The NFL season is two weeks old, and a minimum of six organizations are already essentially eliminated from postseason contention. It seems crazy to think that a team could go from dreaming about a deep playoff run to thinking about the 2019 offseason in a matter of 14 days, but history tells us that a team can ruin its season quicker than you might think.
Since the NFL adopted its current divisional format in 2002, just over 11 percent of teams that start the year 0-2 end up making the playoffs. The Saints pulled off the feat last season by turning their defense around. It also helped that their schedule got easier, given that the season started with games against the Vikings and Patriots. After that 0-2 start, the Saints didn't lose again before Thanksgiving, rolling off eight straight wins.
If any of this year's seven 0-2 teams can pull that off, they'll be back in playoff contention, but history tells us that no more than one will play past December.
Let's sort through them in order of their chances of returning to respectability and competing for a postseason berth, and pick one team from the bunch to survive its 0-2 start to make the playoffs. I'm including each team's preseason playoff odds and current playoff odds, according to the ESPN Football Power Index.
I've ranked the seven teams in reverse order of my hopes for their playoff future. I'm also cheating to talk about an eighth team that remains winless after two weeks because I wanted to take a closer look at what has gone wrong there. Let's begin with them ...
Preseason playoff odds: 77.7 percent
Current playoff odds: 36.6 percent
The Steelers don't technically belong on this list as an 0-1-1 team, but I'm sneaking them in because they seem to be in disarray. Pittsburgh is a blocked field goal away from 0-2. It just allowed Patrick Mahomes to throw six touchdown passes in his third career start. Le'Veon Bell doesn't appear to be on his way to work anytime soon. Antonio Brown is daring ex-Steelers PR people to trade him away, then missed practice on Monday. FPI suggests the Steelers' slow start has slashed their playoff odds by more than half. Pittsburgh was not supposed to be in crisis by mid-September.
I think the Steelers are going to be fine. Let's start with the easy stuff. Brown isn't going anywhere. Pittsburgh would incur $29 million in dead money over the next two years if it traded the star wideout. Even if the Steelers traded Brown next year, they would be responsible for divvying up $21 million on their cap over the 2019 and 2020 campaigns. They would be hitting the reset button on their team by trading Brown. It's not worth talking about again.
There are other elements of Pittsburgh's slow start that I wouldn't expect to reoccur. Normally reliable kicker Chris Boswell has missed both of his field goal tries wide left. The Steelers recovered two of the eight fumbles in their games this season, including going 0-for-4 against the Browns. That's total randomness, and the Steelers won't have too many games in which they turn the ball over six times, as they did in Week 1. Keith Butler's defense isn't going to keep allowing six points per red zone trip. These sort of things can happen over a two-game sample, but they feel more meaningful because they happened to come during the first two games of the season.
There are genuine concerns about this team, though, and the issues aren't surprising. Pittsburgh sorely misses Ryan Shazier, and it didn't do enough to replace him this offseason. The Steelers are using athletic special-teamer Jon Bostic as a regular inside linebacker, playing more than 60 percent of defensive snaps, and Bostic just hasn't been successful against the pass in any of his three previous NFL stops. The Steelers also converted Sean Davis into a full-time free safety, and he was overwhelmed against the Chiefs, though he looked solid in the Browns game.
Injuries are also a short-term concern for what was the league's fourth-healthiest team a year ago. The Steelers lost cornerback Joe Haden during the Browns game, and Cleveland was able to pick on Cameron Sutton during its comeback. (Sutton later came up with an interception on an underthrown Tyrod Taylor pass.) Haden should be back this week, but star guard David DeCastro doesn't yet have a timetable for a return after breaking his hand. Brown is struggling with quad and calf injuries, though he has managed to average 80 receiving yards per game.
At the same time, this team just hasn't been bad enough to justify any sort of significant early-season concerns. The pass rush has been excellent, and while it got home more frequently against Taylor and the Browns, Pittsburgh ranks second in pressure rate (40.5 percent) through two weeks. Bell fill-in James Conner was effective as a runner in Week 1, and the Steelers rank eighth in the league in offensive expected points added through two weeks. The pass defense looked awful against the Chiefs, but I think a lot of pass defenses are going to be ripped apart by Mahomes, particularly during this first month of the season as Andy Reid shows off what he has been working on over the summer. The Browns even went into New Orleans and nearly beat the Saints, so a tie in Cleveland might not be as disappointing as it seemed at the time.
Anybody expecting another 13-3 season was likely to be disappointed, given that Pittsburgh went an unsustainable 8-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer in 2017. A more reasonable expectation for 2018 would have been a 10-win season, and barring a rash of injuries, the Steelers should still be able to get there by the time they get to the end of the season.
Wilbon predicts no 0-2 NFL teams will make the playoffs
Michael Wilbon is writing off all NFL teams who started the season 0-2.
Preseason playoff odds: 6.8 percent
Current playoff odds: 0.3 percent
The Bills are in disarray. They trailed by a total of 48 points at halftime across their first two games, the worst mark in 40 years. They've already changed quarterbacks, benching Nathan Peterman for rookie first-round pick Josh Allen. Coach Sean McDermott took away defensive playcalling duties from Leslie Frazier during an eventful halftime last Sunday, with Vontae Davis retiring and heading home before the second half began. LeSean McCoy has cracked rib cartilage and had two first downs on 21 touches before getting injured. That Andy Dalton touchdown pass from Week 17 last year feels like it might as well be a decade ago.
This shouldn't be a surprise. Last year's Bills team was supposed to be the first season in a rebuild, but a team with 6.4 Pythagorean wins pulled out four wins in six games down the stretch to go 9-7 and sneak into the postseason. This season shouldn't be much better. After trading away several bloated contracts and enduring the retirements of players such as Richie Incognito and Eric Wood, general manager Brandon Beane is eating $53.9 million in dead money this year, which is one of the largest single-season figures in league history. The Bills are nearly paying as much in dead money to ghosts as they are to their entire offense ($57.0 million). They'll hit 2019 with $90 million in cap space before letting anyone else leave.
The schedule will get easier for the Bills, but it's not coming soon. They face road games against the Vikings and Packers over the next two weeks before a stretch with three games against the relatively meager AFC South. After Week 9, they play the Patriots and Jaguars, but their schedule otherwise consists of the Lions and two games each against the Dolphins and Jets. They have only a 1.3 percent chance of joining the Lions and Browns in the 0-16 club, and it's more likely that some late-season success will inspire optimism for 2019.
As for 2018, though, the Bills need to spend the rest of the season evaluating their current pieces and doing their best to form positive habits in Allen. The rookie quarterback was a major upgrade on Peterman and showed some of the upside that led to the trade up in the draft, though he also finished the game with a league-low Total QBR of 14.8. (Both of these things, somehow, are true!) Evaluating Allen in 2018 will be tough because the Bills simply don't have much of an offensive line after trading away Cordy Glenn and losing Incognito and Wood.
Building some long-term infrastructure also would help. Taking away the defensive playcalling duties from Frazier six quarters into the year after his defense made the playoffs a year ago seems shortsighted from McDermott, who said this week that the Bills would "collaborate" on playcalls going forward. It's hard to see that working out. The Bills also need to see what they have in players such as Kelvin Benjamin, Shaq Lawson and Logan Thomas to see if they have a future in Buffalo.
It would behoove the Bills to look into the midseason trade market for the veterans on their roster. Charles Clay's contract remains among the worst deals in the league, and the Bills would eat $13.5 million in dead money by trading their starting tight end, but he would make sense for a team like the Panthers if they can clear out cap space closer to the trade deadline. Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander is cheaper and can contribute on special teams and as a situational pass-rusher, but he's 35. Even McCoy, who is signed through the end of 2019, would be worth throwing out as a possible trade candidate if a contender with injury issues at running back needs a weapon and McCoy gets healthy.
Berry explains that he's been disappointed by RB Johnson so far
Matthew Berry explains that the Arizona Cardinals' lack of offense is holding David Johnson back.
Preseason playoff odds: 10.2 percent
Current playoff odds: 0.3 percent
The Cardinals don't have the same excuse as the Bills, given that they're presumably trying to win during what is likely Larry Fitzgerald's final year in the NFL. The Cardinals have scored six points through two games, which is tied for the seventh-worst figure since the merger. Even that touchdown came in garbage time against Washington in Week 1; Arizona is just the sixth team since 1970 to get shut out in the first half of each of its first two games.
Arizona made moves to add veteran help to its offense this offseason by signing away guard Justin Pugh from the Giants and giving quarterback Sam Bradford a one-year, $20 million deal. Bradford hasn't exactly impressed so far. The former first overall pick is completing 60.7 percent of his passes, which sounds passable until you realize that the league as a whole is completing 65.3 percent of its throws through two weeks. What's worse is that Bradford is averaging a scarcely believable 4.0 yards per attempt on those passes. The one benefit to shorter passes is that they should create more yards after catch, but Bradford's receivers are averaging a league-low 3.3 YAC through two games. Fitzgerald's hamstring injury isn't going to help matters.
New coach Steve Wilks has suggested that offensive coordinator Mike McCoy needs to pare down the playbook, which seems strange given that Bradford famously picked up the Vikings' playbook in a matter of days after being traded to Minnesota just before the 2016 season began. Swapping out Bradford for rookie first-round pick Josh Rosen is an idea, but with Fitzgerald injured and the running game sputtering to start the season, it seems more of a desperate dart throw than anything else. If Bradford was the best option to start the season and the Cardinals still plan on trying to contend, two games shouldn't be enough for the Arizona staff to change its mind. It still wouldn't be a surprise to see the Cardinals make the move to Rosen in the second half of the Bears game in Week 3 if David Johnson can't single-handedly bring the offense back to life.
What has to be more concerning, though, is how the Cardinals' defense has struggled. Patrick Peterson & Co. ranked in the top seven in defensive DVOA each of the past six seasons, but through two weeks, they rank 26th. The offense certainly isn't doing Wilks' unit any favors, but it's not as if the Cardinals are gassing out late in games and allowing points. Washington scored 21 points in the second quarter of Week 1, and the Rams went up 19-0 by halftime. Washington actually had ugly field position for most of the game and scored anyway.
I do have more hope for the defense improving. The Cardinals are allowing teams to convert on 50 percent of their third downs, the second-worst rate in the league behind the Bengals, and even a bad defense won't keep that up for a full season. They have one takeaway in two games. Opposing receivers are averaging a league-high 7.27 yards after catch against the Cardinals and haven't yet dropped a pass. There's too much talent in this secondary for that to keep up, and the Cardinals are still third in the league in pressure rate on defense, so the pass rush has been lively.
Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they're just stuck in the wrong conference if they want to try to sneak into the playoffs with eight or nine wins. They're already two games behind the Rams in the NFC West, and while the Seahawks haven't impressed, there's just a logjam of teams they're going to have to compete with for a playoff spot. They needed the sort of 2-0 start the Bucs had to propel themselves forward. At 0-2, they're already done for 2018.
As is the case with the Bills, Arizona needs to evaluate its young guys. Deone Bucannon, who is in his fifth-year option and once looked like a star in the making, played 25 snaps last week. Former first-round pick Haason Reddick played three. The Cardinals need to see what they have there, even if it means taking away snaps from veterans like Antoine Bethea and playing more linebackers.
Bethea would be a trade candidate for the Cards, but there isn't a ton here. Bradford has a $5 million base salary and could plausibly make sense as an expensive short-term backup for a team with playoff aspirations, but he hasn't been any good this season, even by Bradford standards. Fitzgerald has an $11 million base salary, and while there are a few teams who could justify taking a shot on bringing the future Hall of Famer on board for a Super Bowl run, Fitzgerald wasn't interested in leaving Arizona this time last year. Things look bleak in the desert.
Clark says Giants need to get OBJ more chances
Ryan Clark explains why the Giants' offensive line continues to be a problem and that they need to give Odell Beckham Jr. more attempts.
Preseason playoff odds: 20.5 percent
Current playoff odds: 3.6 percent
Embarrassed in their home opener on national television against the Jets, the Lions at least delivered enough of a comeback in the fourth quarter against the 49ers to turn a 30-13 game with 11 minutes to go into a possible game-tying possession down 30-27 with 1:08 left. Matthew Stafford has made a habit of bringing this team back in the fourth quarter, but it's going to be a tall order to get the Lions back in the playoff race this season.
So much of Detroit's success on defense comes down to its two stars: 2013 draft picks Ezekiel Ansah and Darius Slay. Neither has been fully present. Ansah played just 19 snaps in the opener before going down with a shoulder injury that kept him out in Week 2, while Slay missed a series against the Jets before suffering a concussion after 41 snaps against the 49ers. The Lions have actually managed to get by without Ansah, racking up a league-high 14.3 percent sack rate through two games, but they're allowing teams to post a brutal passer rating of 137.0 when they don't get pressure on the quarterback.
They need more help from coach Matt Patricia, who can't bungle game management and cost his quarterback opportunities at points like he did against the 49ers. After a second-and-10 sack of Jimmy Garoppolo, the 49ers were trapped on their own 4-yard line and facing third-and-19 with 1:45 to go in the first half. Patricia had all three of his timeouts but neglected to use them, allowing the 49ers to run 40 seconds off the clock.
Niners coach Kyle Shanahan made his life easier by choosing to let Garoppolo throw an incomplete pass to Kyle Juszczyk on the next play, but the Lions ended up settling for a field goal and took a timeout to halftime. It would have been merely bad to chalk up the problem to an oversight from a rookie coach who hasn't had to manage the clock before, but Patricia defended his timeout usage by saying that the Lions accomplished what they wanted by scoring points and keeping the 49ers from getting the ball again.
It's going to get worse before it gets better. The Lions face Patricia's former employers from New England on Sunday night, and they follow that up with a trip to Dallas and home game against the Packers. If Ansah and Slay can't get healthy soon, it's hardly out of the question that the Lions will start 0-5 and execute what's known colloquially as a Reverse McDaniels. I have hope that it will get more competitive as the season goes on given the talent Detroit has on offense, but this is a defense that got by on an unsustainably high turnover rate from a year ago stuck in a very tough division.
Preseason playoff odds: 25.1 percent
Current playoff odds: 4.8 percent
Two weeks ago, the AFC West seemed wide-open. It's hard for things to totally change after two games, but just about everything has gone against the Raiders so far. Patrick Mahomes has been the league MVP through two weeks, and the Chiefs won one of the most difficult games on their schedule by beating the Steelers. The Broncos surprisingly started 2-0, and while they don't look like a great team, they've already banked two wins. If they play .500 ball the rest of the way, they're a 9-7 team. The Raiders are already two games behind Denver in the divisional race.
The Raiders get the Dolphins, Browns, Chargers and Seahawks before their Week 7 bye, and if they plan on seriously competing for a playoff spot, Jon Gruden's team probably has to win a minimum of three of those games. It doesn't appear to be a big concern for Gruden, who is in the first season of a 10-year deal and has suggested after the Khalil Mack trade that this roster is in the middle of a teardown.
If the Raiders are in a rebuild, though, Oakland's offseason and snap counts from the first two weeks don't make any sense. Why did the Raiders sign veterans on the wrong side of 30 such as Jordy Nelson, Derrick Johnson and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie? Why is 33-year-old cornerback Leon Hall playing ahead of rookie fourth-rounder Nick Nelson and 34-year-old safety Reggie Nelson taking 107 defensive snaps to 10 for former first-round pick Karl Joseph? Even if you think the young guys aren't better, how are they going to improve on the bench? Gruden has given 34.5 percent of his offensive and defensive snaps through two weeks to players age 30 or older, the highest rate in the league.
The Bears are last in that category at 13.3 percent, and while Raiders fans are understandably sick of comparisons to Mack's new team, it's impossible to avoid noticing the Mack-shaped hole in the Oakland defense. The Raiders are last in the league in pressure rate (18.3 percent), and they have little to speak of beyond Bruce Irvin, who has never topped eight sacks in a season. This is going to be a weakness all season, and the 30-somethings populating the Oakland secondary aren't likely to hold up in coverage as the season goes along.
Two games into the Gruden era, it's already clear that we need to massively lower the ceiling for what we might have hoped for from Gruden and these Raiders. As tempting as it was to imagine that Gruden spent the past decade stealing things from every coach he met with to build some kind of super-offense upon his return to the league, it simply isn't the case. Instead, we have a coach with a solid track record who isn't very happy with his personnel. Derek Carr looked impressive against a conservative Broncos defense last week, and it seems likely that the Raiders will get better on offense as the season goes along and everyone grows a little more comfortable in Gruden's scheme. The defense might not be so lucky.
Preseason playoff odds: 24.2 percent
Current playoff odds: 11.8 percent
In a 24-hour period from Monday to Tuesday, the Seahawks did the following:
Benched Chris Carson for the fourth quarter by accident when Pete Carroll accidentally heard that Carson was gassed from playing on special teams despite the fact that Carson had played only two special-teams snaps. Replacement Rashaad Penny instead carried the ball eight times for 26 yards before running an ugly hitch route on what was the game-sealing pick-six by Prince Amukamara.
Lost Tom Johnson back to the Vikings after cutting their Week 1 starter and trying to stash him. The Seahawks cut Johnson to free up a roster spot for Shalom Luani, who was active but did not play a single snap against the Bears. If the Seahawks had cut Johnson before Week 1, they would not have been responsible for his $900,000 base salary, but because the veteran stuck around for a week, the Seahawks ended up paying a total of $1.9 million for one game from the defensive tackle, which is more than any other player in the league will get paid for one week (on a cap basis) this year besides Jimmy Garoppolo.
Injuries are already hitting this team hard. The Seahawks were without Doug Baldwin, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright for the loss to the Bears. Their primary linebackers were Barkevious Mingo, undrafted free agent Austin Calitro and inside trader Mychal Kendricks, who started ahead of Shaquem Griffin. (Griffin did not play a single defensive snap.)
And yet, strangely, Carroll's team could be two plays away from starting 2-0. Sebastian Janikowski missed from 51 yards and then 46 after an offsides penalty in the opener against the Broncos, and while the Seahawks led in the fourth quarter, a Demaryius Thomas incompletion was controversially turned into a touchdown on the field and then ruled too close to change on review. Had Justin Coleman turned Trubisky's gift in the end zone into a pick-six the other way, the Seahawks might have been able to overcome their trip to Chicago.
Wilson is off to the slowest start of his career, although it's hard to find a quarterback outside of Dak Prescott who has less to work with. Prescott at least has Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Ezekiel Elliott. Wilson is being pressured on 37.8 percent of his dropbacks, the third-highest rate in the league. His 112.7 passer rating is ninth best in the NFL when unpressured, a mark that falls to 27.7 -- 24th -- during those times when he is bothered by opposing defenses.
Without Baldwin, the Seattle receiving corps is breathtakingly threadbare. Wilson has Tyler Lockett, but his primary wideout this season has been 34-year-old Brandon Marshall, who is on a one-year deal for close to the veterans minimum and two years removed from being an effective wideout for the Jets. His pass-catching tight end is rookie Will Dissly, who caught 25 passes for three touchdowns over two years at Washington as a converted defensive lineman.
Instead, the Seahawks are 0-2 and about to face a must-win home opener against the Cowboys on Sunday in the Earl Thomas Bowl. Just like the Raiders, the Seahawks are entering a run of games in which they have to either be perfect or close, as they travel to play the Cardinals and Raiders and host the Cowboys and division-leading Rams before their Week 7 bye. This team faces a brutal run of games during the second half, as Seattle travels to play the Rams, Panthers and 49ers while hosting the Chargers, Packers, 49ers, Vikings and Chiefs. If the Seahawks don't get there with a winning record, they aren't going to be escaping with one.
Preseason playoff odds: 13.6 percent
Current playoff odds: 5.3 percent
So far, the Giants are who we thought they were going to be. Saquon Barkley has delivered one absolutely brilliant run and a bunch of slipped tackles. Odell Beckham Jr. put up a 111-yard game against arguably the league's best pass defense in Jacksonville. Janoris Jenkins has an interception. Landon Collins has been all over the place. The stars are generally playing like stars.
Sadly for Giants fans, though, the problems have been problems. This team simply doesn't control the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball. Ereck Flowers has been a mess at right tackle, and while the Giants made Nate Solder the highest-paid left tackle in the league this offseason, he hasn't been enough to solve their pass protection woes. Eli Manning has been sacked 9.0 percent of the time, nearly double his career rate of 4.7 percent. The Giants' defense has just one sack through two games and ranks 30th in rushing defense DVOA. General manager Dave Gettleman's hog mollies are getting slaughtered.
The defensive line should get better, if only because the Giants have some expensive pieces involved. Damon Harrison has been up against a pair of All-Pro guards so far in Martin and Andrew Norwell, and even during the disastrous 2017 season, the Giants were still good against the run. They're also missing their top pass-rusher in Olivier Vernon, although the former Dolphins standout has been out with a high ankle sprain, which has a habit of slowing players even after they return.
The good news is the Giants have been getting pressure and just narrowly coming up short. James Bettcher's defense ranks 17th in pressure rate, but Big Blue hasn't been able to seal the deal. When the typical team gets pressure, it sacks the opposing quarterback 22 percent of the time. When the Giants have gotten pressure against Blake Bortles and Dak Prescott, they've come away with sacks a league-low 6.3 percent of the time. The Giants face Deshaun Watson and the Texans this week, and Watson plays behind the worst offensive line in football, though he has the athleticism to get away from pressure.
The other positive for the Giants, who have lost their first two games by a combined 12 points, is that no team in the NFC East has been particularly impressive so far. The Cowboys are 1-1 but look dysfunctional on offense; after the opening 64-yard touchdown pass to Tavon Austin, Dallas mustered only 14 first downs the rest of the way. Washington looked wildly impressive against the Cardinals in Week 1 before comfortably losing its home opener to the Colts. Even the Eagles haven't been great, and while they get Carson Wentz back this week, their defense just gave up 400-plus yards passing to Ryan Fitzpatrick. There are no 2-0 divisional teams way ahead of the Giants after two weeks. That alone makes their chances of working their way back into postseason contention more promising.
Preseason playoff odds: 45.0 percent
Current playoff odds: 24.4 percent
I think the Texans are still, quite comfortably, best-positioned to make a run back toward the top of the AFC South. Their two losses came by a total of 10 points, and one of them was on the road against the Patriots. Their loss to the Titans was far more vexing given that it came against Blaine Gabbert and a pair of backup tackles, and indeed, it involved a fake punt for a touchdown, some Wildcat from Derrick Henry, and a long drive with a deliberate double forward pass from Gabbert.
Houston's success this season seems likely to be predicated on both sides of the pass rush. On defense, the early returns are a little underwhelming. The trio of Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and J.J. Watt have combined for zero sacks, with Houston's three sacks coming from the unlikely duo of D.J. Reader and Duke Ejiofor. Clowney missed the Titans game with back and elbow injuries, but Watt's two knockdowns in the opener remain the only example of these three hitting the quarterback in 2018. The Texans are tied for 20th in pressure rate, and when they don't bother the opposing quarterback, Brady and Gabbert have combined to post a passer rating of 125.3, which is the sixth-worst mark in the league through two weeks.
On the other side of the line, a patchwork offensive line has already gotten thinner with the injury to Seantrel Henderson. Watson has been pressured on an unreal 48.8 percent of dropbacks so far this season, which blows away even the Russell Wilsons of the world. Nobody else in the league is above 40.4 percent, and the league average for pressure rate is 27.8 percent. Watson is averaging 8.3 yards per dropback when unpressured and 4.7 yards per play when the opposing team gets on him.
The hope, of course, is that Watson continues to get his legs underneath him and improve as he returns from his torn ACL. His receivers haven't given him much help. During the rookie's incredible seven-game run in 2017, Texans receivers dropped just 1.1 percent of Watson's passes and averaged 5.6 yards after catch, the latter of which was good for 10th in the league. This year, Watson's receivers have dropped 4.5 percent of his throws while generating a league-low average of 3.3 yards after their catches. Watson is only 1-of-11 on throws to his tight ends after completing 58.3 percent of his throws to Ryan Griffin & Co. a year ago.
Yet again, this is another team with a crucial month ahead. Three of Houston's next four games are at home after starting with a pair of road matchups. All four games are winnable, given that the Texans will host the Giants, Cowboys and Bills while traveling to play the Colts. Mixed in with a brutal trip to Jacksonville before the bye are games against the Dolphins and Broncos. The Texans have one of the easiest schedules in the league.
It's an advantage I think they should be able to leverage into a competitive season, and while the Jaguars look to be riding high with their win over the Patriots, nine wins might be enough to win a wild-card spot in this conference. If I had to pick one 0-2 team to buck the trend and play football this January, I'd go with Houston.