Six projected contenders in trouble after 0-1 starts to the season
Desperation is too strong a word to use in mid-September. But for six leading contenders that came up empty in Week 1—five 2014 playoff clubs and the 10-win Eagles—there’s already a palpable sense of urgency as Week 2 approaches. It can get late early in the NFL, and whatever it takes to avoid the dreaded 0–2 start is the singular focus this week for these half-dozen Super Bowl hopefuls. Since 2007, only five of 66 teams that started the year 0–2 rebounded to reach the playoffs, and nobody is going to want to risk those odds.
As if ordained from on high, the Seahawks’ three-point overtime loss at division rival St. Louis immediately re-enforced most of the preseason concerns about the two-time defending NFC champions. Would they ever again have full faith in coach Pete Carroll’s decision-making after that Super Bowl play-calling disaster? Can their depleted offensive line stand up against the best defensive lines? Will they pay for the Kam Chancellor holdout one way or another? And does their hunger to win still burn intensely after enjoying three seasons of almost non-stop plaudits?
There were reasons to doubt the Seahawks on every one of those fronts after the Rams beat them to drop Seattle to 0–1 for the first time since 2012. And now here comes a Sunday night visit to Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, with the 1–0 Packers frothing at the mouth to exact some sort of revenge on the team that has tormented them in three consecutive games, starting with 2012’s “Fail Mary” debacle and concluding with that agonizing overtime loss in January’s NFC title game. Right from the start, we’re going to see if Carroll’s club has the mettle it’s known for, and the pressure only intensifies when you consider that NFC West rivals Arizona, San Francisco and St. Louis all won in Week 1.
The all-in Colts were an ultra-chic AFC Super Bowl pick, but they stood little chance in Week 1 in the face of all that good karma in Buffalo, with the Bills riding the wave of Rex Ryan mania that currently inhabits western New York. Indianapolis won’t panic in the aftermath of the 27–14 loss because Chuck Pagano’s team has been here before, starting last season 0–2 before rallying to the customary 11 wins and another AFC South title. That’s what a weak division can do for you, and only the Titans earned a Week 1 victory and a leg up on the Colts, Jaguars and Texans.
But there are still troubling issues in the heartland, starting with a Colts run defense that was gouged for 147 yards on 36 carries (averaging 4.1 per carry) by the Bills, which is straight out of the Patriots’ how-to-beat-Indy playbook. Add in the bruised knee suffered by No. 1 receiver T.Y. Hilton, the nondescript debuts of new Colts Frank Gore and Andre Johnson, and the simmering debate over Pagano’s future, and you have more unhelpful subplots than Indianapolis needs at the moment.
Just ahead for the Colts is another game against the bothersome AFC East, the Monday night home opener versus the Jets, who will have the confidence of a 31–10 thrashing of Cleveland and a 154-yard rushing effort against the Browns in their favor. Indy has to have this one in the win column with a division road trip to Tennessee (aka Mariota-ville) looming in Week 3.
The Lions had the Chargers down and looking demoralized with a 21–3 lead on the road in the second quarter but proceeded to allow 30 unanswered points en route to San Diego’s 33–28 victory on Sunday. That’s the kind of gut punch that can set the tone for a season, especially for a Lions club that faces a challenging early schedule, with a trip to newly humbled Minnesota this week, followed by games against three 2014 playoff qualifiers: Denver, at Seattle, Arizona.
The Lions spent the off-season telling us that the defection of their top four defensive tackles—Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley among them—wouldn’t be their downfall, and that the league’s best rushing defense from 2014 (69 yards per game) wouldn’t suffer. But San Diego ran for 95 yards and Philip Rivers picked apart the Detroit secondary to the tune of 404 yards through the air. With Green Bay the division's only winner in Week 1, the Lions aren’t in danger of falling too far out of the NFC North race, but there’s no time to waste if Detroit intends to string together its first two-year playoff run since 1994–95.
Losing by seven points on the road to the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots in Week 1 isn’t something that should set off alarms in Steelers camp. But Pittsburgh’s defensive effort was troubling to say the least. The Steelers looked confused a good bit of the time in pass coverage against New England (hint: try putting someone on tight end Rob Gronkowski), and produced no turnovers, forcing just seven incompletions in 32 attempts, with the Patriots converting an unacceptable 7 of 11 third downs. That’s not the kind of effort Mike Tomlin was looking for out of new coordinator Keith Butler’s side of the ball, and there’s only so much you can blame on faulty radio headsets.
The Steelers at least got the extra rest from playing on Thursday night, which could come in handy as they prepare to play San Francisco in their home opener on Sunday. The 49ers are doing the short-week travel thing, but they’re doing it on an adrenaline high, after trouncing Minnesota 20–3 on Monday night. San Francisco suddenly looks like a much tougher test than expected for a Steelers team still playing without the suspended Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant, with the injured Maurkice Pouncey missing as well. Add in the Steelers’ ongoing kicker woes, with the newly acquired Josh Scobee missing a pair of field goal tries, and the defending AFC North champs have some kinks to work out to avoid an 0–2 start.
There’s no easy way to pull positives from the Ravens’ 19–13 season-opening defeat at Denver. It was pretty much a lost day all the way around. Sure, the defense was stout, scoring a touchdown and refusing to let the Broncos' offense counter with one. But having linebacker and former league defensive player of the year Terrell Suggs felled in the fourth quarter by a season-ending Achilles injury means Baltimore has lost its defensive leader and most proven playmaker. Fourth-round rookie linebacker Za’Darius Smith is suddenly cast in a much larger role than originally anticipated.
As for the Ravens' offense in the first game of new coordinator Marc Trestman’s tenure? Meh. Joe Flacco threw for 117 yards with a 38.2 passer rating, two interceptions and two sacks. The running game averaged 3.2 yards per carry. That ain’t going to get it done, even in an AFC North known for lower scoring games. Baltimore is staying west this week to prepare for its game against 0–1 Oakland, and that’s now a must-win situation for the Ravens, who will dive into their division schedule with games against Cincinnati, at Pittsburgh and back home against Cleveland in the ensuing three weeks. Baltimore hasn’t started 0–2 since 2005, and that year’s 6–10, third-place finish is no blueprint to follow.
Monday night’s frustrating 26–24 loss at Atlanta served to seriously tap the brakes on the Eagles’ Super Bowl Express, and if you’re prone to count such things, that makes Chip Kelly 1–4 in the last five meaningful games his team has played, dating to the start of last December. And don’t look now, but Philadelphia doesn’t have much time to bemoan the one that got away in the Georgia Dome, because defending NFC East champ Dallas is headed to Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday for a huge early season matchup. The Cowboys are coming off that near-miraculous comeback win at home against the visiting Giants on Sunday night, a coup they pulled off even without the injured Dez Bryant.
The Eagles, to me, still look like the team to beat in the division, but Sam Bradford’s shaky first half and a nearly forgotten Philadelphia running game were reality checks that Kelly’s offense isn’t always machine-like or fool-proof. It can be stopped, and Philly can be beaten. Rest assured, the Eagles don’t want Bradford throwing it 52 times a game, and DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews combining for 11 carries for 13 yards rushing isn’t a winning game plan either. The loss to the Falcons may wind up being a mere blip, but Philadelphia suddenly faces the prospect of trailing Dallas by two games, and that’s exactly how things stood at the disappointing end of last season.
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