We’re seven weeks into the NFL season, and some teams’ campaigns are just about over already. The Cardinals, 49ers, Giants, and Raiders are all in the cross-off zone. They each have just one win, and are all reeling. The Cardinals just got shellacked on Thursday Night Football, the 49ers’ season ended when Jimmy Garoppolo’s ACL snapped, the Giants are approaching NBA levels of petty passive-aggression, and Derek Carr is openly weeping on the football field:
It’s safe to say none of those four teams are bouncing back any time soon.
There’s one two-win team worth crossing off, and that’s the Bills. Buffalo is fielding one of the worst offenses in league history and just committed to starting Derek Anderson, who has started only four games since 2010, at quarterback. According to Football Outsiders’ playoff odds, the Bills have just a 0.9 percent chance of making the playoffs in their crowded division. Buffalo may have two wins, but it’s pretty much toast.
This week, there are three teams that could join those five on the cross-off list. The Colts, Falcons, and Browns are all in the playoff hunt—but just barely. A loss this weekend for any of them could mark the effective end for their postseason hopes. Let’s break down where they are and what they need to do to right the ship before it’s too late:
Indianapolis Colts (1-5)
At 1-5, the Colts are a tempting team to cross out. Since the current playoff format was implemented in 1990, 97 teams have begun the season 1-5, and only one has gone on to make the playoffs: the 2015 Chiefs. That year, Kansas City won its final 10 games in row, comfortably earning an AFC wild-card spot at 11-5. But the Chiefs are a clear outlier, and a 1-in-97 chance feels nearly insurmountable for the Colts.
I’m not ready to cross off Indy just yet, though. For one, the Colts don’t appear to be in a position where they’ll need an 11-5 record to make the playoffs. Just look at their division: The other three teams in the AFC South are all 3-3, so Indy is just two wins behind its main competitors. Plus, the Colts are by far the best 1-5 team in the league, coming in at 19th in DVOA. Jacksonville, at just 15th, is the top-ranked team in the AFC South by that metric. This is all reflected in Football Outsiders’ playoff odds report, which gives Indianapolis a 10.2 percent chance of making the postseason. No other 1-5 squad has even half as good a shot.
There’s also reason to expect that the Colts will improve soon. Indianapolis has been devastated by injuries, and it’s just getting some of its biggest names back up to full speed. Running back Marlon Mack played last Sunday, seeing his first action since Week 2 after a hamstring injury. Mack is supposed to be a three-down back for the Colts, and his return to health could finally bring a sense of balance to a team that has been flipping between Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins for much of the season. Star receiver T.Y. Hilton is also set to return to the field this week after missing weeks 5 and 6 with a hamstring injury.
Of course, the X factor for the Colts will always be the guy under center, and he’s been steadily improving as the season has gone on:
Something I learned today: One Colts pass-catcher said Andrew Luck's throws have been coming with more and more heat since the summer.— Zak Keefer (@zkeefer) October 17, 2018
Even Luck is surprised at how good his shoulder feels. Was resigned to more pain. He keeps telling his girlfriend, "This is freaking awesome!"
Outside of his eight interceptions, Luck is having a solid year, throwing for 1,792 yards and 16 touchdowns with an 88.8 passer rating. If the running game can get back on track, the Colts passer may not have to throw the ball so often (he leads the league in attempts), which could help him make fewer mistakes. If that happens, Indianapolis could be back in business. Luck can still be one of those rare passers who elevates everyone around him.
Of course, 1-5 is a deep hole. No team has ever made the playoffs after starting 1-6, so if the Colts lose to the Bills this weekend, Indy fans can stop hoping for a miracle run and begin looking to 2019.
Atlanta Falcons (2-4)
The Falcons are in the middle of a season from hell. It began with a six-point loss to the Eagles in Week 1, in which Atlanta had four chances to win the game, continued with a Week 3 overtime loss to the Saints and a Week 4 one-point loss to the Bengals, and opened its latest chapter when running back Devonta Freeman was placed on injured reserve with a groin injury. The Falcons are 2-4, but could just as easily have been 5-1.
Offensively, the Falcons have been cruising since that slow start in Philadelphia. After its much-maligned goal-line performance in Week 1, Atlanta has scored on 69.6 percent of its red zone attempts on the season—tied for fourth in the league. Matt Ryan has thrown for 1,956 yards, 14 touchdowns, and two interceptions with a 113.6 passer rating. If he keeps up that pace, this will be the second-best season of his career after the 2016 MVP campaign. Rookie Calvin Ridley has been a sensation and the perfect compliment to Julio Jones, who is still a world-destroying deep threat, even if he can’t catch a touchdown. And the loss of Freeman shouldn’t set their attack back much either; the fifth-year running back has played in just two games on the season, so the offense has been effective in his absence. But that offensive success just hasn’t translated to wins, because it has been cannibalized by a defense that is quietly one of the worst in football.
Atlanta’s defense ranks 31st in DVOA, allows more points than any team in football, and allows the second-most yards. Some of the team’s struggles have been due to injury. The Falcons lost defensive backs Ricardo Allen (Achilles) and Keanu Neal (ACL) to season-ending injuries, and linebacker Deion Jones is on the designated to return IR list with a foot injury. The one point of hope for Atlanta may be that every team it’s played thus far—the Eagles, Panthers, Saints, Bengals, Steelers, and Buccaneers—is flush with offensive talent. The Falcons may be due for some regression to the mean.
That may come as early as this week, when they play the lowly Giants (on Monday Night Football, for some reason) before a bye week. If they can secure a win, they’ll be 3-4 with a chance to regroup. But a 2-5 start could put the playoffs out of reach for a team that plays in one of the most competitive divisions in football.
Cleveland Browns (2-3-1)
With the Ravens, Bengals, and Steelers ahead of Cleveland in the AFC North, a division title is likely out of reach. I mean, we’re talking about the Browns here. This team went 1-31 over the past two seasons. It’s just happy to be in this conversation.
And yet, it also feels like the Browns are underachieving some this year. They tied the Steelers, so that’s a win that slipped through their fingers, and lost to the Raiders in overtime only after some very questionable officiating. They lost a game to the Saints by just three points. Five of Cleveland’s six games have been incredibly close, and yet the team has emerged as a winner just twice.
The Browns have leaned on their defense this year. Second-year pass rusher Myles Garrett has five sacks and 11 quarterback hits, rookie Denzel Ward has three interceptions, and third-year linebacker Joe Schobert leads the team in tackles. All together, the defense ranks sixth in DVOA and has stifled offenses like the Saints (21 points) and Steelers (21).
It’s on offense where Cleveland has struggled. Tyrod Taylor was a disaster in the team’s first three games, completing 48.8 percent of his passes as the Browns offense ground to an infuriating halt. Baker Mayfield breathed new life into the team when he came in against the Jets in Week 3, but he’s been up and down since, throwing more interceptions (five) than touchdowns (four) on the season. Running back Carlos Hyde is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry, and, without a field-stretching receiver, Jarvis Landry and Antonio Callaway haven’t been able to consistently get open and find chemistry with Mayfield in the passing game.
This could be the week Mayfield and Co. finally get something going. The Browns play the Buccaneers, who own the worst defense in the league by DVOA. Tampa Bay has allowed at least 400 yards of offense every game this season. In short, if the Browns can’t score against this defense, then their issues are dire.
A loss to the Bucs would push the Browns so far into the hole that they may never be able to climb out. Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh are all in the top 12 in DVOA, and the Browns still have to travel to face each one. In fact, the Buccaneers are probably the easiest matchup the Browns have left on their schedule. They have to win it.