Barnwell: Ranking 0-2 NFL teams from eliminated to alive ... barely

ByBill Barnwell ESPN logo
Thursday, September 19, 2019

No NFL team plans to start 0-2. Every organization likes to, at the very least, fall in love with a scenario in which it ends up making it to the postseason. Falling to 0-2 is a great way to free up the calendar for January. Since the league went to its current schedule and playoff format in 2002, just 16 of the 140 teams that have started 0-2 went on to make the postseason. That's 11.4%, or roughly one out of every nine. Wouldn't you know that we have nine 0-2 teams in the NFL this season?

Teams don't have to look too far into the recent past to grow hopeful. Last year, two 0-2 teams advanced into the postseason, and when I wrote a version of this column then, one of them was atop the list. I had the 0-2 Houston Texans as my favorite to overcome the odds and advance into the playoffs, which they did even after losing the third game of the season. The bad news is that the team I had as my second favorite was the New York Giants, who beat those Texans in Week 3 and then proceeded to lose five straight. The Seattle Seahawks were the other team to make it out of the basement and into the postseason.

I'll run through the nine winless teams and try to identify what has cost them victories over the first two weeks of the season; if I have any hope they'll turn things around, I'll also detail why. I'll even throw in each team's estimated current chances of making it to the playoffs from ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI). Let's start with the team I have as the least likely to make it to the postseason and work our way up:

Jump to a team:




9. Miami Dolphins

FPI chance to make the playoffs: Less than 0.1%

You probably could have guessed how this list might start. The Dolphins have been outscored 102-10 so far. That minus-92 point differential is tied with the 1973 Saints for the worst by any team through two games in NFL history.

It's one thing to point out that the Dolphins are the first team since 1949 to lose consecutive games by 40 or more points. It's another to point out that they've lost those two games at home. No team had ever lost two home games by 40 or more points in a single season. The Dolphins pulled that feat off in consecutive weeks.

The Dolphins are bad, which is fine; they clearly aren't trying to win games. Is it scary to think that they might get worse as the season goes along? Injuries will hit, and after trading away cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick, it's not difficult to imagine the Dolphins shopping players such as receiver Albert Wilson, running back Kenyan Drake and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in the weeks to come. I'll write about the Dolphins at length later on this season, but they're safely ensconced as the worst team in football. FPI projects the Dolphins with a 5.9% chance of finishing 0-16.

8. Washington

FPI chance to make the playoffs: 1.8%

Washington pieced together a great half to start the season, as it led the Eagles 20-7 in Philadelphia after 30 minutes of Week 1. From that point forward, Washington has been outscored 56-28, and that includes two garbage-time touchdown passes from Case Keenum. You might give Jay Gruden's team some credit for going up against a pair of 2018 playoff teams in the Cowboys and Eagles, but this defense simply isn't playing well.

Both Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz ripped apart the Washington defense throwing downfield. Through two games, Washington has allowed passers to go 7-of-12 for 230 yards with three touchdowns on deep passes, producing a QBR of a perfect 100. The incompletions include an overthrow of an open Nelson Agholor by Wentz and a pair of drops, including a would-be touchdown Michael Gallup seemed to lose in the sun. Two of the three touchdowns have come with Josh Norman as the closest defensive back in coverage, though it looked as if he was expecting help on the 51-yard Devin Smith touchdown in Week 2.

In likely related news, Washington isn't getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. It has faced two excellent offensive lines so far, but Ryan Kerrigan & Co. rank 29th in sack rate (2.8%) and 31st in pressure rate (15.3%) through eight quarters of football. Losing Jonathan Allen has hurt, but Washington has invested too much in its front seven with Kerrigan, Matt Ioannidis, Ryan Anderson and three consecutive first-round picks. If it wants to contend for a postseason berth, the push has to come from this front seven.

Washington also needs to get back star left tackle Trent Williams. The offensive line leads the league with eight holding penalties through two weeks. Donald Penn, who is filling in for Williams, has three penalties already. Williams had only three penalties over entire seasons in 2016 and 2017. Washington's tactic during his holdout has essentially been to pretend he doesn't exist. It hasn't worked.

Its schedule is about to get easier -- three of its next four games are against the Bears, Giants and Dolphins -- but this is a team built to win by controlling the line of scrimmage. Right now, it simply isn't.

7. New York Giants

FPI chance to make the playoffs:0.6%

The Giants finally made their move Tuesday and benched quarterback Eli Manning for first-round pick Daniel Jones, who will make his debut Sunday against the Buccaneers. It's a logical time to insert Jones into the lineup, given that the Giants face a pair of subpar defenses over the next two weekends in Tampa Bay and Washington.

At the very least, Jones should offer the Giants an added element of mobility and keep defenses from stacking the box against running back Saquon Barkley. Remember the fourth-and-1 bootleg the Giants didn't convert against the Cowboys in the red zone in Week 1? Manning simply didn't have the speed to threaten the Cowboys, and when they took away his passing options, he was drowned by a sea of Dallas defenders. One of them even ripped the ball out of his hands on the way down. Jones will make mistakes, but he would have had a viable shot of running his way into a first down there.

Honestly, though, I'm more concerned about the Giants' defense through two weeks. Janoris Jenkins blamed the pass rush after the Bills loss by saying he couldn't cover receivers for 10 seconds, but the rush isn't the only problem.

First-round pick DeAndre Baker has looked absolutely lost on the field in his first two games, and the secondary has blown too many assignments. I covered the unit's dismal performance against the Cowboys when I wrote about Dak Prescott, but it wasn't much better against the Bills. Jones isn't going to fix that, and until the Giants stop blowing coverages (or develop a ferocious pass rush overnight), they're going to be a disaster on defense.

6. Cincinnati Bengals

FPI chance to make the playoffs: 3.6%

Let's start with the good: Zac Taylor's offense has mostly looked impressive through two weeks, although penalties and subpar offensive-line play killed the Bengals against the 49ers. They scored on their second possession, but across the ensuing five drives, they kicked a field goal, threw an interception and faced three third downs with 15 or more yards to go. By that time, the 49ers were up 34-10. The Bengals finished the day with six offensive holding calls during a week in which the NFL threw more flags for holding than any point since the beginning of 2012.

It would be nice to see Taylor's offense with the offensive line the Bengals planned heading into the season, but first-round pick Jonah Williams is on injured reserve and Cordy Glenn is recovering from a concussion. Star wideout A.J. Green remains out indefinitely, and while the popular timeline suggested he would miss six to eight weeks after surgery in late July, he repudiated that estimate this week.

Taylor has inherited former boss Sean McVay's habit of staying in 11 personnel -- nearly 81% of Cincinnati's offensive snaps through two games have come with one running back, one tight end and three wideouts on the field -- and he has managed to unlock multiple long touchdowns for third-year receiver John Ross. Replacing undrafted free agent Damion Willis in those sets with Green could turn this into one of the league's most devastating passing attacks.

Ben Roethlisberger's season-ending injury helps Cincinnati's chances of making a run in the AFC North, but its slate over the next few weeks is difficult. With no timetable for a Green return, Cincy has road games against the Bills, Steelers and Ravens, plus a home game against the Rams before their Week 9 bye, albeit with winnable home games against the Cardinals and Jaguars. If the Bengals can win those two and snatch two victories on the road, they'll be in play for a second-half burst at 4-4, especially if one of those road wins comes against an AFC North rival.

5. Jacksonville Jaguars

FPI chance to make the playoffs: 6.9%

The Jaguars actually have the third-best odds of any team on this list, but it's tough to feel like they're heading in the right direction. While rookie quarterbackGardner Minshew was excellent in relief against the Chiefs and nearly led the Jaguars to a comeback win over the Texans last week, the Mustachioed One went 23-of-33 for just 213 yards, an average of 6.5 yards per attempt, and posted a Total QBR of 30.6. While he completed more than two-thirds of his passes, the Washington State product was running a remarkably conservative scheme. NFL Next Gen Stats predict that a typical quarterback who threw the same passes as Minshew last Sunday would expect to complete 70.9% of those throws, slightly ahead of Minshew's 69.6 mark against Houston.

With Nick Foles on injured reserve, the Jaguars have to get by with Minshew for the next two months. They also might not have Jalen Ramsey on the roster for much longer, given that the wildly talented cornerback asked for a trade from the organization this week. Ramsey, who showed up to camp in a Brinks truck with a hype man, has yet to receive the new contract he desires and got into a shouting match with coach Doug Marrone during the Texans game.

Ramsey is a curious fit for a team led by Tom Coughlin. He's also as good of a cornerback as there is in football, and there's no reason for the Jags to get desperate and accept a lowball offer in a Jadeveon Clowney-style trade. Ramsey is still two years removed from a possible franchise tag. The Florida State product can try to force his way out, but the Jags hold most of the cards here, at least for now. (Given that this is 2019, he's probably going to get traded by Sunday.) It would also be a lot easier for the team to find another person who can coach as well as Marrone than it would be for it to find another cornerback as good as Ramsey.

Every other AFC South team is 1-1, which helps Jacksonville's chances of making a run. It also has gotten its game against Kansas City out of the way, and it will face the Saints without Drew Brees in Week 6. If the Jags can start forcing takeaways against a schedule that includes Marcus Mariota, Joe Flacco,Andy Daltonand as many as three backup quarterbacks over the next six weeks, they could push their way into contention. They'll need Minshew to look more like the quarterback from Week 1, and, as much as Marrone and Coughlin won't want to hear it, they'll probably also need their wantaway cornerback to stick around.

4. Denver Broncos

FPI chance to make the playoffs:6.6%

The Bears would be on this list if it weren't for the last-second heroics of struggling quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and new King of Chicago Eddy Pineiro. The Bears had a win expectancy of just 6% when they took the ball back trailing Denver 14-12 with 31 seconds left, but a roughing the passer call and a fourth-and-15 completion to Allen Robinson set up kicker Pineiro for a game-winning 53-yard field goal. It's hard to imagine Vic Fangio looking any more deflated than the Broncos coach did after seeing his old charges steal a victory in Denver.

Fangio's defense was more impressive in his second week at the helm than it was in Oakland in Week 1. His offense can't say the same. No unit is going to look great against the Bears, and Denver is already down free-agent addition Ja'Wuan James at right tackle, but Garett Bolles is on the verge of becoming a punchline. The 2017 first-round pick was flagged four times for holding on Sunday, which makes five on the year and 26 since entering the league. No other offensive lineman has topped 15 holding penalties over that same time frame. New offensive line coach Mike Munchak needs more than two games with his new left tackle, but the Broncos can't keep running Bolles out there while sticking Joe Flacco in third-and-long all game.

Owing in part to both his middling offensive line and his innate Flacconess, the former Super Bowl MVP has averaged just 5.9 air yards per pass this season, which ranks 30th out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello's scheme was supposed to be an offshoot of the Mike Shanahan attack, but Flacco has just 10 play-action pass attempts over two weeks, and those passes have generated a total of 34 yards. It's unclear whether Scangarello has any faith in his line's ability to keep Flacco upright long enough to successfully execute play-action. More distressingly, it's not clear whether the new offensive coordinator should have any faith.

The Broncos are also the only team in football without a sack through their first two weeks, although they've faced two teams that went out of their way to get the ball out of their quarterbacks' hands quickly. History tells us that Bradley Chubb and Von Miller will get theirs as the season goes along. With the Jaguars, an injury-riddled Chargers team and the Titans coming up over the next three weeks, now would be a good time for the star pass-rushers to get hot.

3. New York Jets

FPI chance to make the playoffs:3.2%

The Jets? The team that looked abysmal on Monday Night Football and is a 23-point underdog against the Patriots this weekend? This line would make the Jets just the ninth team since 1978 to enter a game as an underdog of 20 points or more. Given that the Patriots have looked virtually unbeatable and the Jets will start third-stringerLuke Falk at quarterback, it's almost a sure thing that they will start 0-3. Even if they get Sam Darnold back during the bye week, New York has a trip to Philadelphia before home games against the Cowboys and Patriots. FPI projects that the Jets have close to a 38% chance of starting 0-6. No team has ever started 0-6 and made the playoffs.

Two teams have made it into the postseason after starting 1-5, though, and that list includes the 2018 Colts. You can also infer that FPI believes the Jets are going to pull one upset over that four-week span, with the home game against the Cowboys as the most likely culprit. If they can get Darnold back at close to 100% after their Monday night game against the Patriots in Week 7, they're going to be more competitive than their record suggests.

Why? Consider that the Jets have the second-easiest schedule in football over the final 14 games of the season, and that includes what looks to be a hellish upcoming four games. What does that tell you about the last 10? They will have two games against the Dolphins, a rematch with the Bills, home matchups against the Giants, Raiders and Steelers, and road trips to face the Jags, Bengals, Ravens and Washington. Three of those teams have already made quarterback changes, and it wouldn't be shocking to see three more of those games come against backups by the time New York faces Miami and Washington.

It would be foolish to project the Jets to win all of those games, but crazier things have happened than a team going 8-2 or 9-1 against bad opposition. There are one or two teams that make the playoffs with that sort of run every year, with the Colts and Cowboys as the closest examples from a year ago. It would be easier to make this sort of run in a division in which the Jets had a plausible path to a division title, and it really would have helped if Adam Gase's team had held onto its lead against the Bills in Week 1, but as ugly as the Jets are about to look, their season will come down to what starts happening a month from now.

2. Carolina Panthers

FPI chance to make the playoffs: 4.3%

I wrote about Cam Newton after Week 1 and thought the quarterback was still struggling with his preseason foot injury and battling new mechanics. In Week 2, we saw a quarterback who was injured struggle his way through a loss to the Buccaneers. Newton aggravated his foot injury during the game and couldn't complete simple throws. As The Athletic's Joe Person noted, Newton was 7-of-8 against the Bucs before seemingly reinjuring his foot. The former league MVP went just 18-of-42 afterward.

It's difficult to imagine the Panthers making it to the postseason without a healthy Newton, and we've yet to see the old Cam this season. The good news, I suppose, is that the offense should be working. There are open receivers here. When you look at the expected completion percentage figures from NFL Next Gen Stats, Newton has completed just 56.2% of his passes against an expected completion percentage of 65.5%. The 9.3% difference between those two marks is the largest in football through two games.

Enter backupKyle Allen, and while I doubt that the quarterback who once fended off Kyler Murray at Texas A&M has Newton's upside, the Panthers would benefit from having a healthy quarterback who can hit open receivers right now. We saw Newton's floor in the Bucs game, and that guy was barely playable. Allen's floor is likely to be higher sheerly through his health.

The Panthers' defense is playing pretty well when you consider that they've faced 26 drives so far, second only to the Packers. Carolina's pass defense has allowed just 6.2 yards per attempt through two games, which is impressive considering that it has faced the Rams and Bucs. It is probably going to force more than one takeaway every two weeks, too. Opposing teams have recovered five of the seven fumbles in Panthers games this season.

The Drew Brees injury and the slow start each of the NFC South teams has gone through also help the Panthers, although they've now lost two home games to start the season and don't get to play the Saints until late November, when Brees will likely be back in the lineup. Four of Carolina's next five games are on the road, but its upcoming slate includes the Cardinals, Texans, Jaguars, Buccaneers, 49ers and Titans. It should be able to come out of that run with a few wins.

If the Panthers can get a healthy Newton back into the fold, they should still be in the NFC South race come the second half of the campaign.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

FPI chance to make the playoffs: 7.1%

This has not been a fun week to be a Steelers fan, but I'm not trying to throw them a bone by putting them at the top of these rankings. Nobody could have anticipated that Pittsburgh would start 0-2 and lose Ben Roethlisberger for the rest of the season, but I still think the Steelers have a viable shot at pursuing a postseason berth in the AFC. As horrifically as these first two weeks have gone, this team is too talented to give up on with so much of the season left to go.

My decision here has little to do with Mason Rudolph, who I'm valuing as a below-average starter, given his draft status and height. (As I mentioned in my Roethlisberger piece on Tuesday, if a 6-foot-5 quarterback has NFL-caliber talent, he doesn't fall into the third round.) My hope is that the Steelers have surrounded Rudolph with enough talent on offense to get by, likely with a heavier dose of their running game. It helps that tailbackJames Conner's Week 2 injury has turned out to be relatively minor. And if the team moves on from wide receiverDonte Moncrief, the move could turn out to be addition by subtraction.

I also simply find it tough to believe that a defense that ranked 13th in DVOA in 2018 and addressed its two biggest weaknesses (cornerback and inside linebacker) this offseason is going to be the league's fourth-worst defense by DVOA moving forward. I don't love the trade for cornerbackMinkah Fitzpatrickas a use of a first-round pick, but he's going to be a valuable addition as the Steelers replace Sean Davis, who hit injured reserve this week. Don't give up on this defense just yet.

Five of Pittsburgh's next seven games are at home, which should give Rudolph time to develop in front of a friendlier crowd. One of those games comes in Week 5 against the Ravens, who lead the Steelers by two games in the North. Losing that game would be deleterious to the Steelers' chances of winning the division. Given that the Ravens are 6.5-point underdogs at the Chiefs this week and then play Cleveland in Week 4, the Steelers could pick up a vital tiebreaker if they beat their archrivals.

Baltimore's defense looked great against Miami in Week 1, but it shed five starters during the offseason and has already lost starting cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young to injuries. Kyler Murray averaged 8.7 yards per attempt against the Ravens in Week 2, and better passing teams are going to test Baltimore in the weeks to come. If Rudolph can exceed expectations quickly, the Steelers could be back on track quicker than it seems now.

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