It is not quite time to hit the panic button. Recently, the Giants, Ravens, and Packers all had up-and-down regular seasons before backing into the playoffs with a wild card. From there, each of these teams caught lightning in a bottle and marched all the way to the Super Bowl. It goes without saying that this season will include freak injuries, botched calls, and untimely turnovers, which make the difference between 7-9 and 9-7.
In most cases, 9-7 will be good enough for the playoffs. Now, there are still some dangerous teams with losing records, largely due to tough schedules to start the year. By midseason, each of these five talented rosters will likely emerge as the proverbial “team nobody wants to play” through the backstretch of the season and into the playoffs. These are the NFL teams with losing records that shouldn’t lose hope just yet — ranked from least to most likely to experience success in the postseason.
5. New York Giants
The New York Giants and Eli Manning wrote the playbook on struggling through an inconsistent regular season and somehow doing just enough to earn a playoff berth. In the playoffs, Eli will suddenly catch fire and light up the competition on the road to the Super Bowl. In 2007, the Giants lost their first two games of the season, en route to going 10-6. From there, the Giants won three playoff games on the road. Manning pirouetted and threw the helmet catch in Super Bowl XLII, while the then-undefeated Patriots stared down “18-1.” Four years later, in 2011, Manning was back at it again, to lead a 9-7 New York club to a Super Bowl XLVI win over the Patriots.
The 2016–17 New York Giants are now 2-3 after dropping three straight to the Redskins, Vikings, and Packers. Odell Beckham, Jr. marred this frustrating stretch even further by pacing the sidelines, throwing a temper tantrum, and hurling his helmet into the kicking net. Unfortunately for Beckham, the kicking net hit right back, and the star wide receiver ended up taking a self-inflicted shot to the face. For weeks, opposing defenses have successfully baited Beckham into altercations, which take him out of his game and knock the Giants out of rhythm.
Expect New York’s offense to click on all cylinders by the final stretch of the regular season. Back-to-back dates against the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns will serve as tuneups for a final playoff push. The NFC East, as usual, will be wide open. Carson Wentz and the Eagles will likely crash back to Earth, while the Cowboys will run on a collision course of quarterback controversy between Dak Prescott and Tony Romo. The Giants close out their season with three games in four weeks against NFC East foes. With Manning going over the top to Victor Cruz and Beckham on the outside, they can make a move.
4. Indianapolis Colts
Houston rolled the dice this offseason, signing Brock Osweiler to a four-year, $72 million deal. They tasked the young QB with managing the game, while J.J. Watt and a dominant defense kept opposing offenses in check. At first, this formula seemed to work well, with the Texans starting the season at 2-0. Next, New England’s third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett blew them out, and then Minnesota humiliated them two weeks later. Watt is now out for the season, while Osweiler is exposed after panicking in the face of blitzing linebackers and forcing sidearm passes into double coverage.
Against this backdrop, a Week Six showdown in Houston slates the Colts and Texans against one another, with control over the AFC South on the line. With a win, Indianapolis can claw themselves back to .500 and turn around a season that started off at 0-2. Certainly, team officials and players are aware of head coach Chuck Pagano sitting on the hot seat; they will come out and play inspired ball. The Colts’ defense is an abomination this year, ranking 30th in both yards and scoring allowed. Coverage breakdowns plague the secondary, with Antonio Cromartie filling in for an injured Vontae Davis. This situation will correct itself, with Davis returning to the lineup after Week 4.
Just like old times with Peyton Manning, these Colts can roll over a weak AFC South. Andrew Luck can run up the score in front of his bend-but-don’t-break defense. The Colts do rank seventh in points scored at 27 points per game. T.Y. Hilton has quietly emerged as one of the better deep threats in all of football, while Frank Gore is still shows some burst, even at 33 years old. The Colts will host the Jags for the final game of the season, which will lock up their playoff spot.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
Before the arrival of Marvin Lewis, people mocked the Bungles as a bottom-feeding franchise for years. They were mostly notable for perennial losing, draft busts, ugly uniforms, and extensive rap sheets. However, Lewis arrived in Ohio and installed his own swarming defense to back the precision passing of Andy Dalton. The Cincinnati Bengals are now one of the best at working the draft. A depth of young talent at every position is no issue for this roster.
The Bengals have made the playoffs through five consecutive seasons. Last year, the Red Rifle made “the leap,” and began to aggressively take shots downfield instead of simply managing the game. For 2015, Dalton completed 66% of his passes for 3,250 yards and 25 touchdowns, before fracturing his thumb and being ruled out for the year in Week 14. Then, Cincinnati self-destructed in the wild-card round at home with A.J. McCarron at the controls. Many sadly acknowledge that Marvin Lewis (0-7) and Andy Dalton (0-5) have yet to win one playoff game.
Cincinnati is now 2-3 and heading to New England, while facing both Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the brutal AFC North. After New England, the Bengal schedule will improve greatly, with two dates against Cleveland still on deck. At the same time, Baltimore will close out its year on the road at New England, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati. The Bengals can sneak into the playoffs with a wild card — if they can win this home showdown against Baltimore.
2. Arizona Cardinals
Year after year, analysts simply forget about the Arizona Cardinals. First, Arizona is more than 2,000 miles removed from major East Coast media markets. Next, the Cards share a division with the Seahawks, a franchise that made the Super Bowl twice in the past of three seasons, while the rah-rah Pet Carroll slaps high fives on the sidelines. This year, the sporting world turned its attention to the rebirth of professional football in Los Angeles, and whether or not Jared Goff will finally get off the end of the bench.
The Cards, against this backdrop, are now 2-3. Carson Palmer is one season removed from playing the best football of his life. Last year, the 37-year-old completed 64% of his passes for 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns to drive the Cards to 13-3 and a date in the NFC Championship Game. This offseason, Arizona picked up Chandler Jones to fill a glaring need for quarterback pressure. They also groomed David Johnson and John Brown to lead their respective running back and wide receiver positions.
This season, David Johnson is shredding defenses for five yards per carry. In Week 2, the Cardinals showcased their boundless potential, with a 40-7 beatdown of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. For this game, Palmer went over the top for 304 yards and three touchdowns, while Larry Fitzgerald turned back the clock to haul in 10 catches. On the other side of the football, the Honey Badger unleashed to make plays all over the field, and Patrick Peterson came up with a pick to shut down the Tampa Bay offense.
Fans should expect more explosions like this out of Arizona as the season progresses, especially if Carson Palmer can stay healthy and limit his turnovers. Moving forward, the Cards must win two out of three games on the road at Carolina, Minnesota, and Atlanta to earn an NFC wild-card berth.
1. Carolina Panthers
Last year, the Panthers ripped off 14 straight wins before their first loss in Atlanta. Cam Newton experienced a season for the ages, completing 60% of his passes for 3,837 yards and 35 touchdowns through the air. He racked up 636 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. The 27-year-old, however, ran into a brick wall in Super Bowl 50. The Broncos laid out the blueprint for shutting Newton down. It starts with relentless pressure off the edge, with ends and outside backers who can contain the pocket. Next, corners will be in press coverage, while linebackers and safeties zone the middle of the field. As a quarterback with some accuracy issues, Cam must force the football into tight windows .
For 2016, the Panthers are 1-4 after dropping three straight. Cam is bloodied, but unbowed, after taking numerous cheap shots out in space, and missing action due to concussion protocol. To right the ship, the Panthers can go ground-and-pound behind the likes of Cameron Artis-Payne and Jonathan Stewart. The defensive unit should also bring more heat as the season wears on — to make up for the loss of Josh Norman.
Last year, the Atlanta Falcons opened the season at 5-0, before dropping eight out of their next 11 games to close out the year at 8-8. Against this backdrop, there are still lingering doubts as to whether or not this 4-1 Atlanta club is for real. The Panthers do have one last home date against Atlanta, scheduled for Week 15. By then, no one will want to play Carolina, and they can lock up another NFC South title. Expect Cam to go play-action in the red zone and roll to his right while Greg Olsen flashes open across the back of the end zone with the season on the line.