The 8 NFL teams taking a step backward

The second of a 4-part NFL season preview of all 32 NFL teams, with 8 faux contenders set to disappoint …

NFL Season Preview Week continues with the eight teams taking a step backward this season. We began yesterday with eight teams whose only relevance will be contending for the #1 pick. Now we turn to eight who are more pretender than contender. Parity reigns in the NFL. Seven of these teams finished .500 or better last year, but they could all miss the 2019 playoffs.

These are not necessarily power rankings. These aren’t the 24th through 17th best teams in the NFL. Some teams that are moving in the right direction (tomorrow’s preview) may still not be better than these ones. But these teams won’t win the Super Bowl, and a few of them are going to surprise you.

Start with the 8 bottom feeders if you missed it. Now let’s get to the 8 teams closer to the bottom than they’d like to believe …

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals are one of the least interesting teams in the NFL. It’s deja vu all over again, another enthralling season with Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton. Maybe this will be the year they finally figure it out and win a Bengals playoff game for the first time since 1991. (Narrator: it wasn’t.)

The Bengals long succeeded with defense and a strong offensive line, with just enough A.J. Green plays to make it work. The defense has fallen to average, and the offensive line took a huge step back and hasn’t recovered. Joe Mixon averaged 3.5 yards a carry as a rookie and never had any space. Green is 30 and has seen his numbers slide, and there’s still no second receiver. Dalton is slipping, too. His sack rate skyrocketed the last two years, and his yards per attempt dropped each of those years.

You look at the Bengals schedule and see seven likely losses and nine coin-flip games. But that coin feels weighted against Cincinnati when they have the worse coach and QB, and it weighs a little heavier every year.

Under 6.5 — pass

Detroit Lions

The Lions have the unfortunate problem of being a perfectly fine team in the wrong place at the wrong time. Detroit’s not bad! The offense is good. Matt Stafford is an above average quarterback, the receivers are nice, and an improved line plus the addition of Kerryon Johnson and LeGarrette Blount make this a top ten offense. The defense is moving in the opposite direction, from below average a year ago to even worse now.

Did you know Stafford led the league in game-winning drives three of the last four seasons? Credit where it’s due, but the defense also gets “credit” for giving up the scores that put the Lions in need of a comeback.

Still, these Lions could contend for a division title in calmer waters, but they’re in the wrong division with the wrong schedule. Detroit plays the 49ers, Seahawks, Patriots, Panthers, and Rams plus six games against the Bears, Packers, and Vikings. That’s a brutal slate, and it’s a whole lot of offense for a bad defense to face. What happens when the defense doesn’t keep things close enough for a late Stafford comeback?

The Lions have quietly finished three of the last four seasons over .500. They’re going to need more Stafford magic to do it again.

Under 7.5 — pass

Seattle Seahawks

I wanted to put the Seahawks in my bottom eight teams fighting for the #1 pick. Think of the splash! I had them 4–12 at one point, a team with a coaching staff that might be losing its touch and a ravaged depth chart that’s lost its big defensive names and is a one-man show on offense.

But the more you look at this team, the more you see that’s just not the case. Seattle indeed lost many of their big names. The entire Legion of Boom is gone until Earl Thomas reports, and the defensive line that used to be so deep is meh. Bobby Wagner leads a talented linebacking corps, but the defense is above average now only because Pete Carroll et al are defensive masterminds.

The offense should be better than last year, when Russell Wilson literally scored all but one of the team’s touchdowns. An improved line still isn’t particularly good, but the run game should be improved with Rashaad Penny and a healthy Chris Carson. Jimmy Graham was mostly a red zone weapon. And that one-man show is pretty spectacular. Wilson’s won 9+ games all six seasons with consistently outstanding advanced metrics, and no one’s better at creating something out of nothing. The Seahawks’ offense was already the #14 DVOA offense, so a couple steps forward makes them top ten.

Seattle’s schedule is in its favor. Arguably its four toughest opponents — the Chargers, Packers, Vikings, and Chiefs — all come to CenturyLink, and one “road” game is in London against the Raiders. Seattle’s toughest stretch comes against Green Bay, Carolina, San Francisco, and Minnesota, but three of those are home prime-time games where the crowd will be roaring.

Seattle isn’t the team it once was but, spoiler alert, it hasn’t been for awhile. The Seahawks have never quite been the same since Malcolm Butler, but they’ve still won 9 or 10 games each year. They don’t feel like Super Bowl contenders, and they’re not moving in the right direction, but let’s not put the fork in this team yet either.

Over 7.5 — pass

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens manage to hang around year after year, mostly thanks to the same old reason. The defense ranked 3rd in DVOA with help from names like C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle, and Brandon Carr. The D opens against Nathan Peterman, Andy Dalton, Case Keenum, and Tyrod Taylor the first five weeks, and they get Dalton and Taylor (or Baker) again plus games against the Raiders and Bucs. If there’s one thing Baltimore can do, it’s win the winnable games, and the schedule has a heap of them.

Unfortunately that might not mean all that much with another offense near the bottom ten. Joe Flacco has started every game the last ten seasons outside of one and finished .500 or better in each healthy season. Of course he also has 200 career TDs, a meager 20 per season, and that doesn’t cut it in today’s NFL. The Ravens are going to feel pressure to give Lamar Jackson a try at some point. We’ll see how much it disrupts the team until they do.

Baltimore’s secret weapon is special teams, where the good Harbaugh always has them a top-5 unit. All that defense and special teams should keep the Ravens in the mix, and they finish the season against the Bucs, Chargers, and Browns, so there are wins to be had late. Baltimore should win 7 to 9 games and be right in the mix, just like every year. But until they turn the keys over to Lamar, they’re moving in the wrong direction.

Under 8.5 — pass

Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs are a step ahead of the Ravens. They already made their move toward the future at quarterback. Alex Smith is a very competent QB, but he was not taking this team where they wanted to get to. Patrick Mahomes is a dynamite athlete with a huge arm, and he can make game-breaking plays this team didn’t have last year. But there’s going to be a learning curve.

It could be a steep one. The Chiefs have a brutal opening schedule: Chargers, Steelers, 49ers, Broncos, Jaguars, Patriots, four of those on the road. They could easily lose any of them, and a Week 1 loss to the Chargers would be especially damaging (KC is +260 to win the division). Mahomes will face some tough defenses early. Kansas City’s ceiling will be higher with him, but their floor will be much lower too. Flash will partner with mistakes, and the Chiefs could easily fall into a hole early. A month with the Bengals, Broncos, Browns, and Cards should right the ship and Kansas City should contend for the playoffs with even a 2–4 start, but it’ll be an uphill climb.

Still, it’s a climb they’re equipped to make. The Chiefs offense could be explosive vertically and horizontally like few in NFL history. The addition of Sammy Watkins opens everything up vertically — look what it did for Gurley and the Rams — while Tyreek Hill stretches both directions. That will leave a ton of room for Kareem Hunt and Travis Kelce, and Mahomes can hit guys anywhere on the field. The Chiefs could be the most fearsome offense in the league once Mahomes settles in.

They’ve also got Andy Reid on their side. Reid’s won only one of his last eight playoff games, but he’s finished 16 of 18 seasons this century .500 or better, and he’s won 10, 12, 11, 9, and 11 games with the Chiefs. He’ll get the most out of this offense, and like John Harbaugh, he’ll help the Chiefs to another top-5 special teams and an added boost there. The rest is up to the defense, which has dropped from 6th to 14th to 30th in DVOA. They’ll get their leader Eric Berry back but he’ll need lots of help from Justin Houston and others.

The Chiefs took a step back with the move to Mahomes, but it was a step forward long-term. If they weather the storm early and find even an average defense, they could turn into Super Bowl contenders (+3500) by December.

Over 8.5 — LOCK

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers are one of the most volatile teams in the league, which is probably not a surprise when you’re led by Cam Newton and Ron Rivera. Carolina has never had consecutive winning seasons, winning 11, 6, 15, and 5 the last four years with largely the same core.

Last year’s Panthers overachieved, winning two more games than their Pythagorean expectation. They have a bad offensive line and, despite their #7 DVOA, a weak defense outside of Luke Kuechly. The secondary and receivers are both bad, another team that can’t pass or stop the pass in the wrong era.

The Panthers they rely so much on Newton and Kuechly, both of whom are significant injury risks. Carolina is the NFC’s Texans, unpredictable game-to-game with a wide range of outcomes depending on superstar health and which Newton shows up. The dirty little secret about the former MVP is that he’s wildly inconsistent and not a particularly good passer.

Carolina has like 13 coin flip games, because you never know which Panthers team will show. They end their season with Saints-Falcons-Saints, so they should have a shot, but matching last season’s 11 wins is a tall order.

Under 8.5 — pass

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars were a ton of fun behind a brash defense that was as good as they thought they were, but historic defenses typically don’t dominate from one year to the next. Take Denver, whose #1 DVOA defense dropped to 10th last year, taking the Broncos from 9 to 5 wins Dolly Parton-style. Defensive greatness is hard to sustain, even for teams as loaded as the Jags.

That’s not the only red flag. Jacksonville was the league’s second most inconsistent team, which is the sort of thing that happens when Blake Bortles is your QB. They also played the league’s easiest schedule, benefiting from half a season of games against Tom Savage, Ryan Mallett, Josh McCown, DeShone Kizer, Blaine Gabbert, T.J. Yates, and Jacoby Brissett (x2).

The schedule gets much harder this year. Jacksonville opens against the Giants, Patriots, and Titans. They have a stretch against the Chiefs, Cowboys, Texans, and Eagles, the last one a lost “home” game in London. Even the luck is evening out. The Jags play Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson (x2), and Andrew Luck (x2) after Week 6, once each injured QB should have shaken off the rust. The schedule features a disproportionate number of run-heavy teams, and Jacksonville isn’t as strong there as against the pass.

Add that all up and it’s reasonable to expect a step back from the Jacksonville defense, and it’s not like Bortles can make up the ground for the offense. The Jaguars are not going to win 12 games. They may have a better chance of finishing last in the division than winning it.

Under 9 — play

Los Angeles Rams

No, you didn’t click a link and accidentally get sent to my eight Super Bowl contenders. Every year one major contender takes a step back and ends up barely making the playoffs or missing entirely. Last year, Atlanta and Oakland. This year, it’s the Rams.

The AFC is too weak for New England or Pittsburgh not to be in the mix, barring injuries. But the NFC is loaded. There are only really two teams you can be certain aren’t in the playoff mix (Tampa and Arizona), so that leaves 14 teams for 6 spots. There are as many as eight or nine NFC teams with a case for a Super Bowl run. A few of them won’t even make the playoffs.

The Rams were last year’s darling under Coach of the Year Sean McVay. McVay turned around the offense like none in NFL history. The 2016 Rams ranked dead last in points and offensive DVOA, the 4th worst offensive DVOA since 1989. Last year’s Rams led the league in scoring, a remarkable turnaround, especially since it was mostly the same players. It also practically screams regression.

The Rams piled up a ton of points, scoring 32+ in nine of 16 games. They had a robust +149 point differential, behind only Philadelphia and New England. The Rams beat the Colts, Cardinals, Giants, and Seahawks by 33+ points each! Los Angeles was an incredible front runner. They got leads and kept pushing the pace, attacked on defense and forced turnovers, and things spiraled out of control in their favor … sometimes.

But the Rams had just a +8 point differential their other 12 games. They had wins by 2, 4, 5, and 6, with all five losses by at least a touchdown. When the turnovers didn’t come, the Rams struggled. In seven games where L.A. forced 1 or 0 turnovers, the Rams plummeted from 37 to 20 ppg, going 3–4 with no comfortable wins. When the Rams played a real team, they were average at best. That reared its head in L.A.’s only playoff game, a 26–13 loss to a Falcons team that didn’t turn the ball over.

Turnover margin is one of the NFL’s least sticky statistics, so it’s almost always trying to regress to the mean. The Rams lost the turnover battle six times last season and lost all but one of those games. What happens when the Rams stop forcing turnovers and can’t act as front runners?

Ah, but Los Angeles retooled its defense and should be even better. They brought in Ndamukong Suh to wreak havoc on the line next to the newly paid Aaron Donald, and they completely remade the secondary with the additions of Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, and Sam Shields. Those are some big time names but it’s a lot of personalities too, and it’s going to take time for this unit to mesh. That’s even truer since the Rams lost Robert Quinn, Alec Ogletree, and Connor Barwin at linebacker and are starting over there. This is an entirely new defense. If anyone can pull this unit together, it’s DC Wade Phillips, but it’s no sure thing. NFL history is littered with teams that brought in splashy names in free agency that never came together.

The Rams are not going to be bad, not with McVay and Phillips around. L.A. will come out flying against the Raiders and Cards, but the schedule toughens after that. They won’t have eight games against bad QBs like last year. After those first two, they play the Chargers, Vikings, and Seahawks. Later there’s a stretch against the Niners, Packers, Saints, Seahawks, and Chiefs. Even late-season road trips to Detroit and Chicago could be tricky. The one saving grace is a Week 17 home game against the 49ers, which could be for the division.

Still, don’t be surprised if these Rams aren’t quite as good as you remember. Jared Goff is still a below average quarterback masquerading as a good one under the guise of Sean McVay, and the defense is no slam dunk. Maybe the Rams make the Super Bowl, but I say they’re a better bet to miss the playoffs altogether — and you can bet that at +235.

Under 10 — play

Not surprisingly, today ends up with six unders and two overs, but many of these are not particularly great plays. Stay away from the Bengals, Lions, Seahawks, Ravens, and Panthers, whose lines have already factored in some regression, and if you’re out on the Jaguars and Rams, you can find better odds picking them to miss the playoffs. The one gem from today is the Chiefs, who look set to smash their 8.5 wins over even with an early step backward.

Tomorrow we’ll look at 8 teams headed in the right direction, even if they’re not necessarily Super Bowl contenders yet. See you there…

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