Depending on your preferred analytics provider, roughly 15% of NFL teams can (fairly) safely start making vacation plans for early January, as playoffs will not be on the itinerary.
The Houston Texans were a massive outlier last year in making the playoffs after an 0-3 start (less than four percent of teams who start 0-3 go on to make the postseason). Beyond that mark, only the 1992 San Diego Chargers have weathered 0-4 to start the playoffs. So let’s take a look at this year’s bottom dwellers to see if anyone has a real chance at turning it around and joining the group of outliers.
I’ve included one win teams here, who can fluctuate in playoff odds right now between one and six percent.
Miami Dolphins (0-4)
Built to be bad, but quickly turning into the worst football team in NFL history, the Miami Dolphins are a team tanking so poorly that they may not recover in time to reap the benefits of their pick trove. They are almost twice as bad offensively and defensively then the next-worst team in football. Football Outsiders, who have stretched their wonderful DVOA stat back to the 1986 season, said they have never tracked a worse team through four games than the Dolphins.
Chances of a surprise playoff berth: None. The only chance they have of winning a game comes on Oct. 13 against Washington. In all honesty, listeners of Jenny Vrentas’s and my podcast, The Weak Side, have heard me make this point ad nauseum but … if you’re Brian Flores, I hope you got some kind of assurance that you would be able to coach on the other side of this. And, I hope you have a contingency plan for emotionally reconstructing this locker room.
Cincinnati Bengals (0-4)
In Zac Taylor’s first season as head coach, the Bengals have turned into a middling team through the air which, by Andy Dalton standards, is progress. I’m still on board with the evaluation period and think it’s smart at this point, especially since the Bengals might be headed toward a place where they’ll crash Miami’s party at the top of the draft this year. Only four teams are giving up more points per game and only two are giving up more yards per play. On the bright side, they managed to hang tough against two good teams (Seahawks, Bills) and were then pummeled by the Ben Roethlesberger-less Steelers and 49ers.
Chances of a surprise playoff berth: The Bengals have almost a 75% chance of landing a top five draft pick next year. Football Outsiders had their playoff odds essentially evaporating after the loss to the Steelers. I’m willing to put their chances at razor-thin on the off chance that they get back on track against the Cardinals this week and start establishing their running game. This division is still extremely volatile, with the pace-setting Ravens still searching for consistency in their brilliant, but very new offense.
Denver Broncos (0-4)
I have to admit I’m surprised to see the Broncos here. I thought they made one of the smartest hires of the offseason, and that Vic Fangio populated his staff with smart coaches who came from good systems. This is a bad time to be 0-4, with games against the Chargers, Titans, Chiefs, Colts and Browns coming down the pike. There is almost no reprieve through the rest of their schedule given how difficult the top half of the division is.
Chances of a surprise playoff berth: If they were in any other division in football I’d possibly elevate them beyond none. Perhaps my time in Dove Valley this summer created some undo influence on my analytical process here, but I think this is the staff that will eventually turn the Broncos around. Unfortunately, they missed some critical chances to land wins against the Jaguars and Raiders early. I’m much more comfortably saying that they might be a pain in the backside for a few teams down the stretch who can’t afford to lose a game to a last-place team.
This is what happens when organization continuously, toxically meddles in coaching. We are now on pace for Washington to not only oust a solid offensive mind in Jay Gruden, but in the process, sully the landscape for a promising young first-round pick at quarterback. Far worse than tanking, Washington is built for contention this year but cannot seem to string a few decent moments together. They are bad and expensive.
Chances of a surprise playoff berth: None. Football Outsiders pegs their Wild-Card berth chances at 0.4%. Their only chance of bettering that number is somehow catching lightning in a bottle with Dwayne Haskins, which appears unlikely given his horrid start against the Giants. Jay Gruden was right: He’s not ready, but that won’t stop outside forces from microwaving that process. They get the Patriots next. Hold on to your butts.
New York Jets (0-3)
Sam Darnold’s spleen has altered the course of the 2019 season. While it was disappointing to see the Jets in full white flag mode against the Patriots two weeks ago, this year has always been about the progress Adam Gase will be able to make with his second-year quarterback. This Sunday’s game against the Eagles represents one last flier for Gase, before Darnold’s return, to give the team something to play for in 2019.
Chances of a surprise playoff berth: Football Outsiders has the Jets hovering around a 1 in 10 chance to reach the playoffs, but it all comes down to Philly on the road. Gase’s Miami teams had a trademark toughness throughout their middling years, especially when they lost their quarterback. The Eagles, also, are not above losing a stunner at an inopportune time. Should those forces collide, I’d be willing to elevate the Jets from meh to hey, this might happen.
Arizona Cardinals (0-3-1)
The Air Raid revolution is on! (Except for the fact that teams have been running Air Raid concepts in the NFL for almost a decade). Perhaps that is why the Cardinals don’t look like a team from outer space. They have now been blown out twice in a row after hanging tough with the Seahawks and Lions. The veteran presence on the roster is keeping this from being a complete tear-down disaster.
Chances of a surprise playoff berth: I’m actually willing to consider this one. Their upcoming schedule is fortuitous (Cincinnati, Atlanta, New York Giants). Kyler Murray is starting to better utilize his mobility, even if his overall performances have been a bit scattershot. This is a team that could easily get hot during a bad stretch, given the relative unknowns with Kliff Kingsbury. Is there a phase of this offense we haven’t seen yet?
Pittsburgh Steelers (1-3)
After seeing Pittsburgh play the 49ers tight in Mason Rudolph’s first start, and then throttling the Bengals on Monday Night Football, things are looking up in the post-Roethlisberger world. They still have a good defense and an offense that, should they be able to develop a running game, might be effective enough to win some close games.
Chances of a surprise playoff berth: Not bad, actually. Football Outsiders has them at 15%. I like the fact that all of their division games are still in front of them after a 1-0 start against the Bengals. This Ravens game on Sunday will be telling, but if they’re able to hang with a very good Baltimore roster, our preseason prediction (that Pittsburgh would sneak into the wild card) might actually come true against all odds.
Atlanta Falcons (1-3)
The Falcons are the hardest team to figure out in football. Atlanta has all the talent in the world. Despite some injuries, this should be a perennial Super Bowl contender. It’s a top-10 offense that doesn’t score. A good passing defense that gives up a lot of points. Every game they go in feeling like an underdog despite their capability of beating any team in the league on a given Sunday.
Chances of a surprise playoff berth: Better if they shake things up a bit. The return to Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator hasn’t gone as expected. With winnable games against the 2-2 Texans and 0-3-1 Cardinals coming up, the Falcons have a chance to recover from their early stumble in time for season-defining games against the Rams and Seahawks.
WHAT YOU MAY HAVE MISSED: Here’s hoping we’ve seen the last of Vontaze Burfict. … Coordinators and coaches to watch for as head coaching searches begin to percolate. … Appreciating Frank Gore at 15,000 yards.
1. Jon Gruden surprised serial cheap shot artist was suspended for a cheap shot.
2. Which 2019 first-round picks are playing well?
3. Freddie Kitchens: Odell Beckham was choked in Ravens game
4. Brett Favre is in Dak Prescott’s corner, for whatever that is worth.
5. Your dog’s anxiety, much like your own, may be their parents’ fault.
Have the best Wednesday you can possibly have.
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