Every NFL Team's Kryptonite
In the NFL or otherwise, nobody's perfect.
Now that the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers have finally been beaten, we can confirm every team is fallible. And even if one did run the table, the moment they punted or surrendered a first down, they'd technically be imperfect.
Let's run through every squad's most vulnerable weakness entering the home stretch of the 2019 season.
The latest podcast from the crew over at Stick to Football takes a look at the future of Philip Rivers, what the future of the Chargers could look like without him, and if a QB is in the cards for the 2020 draft? They also look at stock up and stock down for some top 2020 prospects as well as full-on plan to fix the Chicago Bears. Take a listen here.
Arizona Cardinals: Pass Defense
The Arizona Cardinals offense has lacked consistency in head coach Kliff Kingsbury's and quarterback Kyler Murray's debut seasons. It's scored on just 14 of 38 red-zone possessions, which is the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL.
But that inability is trumped by Arizona's glaring problems with pass defense. Vance Joseph's D has surrendered a quarterback rating of 113.0, by far the worst mark in the NFL. It's allowed a ridiculous 29 passing touchdowns, with 12 of those coming to opposing tight ends.
That's a position the Cardinals just can't defend. They have by far the league's worst defense-adjusted value over average at Football Outsiders against tight ends.
What's the root of the problem? Arizona is tied for ninth with 29 sacks and ranks fifth in pressures with 110, and top pass-rusher Chandler Jones is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. But it leads the league with 100 missed tackles—13 more than the second-place Detroit Lions—which contributes to the idea it's been eaten up by short stuff. Death by a thousand cuts.
It doesn't help that star cornerback Patrick Peterson was suspended for the first six games of the season and hasn't performed well since, and the Cardinals lack talent at that position as they wait for rookie second-round corner Byron Murphy Jr. to get past growing pains.
But Joseph has a big reputation, and he has to get more out of his secondary as well as struggling but talented linebackers Haason Reddick and Jordan Hicks.
Jones can't do it all himself.
Atlanta Falcons: Lack of Offensive Balance
Up until a couple of weeks ago, the obvious weak spot on the Atlanta Falcons was a defense that appeared to be toothless. Through nine weeks, the Falcons ranked dead-last in the league with just seven sacks and were tied for last with a mere four takeaways. But since their Week 9 bye, they've exploded with 11 sacks and four takeaways.
So, for now we'll leave a still questionable defense alone and focus on a running game that ranks ahead of only the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins and is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry.
Veteran Devonta Freeman has a foot injury, but even before that, he hadn't put together a 90-yard performance this season and had only two games with 40 or more yards. His 3.5 yards per carry rank in the bottom seven among 48 qualified players, and his struggles and absence have hurt, particularly with promising second-year back Ito Smith on injured reserve with a neck injury.
This is also a reflection of the offensive line, which has struggled in both pass protection and run blocking. Left tackle Jake Matthews has been that unit's only consistently decent performer, and veteran center Alex Mack isn't the player he used to be. Big offseason changes haven't paid off at the guard positions, though luck hasn't been on the Falcons' side either with rookie interior offensive lineman Chris Lindstrom on IR with a foot injury.
Put it all together, and it's no surprise that despite success in the passing game, the Falcons have turned the ball over 16 times and are 3-7.
Baltimore Ravens: Lack of Big-Game Experience
Once a blatant Achilles' heel, the Baltimore Ravens defense has also redeemed itself with lights-out, opportunistic play over the last month. As a result of that and Lamar Jackson's continued improvement as a passer, it's become increasingly difficult to find a flaw with a team that is leading most power rankings entering the home stretch.
So we'll have to nitpick by pointing out that Jackson is still only 22 years old. When he entered the league only 19 months ago, he was widely considered a long-term project. Instead, he's an MVP candidate in the back half of his sophomore season.
Is it all happening too fast?
Jackson and the Ravens at least gained some playoff experience in their wild-card loss to the Los Angeles Chargers last year, and it helps that coach John Harbaugh and new star safety Earl Thomas III have Super Bowl titles on their resumes. But top targets Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown are just 23 and 22, and the young offensive line could also prove vulnerable.
The Ravens might be a better team than the AFC-leading Patriots, but they don't have that Super Bowl pedigree. How will they handle a potential January trip to Foxborough? Nobody really knows, and that's a mild concern.
Buffalo Bills: Inability to Stretch the Field
New season, more success, same Kryptonite for the Buffalo Bills, who continue to be limited by their inability to consistently make big plays through the air.
Buffalo has just five 40-yard passing plays and one 40-yard passing touchdown. Second-year quarterback Josh Allen has done a good job cutting down on his mistakes and is avoiding sacks and interceptions, but it's concerning that since Week 3 he's completed just five deep passes that resulted in gains of 25-plus yards.
That's despite the fact Buffalo's schedule has been the easiest in terms of DVOA. It's faced seven pass defenses that rank in the bottom 12 in DVOA (including Miami twice) and only one that ranks better than 10th (New England).
Allen hasn't shied away from deep balls against those defenses, but he's missed a hell of a lot more often than he's hit. That's a big reason why the Bills have a bottom-10 offense in DVOA. And while they haven't been exposed yet, their upcoming schedule is going to be problematic if they can't make more splash plays.
Carolina Panthers: Can't Stop the Run
Leonard Fournette, Tevin Coleman, Aaron Jones, Todd Gurley II, Raheem Mostert, Jamaal Williams, Carlos Hyde, Duke Johnson. That's a list of running backs who have rocked the Carolina Panthers defense.
Carolina has surrendered 4.9 yards per rush and 128.4 rushing yards per game, which is odd considering the talent it has in the defensive front seven. It's also surrendered first downs a league-high 90.9 percent of the time on 3rd-and-1.
And the Panthers have really been bullied in the red zone. They've given up touchdowns on an NFL-worst 65.7 percent of their defensive red-zone possessions, and they've surrendered league highs of 4.4 yards per rushing attempt and 16 rushing touchdowns in that part of the field.
No other defense has allowed more than 3.6 yards per carry or more than 11 rushing scores in the red zone.
It's been far too much of this, this, this and this, especially for a team with Luke Kuechly, Shaq Thompson and Gerald McCoy up front. Ron Rivera has to find a way to fix it, or his team will likely miss the playoffs for the third time in four years.
Kyle Allen's struggles at quarterback could lead to that result anyway, but Carolina's problems against the run are even worse.
Chicago Bears: Mitchell Trubisky
By almost every measure, the Chicago Bears defense hasn't been as good as it was in 2018. However, it has surrendered only 17.4 points per game, which is the fourth-best mark in the league.
The problem is that the offense has taken a jarring step in the wrong direction, and a lot of it has to do with regressing third-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.
The 2017 No. 2 overall pick's passer rating has dropped by more than 13 points from last year, and his 5.6 yards per attempt rank dead-last among qualified passers by a wide margin. Only four qualified quarterbacks have posted lower averages this decade.
And if not for two solid performances against bad defenses in the Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions, it'd be a hell of a lot worse. It has often looked as though Trubisky has lost the confidence of head coach Matt Nagy, who also deserves criticism for questionable game plans and play calls in his second season.
But Nagy isn't throwing the passes, and Trubisky was so ineffective in a winnable, potential season-saving Week 11 matchup with the Los Angeles Rams that nobody was surprised when Nagy appeared to bench him late in the fourth quarter. Instead, he apparently had a hip injury, which raises another concern regarding the durability of a 25-year-old who has now missed time with three separate injuries in the last calendar year.
Cincinnati Bengal: The Offensive Line
Andy Dalton was a scapegoat.
The Cincinnati Bengals quarterback wasn't playing well before he was benched, but the primary reason for his and running back Joe Mixon's struggles was and is Cincinnati's horrendous offensive line. The league's only winless team is riddled with flaws, but a lack of pass protection and poor run blocking stand out more than anything else.
Only three teams have surrendered more sacks than the Bengals, who also rank in the bottom five in rushing yards per outing. But an inordinate percentage of those sacks can be blamed on the offensive line, and Football Outsiders does the same for the issues on the ground.
That outlet "takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line" for a statistic called adjusted line yards. Through 11 weeks, the Bengals have gained 3.5 adjusted line yards per attempt, and only the Dolphins are worse with 3.3.
They've missed left tackle Cordy Glenn, who has yet to play this season because of a concussion and shoulder injury. But it's also ridiculous that they're relying on Bobby Hart at right tackle, and all three regular interior offensive linemen have performed terribly.
The Bengals are due to rebuild, and they should start that process by bolstering a mess of an O-line.
Cleveland Browns: Freddie Kitchens
Freddie Kitchens wasn't ready to be an NFL head coach, and he may never be ready.
The longtime position coach was promoted into that role with the Cleveland Browns in the offseason despite the fact he had never even served as an offensive coordinator before taking over for the fired Todd Haley midway through the 2018 campaign.
Kitchens' play calling has been widely lampooned, he's lost five consecutive challenges, and the Browns have been penalized a league-high 882 yards. Only the Ravens have been hit by more roughing-the-passer penalties, and the culture fostered by Kitchens very well could have contributed to the disturbing incident that cost top Browns defensive player Myles Garrett the rest of his season.
"This falls squarely right on the head coach. ... When I watch the Cleveland Browns, I see a lot of stuff being allowed to happen," Haley told SiriusXM NFL Radio. "Whether it's clown shoes, visors, whatever it may be—Myles Garrett hitting the quarterback low, hitting the quarterback in the head—it's happening too much. It's not just a fluke."
Haley referenced a couple of uniform-related mishaps involving Odell Beckham Jr., who earlier this season missed a play in the red zone because he was wearing an illegal visor and also took heat for wearing an expensive watch during a game as well as for wearing pants and cleats that violated league rules.
That's small potatoes compared to Garrett's attack on an opposing quarterback, and it's not as harmful as bad play-calling. But it all adds up, and it's become obvious Kitchens doesn't have the proper grip on his team or his job.
Dallas Cowboys: The First Quarter
Only 14.0 percent of the points the Dallas Cowboys have scored this year have come in the first quarter. Dallas is the league's fourth-highest-scoring team, but only 11 teams have scored fewer points in the first quarter, and it's failed to score a first-quarter touchdown in seven of 10 games.
The Cowboys overcame a 14-10 second-quarter deficit Sunday in Detroit, and they came back from early deficits in both of their meetings with the New York Giants as well as their game against the Redskins. But they can't afford to dig early holes against good teams, as we saw when they fell behind 24-0 in a loss to the Green Bay Packers and 14-0 in a loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Dallas also trailed 21-3 in a loss to the Jets.
"I think it's your focus," quarterback Dak Prescott said last week, per Clarence E. Hill Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "It's how focused can you be each and every play, and obviously starting off the game. It's focus to details, focus to small things. They matter when you're playing a good team, playing a good defense."
That's concerning because each of Dallas' next five opponents possesses a top-10 defense.
Jason Garrett's team will have to learn to start games more effectively or it'll be out of the playoff picture before that stretch run is complete.
Denver Broncos: The Fourth Quarter
While the Cowboys can't start, the Denver Broncos can't finish.
Nowhere was that more evident than Sunday in Minnesota, where the Broncos became the first team in five years to blow a 20-plus-point halftime lead. That dropped Denver to 3-7 under new head coach Vic Fangio, but this season would look a whole lot different if it also hadn't blown fourth-quarter leads against the Bears, Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts. Those three losses all came on last-minute field goals.
"We have to learn to finish," running back Phillip Lindsay said Monday, per the Associated Press. "We are a young team learning how to do that. As you can see, we are not far off from those teams. We have to finish. We had these games in the book."
And that applies to the offense in particular. Denver has scored 34 fourth-quarter points, tied for an AFC low, and it hasn't scored a touchdown in that quarter since the end of September. The offense ranks 30th on third downs and 27th in the red zone.
It's just not good when it matters, which is extremely problematic.
Detroit Lions: Lack of Offensive Balance
There was so much hope for the Lions' historically ineffective running game. Kerryon Johnson flashed as a rookie in 2018, and new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell was expected to emphasize Johnson and the running game in support of veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford.
But Johnson has been out since Week 7 with a knee injury, and prior to that, he averaged just 3.3 yards per carry. Ty Johnson and J.D. McKissic haven't been effective in his stead, and the result is a rushing offense that ranks 29th in DVOA. The passing game ranks sixth.
This is a familiar problem for Detroit, but it's been particularly glaring this season because the defense has struggled and Stafford has been out two games and counting with back and hip injuries.
The Lions have a lot of issues. They're missing their quarterback, they're missing their running back, they're giving up far too many big plays, they aren't getting sacks, they aren't getting pressure, they aren't generating takeaways, their second-year head coach has taken a lot of heat, and they appear to be dealing with locker-room turmoil as well.
It's not pretty. They're swimming in liquid Kryptonite, and that disappointing lack of balance might hurt more than anything.
Green Bay Packers: Run Defense
The Packers spent a lot of money in the offseason upgrading the pass defense, particularly on the edge. And while the team has indeed improved in that area, it's struggling to slow down running games.
Only the Panthers, Redskins and Packers have allowed 120 or more rushing yards in seven games this season. Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Josh Jacobs, Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders have all run wild against Green Bay.
And while the Packers masked their softness against the run when the pass rush was firing on all cylinders and they were consistently making splash plays early, they have just 13 sacks and eight takeaways in their last seven games (after recording 12 and eight in their first three). That's enabled opposing offenses to control games with more manageable down-and-distance scenarios.
Green Bay is a contender with a Hall of Fame quarterback, and the new offense has gotten past early-season rust. The defense isn't necessarily a liability, but it features the team's most glaring weakness. That's not ideal considering the Packers' next two games are on the road against the 49ers (who have the NFC's top-ranked running game) and Giants (who have a guy named Saquon Barkley).
Houston Texans: The Defense Can't Close
You couldn't fault anyone for naming the Houston Texans offensive line, but that unit has made progress with Laremy Tunsil and Tytus Howard manning the tackle spots, and quarterback Deshaun Watson's troubling September sack rate plummeted in October and November before he ran into trouble in what the team hopes was an outlier blowout loss to the Ravens on Sunday.
Plus, Watson runs into a lot of sacks, though he seems to be improving in that area.
Instead, we'll focus on a defense that misses the injured J.J. Watt and departed Jadeveon Clowney and has lost its ability to—for lack of a better term—close.
It ranks 28th in the league with an opponent conversion rate of 45.6 percent on third downs, and it has the third-worst defense in the red zone. The Texans have intercepted just five passes, while only seven defenses have surrendered more 30-yard plays.
All this was evident in the 41-7 loss to Baltimore, but Houston had allowed 24 or more points in four of its previous five games.
There's really no face of the defense (Benardrick McKinney? Whitney Mercilus? Zach Cunningham?), and it lacks depth as well. Watson is likely going to have to win some track meets for the Texans to remain in contention.
Indianapolis Colts: Vertical Passing Game
The Colts are keenly aware of quarterback Jacoby Brissett's limitations as a passer. Why else would Brissett have fewer deep passing attempts than 27 other quarterbacks, including Mitchell Trubisky, Gardner Minshew II, Sam Darnold and Mason Rudolph?
Brissett has just two touchdowns and averages 12.0 yards per attempt on said throws, and he's completed just two passes that have gained 25-plus yards since the end of September.
This isn't an attempt to drag Andrew Luck's replacement through the mud. He's a smart, accurate and disciplined passer who has exceeded expectations under difficult circumstances, often without top receiver T.Y. Hilton.
But the Colts are a well-coached, well-balanced, deep, talented team, and there's a good chance they'll make it back to the playoffs sans Luck. The problem is that their quarterback will have to make some big-time throws downfield against high-quality opponents, and there's scant evidence he has the arm talent to do so.
I'm betting that's more likely to cost the Colts a key game than their issues in the kicking game, but Adam Vinatieri's struggles are undeniably a concern as well. The difference is quarterbacks tend to make a bigger difference than kickers.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Run Defense
The Jaguars' problems are a porous run defense and a lack of offensive weapons. But with Nick Foles back at quarterback and D.J. Chark and Leonard Fournette emerging in the receiving corps and backfield, there's reason to be optimistic about the future at those positions. And while the offensive line hasn't performed well, it has a lot of young talent.
But in back-to-back divisional losses by a combined margin of 59-16, the Jaguars have been rocked on the ground by Carlos Hyde, Marlon Mack and Jonathan Williams. Throw in Christian McCaffrey's dominant performance earlier this season, and you have a big problem.
The Jags have surrendered a league-high 5.3 yards per rush, and they're one of five teams that have averaged eight or more missed tackles per game. They're also giving up more rushing yards beyond 10 yards from the line of scrimmage than any other squad by a wide margin, according to Football Outsiders.
The pass rush isn't bad, but the linebacker corps has performed terribly. It badly misses Telvin Smith Sr., who was a Pro Bowler in 2017 and a tackle machine in 2018 before retiring in the offseason.
There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the 4-6 Jags as they head toward another losing season, but the run defense stands out.
Kansas City Chiefs: Durability
Based on Football Outsiders' adjusted games lost formula, the Kansas City Chiefs were the ninth-healthiest team in the NFL during their breakout 2018 campaign. But the football gods have been much harder on them this season, and they have dug a hole in the race for a first-round bye in the AFC.
Star quarterback Patrick Mahomes looks healthy now, but he was limited by an ankle injury before missing two games and most of a third with a knee injury. He's been less magical than usual since returning from said injuries, and it hasn't helped that top receiver Tyreek Hill is banged up (he's missed about half the season because of multiple injuries) and the offensive line has barely been on the field together.
Left tackle Eric Fisher (groin) has missed eight games, guards Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (ankle) and Andrew Wylie (ankle) have missed a combined five, and with all of those guys back, center Austin Reiter went down Monday night.
Throw in that defensive end Frank Clark, the team's top offseason acquisition, has been hampered by a balky neck, and it's fair to be concerned about the toll this is taking on a team that hasn't been itself.
Los Angeles Chargers: Close Games
The Los Angeles Chargers have lost seven games this season, all of which have come by a single score. They're only the 13th team in NFL history to suffer seven one-score defeats in their first 11 games.
A lot of that falls on 37-year-old quarterback Philip Rivers, who has thrown an AFC-high 14 interceptions. Six of those have come in the fourth quarter, and four came in the final two minutes of one-score games.
He has completed only 14-of-37 passes and has a passer rating of just 11.7 in the final two minutes of one-score games this season.
Rivers isn't the only problem for a Chargers team that might have the NFL's worst offensive line sans injured left tackle Russell Okung. Only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants have committed more turnovers, and a league-high seven of their 20 turnovers have come in the fourth quarter of one-score games.
The Chargers have made a habit of losing in heartbreaking fashion throughout the Rivers era, but their close-game allergy has become particularly severe this season. It's a big reason why they'll likely miss the playoffs for the fifth time in the last six years.
Los Angeles Rams: Jared Goff
Jared Goff was a Pro Bowler in 2017 and 2018, and he's one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL. But the 2016 No. 1 overall pick has been a liability to the Los Angeles Rams for much of the last calendar year.
Goff's flaws were often masked by a top-notch offensive line and a productive running game in the last two seasons. But that line has been gutted by departures, injuries and left tackle Andrew Whitworth's late-career decline, while star running back Todd Gurley II hasn't been himself coming off a late-2018 knee injury.
As a result, the supposed franchise quarterback has been exposed. He's the league's seventh-lowest-rated qualified passer, has completed only 57 percent of his passes since the start of October and has thrown as many interceptions as touchdown passes dating back to Week 3.
And his struggles have been magnified against high-quality opponents.
In three games this season against pass defenses that rank in the top six in the league in terms of DVOA, the 25-year-old has zero touchdown passes, a completion percentage of 55.4 and a passer rating of 58.0, while the Rams have averaged just 12 points in those three outings.
Those trends could become extremely problematic in January, if the Rams even get that far.
Miami Dolphins: The Front Office
The Miami Dolphins have completely gutted their own roster. And while that strategy could pay off in the long run, it has cost the 2019 version of the team dearly.
Could Miami have been decent this season? Despite an unbelievable lack of talent on both sides of the ball, they're playing extremely hard for rookie head coach Brian Flores. And after a comically ugly 0-4 start, they had a chance to win each of their next five games.
They went 2-3 during that five-game stretch, but they held second-half leads in two of those three losses, and the other came by a single point against the Washington Redskins. They covered the point spread in all five before essentially running out of gas in a 17-point loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
If the tank job works, this will all be worth it. But the Dolphins easily could be 5-5 rather than 2-8 right now. And with Minkah Fitzpatrick, Kiko Alonso, Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills, Robert Quinn, Danny Amendola, Ted Larsen, T.J. McDonald, Dwayne Allen, Andre Branch, Josh Sitton and Brice Butler, they'd perhaps be a playoff contender in the wide-open AFC.
But they parted ways with all of those players to focus on the future, which put them far from contention with a roster that isn't remotely NFL-caliber.
Minnesota Vikings: The Cornerback Position
For now, it appears as though Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings have overcome their allergy to big games against tough opponents. They've been infamously flat in key spots in the past, but recent victories over the Philadelphia Eagles and Cowboys are promising.
Instead, we'll call out a position group that looked like one of the deepest units in the NFL prior to the season but has been routinely abused and exposed this year.
Minnesota's cornerbacks have struggled immensely in coverage throughout the season. In terms of DVOA, the Vikings rank in the bottom 12 leaguewide when covering No. 1 receivers and No. 3 receivers and beyond. And only six defenses have surrendered more passing touchdowns.
Top corner Xavier Rhodes was an All-Pro two years ago, but he has surrendered 47 catches on 55 targets this season, according to Pro Football Focus. He has yet to intercept a pass, and Courtland Sutton repeatedly burned him in a poor Week 11 performance against the Broncos. Davante Adams, Terry McLaurin and Marvin Jones Jr. have also gone to town against the 29-year-old this season, which begs the question of how much he has left.
Fellow starter Trae Waynes has also given up 45 catches already, per PFF, and the 2015 first-round pick has been responsible for a considerable number of deep completions and touchdowns this year. Mackensie Alexander has done a decent job since returning from an early-season elbow injury, but he struggled against Randall Cobb in the win over Dallas, and he and backup Mike Hughes have by no means been saviors.
That could spell trouble down the stretch.
New England Patriots: Father Time
The New England Patriots defense is shutting down opponents in historic fashion, but there are serious questions about an offense that has scored only five touchdowns in the last three games.
"It's just frustration with the offense; we're trying to grind them out. I'm happy we won on the road, but at the same time, I just wish we'd score more points," quarterback Tom Brady said Monday on WEEI's The Greg Hill Show after a 17-10 victory over the Eagles, per ESPN.com's Mike Reiss. "We have to figure out how we can fix our problems as best we can."
The depleted offensive line has lacked continuity and consistency, and Brady would likely benefit from more support in the backfield or pass-catching corps. But the Patriots aren't barren on offense, and the aging Brady might be a key part of the problem in Foxborough.
Nineteen qualified quarterbacks, including Marcus Mariota, Gardner Minshew II, Kyler Murray and Case Keenum, have higher passer ratings this season than the 42-year-old Brady. His completion percentage, yards-per-attempt average and passer rating have now dropped in three consecutive seasons.
What's arguably more concerning is that Brady's production has plummeted this season.
He threw 10 touchdown passes to two interceptions and posted a 99.4 passer rating against a weak schedule through Week 5. Since then, he's posted a passer rating of only 82.0. That ranks 17th among 22 quarterbacks who have made at least five starts in that span.
It likely isn't a coincidence that the Patriots have faced stiffer competition during that run. And against teams that had winning records at the time in which the Pats played them, Brady has completed only 53 percent of his passes and has a 65.6 passer rating.
New England's next three opponents all have winning records. We're about to find out if Brady has any tread left on his tires.
New Orleans Saints: Father Time
Tom Brady is the oldest non-kicker in the NFL, but Drew Brees is the second-oldest. And while the 40-year-old has put up significantly better numbers than Brady when healthy this season, his potential decline could pose the biggest threat to the New Orleans Saints' Super Bowl chances.
The Saints are that close to being foolproof.
They're the only team in the NFL that ranks in the top eight in terms of DVOA on offense, defense and special teams, and they were consistently trouncing opponents even when Brees and star running back Alvin Kamara were out and the defense was struggling a bit earlier this year.
However, Brees already missed five games because of a thumb injury, and he looked uncomfortable in a shocking loss to Atlanta in his second game back. As solidly as backup Teddy Bridgewater performed in place of Brees earlier this season, his playmaking ability is lacking in comparison to the future Hall of Famer.
Late last season, the then-39-year-old Brees appeared to slow down. He threw only three touchdown passes to three interceptions for an 84.7 rating in his final four regular-season games and then struggled in the team's playoff loss to the Rams.
Regardless of whether he's healthy, that has to be a concern as December approaches this year.
New York Giants: Daniel Jones Turnovers
Rookie quarterback Daniel Jones has experienced some incredible highs and lows with the New York Giants. He's the only quarterback in the NFC who has posted a qualified passer rating of 110 or higher in three games as well as a qualified rating of 75 or lower in three games.
The ceiling is high but the floor is low, especially when it comes to ball security.
In his nine career appearances (eight starts), he's thrown eight interceptions and has fumbled a league-high 13 times. The opposing team recovered nine of those fumbles, giving Jones 17 turnovers. That's the second-highest mark in the NFL behind only Jameis Winston.
Peyton Manning was a turnover machine as a rookie, so by no means are we condemning the poorly supported Jones. But Manning was responsible for 29 turnovers in 16 starts as a rookie in a different era. Jones is on pace to turn it over 28 times despite making two fewer starts, and 10 of his fumbles have come in his last four games.
Poor pass protection and a mediocre supporting cast of pass-catchers is part of the equation here. But as William Pitts of The Big Lead noted, Jones also fumbled 19 times in three seasons at Duke, where he threw 29 interceptions in 36 games.
It'a fair to wonder if turnovers will plague Jones beyond his rookie campaign, and it's one of the biggest reasons for concern surrounding the rebuilding Giants right now.
New York Jets: Adam Gase
By no means is the New York Jets offense devoid of talent, and first-year Jets head coach Adam Gase is supposed to be an offensive mastermind who specializes in coaching quarterbacks.
Under Gase, second-year quarterback Sam Darnold has regressed, while big-money running back Le'Veon Bell has largely been a non-factor.
The website HeadCoachRanking.com considers Gase the worst active head coach in the league by a significant margin, and they rank him last or tied for last when it comes to play-calling, personnel utilization, game-planning, in-game adjustments and clock management.
This shouldn't be a surprise considering Gase failed to improve the offense or consistently win games in Miami, but the Jets have already said they're sticking with him for at least another year.
Oakland Raiders: Defensive Miscues
The Oakland Raiders defense has packed more of a punch this year than it did when it generated only 17 takeaways and a league-low 13 sacks while surrendering a league-high 29.2 points per game last season.
But by no means has that unit become an asset. It remains untrustworthy, as evidenced by several damning numbers.
- The Raiders have been flagged a league-high 46 times on defense. That includes a ridiculous nine pass interference calls. No other defense has committed 40 penalties.
- Only the Giants have surrendered more 20-plus-yard touchdowns, while only the Bengals have given up more 20-plus-yard plays.
- They've allowed touchdowns on 65.6 percent of their defensive red-zone possessions, trailing only the Panthers (65.7 percent).
- While they at least rank in the middle of the pack with 25 sacks, 10 came in the last two weeks against the Bengals and Chargers' terrible offensive lines. They've generated pressure on only 19.5 percent of opposing dropbacks, which is the fifth-lowest rate in the league.
- The defense ranks 29th in terms of DVOA, which is ahead of only Arizona, Cincinnati and Miami.
Oakland's schedule has been soft, but its defense often couldn't get off the field against Kansas City, Minnesota, Green Bay, Houston and Detroit. That's a bad omen for a playoff contender in the weak AFC.
Philadelphia Eagles: The Receiving Corps
When it comes to DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement), no Philadelphia Eagles receiver ranks among the top 36 players in the league at that position. Top target Alshon Jeffery ranks 37th in that area, while the oft-maligned Nelson Agholor ranks dead last by a wide margin among 66 qualified receivers.
Those two have been painfully unreliable, while no other wideout on the roster has more than 10 catches this season.
According to the Washington Post, only Bears and Dolphins pass-catchers have dropped more passes than Philly's corps. But with DeSean Jackson on injured reserve and the trade deadline in the past, it looks as though they'll have to sink or swim with this thin, shaky group.
Agholor hasn't scored a touchdown since September, and among the 72 players who have been targeted at least 50 times, he's the only one who has caught fewer than 60 percent of the passes thrown his way while averaging fewer than 9.0 yards per catch. He's also fumbled twice this season.
Jeffery is a good player, and he and tight end Zach Ertz could still right this ship. But he was limited by a calf injury early in the season and is now dealing with a bad ankle.
It just doesn't feel like this is Philly's year, mainly because quarterback Carson Wentz has nobody reliable to throw to.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The Entire Damn Offense
On 3rd-and-3 or less, every NFL offense has converted at least 40 percent of the time...except the Pittsburgh Steelers, who haven't gained first downs on even 30 percent of their 3rd-and-shorts this season. They're only 9-for-28 when facing 3rd-and-3 or less, which is an indictment of both the passing and running game.
We can't focus solely on interim starting quarterback Mason Rudolph, although the 2018 third-round pick is averaging an AFC-low 6.3 yards per throw and has completed only 11-of-37 deep-pass attempts since Week 8.
Running back James Conner has only one 60-yard rushing game and a sad 3.8 yards-per-attempt average, while backup Jaylen Samuels has been even less effective (2.6 yards per attempt). Meanwhile, everyone in the receiving corps has been remarkably inconsistent, including star receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Even the experienced Pittsburgh offensive line hasn't been right, particularly when it comes to taking penalties. Granted, that might be related to their need to compensate for the lack of talent around them.
The Steelers have one of the most talented, opportunistic defenses in the NFL, but their train-wreck offense will likely cost them a chance to contend down the stretch in 2019.
San Francisco 49ers: Haven't Been Here, Haven't Done This
The NFC's breakout team in 2017 was the Rams, who shocked the league with an NFC West title but then fell flat during a wild-card home playoff loss to the defending NFC champion Falcons.
In 2018, it was the Bears, who surprised the football world with an NFC North crown but then fell flat with a wild-card home playoff loss to the defending NFC champion Eagles.
The San Francisco 49ers are this year's version of the '17 Rams or the '18 Bears, and it's fair to wonder how they'll handle the home stretch and/or the playoff spotlight. Will they hang on to win the NFC West? And even if they do, is a first-round exit a rite of passage that they must endure?
The only key players on the 49ers roster with Super Bowl experience are quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, offensive tackle Joe Staley, cornerback Richard Sherman, running back Tevin Coleman, kicker Robbie Gould and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. But Garoppolo was a backup for his two Super Bowl experiences in New England, while Staley, Coleman and Gould all lost in their only Super Bowl appearances.
Greener teams have won Super Bowls, but the inconsistent, turnover-prone Garoppolo doesn't have much big-game experience, and he'll have to battle future Hall of Famers like Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson between now and the end of the regular season (plus former MVP Matt Ryan, current MVP candidate Lamar Jackson and the defending NFC champion Rams).
The margin for error is minuscule in that tough conference, and San Francisco has already tripped up a tad in recent weeks. It's something to consider regarding a team with few weaknesses otherwise.
Seattle Seahawks: Lack of Pass Rush
The Seattle Seahawks are coming off a five-sack performance against San Francisco, but their inconsistent pass rush will continue to be a concern until they can string together several strong games in a row off the edge.
They have plenty of talent with Jadeveon Clowney and Ezekiel Ansah playing defensive end. Ansah has struggled, but Clowney is coming off a huge game in San Francisco.
Still, nobody on the team has more than three sacks, and the teamwide stats speak for themselves.
- The Seahawks defense has the third-lowest sack rate, is tied for the fourth-lowest sack total and has the second-lowest pressure rate in the league.
- They have the fourth-lowest adjusted sack rate at Football Outsiders.
- They're one of six teams that have been held to fewer than three sacks in seven or more games.
The Seahawks look set on offense with Russell Wilson burning up the league, and they have allowed only one running back to rush for 70 yards this season. But they might not be a complete team until they can start consistently pressuring opposing signal-callers.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Bad Jameis
So quarterback Jameis Winston isn't the sole reason why the Bucs are 3-7, but his turnovers are undoubtedly the chief reason they'll likely miss the playoffs for a 12th consecutive season.
In what is widely considered to be a make-or-break season, the five-year veteran has 18 interceptions when no other NFC quarterback has more than 10. He's also taken a league-high 36 sacks, which is never entirely on the offensive line. And he's thrown four pick-sixes, which is two short of the NFL single-season record.
And momentum isn't on Winston's side. His interception rate has skyrocketed in the last five weeks, and if that trend continues, he could easily surpass his current interception pace of 29. That would match the highest total in the NFL in the last 30 years, and at this point, the first 30-pick season since 1988 is within the realm of possibility.
That is, unless the Buccaneers get their act together and give backup Ryan Griffin a shot, because it can't get much worse than this.
Tennessee Titans: Offensive Penalties
He addressed that issue last week, per Erik Bacharach of the Tennessean:
"It is not intentional. I do not mean to do it. My intentions are good. I am just trying to finish, and it is killing the team. I know that. You guys know that. No one needs to call me out because I've got a voice. I am completely screwing the team with the amount of penalties I have had, what, these last six games."
The Titans have a lot of issues. Their running game hasn't consistently clicked, few trust current starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, and the defense doesn't make a lot of splash plays. They look and feel like a mediocre team, but they don't have any glaring weaknesses.
But penalties have killed them on offense, and that might be their Achilles' heel right now.
Washington Redskins: Daniel Snyder
The Washington Redskins' culture is their kryptonite.
Their owner, Daniel Snyder, deserves the lion's share of the blame for what appears to be a toxic environment. He signs the checks, and the team he owns has won only two playoff games since he purchased it 20 years ago.
Recently, it's gone from bad to worse.
The organization has been hemorrhaging fans, first-round rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins has struggled mightily out of the gate, and they've managed to completely burn a bridge with one of their best players, left tackle Trent Williams, who isn't playing as his trade value plummets.
They botched the Kirk Cousins franchise-tag game, and he now has the Vikings in playoff contention. They held on to recently fired head coach Jay Gruden for far too long. Nobody understands why they continue to employ team president Bruce Allen. And the controversy regarding their racist name isn't going away.
All that while "sell the team" chants fill FedEx Field, where the Redskins haven't won in over a calendar year.