But just why does a team with a strong history and good outlook suffer setbacks? How does the luster fade so quickly? It is surprisingly easy.
The first team to suffer a drastic turnaround is Tennessee. Winning five of the last six has thrust them back to respectability, but this season will still be known for the 0-6 start to the year that doomed any realistic playoff chances.
A few key elements led to this team putting more tallies in the loss column by game four than in all of the 2008 regular season.
The beginning signs were there in the waning weeks of the 2008 regular season. The team went 3-3 over the final six games, after going undefeated to that point. Two of the three wins were against the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns (ironically, the third was a list-mate here, the Pittsburgh Steelers). Of the losses, a season finale 23-0 loss to the Indianapolis Colts was the most telling.
The team had shown signs of fading with that 3-4 end to last season (including a quick playoff exit), then lost a major defensive cog in Albert Haynesworth.
The Titans opened this season giving up a respectable 13 points, but the other five games they lost consisted of giving up 34, 24, 37, 31, and a whopping 59 points. No team can expect to win when chasing that many points.
Because of the defense’s struggles, the team was forced to put the ball in the wrong set of hands, Kerry Collins. He proved an admirable game manager in their 13-3 season, but was over-matched for the tasks of the present season.
In the team's first five games, he never threw fewer than 32 times. For a 36-year-old who has made a career of managing power running teams, that is about ten times more than he should have to.
The defense has dictated the Titans course. Now that it has regained the capacity to stop an opposing team—giving up less than twenty points in four of their five wins—the offense can put the ball in the electric hands of Chris Johnson.
Throughout the Titans' losing start to the year, Johnson averaged 15.8 carries per game. With the defense keeping games close enough to allow Tennessee to run its offense as it is designed, Johnson has been able to average 24.8 carries per game since.
The next hearty decline is more current. A team that had spent the first half of the season looking primed to defend its prior success.
Pittsburgh has descended from a strong 6-2 start that allowed it to keep pace with Cincinnati, to a 6-7 disappointment that will need a lot of help just to even reach the six seed.
The Steelers have kept most of their losses close. They suffered no 59-0 embarrassments as Tennessee had. In fact, they are yet to lose by double digits at all.
The defense has been especially vulnerable to late comebacks. The heart of the Steelers' defense, Troy Polamalu has been the biggest difference between a successful Steelers team looking to keep pace with their Super Bowl season, and a mediocre team suffering drastically in fourth quarters.
With Polamalu in the lineup, the team is 4-1 (though he missed the bulk of that one loss after being knocked out of the game in the first quarter). Without Polamalu, the team is 2-6.
Yet one vital spark is not the only determinant. The team has also failed to capitalize on offense. Ranked a solid ninth in yards per game, the Steelers are a mediocre 14th in points scored.
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has taken the brunt of the blame for the team’s yardage not necessarily translating into points. Sub-par results from former lead tailback Willie Parker have also led to offensive disappointment.
Close games and fourth quarter woes have driven fans mad. The team is twenty points from 8-4 or better.
The team now holds the dubious distinction of the greatest positive point differential of any sub .500 team at +34.
The New England Patriots are much better positioned than the Titans or Steelers. They remain in the division lead at 7-5, yet look to be on the decline.
Signs of dysfunction have reared with the team showing little faith in a porous defense, repeatedly keeping the ball in Tom Brady’s hands, and was furthered recently when four players were sent home for being nine minutes late to practice on a snow-bogged day.
The team’s offense, led by Brady, is still dynamic. He has overcome a slow start to resume putting fear into defenses. What he no longer has is a supporting defense to match.
Following a 6-2 open to the year (same as Pittsburgh) the team has gone 1-3, giving up 94 points in those three losses.
The schedule did the team no favors, pitting them against undefeated New Orleans and Indianapolis in two of those losses, yet as one of the preseason favorites to win the AFC, this team has shown itself unable to keep pace with the league’s new elite.
The team’s defense, the root of its problems, traded away pro bowler Richard Seymour and watched former leaders Junior Seau, Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, and Mike Vrabel all leave by trade or retirement.
All were players on the decline, yet vital character guys that strengthened the locker room and knew how to reach into their reserves when needed.
The young core of the defense is likely to improve, but at present they are over-matched by what has been asked of them.
Versatile guys who can fit into their head coach’s omnischeming have given way to more traditional positional guys who don’t all fit together in the fashion Belichick must have envisioned.
These three teams have all suffered setbacks this year. The Titans with five wins, Steelers with six, and Patriots with seven, are all at least two games from where they feel they should be.
What is the common component in all three? The loss of a pro-bowl defensive leader. Polamalu has watched the team give up leads repeatedly, turning those fourth-quarter leads into final-score losses.
The Titans watched Albert Haynesworth sign a massive contract with Washington, and followed his departure with a six-game losing streak that saw teams score almost at will on the formerly stringent defense.
They have appeared to shore themselves up, but the damage is likely already done for this season.
New England traded away Richard Seymour to the Oakland Raiders for a 2011 first-round draft pick. By then, the youth of the team may be served and the defense may return to strength but until that time, they appear aimless without a leader to anchor the team.
Offense may be the focal point of most media attention, but defense wins games. Just look to three teams with deep playoff aspirations, all in various states of disrepair because of losses of significant defensive standouts.
This is not a guarantee of failure (witness the San Diego success with Pro Bowl nose tackle Jamal Williams spending all but game one on IR, or Indianapolis sans Bob Sanders), but is a common thread among these three that should be a warning.
When a team’s defense is too heavily vested in key players, keep them on the field at all costs, or the results could be painful.