The NFL season is short. Sixteen games amounts to less than 20 percent of the NBA season, while a busy baseball team can knock out 16 games in two and a half weeks. With a compressed campaign, even five weeks in the NFL can be enough to move the needle. This time last season, nine of the 12 eventual playoff teams were already in position. There's still plenty to play for, of course -- the Broncos were in the playoff picture this time in 2017 -- but teams can do an awful lot to improve or hurt postseason chances in five weeks.
Before the season, FPI believed that each of the league's 32 teams had at least a 6.8 percent shot of making the postseason. The Rams and the Cardinals are the only two teams whose fate already seems sealed. ESPN's Football Power Index suggests that the 5-0 Rams have a 99.7 percent chance of advancing to the postseason, while the 1-4 Cardinals are all the way down at 0.2 percent.
Let's run through the teams that have seen their playoff chances either improve or decline the most so far this season and figure out what has gone right (or wrong). I'll begin with the teams in better shape, relative to their preseason projections per FPI.
5. Los Angeles Rams (5-0)
Preseason FPI playoff chances: 66.3 percent
Current FPI playoff chances: 99.7 percent
Difference: 33.4 percent
The Rams looked to be all but assured of a playoff berth before the season given their offseason investments, but remember how frequently teams that seem like playoff locks fail to make it into January. Last season, the Seahawks looked like they would have a clear path to the NFC West title, with the Cardinals as the biggest obstacle getting in their way. Things change quickly, and if Jimmy Garoppolo had stayed healthy while the Rams lost Jared Goff to injury, we would be looking at a totally different division.
Fortunately for Rams fans, Goff is healthy. The rest of the offense might not be so lucky, and if there's any reason to be concerned about the Rams' chances of coming away with the top seed in the NFC, it would be health. They lost Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp to possible concussions on Sunday during the narrow victory over the Seahawks, and while Goff was able to complete passes to backups Josh Reynolds and KhaDarel Hodge, the Rams are going to need all of their weapons against tougher opposition later in the season.
What makes this particularly important is that the Rams would prefer to avoid substituting altogether on offense. While most teams like to rotate weapons on and off the field to keep players fresh and create mismatches, coach Sean McVay wants to stay in the same 11 personnel package on virtually every snap. Over the first month of the year, McVay had nine of his 11 offensive starters -- Goff, his five offensive linemen, Cooks, Kupp and Robert Woods -- play on 97 percent or more of Los Angeles' offensive snaps. Todd Gurley played 84 percent, and his numbers were only that low because he sat out most of the second half against Arizona with cramps. Tight end Tyler Higbee was at 80.9 percent. Los Angeles is known for exclusive clubs designed to keep the riffraff out. The Rams' offense is one of them.
The Seahawks weren't good enough to beat the Rams, but teams are going to look toward their formula to try to pull off their own upset. Seattle ran the ball up and down the field, racking up 190 yards and eight first downs on 32 carries. Running against the Rams serves two masters: It attacks the weakest part of Los Angeles's defense, while keeping your own defense on the sideline, giving pass-rushers valuable rest.
The Seahawks also used play-action to take big shots downfield while isolating Los Angeles' cornerbacks in coverage. Marcus Peters is an elite playmaker, but teams can take advantage of his propensity to look into the backfield and read the quarterback by sending speedy receivers past him and running double moves. Russell Wilson was nine of 11 passing for 172 yards and three touchdowns on play-action Sunday. The Rams are allowing the league's seventh-best passer rating when teams throw without a play fake, but when teams go with play-action, Los Angeles is allowing a 154.8 passer rating, the worst mark in football.
These are good problems to have. The Rams essentially have locked up their division after five games. They have a 3.4 percent chance of going 16-0. Their first priority for the next three months is to stay healthy.
4. Washington (2-1)
Preseason FPI playoff chances: 15.0 percent
Current FPI playoff chances: 52.4 percent
Difference: 37.4 percent
Washington has played only three games in advance of Monday night's intriguing matchup with the Saints, and with wins over the Cardinals and Packers sandwiched alongside a brutal home loss to the Colts, we really don't know a ton about it yet. The best thing you can say about Jay Gruden's team, given how many injuries it went through last season, is that it is relatively healthy through three games. It won't have guard Shawn Lauvao in the lineup and could be without receiver Josh Doctson, but this is generally a much healthier team than the one that limped through 2017.
Instead, Washington's rise up the charts is more a product of its division. The NFC East is a mess. The Giants are 1-4 after falling victim to a 63-yard game-winning field goal by Graham Gano on what was the largest single-play shift of win expectancy this season. The Panthers had a 19 percent chance of winning before Gano's try, with the field goal boosting their chances of winning by 81 percent to an even 100. The previous leader was Andy Dalton's touchdown pass to A.J. Green in the dying moments of Week 4 against the Falcons, which had been responsible for a 72-point win expectancy swing.
The Cowboys are 2-3 after refusing to accept the game the Texans kept trying to give them on Sunday night, with their two wins coming by a combined nine points over the Giants and Lions. Their offense is a dysfunctional mess, and while the defense has been effective, Rod Marinelli's unit has forced just four takeaways in four games. Most surprisingly, though, the Eagles are scuffling at 2-3 and look vulnerable on both sides of the ball. (More on them later.) Those three teams combined for a 92 percent shot of winning the NFC East before the season. Now, their divisional odds are down to a combined 57.9 percent.
Alex Smith & Co. can make their case over the next seven weeks, when they play each of their divisional rivals and all four teams from the NFC South. They have the talent to pull this off; if everyone is healthy, there are surprisingly few teams who could be above average both passing and running the football while stopping the pass and run on defense, and Washington's offensive line and underrated front seven give them a chance at entering that group. If the NFC East continues to self-destruct, health could be the only thing keeping Washington from a surprise run into January.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (5-0)
Preseason FPI playoff chances: 49.9 percent
Current FPI playoff chances: 96.9 percent
Difference: 47.0 percent
The Chargers were actually the favorites to win the AFC West before the season began, in part because they were going to face an easier schedule than Kansas City. Their chances shifted immediately after the Chiefs unleashed Patrick Mahomes on the NFL in a Week 1 victory over the Chargers, and while Los Angeles' overall playoff odds are virtually identical to where they stood before the season, the Chiefs' divisional odds (86.8 percent) make them the prohibitive favorites to win the West.
The Chiefs on Sunday won the much-ballyhooed battle of the (arguably) best offense and best defense in football, and while they were able to score 30 points against the Jaguars, it was more promising to see their defense finally show up. The difference between the league's two undefeated teams has been the quality of their defenses. The Rams have playmakers and roadblocks. The Chiefs, until Sunday, had mostly been a momentary nuisance to opposing offenses.
While the Jaguars racked up 502 net yards during the loss in Kansas City, this was a 2015 Blake Bortles special, with most of the meaningless yardage coming late in the second half down multiple scores. After generating just three takeaways through the first four games, Bob Sutton's defense forced five takeaways of Bortles & Co. The Jaguars tried to challenge a frustrating group of cornerbacks with fade and isolation routes, and the Chiefs came up with four interceptions and 12 pass breakups. They sacked Bortles five times and hit him 11 times amid a staggering 66 dropbacks. While the Jaguars lost second-string left tackle Josh Wells during the game, the Chiefs also lost Justin Houston to a hamstring injury and still managed to get after Bortles.
The Chiefs don't need their defense to play well. They don't even need the defense to be good. They just need a unit that is going to create a takeaway per week and hand their offense a short field or wipe away a red zone opportunity, because that should be enough for their offense to win. Sunday wasn't their best performance, as Mahomes threw his first two interceptions of the season and the Chiefs kicked two field goals among their four red zone trips, but there's no way for an opponent to turn the ball over five times and do enough on defense to stop Mahomes, no matter how good that defense is.
The Chiefs face a trip to New England next Sunday night before things relatively calm down; they get a four-game stretch with home games against the Bengals, Broncos and Cardinals along with a road game against the Browns before they make their trip to Mexico City for the Over Bowl against the Rams. There are a lot of winnable games in that bunch, and if the Chiefs just hold serve, they'll be 9-2 entering their bye week.
Chiefs fans will remember that Kansas City started 5-0 last season before the offense started to slump and the team lost six of its next seven, but there's no evidence suggesting that Reid's teams are prone to get off to hot starts before struggling in October and November. If anything, the 2014, 2015 and 2016 Chiefs teams all got off to slow starts before turning the corner and improving. The most important player to ensure that the Chiefs keep things up might not be Mahomes or Houston; it's Eric Berry, who is still yet to play or practice thanks to a heel injury.
2. Cincinnati Bengals (4-1)
Preseason FPI playoff chances: 19.7 percent
Current FPI playoff chances: 73.2 percent
Difference: 53.5 percent
The Bengals aren't really like any of the other teams on this list. They aren't dominant like the Chiefs and Rams on offense or the Bears (more soon) on defense. Their division is playing reasonably well, although the Steelers haven't lived up to expectations. They haven't really stayed healthy, with the offense losing Joe Mixon, A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Billy Price for stretches.
What they've done, instead, is a bit of a dirty phrase in these parts: The Bengals have found ways to win. With the Colts driving into game-winning field goal range in Week 1, backup safety Clayton Fejedelem forced a fumble and returned it 83 yards for a score with 40 seconds left. After nearly blowing a 28-7 lead over the Ravens in Week 2, safety Shawn Williams strip-sacked Joe Flacco to set up a field goal that put the game out of reach. Carl Lawson came up with a sack to stop the Falcons from doing the same thing in Week 4, allowing the Bengals to embark on a 16-play drive with two fourth-down conversions that ended with the Dalton touchdown pass I mentioned earlier.
On Sunday, the defense came up big again. The Dolphins led 17-3 after three quarters and promptly vomited up the game. The defense did its part by scoring twice off Ryan Tannehill, once on an interception that bounced off a player's helmet, and then on a Tannehill turnover that seemed right on the border between fumble and interception. The offense scored only three points after the first play of the quarter, and even that drive involved Dalton nearly throwing an interception in the end zone. It didn't matter.
Can the Bengals continue to come up with huge defensive plays late in the fourth quarter to swing their games? No, probably not. They've now created four takeaways in the final three minutes of regulation across their first five games this year. To put that in context, the league leaders in that category last season were the Eagles, who had seven. After producing four defensive touchdowns over a three-year period from 2015-17, the Bengals have three defensive scores in five games.
After getting off to a 4-1 start, though, it might not matter. At the moment, FPI projects the 6-seed in the AFC to be the Chargers, who would have an average of 8.9 wins in that scenario. The Bengals would need to go only 5-7 over the rest of their schedule to get to nine wins, which should be enough to get into the postseason as a wild-card team. They still have winnable home games to come against the Buccaneers, Browns, Broncos and Raiders to help the Bengals get there. FPI projects Marvin Lewis' team for for 10.1 wins right now. Ten wins would be a virtual playoff lock.
If they want an express train to further credibility, of course, the Bengals can overcome their own nightmares this week. When I talked to Bengals writer Katherine Terrell last week on my podcast, she suggested that everyone from the national media to the Bengals themselves wouldn't truly take Cincinnati seriously as the division leader until they beat the Steelers. The Bengals, of course, are 6-20 against the Steelers since that infamous playoff loss in the game in which Kimo von Oelhoffen tore Carson Palmer's ACL.
They're more recently on a six-game losing streak against Pittsburgh, including a wild-card loss during the 2015 playoffs and the 23-20 home loss on Monday Night Football last season that saw the Bengals blow a 17-0 lead. If the they can top Pittsburgh at home in Week 6, they'll be 5-1 and up three games on a 2-3-1 Steelers team after accounting for the tiebreaker. The Bengals aren't a great matchup against Pittsburgh -- Dre Kirkpatrick isn't playing well enough to be left on an island against JuJu Smith-Schuster or Antonio Brown on every play, and the injury to Eifert leaves the Bengals limited at Pittsburgh's weakness against tight ends -- but if they can ride their magical fourth-quarter defense for another week, they could come back to earth afterward and still win the North.
1. Chicago Bears (3-1)
Preseason FPI playoff chances: 18.3 percent
Current FPI playoff chances: 73.8 percent
Difference: 55.5 percent
To some extent, the Bears are in the eye of the beholder. They could very well be 4-0 if not for that capitulation in Week 1 against the Packers, which was in part self-inflicted by some bad playcalling from Matt Nagy and a dropped interception by Kyle Fuller late in the fourth quarter. They're also two plays from going 1-3 if the Seahawks don't drop a potential pick-six in Week 2 and Josh Rosen completes a pass to get in field goal range on fourth-and-5 in Week 3. They've faced backup quarterbacks for meaningful stretches of play in three of their first four games, but their defense was responsible for knocking each of those starters out of the game via injury or benching.
As I wrote about last week, though, this defense is excellent. The Bears came into the week with a comfortable lead atop the DVOA charts, and while they probably won't average close to three takeaways per week, there's nothing obviously fluky about this unit's performance.
While Khalil Mack is rightfully getting a ton of credit for making an immediate impact as a pass-rusher, there's another factor helping to push the Bears up the charts: health. This might very well be the healthiest team in the league, as its most notable injuries are to reserves such as Sam Acho, Anthony Miller and Adam Shaheen. Prince Amukamara missed the win over the Buccaneers with a hamstring injury, but there are about 30 teams who would kill to be as healthy as the Bears are through five weeks.
The Bears aren't likely to slow down soon. Their next month consists of four games against the AFC East, with road games against the Dolphins and Bills and a homestand against the Patriots and Jets. The tough stretch of their schedule doesn't arrive until November, when they get the Vikings and then the Lions in Detroit on Thanksgiving on a short week. After a road trip to play the Giants, Nagy's team has consecutive home games against the Rams and Packers, which could end up deciding their divisional fate. This stretch looked even worse when it seemed like the 49ers were going to be a scary team in San Francisco, although the injury to Jimmy Garoppolo makes a Week 16 trip to the Bay more palatable.
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It's too simplistic to say that the Bears are going to go as far as Mitchell Trubisky will take them, but it's also the realistic answer. The 2017 Jaguars comps for this team make a lot of sense, and we saw that the Jaguars were capable of nearly breaking into the Super Bowl when Good Blake showed up during the win over the Steelers in the divisional round and the first half of the AFC title game against the Patriots. Trubisky had his best game as a pro in the win over the Bucs, although there were still missed throws and mistakes scattered amid a six-touchdown game.
Jordan Howard is too good to stay down all year. He's averaging just 3.2 yards per carry but ranked 10th in success rate heading into the week, suggesting that the former Pro Bowler just isn't breaking many big runs. Indeed, Howard has 64 carries, but none have gone for more than 17 yards and just two have topped 11 yards. If we use his rate of production from 2016-17, we would have expected Howard to turn about 10 percent of his runs into gains of 12 yards or more. Those big plays are coming, and that should take some of the pressure off Trubisky. The Bears can win with running and defense. When they get good days from Trubisky, they might be one of the five best teams in football.
5. Oakland Raiders (1-4)
Preseason FPI playoff chances: 25.1 percent
Current FPI playoff chances: 1.3 percent
Difference: 23.8 percent
The Raiders are lucky to avoid starting 0-5, given that the league was arguably generous with a pair of late-game calls during their Week 4 overtime win over the Browns. They are their own internet troll, with every pass-rush snap mockingly wondering whether the Raiders still think they're better off without Khalil Mack on the roster. They knocked down Philip Rivers twice on 28 dropbacks Sunday in a game in which the ancient Chargers starter was without three of his five starting linemen, including both tackles. One of those two knockdowns resulted in a roughing the passer call.
Sadly, the Oakland offense was also a bit of a self-referential joke. The Raiders came into the game ranking seventh in pass offense DVOA, only for Derek Carr to fall victim to his own trap. When the Raiders brought Marshawn Lynch out of retirement in 2017, Carr famously suggested that there would be "no way" the Raiders would get to the 1-yard line and pass up their opportunity to hand the ball to Lynch.
The Raiders have had the ball 12 times on the 1-yard line since the start of 2017. Lynch has carried the ball five times in those situations, scoring on three of those runs. The other nine plays have produced three touchdowns on seven tries, but none stood out as much as Carr's interception on Sunday. On a day with some truly baffling interceptions, Carr threw across his body to the middle of the field and hit an apparently invisible Melvin Ingram right in the chest. Lynch's furious reaction after the play should have been no surprise.
We're beginning to see chatter about Carr struggling to last the season under Gruden. Indeed, while DVOA likes the Raiders' passing attack, Carr can't keep turning the ball over. He has eight interceptions through five games, more than the $125 million quarterback threw during the entirety of his breakout season in 2016. Total QBR, a stat that has never looked fondly upon Carr's work, gives him a 47.1 rating through five games, which ranks 24th in the league. Carr is averaging just 6.2 air yards per pass attempt, which is the worst mark of any full-time starter in the league.
Here's the problem, though: What's the benefit from benching Carr? Oakland's backup is AJ McCarron, and while the Raiders inexplicably dealt a fifth-round pick to acquire a player the Bills were likely about to cut, McCarron is not likely to be an upgrade on Carr. If the Raiders had a developmental prospect at quarterback and wanted to see if they had something, it would be a different story, but Oakland cut Connor Cook during the preseason and brought in Christian Hackenberg, only for Gruden to cut him while complaining that the CBA didn't give him enough time to develop a young starter.
After the season, anything is on the table. The Raiders would have draft picks six and 27 in the first round (the latter from the Bears in the Mack trade) and could cut Carr while paying just $7.5 million in dead money, creating $15 million in cap room. Short-term solutions like Nick Foles, Eli Manning, and Ryan Fitzpatrick could be available in free agency. If the Raiders want to make a change at quarterback, the time will be in January. Making a change before then would be shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic, but the Titanic had a better sewage system than the Oakland Coliseum. It would take a small miracle for the Raiders to work their way back into contention.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (2-2-1)
Preseason FPI playoff chances: 77.7 percent
Current FPI playoff chances: 45.8 percent
Difference: 31.9 percent
The Steelers would have retreated into an all-out crisis had they lost to Atlanta on Sunday at home and fallen to 1-3-1, but they instead delivered their first complete performance of the season and blew out the fading Falcons. Pittsburgh scored touchdowns on its first two drives, a welcome respite for an offense that had racked up a total of six first-quarter points across their first four games. The Steelers subsequently did not forget about James Conner's existence and gave their back the ball 25 times for a total of 185 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns, taking some of the pressure off their passing attack.
Obviously, the Steelers' odds have dropped by virtue of what went wrong over those first four weeks of the season. The 1-2-1 start included an absolute egg of a loss to the Ravens and a tie against the Browns, which could cost them in terms of divisional tiebreakers. The Bengals have surged to an unlikely AFC North lead, which hurts Pittsburgh's chances of winning the division. Each of the North's four teams look capable of giving their opponents fits for the first time since 2014, when the division sent three teams to the playoffs and the last-place Browns finished 7-9. That's good for neutral fans, but not really fun for the Steelers.
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The good news is that you can plot a pretty simple path back to contention for Pittsburgh. Their game against the Bengals this week in Cincinnati is critical; if the Steelers win, they'll make it to 3-2-1 and sit narrowly behind Cincinnati at 4-2 with a head-to-head tiebreaker and a key divisional win in hand. If the Steelers lose, they'll fall three games behind (accounting for the tiebreaker) and be in danger of losing most of the divisional tiebreakers to the Bengals and Ravens.
The Steelers hit their bye after the Bengals game and are expected to get back Le'Veon Bell from his holdout during the week off, which gives them two weeks to work Bell back into shape in advance of a pair of divisional games against the Browns and Ravens. If the Steelers can roll off a winning streak and make it to 5-2-1, they'll be absolutely fine. Lose one or two of those games, though, and Pittsburgh might need to be close to perfect during the second half to make a fifth consecutive trip to the postseason.
3. San Francisco 49ers (1-4)
Preseason FPI playoff chances: 35.9 percent
Current FPI playoff chances: 1.7 percent
Difference: 34.2 percent
Garoppolo is out for the year with a torn ACL.
Their first-choice running back, Jerick McKinnon, is out for the year with a torn ACL. New starter Matt Breida came into the game with multiple injuries and left with a high ankle sprain, which could keep him out for a couple of weeks and greatly limit his effectiveness afterward.
Wideouts Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis, each of whom would have seen significant snaps, were out. No. 1 wideout Pierre Garcon left the game with a shoulder injury and was clearly less than 100 percent upon returning.
The team's three top offensive linemen -- tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey and center Weston Richburg -- all came into the game less than 100 percent. Staley wasn't his usual self, while Richburg was unable to finish the game.
This is a colony collapse of an offense. I don't know how you can make any judgments about anything related to the 49ers or their future when they have an entire unit of players who are either unavailable due to injuries or playing through pain. The defense is struggling, but that's going to happen when the offense turns the ball over four times and lets the other team start four drives on the plus side of the field, as the 49ers did on Sunday. (One of those drives was a meaningless set of kneel-downs after an onside kick, but the 49ers also gave up the ball on the Arizona 46-yard line on a fifth possession, so I'm calling it even.)
The positive thing for the 49ers, as opposed to their Bay Area brethren, is that they aren't starting veterans like Frostee Rucker, Leon Hall and Reggie Nelson in an attempt to simulate both adequacy and the 2014 NFL season. The 49ers are going to find out where their young defense needs help this season and presumably go into the 2019 free-agent pool to find it. They sadly might have to build an annex to the trainer's room before getting there.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (2-3)
Preseason FPI playoff chances: 73.2 percent
Current FPI playoff chances: 37.3 percent
Difference: 35.9 percent
The Eagles have nearly slashed their playoff odds in half after a slow start. Before Sunday's loss to the Vikings, they had been an almost perfectly average team, going 2-2 with four close games and a point differential of plus-one. A pair of goal-line stops against the Falcons and Colts in Philadelphia had managed to keep the Eagles from following their Super Bowl season by bafflingly starting 0-4.
Obviously, the hope was that the Eagles would right the ship after a frustrating loss to the Titans by beating a reeling Vikings team at the Linc Sunday afternoon. That didn't happen. While the Eagles got close with a late Zach Ertz touchdown to make it 23-21, they were outplayed for the vast majority of this game, only for Dan Bailey to miss two field goals. The Philadelphia defense forced one three-and-out all day.
If you're trying to figure out what's missing from Philadelphia in comparison to the championship team, the issues start with the defense. Philly's pressure rate is down from 28.2 percent to 23.1 percent, and correspondingly, quarterbacks are completing 67.5 percent of their passes while throwing the ball a full yard deeper in the air. Jim Schwartz's unit is also struggling to force takeaways, having racked up five in five games after generating 31 turnovers during the regular season in 2017. The Eagles aren't as healthy as they were along the defensive line, with Haloti Ngata and Derek Barnett both missing Sunday's loss.
The other side of the line is struggling too. The Eagles found their offensive line last season when they benched guard Isaac Seumalo after two games and replaced him with Stefen Wisniewski, who started the rest of the way. With Wisniewski struggling this season, the Eagles turned back to Seumalo on Sunday, but he was no match for Linval Joseph & Co. on the interior. Lane Johnson has given up two strip sacks in two weeks, with backup end Stephen Weatherly beating Johnson on Sunday and forcing a Carson Wentz fumble that Joseph returned for a 64-yard touchdown.
As for Wentz, while he's a comfortable upgrade on the Nick Foles we saw in Weeks 1-2, he's still finding his sea legs. He ranks 23rd in Total QBR after three games, just ahead of Carr, and many of the places in which he was likely to regress are coming up as nuisances. He has a 74.3 passer rating on third down, which is 27th in the league. The Eagles were 2-of-9 on third down against the Vikings on Sunday. Wentz's 95.8 passer rating in the red zone is 21st in the league, and the Eagles scored just six points on their first three red zone trips before two late touchdowns against the Vikings.
This was supposed to be an easy start for the Eagles, who didn't expect to go 1-2 against the Bucs, Colts and Titans. They get the Giants on a short week Thursday night, but they'll have a home game against Carolina and a trip to Jacksonville before their Week 9 bye. The NFC East remains up for grabs, but the Eagles have lost the clear path to a division title that it seemed like they might have enjoyed before the campaign. I still think they'll figure it out, but the East is a legitimate race.
1. Atlanta Falcons (1-4)
Preseason FPI playoff chances: 58.4 percent
Current FPI playoff chances: 15.8 percent
Difference: 42.6 percent
The dream of the impact Falcons defense is dead, at least for now. While raw totals and postseason performance suggested that the Falcons were a top-10 D a year ago, advanced statistics such as DVOA and points per drive pointed out that they were actually a below-average unit. Injuries and lack of development on the defensive side of the ball have cost the Falcons several games in 2018 and aren't likely to suddenly improve. This is a mess.
It might have been for naught due to injury, but once they lost Keanu Neal and Deion Jones early this season, the Falcons should have been the team talking to the Seahawks about trading for Earl Thomas. Thomas already knew Dan Quinn's scheme. The Falcons had enough cap space to make a Thomas trade feasible with a little bit of maneuvering. They were a team with Super Bowl hopes heading into the season.
Instead, we're seeing plays like the 47-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown, where deep safety Damontae Kazee can't make it over to the sideline to help Robert Alford and takes too narrow of an angle to Ben Roethlisberger's pass, giving Brown an easy score:
To be fair, Kazee had an interception and forced a somewhat bizarre James Conner fumble, but Atlanta's safeties have been inconsistent all season. The Falcons are also a leaky mess on throws to running backs. Three running backs have caught 14 passes or more in a game over the past five years, and two of those backs were Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey in consecutive weeks against the Falcons in September. Conner racked up 75 receiving yards on Sunday. They've been better against tight ends, but backup linebacker Duke Riley lost Jesse James in coverage on Sunday and was responsible for a 38-yard pass interference penalty.
Atlanta's pass rush was propped up by Takkarist McKinley last week, but Roethlisberger simply wasn't bothered this week. The Falcons failed to sack him on 29 dropbacks and knocked down Big Ben only four times. Grady Jarrett didn't play, but the interior pass-rusher has no sacks this season. Vic Beasley Jr., bothered by yet another injury, has one sack. After racking up 15.5 sacks during his Pro Bowl campaign in 2016, Beasley has just six over the ensuing 18 games.
This is a defense that has needed its offense to score an average of 42 points over the past three weeks to win, and the Falcons can't realistically be expected to get there. After a horrific performance in the red zone during the opening night loss to the Eagles, Matt Ryan and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian quietly righted the ship, with the Falcons scoring touchdowns on each of their next 11 trips to the red zone. Since the start of Week 2, the Falcons are second in the league in points per red zone trip behind the Seahawks, who have made only eight trips to Atlanta's 15.
Ryan & Co. had produced 36- and 37-point games in losses, but the Pittsburgh pass rush finally got going on Sunday. Ryan was sacked six times and knocked down on 11 dropbacks, with T.J. Watt racking up three of those sacks and producing two strip sacks, although one of them was wiped away by a penalty. The other one was a defensive touchdown, while the Steelers created a second touchdown on a blocked punt and a short field.
The Falcons are in rough shape. Gano hitting a 63-yarder to win in Carolina only added insult to their woes, which would only grow if the Saints beat Washington on Monday night. Atlanta's chances of winning the South have dropped to just 7.3 percent. They'll be back in 2019, but it would take a serious, sudden drop-off from both the Panthers and Saints for the Falcons to work their way back into the divisional race.