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A Falcons-Patriots Super Bowl Rematch Awaits! What Better Time to Check in on the Perennial NFL Contender Index?

Every NFL team is bad this season—you might have heard! But someone has to make the playoffs. Of the teams that typically grace our screens come January, which four currently flawed squads are best positioned to get it together and earn a bye? Glad you asked.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Patriots and Falcons will play a strange sort of rematch on Sunday night. Neither team is what it was last February, when they met in the Super Bowl. This year, the Patriots own the world’s worst defense, while the Falcons haven’t even blown a 25-point lead yet.

The Falcons also look much worse on offense and are, incredibly, averaging a half yard less per play than they were last year. Even more shocking: The Patriots are giving up 1.4 yards more per play than last season. This sequel is in the vein of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps — it’s a little worse in every way and no one is really looking forward to it.

The good news for those franchises is that while neither New England nor Atlanta is what it was last season, not enough elite teams have emerged to take their place in the playoff race. According to Football Outsiders, teams have never been grouped this tightly in DVOA as they are this season. The Vegas odds reflect the sport’s current landscape: Even though underdogs have won nearly 60 percent of the time this season, Vegas’s Super Bowl futures remain mostly chalky, because none of these underdogs have shown enough to force their way to the top of the odds.

The Patriots and Falcons are also two of the four teams that won playoff games last year but haven’t quite clicked this season, yet still look poised to make a second-half run: New England and Pittsburgh in the AFC and Atlanta and Seattle in the NFC.

The Patriots and Steelers, last year’s AFC title game finalists, are the two NFL-wide favorites to win the Super Bowl. The Falcons are the fifth favorite and the Seahawks are just behind them. In fact, all of their odds have improved despite all of them looking worse than last year. (If you’re curious, yes: Some teams’ odds have shifted dramatically since the start of the season: The Browns are 9,999-to-one, coming up from 300-to-1 in the preseason.)

So the state of play is this: 2016’s elite teams aren’t as good as they were — but 2017’s elite teams have yet to be revealed. The Chiefs look like they can ride their rushing attack and the inexplicably prolific Alex Smith deep passing game to a playoff spot, even after Thursday’s debacle last-second loss to the Raiders, and the Eagles have jetted out to a 5–1 record, which has them with an early edge for the postseason, but so far no other teams look capable of sending the Patriots, Steelers, Seahawks, and Falcons into irrelevance. In fact, we’ll probably look at most of those four teams’ slow starts as footnotes by the time January rolls around.

This is a wide-open race, as evidenced by the fact that the Steelers, who looked to be in utter chaos just last week, would earn a bye if the playoffs started today. With that in mind, let’s handicap the odds for the perennial contenders still best positioned to earn a bye in the playoffs despite their slow starts.

Seattle Seahawks

This week, for the start of the NBA season, the Seahawks released a fascinating video in which they asked their players who would start on the Seahawks’ basketball team. Aside from the fact that it took sort of a long time for anyone to name Jimmy Graham, who played college basketball, I was most intrigued by all of the lineup possibilities, including floating Kam Chancellor at center in a small-ball lineup next to Earl Thomas in the frontcourt. It’s a reminder of how unbelievably athletic this team is. They would absolutely win a five-a-side hoops tournament among NFL teams, right? Who is even second?

While this may sound simplistic, athleticism wins in the NFL, and it also tends to reveal itself more and more as the season progresses. Seattle typically peaks late in the season (unless, as happened last year, Thomas gets hurt and the team then forgets how to play football). They’re an urgently athletic team, able to do things like this at all times:

They have two problems: Russell Wilson, who’s playing behind a miserable offensive line, is under pressure 44 percent of the time, second most among NFL quarterbacks. And despite that athleticism, the defense isn’t playing as well as it could.

When the team traded for defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, we thought we were going to see a defense that was as dominant as the ones that got Seattle to Super Bowls. In a few key areas, we haven’t. The Seattle Times reported that the Seahawks pride themselves on limiting “explosive plays,” which the team defines as passes of 16 yards or longer or runs of 12 yards or longer. Seattle, which gave up 4.75 such plays per game in its dominant 2014 season, is now giving up six per game.

When Aaron Rodgers suffered a potentially season-ending collarbone injury in Week 6, the NFC swung wide open. The 5–1 Eagles have impressed, but aren’t yet a “we know who’s winning the conference” kind of good. The Seahawks have the tools to be that kind of team. But to get there, they need to either improve the offensive line — which, CBS reports, could come in the form of Texans holdout Duane Brown — or, more likely, get the defense back on track. I’m guessing that at least the latter will happen, sending the Seahawks deep into January.

Odds to earn a bye: 2-to-1

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons face the toughest road toward in-season improvement — they have the eighth-hardest schedule remaining, according to Football Outsiders. Other than whether they can hold up against that schedule, the Falcons’ most pressing question is this: What the hell is going on?

Matt Ryan’s accuracy on deep passes is just 21 percent, according to Pro Football Focus, worst among NFL quarterbacks. Last season it was 57 percent, second in the NFL. By comparison, Blake Bortles, who shouldn’t ever be allowed to pass, is hitting 24 percent of his deep passes, and Mike Glennon, who has been benched, is at 25 percent.

Most pressingly, the Falcons must solve a new, mind-numbing aversion to getting Julio Jones the ball:

My colleague Robert Mays tackled this offensive regression in a piece this week. There are a couple of things at work here: We apparently somehow underrated former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who departed for San Francisco last winter, and now Ryan looks more like the quarterback who existed before Shanahan’s breakout than like last year’s MVP. Ryan wouldn’t have thrown this pass last season:

He is 22nd in passer rating when throwing intermediate-length passes. Given the Falcons’ ability to spread the field by sending five guys out into routes and stretching the defense with the threat of a run, this should be the area of the field Ryan dominates. At the very least will someone please pass the ball to Julio freaking Jones?

But here’s the deal: Star pass rusher Vic Beasley is returning to health after a September hamstring injury, last week making his first appearance since September. The Falcons are allowing the fourth-best net passing yards per attempt. The two straight losses they’ve suffered have both been within one score. They still have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL — more talented than, say, the Carolina Panthers, who have a one-game lead on them in the NFC South.

Odds to earn a bye: 5-to-1

New England Patriots

There’s been a lot of discussion about Jimmy Garoppolo as the heir apparent to Tom Brady, but we found out that it’s not such a sure thing this week when Garoppolo revealed that when he first went to Dunkin’ Donuts in New England, he ordered a “Long John.” He was promptly told that wasn’t a thing. Apparently it’s a type of doughnut, but the Dunkin’ Donuts employees were so rattled they said “Pull up to the window and we’ll talk about this.” Dunkin’ Donuts is obviously an institution in New England, and this is a red flag. In a normal year, this hilarious revelation might be the Patriots’ biggest problem, but not this season.

Bill Belichick routinely talks in press conferences about the nature of starting over: “Each year, you start all over again — you start that process all over again,” he said in a long analysis of how teams get better over the course of the season, in which he also noted that teams only have what he said are 20 practices to get ready for the season. This tends to feel like Belichick-speak, since the Patriots usually start the season from a position of strength and then stay strong. But this time those comments feel more real, and this time, his team feels like it’s being built from scratch. If it seems like the Patriots are acting like they never pulled off a historic Super Bowl comeback last season, that’s by partly design: Players said this week that they’re under strict instruction not to talk about one of the best games of all time ahead of this week’s game.

The problem, as everyone knows, is that the defense is making every quarterback look like Tom Brady. Patrick Chung is allowing a reception every 10 snaps in coverage, the worst mark among NFL safeties, and Devin McCourty is allowing one every 14 snaps, eighth in that category. My colleague Rodger Sherman laid out these problems in detail earlier this week.

But everyone in the league I’ve spoken with refuses to bury the Patriots. First of all, despite the defense’s problems, the team is 4–2 and facing no clear threat from another great team in the AFC East. Second, we have about 20 years of evidence suggesting that Belichick will figure something out. I’ve long discussed my idea for Belichick Rescue, a TV show in which Belichick goes to a different NFL team each week and solves all of its problems to turn the team into a winner. Imagine him running the current Giants and yelling “shut it down” at the coaches all the time? The Patriots aren’t perfect, and they may not be all season, but as usual, everyone else is probably going to end up being worse.

Odds to earn a bye: 2-to-1

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers’ 102 points allowed is sixth best in the NFL, and the only teams better have played one less game. They’re tied for the best passing defense in the NFL with 4.4 yards per attempt; are third best in first downs allowed (53); and are just eight away from the top, despite playing one more game than the Seahawks and Bengals, the two better teams. If you’d showed the Steelers those stats before the season, they’d have been ecstatic, figuring the offense would be so good that a team with this kind of defense would turn into a juggernaut steamrolling through the season.

Uh, about that. Ben Roethlisberger is the NFL’s second-worst quarterback when under pressure, with a 34.4 rating, literally less than half of his rating in those situations last year. The win over the Chiefs was important, but at this point in the 2016 season, they’d put up 30 points three times, something they’ve failed to do even once this year. Martavis Bryant, purported to be the last piece of the Steelers’ offensive powerhouse puzzle after returning from suspension this year, is apparently so unhappy with his role that he’s looking for a trade.

My colleague Mike Lombardi brought up an interesting point to me while shooting “Fake Headlines” earlier this week. The quarterback-less model, featuring lots of runs and very, very short passes, that the Jacksonville Jaguars are currently employing to much success, would actually work pretty well in Pittsburgh. While this would render Antonio Brown mostly moot in the deep passing game, we’ve seen him take some balls at the line of scrimmage for big gains before. Plus, Le’Veon Bell has more than 140 rushing yards in two of his past three games. In both of those games, he’s carried the ball over 30 times on average. He doesn’t have to be that kind of workhorse for the rest of the year, since the team can build a game plan in which many of his touches come via screen passes, and are thus easier on the body.

The Steelers’ season is by no means a disaster, but they look flawed offensively. Their ability to reboot comes down to whether Roethlisberger can rebound, and if he can’t, how quickly they can adjust to the world in which he’s no longer elite. A week after Roethlisberger wondered if he still had it, he proclaimed that “this old cowboy” still has something left. But if one touchdown, one pick, and 252 yards (20 less yards than he averaged last season) is Roethlisberger’s idea of a throwback game, the Steelers will have to adjust sooner than they think.

Odds to earn a bye: 3-to-1