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The Fatal Flaws That Could Sink the NFL’s Top Contenders

No football team is perfect. And even some of the best teams in 2020 have weaknesses that could be their undoing.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

No matter how good a football team might be, it’s almost impossible for one to be flawless. And in the parity-loving NFL, the margins between the good and the great teams are usually slim. Entering the 2020 regular season’s halfway point, there is one unbeaten team; one one-loss team; six two-loss teams; and seven three-loss teams. All of them are in the thick of the playoff picture, but one setback, especially with just one bye up for grabs in each conference, could be massive. The three teams tied for the best record in the NFC (Saints, Seahawks and Packers) are only one game in the loss column ahead of the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-place teams in the conference (Buccaneers, Cardinals and Rams). Four teams in the AFC are currently 5-3 and battling for the conference’s final two playoff spots, yet are a victory away from jumping to fourth place.

All of these teams do many things well—but none are perfect. With the playoff picture taking shape, all it takes is one misstep to doom a team’s postseason chances. With that in mind, here are the biggest issues facing each contender as the season enters its second half.

Bills (7-2): Josh Allen’s old habits

The Bills’ third-year quarterback remains enigmatic. He started the season looking like an MVP candidate, then cooled off against the Titans and Chiefs. Even against relatively weak defenses in the Jets and Patriots, he completed 67 percent of his passes for 461 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception. It seemed that as more defenses employed softer zone coverages, Allen began to struggle again. A matchup against the Seahawks helped him rebound, but that was expected against one of the worst statistical pass defenses in NFL history. Eight games in, it’s clear that Allen has improved dramatically from his first two seasons and that he’s capable of playing at a tantalizing level—but he’s also capable of going cold at the wrong times.

The problem might be that the Bills are reliant on Allen. Perhaps they’re not as dependent on him as the Seahawks are on Russell Wilson, but Buffalo’s two defeats (Titans and Chiefs) came in contests when Allen exhibited the same antsy, turnover-prone tendencies that troubled him in his first two seasons. The Bills defense did enough against Kansas City to keep them in the game, but Tennessee hammered their defense, which entered Week 9 ranked 23rd in Football Outsiders’s defensive DVOA ratings—a significant drop from the no. 7 spot they held in 2019. Without a top-tier defense to bail the offense out, Allen falling into old habits could be catastrophic for Buffalo.

The Bills have gone as Allen has gone—he’s yet to have a phenomenal game when it wasn’t enough for Buffalo to win. So long as Allen doesn’t indulge in his past erratic ways, the Bills will be able to compete with anyone. But Buffalo’s success rests mightily with a player who hasn’t yet shown he can be consistent, and that should worry Bills fans.

Buccaneers (6-3): Chemistry and inconsistency

After 20 seasons with the Patriots, Tom Brady joined a new team and adopted a new system for the first time in his career. No preseason games and an abbreviated offseason prevented him from getting fully acquainted with his new digs. Considering Brady is 43 years old, this was bound to impact his success, and that’s been apparent. Yet while there have been inconsistent performances from the Buccaneers offense this year, there have been some very strong showings, too.

It’s made for an uneven first half. One week, Brady and Co. look great against the Packers. The next, they’re scraping by against the Giants and looking hapless against the Saints.

Tampa Bay has the makeup of a championship team, but hasn’t been able to consistently play at an elite level. That made sense earlier in the season, but at this point, it’s concerning. It’s difficult to diagnose the exact problem. Brady’s completion rate (65.3 percent) is right around his career average (63.9) and is 0.3 higher than expected, per Next Gen Stats. Brady’s target distribution reveals that among tight ends and receivers, he’s shown rapport with Cameron Brate (caught 83.3 percent of targets), Tyler Johnson (83.3 percent), and Chris Godwin (80 percent). But Brady is completing less than 70 percent of his passes when targeting Mike Evans (65.4 percent), Justin Watson (63.6 percent), Scotty Miller (63.4 percent), Antonio Brown (60 percent), and Rob Gronkowski (58.7 percent), who came out of retirement after a year away. Of this group, only Evans, Gronkowski, and Miller (the team’s three leaders in targets) have played all nine games. At times, Brady has appeared in sync with his collection of targets and shined, but there are still moments when Brady doesn’t appear to be on the same page as other players.

Health has been a concern too, not only within the receiving corps (Godwin and Miller were on Tampa’s injury across previous weeks, and Gronkowski was nursing a shoulder injury the week before), but along the offensive line as well. Starting left guard Ali Marpet didn’t play against New Orleans because of a concussion, and starting left tackle Donovan Smith battled a knee injury through the early weeks of the season. The Bucs’ O-line, like each of its position groups, is performing inconsistently this year, even against four-man pressure:

The Bucs are one of the NFL’s best-constructed rosters. But they are still figuring out how to reach their potential.

Chiefs (8-1): Run defense

The Chiefs are as close to flawless as a team can be. Their defense has given up more than 20 points only twice. Their offense is among the best in several categories, including third-down conversion rate (50 percent, fourth), yards per play (6.3, third), pass yards per attempt (8.1, fifth), pass yards per game (295.3, second), and points per game (31.8, second).

The Chiefs have scored 13 first-half points or fewer in four of their nine games this season (Chargers, Patriots, Bills, and Panthers). Kansas City won each game, surpassing their first-half output during the second half of three of those contests. The Chiefs appear close to unstoppable, and the only team that’s beaten them so far is the Raiders, who played as perfect a game as a team can against them. Las Vegas matched Kansas City’s first-half output and managed to generate a lead in second, then forced a few punts and an interception—Mahomes’s only interception of the year thus far.

Mahomes is leading one of the NFL’s highest-scoring teams while putting the ball in jeopardy at a lower clip (a league-best 0.3 percent interception rate) than he has at any point in his career. Opposing defenses have tried their best to slow down Mahomes by mixing zone coverages, but it has not worked. The Chiefs have scored on 52.8 percent of their possessions (highest in the NFL), while allowing opponents to score on just 35.1 percent (seventh lowest). Kansas City, coming off its first title in 50 years, shows no signs of slowing down and has the looks of a dynasty in the making. The Chiefs look so much better than their opponents that it feels like they don’t need to put their foot on the gas until they have to.

There is one potential weakness that teams have shown some ability in taking advantage of: the Chiefs’ run defense, which ranks last in expected points added (minus-38.79) and 26th in yards allowed per carry (4.8). Seven of Kansas City’s opponents have rushed for 100 yards or more. But relying on the run alone will rarely be enough to overpower Mahomes and Co.

The way the Chiefs operate is reminiscent of the dynastic Warriors: They’re a young, dominant squad centered around a once-in-a-generation player who’s capable of doing things nobody has seen with distinct regularity—and has the on-field swagger to suggest he knows how good he is. It’s producing results. Kansas City has no true weakness. No lead is safe. The only hope for opposing teams is to find a way to slow down Mahomes early, then hang on for dear life.

Packers (6-2): Run defense

Aaron Rodgers doesn’t have many weapons outside of receiver Davante Adams and tailback Aaron Jones, but those two coupled with Rodgers are enough to make the Packers offense one of the best in the NFL. Their defense, despite boasting a handful of great pass rushers and strong secondary play, has been susceptible against the run at times. It was Green Bay’s undoing last season in the NFC championship game against the 49ers, and has shown signs of being a weakness again this year.

Halfway into the season, the Packers rank 24th in EPA by their rush defense at minus-25.15 mark, per Pro Football Reference, and 20th in Football Outsiders’s rush defense DVOA ratings. The Packers are average in terms of opponent yards per carry, allowing 4.5.

Teams have only registered 196 rushing attempts against Green Bay this season (fifth fewest), a sign most opponents have turned to the air to try to keep up with Matt LaFleur’s offense, which is averaging 31.6 points per game (third). Aside from the Vikings’ upset behind a 163-yard, three-touchdown rushing performance from Dalvin Cook, few teams have had the chance or the willingness to run the ball against Green Bay. That doesn’t mean it’s not an area of weakness. Where the Packers can perhaps be encouraged by their run defense though, is in opponents’ explosive carry rate, which is only 10 percent halfway through the season, the NFL’s ninth-lowest rate per Warren Sharp’s database. Nonetheless, a team successfully rushing the ball against the Packers—moving the ball and chewing up clock while also keeping the ball out of Rodgers’s hands—could take Green Bay down.

Ravens (6-2): Lamar Jackson’s regression

The Colts’ game plan against Lamar Jackson last week incorporated a heavy amount of spying, utilizing the athleticism of star linebacker Darius Leonard to aid in containing the reigning league MVP. It worked: Through two quarters, the Ravens offense scored no points and gained just 61 total yards. Jackson had just 15 yards rushing. But in the second half, the Ravens made the necessary adjustments. Jackson completed 10-of-10 passes for 119 yards and rushed for 43 yards and one touchdown, leading Baltimore to a 24-10 win—Jackson’s first-ever NFL victory after trailing at half.

Jackson completed 82.6 percent of his passes in the win, improving his record to 22-1 as a starter when he completes 56 percent of his passes or better. But Jackson hasn’t consistently played at the dominant level that he did last season and has declined in nearly every statistical category. His play has been particularly worrisome in big games. Each of his defeats this season—against the Chiefs and Steelers—saw Jackson’s impact severely diminished. A key to beating the Ravens is getting pressure on Jackson and bringing him down, something both the Chiefs and Steelers were able to achieve in their regular-season meetings this season. The Ravens have skill players whom they could likely work within game plans to ease the burden on Jackson, but in each of the past two years, he’s faltered in prime-time matchups in the playoffs and the regular season. A Thanksgiving rematch with the Steelers could perhaps be the first step towards proving that he can overcome the jitters against the NFL’s best.

Saints (6-2): The deep ball

The Saints’ blowout of the Bucs on Sunday night broke a five-game streak of one-score games (4-1), and has pushed New Orleans back into the Super Bowl discussion. But there are still visible weaknesses for the Saints, who have one of the league’s most balanced and deep rosters. The most glaring one is that Drew Brees appears incapable of airing the ball out like he used to.

Brees’s 5.8 intended air yards per attempt ranks last in the league this season, per Next Gen Stats. Saints receivers have seen their yards before catch average dip from 6.0 (2018), to 5.2 (2019), to 5.1 (2020), and their yards after catch average decrease from5.4 (2019) to 5.2 (2020). Brees’s inability to go deep has affected the receivers’ ability to make things happen after the catch. The Saints’ passing game ranks seventh in Football Outsiders’s DVOA metric, so the inability to stretch the field hasn’t completely tanked the offense. But New Orleans’s 17 explosive pass plays rank 30th in the league, per Warren Sharp’s database. The Saints are registering explosive pass plays on only 6 percent of throws (27th).

Brees has been limited by a right shoulder injury over the past few weeks, and there’s concern about whether it will play a bigger role as the season goes on. The Saints have suffered heart-wrenching postseason defeats to the Vikings (twice) and Rams in the past three years. Brees has struggled down the stretch of each of them. Time is running out on Brees’s chance at a second title, but if he’s going to capture it, it won’t be by testing his opponents deep.

Seahawks (6-2): Pass defense

You cannot discuss the NFL’s last decade without mentioning the Seahawks’ legendary Legion of Boom. Eight games into this decade, Seattle’s secondary is being talked about for all of the wrong reasons. The Seahawks are giving up 362.1 pass yards per game, the most ever allowed by a team through eight games.

The heroics of Russell Wilson, who’s playing at an MVP-caliber level this season, won’t always be enough, as recent weeks have revealed. The Seahawks have allowed opposing passers to generate explosive plays on 10 percent of throws, tied for the fourth-worst rate this season, per Warren Sharp’s database. The 38 explosive pass plays Seattle has allowed is the second-most allowed overall this season.

The Seahawks have struggled to generate much of a pass rush, which certainly plays a role in their inability to slow opposing passers. But injuries and poor performances from members of the secondary have led to major questions surrounding the unit entering the second half of the year. There’s still plenty of time to perhaps remedy the issues, but until there’s even marginal signs of improvement, Seattle will have to rely on the arm of Wilson to carry the team.

Steelers (8-0): Keeping Ben Roethlisberger healthy

Through eight games, Pittsburgh is the NFL’s only unbeaten team. This is the Steelers’ best start ever, and coach Mike Tomlin has his squad positioned for an exciting playoff run. But Pittsburgh’s undefeated start nearly ended against the lowly Cowboys last week, pointing toward some potential weaknesses for this squad.

Hardly anyone expected Pittsburgh to struggle in Dallas. But when Ben Roethlisberger came out of the game during the second quarter because of a knee injury—while the Cowboys were leading—and Mason Rudolph replaced him, it seemed like a recipe for disaster, one that the Steelers became familiar with last season. Roethlisberger returned for the second half and finished with 306 passing yards and three touchdowns. Roethlisberger was the difference between the Steelers being a playoff contender and a .500 squad last year. He’s the key to them achieving this season, in concert with one of the NFL’s most dominant defenses.

But for Roethlisberger, 38, making it through the next eight-plus games fully healthy will be difficult. In Week 8 against the Ravens, he dinged up the same elbow he underwent season-ending surgery for last year. On Monday, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that Roethlisberger injured both knees against the Cowboys and there’s “cautious optimism” about his health ahead of facing the Bengals this week. On Tuesday, he was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list after being ruled a close contact of teammate Vance McDonald, who tested positive. Pittsburgh already had its bye week after its matchup with the Titans was rescheduled because of a virus outbreak, so there’s a chance Roethlisberger could have to play 13 games in a row prior to the postseason starting. The Steelers will need to keep him upright, because Rudolph will not be able to keep this team in championship contention.

Titans (6-2): Third-down defense

The Titans have followed up their surprising AFC championship run with a 6-2 start to the 2020 season. The most remarkable part of Tennessee’s record is that it has gone 5-1 in one-possession games so far. When the going gets tough, there are few teams who can grind a game out better than the Titans—until it’s third down.

Tennessee’s defense ranks dead last in third-down percentage, allowing opposing offenses to convert 55.4 percent of the time. And this is after the Titans held the Bears to 2-for-15 last week. Prior to facing Chicago—which entered 31st in third-down offense (34.9 percent)—Mike Vrabel’s defense was allowing opposing offense to convert 61.9 percent of third downs. It’s been a dramatic free fall from the 36.3-percent mark the Tennessee defense was holding opposing offenses to last season in such situations.

This season, opposing passers have combined to complete 53 of 87 passes (60.9 percent) for 597 yards, six touchdowns, two interceptions, and 45 first downs on third downs against the Titans. Opposing rushers have attempted 23 carries for 115 yards (5.0 ypc), managing 17 first downs and one touchdown.

There are a handful of factors that have contributed to Tennessee’s issues on third down, including a lacking pass rush and inconsistent perimeter coverage. The offseason addition of former All-Pro pass rusher Vic Beasley did not work out—he was released after appearing in just five games. The acquisition of Jadeveon Clowney has aided the front seven, but hasn’t firmly established the Titans’ pass rush as dominant, as he’s been hampered by a knee injury since Week 5. Tennessee ranks eighth worst in pressure rate (19.1 percent) and is tied for the NFL’s third-worst sack rate (3.0 percent). Those numbers have also been influenced by shaky coverage in the secondary. Starting cornerback Adoree’ Jackson was placed on injured reserve before the season started, pressing veteran Johnathan Joseph into the lineup. The Titans cut Joseph, who tied for 62nd in Pro Football Focus’s coverage grades (62.4), after seven games. Tennessee acquired one-time All-Pro defensive back Desmond King from the Chargers at the trade deadline, and he made an immediate impact—King scored off a fumble return in a 24-17 win during his debut. But the Titans will need last week’s defensive performance to be more than just an outlier moving forward.

Tennessee also has an awful red zone defense, which is the league’s second worst halfway through the season, with opponents scoring touchdowns on 23 of 29 chances (79.3 percent). The Titans have time to figure things out, but as long as they’re shaky on third down, it will leave them susceptible to folding in big moments.