the season, road teams are 51-40-1 leaguewide. The NFC continues to dominate interconference play with a 19-10 record, even after the New York Jets’ win over Dallas.