NFL Predictions: 5 Perennial Contenders Who Won't Rebound from Slow Starts
The NFL season may be a marathon that stretches into the heart of winter, but that doesn't mean some teams aren't torpedoed before all the leaves finish falling.
October has just started and golf courses are still taking tee times, but some teams have seen the first quarter of the season blow up in their faces. There are still months ahead on the slate, but too much has gone wrong too soon.
There's a phrase in sports that says you can't win games early, but you can lose them. That principle applies to the NFL season as well. Nobody makes the playoffs in September and October, but every year, there are teams that see their postseason hopes vanish early on.
Sometimes it happens all at once, with an injury or a losing streak that immediately puts a team in the hunt for a high draft pick. Sometimes the team is still in contention, but a few tough losses and a tough schedule mean things will get worse before they get better.
Those teams can be the ones that expected a tough season (Cleveland, for instance), but they can also be ones that were expecting to be competitive—or that have been competitive recently—but are being forced to deal with starts to the season that went a little rougher than imagined.
Here are a few teams that face tough roads back from early slumps, roads that will ultimately prove too tough as the year goes on.
New York Jets
The Jets are, for the time being, 2-2. There are plenty of teams in worse position in the standings.
The Jets, however, are leaking fuel or taking on water or spiraling down or whatever disastrous analogy you want to use. They've lost quite possibly the game's best defensive player (and undoubtedly its most irreplaceable) in Darrelle Revis for the year, and to add to the dire straits, they're without top receiver Santonio Holmes for the rest of the season.
The offense is inept, there's no clear consensus on who the starting quarterback should be and the team that made "ground-and-pound" a buzzword during trips to the AFC championship game in 2009 and 2010 is in the bottom 10 in rushing and in yards per carry.
Rex Ryan, in two of his three years at Gang Green's helm, has been a master motivator with a knack for getting his team to come together after rough stretches, but this is asking too much. The Jets had flaws already, and then they lost the players who give them a fighting chance.
The Jets aren't out of it yet, but they're nowhere near equipped enough to be one of the final teams standing once the playoffs roll around.
The Lions aren't a "perennial contender" in the conventional sense, but they are a team that made the playoffs last year and, with a young, dynamic offensive and defensive core, fully expected to be in the mix again this season.
The Lions are slumping following a 1-3 start, and to make matters worse, the NFC North is evolving into one of the league's more competitive conferences. The Packers, though enduring a slow start themselves, should be there in the end, the Bears have division title aspirations and the Vikings, at 4-1, have shown no interest in being the punching bag many in the media saw them becoming.
The Lions have two games remaining against both the Packers and the Bears, as well as contests with the surprising Cardinals and red-hot Falcons. They also have games with the Eagles, Seahawks and Texans—the latter of which has arguably been the best team in football.
If the Lions go 6-3 in that stretch, that makes the margin for error razor thin for double-digit wins and a playoff spot. If the NFC remains this competitive, it might not even be enough to get in.
If the Cowboys were 2-2 with four gritty, close games, they wouldn't be in bad shape.
However, they're 2-2 with two close victories and a pair of ugly, blowout losses. That indicates there are some issues that need to be ironed out in Big D—and the Cowboys had better get cracking right away.
Dallas will need to find some rhythm soon, as its upcoming schedule will bury it if the team remains so inconsistent and mistake-prone. Up next are the Ravens in Baltimore, where they don't lose, and following a tilt with equally baffling Carolina, the Cowboys host the Giants before traveling to Atlanta and to Philadelphia.
It's a slate that could leave the Cowboys at 3-6 and out of the playoff picture. That's the worst-case scenario, but considering Tony Romo's unimpressive play since his sparkling opener, it just might be reality.
The Cowboys are capable of surprising everyone and emerging from that stretch alive and well (after all, few had them beating the Giants to start the season), but it'll take a real about-face from this team. Romo needs to take care of the ball, and the running game, currently 29th in yards per game, has to improve.
The defense against the pass has been a bright spot for the Cowboys, but if they don't find care and control to go with their playmaking ability on offense, they'll quickly be on the outside looking in at the playoff hunt.
Following a 9-7 season in which they were in the running for the playoffs up until the final week, the Tennessee Titans were eyeing 2012 as the year to reclaim their status as a regular contender in the AFC.
Instead, the Titans are reeling. Their defense is getting smoked week in and week out, their quarterback of the future is having a hard time staying on the field and Chris Johnson, a one-time featured star on ESPN highlight reels, now settles for just the occasional cameo.
It won't get much easier for the Titans. Games against the Texans, Packers, Steelers and Bears remain, and though all but the Packers game is at home, that's four opponents with quarterbacks that can light up this pass defense.
There are plenty of flaws within the Titans' roster (the defense has allowed 30 points in each of the season's first five games), but Johnson's fall from elite status is the crucial blow. The team decided to base its offense on him, and he's since become a shell of himself. It's a warning to other teams not to hitch their offenses to a running back, one of the game's more unstable, constantly changing positions.
New Orleans Saints
You don't want to count the Saints out, not even with a 1-4 record. You don't want to do it with Drew Brees still there and with the Superdome still one of the NFL's top home-field advantages.
Nonetheless, New Orleans is in a load of trouble. The Saints have one win, and as the Lions are also finding out, there are plenty of teams with playoff aspirations ahead of them in the NFC.
They also don't have their coach. That tends to matter.
Their record is only through five games, but the Saints have an awful climb ahead of them. They have to go 9-2 to win double-digit games, and they still have to go through Atlanta twice, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Denver, Dallas and the Giants.
They'll also have to try this comeback with one of the league's least productive defenses. It'll be a hard, hard run to pull off.
The Saints do still have Drew Brees. Unless he's near perfect, it won't be enough for New Orleans going forward. The Saints will fight, but there will just be too much ground for them to make up.
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