NFL contenders gone wrong – Barnwell ranks the six top playoff fallers


A lot can go wrong for a team in five weeks. History says you can kiss your playoff chances goodbye if you start 0-5; since the NFL went to its current postseason structure in 2002, no team that started the year without a win through five games has made it to the postseason. That’s bad news for Cincinnati and Washington. Even teams that win one game out of their first five have only converted their slow starts into postseason trips 8.5% of the time.

It’s one thing for the league’s worst teams, who started out of the race, to confirm their January vacations early. It’s another to watch teams that were expected to contend see their playoff chances wane. Let’s go through the six teams that have had their playoff chances decline most severely, according to the ESPN Football Power Index (FPI). It’s a list that starts in California and makes its way all around the NFL:

Jump to a team:
ATL | CHI | LAC
LAR | NYJ | PIT

Preseason playoff chances: 57.0%
Current playoff chances: 10.3%
Playoff chances decline: -46.7%

Is it just simple enough to list a bunch of injuries? Sadly, the Chargers have been bit by the injury bug yet again. Kicker Michael Badgley, safety Derwin James and left tackle Russell Okung haven’t played a single game. Tight end Hunter Henry went down because of a knee injury after Week 1, although he’s expected to return. Safety Adrian Phillips and corner Trevor Williams have already hit injured reserve, with Williams, a starter last season, eventually cut before joining the Cardinals. Wide receivers Mike Williams and Travis Benjamin were both injured, which led the Chargers to sign Dontrelle Inman, who started in Week 4 and then went to injured reserve himself. Starting center Mike Pouncey hit IR on Wednesday. Edge rusher Melvin Ingram missed Week 5 because of a hamstring injury, which was the season debut for the team’s other prominent Melvin.

Melvin Gordon‘s absence was of his own choosing, and Austin Ekeler held his own as the team’s primary running back, but the offense has been felled by another problem: turnovers. In 2018, the Chargers either didn’t turn the ball over or turned the ball over only one time in 11 of their 18 games across the regular season and the playoffs. They were 11-0 in those games and just 2-5 otherwise. “Don’t turn the ball over” isn’t exactly some sort of modern finding, but when L.A. didn’t shoot itself in the foot, it was hard to beat.

The Chargers have two or more turnovers in three of their first five games, and they’re 1-2 in those games. They’ve won the turnover battle only once in 2019, and even that came against the Dolphins. Some of that is bad luck — they have recovered only four of the 15 fumbles in their games this season, good for a dismal 26.7% rate — but they have simultaneously been the luckiest team in the league on special teams, notably with opposing kickers missing a league-high 10 of their 22 attempts on field goals or extra points against them so far.

Much of that came from Adam Vinatieri‘s terrible performance in Week 1, when the future Hall of Famer missed an extra point attempt and two field goal attempts in regulation before the Chargers won in overtime. With even a competent day from Vinatieri, the Chargers might very well be 1-4 and have had their only win come from a game against the Dolphins.

Of course, without Badgley, the Chargers have gotten back to their old habits in the kicking game. Los Angeles started the season by using punter Ty Long as its kicker, which is cocky for an organization that couldn’t find a competent kicker before landing on Badgley. Long missed two second-half field goal attempts in a 13-10 loss to the Lions, and even then, it took two weeks before the Chargers signed a full-time kicker in Chase McLaughlin.

The issue isn’t getting to the quarterback. The Chargers are forcing pressure about as frequently as they did last season — 29.4% of the time in 2018 and 29.9% of the time this season, with similar blitz rates — but the results are different in the secondary. Here’s their passer rating allowed between 2018 and 2019, split out by whether they were able to pressure the passer. Across the board, they’re worse:

The problems are in the secondary. If the Chargers could magically heal one of their players, the clear pick would be James. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley badly misses his star safety’s versatility and coverage ability. In watching the various big plays against the Chargers’ defense this season, there’s not one obvious culprit like the Falcons.

There are moments like the 70-yard touchdown to Courtland Sutton last week, where the Broncos lined up in trips to the left. It looked as if the Chargers played man coverage on the two outside receivers but had Denzel Perryman standing over Sutton as the slot receiver, which obviously attracted Joe Flacco‘s attention. Perryman wasn’t in coverage on Sutton, as the linebacker moved into the middle of the field as a robber, but it’s unclear whether Roderic Teamer (an undrafted free agent who has started three games as a rookie) or Rayshawn Jenkins (who was a backup last season) were supposed to be in coverage on Sutton’s deep out (animation via NFL Next Gen Stats):

Neither got close before the catch, and Sutton broke Jenkins’ tackle attempt and shed Teamer afterward. The result was a 70-yard touchdown. I don’t know if James would have been able to get to the sideline and stop Sutton from catching the ball, but he probably would have made the tackle and kept the play to a first down.

The Chargers are 28th in defensive DVOA through five games, and given that their schedule has included a relative middling group of quarterbacks beyond Deshaun Watson, I suspect their numbers will get worse as opponent adjustments become more significant. They can be thankful that the schedule stays relatively friendly, as they’ll get Devlin Hodges, Marcus Mariota, and either Mitchell Trubisky or Chase Daniel over the next three weeks. The only upper-echelon quarterbacks L.A. will really face the rest of the way are Aaron Rodgers and two games against Patrick Mahomes.

The other good news for Anthony Lynn’s team? The AFC is a bit of a mess. The Chiefs lost to the Colts, which keeps the Chargers within two games in the AFC West. The Chargers beat Indy, which would come in handy if the two end up in a wild-card tiebreaker. After the 5-0 Patriots, the 4-1 Chiefs, and the 4-1 Bills, there are eight teams that are either 3-2 or 2-3 competing for three playoff spots. The Chargers don’t look like the team from 2018, but if they can stick around .500 and possibly get guys like James and Henry back on the field, they should be able to compete for a playoff spot in December.


Preseason playoff chances: 55.9%
Current playoff chances: 16.8%
Playoff chances decline: -39.1%

Some explanations are simpler than others. When you replace a Hall of Fame quarterback with an untested midround pick, and then replace that midround pick with an undrafted rookie, your offense gets worse. Here are Pittsburgh’s ranks by DVOA from this season and last season:

  • 2018: 6th in offense, 13th in defense and 27th in special teams

  • 2019: 25th in offense, 7th in defense and 19th in special teams

The defense has actually done an admirable job of stepping up after struggling mightily against the Patriots and Seahawks. Over the past three games, the Steelers have picked off six passes, posted the league’s second-highest sack rate and allowed a QBR of just 22.4, which is third best in the league. One of those games was a five-takeaway performance against the 49ers, which should essentially guarantee victory; teams have gone 232-21 (.917) over the past 20 years when they’ve forced five takeaways.

The Steelers lost that game, though, and lost to the Ravens despite forcing three Lamar Jackson interceptions. The offense hasn’t been able to hold up its end of the bargain, scoring only two touchdowns on seven trips to the red zone over the past three games. Only the Dolphins have been worse in the red zone over that time frame.

The early returns on quarterback Mason Rudolph, who stepped in for Ben Roethlisberger, have been mixed. Any idea that the Steelers were going to be able to run the same offense or had a plug-and-play replacement for Roethlisberger was quickly rendered absurd. The game plan through Rudolph’s first two starts is about as conservative as you’ll ever see for an ambulatory quarterback. The evidence: 65.5% of Rudolph’s passes traveled five yards or less in the air. To put that in context, no other quarterback in the NFL topped 59% over that same time frame. Rudolph tried to take the occasional shot downfield, but he was 3-of-11 for 99 yards on deep passes, and two of those completions came against the Bengals, who have been the league’s fifth-worst team against deep passes this year.

Rudolph’s expected completion percentage by NFL Next Gen Stats research in those first two games was 68.7%, the sixth-highest figure in the league among quarterbacks who started and finished both games. Rudolph completed 69.1% of those throws, right in line with projections. There’s nothing inherently wrong with an extremely conservative offense, but it’s no surprise that Pittsburgh wasn’t able to do much in the red zone, where those easy completions aren’t quite as easy.

Before Rudolph went down because of a serious concussion from a blow to the head in Week 5, though, he was producing his best start as a pro. The offense looked more like the actual Steelers offense, with Rudolph averaging 9.9 air yards per pass attempt. He appeared far more comfortable in the pocket, and the Steelers didn’t do whatever possible to get the ball out of his hands immediately. He still looks a step or two slow when scanning the field, which hopefully should get better with more NFL reps. The problem, of course, is that it’s unclear when Rudolph will be able to return from his brain injury.

It looks as if Devlin Hodges will make the start against the Chargers on Sunday night. It’s impossible to say much about how he’ll perform, although he played reasonably well against the blitz-happy Ravens in his NFL debut Sunday. He didn’t always get much help from his receivers, with JuJu Smith-Schuster fumbling away a catch in overtime that handed the Ravens a short field and the eventual winning field goal. The Steelers also used Jaylen Samuels as a Wildcat quarterback in recent weeks, but after Samuels threw an ugly interception and went down because of a knee injury on Sunday, that part of the playbook might be scrapped for the foreseeable future.

Injuries are really what has dismantled the Steelers’ offense. Roethlisberger is done for the year. Samuels is out for a month. Wide receiver James Washington will miss several weeks because of a shoulder injury. Receiver Donte Moncrief‘s ugly start to the season was influenced by a broken finger he suffered during camp. Tight end Vance McDonald missed time because of a shoulder injury. Smith-Schuster is playing through a toe injury. Running back James Conner has already left games because of knee and ankle injuries this season. The Pittsburgh line has stayed healthy, but we’re going to see third-stringers at quarterback, running back and receiver take meaningful snaps for the Steelers on Sunday.

Pittsburgh’s best hope, realistically, is to get Conner and the running game going. So far, it hasn’t been effective. The team ranks 26th in rush offense DVOA, down from sixth in 2017 and 12th a year ago. There has been a total absence of big plays; while Conner’s success rate of 48% is right in line with his 49% mark from a year ago, his 58 runs have produced only one run of more than 15 yards, a 21-yard carry against the Bengals. Conner is never going to be Matt Breida in terms of big-play ability, but 16 of his 215 carries went for 15 or more yards last season. That’s about 7.5%, and in 2019, the typical halfback has turned about 5% of his runs into 15-plus yard gains.

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1:20

Dan Orlovsky, Marcus Spears and Jack Del Rio break down the adjustments the Steelers will have to make with Devlin Hodges at quarterback.

It’s likely that Conner will break off more big plays going forward, although teams are already committed to stopping Pittsburgh’s running game. When Conner ran the ball last season, he had either a blocking tie or an advantage in terms of blockers vs. defenders in the box on 69.3% of his carries. That was the fifth-highest rate among 23 backs with 160 carries or more. This season, Conner has only enjoyed the blocking advantage on 60.3% of his runs, which ranks 27th out of the 32 backs with 50 carries or more.

Naturally, that brings things back to Rudolph and Devlin. If the Steelers can make enough big plays downfield to create space in the box, they should be able to run the ball and play excellent defense. You can win games that way, and with the Ravens struggling on defense, the Browns wildly inconsistent from week to week, and the Bengals at 0-5, Pittsburgh is still in the divisional race.

So much depends on whether Rudolph comes back and looks more like the guy from Week 5 than the one who was throwing screens and stick routes in Weeks 3 and 4.


Preseason playoff chances: 40.5%
Current playoff chances: 3.5%
Playoff chances decline: -37%

The Falcons’ collapse is a lesson in self-scouting. Crucially, on the defensive side of the ball, the team evaluated itself as the defense it wanted to be as opposed to the defense it actually has been for several years. Dan Quinn & Co. wanted to believe that a healthy version of the defense that looked dominant during the 2016 playoffs is what the Falcons would look like in 2019. It wasn’t realistic.

To put it another way, here are Atlanta’s ranks on defense during the Quinn era by points allowed and DVOA, where first would be best and 32nd would be worst:

  • 2015: 14th in points allowed, 22nd in DVOA

  • 2016: 27th in points allowed, 26th in DVOA

  • 2017: 8th in points allowed, 22nd in DVOA

  • 2018: 25th in points allowed, 31st in DVOA

In 2016, the defense was subpar all season, only to dominate in the NFC playoffs and for half of Super Bowl LI. In 2018, the defense was ruined by injuries. In 2015 and particularly in 2017, though Quinn might have thought he was running an above-average defense, the Falcons’ mediocrity on that side of the ball was masked by opportunity. Because their offense typically ran long, methodical drives, the defense faced a league-low number of drives in both 2015 (172) and 2017 (164).

The only explanation I can imagine for the Falcons conducting their business as they did this offseason is to assume that they wrote off 2018 because of injuries and thought their 2017 performance in scoring defense was real. Outside of signing defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and linebacker Deion Jones to extensions, the organization did little to address its defensive woes. Atlanta signed defensive linemen Adrian Clayborn and Tyeler Davison to small deals, then added edge rusher Allen Bailey on a two-year, $10.5 million deal in July after his market didn’t develop.

It seemed like a sure thing that Atlanta would address its woes in the draft, but it used the 14th pick on offensive lineman Chris Lindstrom. General manager Thomas Dimitroff then traded his second- and third-round picks to sneak back into the first round for what was surely going to be some help … only to draft a second offensive lineman in Kaleb McGary. Atlanta did take a pair of defenders in the fourth round in end John Cominsky and cornerback Kendall Sheffield, but the two have combined to play only 71 snaps on defense through five games.

The Falcons have been healthier this season, though they did lose safety Keanu Neal to a torn Achilles in Week 3. They weren’t playing well before Neal went down, though, and they’re currently 27th in defensive DVOA through five games. That’s a tiny improvement, driven by better performance against the run; Atlanta is 30th against the pass after allowing Deshaun Watson to throw for a staggering 426 yards and five touchdowns Sunday.

There’s really not much Atlanta does right in pass coverage. Start up front and you see that the Falcons aren’t bothering opposing quarterbacks. Only seven teams have blitzed more frequently than them, but they still rank a lowly 30th in pressure rate. When they do manage to get pressure, their pass-rushers don’t finish the job, as the Falcons also rank 30th in sack rate against pressured quarterbacks.

In part, this is a personnel problem. The organization has continued to believe that Vic Beasley Jr. was only one shift or movement away from recapturing his 2016 form, when he led the league in sacks off an unsustainable hit rate; he had 15.5 sacks on only 16 knockdowns. The former first-round pick produced only 10 sacks and 13 knockdowns over the ensuing two seasons, but the Falcons still decided to keep him on the roster under his fifth-year option at $12.8 million. Beasley did make a fourth-and-1 run stop against the Titans in Week 4, but he has only 1.5 sacks this season. Fellow former first-rounder Takkarist McKinley, who led the team in sacks a year ago, has just a half-sack through the first five games.

The secondary, too, hasn’t lived up to form. Cornerback Desmond Trufant was supposed to be Quinn’s version of Richard Sherman, but after an impressive debut season with Quinn in 2015, Trufant tore his pec in 2016 and hasn’t been the same player since. He is tied for the league lead with four touchdowns allowed as the closest defender in coverage this season.

Opposite number Isaiah Oliver, who moved into the starting lineup after the Falcons cut Robert Alford this offseason, has been worse. The 2018 second-rounder has been targeted on 23.7% of opposing pass attempts, the eighth-highest rate in the league. That’s great if a defender is holding up against those throws, but Oliver has allowed an opposing passer rating of 136.0 as the closest defender, which is the fourth-worst mark in the league for corners with 100 coverage snaps or more.

It’s hard to overstate just how frequently Oliver shows up in this secondary’s lowlights. Quinn’s defense from Seattle was famously in three-deep coverage frequently, so the players see a lot of Cover-3 beaters on offense. It’s one thing when the Vikings run Adam Thielen on a clearout and then sneak Stefon Diggs into the zone Oliver vacated for a 31-yard gain. It’s another when the Titans go back to the same concept three weeks later, and it’s even worse when the Texans appear to get Oliver on a similar scissors concept for an easy touchdown the following week.

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Stephen A. Smith blasts the Falcons after they fell to 1-4, saying something is wrong in Atlanta and that something needs to be done about it.

There were moments in the Colts game when it looked as if Oliver was lost on the field. Teams often try to take advantage of young cornerbacks with veteran wideouts on back-shoulder throws, but rarely do you see a corner still running upfield as their receiver catches the ball, as Oliver does while T.Y. Hilton makes this catch. On a later third-and-1, both Oliver and Kemal Ishmael were flat-footed and absolutely mesmerized by a play fake, with Zach Pascal running by Oliver for an easy 35-yard gain. I don’t want to keep picking on Oliver, but I could keep going.

Sometimes, though, it isn’t Oliver’s fault. Take the third-and-5 touchdown pass in the Texans game to Will Fuller V, where Oliver was the closest cornerback in coverage. Quinn dials up one of the strangest coverage concepts you’ll see. The Falcons rush three against Houston’s five-man line, leave two quarterback spies for Watson, and then play man coverage across the board with a double-team on DeAndre Hopkins. This is a great play if the Falcons somehow get pressure quickly with three men or if Watson decides to run out of boredom. Neither of those things happened, and Fuller was able to turn his route upfield for an easy touchdown (animation via NFL Next Gen Stats):

Quinn hasn’t been able to come up with a solution for Atlanta’s defensive woes beyond repeatedly explaining how “pissedhe is about the defense on the team’s Twitter account. The Falcons swapped linebacker Duke Riley and a sixth-round pick for backup Eagles safety Johnathan Cyprien and a seventh-round selection, only to place Cyprien on injured reserve after one game.

Again, we have to go back to the offseason. The Falcons fired both offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel and attempted to relive prior glories. Quinn hired former Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to take over his old job and handed himself the defensive coordinator duties. Any extent to which the defense has improved seems to be a product of getting Jones back on the field.

The offense, meanwhile, has taken a step backward. Falcons fans made up their minds about Sarkisian after the team failed in goal-to-go situations against the Eagles to end the 2017 season and to start the 2018 campaign, suggesting that he didn’t know what he was doing in the red zone. (Never mind that the Falcons scored touchdowns on their next 11 trips inside the 20.) By the time the season ended, it was clear that the Falcons were going to make a change.

And yet, five weeks into 2019, even with a healthy Devonta Freeman, the Falcons are worse in the red zone with Koetter than they were last season with Sarkisian. The 2018 Falcons averaged 5.1 points per trip to the red zone. The 2019 Falcons are averaging 4.8 points per red zone possession. After ranking ninth and then eighth in offensive DVOA during the two seasons with Sarkisian, Koetter’s offense is 20th in DVOA through five games.

After Week 2, the NFC South seemed as if it had opened up perfectly for Atlanta. The Saints were 1-1 and down Drew Brees. The Panthers were 0-2 and were about to sit an injured Cam Newton. The Bucs were 1-1, with a brutal loss to the 49ers and a narrow win over Newton’s Panthers. The Falcons had just ridden an emotional roller coaster by converting a fourth-down pass to Jones for a touchdown to finally beat the Eagles in prime time.

Since then, the Saints and Panthers have gone 3-0, the Bucs upset the Rams, and the Falcons have lost three games to the AFC South by a combined 38 points. I have faith that this offense will get better as the season goes along, but it would take something close to the 2016 offense to carry the defense to victories every week. Unless Quinn suddenly stumbles onto a solution or the defense starts forcing three turnovers per game — which is hardly out of the question against the Cardinals on Sunday, to be fair — the Falcons are probably out of the playoff picture.


Preseason playoff chances: 27.2%
Current playoff chances: 0.9%
Playoff chances decline: -26.3%

From the day the schedule was released, this season was going to be about the second half for the Jets. From Week 8 onward, they play only two games against teams FPI projects to finish with even a .500 record in 2019, with one game against the Ravens and a Week 17 matchup with the Bills. The Jets have five games left against teams that FPI projects to finish with one of the top six picks in the draft, although that top six also includes themselves. They needed to keep things manageable over the first seven weeks of the season before breaking out against the easiest schedule in the league afterward. That means 3-3 would have been ideal, 2-4 would have been totally fine, and 1-5 would even have been passable.





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