When it comes to what teams make the NFL playoffs in a given season, the only constant is change. Although there are now 14 teams who qualify for the postseason as division champions or wild cards, there still will be the usual turnover of close to half the field, six or seven teams. Right on cue, six of the league’s 2020 playoff teams have started 2021 under .500 coming out of Week 3.
In the AFC, the big shocker is that the reigning conference champion Chiefs are 1-2, in last place in the AFC West after losing to the rival Chargers on Sunday. The Steelers, who won the AFC North season, also find themselves in the basement at 1-2 after getting ripped by the rival Bengals on Sunday. The Colts, who finished 11-5 in 2020, fell to 0-3 by losing to the strong AFC South favorite Titans.
In the NFC, the Seahawks are the surprise. After routing the Colts in Week 1, they are 1-2, having lost consecutive shootouts to the Titans and Vikings, blowing double-digit leads in both games. The two other teams don’t surprise anyone. Washington, which won the East at 7-9 in 2020, is 1-2. The Bears, who were the No. 7 seed at 8-8, are also 1-2.
With a focus on Kansas City, under .500 for the first time with Patrick Mahomes as its starting QB; Pittsburgh, with major stumbles tied to the play of Ben Roethlisberger; and Seattle, which has never had a losing record with Russell Wilson, let’s diagnose what’s wrong with these half dozen teams, and whether it can fixed in time for a return to the playoffs:
Kansas City Chiefs (1-2)
What’s wrong: Bad defense and turnovers putting it all on Patrick Mahomes
The Chiefs are fortunate they are not 0-3 after Mahomes led his latest epic comeback to beat the 2-1 Browns in Week 1. The late-game heroics went in the favor of Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert, however, in the past two games.
That’s a pretty tough opening slate, as Cleveland and Baltimore look like the overall best two teams in the AFC North again (sorry Pittsburgh) and Los Angeles profiles as a much-improved playoff-caliber team with ace rookie coach Brandon Staley. Still, the Chiefs also could be 3-0 without self-inflicted wounds, including four more giveaways in a narrow 30-24 home defeat vs. the Chargers.
The Chiefs’ defense is having familiar issues against the run and backs and tight ends in the passing game with poor linebacker play without Willie Gay Jr. Their pass rush has struggled as edge rusher Frank Clark has missed two games with a bad hamstring. Cornerback Charvarius Ward came up lame late with a quad injury late in the week, allowing Herbert to keep roasting their secondary with Mike Williams and Keenan Allen.
Quarterbacks have been comfortable throwing all over the field against the Chiefs and opponents have been aggressive trying to outduel Mahomes. The Chiefs also have been atrocious defending in the red zone and aren’t getting off the field on third downs, either.
The defense should improve when everyone’s healthy and can make some big plays of its own to turn the turnover tide. Mahomes’ magic isn’t going away but his mistakes will. The Bills, Titans and Packers make up three of the next six opponents but the schedule gets easier as they will get better.
Every major contender in the AFC has a loss. The Chiefs aren’t far behind that pace and should end up ahead of everyone else to emerge as the expected top seed. Looking back, one will see they just played three fellow 2021 playoff teams.
Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2)
What’s wrong: Bad offensive line and shaky Ben Roethlisberger putting it all on defense
The Steelers do have that big win against the Bills in Buffalo in Week 1. But the home debacles against the Raiders and Bengals in the past two weeks are their true identity. Even with some defensive injuries, that side of the ball has held down the fort despite facing a higher degree of difficulty from the offense not staying on the field thanks to short drives and giveaways.
The wholesale changes on the offensive line have led to awful all-around play. Pittsburgh cannot run effectively with rookie first-round back Najee Harris to take pressure off Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger is struggling to get the ball out quickly in the unfamiliar Matt Canada offense and the pass protection is crumbling in bad down-and-distance situations.
Roethlisberger no longer has the body, arm strength or mobility to hang in the pocket and extend plays out of it. He remains the weak dink-and-dunk passer who finished the 2020 season with a horrible playoff INT-fest against the Browns. It’s mostly checkdowns to Harris and the big plays need to come after the catch. Young big speedy deep threat Chase Claypool is being wasted. It doesn’t help that top wideout Diontae Johnson (knee) is injured again.
The Steelers beat the Bills because their defense stymied Josh Allen. Roethlisberger is incapable of outdueling most QBs, including Derek Carr and Joe Burrow. Aaron Rodgers, Teddy Bridgewater and Russell Wilson all have the advantage in the Steelers’ next three games against the Packers, Broncos and Seahawks before a bye.
The problem is, what can the Steelers do at QB? There’s little confidence Dwayne Haskins, with the same kind of systemic issues, can do better off the bench and most outside options would have a tough learning curve with Canada. They also cannot justify a Deshaun Watson trade given his off-field concerns, especially with Roethlisberger’s checkered history. The Steelers are stuck tumbling down with Big Ben because they failed to stash a future franchise QB despite several first-round chances. Now fading behind the Browns, Ravens and Bengals, who all have young franchise QBs, put an iron fork in them before midseason.
Seattle Seahawks (1-2)
What’s wrong: Defense, defense, defense and did we mention defense?
The Seahawks paid Jamal Adams a lot of money to clean up a lot of messes and be marooned on a island away from total ineptitude. The cornerbacks are bad. The pass rush doesn’t exist. The run defense has wilted against Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook fill-in Alexander Mattison.
Wilson and the new-look offense with Shane Waldron are totally fine. They are running well as usual and taking full advantage of their wide receiver and tight end talent with Wilson’s big arm. That’s good, because the burden of winning will fall on Wilson for most weeks when Seattle is facing a somewhat potent, explosive and balanced offense, which Indianapolis wasn’t.
The NFC West is tough again. The Rams and Cardinals are both 3-0. The 49ers are 2-1. The next two opponents are the 49ers and Rams, before breaks against the Steelers, Saints and Jaguars and a Week 9 bye. But then it’s the Packers and the first of two with the Cardinals.
There are room for four playoff teams from the West and the Seahawks do have a favorable schedule outside of the division going forward. Beyond the 3-0 Panthers, there’s no other real threat (including the Vikings) to steal one of the wild cards from the South, East or North. But there’s little margin for error for Seattle with how it’s already chasing Los Angeles, Arizona and San Francisco. Will 9-8 be good enough for Wilson to return to the playoffs? It might be, but the Seahawks can say goodbye to repeating in the West.
Indianapolis Colts (0-3)
What’s wrong: Running game, defense and Carson Wentz
The Colts have been a well-coached and well-organized team in two previous playoff-bound seasons in three years under Frank Reich. They have relied on the formula of stout defense and a powerful running game behind a top-flight line. With Andrew Luck and Philip Rivers they got the right complementary QB play; with Jacoby Brissett in between they did not.
Unfortunately, the early returns on the Wentz trade with the Eagles are bad. He hasn’t gotten the help he needed reunited with Reich to get right. Jonathan Taylor and the rushing attack haven’t been reliable, hampered by line injuries. The passing game is severely short on weapons without T.Y. Hilton. The defense seems lost against both run and pass.
The Seahawks, Rams and Titans are three tough opening opponents who have done whatever they wanted to beat Indianapolis, the first two on the road. The Colts still need to play the Ravens, 49ers, Bills, Buccaneers and Cardinals to balance out a manageable AFC South-heavy slate otherwise. Go ahead and retire them to the stable, just like the playoff-less 2019 season.
Washington Football Team (1-2)
What’s wrong: Limited offense, underachieving defense and a tough schedule
Stop right now if you think losing Ryan Fitzpatrick after Week 1 and turning QB back over to Taylor Heinicke is the reason they’re 1-2. Fitzpatrick didn’t play well at all against the Chargers, while Heinicke saved the night against the Giants. He also did what he could opposite a red-hot Allen in Week 3.
Heinicke is operating an offense that still goes through three players without Curtis Samuel — Antonio Gibson, Terry McLaurin and Logan Thomas, with a small side of J.D. McKissic. But the big problem has been Chase Young and the defense, despite all the front-seven talent and a revamped secondary.
Before Allen ripped them, Herbert looked pretty comfortable and Daniel Jones balled out as a dual threat. Former linebackers Ron Rivera and Jack Del Rio need more from that side of the ball given the investments. WFT’s schedule has a couple of breaks with the Falcons and Saints, but then there are the Chiefs, Packers and Buccaneers, plus the Eagles and Cowboys twice. Speaking of which, this division to back to being Philadelphia vs. Dallas.
Chicago Bears (1-2)
What’s wrong: Major quarterback transition, bad offensive line and worn-down defense
Justin Fields was supposed to be the savior, right? He was ready to do much more than Andy Dalton, remember? But then again, it’s still supposed offensive-minded coach Matt Nagy and his questionable play-calling.
Fields had 6 completions in his rookie starting debut in Cleveland in Week 3. He was also sacked 9 times and rushed for only 12 yards. On top of his limited designed running, the Bears couldn’t take advantage of his big arm to better stretch the field with talented wide receivers Allen Robinson and Darnell Mooney. The offensive line was a big concern going into the season and that has been confirmed.
Fields and Dalton were supposed to be an upgrade over Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles. But Nagy doesn’t seem to have a well-defined plan for either QB, dragging down both the passing game and running game that should be better with David Montgomery playing off Fields. The defense is no longer a shutdown unit, either giving up just enough chunks against the run and too many big plays against the pass.
The complementary (or competent) football isn’t there in Chicago. It’s all adding up to Nagy blowing his way out of the Windy City after a roller-coaster four seasons.
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