With September over, several NFL teams already find themselves with substantial ground to make up in the standings.
Entering Sunday, there are still seven teams — including three that made the playoffs last year — that are without a win. And while two of those squads — the Eagles and the Bengals — tied last week, the outlook for groups that go winless through the first quarter of the season is grim. Since the NFL expanded its playoff format in 1990, the 1992 Chargers are the only team to go 0-4 and then make it into the postseason field. Of course, the expansion to permit seven teams per conference in the playoffs will provide a bit more leeway for any struggling contenders, but many of them still face a time crunch to get back on track.
With that in mind, we asked writers and columnists from USA TODAY Sports and the USA TODAY Network: Which two playoff teams from last season are at most risk of missing the postseason this year?
Philadelphia and Houston. I’ll go out on a limb here and declare that like last year, there will be no wild-card team coming out of the NFC East. Sure, in Week 4 it’s still a mathematical possibility. But it’s the weakest division in football. So, it’s division champ or else. That’s actually the good news for Philly. The Eagles are 0-2-1 but are just a half-game (or an Atlanta onside kick recovery) from being in first place. All that said, there’s still little room for (more) error because the Cowboys have the best offense in the division. Meanwhile, the Texans have two teams to sweat in the AFC South, Indy and Tennessee. And they don’t have DeAndre Hopkins, anymore. Gotta feel for Deshaun Watson. Can you call it a “must-win” game in Week 4? Yep. Both Vikings and Texans are 0-3. Hello, Desperation Bowl.
Admittedly a low-hanging fruit answer, but I’d have to cite the Vikings and Texans – a pair of 0-3 teams that meet Sunday at Houston in what’s tantamount to an elimination game. The Texans recovered from an 0-3 start two years ago to win the AFC South with an 11-5 record, but another 11-2 surge seems far less likely – especially given what appear to be four tough division games ahead against the Titans and Colts, who are a combined 5-1. The Vikings are already three games behind both the Packers and Bears after three weeks … tough ditch to dig out of, especially with Seattle, Atlanta and Green Bay looming after Minnesota’s date with the Texans. Matchup not to watch Sunday? The Vikes’ inexperienced corners not covering DeAndre Hopkins … which sums up these 2020 teams in a way.
The good news for the Texans and Vikings is that, save for a COVID-19 postponement or tie, one squad will leave this weekend’s matchup with its first win. The bad news is that each team still needs help at offensive line, on defense and more if they want to mount playoff hopes to follow up 2019 campaigns where they each won a wild-card game. Sure, the expanded playoff field statistically boosts every team’s chance of advancing to the postseason. But Green Bay seems destined for another NFC North bid, while a deep NFC West (every team has won at least two) is threatening to hog wild-card bids. Minnesota needs personnel answers, including at spots it lost talented stars in the last year, before it can move forward. Houston has its quarterback of the future locked up in Deshaun Watson, but who’s building that future with him? No receiver or running back is averaging even 70 yards from scrimmage per game (cue DeAndre Hopkins, with 118.7 receiving yards per game, waving from Arizona). Houston will hope that things improve after its brutal season start against NFL tone-setters Kansas City, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
The Texans got rid of their best offensive weapon (DeAndre Hopkins), intensifying the pressure on Deshaun Watson, and now at 0-3, they have only a 3.2% chance of making the playoffs. The Titans look like the best team in the AFC South, and there are too many other AFC teams with better shots at a wild-card berth than Houston.
Meanwhile, the Vikings also are struggling after trading their top deep threat, Stefon Diggs, to Buffalo. They focused on upgrading their defense this offseason, but the offense – particularly quarterback Kirk Cousins – has really regressed. Cousins has thrown six interceptions and only five touchdown passes through three games. (He threw only six picks all of last season). And his unit is converting only 36% of their third downs for first downs (sixth-worst in the league). It seems likely unlikely that they would catch the Packers in the division, and it wouldn’t surprise me if three NFC West teams make the postseason.
Jim Ayello, Indianapolis Star
The Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles. The 0-3 Vikings already trail a pair of NFC North rivals (Bears and Packers) by three games. Their division hopes are toast. And with the NFC West so loaded, a wild card seems unfathomable. The Eagles still have time to bounce back in the dismal East, but their schedule the rest of the way is brutal. They very well may be 0-5-1 in three weeks after games against San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
Joel Erickson, Indianapolis Star
The Houston Texans and Minnesota Vikings. They’re both 0-3 and face difficult schedules full of playoff contenders the rest of the way. The Philadelphia Eagles have arguably looked worse than either the Texans or Vikings, but the NFC East so far looks like the perfect division for a team that starts 0-2-1 to come back and win.
Bob McManaman, Arizona Republic
I’m going with the Eagles and the 49ers. Philadelphia is already 0-2-1 and although the NFC East looks so weak that a team might win the division going 8-8, it’s not going to be the Eagles. They’re just too beat up and they look too disjointed. If they’re going to get things right, it’ll be because of their defense, but it’s still a long shot. As for the 49ers, they’re 2-1 but the it’s difficult to believe the defending NFC champions can return to the playoffs after dealing with so many devastating injuries to so many key players, Nick Bosa chief among them. There’s enough depth to keep them competitive, to be sure, but they play in the toughest division in football and it’s reasonable to assume the Seahawks will finish ahead of them and that a team like the Rams and/or Cardinals could sneak into the playoffs ahead of the 49ers.
Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) is slow to get up after throwing an incomplete pass against the Baltimore Ravens. (Photo: David J. Phillip, AP)
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