Here’s an interesting nugget from the good folks over at NFL Research: Since 1990, teams that start the season at 2-2 make the playoffs just 36.6 percent of the time.
Now, this is only Year 2 of the 17-game regular season and Year 3 of the 14-team postseason field, so that statistic isn’t entirely precise. But it remains instructive. Teams that have split their first four games of the 2022 campaign are on notice: Most of you will not make the playoffs.
With that in mind, I perused the many 2-2 outfits — eight in the AFC alone! — with the aim of identifying postseason contenders and pretenders. Here are the squads that fit most snuggly into each category, Schein Nine style.
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You have to jog the mental rolodex to recall the random factor that buried Cincinnati in the Week 1 loss to Pittsburgh. Do you remember what it was? An injury to the long snapper. Admittedly, Joe Burrow could have played much better — you don’t win many games when your quarterback turns the ball over five times — but snapping snafus late in regulation and in overtime doomed a pair of would-be game-winning kicks for the Bengals. That’s a tough way to go down. Then, Week 2 at Dallas, Cincy lost at the gun.
Over the past two weeks, though, the Bengals have taken care of business against the Jets and Dolphins, beating both by double digits. During this span, Burrow has looked much more like the guy who magically led Cincinnati to the Super Bowl eight months ago, posting a 5:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 115.4 passer rating. Crucially, the offensive line has kept Burrow upright; after giving up a whopping 13 sacks in the first two weeks, the Bengals have yielded just three in the past two. Meanwhile, the defense has been pretty consistent in the early goings of the 2022 campaign, but the unit has especially tightened up in the team’s two wins, with Trey Hendrickson logging 2.5 sacks against New York and Vonn Bell nabbing two picks vs. Miami.
I still take the Bengals over the Ravens, Browns and Steelers in the AFC North and still have the reigning AFC champs as a team that can make serious noise once again in January.
Well, this is probably more about the Saints’ pratfall than the Bucs’ promise. I gassed up New Orleans all offseason, predicting they’d win the NFC South in Year 1 without Sean Payton. Then the Saints lost to the Bucs at home in Week 2, beginning a three-game losing streak during which Jameis Winston, Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas were sidelined by injury. Just doesn’t seem like January football — much less, a division title — is in the cards for this New Orleans group.
I remain concerned about multiple aspects of the Buccaneers, including the depleted offensive line and injury-prone receiving corps. The offense is extremely disjointed. But Tom Brady’s still the G.O.A.T., and the defense remains deep and talented, even though Patrick Mahomes kinda put it on Tampa on Sunday night. (It happens.)
Bottom line: The Bucs are clearly head and shoulders above the rest of the NFC South.
Without question, Jacksonville is a contender for the playoffs. Yes, I know what happened yesterday: The Jaguars jumped out to a 14-0 lead at Philadelphia … only to give up 29 unanswered points before losing 29-21. To me, that was more about Philly being the most complete team in the NFC — and the only remaining undefeated team in the NFL. These Eagles aren’t just contenders for the postseason; they’re bona fide Super Bowl contenders. Jacksonville isn’t in that class. But these upstart Jags are squarely in the playoff mix.
The AFC South is weak. In fact, it’s the weakest division in the NFL. Jacksonville boasts a healthy +38 in net points, currently ranking sixth in the league in scoring and fourth in scoring defense. No other AFC South team cracks the top 12 in either category. After the Urban Meyer debacle, Doug Pederson has swiftly changed everything in Duval, in terms of Xs and Os and just general feel. Although Trevor Lawrence had some serious ball-security issues on Sunday, I’ll cut him some slack given the sloppy conditions in a water-logged Lincoln Financial Field. For the most part under Pederson, Lawrence has indeed looked like the kind of quarterback you build the franchise around. Mike Caldwell’s defense is well-coached and brimming with emerging young talent, with first-rounders Devin Lloyd and Travon Walker providing immediate returns.
Arrow up on the Jags, even after a loss. It’s remarkable how much difference a new year — and a new coach — can make.
Baltimore has problems. Two weeks after blowing a 21-point lead in a home loss to Miami, the Ravens choked away a 17-point edge in a home loss to Buffalo. That is not Ravens football. And John Harbaugh’s late decision to eschew a chip-shot field goal in favor of an ill-fated fourth-down pass made no sense to me — not in a tie game, with just over four minutes remaining.
Baltimore’s defense has serious issues, especially against the pass. Heavy rain helped the Ravens keep Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs in check on Sunday, but this D has legit question marks in the secondary and among the edge rushers not named Odafe Oweh. That’s a bad combo with the resurgent Bengals coming to town this week for Sunday Night Football.
All that said, the Ravens have something no one else has: Lamar Jackson. Sunday wasn’t his best effort — again, the rain kind of put a damper on the highly anticipated Allen-Jackson QB showdown — but he remains as sensational a talent as the league has today. I didn’t pick the Ravens to make the playoffs before the season kicked off, but I appreciate the fact that they’re always postseason contenders when No. 8 is upright and doing his thing.
The loss in Atlanta was disappointing, but the defense didn’t have three starters on the defensive line, as Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney and Taven Bryan were all inactive. In related news, the Falcons ran wild on the Browns, piling up 202 yards and two touchdowns on 35 totes. That’s an average of nearly 6 yards per carry! On offense, Jacoby Brissett has been solid overall, but he also has essentially sealed each loss with a pick.
If Cleveland can stay around .500 until Deshaun Watson returns from his suspension, the Browns have the roster to make a run in December. Nick Chubb is currently the best back in football. The defense has playmakers at all three levels. Kevin Stefanski’s team isn’t going away.
Honestly, in the wake of Cordarrelle Patterson hitting injured reserve on Monday, I almost dropped the Falcons into the next section. That injury hurts. A lot. But I believe in Arthur Smith. This guy can coach.
Atlanta clearly lacks talent, but this team plays hard. Smith squeezes everything out of an overmatched roster. I mean, in Sunday’s 23-20 win over the Browns, the Falcons got 140 yards and a touchdown off 20 carries from Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley. Who?! Exactly.
Frankly, the Falcons should’ve beat the Saints in Week 1 — they led 26-10 in the fourth quarter — which would have them sitting alone atop the NFC South at 3-1. Patterson’s absence will be felt, but Drake London is a difference-making receiver in Year 1. Mismatch nightmare Kyle Pitts has been surprisingly quiet to start the season, but I trust Smith will get him going. Marcus Mariota is hardly spectacular, but he’s a savvy veteran at quarterback.
These are not playoff predictions. I’m just trying to surmise which teams will remain in the playoff race over the next three months. Even without Patterson for at least the next four weeks, Smith will get the most out of his team.
Color me impressed with the Jets over the first quarter of the season. In the wake of Zach Wilson’s knee injury in the preseason opener, I predicted this team would start the season with seven straight losses. Not so much. In fact, with Wilson returning on Sunday to rally the Jets to a 24-20 win at Pittsburgh, Gang Green is .500 or better through four games for the first time since 2017, when they also started 2-2. Unfortunately, that Jets team finished at 5-11. And with a tough stretch of games on tap before the Week 10 bye — vs. Miami, at Green Bay, at Denver, vs. New England, vs. Buffalo — I anticipate New York plunging right back into sub-.500 waters in the coming weeks.
In his 2022 debut on Sunday, Wilson caught a touchdown pass and led a 10-play, 65-yard game-winning drive, but his overall performance on the day — 18-of-36 for 252 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions — was uneven. In the wake of Wilson’s rough rookie season, plenty of questions remain with the second-year passer. Same with the second-year head coach. To Robert Saleh’s credit, his defense provided its best performance of the season on Sunday, producing four takeaways after recording only three in the first three weeks combined. But this Pittsburgh offense isn’t exactly a world-beater, so I think we have to reserve judgment here for a bit.
The Jets are better than I predicted they’d be. Joe Douglas’ savvy draft is paying immediate dividends, with his first four picks from April — CB Sauce Gardner, WR Garrett Wilson, DE Jermaine Johnson II and RB Breece Hall — acquitting themselves quite well at the NFL level. But I still don’t think New York is a top-10 team in this AFC. Maybe next year. If the quarterback and coach continue to progress.
Let Geno cook! Geno Smith absolutely torched the Lions in Detroit to get Seattle up to the 2-2 mark. Completing 23 of 30 passes for 320 yards (10.7 yards per attempt!) and two touchdowns in Seattle’s 48-45 win, Geno continued his hot start to the season. The man leads the league with a 77.3 completion percentage! His main target on Sunday was DK Metcalf, who finally looked like his dominant self with 149 yards receiving, eclipsing his total production from the first three weeks combined (135 yards). Rashaad Penny also offered up his first 100-yard rushing effort of the season, going for 151 and two touchdowns on just 17 carries.
But Pete Carroll’s team has a big problem: The defense. Seattle ranks 31st in points and yards allowed. The Seahawks just gave up 520 yards to a Lions offense missing its top two weapons (Amon-Ra St. Brown and D’Andre Swift). Geno is bound to come back to earth, at least a bit. And when that happens, the D’s gross ineptitude will be laid bare.
Contender? Hahahahaha. No. Justin Fields’ play over the first quarter of the season has been offensive to the senses. The numbers are gross. The feel is worse. Blame Matt Nagy, Ryan Pace, Fields, the receivers, the line or Jerry Krause for breaking up the Bulls. Whatever. I know the Bears are 2-2, but they were lucky to beat the 49ers (in a monsoon) and Texans (in a game where Fields completed eight passes).
Back in the preseason, I predicted Chicago would be the worst team in the NFL. I still believe that will ultimately be the case. The Bears have started the season at .500 via smoke, mirrors and rain.
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