Potential 2021 NFL Playoff Teams Headed in the Wrong Direction Entering December

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistDecember 1, 2021

Potential 2021 NFL Playoff Teams Headed in the Wrong Direction Entering December

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Things are starting to fall apart for some NFL playoff hopefuls. 

    This time of year always sorts out the contenders and pretenders, and that'll be true even in a stacked AFC. In that conference, the New England Patriots have won six in a row, and the Kansas City Chiefs have rebounded with four straight victories. In the NFC, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Arizona Cardinals and Green Bay Packers have at least eight wins. 

    But there are a number of teams are heading in the wrong direction. Some are looking sluggish and in a bad seeding spot ahead of a postseason berth. Others are flirting with potentially missing the playoffs outright. 

    These slumps at the worst possible time are a result of the surrounding circumstances, including upcoming schedules. Inclusion here doesn't mean these squads can't turn things around, but they have made their paths dramatically more difficult. 

Dallas Cowboys

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Many thought the Dallas Cowboys would coast in a bad NFC East once Dak Prescott got back from a calf injury that caused him to miss Week 8. 

    Instead, the Cowboys have gone 1-3 since Prescott's return to fall to 7-4, with their only win a 43-3 blowout of a bad five-win Atlanta Falcons team. They lost 30-16 to the Denver Broncos in Week 9, 19-9 to Kansas City in Week 11 and then 36-33 to the Las Vegas Raiders on Thanksgiving. 

    Prescott has thrown six touchdowns and three interceptions over the last four weeks, and a defense that had allowed 30 points just once once over the first seven games allowed it twice in that span. Elsewhere in the NFC East, Washington rattled off three wins in a row to reach 5-6 and put itself into position for a wild-card berth.

    Now Dallas has to play in New Orleans (5-6) in Week 13. It then faces Washington twice over the following three games before going against nine-win Arizona. It finishes the regular season with a tough NFC East matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles.

    Once touted as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, Dallas now looks like it may only qualify for the playoffs because it plays in a weak division.     

Buffalo Bills

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    It's panic time for the 7-4 Buffalo Bills. 

    That might seem odd to see considering Josh Allen and Co. nabbed a 31-6 win on Thanksgiving over New Orleans, but picking off a team without its starting passer on a short week and holiday is a tough sell. 

    More concerning are the three games before that, in which the Bills went 1-2, stunningly losing to the Jacksonville Jacksonville (who picked up just their second win in that affair) and getting smacked around in 41-15 by the .500 Indianapolis Colts. The Bills don't look like the same team that went to Kansas City in Week 5 and torched the Chiefs 38-20.

    Some of this directly falls on Allen, who threw four scores and five picks over the 1-2 stretch. He had zero scores and two interceptions in the loss to the Jaguars. It didn't help that he was sacked seven times over those three contests after taking only eight sacks over his team's first seven games.

    New England now leads the AFC East courtesy of six consecutive wins, and the Bills have to play those red-hot Patriots twice over the next four weeks. They also have a date with nine-win Tampa Bay on the road in Week 14. The team also lost starting cornerback Tre'Davious White to a torn ACL in Week 12.

    After alternating wins and losses in every game since their Week 7 bye, the Bills are in danger of missing out on a top-four seed and have little momentum for the postseason. 

Los Angeles Chargers

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Chargers missed their window to run away with the AFC West while Kansas City struggled. 

    Now it's fair to question whether they can make the playoffs at all. 

    The Chargers started 4-1 but have gone 2-4 since. The wins? A three-point escape against Philadelphia (currently 5-7) and a four-point victory over 5-5-1 Pittsburgh (5-5-1). Dating back to Week 6, they've lost to Baltimore (first in AFC), New England (second in AFC), Minnesota and division rival Denver. 

    That loss to the Broncos was the Chargers' most uncompetitive game since their Week 7 bye. Justin Herbert threw a pair of touchdowns and interceptions, while the defense allowed 147 rushing yards (4.5 yards per carry) and two scores.

    The Chargers rank dead last in the NFL by coughing up 145.3 rushing yards per game. They've allowed the fourth-most points at 26.6 per game. Herbert hasn't been able to compensate for the poor defense, and he has to deal with tough matchups against the Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City, Denver and Las Vegas over the last six games. 

    A Cleveland loss last week helped keep the Chargers in the playoff picture, but the Chiefs now control the AFC West at 7-4. If the Chargers can't stop the bleeding, they could go into free-fall in a division in which every team has at least six wins.       

Los Angeles Rams

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    One could reasonably expect a Los Angeles Rams team that went all-in on winning a championship to boast a better record than 7-4. 

    To be fair, it didn't always look this bad. The Rams started 7-1, which is what makes the 0-3 skid perplexing.

    All three losses came at the hands of teams with winning records (Tennessee, San Francisco, Green Bay). Two of those defeats were by double digits, and all featured a pick-six thrown by Matthew Stafford. In the last loss—a 36-28 defeat in Green Bay—the Rams turned the ball over three times, and an 11-0 run in the fourth quarter didn't even matter because they entered the frame down 19. 

    The Rams are only plus-one in turnover differential this season and plus-36 in point differential this year despite bringing in guys like Stafford and eight-time Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller. Arizona, which leads the the NFC West, for example, is plus-eight and plus-108 in those same categories, respectively (both top-five marks). 

    The Rams will face Jacksonville, Arizona, Seattle, Minnesota, Baltimore and San Francisco to close the season. There's a chance only the first game is an victory, and the last contest is against a division rival that already owns the tiebreaker, is 6-5 and could pass the Rams in the division. 

Tennessee Titans

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    At a glance, things look great for the Tennessee Titans at 8-4 given the team's comfortable lead in the AFC South.

    But looking more closely muddies the picture. The Titans have lost two in a row, including to the two-win Houston Texans. They looked outclassed in a 36-13 loss to New England that was a showdown between the top dogs in the AFC.

    Over those two defeats, the Titans had nine turnovers with no takeaways. They now have a minus-seven turnover differential, tied for the third-worst mark in the league.

    The bad stretch also seems to affirm fears that the Titans have lost their teeth without Derrick Henry, who had 937 rushing yards (4.3 yards per attempt) and 10 touchdowns in eight games before suffering a foot injury that sent him to injured reserve. The team is 2-2 since, and there's no guarantee Henry will return before the end of the season.

    Quarterback Ryan Tannehill just hasn't been able to compensate for the loss of the star running back, notably throwing one score and four picks in that 22-13 loss to Houston. He's thrown more than one touchdown in a game just twice this season. 

    The Titans' remaining schedule isn't too tough considering they play Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Miami and Houston, but many thought the first Texans game was a guaranteed W.

    If Tennessee can't stop turning the ball over and can't find a way to fine-tune a Henry-less offense, it should be an upset favorite in the first round of the playoffs.