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The Blueprint for Pulling Away From the NFL Pack

History tells us that these three- and four-win teams are poised to make playoff runs

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Things that peak in October and November rarely have much staying power in January. That’s true for baseball, pumpkin spice lattes, and fleece pullovers, and it’s also true for NFL teams that get off to strong starts. The last time the league’s final unbeaten team won the Super Bowl was a decade ago, when the 2006 Colts started 9–0, then won Super Bowl XLI. Being 7–1 at this point in the season is like getting your inbox down to zero emails: It’s a nice personal accomplishment, but it doesn’t actually matter.

Week 10 is the pivot point, the moment for teams to reverse their fortunes. The Seahawks were 4–4 at this point last year, and they wound up making it to the divisional round of the playoffs. The Eagles were also 4–4, and they wound up firing their coach.

Amid concerns about the quality of play this year, it’s hard not to notice how many teams seem to be clustered in the middle. But some of these three- and four-win squads that appear to be treading water are actually about to separate themselves and become contenders. It happens every year.

The key is figuring out which teams have a path to breaking through. Teams don’t simply "get better" in the last seven or eight games of the season; improvement is more specific and scientific than that. They cut down on crucial mistakes, fix glaring personnel issues, or make schematic tweaks. So with prior successful strategies in mind, here are the 2016 franchises best-positioned to follow those historical blueprints and turn their seasons around.

The Innovative Team

The History: The 2008 Miami Dolphins and 2012 Seattle Seahawks

NFL coaches are conservative, planning well ahead of time and installing game plans in training camp. It’s uncommon for teams to begin utilizing new plays or schemes midstream, but sometimes it’s a genius way to jump-start an attack.

After the 2008 Dolphins got off to a mediocre 4–4 start, they began to rely heavily on the wildcat package featuring running back Ronnie Brown, which they debuted in a Week 3 win over the Patriots, then honed throughout the season until it became a dominant force. Brown’s Week 10 touchdown out of the formation helped seal a victory over the Seahawks, putting the Dolphins above .500 for the first time that season. They finished 11–5, first in the AFC East.

The 2012 Seahawks, meanwhile, were 4–4 behind a rookie quarterback and an average offense — until midseason. Eight of their nine best offensive performances came in the second half of the season after the team perfected the read-option play, with QB Russell Wilson either running the ball himself or handing off to Marshawn Lynch. The call froze defenders, who had no clue which player to pursue, creating devastating offensive plays like this:

The 2016 Possibility: The Tennessee Titans

The Titans, now 4–5, have the pieces to do anything offensively. They’ve got a good offensive line, led by instant-impact rookie Jack Conklin, and a mobile, sometimes-electric quarterback in Marcus Mariota. The second-year passer’s biggest weakness is that he’s still prone to making game-changing mistakes, but the Titans could be poised to innovate. More read-option? More direct snaps to running back DeMarco Murray? Anything at all to better utilize Mariota’s legs? It’s all on the table — Mike Mularkey just has to think of it.

The No-Turnover Team

The History: The 2012 Cincinnati Bengals, 2013 San Diego Chargers, and 2015 Washington Redskins

Winning teams don’t turn the ball over; it follows that improving teams turn the ball over less. We know that recovering fumbles is not a skill, so that’s partially luck, but cutting down on interceptions is definitely is a skill. The 2015 Redskins started 4–6, but rattled off five wins in their last six games to win the NFC East. They didn’t change a whole lot in the final weeks of the season, but there was one key difference: They stopped turning the ball over. In their first 10 games, they turned the ball over 19 times, including six multiple-turnover games. In their final six games? Zero multi-turnover outings and just three total lost balls. That charge was led by Kirk Cousins, who threw just one pick in his last six games in part because he threw fewer overall passes, with 73 fewer attempts in the second half than in the first. Taking the ball out of Cousins’s hands to cut back on turnovers sparked a second-half surge for the entire team.

The 2013 Chargers also dialed back the passing offense as the season went on. Philip Rivers threw 40-plus times in four games, all in the first eight weeks of the season. He threw six interceptions in those games, and the Chargers went 2–2. In all, 10 of their 21 turnovers that season occurred in just the first five weeks. Rivers had just four interceptions in the second half of the season, and the Chargers rode four straight wins to a playoff spot.

Sometimes it’s not a matter of slowing down the offensive turnovers, but creating defensive ones. The 2012 Bengals gave the ball up 26 times, but still improved from 4–5 to 10–6 thanks to forcing a ton of possession changes: They hauled in multiple interceptions in six games after their Week 8 bye, obscuring Andy Dalton’s mediocre 16-pick season.

The 2016 Possibility: The San Diego Chargers and Carolina Panthers

This may already be happening: The Chargers committed multiple turnovers in six straight games from weeks 3 to 8. On Sunday against the Titans, they played their first turnover-free game since Week 1, and forced Tennessee into three turnovers to boot. It probably helped that running back Melvin Gordon had 196 yards, and if that ground production is sustainable and Gordon keeps his fumble rate at its current vastly improved clip, the turnovers won’t hamper the team.

The Panthers, meanwhile, have committed 17 turnovers, tied for the second most among NFL teams, behind the Chargers. (The New York Jets have committed 19, but I said "NFL teams.") After throwing five picks in his first three games, Cam Newton has zero in his past two — both wins. Carolina might be poised to make a run. Tailback Jonathan Stewart, who missed three weeks, has returned to health, which will no doubt help dissuade teams from brushing off the Panthers’ backfield options and trying to destroy Newton on every play.

The New Quarterback Team

The History: The 2002 New York Jets, 2011 Denver Broncos, and 2013 Philadelphia Eagles

The most obvious fix for a struggling but promising team is a jolt at quarterback. Six teams in history have recovered from 2–5 starts to make the playoffs under the current postseason format, which began in 1990 — and four of them made quarterback changes midseason. The 2011 Broncos had the most notable swap of the bunch:

Aside from those four teams, other mediocre clubs have also benefited from positive swaps under center: The 2013 Philadelphia Eagles solved their underwhelming offense, which had led them to a 3–5 start, by turning to Nick Foles (who was actually pretty good that year, I swear). The 2002 Jets, meanwhile, made the most Jets move of all time in October of that year, benching Vinny Testaverde for a young upstart named Chad Pennington. The Jets had started 1–3, but Pennington, the unquestioned emperor of efficiency, went 8–4 in his starts to get the Jets into the playoffs. They went 9–7 overall and played the Colts in the playoffs, both also very Jetsy things.

The 2016 Possibilities: The Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers

The Rams, now 3–5, presumably have the best backup quarterback in the NFL in no. 1 overall pick Jared Goff. They also may, oddly, have the worst starter in the league in Case Keenum. Replacing Keenum with Goff would be the easiest and most obvious way to fix the season and avoid the 7–9 bullshit.

Of course, sometimes a team gets a guy back to health, and it’s like getting a new quarterback. This will occur for the 4–4 Steelers whenever Ben Roethlisberger returns from his torn meniscus to replace whoever played so poorly on Sunday against the Rav — wait, oh my God, that was HIM?

The Situational Team

The History: The 2014 Carolina Panthers

Sometimes mediocre teams make the playoffs because they luck out with a crappy division or easy schedule. One team that had both: the extremely mediocre 2014 Panthers, who benefited from a comically easy late schedule to improve from 3–8–1 to 7–8–1 and win the division. The Panthers got to face four consecutive teams that finished the season below .500 and went 4–0 in those games, winning two of them by exactly 31 points. Any of this year’s mediocre teams should be so lucky.

The 2016 Possibility: The New Orleans Saints

According to Football Outsiders, the Saints had played the hardest schedule so far this year entering Week 9. According to the same site, they’ll have the 24th-hardest schedule from here on. That’s fortuitous, especially with the Saints having won two straight and the rest of the NFC light on obvious playoff teams. If any team is going to luck into a playoff spot, it’s going to be the Saints.