|One of these teams isn't likely to make the playoffs, and it's not the Falcons. (US Presswire)|
So Philadelphia Eagles' fans are angry again. What's new? Every year they find something to complain about. If they're not calling for the firing of the head coach, it's the benching of the quarterback or the overhaul of the franchise ... and sometimes all three. Only this time there's something different about their rants.
We're only four games into the season.
Normally, that's too early for warts to appear on their favorite franchise, but there's nothing normal about what's going on in Philadelphia. The so-called "Dream Team" looks less like a dream and more like a full-blown migraine, flushing three straight games to sink to the bottom of the NFC East.
Yes, the Eagles are troubled, but, no, they're not alone. Over half of last year's playoff field is lurching out of the gate, though perennial playoff participant Indianapolis gets a pass for one very obvious reason.
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At least the Colts have an excuse. The rest of these guys? They have problems. Some are in more trouble than others, and, yeah, I know, there's time for all to extricate themselves. Except all won't.
Over the last 15 years the NFL has at least five new playoff teams each season, and it's beginning to look as if 2011 will be no different. If these clubs don't shape up, it won't.
The record: 1-3
The problem: People will tell you it's Michael Vick; that the Eagles ... or officials ... need to protect him better. But Vick isn't the issue, and neither is his offensive line. Defense is. Defense has been the heart and soul of this ballclub under Andy Reid, and now it's become a headache, blowing three straight fourth-quarter leads. Yeah, I know, the Eagles haven't scored a fourth-quarter point the last three weeks either, but once upon a time that might be OK. The defense would put the game away. Not anymore. Check this out: The last three quarterbacks to beat Philadelphia completed 80 percent of their passes in the fourth quarter, with three touchdowns, no interceptions, two sacks and a passer rating of 136.25. Reid gambled when he moved Juan Castillo from the offensive line to defensive coordinator, though he insisted it was a low-risk move. That's not how it looks now, with the defense ranked 16th overall, including 30th against the run, and the club stuck at the bottom of the division. Worse, it has four takeaways; a year ago it had 34, second only to Chicago in the NFC. Reid has dug these guys out before, so he gets the benefit of the doubt. But this may be his biggest challenge.
Where there's hope: Reid is no stranger to adversity. He dug out of an 0-2 hole in 2003. He overcame the loss of Donovan McNabb in 2002 and 2006. He fought through the benching of McNabb in 2008. In each of those seasons the Eagles made the playoffs, and in all but one they reached the conference championship game.
Where there's not: The turnovers won't go away. Philadelphia has 10, behind only Denver and Pittsburgh (11 each), and is minus-six in the takeaway/giveaway department. In 2010, they were plus-9.
Forecast: Uncertain. There's just too much talent for this team to stay down. Plus, Reid has a track record of overcoming setbacks. I wouldn't give up on this club. Not yet
The record: 1-3
The problem: Cut the Seahawks some slack. They’re the first club in NFL history to reach the playoffs with a losing record (7-9). Yeah, they won a division and dethroned the defending Super Bowl champions, but I don’t know anyone who thought they’d be a playoff factor again this season. That can happen when you sign up Tarvaris Jackson as your quarterback, though he looked downright decent vs. Atlanta. The problem is that Jackson heads an offense that can’t run, can’t pass and can’t score, and if you don’t believe me check this week’s numbers. The Seahawks are dead last in offense, 31st in rushing, 28th in passing and 29th in points. The number that sticks out there is the running game. We knew Jackson wasn’t Tom Brady, but coach Pete Carroll thought he could assemble a rushing attack that would take the heat off his quarterback. Not with Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett you can’t.
Where there's hope: The Seahawks play in the NFC West where anything is possible.
Where there's not: Three of their next four are on the road where this team struggles. Did I say, "struggle?" They lost 10 of their last 12 there (including the playoffs), with opponents averaging 31 points per game.
Forecast: Dark and gloomy. Sorry, I just can't see it happening a second year for these guys.
The record: 1-3
The problem: You name it. Injuries. Turnovers. Offense. Dysfunction. I feel for these guys. They surprised everyone by shooting to the top of the AFC West last season, now they’re headed just as fast south. Losing Jamaal Charles was a crippling blow, but there was trouble before he exited. A year ago, the Chiefs took care of their opponents by taking care of the football. Their 14 turnovers were the fewest outside of everyone but New England. Now, here we are four games into the season, and they already have 10. Not good. A year ago, the Chiefs led the league in rushing, too. Now they’re 14th, and losing Charles can do that to you. The upshot of all of this is that the bar has been raised for Matt Cassel who’s not equipped to throw for 400 yards, play from behind or become the next Tom Brady. There’s so much amiss with the Chiefs that it’s not worth going into. Let’s just put it this way: It’s not too soon to start thinking about 2012.
Where there's hope: Well, they play Indianapolis next week.
Where there's not: There are three teams better than them in their division.
Forecast: It's OK if you're looking for Andrew Luck, but that's not the object here. I don't see how these guys stay competitive with all the setbacks they already encountered. Paint it black.
The record: 2-2
The problem: After Sunday night's destruction in Baltimore, coach Rex Ryan said the Jets need to do a better job protecting quarterback Mark Sanchez, and he has that right. The poor guy was hammered all night long, with the Ravens insisting they "rattled" him. Sanchez said that's not so, but then he's the guy who wanted to take the blame for the defeat, too. He shouldn't. Yeah, he committed four turnovers, three of which were turned into touchdowns, but football is a group effort, remember? The Jets' offensive line isn't very good, and the running backs are worse. Put them together, and that protection that Ryan talked about? Yeah, adios, muchacho. Two years ago the Jets led the league in rushing, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. Now, they're down to 30th, average 3.1 yards per attempt and come off their worst effort (38 yards) under Ryan. Something's got to give, and I'm not talking about tackle Wayne Hunter's next block. Running games don't just happen. They're the products of blocking schemes, talented runners and talented blockers. I don't know if the Jets have the backs to go forward here. I don't know if they have the linemen, either. What I do know is if their running game doesn't improve their quarterback won't, either. "What jump—starts our offense is getting our running game going," said wide receiver Santonio Holmes. "We have to get it started. We definitely have to focus more on running the ball and putting the ball in the hands of our playmakers; give our guy a little more time so that he can deliver the ball to the guys that can make plays for us."
Where there's hope: All-Pro center Nick Mangold is expected to return soon, probably by next weekend. That's a start to fixing the offensive line.
Where there's not: The Jets weren't all that good with Mangold in there, either, averaging 73 yards rushing per game and 3.0 per carry.
Forecast: The Jets have been through depressions before but not like this. They were always a good road team, going 4-2 there in the playoffs under Ryan, but lost their first two road starts this season. Worse, they were crushed by more physical opponents. Still, I wouldn't give up on them, either. Ryan has a record that speaks for itself.
The record: 2-2
The problem: Take your pick: Defense or the offensive line. I'll go with defense because, frankly, the offensive line has been an issue before, and the Steelers fought through it. Now it's not just bad; it's bad enough that it has Ben Roethlisberger -- one of the toughest quarterbacks in the game -- walking around on crutches. The Steelers surrender a ton of sacks (14), and their quarterback is iffy for next week. But they've been down this block before and prevailed because their defense pulled them through. Not now. The Steelers' defenders look old and slow, and rewind the video to Houston's first drive Sunday. The Texans scored on a 95-yard march that consumed 10:55 and included 19 plays. Once upon a time nobody did that to the Steelers. But that was when these guys forced opponents into mistakes, which became either touchdowns or led to scores. A year ago Pittsburgh was second in the league with 35 takeaways. This season they're last at 1. Worse, they're a league-worst minus-10 in the takeaway/turnover department, and that's a sure path to destruction. The problem here is that the Steelers aren't getting younger. As of November, they could start nine players on defense who are 30 or older. That's OK if they can move. But tell me the last time James Harrison or Troy Polamalu looked like himself. The picture of Roethlisberger limping out of the locker room is disturbing; the picture of this defense missing tackles is worse.
Where there's hope: The schedule. Of their 12 remaining opponents, eight don't have winning records, and three (Arizona, Kansas City and St. Louis) are a combined 2-10. Furthermore, after their Nov. 20 bye only one of their last six opponents (San Francisco) has a winning record.
Where there's not: The Steelers aren't getting younger. They're getting older. And old legs wear out as the season wears on.
Forecast: Uncertain. The Steelers typically struggle the year after Super Bowls, and this looks like another one of those years. Except ... except they draw a cozy schedule that could push them into the playoffs. Even if they make it ... and I think they could ... they won't go deep into January.
The record: 2-2
The problem: This team seems caught in an identity crisis. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz wants to throw, and his head coach wants to run. So Martz ignores the run for two weeks, and Chicago gets drilled. Then he ignores the pass, and it wins. Does anybody know who these guys are anymore? I don't think the Bears do. When they acquired Jay Cutler they sacrificed their identity as a team that won by running the ball and stuffing opponents with good defense and put their faith in the right arm of Cutler. Yeah, I know, he took them to the conference championship game a year ago, but so what? Rex Grossman took them to the Super Bowl, and that team had a clearer understanding of what it was about than these Bears. Matt Forte is a load, but until Sunday, Martz used him more as a receiver than running back. Then Forte produced a career-high 205 yards rushing. The offensive line has been in flux, with the Bears shuffling lineups weekly, and that's been an issue -- particularly in pass protection, where Cutler has been sacked 15 times. But you can protect the quarterback with a solid running game (see the New York Jets), and let's see if what we saw Sunday was more than just an experiment.
Where there's hope: Forte's performance may have awakened Martz to the possibilities of beating opponents with the run AND the pass. Maybe. If nothing else, it was a start.
Where there's not: They play in the NFC North where they're the third best club.
Forecast: Uncertain. We'll know more about these guys after next week's game at Detroit. If they lose, they're almost certainly looking at a middle-of-the-pack finish, which is where I had them anyway.
The record: 2-2
The problem: The Falcons had the NFC's best record in 2010, then went to the playoffs and got destroyed by Green Bay. Yeah, I know, it happens, but it wasn't supposed to happen to this these guys -- especially at home. But it did. So the Falcons traded away their draft for the sixth overall pick and chose ... a wide receiver?. Look, I love Julio Jones, too, but offense wasn't the issue; defense was, and I could have seen Atlanta using that pick on someone to plug the holes on defense. But it didn't, choosing instead to get in an arms race with Green Bay, and, so far, the results aren't encouraging. The Falcons were lucky to beat Philadelphia. They just survived Seattle. They got destroyed by Chicago. So what do all those games have in common? Defense. There wasn't enough of it. The Bears put up 30, though they forced three turnovers -- returning one for a touchdown. The Eagles had 31 before Michael Vick exited in the second half. And Seattle threw up 28 before missing on a last-second field goal of 61 yards. My fear with these guys is the same that I hold for the Jets: That they've lost their identity. Once they beat you with a balanced attack that featured equal parts Michael Turner and Matt Ryan and a defense that stuffed the run and forced a passel of turnovers. Now they rely on Ryan first, Turner next and hope the defense keeps up. It hasn't, ranking 27th in points allowed. That won't cut it vs. New Orleans, and it didn't work vs. Tampa Bay -- and that's a problem.
Where there's hope: Three of the Falcons' first four games have been away. So what? So that means they have seven left at home, where Ryan is 21-2 in regular-season play.
Where there isn't: They're in a division with two teams that, right now at least, are better.
Forecast: Uncertain. This should be a good club, but it's struggling with speed bumps. That can happen. But the Falcons better shape up. I don't see them beating New Orleans. But I do think they're better than Tampa Bay. I know, they already lost to the Bucs. When they play them next, it will be at home, and we've already hit that topic. I still see Atlanta as a wild-card possibility, but that defense must tighten up.