Every NFL Contender's Achilles' Heel Entering the Final Month of the Season

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 30, 2017

Every NFL Contender's Achilles' Heel Entering the Final Month of the Season

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    December football arrives this weekend, and 25 of the NFL's 32 teams remain within two games of playoff spots. But at this point in the season, the 15 that possess winning records are by and large more legit than their sub-.500 counterparts. 

    Still, none of them are perfect. 

    All of them have lost at least once, and each have had warts exposed. Let's identify those Achilles' heels with a team-by-team breakdown, starting with the six-win squads and concluding with the heavyweights. 

Detroit Lions: An Inability to Tackle

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Sometimes, it's that simple. Veteran linebacker Tahir Whitehead misses too many tackles, rookie first-round pick Jarrad Davis misses too many tackles and safety Tavon Wilson missed too many tackles before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. They all miss too many damn tackles, and it's been getting worse. 

    That explains why the run defense has struggled mightily, surrendering a league-high 559 yards (5.4 yards per attempt) along with six rushing touchdowns in the last three weeks alone. 

    The Lions had trouble with Latavius Murray of the Minnesota Vikings. Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen of the Chicago Bears destroyed them one week earlier. Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson of the Cleveland Browns carved them up in Week 10, and Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman each overwhelmed them earlier this season. 

    Unfortunately, there's a good chance they'll have to deal with those backs again if they sneak into the playoffs. And it's not as though the division-leading Philadelphia Eagles or Los Angeles Rams have slouches in the backfield, either. 

Buffalo Bills: Demons

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    The Bills are trying to overcome a weakness that is less tangible: their past.

    They're the only franchise in the big four North American professional sports that has yet to make a playoff appearance in the 21st century. They have a chance to end that drought this season in the wide-open AFC wild-card race, but they've lost three of their last four games after a 5-2 start. That's become a familiar feeling in Buffalo. 

    The Bills started 5-2 in 2008. They finished 7-9. They started 5-2 again in 2011. They finished 6-10. They started 4-2 last season. They finished 7-9. Not only are they trying to avoid a similar fate in 2017, but a team that overachieved during the first half of the year is also doing its best to recover from a traumatic November in which they lost three consecutive games by 80 points and temporarily benched starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor. 

    With a pair of matchups against the mighty New England Patriots looming, it's going to be difficult for the Bills to overcome their demons in December. 

Baltimore Ravens: An Inability to Hit Home Runs

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    The Ravens have one of the NFL's most talented, experienced and savvy defenses, and their oft-maligned running game has received a welcome jolt from second-year back Alex Collins. But the offense has lacked the ability to make big plays, which is far from ideal in this aerial-friendly era. 

    The Baltimore offense is averaging a league-low 4.4 yards per play and has a league-low number of 20-plus-yard gains (22) and 20-plus-yard completions (15). That could be problematic if the Ravens go up against superior opponents in January and fall behind. 

    Quarterback Joe Flacco knows it. 

    "If we believe we can win the Super Bowl with how we're playing right now, I'm all for it. I really am," Flacco told reporters after the offense struggled to make splash plays Monday night against the Houston Texans. "[But] we can all take a look at that and say it's probably not super-realistic. We need to go out there, we need to go get it and we need to be better on our side of the ball." 

Kansas City Chiefs: The Entire Offense

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    What the hell happened? 

    We've been saying that all year about the Chiefs offensefirst because it was suddenly potent with unmatched big-play ability during September and October, and now because it has suddenly reverted to its safe, ineffective self for much of November. 

    After scoring a league-high 236 points during their first eight games, the Chiefs have scored just three touchdowns in their last three outings. And after a 5-0 start, they have just one victory since Oct. 15. 

    So, what happened? Well, lifelong checkdown specialist Alex Smith has regressed to the mean after an aberrational start. We should have expected that since Smith has never been a gunslinger, but his struggles have been exacerbated by running back Kareem Hunt's disappearance and lackluster play from the offensive line. 

    After rushing for 20-plus yards eight times during the first seven weeks of the season, Hunt has zero such runs in his last four affairs. That's in part because he's rarely seeing holes behind a line that has lacked continuity, at least somewhat due to injuries. 

    This might be a chicken-or-the-egg thing, but it's no coincidence the Chiefs have completed just one 40-yard pass during this four-week rut. They hitting on six during the first seven weeks of the year.

    Regardless, the Achilles' heel that many expected would sink them prior to the season hasafter a short reprievebegun to sink them after all. 

Seattle Seahawks: The Offensive Line

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    John Froschauer/Associated Press

    The Seattle Seahawks remain in the thick of the playoff hunt at 7-4, but they have a number of problems on their hands at the moment. The Legion of Boom looks more like the Legion of Gloom (hold your applause) without Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, the running game hasn't been much better this year than it was last year and the NFC West is no longer a cakewalk with the emergence of the Rams. 

    But nothing is more likely to send the Seahawks packing in December or January than that atrocious offensive line. 

    Save for perhaps Jacoby Brissett of the Indianapolis Colts, no quarterback in football deals with as much pressure as Russell Wilson.

    Thankfully for the Seahawks' sake, Wilson is the game's best improviser. They're only in contention right now because their three-time Pro Bowl quarterback has been performing weekly magic acts behind a neglected group that includes a classic bust (Luke Joeckel), a potentially washed-up midseason acquisition (Duane Brown) and a trio of underachievers (Ethan Pocic, Germain Ifedi and Justin Britt, who was expected to do a lot more after signing a contract extension in mid-August). 

    Will all of the pressure eventually take too much of a toll on Wilson? That's what happened last year, when nagging injuries caused him to fade down the stretch. He might once again be faced with having to overcome too much.

Atlanta Falcons: Questionable Mental Fortitude

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    A Super Bowl hangover looks like the Atlanta Falcons' biggest Achilles' heel. They're now labeled as choke artists after blowing a 25-point lead in Super Bowl LI, and they've flirted with meltdowns on several occasions since.

    In Week 2, they let the Green Bay Packers back into a game which they led 31-7. The following week, they ran out to a double-digit lead before escaping with a last-second victory over the Lions. In Week 9, they blew a double-digit lead to the Carolina Panthers. In Week 11, they nearly blew a 21-7 lead to the Seahawks. And on Sunday, they came close to letting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers come back from a 27-6 deficit.

    They've also struggled on the road, beating the Lions, Seahawks, Chicago Bears and New York Jets by the skin of their teeth. They dropped away outings against the Patriots and Panthers, too.

    They're a young team, and they may continue to struggle when they face adversity. 

Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles

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    It's a good thing the opportunistic Jacksonville Jaguars have the league's best defense, because they also have one of the league's lowest-rated passers under center. 

    Among 36 qualifiers, Blake Bortles ranks 27th with a passer rating of 79.5, 31st with a completion percentage of 58.3 and 27th with a yards-per-attempt average of 6.45. Despite being surrounded by talent on both sides of the ball, the 2014 No. 3 overall pick continues to be a major liability. 

    He enters December on a cold streak, having completed just 56.1 percent of his passes along with two touchdowns to three interceptions for a 5.2 yards-per-attempt average and a dismal 65.2 rating in his last three games. He's also taken eight sacks in that span. 

    Bortles is not a starting-caliber quarterback, and this is likely his last season in that role. He's doing a hell of a lot more harm than good, and that dynamic will almost certainly be exploited in the playoffs, if not before then. 

Tennessee Titans: Turnovers

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    Ten NFL teams have already turned the ball over more than 16 times this season, but only one of those teams—Tennessee—has a winning record.

    It's amazing the Titans have a 7-4 record despite the fifth-highest turnover total in the league, especially because they've already turned it over more this season (19 times) than they did in 16 games last season (18). This offense was widely expected to take a titanic step forward (continue to hold applause) in quarterback Marcus Mariota's third season, but the 2015 No. 2 overall pick's interception rate has jumped from 2.0 percent to 3.9. 

    Partly as a result of that, Mariota's rate-based numbers have plummeted, and momentum is not on his or his team's side. They've committed eight turnovers in the last three weeks alone, but they were lucky to run into hapless opponents Cincinnati and Indianapolis in two of those three contests. 

    They won't draw hapless opponents in January, and it's no secret how hard it is to win at all—let alone in the playoffs—when losing the turnover battle. 

    What the Titans are doing isn't sustainable, and it might ultimately cost them their season. 

Carolina Panthers: A Lack of Weapons in the Passing Game

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Panthers might have to hope franchise quarterback Cam Newton can play Superman and carry them the way he often did as league MVP when they went to the Super Bowl in 2015, because there aren't many other guys available to make plays in Carolina. 

    Not only do the Panthers rank 27th in football with just 10 takeaways, but they might have larger problems surrounding Newton on offense. A unit that wasn't exactly loaded with weapons entering the season has been working without superstar tight end Greg Olsen (who has barely played since Week 3 due to a foot injury), talented wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (who was surprisingly traded to the Bills last month) and rookie second-round Swiss Army knife Curtis Samuel (who is on injured reserve with ligament damage in his ankle). 

    Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey has helped by catching a ridiculous 59 passes for 468 yards, third-year receiver Devin Funchess has at least stepped up with 17 receptions for 286 yards in his last three games, and Olsen looks as though he'll be OK after aggravating his foot injury in a Week 12 victory over the Jets. But McCaffrey has his limitations, Funchess has a limited track record and is dealing with a toe injury, and there's no telling how healthy Olsen will be down the stretch. 

    That could be a problem, because Newton doesn't have many options beyond that trio. 

New Orleans Saints: The Defense

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    I know, I know. The New Orleans Saints defense is no longer a punchline.

    I get it: Rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season, undrafted second-year corner Ken Crawley has been a revelation, defensive end Cameron Jordan already has 10 sacks, rookie safety Marcus Williams has become a strong starter, and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins is having a breakout sophomore season.

    And I know, that unit surrendered just 12.3 points per game between Week 3 and Week 10. 

    But that defense still isn't wildly different from the one that gave up a league-high 29.8 points per game in 2015 and then followed that up by allowing 28.4 in 2016, second-highest in the NFL. And that hot streak this year came against a slew of offensively challenged opponents (Miami, Chicago, Tampa Bay, Buffalo, Green Bay without Aaron Rodgers), while being sandwiched by two pairs of not-so-pretty performances (they gave up a combined 65 points to the Vikings and Patriots and have now surrendered 57 at the hands of the Washington Redskins and Rams). 

    What I'm saying is I don't trust this defense yet. Even if it is better than it was in recent seasons, it might still be a liability. And that's especially the case with Lattimore (ankle) and Crawley (abdomen) both hurting. 

    Up front, they've still surrendered 4.6 yards per rush. On the back end, they've still given up 25 30-yard gains (the second-highest total in the league). And a D that was making plays consistently early on now has just five takeaways in its last six affairs. 

    If this surprisingly strong Saints campaign ends abruptly anywhere short of Super Bowl LII in Minnesota, Drew Brees and the offense likely won't be to blame. 

Los Angeles Rams: Inexperience

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    Pictured left is Rams head coach Sean McVay, who probably isn't old enough to remember life before The Simpsons. On the right is Rams quarterback Jared Goff, who probably isn't old enough to remember life before Family Guy. The team's hopes and dreams for 2017 rest with those two—the youngest head coach in NFL history and a sophomore signal-caller who won his first professional game in September. 

    But they're young all over, especially on offense. According to Philly Voice's Jimmy Kempski, the Rams entered the regular season as the NFC's youngest team by a wide margin. McVay is an offensive guru who calls the plays, and on that side of the ball, they're also relying heavily on running back Todd Gurley (23), receivers Robert Woods (25), Cooper Kupp (24) and Sammy Watkins (24), tight end Tyler Higbee (24) and right guard Jamon Brown (24).

    Now, the defense is a little longer in the tooth, and the presence of wise old defensive coordinator Wade Phillips as well as 35-year-old Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth helps. But practically nobody else playing a key role on this team has big-game experience in the NFL, which could backfire in the weeks ahead. 

Minnesota Vikings: Case Keenum's Resume

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    The more wins a team has, the harder it is to identify their Achilles' heel, and the more likely you are to feel as though you're nitpicking when doing so. That really became evident with the Vikings, who have gotten more than they could have ever expected out of quarterback Case Keenum. 

    It's wild that the Vikes possess the No. 2 seed in the NFC despite the fact the third-most popular quarterback on the roster has spent the vast majority of the season under center, but Keenum has held off a now-healthy Teddy Bridgewater by posting a 7-2 record to go along with a completion percentage of 66.1, a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 14-to-5, a passer rating of 96.2 and a league-low sack rate of 2.1 percent.

    But until he caught fire this fall, Keenum was known only as a 29-year-old journeyman backup, a mercenary who couldn't cut it with the Texans or Rams. During his first five seasons in the league, the undrafted Houston product completed just 58.4 percent of his passes for a passer rating of 78.4, winning just nine of 24 starts in spot roles. 

    That sample remains more than twice as large as this one, and there are usually pretty good reasons for why guys don't get drafted. 

    Can Keenum keep this up? The very fact that it's a question is scary because nobody can afford to have their quarterback suddenly crash in December or January, and there's no telling if Bridgewater will have the ability to save the day if called upon. 

New England Patriots: The Front Seven Without Dont'a Hightower

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Like the Saints defense, New England's D has rebounded from an ugly start. But a team that is firing on all cylinders on the offensive side of the ball and is loaded with talent in the secondary might still have reason to be concerned about a front seven that lacks high-end talent without linebacker Dont'a Hightower.

    A Pro Bowler in 2016, Hightower played a huge role in each of New England's last two Super Bowl victories. But he's out for the year due to a pectoral injury, which was always likely to hurt even if Bill Belichick worked his magic. 

    Belichick has done exactly that, which is evidenced by the fact they haven't surrendered more than 17 points since Week 5 (after allowing 33-plus in three of their first four games). But from the moment Hightower went down in Week 7 until last week, the Pats defense recorded just two sacks in the span of three-and-a-half games.

    They did finally explode for seven sacks Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, but they've also allowed a league-high 4.9 yards per rushing attempt and struggled to shut down opposing backs Melvin Gordon, C.J. Anderson, Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch and Damien Williams in the last four weeks. 

    The Patriots are almost certain to make another postseason run, and they're once again close to perfect on both sides of the ball. But their defensive front consists of just Trey Flowers and wallflowers, and that's something their opponents will try to exploit between now and whenever their 2017 campaign comes to an end. 

Pittsburgh Steelers: A Tendency to Give Up Big Plays on Defense

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers secondary was viewed as a potential weakness long before they lost late-breakout cornerback Joe Haden to a fractured left fibula a few weeks ago. And while a strong offense and a loaded front seven often mask the issues they have in the defensive backfield, their habit of giving up big plays could wind up haunting them when it matters most. 

    The Steelers have surrendered 11 40-plus-yard plays this season, six of which have come in the 11 quarters that have transpired since Haden went down against the Colts. Only Indy and the Texans have given up more 40-yard plays this season, and head coach Mike Tomlin isn't happy about it. 

    "Some of those things have been issues for us in multiple games," Tomlin said this week, per Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "particularly the big plays of late. So obviously that has to stop."   

    It does, because if the Brett Hundley-led Packers, the Mariota-led Titans and the Brissett-led Colts are able to do light up that D consistently for big plays, good teams with good quarterbacks will be laughing.  

Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz's Lack of Big-Game Experience

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    Coming out of FCS North Dakota State, Carson Wentz needed time to adjust to professional football. But after an uneven rookie season and an offseason that saw him refine his game significantly, Wentz finds himself in the MVP conversation as the face of the league's only 10-win team. 

    It's exciting, and a pleasure to watch. But is it all happening too fast? 

    Wentz crashed after a hot opening stretch as a rookie last year, posting an abysmal 72.3 passer rating in his final 12 games after 3-1 start in which he threw seven touchdown passes to just one interception. It's possible he's destined to hit another wall as a sophomore, but at a later stage. 

    And if that happens, or Wentz simply isn't ready to carry an otherwise talented team in his first truly critical games as a pro, the Eagles will likely have to wait at least another year for a shot at their first title since 1960. 


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