|Sophomore-slumping Andy Dalton and the Bengals are on the cusp of falling out of the playoff race. (US Presswire)|
Halfway through the season less than half the NFL is over .500, which means two things: A) There's a lot of mediocre football out there and B) there are a lot of playoff teams still waiting to happen.
Only let's be real: Some teams that should be playoff contenders really aren't, and you know whom I'm talking about. They're the preseason favorites, clubs that had the talent, the favorable schedule, the urgency -- something ... to make it.
Only they're not. They're failures, and halfway through the year it's time to start calling them out. Here then are the teams that once were considered playoff contenders that aren't anymore.
Going, going ...
The schedule was supposed to cut the Bengals slack, giving them a chance to jump to the head of the pack before a difficult second-half of the season. Only one problem: Someone forgot to notify Cincinnati's players. Instead of breezing through the first six games, the Bengals split -- with back-to-back losses to Miami (at home) and Cleveland devastating setbacks. Now, they're on a four-game slide. Call the coroner. I can't get a pulse.
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The good news: The Bengals still have games left with Baltimore and Pittsburgh, the two teams ahead of them in the AFC North, and they don't meet until the last two weeks of the season. In the meantime, there's only one opponent -- the New York Giants -- with a winning record.
The bad: They can't beat the Ravens and Steeelers, losing their last nine to them. Worse, they can't beat anyone with a credible résumé. Dating to last season, they're 0-11 vs. 2011 playoff teams.
The prognosis: Dark and dreary. If the Bengals can't beat Miami at home, how are they going to beat the New York Giants this week? They're not. The Giants play their best football on the road, and the Bengals are stuck in a rut that threatens to make them no better than 8-8. The defense that helped hold this team together a year ago is holding nothing together now, and, yeah, injuries are a factor. But to have Cleveland put up 34 on you? Horrible.
After the Cowboys' latest loss, owner Jerry Jones conceded he was disappointed with the team's offense, and he should be. The Cowboys produced 13 or fewer points in three of their first eight games, they rank 26th in scoring and their quarterback has 15 turnovers by himself. But what about the team, period? It won one playoff game the past 16 years, has only four victories in its past 13 games and hasn't strung together consecutive victories since last November.
The good news: Only one of their remaining eight opponents has a winning record (Pittsburgh), and five of their next seven games are home.
The bad: The Cowboys have no home-field advantage. They're 14-13 at Cowboys Stadium since it opened in 2009. Worse, the team they have to catch in their division -- the New York Giants -- is off the schedule. The two already played each other twice.
Forecast: Gloomy. It's not over ... not yet ... for Dallas, but the Cowboys are on a respirator. Their offense can't move. They commit too many penalties. They miss tackles they shouldn't. The play-calling is suspect. The game-management is suspect. And their quarterback makes too many mistakes. In short, this is a so-so team going nowhere, and here's how I know: Only two teams in the NFC -- Carolina and New Orleans -- have fewer wins. Jason Garrett is 16-16 since taking over, and he better pick up the pace. Neither Jones nor Dallas fans will stand for mediocrity.
The Saints are this year's biggest story, but not because of what they do on the field. Nope, it's because Bountygate just won't go away -- unlike the Saints' defense, which has been MIA all season. New Orleans was supposed to have enough talent to overcome the loss of its head coach, but then the season began, and it got waxed in succession by Washington, Carolina and Kansas City. That's when reality set in, and the reality is this: These guys just aren't very good, and I guess we shouldn't be surprised. No Super Bowl host ever played in the game, and that streak is safe.
The good news: Through the first eight weeks, Drew Brees had more touchdown passes (20) than everyone but Aaron Rodgers.
The bad: You're still required to play defense in the NFL. Unfortunately, nobody in New Orleans got that memo. The Saints aren't just bad; they're historically bad, allowing 474 yards per game and 7.42 yards on first downs. Nobody scored fewer than 24 on them, and three opponents put up 34 or more. Bottom line: It doesn't matter who coaches this team. Without a defense, the Saints are doomed.
Prognosis: Batten down the hatches. The Saints are toast. Brees can set all the records he wants; it doesn't matter when you have a defense that leaks like the S.S. Minnow. They're already five-and-a-half games down to Atlanta, which means the NFC South race isn't a race at all. It's a game of solitaire. OK, so the Saints are alive for a wild card, and anything's possible. But tell me how you like the Saints' chances when Carolina is the only team in the NFC with fewer victories.
New York Jets
The Jets are 3-5 but could be ... should be ... 2-6, and thank you, Dan Carpenter. Anyway, they lost their best player -- who also happens to be their best defensive player -- and they lost their most dangerous offensive weapon. That doesn't leave much wiggle room, and it shows. The Jets rank 27th in offense, 16th in defense and 21st in scoring. Worse, dating back to 2011, they lost eight of their last 11 and haven't won consecutive games a three-game streak from Nov. 27, 2011, to Dec. 11, 2011. Critics charge it's time for change, and that Tim Tebow's the answer. Only he's not. Nobody can rescue these guys because ... well, because the talent just isn't there.
The good news: Only two of its remaining opponents (Seattle and New England) have winning records.
The bad: Four of the Jets' next six games are on the road, including Seattle (where the Seahawks are 4-0) and St. Louis (where the Rams are 3-1, and, no, I don't count London).
Forecast: Threatening. It was at the February Combine that coach Rex Ryan promised to stop guaranteeing Super Bowls, and smart man. He must've known what was ahead. Bad enough that quarterback Mark Sanchez has to carry an offense woefully short of playmakers, but the defense that once was so reliable has sprung leaks, allowing 23 or more points in four of the past five games and 59 in the past two. Critics wonder what's wrong with Sanchez, but Sanchez isn't the problem; the Jets are the problem. There just aren't enough playmakers here to do much of anything but sink in the AFC East.
Still there ... but barely
When the Lions had to rally to beat St. Louis in the last 10 seconds of the season opener ... at home, no less ... you knew we were looking at a different club than the one that reached the 2011 playoffs. And we are. The Lions are dead-flat ordinary, with Calvin Johnson reduced to one TD, turnovers galore and Matthew Stafford forced to shoulder the load. OK, so some things never change. The problem these guys have is the division where they play. There are two better teams, and one of them has three fewer losses.
The good news: Sunday's rout of Jacksonville was the first game this season where the Lions didn't have a turnover. That's good. Plus, they found a running back in Mikel Leshoure. That's better. Detroit was 5-1 with Jahvid Best in the lineup last year; 5-6 without him. Then there's the second-half schedule. Five of the Lions' last seven games are home. That's best.
The bad: Five of their last eight starts are vs. opponents with winning records, including Green Bay twice. So what: So they lost 12 of their past 13 to the Packers and eight of the past nine to the Bears.
Forecast: Grey and overcast. The Lions could be on the verge of making a second-half run, but there's something that keeps bothering me, and that something is this: Since starting 5-0 last season, they're 9-11, or a mediocre ballclub, and that won't cut it in the NFC North where you have two of the league's top five clubs.
Thankfully, no one proclaimed this year's Eagles a "dream team," but quarterback Michael Vick came close -- saying before the season that he thought the Eagles were beginning to build a dynasty. Someone should remind him that dynasties don't involve clubs that haven't won a playoff game in three seasons.
Philadelphia is one of the season's biggest disappointments, but coach Andy Reid has been here before. There was that 2008 season when he was 5-5-1, benched Donovan McNabb in Baltimore, tied lowly Cincinnati and was supposed to be headed for the next Realtor. Only he and the Eagles wound up in the conference championship game. Something similar will be necessary to shake up a team that seems flawed and flat. I don't care how many players-only meetings they have; if the Eagles don't start playing smart, efficient and successful football it's all over for Reid and Vick.
The good news: The Eagles are only one loss behind the front-running New York Giants in the NFC East and beat the defending Super Bowl champions the only time the two met this season. Now look at the bigger picture: There's only one opponent left with a winning record, and that's the Giants and Philadelphia doesn't meet them until the season finale.
The bad: Where an underachieving offense once was the problem, now you have a defense that looked positively dreadful in its debut under new coordinator Todd Bowles. The Eagles scored more than 19 points only twice this season, largely because Vick can't stop committing turnovers (he has 13) or avoid brutal hits. The more you watch these guys the more you begin to get the idea that it doesn't matter whom the Eagles play; their biggest obstacles is themselves.
Forecast: Menacing. Fans in Philadelphia aren't happy unless they have something to complain about, and there's plenty of material here. The offense is floundering. The defense can't make critical stops. The special teams have been a disappointment. The coach is under fire. The quarterback is under fire. The owner is under fire. In short, it's a miserable situation. But look at that schedule, and tell me these guys can't dig themselves out -- because they can. But it's not their opponents that's the issue. It's the Eagles themselves.
So the Chargers wallop Kansas City, and we're supposed to believe they're back on track? Please. I've seen this picture before. The Chargers are the Philadelphia Eagles of the AFC, a club that can't get out of its way. Only three teams have more turnovers, and most people want to blame quarterback Philip Rivers. But Rivers doesn't have a supporting cast to help him shoulder the load, and never was that more apparent than in the second half of a historic meltdown vs. Denver where he had five turnovers in two quarters -- with two returned for touchdowns. All I know is that San Diego better start closing games as it did vs. Kansas City and not as it did vs. Cleveland ... or Denver ... or New Orleans ... when it couldn't produce a fourth-quarter point. Otherwise, the next loss will be the head coach.
The good news: We're into the second half of the season, and the Chargers are only a game behind front-running Denver in the AFC West. There aren't many teams better than San Diego after we get to November, with the Bolts 32-12 under Norv Turner and 21-3 in December and January.
The bad: They're trying to catch a Denver team has one remaining opponent (Baltimore) with a winning record. San Diego must play the Broncos in two weeks, but let's be honest: What chance would you give them after blowing a 24-0 halftime lead at home? Yeah? Me, too. That game kicks off a brutal four-week stretch that includes the Broncos, Baltimore and Pittsburgh and that, in all likelihood, determines what happens to the Bolts and their head coach.
Forecast: Cold and gray. I know the Chargers make late-season runs, but it might be too late this time around. They blew games to New Orleans and Denver that they should've won; then they couldn't score a frickin' touchdown in Cleveland. That is not a team I trust. OK, so it put up 31 on Kansas City. That's Kansas City. Let's see what happens this weekend in Tampa Bay. The Chargers must demonstrate they're reliable in some area other than self-immolation.