If an NFL team is out of the playoff picture in Week 7, it's probably not going to make its way back in by January. Last year, 10 of the 12 teams that were in playoff positions as we entered Week 7 made it into the postseason. The only exceptions were the Raiders (who missed out on a wild-card berth after the 2-4 Titans went on a run) and the Cowboys (who were 3-3 and ahead of the Eagles with an identical record on a tiebreaker). There will be more uncertainty as we move to the 14-team format this postseason, but if a team is in now, it's generally going to be in the playoffs.
Some teams that looked to be "in" a couple of months ago can't say the same. Enough time has already passed for a few playoff favorites to have cut themselves out of the postseason picture. In some cases, their declines seemed predestined before the season. In others, few people saw their problems until the season started to play out on the field.
Let's look into the teams that have seen their playoff chances fall most drastically since the season began. I'll use the playoff projections from ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI), and I'll start with a team that seems to be rapidly coming apart in the NFC North ...
Minnesota Vikings (1-5)
Preseason playoff chances: 51.3%
Current playoff chances: 5.0%
I wrote about coach Mike Zimmer and quarterback Kirk Cousins in Monday's NFL hot seat column, so I won't reiterate too much of what I said there. There's not a realistic chance of Cousins leaving before his contract expires at the end of 2022 unless the San Francisco 49ers decide to move on from Jimmy Garoppolo, so he's not going anywhere. Zimmer's future is more uncertain.
The offense on the whole has taken a step backward, even with rookie wideout Justin Jefferson filling in ably for the departed Stefon Diggs and making plays downfield. Cousins' 10 interceptions are a part of the problem, but not the whole story. The Vikings were one of the most aggressive teams in the league with play-action a year ago, but their play-action rate is down from over 33% to closer to 26%. More problematic is what has happened on those play-action passes; while Cousins has hit big plays -- including a 71-yard touchdown to Jefferson -- off fakes, he has also thrown three picks on 46 play-action attempts. Cousins threw just one pick on 139 play-action attempts last season.
Third down has also been a problem for the Vikings, and that has been one of the stories of the Cousins-led offenses. In 2018, despite the fact that their average third down was one of the shortest to the sticks in the league, they ranked 26th in third-down conversion rate. Last season, even though their average third down was closer to league average in distance, they had the league's ninth-best conversion rate. In 2020? They have faced the league's second-longest average distance to the sticks on third downs, and they're unsurprisingly 26th in the league in conversion rate.
Here's where you can understand why the Vikings are so frustrated with themselves. You would figure that a team facing third-and-forever wouldn't be doing much on first and second down, right? That's not really the case here. In fact, Minnesota has the best average expected points added (EPA) of any team in the league on first downs. How can you be the best first-down offense in the league and end up in third-and-long all the time?
Well, you have the league's most boom-or-bust offense on first downs. No team has picked up a new set of downs on first down as frequently as the Vikings, who pick up 10 or more yards on first down more than 33% of the time. They also create big mistakes, as Gary Kubiak's offense has taken four interceptions and four sacks on first down.
What happens next is the problem. When the Vikings do get in second-and-long, they make a mistake that the analytics community often argues against: They try to make things respectable. On second-and-10 or more, they have run the ball nearly 49% of the time. That's the highest rate in the league. Minnesota has a great rushing attack, and you might figure that teams that are expecting the Vikings to pass in those situations might get gashed by the run, but those runs average just 4.6 yards per carry. When the Vikings pass on second-and-long, they're 10-of-20 for 141 yards with three picks. Only the Jaguars and Washington have cost themselves more in second-and-long spots by win probability added (WPA) than the Vikings, and the failure to do much on second-and-long only makes things worse for third-and-long.
This team just isn't good enough to overcome falling behind and losing the turnover battle. The Vikings have had a positive turnover margin in just one game this season, and -- surprise, surprise -- it was in their 31-23 victory over the Texans in Week 4. They are otherwise minus-8 across their five losses.
Regardless of what its defense has produced, Minnesota has never won a game under Zimmer in which it has turned over the ball at least three times. It has gone 0-17 in those contests, including three losses already this season. The rest of the league has won about 19% of the time in those circumstances, so while the Vikings put themselves behind the eight ball with their giveaways, they're not winning as frequently as we would expect under those circumstances.
As with many of the teams on this list, the Vikings are better than their record. The Titans needed 54- and 55-yard field goals from Stephen Gostkowski in the fourth quarter to beat them in Week 3. The Vikings came within a yard on offense and a pair of fourth-down conversions on defense of beating the Seahawks in Seattle in Week 5. They're 17th in DVOA, placing them right behind the 5-1 Bears and ahead of teams like the Bills (19th) and Browns (25th). If the Vikings don't turn things around and start winning close games, though, all the algorithms in the world won't be comforting enough to keep the organization from imploding.
Dallas Cowboys (2-4)
Preseason playoff chances: 70.9%
Current playoff chances: 24.7%
Teams on this list aren't typically still in first place, but the Cowboys and this season's NFC East are a delightfully awful exception to that rule. Despite the fact that Dallas is a half-game ahead of Philadelphia for first in the league's worst division, FPI says the injury-riddled Eagles are favorites to win the East with a projection of 6.2 wins. The Cowboys are projected to win 5.6 games, and the only game FPI favors them to win over the remainder of the season is their home matchup against Washington in Week 12.
Now, it's fair to say that the two teams that were expected to compete for the NFC East title have both been ripped apart by injuries. It has just happened in different ways. For the Eagles, the concentration of injuries on offense has been scary. By the end of Sunday's game against the Ravens, they were down to two of their original offensive starters, quarterback Carson Wentz and center Jason Kelce. This depth chart doesn't even include Jason Peters, who re-signed with the team and suffered a toe injury in between the time this was compiled and Sunday.
The Cowboys have seen their stars picked apart. They have operated with a stars-and-scrubs-style roster construction for most of the past two decades, and the best years have come when their stars have stayed healthy. If you look at their July 1 roster, there are 11 players who might have been considered stars, with a 12th added when they signed edge rusher Everson Griffen. If they were going to compete for a Super Bowl title, as many of those 12 players as possible needed to stay healthy and play well.
Through six weeks, I can count two players who can say they were able to pull that off: wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, and even Gallup has dealt with drops. Six of the 12 have suffered injuries, including defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, quarterback Dak Prescott and the team's three best offensive linemen, Tyron Smith, La'el Collins and Zack Martin. While rookie wideout CeeDee Lamb and veteran pass-rusher Aldon Smith have impressed, the other four players simply haven't been very good.
Three of them are defenders. The veteran defensive line duo of DeMarcus Lawrence and Griffen hasn't thrived. Griffen, who has already changed his technique to try to get back to what worked in Minnesota, has seen his pass rush win rate fall from 14.3% over the past two seasons to just 7.7%, a mark that ranks 98th in the league. He has 1.5 sacks, 4 quarterback knockdowns and 2 tackles for loss in six games, and his one full sack was a coverage sack of Matt Ryan. It has been tougher for the 32-year-old Griffen as a player on a new team, but the Cowboys undoubtedly expected more from the former Vikings star.
Lawrence, who had the sixth-largest cap hit of any defender in the league before Dallas restructured his deal in September, has one sack, one knockdown and one tackle for loss in six games. His sack was more consequential, given that it produced a Daniel Jones fumble and a defensive touchdown, and Lawrence has been playing through a knee injury, but the Cowboys just aren't in a position where they can get by without him playing like a star. The Cardinals took advantage of Lawrence on Monday night by running straight at his vacated gap for a 22-yard gain in the third quarter.
Linebacker Jaylon Smith is the third defender, and he has been a disaster. While the hope was that the return of Vander Esch on Monday might give the former Notre Dame star some help, Smith wasn't much better against the run. The Cardinals went after him on a fourth-and-1 quarterback keeper for 10 yards and a first down, trusting that Kyler Murray would be able to beat him to the edge. On a 20-yard gain in the third quarter, with Smith still seemingly trying to communicate responsibilities to his teammates at the snap, running back Kenyan Drake took a simple inside draw and ran right past a flat-footed Smith. And on the 69-yard run that put an exclamation point on things for Arizona, Smith was bulldozed out of his gap by Cardinals center Mason Cole, with Drake cutting into the vacated lane and running upfield for an easy score.
The fourth player is running back Ezekiel Elliott, who might be the most damaging Dallas player of them all. Heading into Monday night's game, he told ESPN's Lisa Salters that he wasn't worried about his fumbling issues and didn't think he was going to fumble again over the rest of the season. He then fumbled on consecutive possessions in the first half, with the Cardinals turning those into 14 points.
By any measure, Elliott simply hasn't been very good this season. He's hitting career lows in yards per carry (4.1) and yards per reception (6.4), and while it's easy to chalk that up to the injuries along the offensive line, he is being paid like a transcendent runner who is supposed to get more than whatever the offensive line blocks. Elliott is averaging 0.16 yards above expectation per the NFL Next Gen Stats, which ranks 21st in the league.
Even if he was playing up to expectations, fumbling five times in six games will destroy a running back's value. Fumbles have been a problem for Elliott in the past -- he fumbled five times in 2016 and six times in 2018 -- but fumbling five times in six games is disastrous. No running back has fumbled more than five times across the first six games of the season since the merger, with Elliott joining a list that includes seasons from Jamal Anderson, Stephen Davis, Todd Gurley, Travis Henry, Chris Perry and Steve Slaton.
Fumbles by Elliott and Prescott have cost the Cowboys wins, because teams have been ruthless when they've taken over the football. As a team, the Cowboys have lost nine fumbles on offense this season. Opposing teams have turned those opportunities into eight touchdowns and a field goal. This doesn't include the muffed kickoff against the Seahawks that resulted in a safety. Even without factoring in what teams do once they get the football after these turnovers, the Cowboys have cost themselves more than a full win by ESPN's win expectancy model with fumbles this season, more than any team in the league. Meanwhile, the Dallas defense has the league's lowest turnover rate on a per-drive basis.
It's possible that the Cowboys could have overcome sloppy play if they were healthy, or overcome the injuries to their stars if they were a deep, well-coached football team. As it is, they're neither. They still have a playoff shot given how bad the rest of the NFC East looks, but this team doesn't do anything right and hasn't for most of the season.
San Francisco 49ers (3-3)
Preseason playoff chances: 79.3%
Current playoff chances: 42.9%
The 49ers rightfully can also claim injuries as the biggest driver of their downfall, given that they're without as many as six would-be starters from what was a dominant defense in 2019. On top of that, they are down their top two options at center and running back, went without quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and star tight end George Kittle for a couple of weeks, and haven't had anything resembling a consistent depth chart at wide receiver. It's not just the guys the 49ers were counting on who are getting hurt; the guys whom general manager John Lynch has signed to replace those missing players, like pass-rusher Ziggy Ansah and wide receiver Tavon Austin, have only followed them onto injured reserve.
As a result, the formula that worked for the 2019 49ers hasn't been a reliable formula for the 2020 edition. To start, Kyle Shanahan's offenses have been dominant on first down across his various stops, even with inconsistent quarterback play from the likes of Matt Schaub, Rex Grossman and current backups C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens. Last season, with a healthy Garoppolo, San Francisco led the league in offensive EPA per snap on first down. This year, the 49ers are 19th in both offensive EPA and yards per play on first downs.
Likely owing to the injuries hitting the passing game, the 49ers haven't been effective throwing downfield. On deep passes in 2019, Garoppolo & Co. had the league's best QBR (98.0) and second-best passer rating (122.0) on throws traveling at least 16 yards downfield. Garoppolo didn't take many shots downfield -- the 49ers attempted a league-low 59 deep passes all season -- but he was effective when doing so.
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This season, while the 49ers are attempting deep passes at a slightly higher rate, they're not going well. They are just 10-of-27 on deep throws for 249 yards and two interceptions, both of which came from Garoppolo in the Dolphins game before the former Patriots draftee was benched. The Niners rank 26th in QBR and 31st in passer rating on deep throws this season. You don't have to bomb passes downfield over and over to win games, but the threat of being able to stretch teams vertically is a key component of Shanahan's offense. San Francisco haven't been able to do that.
On the defensive side of the ball, the 2019 Niners squeezed teams with their front four, took away big plays and tried to force a takeaway before opponents could march down the field. In each case, they've taken a step backward.
The pass rush has actually done an admirable job given that it hasn't had Dee Ford since Week 1 or Nick Bosa since Week 2, but it has not been a strength. The 49ers were third in sack rate and seventh in pressure rate a year ago. This season, while they've dropped only to 14th in pressure rate, they haven't been able to finish -- they rank 22nd in sack rate. Coordinator Robert Saleh has also needed to blitz more to create even that modest amount of pressure. The Niners blitzed less frequently than all but five other teams a year ago, but they have the ninth-highest blitz rate in football in 2020.
More blitzing means more opportunities to make big plays downfield, and opposing teams have taken advantage. Last season, the 49ers allowed only 13 plays of 30 yards or more, which was one behind the Patriots for the league lead. Cornerback Richard Sherman & Co. allowed only three over the entirety of the second half of their schedule, all of which came in the legendary shootout they won against the Saints.
This year, with a banged-up group of cornerbacks, the Niners haven't been able to keep teams from creating explosive plays. They've already allowed nine such plays in six games, all of which have come through the air. There hasn't been one glaring problem, but teams have beat them on blown coverages and missed tackles/poor angles, won with speed and outjumped their defensive backs for 50/50 balls, as we saw on the Rams' Josh Reynolds' long touchdown catch Sunday.
One of the biggest reasons the 49ers were likely to improve heading into 2019 was an improvement in their takeaway rate, given that they recorded just two interceptions in all of 2018, the fewest of any team in league history. As you probably remember, they turned it around; Saleh's defense forced 27 takeaways, the sixth-highest total in football.
This season, the Niners have six takeaways in six games. Twenty-seven in 16 isn't hugely off from six in six, but three of those takeaways came against the Giants, who amount to a free turnover machine at their worst. San Francisco has forced only one turnover apiece in three other games and already has as many games without a takeaway (two) as it did across its entire 2019 schedule. Takeaway rates can be random from year to year, so while the 49ers would likely be forcing more turnovers with a healthier defense, there's just no way to know whether they'll get back on the takeaway track as the season goes on.
The other problem? The rest of the NFC West is really good -- the Cardinals, Rams and Seahawks are a combined 12-5. The 49ers did themselves a huge favor by beating the Rams in an ugly game on Sunday night, but they still don't have a win over a team with a win against anybody outside of the NFC East. They've beaten the 0-6 Jets (who haven't beaten anybody), the 1-5 Giants (who have beaten only Washington) and the 4-2 Rams (who swept the East). With four games to come against the Patriots, Seahawks, Packers and Saints before their Week 11 bye, this is the stretch in which the 49ers will prove whether they're going to look like the physically dominant team from 2019.
Houston Texans (1-5)
Preseason playoff chances: 35.7%
Current playoff chances: 4.1%
I suspect that most Texans fans would have argued that FPI was more pessimistic than warranted about their favorite team heading into the season, given that Houston had made it to the playoffs in four out of the past five seasons and still had Deshaun Watson at quarterback. The numbers supported a Texans decline, and while those same factors haven't sunk the Seahawks, the Texans have been a textbook case of why teams can't rely on winning close games.
The 2019 Texans were 8-3 in games decided by seven points or fewer, including a 5-0 stretch over the final 10 weeks of the season. It's one thing to beat the 2019 Patriots and have a game get close because of a late touchdown, but Houston needed fourth-quarter scores to beat teams like the Raiders, Colts and Buccaneers. It added another close win with its overtime comeback victory over the Bills in the wild-card round. This is typically a dangerous way to live.
The Texans are 0-2 in those games this season. They were tied against the Steelers in the fourth quarter, only for Watson to throw an interception and Pittsburgh to score the game-winning touchdown. They held a seven-point lead against the Titans with 1:53 to go on Sunday, failed on the two-point try that would have sealed it, gave up a touchdown drive to a team with one timeout and then lost on the opening drive of overtime. And while it was an eight-point loss and technically doesn't qualify, the Texans drove to the 1-yard line in the final minute against the Vikings while down 31-23, only to fumble on a speed option on third down and watch wideout Will Fuller narrowly miss a spectacular catch on fourth down. Last year, those plays would go the Texans' way. This year, they haven't.
Unlike the Cowboys, who have seen the stars in their stars-and-scrubs approach fall by the wayside, the Texans' stars have mostly stayed healthy. The only key player they have lost is linebacker Benardrick McKinney, and even he has missed only two games. Cornerback Gareon Conley hasn't been available, and Fuller was in and out of a game with a hamstring injury, but most Texans fans would have signed up for this level of health through six games if they could have before the season.
Instead, the reality is that the formula the Texans put together under former GM and coach Bill O'Brien just wasn't good enough to compete against a difficult schedule. Houston invested multiple first- and second-round picks in its offensive line, but the line has been ordinary protecting Watson, as the Texans rank 19th in pass block win rate this season. (They've been much better as a run-blocking unit.) The move to trade wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins for running back David Johnson and a second-round pick has been a disaster; Hopkins has continued to be effective in Arizona, and Johnson has been a nondescript player. Defensive tackle Ross Blacklock, whom the Texans chose with Arizona's pick, was ejected from the Ravens loss and benched for a week.
It might be unfair to expect Blacklock to contribute immediately, but the Texans have needed the help. Their defensive line hasn't been up to task this season. Despite blitzing at the seventh-highest rate in football, they have the fifth-lowest pressure rate. Put another way: No team is less likely to produce a pressure with a blitz than the Texans, who succeed only 16.9% of the time when they send extra rushers. In likely related news, they allow a passer rating of 110.9 when they blitz, the league's fifth-worst passer rating.
On top of all that, the Texans didn't force a single takeaway during their 0-4 start. They've created two in each of their past two games, but they also allowed the Titans to rack up 601 yards from scrimmage and produce four plays of 40-plus yards, the second most of any team in a single game this season. A win in the Titans game might have kick-started a Houston comeback, but at 1-5 and in last place in the AFC South, their season is all but over. They would need to go 8-2 or better from here on out to have a realistic chance of making it to the playoffs.
Atlanta Falcons (1-5)
Preseason playoff chances: 32.4%
Current playoff chances: 0.9%
The Falcons have already made wholesale changes, firing coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff while promoting Raheem Morris to interim head coach. Morris smartly advised his team to intercept more passes, as the Falcons picked off Kirk Cousins three times in a 40-23 victory on Sunday. They even broke a curse, as Julio Jones returned from injury and scored his first touchdowns since Week 15 of the 2019 season. For one week, they looked like the team everyone involved with the organization imagined in blowing out the Vikings.
Of course, last week was an outlier in terms of how the Falcons have played. They have been a disaster on defense, unable to get reliable pressure on the quarterback, defend against big plays or tackle just about anybody in the open field. They are allowing the league's worst passer rating and its second-worst completion percentage above expectation (CPOE), per NFL Next Gen Stats. They've also allowed 200 yards after catch above expectation, which is tops in the league by nearly 70 yards.
You can succeed with that sort of defense if your offense is playing at, say, the Seahawks' level, but the Falcons just haven't been able to close out games. Quarterback Matt Ryan has missed too many throws late in games that might have sealed things or given them one extra score. (Ryan did hit two key late throws in the Vikings game, finding Jones on a scramble drill for one score and Hayden Hurst on a fourth-and-1 for a second touchdown.)
Through Week 5, the Atlanta offense ranked 16th in win probability added per play through the first three quarters of the game. In the fourth quarter? It was 27th in WPA per play. The defense was bad in every quarter, but the offense finally got right and held up its end of the bargain to hold off the Vikings.
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The expectations for what happens next could depend on who actually remains on the roster. The Falcons are in rough cap shape next year, and while I don't think there's much of a chance they would trade a key core player like Ryan or Jones, it's more likely that they would look to move players who are free agents after the season. I pitched the idea of Atlanta trading center Alex Mack and pass-rusher Takkarist McKinley to Seattle. Beyond those two, running back Todd Gurley, safety Keanu Neal, kicker Younghoe Koo and cornerback Darqueze Dennard are all free agents after the year. It's not out of the question that Atlanta makes moves on the margins in the hopes of being able to devote more resources to its defense next offseason.
As is, the Falcons really need to use the rest of this season to evaluate what they have. It's one thing to know that receiver Calvin Ridley is good, but 2018 second-rounder Isaiah Oliver has been a replacement-level corner over the past two seasons. Can they count on him to be a starter, or do they need to plan on replacing him next offseason? Is it worth re-signing players like Neal or McKinley? Answering those questions probably means more to the future of the Falcons than whatever record they produce over the rest of the season.
Evaluating Morris is also an important piece of the puzzle. With the Lions, Panthers and Broncos over the next three weeks, though, it's hardly out of the question that the Falcons go on a run and make it to their bye week at 4-5. The Chiefs and a pair of home-and-homes against the Buccaneers and Saints lurk after the bye, and Atlanta's performance in those five games should determine whether Morris gets to make the job his on a permanent basis.