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How Much Should These NFL Playoff Hopefuls Be Panicking After Sunday?

Seven teams that were in line to make the playoffs lost on Sunday. But we learned very different things about the Vikings and Giants compared to, say, the Titans and Dolphins.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On paper, it seemed like Week 14 would clear up the NFL’s playoff picture. Several teams already in good standing in the postseason race were taking on lesser opponents, and it looked like we were headed for a culling of the herd. Instead, it had the opposite effect. Seven teams that were in line to make the playoffs lost on Sunday, making some divisional and wild-card races even harder to call than before. Not all of those losing teams are in danger of missing out on the postseason—Minnesota is essentially a lock to win the NFC North, and Tennessee has a healthy margin for error in the AFC South—but that doesn’t mean we can’t be concerned about their respective outlooks. So after an eventful slate of games, let’s check on these teams’ panic levels for the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs.

Miami Dolphins

Miami’s playoff odds dropped by 14 percentage points following Sunday night’s 23-17 loss to the Chargers, per FiveThirtyEight, but really the decline is even steeper than that. Two weeks ago, before a West Coast trip from hell, the Dolphins’ chances of making the postseason sat at 91 percent. They’re now down to 73 percent, and with the right combination of results next weekend, that number could dip below 50. Miami will face the Bills on Saturday—Josh Allen and Co. opened up as 7-point favorites—and the slumping Tua Tagovailoa has never played well in Buffalo.

Tua’s Two Starts in Buffalo Were Disastrous

Season Dropbacks Completion Percentage Yards per Dropback EPA per Dropback Success Rate
Season Dropbacks Completion Percentage Yards per Dropback EPA per Dropback Success Rate
2020 61 60.3% 6.05 -0.30 41.0%
2021 43 53.8% 4.72 -0.06 37.2%

Making matters worse, there now seems to be a blueprint for slowing down what had been a high-flying passing attack over the first three months of the season. Both the 49ers, who beat the Dolphins 33-17 last week, and Chargers played a ton of press coverage against Miami with the aim of disrupting the timing of Mike McDaniel’s quick-strike passing game and forcing Tua to hold on to the ball a little longer.

The tactic has definitely accomplished that first goal, but, oddly enough, Tagovailoa’s average time to throw over the past two weeks is shorter than it was over the first 12. That suggests that Tua hasn’t adjusted and is just quickly chucking the ball into nonexistent windows, which certainly seemed to be the case on Sunday night in Los Angeles.

Miami has nearly exhausted its margin for error in the playoff race. This is not the time for the offense to go into a prolonged slump. Not with road games against Sean McDermott’s Bills and Bill Belichick’s Patriots coming up over the next three weeks. If the Dolphins can’t split those two games, this team that looked unstoppable after rolling the Texans in Week 12 could miss out on the playoffs. What a difference eight days make.

Panic level: 8 out of 10

New York Giants

Going into Sunday’s game against Philly, there was a well-reasoned belief that the Giants, with their blitz-heavy approach on defense and run-first approach on offense, could be a tricky matchup for an Eagles team that had shown vulnerabilities against both. But Jalen Hurts and friends needed only about 20 minutes to quiet that thinking.

It was an ugly 48-22 loss for the Giants. But New York’s playoff odds dropped only a few percentage points, from 51 percent to 45, and with a win over Washington next week, they would jump to 86 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight. The Giants are still holding on to a playoff spot thanks to Seattle’s loss on Sunday. But the next time New York takes the field, it will have been over a month since it has won a football game. And if not for a garbage-time touchdown against the Eagles backups, Sunday’s game would have been the fourth in a row in which the Giants failed to score more than 20 points.

The blowout loss to Philly showed how far New York has to go before it can compete with true contenders. The coaching staff has elevated a bad roster, but there’s only so much they can do when facing a talent disadvantage as significant as in Sunday’s game. This was a sobering reality check for a team that has never looked as good as its record implied.

The Giants were already playing with house money, so I’m not sure how much their fans should be panicking right now. The first-year front office did not hide that it viewed this as a reset season, meant to clean up the mess former GM/walking meme Dave Gettleman left behind. And with an upcoming game against the similarly mediocre Commanders that will basically decide the team’s postseason fate, New York isn’t in the worst spot.

Panic level: 4 out of 10

Tennessee Titans

The Titans are another team that has largely overachieved thanks to an inventive and competent coaching staff. But there is a point of diminishing returns with that kind of success, and it appears Mike Vrabel’s group has reached it. Tennessee was pantsed for a second consecutive week on Sunday, losing 36-22 to a Jaguars team that sits just two games back of the AFC South leaders. The Titans still have an 86 percent chance of making the playoffs, so let’s not get carried away here. But if dragging the Chiefs to overtime was supposed to be evidence that the Titans could compete with the AFC’s top contenders, the past three weeks suggest that the judge should throw that evidence out.

The defense, which had done much of the heavy lifting when Tennessee was building its lead in the division, ranks 31st in EPA allowed since Week 12. The pass defense alone has surrendered the NFL’s highest EPA average over that time, per, and the coverage unit, which was missing Kristian Fulton and Tre Avery on Sunday, was no match for Trevor Lawrence, who averaged 8.6 yards per dropback and a season-high 0.42 EPA per dropback.

It’s the third straight week we’ve seen a top quarterback shred this defense—after Hurts and Joe Burrow—and things won’t get easier with Justin Herbert up next. What was once the team’s strength has become a major weakness, and I’m not sure whether Vrabel and defensive coordinator Shane Bowen have any more answers.

It’s not just the defense, either. The offense has scored more than 24 points just once all season, and it ranks 27th in EPA per play during this three-game losing streak. Even with Derrick Henry topping 100 yards for the first time since early November on Sunday, that unit still couldn’t get going. Ryan Tannehill turned the ball over twice, ending what had been a nice little stretch of largely mistake-free football for the Tennessee quarterback.

Tennessee appears to have built up enough of a buffer to fend off the Jags—even if Jacksonville can finish off the sweep in Week 18. But it has become clear that this Titans season won’t last much longer than that.

Panic level: 7 out of 10

New York Jets

The Jets are the lone AFC team that fell out of a playoff spot this week after the Chargers leapfrogged them with their win over the Dolphins. New York lost a sloppy, rainy game in Buffalo, but that did not provide any reason to panic outside of injuries to Quinnen Williams and a potential rib issue for Mike White, who took a trip to the hospital after the game as a precautionary measure, according to Robert Saleh. The Jets head coach said he’s hopeful Williams will play next week, and White traveled home with the team. And while a loss to the Bills is a setback—the Jets’ playoff odds dropped below 40 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight—it’s not an unexpected one. New York was a nine-point underdog and managed to give one of the NFL’s best teams a competitive game despite losing its defensive star and starting quarterback. The Jets still control their own destiny and take on the Dolphins in Week 18 in a game that could decide the division.

Panic level: 2 out of 10

Minnesota Vikings

Despite what the standings say, the 6-7 Lions are a better football team than the 10-3 Vikings. Detroit proved that with a decisive 34-23 win over the NFC North leaders on Sunday—and that was with Minnesota getting the best possible version of 1 o’clock Kirk Cousins, who led all passers in EPA per dropback this week, according to TruMedia.

As has typically been the case this season, the Vikings defense was the weak link. Missing Harrison Smith, who essentially won the Jets game on his own, did not help matters. The All-Pro candidate’s absence made things easy for Jared Goff, who launched several deep balls, including this wide-open toss to rookie Jameson Williams.

The leaky defense would be easier to overlook if the Vikings offense, and Kirk specifically, were a bit more consistent. Last week, Cousins played his worst game of the season. This week, he followed it up with his best.

Bill Parcells famously said “you are what your record says,” and in response to that, I’d tell him to watch the games. Or just look at some other, more predictive measures of team performance—many of which paint the Vikings to be as mediocre as they appear on tape. Forget about the other (actually legitimate) contenders in the NFC: Minnesota’s underlying metrics pale in comparison to Detroit’s.

Sadly for the upstart Lions and neutral observers, it doesn’t matter that the Vikings are lucky to be here. Those 10 wins are already in the bank and it would require a historic collapse—we’re talking Minnesota sports, so that can’t be ruled out—for the Vikings to miss the playoffs, where a matchup with a low-level wild-card team awaits. This bag might be un-fumble-able, no matter how hard Kirk and this defense try down the stretch.

Panic level: 5 out of 10 (perfectly mediocre)

Seattle Seahawks

It would be easy to spin the narrative that Seattle’s 30-24 loss at home to the Panthers was the first step in Geno Smith’s transformation back into a pumpkin, but that would be a harsh evaluation of his performance. This was easily Smith’s worst game of the season, but a missed offside, which the QB understandably assumed would give him a free play, led to one of his two picks on the day.

And the other came on an instinctual play by Jaycee Horn, who abandoned his zone responsibility to intercept an ambitious Cover 2 hole shot.

Geno bounced back from the early mistakes to throw some nice passes, but this wasn’t a pretty game for a quarterback who had been turning in beautiful performances on a weekly basis. His throws didn’t have the same zip they typically do, which shouldn’t come as a surprise after Smith popped up on the injury report with a shoulder issue. Maybe the wear and tear of the season is getting to him—it’s been nearly a decade since he’s thrown this many passes in a season. But Smith won’t be hit with rotten interception luck going forward. So, no, I would not panic over Geno’s performance.

I will not say the same for a defense that allowed 223 rushing yards in the loss. Getting trounced in the run game by Josh Jacobs in Week 12—to the tune of 229 yards and a pair of scores—is understandable. Even letting Carolina, which ranks fifth in EPA per rush attempt, run wild isn’t the most shameful thing. But we’ve also seen the Seahawks get run on by the Rams and Bucs—two teams with well-documented issues in the ground game.

There isn’t a clear short-term fix for this. Pete Carroll embraced change and brought in some defensive assistants from outside his coaching tree this offseason, but the results have been bottom-of-the-league awful outside of one good stretch against some bad offenses. This Seahawks defense is demonstrably soft, both conceptually and in practice. A return to Carroll’s old brand—the one that has kind of fallen out of favor, with teams playing more and more two-high coverages now—should probably be in order this offseason.

But that’s likely the soonest this unit can turn things around, and if Geno’s shoulder continues to bother him, it will be tough for the passing game to continue to carry the team. With the red-hot 49ers up next followed by a trip to Kansas City, Seattle will have a tough time climbing back into the playoff field after dropping below the cut line for the first time in months.

Panic level: 9 out of 10

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

At this point, should Tampa Bay even try to win the NFC South? It’s almost more embarrassing to take the crown of a division this crappy—and after Sunday’s 35-7 loss to the 49ers, there’s a decent chance they won’t. Carolina upset Seattle to get back within a game of the top spot on Sunday. And Atlanta is still hanging around, as well.

None of this really matters, though, because we all know this Bucs season will end with a loss. Tampa Bay is a bad, poorly coached football team, and with Tom Brady heading for free agency, it’s probably time to start thinking about a rebuild. It certainly sounds like Brady is already thinking about his next move.

We’ve seen Brady do a lot of impossible stuff throughout his career, but we’ve never seen him overcome a mediocre head coach—and that’s being awfully charitable to Todd Bowles. And while it’s easy to just pin everything on Bruce Arians’s replacement, as well as offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, there just isn’t as much talent on this team as there was over the past two years. Retirements, injuries, and general washed-ness have taken their toll on this once-great roster. Sunday’s loss wasn’t the official end of the Brady era in Tampa Bay, but it might as well have been.

Panic level: 10 out of 10 (but it’s kind of relaxing in a way)