It never takes long for an NFL season to prove us wrong. Three weeks into the tale of 2011, conventional wisdom is already on something of a losing streak. Things might be all hiccups and giggles in Detroit and Buffalo, where the 3-0 Lions and Bills appear headed for a Rust Belt Super Bowl matchup -- wouldn't that be something? -- but early season problems abound in some unlikely venues around the league.
Consider this: In 2010, the Eagles, Falcons, Jets, Steelers and Rams combined to go 53-27 (.663), with four of those five making the playoffs and vastly improved St. Louis winning six more games than the year before. Only the Rams missed the postseason, and they weren't eliminated until a Week 17 loss at Seattle, in the NFL's final act of the 256-game regular season.
Heading into this season, all five looked like playoff locks, and I know of at least one Internet NFL hack who tabbed them to represent 5/12's of his postseason field. (Alas, I was not alone. Three of my fellow SI.com NFL "experts'' had them all represented in their preseason playoff predictions, and four others on our panel had four of those five teams making the postseason).
And you know what, they still might all get to January's Super Bowl tournament. September might be in the books, but nobody is more than two games out of first place in their division, meaning there's plenty of time to regroup and still make a season out of it. But make no mistake, this year has not been a coronation in Philadelphia, Atlanta, New York, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. Those five supposed powerhouses are a combined 6-9 (.400), with two of those wins coming in head-to-head play (the Eagles beat the Rams, and the Falcons beat the Eagles).
St. Louis remains winless at 0-3, the Eagles and Falcons aren't quite soaring yet at 1-2, and the Steelers and Jets (last year's AFC title game participants) are a worrisome 2-1, with each team being humbled once on the road (Pittsburgh at Baltimore, the Jets at Oakland), and narrowly escaping in a game they were expected to dominate (Steelers at the Colts, Jets at home against the Cowboys). Only in their twin Week 2 blowouts at home against the anemic Seahawks and Jaguars have the Steelers and Jets resembled the juggernauts they were projected to be.
Here's a further look at those five consensus playoff teams that are already in trouble as October looms. It's not too late for any of them, but in the NFL, it's never too early to panic:
• New York Jets (2-1, tied for second place, AFC East) -- At least for now, can we put to rest the notion that the Jets are a great running team, with a top-notch run defense to boot? The facts say they are neither in 2011. New York's vaunted "Ground and Pound'' attack is ranked 25th in rushing, averaging 82 yards per game, with a pedestrian 3.4 yards per rush and just 11 first downs. Lead back Shonn Greene has yet to crack 60 yards in a game, and his 3.3 average carry strikes no fear in the hearts of the opposition.
And somehow the Jets' run defense has been even more pathetic. New York got shredded for 234 yards on the ground in Sunday's 34-24 loss at Oakland, with a whopping 7.3 average run allowed and four rushing touchdowns. That was the worst display of run defense in big-talking Rex Ryan's 41-game tenure in the Big Apple, and New York is ranked 31st overall against the run (136.7) this season, with an average rush of 4.8 yards.
The Raiders dominated the line of scrimmage against the Jets, and New York's offensive line is simply not playing up to the elite level it's advertised at. Injured center Nick Mangold's absence hurts, and right tackle Wayne Hunter has been subpar. The end result is that New York's run-to-win formula isn't operative, and quarterback Mark Sanchez and the passing game is being asked to carry more of the offensive burden than anyone would prefer (Sanchez had a career-high 369 yards passing against Oakland, and threw for 335 yards, third most in his career, in Week 1 against Dallas).
Let's face it, New York gave up 390 yards of offense and was fortunate to win its opener at home against the Cowboys, only doing so because Tony Romo gift-wrapped the game with those two fourth-quarter turnovers. Then the Jets waltzed against the outclassed Jaguars, with Luke McCown at quarterback, and were manhandled by the Raiders.
That's two reasons for concern showing up in the first three games, and here are two more in New York's immediate future: The Jets' three-game road trip continues with Sunday night's showdown in Baltimore, and then heads for New England and the much-anticipated Week 5 renewal of that AFC East blood feud. New York best get its identity re-established, and in a hurry, or September might soon be recalled as the good old days.
• St. Louis (0-3, last place, NFC West) -- The Rams knew the start of the season was going to be challenging. In facing Philadelphia, the Giants and Baltimore in Weeks 1-3, St. Louis was drawing three teams that won a combined 33 games last year, including playoffs.
But there's losing, and then there's getting humiliated, and the Rams know the painful difference by now. St. Louis got beat by 18 points in its home opener against the Eagles, and that was nothing compared to the 30-point tail-kicking the Ravens administered to the Rams last Sunday in the Edward Jones Dome. In between came that aggravating and mistake-filled 12-point Monday night loss at the Giants in Week 2, a game in which St. Louis played with a distinct lack of urgency and execution.
The football follies were supposed to cease in St. Louis with the coming of franchise quarterback Sam Bradford in 2010, but somebody turned on the way-back machine this season. The Rams have been flagged 25 times for 262 yards in three games, and Baltimore gouged St. Louis for 406 yards and 27 points in the first half last Sunday, finishing with 553 yards in the 37-7 rout.
And now Bradford is getting banged up behind a Rams offensive line that looks lost. He suffered a toe sprain against the Ravens on one of his five sacks, and he's been dropped 11 times -- and hit at least twice that much -- in three games. In each of the Rams' losses, Bradford has lost a fumble that got returned for a touchdown, deflating St. Louis' hopes to stay in the game and opening the floodgates for its opponent. New offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has certainly been no difference-maker so far, with the Rams' red-zone offense struggling and Bradford seemingly regressing.
The somewhat hopeful reality in St. Louis is that all 0-3s are not created equal. The Rams play in the NFC West, and no one's running away with that sad-sack division. St. Louis' tough schedule continues for another month or so (Washington, bye week, at Green Bay, at Dallas, New Orleans in the coming five weeks), but then the Rams finally get to play their three NFC West opponents six times over the season's last nine games. As improbable as it might sound, a 7-9 record might once again be good enough to win the division, and that means St. Louis would only have to play slightly above .500 ball from here on out to make the playoffs. The Rams can't count on that, but they can't be counted out just yet either.
• Philadelphia (1-2, last place, NFC East) -- OK, let's get something clear right off the top: If I hear or read one more reference to the "Dream Team'' having its season turned into a nightmare, I'm calling the cliché police and there will be arrests. With the Eagles losing their past two games in ugly fashion, everybody's had a chance to use that painfully tired phraseology by now, so let's all move on.
If you think all of Philadelphia's early season problems are related to keeping Michael Vick healthy and in the lineup, you're letting the well-chronicled saga of No. 7 obscure the big picture. For all the headline moves they made during that unprecedented summer signing spree, the Eagles still entered the season with issues at offensive line, linebacker and safety. Guess where the land mines have surfaced so far? At offensive line, linebacker and safety. Quite a coincidence, eh?
Vick shouldn't waste his breath pleading for the game officials to protect him more when his own offensive linemen can't get the job done. The pounding he is taking isn't all the line's fault, given his style of play combines the QB and running back positions, but there's plenty of blame to be had up front. The Eagles can't seem to pass block or run block, and their short-yardage execution remains an oxymoron thus far.
As for a defense that has given up fourth-quarter leads in the past two games, at Atlanta and home against the Giants, the Eagles are seeing opponents exploit their obvious weaknesses. Rookie linebacker Casey Matthews hasn't gotten the job done, whether playing in the middle or in the weakside slot, and Philadelphia benched safety Kurt Coleman in favor of Nate Allen last Sunday after Coleman couldn't prevent a 74-yard, first-quarter touchdown catch by Giants reserve receiver Victor Cruz.
That all-star group of Eagles cornerbacks, Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, made for good copy in the preseason, but their presence hasn't kept anyone from trying to throw the ball. With the issues at linebacker and safety, there are plenty of yards to be gained in the middle of the field, and Eli Manning threw for a staggering 11 yards an attempt against Philly, with four touchdown passes and 254 yards.
The Eagles appear to already be in crisis mode, but when aren't they? Philadelphia is only one game behind the rest of the division, and this week's visit from San Francisco should provide a relative breather for an Eagles defense that has been forced back on its heels. But it's imperative that Andy Reid's club gets to .500 and stabilizes a bit, because tough road trips to Buffalo and Washington await in Weeks 5-6.
• Pittsburgh (2-1, tied for first, AFC North) -- This has to be the least comforting 2-1 start to a Steelers season in a very long time. Head coach Mike Tomlin refuses to let go of the Week 1 debacle at Baltimore, and then Pittsburgh on Sunday night very nearly lost to a Manning-less Colts team that looks so bad at quarterback you couldn't blame them if they installed the single wing at practice this week.
The Steelers don't really do panic, but it's time for whatever stage comes just before some serious hand-wringing. Their offensive line was nearly wiped out against the Colts, with three of five starters going down with injuries: left tackle Jonathan Scott (ankle), tackle Marcus Gilbert (shoulder) and right guard Doug Legursky (shoulder). Scott's injury was the most serious, but the line's play has already been shaky, and the health issues aren't going to help in the least.
Pittsburgh's running game has been anything but a late-game hammer to bring down on an opponent's hopes. The Steelers rank 23rd in rushing, with just 85.7 yards per game and a paltry 3.3-yard average gain. Some of that is the line's fault for no ability to create openings, and some of it is the underachievement of lead running back Rashard Mendenhall, who is averaging just 3.0 yards per rush, with just 103 yards on 37 attempts (2.8) in Pittsburgh's most recent two games.
This year, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hasn't been able to make up for all that ails the Steelers offense with his typical late-game magic. He has thrown four picks and lost four fumbles, and the Steelers have 10 turnovers in their games. The result is Pittsburgh's margin of error is tighter than any time in recent memory, especially since the Steelers defense has been lacking in terms of big plays, with just one fumble forced and recovered, and no interceptions.
This week's trip to Houston poses a tough assignment for a Pittsburgh team that has not looked crisp on the road thus far. The Texans can score against anyone, and Houston desperately needs a bounce-back game on defense after giving up 40 points in a loss at New Orleans. The Steelers aren't the Steelers yet, and that's how you know it's a very different kind of year in the NFL.
• Atlanta (1-2, tied for last place, NFC South) -- Trying to figure out who the Falcons really are this season has been one of the real mysteries of 2011. They laid an egg in Week 1 at Chicago, played an uneven game at home against the Eagles in Week 2 but wound up winning with an impressive fourth-quarter comeback, and only woke up in time last Sunday at Tampa Bay to mount a too-little, too-late rally in the final quarter of a three-point loss. Atlanta has trailed by at least 10 points in all three of its games, and the slow starts (just 20 points in the first half this season) are putting Mike Smith's club into too many uphill situations.
Job one would seem to be the Falcons offensive line doing better at protecting quarterback Matt Ryan, and opening even more running lanes for Michael Turner. Ryan absorbed four more sacks in the 16-13 loss at Tampa Bay on Sunday, and he's been dropped 13 times already in 2011 after going down just 23 times all last season. As for Turner, he had just 20 yards on 11 rushes against the Bucs, and it's hard for Atlanta to win when he poses no threat to beat you if you over-defend the Falcons' passing game.
The Falcons talked all offseason about being more explosive on offense, but the only time they've really looked dangerous is when Ryan is running the no-huddle late in games. That approach also conveniently seems to keep the pass pressure from getting to Ryan, and gets all his receiving weapons involved in the game.
I'm not sure why Atlanta hasn't thought to start a game in the hurry-up offense by now, a'la New England, because the Falcons look like a different team when they're in two-minute mode. The 14-point fourth-quarter comeback against Philly and the 10-point fourth quarter showing at Tampa Bay were both a case of Ryan running the no-huddle to near-perfection. Rookie receiver Julio Jones caught five of his six passes in the fourth quarter, good for 97 of the 115 yard he gained against the Bucs.
Atlanta's real issue may be that it's in transition as far as its offensive identity. The Falcons don't seem to know yet whether they want to throw it open and be a quarterback-driven, passing-first offense, or keep one foot in their recent past, with Turner's blend of power and speed running being essential to their formula for success. The sooner they figure out that passing-first teams win the Super Bowl these days, the further they will be toward reaching that long-awaited franchise goal. Maybe this week's trip to offensively challenged Seattle offers the perfect opportunity for Atlanta to begin its transformation.