The idea of an NFL game being must-win in Week 3 seems silly, but that’s only true for 21 of the league’s 32 teams. The other 11 teams started 0-2, which leaves them in an incredibly vulnerable position heading into the third week of the campaign. You never want to suggest that a team’s season can be over after three games, but recent history tells us that the idea isn’t far off.
Since the league changed to its eight-division, 32-team format in 2002, 80 teams have started 0-3. Under the 12-team playoff system that was in place until last season, just one of those 80 teams made it to the playoffs. We’ll talk about them a little later. If we go back through those past 18 seasons and identify the 0-3 teams that would have made it to the playoffs under the current 14-team format, we can add one other team — the 2013 Steelers — to that list. (Actually, under the current rules, the Pittsburgh teams that missed the playoffs in 2012, 2013, 2018 and 2019 all would have made it to the playoffs, giving Mike Tomlin a run of 10 consecutive postseason berths.)
Two out of 80 implies that teams that go 0-3 have a 2.5% chance of making it to the playoffs. Teams that start 0-2 over that time frame would have made it to a 14-team playoff 13.4% of the time, so hope is not lost for these teams yet. With one more loss over the next five days, though, their chances of competing into January will all but run out.
Let’s run through the 11 teams that have started 0-2 and take a closer look into what has happened over the first two weeks of the season, using the playoff projections from the ESPN Football Power Index (FPI). My list won’t match FPI’s chances exactly, but I’ll rank them from the team least likely to make a run from 0-2 into the postseason to the team most likely to overcome its slow start.
If there’s a reason to think their performance is likely to improve in the months to come, I’ll mention it. The list starts with a team whose coach has promised to take things to an unprecedented new level after a dismal opening:
Preseason playoff chances: 22.3%
Current playoff chances: 3.4%
I’d like to find some bright spots for the Jets in their 0-2 start. Let’s see …
They are the kings of garbage time. The Jets have been outscored 58-16 across the first 58 minutes of their two games, but when they get into the final two minutes, coach Adam Gase puts things into hyperdrive. They have scored two touchdowns in the final two minutes against the Bills and 49ers, so if they can ever keep the first 58 minutes of the game close, Sam Darnold & Co. should be able to close the rest out.
No, that’s not it. What about the advanced metrics? DVOA thinks the Jets are the 11th-best defense in the league through two weeks, but this is the rare case in which even my favorite statistic is fooled. DVOA adjusts per team, but it doesn’t know that the Jets spent 25% of their season going up against 49ers backup quarterback Nick Mullens. They were great against Mullens, who posted a passer rating of 51.7, but they allowed Josh Allen and Jimmy Garoppolo to shred coordinator Gregg Williams’ group through the air. DVOA doesn’t know Allen whiffed on two open receivers in the end zone for scores, a fact which matters more after two games than it does after 16.
We’re heading in the wrong direction. What about their first-round pick? Here, indeed, is a positive: First-round pick Mekhi Becton is the darling of offensive line Twitter after two weeks. Former NFL lineman Brian Baldinger claimed that Becton was already the Jets’ best player, while fellow ex-NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz said Becton was the team’s bright spot.
Becton’s emergence as a building block is great news for Darnold, who has seen injuries decimate what was already one of the league’s least-imposing group of weapons. Le’Veon Bell, Breshad Perriman, Denzel Mims, Jamison Crowder and Chris Hogan have all already gone down injured. Chris Herndon, the one starting weapon left standing, has averaged 3.8 yards per target. Darnold has faced two tough defenses, but he has shown little signs of improvement; even an impressive touchdown pass against the 49ers was the product of a terrible habit, as he rolled left before throwing back to the middle across his body.
That’s a mistake young quarterbacks typically get out of their system early in their careers; it led to a pick against the Bills in Week 1 and will be a mistake more often than it is a spectacular success. Darnold is still young, of course, but it feels like he’ll need to stay young for six or seven years for the Jets to surround him with more players like Becton.
Preseason playoff chances: 32.6%
Current playoff chances: 9.4%
The Broncos bear little resemblance to the team we were expecting to see coming into the season. Three of their four most expensive players aren’t on the active roster, with right tackle Ja’Wuan James opting out and both pass-rusher Von Miller and cornerback A.J. Bouye on injured reserve. They lost starting quarterback Drew Lock and star wide receiver Courtland Sutton to injuries in Week 2, with Lock out for several weeks and Sutton done for the season.
I would love to tell you that the bad news is done. It’s not. The Broncos still have the league’s third-toughest schedule to play over the remainder of the season. They get the Jets on “Thursday Night Football” in two weeks and the Dolphins at home two weeks later, but that’s the last time they are favored in a game by FPI until Week 17, when Denver hosts the Raiders and is favored by 0.1 points. (It is currently projected to tie the Panthers in Carolina in Week 14.)
Vic Fangio’s team has been competitive in losses to the Titans and Steelers, although the Tennessee game required Stephen Gostkowski to fail on three field goals and an extra point to stay close. The Broncos are likely better than their record, but the problem is that they’re in a division with teams that have started a combined 5-1. Everyone expected the Chiefs to start 2-0, of course, but the Raiders’ upset of Drew Brees and the Saints on Monday night took Las Vegas to 2-0, and the Chargers beat the Bengals in Week 1 before giving the Chiefs a scare on Sunday. The rest of the division already has a leg up on Denver, and while the Broncos could feasibly make the playoffs at 8-8, they would need to go 8-6 against that brutal schedule to get there.
As an aside, is it wild that I like general manager John Elway’s decision to sign Blake Bortles this week? Bortles became a punch line by the end of his time in Jacksonville, and I was never a big supporter. But there’s a difference between a quarterback who doesn’t deserve the sort of hype he had in Jacksonville and a quarterback who doesn’t deserve a job. Bortles isn’t one of the 20 best quarterbacks in football, but he is one of the top 60.
Preseason playoff chances: 13.6%
Current playoff chances: 3.4%
The Dolphins have emerged from their year of tanking and an offseason spending spree to find themselves … at 0-2 for the second consecutive season. Brian Flores’ team unquestionably looks better than it did after two games a year ago, but the idea that it was going to build off its late-season victory over the Patriots to immediately emerge as playoff contenders seems unfounded.
To be fair, several of the most important players for the Dolphins made haven’t been on the field. Cornerback Byron Jones missed most of Week 2 with a groin injury. First-round pick Tua Tagovailoa has been active for the first two games of the season without making it onto the field. Wide receiver DeVante Parker, arguably the team’s best player a year ago, has played about two-thirds of the offensive snaps while battling a hamstring injury.
Really, though, the biggest problem for this team is the same issue it had a year ago: It just gets beat up at the line of scrimmage. The Dolphins ranked last in the league in pass block win rate (PBWR) as a team last season, succeeding 41.2% of the time. General manager Chris Grier spent the offseason rebuilding the line, and through two weeks, they … are last in the league in PBWR, succeeding on 37.9% of their attempts. Ereck Flowers, who was signed to a three-year, $30 million deal over the offseason, has been the primary lineman to blame for three of their four sacks they have allowed, including one sack in which he shoved Derek Rivers into a scrambling Ryan Fitzpatrick.
We didn’t have run block win rate (RBWR) available as a public statistic last season, but the Dolphins also ranked last there, and they have repeated the feat so far this season. On the other side of the ball, they aren’t doing much better, but they have improved ever so slightly, jumping from 31st to 27th in pass rush win rate (PRWR). They’re also 26th in run stop win rate (RSWR), although they’ve faced two of the league’s best rushing quarterbacks to start the season in Josh Allen and Cam Newton.
My expectations for the Dolphins heading into the year were to finish somewhere around 5-11 again, and that’s fine. They’re a work in progress and still realistically in need of top-level talent on both sides of the ball. The most important thing for Flores’ team is finding the right moment to insert Tagovailoa into the lineup and keeping the quarterback of the future healthy when he gets there. A schedule that seemed stocked with devastating pass-rushers early in the season doesn’t seem quite as scary now that Nick Bosa and Von Miller are out for the year; but the Dolphins still have to face Joey Bosa, Aaron Donald and Chandler Jones before their Week 11 bye.
Preseason playoff chances: 8.8%
Current playoff chances: 2.1%
The lowest playoff chances in the league after two weeks belong to the Bengals, who have lost two of the more winnable games on their schedule in matchups with the Chargers and Browns. They lost those two by a combined 8 points, but it took a touchdown inside the final minute against Cleveland to make the final score look closer.
The organization would happily trade its slight hint of a playoff berth in 2020 for some proof that Joe Burrow is the quarterback it was hoping for when it took the LSU product with the No. 1 pick in April. Burrow has flashed some promise through these first two games, but he also has fumbled three times. Owing in part to what’s around him, the Bengals’ passing attack has not been effective. He is averaging 5.4 adjusted yards per attempt, which is tied with Tom Brady for 30th in the league.
Cincinnati’s offensive line deserves plenty of blame for the passing game’s knee-high ceiling, and that was an issue we could have anticipated heading into the season. Through two games, though, I did not expect A.J. Green to be catching 36.4% of the passes thrown in his direction. Green’s average pass attempt has traveled more than 15 yards in the air, and ESPN doesn’t have him credited with any drops, suggesting that most of the passes in his direction haven’t been catchable. I strongly suspect that Green and Burrow will get on the same page in the near future, and if they do, both of their numbers should spike.
The Bengals are without free-agent addition Trae Waynes, and star defensive tackle Geno Atkins missed the first two games with a shoulder injury. Burrow will get better as the season goes along. There are reasons to be excited about what’s coming for this team. I just don’t think that’s going to lead to a playoff berth in 2020.
Preseason playoff chances: 21.2%
Current playoff chances: 4.3%
One of my teams most likely to improve on their record heading into 2020, the Lions have been wildly disappointing. After taking a closer look and seeing how awful they were in the fourth quarter of 2019, I found that similar teams historically improved dramatically the following season. The Lions promptly blew a 23-6 fourth-quarter lead against the Bears in Week 1 and nearly came back, only for rookie running back D’Andre Swift to drop a potential game-winning touchdown pass. They even went up 14-3 against the Packers in Week 2 before being outscored 39-7 the rest of the way — and even that came while Aaron Rodgers‘ receivers struggled with drops.
Two games in is too early to give up on any prediction, but this team is a mess. Injuries have already ripped them apart. Wide receiver Kenny Golladay and free-agent addition Halapoulivaati Vaitai haven’t played yet. Third overall pick Jeff Okudah was out in Week 1, and while he returned to be torched by Rodgers on Sunday, the team’s other top two cornerbacks, Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman, were out injured. Coach Matt Patricia has still continued to play man coverage 81.9% of the time, per ESPN’s coverage analysis, the highest rate of any team in football through two weeks.
The secondary is being overwhelmed, in part, because nobody is winning up front. Despite importing former Patriots Trey Flowers, Danny Shelton and Jamie Collins over the past two offseasons, the Lions can’t create any sort of pressure. Their pass rush win rate through two weeks is a laughable 19.2%; nobody else in the league is sub-30%. They’re only slightly better against the run, ranking 29th in the same category. On Aaron Jones‘ 75-yard touchdown run on Sunday, the Lions failed to fit the run and left the gap Jones ran through uncovered. Both safeties then missed ankle tackles, nearly simultaneously. Jones was able to run 75 yards in what was almost nearly a straight line. Patricia was supposed to be a defensive wizard; how many years is it going to take him to teach his defense how to get somebody in the A-gap?
The Lions are a drop away from starting 1-1, so they’re in better position than some of the other teams on this list. They should get better when they’re healthier. With the Cardinals and Saints coming up before their Week 5 bye, though, the Lions are at serious risk of starting their season 0-4. Detroit hasn’t fired a coach in midseason since they let Steve Mariucci go in 2005, but Patricia’s team needs to show signs of life — soon.
Preseason playoff chances: 7.3%
Current playoff chances: 2.9%
Matt Rhule’s first season in a new place typically doesn’t go well. In 2013, he took over at Temple and went 2-10. Four years later, in his debut campaign at Baylor, his Bears went 1-11. Of course, he was inheriting difficult situations in both places, and his record after those first seasons is why the Panthers wanted to hire him as their coach, given that the former Giants assistant went a combined 44-22 in his five other seasons as a college head coach.
It might have been fair to expect Rhule’s Panthers, then, to also struggle in their first season. He has rebuilt the roster; 13 of the 24 players who have suited up for at least 50% of the offensive or defensive snaps were not on the roster a year ago, including three starting offensive linemen and five of the six players in the secondary. The team’s most expensive player, defensive tackle Kawann Short, missed Week 2 with a foot injury. Christian McCaffrey is now out for an indefinite amount of time with a high ankle sprain. Carolina plays in a division in which the starting quarterbacks are 43, 41 and 35 years old.
If anything, it seems like a bit of a pleasant surprise that the Panthers have been able to keep things competitive in their first two games. Teddy Bridgewater & Co. were down four points on the Las Vegas side of the field when they handed the ball to fullback Alex Armah on a fourth-and-1 with 1:23 to go in Week 1, with the Raiders stuffing Armah to end the game. Carolina was within a touchdown twice in the fourth quarter against the Bucs, with a 46-yard Leonard Fournette score putting the game out of reach with 1:56 to go.
The young secondary is going to take its lumps as the season goes on. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow has tried to protect them by staying away from blitzes while hoping to get pressure with his front four. Owing in part to Short’s absence, that plan isn’t creating many problems for opposing quarterbacks. Carolina has pressured opposing signal-callers on just 9.2% of dropbacks, which is nearly one-third of the league-average rate at 27.3%.
Despite the presence of 2019 first-rounder Brian Burns, the Panthers have zero sacks and just one quarterback knockdown across their first two games, with the latter coming from journeyman tackle Zach Kerr. They are playing at the league’s seventh-lowest pace on defense over their two weeks, but with the Chargers, Cardinals and Falcons all among the fastest teams on offense so far this season, we could see some big scores coming in the weeks to come.
Preseason playoff chances: 10.6%
Current playoff chances: 4.1%
The big story surrounding the Giants this week is the injury suffered by Saquon Barkley, which I wrote about on Monday. The move to sign Devonta Freeman to a one-year, $3 million deal seems unimaginative for a team that is committed to Barkley as its long-term back and could sorely use help at other positions, but that’s par for the course for these Giants.
Second-year quarterback Daniel Jones has actually played pretty well over the first two weeks given the problems along the offensive line and the strength of the defenses his team has faced. QBR disagrees, putting Jones right behind Sam Darnold in 28th place. The good news for Giants fans hoping for growth from Jones is that he has a brutal four-game stretch of pass rushes to start the season, but the 49ers, who they face in Week 3, don’t seem quite as devastating as they did before last week’s rash of injuries. After a Week 4 tilt against the Rams, things get much easier for Jones. His numbers should rise accordingly.
As has been par for the course for general manager Dave Gettleman’s Giants teams, they continue to be dominated in the passing game at the line of scrimmage. The offensive line ranks 28th in pass block win rate, while the defensive front seven is 29th in pass rush win rate. Cornerback James Bradberry has lived up to expectations after the team gave him a three-year, $43.5 million deal, but the rest of the secondary is still a work in progress.
The Giants benched corner Corey Ballentine after he allowed a touchdown against the Bears on a play in which he had to hold up in coverage for more than seven seconds. Longtime Patriots special-teamer Nate Ebner, who had played one defensive snap over the past three seasons, took five defensive snaps against the Bears, which produced three completions for 60 yards and two touchdowns. The completions weren’t Ebner’s fault, but if there’s a good reason for the Giants to give defensive snaps to a 32-year-old on a one-year deal — who hasn’t played more than 45 defensive snaps in a season — on a going-nowhere team, I’d love to hear it.
Preseason playoff chances: 51.3%
Current playoff chances: 16.8%
Several of the teams on this list probably knew, in their heart of hearts, that they were likely to end up starting 0-2. The Vikings did not. For the first time in the Mike Zimmer era, though, they’re 0-2, and they underdogs at home on Sunday against the Titans. The only good news is that they’re fourth in rush offense DVOA through two weeks, although they haven’t been competitive enough in their first two games to turn that effectiveness into anything meaningful.
Kirk Cousins, who once threw interceptions at a historic rate, has four through two games after throwing six in 16 games a year ago. I’m not as concerned as that number suggests — one was a third-and-10 arm punt and another was a Hail Mary attempt — but his other numbers are down across the board, in many places by a dramatic margin. He has attempted eight play-action passes across two games after averaging nearly nine per game a year ago.
After the Vikings traded wideout Stefon Diggs to the Bills over the offseason, it seemed like Minnesota’s plan on offense would be go toward a heavier dosage of 12 or 21 personnel and expand the role of young tight end Irv Smith Jr. Instead, owing perhaps to the nature of how the Vikings have trailed in games, they have upped their 11 personnel usage from 20.6% of the time to 54.2%. The 12 package hasn’t exactly cried out for more usage, either; per NFL Next Gen Stats, its success rate has fallen from 50% to 44% so far.
Dan Orlovsky likes the Broncos’ chances of recovering from an 0-2 start, while Keyshawn Johnson picks the Eagles as the team he feels can turn things around.
More distressingly, the rebuild on defense has been a mess through two weeks. Each of Minnesota’s top four cornerbacks — Cameron Dantzler, Jeff Gladney, Holton Hill and Mike Hughes — has allowed a passer rating of 130.8 or higher in coverage. Drops have been the only saving grace for the Vikings’ secondary; by adjusted completion percentage, which accounts for those drops and the air yards for each completion, it is allowing opposing quarterbacks to create possible completions a league-high 83.5% of the time. No team has allowed a worse completion percentage above expectation (CPOE).
And without defensive end Danielle Hunter, Yannick Ngakoue and the rest of the defense have just two sacks and four knockdowns through two games. The Vikings’ defense got by in 2019 by forcing 31 takeaways, the league’s fourth-highest mark. Through two weeks, they have all of one turnover. Under Zimmer, they are 38-8 when they have a positive turnover margin and 11-23-1 when it’s negative. They’ve lost that battle in each of the first two weeks.
The 2-0 starts from the Bears and Packers put the Vikings in a vulnerable position. After the Titans on Sunday, the Vikings have road games against a Texans team that is likely to be desperate at 0-3 and a Seahawks team that has looked like an offensive juggernaut through two weeks. The formula that worked in 2019 — lots of running, heavy doses of play-action and bunches of takeaways on defense — hasn’t shown up this season, and the Vikings are now down two of their key defenders in Hunter and Anthony Barr, who is likely to miss the rest of the season with a torn pectoral muscle. The Vikings have alternated double-digit win campaigns with seasons at or around .500 for the entirety of Zimmer’s tenure; it seems like they’re heading toward that destiny again in 2020.
Preseason playoff chances: 32.4%
Current playoff chances: 12.4%
What is there to say in a time like this? You saw what happened on Sunday against the Cowboys. I’m not going to give you a bunch of stats about how unlikely that loss was. Falcons fans don’t need that in their lives. Dallas fumbled away the ball three times (nearly four) in the first half, came up short on two fake punts, failed on their two-point conversion try down 15 — and still won. Let’s leave Week 2 at that.
The thing I find concerning about the Falcons, though, is that their offseason additions don’t look to have changed much of anything and/or aren’t living up to expectations. Running back Todd Gurley is averaging 3.3 yards per carry and has two catches for one yard. Pass-rusher Dante Fowler Jr. has one lone sack and knockdown. First-round pick A.J. Terrell has allowed a passer rating of 148.6 in coverage through two games. Darqueze Dennard was shook into orbit on the CeeDee Lamb catch that set up the game-winning field go. … OK, I promised we weren’t going to talk about that game again. My bad.
I’m concerned that the Falcons thought they had fixed their defense and instead got fooled by a half-season split. In the first half of 2019, a dismal Atlanta defense ranked dead last in third-down conversion rate at 53%. Over the second half, unexpectedly, the same defense allowed the league’s best third-down conversion rate at 25.8%, nearly five percentage points better than any other team.
Third-down performance is very valuable, but if it’s not supported by similar performance on first and second down, it tends to be a mirage. We can use expected points per play added to get a sense of how the Falcons performed by down on defense: Over the second half of 2019, they were a league-average defense on first and second down, before morphing into one of the best third-down defenses of the past decade on third downs.
So far, they haven’t been able to turn that skill back on in 2020. They rank 25th in EPA per third-down play and 19th in third-down conversion rate this season. Dallas was 5-for-6 on third downs during its second-half comeback a week ago before Dak Prescott spiked the ball with five seconds left and … right, the game. None of that.
The good news for the Falcons is that the NFC South has gotten off to a slow start. No team is 2-0. Saints quarterback Drew Brees is disavowing any knowledge or appreciation of air yards. Bucs coach Bruce Arians is using the addition of two Hall of Fame players to strengthen his midweek straight-talk news conferences. Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey is out indefinitely. The South is still there for the taking, even after an 0-2 start.
Atlanta has a pair of 2-0 teams coming up in the Bears and Packers, but Chicago’s two games have come down to a drop in the end zone and a failed conversion on fourth down. After that, the Falcons have five straight games against 0-2 teams in the Vikings, Lions, Broncos and a pair against the Panthers before their Week 10 bye. As disgusted as they must be to sit here at 0-2, the Falcons have the sort of schedule that could allow them to turn it around quickly.
Preseason playoff chances: 63.5%
Current playoff chances: 10.1%
Of all the teams on this list, the Eagles might be the one whose fans thought they were least likely to begin the year 0-2. When the schedule was released and every fan went through it marking off wins and losses for the upcoming season, you know there isn’t an Eagles fan on the planet who suggested that they would lose to Washington in Week 1. The matchup with the Rams in Week 2 was tougher, but Philadelphia was at home against a team traveling to the East Coast for an early Sunday kickoff, and the Eagles beat L.A. in 2017 and 2018.
Instead, the Eagles have been a disaster. It’s not enough to say that they’re 0-2. DVOA, which has supported the them for so long that there were once genuine complaints that the system was bugged in Philadelphia’s favor, ranks Doug Pederson’s team as the league’s worst through two games. Yes, worse than the Jets, Panthers, Bengals and Lions. Something is broken with the Eagles.
I didn’t expect them to be the worst team in football through two weeks, but there’s an element of this that we should have seen coming. You remember how Matt Nagy and the Bears spent the 2019 offseason obsessing over the missed field goal that cost them their playoff game against the Eagles by almost singularly focusing on their kicking battle? There’s an element of that in how the 2020 Eagles were built, with general manager Howie Roseman selling out to add speed to his receiving corps and going after a No. 1 cornerback in Darius Slay.
In doing that, though, they have sprouted new problems, and they were exposed during Sunday’s loss to the Rams. To help clear out cap space and supplement other parts of the roster, the Eagles moved on from veterans Nigel Bradham at linebacker and Malcolm Jenkins at safety. They elected to fill those positions on the cheap, promoting Nathan Gerry and T.J. Edwards at linebacker and moving Jalen Mills to safety alongside Rodney McLeod.
On Sunday, Slay did his job. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, the star corner allowed one catch for five yards on four targets as the nearest defender in coverage. Rams coach Sean McVay didn’t care, because he spent the rest of the game going at Gerry, Mills, Duke Riley, Marcus Epps, Nickell Robey-Coleman and Avonte Maddox. That’s the underbelly of Philly’s pass coverage, and it was hopeless against Jared Goff & Co. Tyler Higbee scored three touchdowns, and Darrell Henderson came within an overthrow and two yards of catching two of his own.
Cooper Kupp tormented the Eagles over the middle, and they had no answer for what the Rams did out of the slot or out of the backfield. There were at least four plays in which a Philly defender already had no hope to stop his assignment from the very first step he made. When they did get near Rams ball carriers, Edwards, Riley, Mills and Gerry missed tackles to create bigger plays. Los Angeles scored 37 points on offense and left some meat on the bone with a blocked extra point, a red zone miss from Goff and a fumble from Kupp on a punt return that handed the Eagles a short field. This very easily could have turned into a 45-point afternoon for the Rams.
On the flip side, of course, is the reality that the Eagles needed a possession that started on the Rams’ 11-yard line to even get to 19 points in this game. The defense is trying to get by with replacement-level talent, but outside of a spot or two on the offensive line, that isn’t the case on this side of the ball. They were supposed to be loaded with weapons for Carson Wentz, who was set to finally get back to his 2017 form with all this speed in the receiving corps.
Instead, the offense is dysfunctional, just in a different way. The injuries to the line cost the Eagles in their Week 1 loss to Washington, and while Lane Johnson returned in Week 2, they lost guard Isaac Seumalo just before halftime. It doesn’t seem like Wentz or Pederson trusted the line to hold up against Aaron Donald and the rest of the Rams’ defensive line for any deep shots, which reduces the value of the speed the Eagles added this offseason.
Wentz hasn’t made great decisions with the ball. He took the blame for a critical interception against the Rams, when the offense drove to the edge of the red zone trailing 21-16. On first-and-10, Wentz tried to squeeze a pass into a deep window in the end zone for JJ Arcega-Whiteside, only for corner Darious Williams to have time to catch up and make a leaping interception. The catch by Williams was spectacular. But it’s the sort of decision NFL quarterbacks can’t make on first-and-10 so close to the end zone in the third quarter.
Even when Wentz has made the right decisions, he is struggling. His completion percentage above expectation (CPOE) is minus-8.8%, the second-worst mark in football through two weeks behind Washington’s Dwayne Haskins. Wentz ranks 32nd in the league in Total QBR through two weeks (27.9), just ahead of Haskins and behind Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins. Wentz will likely get better, but the Eagles need to use more quick game and RPOs to get the ball out of his hands briskly while rebuilding his confidence with simple decisions. Inconsistent footwork has led to him missing easy throws and struggling to put his attempts in the right place when his receivers do get open.
While he was the NFL’s luckiest quarterback last season when it came to dropped interceptions, Washington and Los Angeles haven’t been as generous. Wentz leads the league with four picks through two weeks, a concerning amount for a quarterback who had posted exactly seven interceptions in each of the past three seasons. I don’t think he is going to throw 32 picks by the end of the season, but veteran quarterbacks don’t make this throw, even in garbage time.
The idea that Wentz is just one player or one stretch away from his 2017 form has been faulty for years now. I’ve written repeatedly about how elements of that 2017 season are huge outliers. Going back through 2009, his 2017 season ranks as the fifth-best season of the past decade in terms of QBR on third down (91.7) and the sixth best of the past decade by QBR in the red zone (97.2). Wentz blew away the league and the rest of his career in both categories. Since the start of 2018, he has a 74.5 QBR in the red zone and 55.0 QBR on third down, both of which rank from 11th to 13th over that time frame. Even if you put a healthy Wentz on the field with the same coaching staff, offensive line and weaponry, what we saw in 2017 was going to be almost impossible to repeat over a full season a second time.
In terms of 2020, that doesn’t really matter. He is a good enough quarterback to make it to the playoffs, and I’m confident he won’t rank 32nd in QBR over the remainder of the season. I’m more concerned about the defensive woes. The Eagles just don’t have much at linebacker or safety outside of hoping that players like Gerry, Riley and Mills get better. Philly has a stellar athlete on the bench in third-round linebacker Davion Taylor, but he was a project coming out of Colorado, and he hasn’t played a single defensive snap so far.
Roseman is creative and aggressive, and the Eagles do have approximately $19 million in cap room to work with, although they would probably like to roll that money over to next season’s cap. Bradham was cut by the Saints, and Jenkins hasn’t looked great in New Orleans to start the season; but Philadelphia didn’t do enough to replace its departed veterans, and the Rams ripped it to shreds in the process. I suspect the Eagles will have a better time against the Bengals in Week 3, but with road games against the 49ers and Steelers and a home tilt against the Ravens to follow, Philly is going to need to pull an upset — and avoid one on Sunday — to keep from starting 1-5.
Preseason playoff chances: 35.7%
Current playoff chances: 15.2%
The story of why the Texans are 0-2 starts — and maybe ends — with their schedule. Deshaun Watson & Co. were booked to begin the year with about as brutal of a one-two punch as you can get, starting with the Super Bowl-winning Chiefs and the Ravens — the best team from the 2019 regular season. A win or two would have been great, but the Texans didn’t need to win either of these games to make it to the playoffs. They’ve faced the toughest schedule in football through two weeks and, per FPI, have the league’s third-easiest slate the rest of the way.
And while the Texans lost the two games by a combined 31 points, I can see the logic in their game plans on defense. Against the Chiefs, coordinator Anthony Weaver’s defense played to take away the big play and dared rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire to beat them in his first career game. He did. Against the Ravens in Week 2, the Texans tried to get the ball out of Lamar Jackson‘s hands, and they slowed down the reigning MVP, who had 204 yards passing and ran 16 times for just 54 yards. Baltimore’s three running backs, unfortunately, ran the ball 21 times for 176 yards.
My concern with the Texans losing has to do with how coach and general manager Bill O’Brien has built this team over the past few years. Houston has repeatedly traded away draft picks to acquire prime talent, with the DeAndre Hopkins trade as the lone counterbalance.
Watson is 25 and will hopefully be the Texans’ quarterback for many years to come, but he was on a rookie deal when O’Brien started shipping off picks in 2019 and will still have a cap hit below $16 million in each of the next two seasons. It’s not until 2022, when Watson’s cap hold rises to $40.4 million, that the star quarterback becomes prohibitively expensive. Houston seems to be building a roster that peaks around Watson over this 2019-21 window.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but to get to the Super Bowl, O’Brien’s team has to get out of the AFC. To get out of the AFC, it is probably going to have to beat the Ravens, the Chiefs or both in the postseason. And while it’s true that a team can lose to a rival in the regular season and then beat them in the postseason, as the Chiefs did with the Texans a year ago, the Texans just played their two most significant rivals with a healthy roster and didn’t look to be on the level of either. O’Brien didn’t need to go all-in to win the AFC South and lose in the first two rounds of the playoffs, so his team needs to find a way to do something more against the best teams in football when it gets its chance.
The bad news for the Texans is that they have to travel to Pittsburgh on Sunday to face the Steelers, who are off to a 2-0 start and look every bit as fearsome on defense as they did a year ago. An 0-2 start is surmountable, but 0-3 is tougher. Do you remember that 0-3 playoff team I mentioned in the introduction? The good news for O’Brien, I suppose, is that the team I was referring to was the 2018 Texans. That Houston team started 0-3 and went 11-2 the rest of the way. I’m not sure these Texans have that in them, but across these 11 organizations, they have the best shot of sneaking back into the playoff picture.
Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home
On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.
Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.
Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.
The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.
“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”
Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.
“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.
Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.
“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”
The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.
“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”
That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.
The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.
On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”
There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.
“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”
For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.
“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”
Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.
“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”
There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.
“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”
Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.
Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.
“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”
With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.
“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”
Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.
Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment
The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.
Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.
“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.
The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.
Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.
“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.
Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”
The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.
Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.
“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”
Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.
The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls
With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.
At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.
What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast
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