So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of last season’s playoff squads are struggling, but the ways in which some of them lost 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.
(I’m 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 while also thriving in 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 playoff squads? I ranked them from most cause for concern to least.
1. Los Angeles Chargers
But the past two weeks have exposed so many problems. Start with the players who have missed time. 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 during his holdout, and wait five weeks to get tight end Hunter Henry back 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. The receiving corps has been banged up. Quarterback Philip Rivers is struggling in the red zone, and the offense is averaging 20 points 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 after losing three straight there and have had more opposing fans at their games than Chargers 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 lost three straight and have fallen into third in the NFC West. More concerning is how the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers have caught up to them after they were in such a dominant position in the division.
The 49ers totally neutralized Sean McVay’s offense in Sunday’s 20-7 victory at Los Angeles Coliseum. McVay still hasn’t found answers to the problems that defenses have caused for the Rams since the Detroit Lions put up a six-man defensive front against them in 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 per game.
On Sunday, the 49ers primarily used a four-man rush to limit the Rams to 109 meaningless rushing yards and held Jared Goff to 13-for-24 passing for 78 yards. Todd Gurley was out with a groin injury, but when healthy he has struggled in pass protection, and he hasn’t had more than 16 carries in a 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 the competitive NFC North, in which 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’s slate is much tougher. The offensive line has struggled, and quarterback Mitchell Trubisky was up and down before suffering a shoulder 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 Sunday night. The loser will drop to 3-4. That’s a problem, because both teams face daunting stretches of their schedules over the next month — 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 defensive line.
For the Cowboys, the answer appears to be simple: They were overhyped. They started the season 3-0 against teams that have a combined record of 3-14. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore was able to get away with more creative plays than the offense had seen in years because the defenses Dallas faced weren’t any good. The Cowboys are averaging fewer than 19 points during their three-game losing streak after averaging more than 32 in their first three games. Injuries at offensive tackle haven’t helped, and the defense, which is talented, is simply giving up too many yards and points.
This is the third straight year the Cowboys are 3-3 after six games under Coach Jason Garrett, who is in the final year of his contract.
Around the NFL
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 Bowl wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. 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 beat the Buccaneers, 37-26, in London to win his fourth consecutive start. Newton is 0-8 in his past 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 II mania, but it’s close. Pittsburgh’s rookie third-string quarterback only threw the ball farther 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 putting 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.