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NFL Teams that are in trouble after three weeks

This is not going to be an examination of teams off to poor starts, record-wise.  Rather, after looking at some game tape early this week, I am going to comment on teams that may have had some injuries and just have no real chance of living up to expectations this seasons.  If I had done this list a week ago, the Baltimore Ravens may have found their way onto it.  But there’s no better way to excuse yourself from a list of teams that have problems than to go on the road and blow the other team off their home field.  Likewise, I won’t be commenting on how screwed the Colts are because we knew about that a week ago.  This is a list for teams who have expectations that may exceed their ability to meet those expectations.

San Diego Chargers

I can not explain the 2011 San Diego Chargers to you.  It’s a team that looked so good on paper before the season.  Clearly though, TE Antonio Gates hasn’t been right, WR Vincent Jackson isn’t there quite yet, and with WR Malcolm Floyd looking old and the rest of the receiving depth being ravaged by free agency, the result is that QB Philip Rivers has looked very pedestrian this September for the first time in his career.

It’s not that shocking that the defense has totally regressed this season after being down from 2008-09.  It’s also not shocking that their special teams unit is still quite awful, and that kicker Nate Kaeding is out for the season.  The offense though is just difficult to explain.  Rivers has to take a lot of the blame here: he’s just not that comfortable out there.

It would be easy to point the finger at Norv Turner and suggest that this is just a Norv coached team playing like a Norv coached team.  But the truth of the matter is that in the first four years of his tenure in San Diego, the Chargers played like a team that was roughly 15% better than an average team, which they were.  Four consecutive non-losing seasons and three division titles does not sound like a team that underachieves every season.

Now though?  I’m not so sure.  There is a big difference between losing games in various fashions at the beginning of a season; the dreaded “slow start” that the Chargers have come to exemplify, and actually performing poorly.  For the first time in Norv’s tenure, the Chargers are playing like a bad team.  They took 0-3 Minnesota and 0-3 Kansas City to the wire at home.  That’s just not very good.  The Chargers are a good bet to rebound, but average is still a ways away.  This could be a seven win season rather easily.

New England Patriots

Are the Patriots really in trouble after just one loss?  Look, they’re probably going to go to the playoffs, and given a whole season, they should win their division, and they’ll be competitive for the title in the playoffs, etc.  The Pats are still a model organization.  But the Aaron Hernandez injury exposed a major flaw in the Patriots: the fact that their depth is just not at all what we believe it to be.

The Pats defense is bad.  Very bad.  They effortlessly won their first two games with a great offense that no one seems to be able to scheme against.  Only, it’s just that: the Pats lost Hernandez, and the Bills, who gave up 21 points in the first five Patriots drives, and who also have no defense to speak of, had no issue scheming against the Pats.

At the risk of over-simplifying, the Pats drafted two TEs in 2010 (Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski), and those two spearheaded a historic seven game run in the second half of 2010 after the Pats offense really wasn’t that good in the first eight games.  They had great bit players in Danny Woodhead, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Deion Branch.  Wes Welker was the center of the offense.

But throw out just one of the real weapons, and suddenly Wes Welker gets targeted 21 times in one game.  When the Patriots throw 21 passes to Welker against a defense that just isn’t that good, it’s hard to miss the elephant in the room: the Patriots do not have a lot of ways to move the ball when they can’t beat you with formations.  Tom Brady got picked off 4 times in a Pats road loss: unlucky, but not without correlation to the offensive struggles.

The Pats are in trouble because their defense is really bad, and in the games where Tom Brady looks like merely a top ten NFL QB instead of the best QB who hasn’t yet been elected for the hall of fame, the Pats may struggle to even compete this year.

With that said, the Patriots should still beat all weak opponents, and coast to ten wins.  But 1-3 against the Jets and Bills this year is a reasonable possibility.  And at that point, the division title could be in doubt.

New York Jets

The Jets situation is just screaming out for someone to notice that it will be a flat out struggle to win games this year.  The Jets can’t run the ball.  They can’t protect the passer.  Their receivers have looked good against two ravaged secondaries (defined as two or more injuries to corners or safeties during the game), but this is not a team strength overall.  Just like we commented on how the Pats are going to struggle to overcome the loss of Aaron Hernandez, the Jets just lost their second “formation” TE, Jeff Cumberland, to a ruptured Achilles.

The Jets have been trying to scheme around Mark Sanchez’ crappiness for years.  This is probably the year where he gets badly exposed.  Sanchez ranks 27th in ESPN TQBR after three weeks.  Dustin Keller is a nice target in the middle of the field as is Plaxico Burress to the outside.  But for the most part, teams that are smart enough to take Santonio Holmes out of the game turn the Jets into a second rate offense.

Now even though the Raiders made them look bad, I think the Jets defense is going to be fine.  But without the ability to run the ball and control the clock, even decent defensive teams are going to expose Sanchez, and once the luster there wears off, there’s not much meat and potatoes on this roster.  It’s a strong defensive front with a couple of very good LBs and an elite corner.  That’s better than some teams have.  But they remind me of another team: the Cincinnati Bengals.  Right now, the difference between the Bengals and the Jets is simply: special teams.

The Jets have a winning record because they got a critical punt block TD and scored to beat the Cowboys.  That’s the difference between the 2-1 Jets and 1-2 Bengals right now.  Quarterback?  Now you’re splitting hairs.  I’ll expound on this difference (or lack thereof) this Friday.

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys sit right where their fans expected them to sit after their first three games at 2-1 with a road victory over San Francisco.  It’s the way they got there that suggests the Cowboys won’t be competitive this year.

The offense is just not very good.  They can’t run the ball.  The Redskins missed enough assignments in the second half to make the Cowboys look proficient at scoring field goals, but against a disciplined unit, the red zone offense the Cowboys displayed with zero short yardage ability is truly representative of their ability.

The ability of the Washington Redskins to stifle Tony Romo most of the game to the point where he was publicly lauded for converting a single 3rd and 21 on yet another blown assignment from the Redskins is a better sign of the times than the fact that the Cowboys ultimately did win the game.  Now, the Cowboys defense actually looks like a strong unit under DC Rob Ryan, and if they can simply keep Romo in games, the Cowboys will have a shot at being above .500 this year — meeting their expectations.  But I don’t know if even getting Miles Austin back really does that much for the Cowboys at this point.  They have no offensive line, their quarterback is hurt, and their running game is non existent.  Tony Romo and Jason Witten are the offense in its entirety.

If Detroit goes into Dallas this week and knocks the Cowboys flat on their back: something that figures to be much easier for them than it was for Washington, I’m not sure the Cowboys ever recover.  If Dallas can get to 3-1 at home this week, they’ll be sitting pretty in the weakened NFC East.  But with a loss to a Matthew Stafford on their home turf, a 2-2 Cowboys team is probably who we thought they were.

Philadelphia Eagles

The 1-2 Eagles have already recorded a loss to a team (Atlanta) whose only victory came over the Eagles.  The Giants loss is a little more defensible on it’s merits, but even the Giants came in a mediocre team, and left favorites in the NFC East.  This is problematic for an Eagles team many expected to compete for the super bowl.

The problem for Philadelphia is: where do you go from here?  What exactly are your assets?  Michael Vick can’t be an asset if he’s always hurt.  DeSean Jackson, typically not one for catching a high % of footballs thrown to him, isn’t even catching half of footballs thrown to him, a number of those were cold drops.  Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy have been awesome, but even Brent Celek isn’t a good player anymore.  They can’t protect the passer, which is more problematic if Mike Kafka has to play than it is for Vick.  Their defense just hasn’t been very good despite a number of players that would be good in any defense.

With Vick not at all playing well, this is a reality check for the Eagles.  The Eagles are not a very good team.  There’s not a whole lot they can do during the week to become a really good team.  They simply need more out of their quarterback, and they don’t have a lot of help they can dig up to give him.  This is still quite a good receiving corps, and the offensive line is good enough to open gaping holes for Shady McCoy, and basically the Eagles need Vick to play better, and they need their defense to play better.

If neither of those two things happen, we’re talking about a 6 or 7 win team here.  We’re talking about design flaws in Howie Roseman’s dream team.  We’re talking about the end of Andy Reid in Philadelphia.  We’re talking about a disaster season.

Atlanta Falcons

Along with the Jets, I pegged the Falcons for a major decline season this year, and they’re off to a disappointing 1-2 start complete with a blowout loss, and plenty of blown opportunities at Raymond James Stadium this past weekend, combined with a narrow victory at home over a disappointing Eagles team.

The Falcons offense has been dreadful.  The story of the season pretty much boils down to Matty Ice’s ridiculous efficiency in the red zone against Philadelphia pretty much earning the team a win, while that efficiency totally abandoned the Falcons in Tampa.  The truth is that what we saw against the Eagles is probably the only time we’ll see that from the Falcons this year: this is an awful offensive line with a highly overrated group of backs and receivers.  Like I said in the Dallas comment, Michael Turner took advantage of blown assignments by the defense to create big plays and it needs to be pointed out that they’ve gone 1-2 against a slate of three defenses that do not rank in the top 20 in DVOA DESPITE PLAYING THE FALCONS this year.

Matt Ryan’s supporting cast is catastrophically bad this year.  I know people are hot for Julio Jones after he went for 100 yards last week going against the corpse of Ronde Barber, but he’s a rookie receiver, and he’s simply not in A.J. Green’s class, no matter how much the Falcons spent for him.  If Jones move is going to pay off, it’s going to pay off later, not in the here and now.

The Bucs game was one the Falcons needed, and now that the Saints enjoy a one game lead, I don’t expect them to look back this year.  The Atlanta Falcons will not make the playoffs.

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