Every season, there are playoff teams previous season who do not return The reasons vary. Sometimes it was just a fluke, a combination of an easy schedule and overachievement that are hard to duplicate. Maybe it’s injuries decimating a roster that was fully healthy the year before. Sometimes it’s unexplainable. On average, five to six of the twelve playoff teams are replaced by new qualifiers. This year looks to be no different, but with a twist. Two teams that started off 5-0 last year and were looking like the next teams up for 2013 are now on the outside looking in, mired with sub-.500 records and difficult schedules ahead. And two more teams that snuck in last year look to have had the door slammed on them already just five weeks in. Can they recover, or are they all doomed?
Atlanta (1-4 vs. 5-0 in 2012) – The Falcons were a questionable pass interference non-call away from going to the Super Bowl last year. They came into 2013 with high expectations, adding running back Steven Jackson and pass rusher Osi Umenyiora to a lineup that went 13-3 last season. They had out of conference games in 2013 against projected bottom feeders like the NY Jets and Buffalo Bills and division games against teams that were likely to struggle (Carolina, Tampa Bay) or were past their prime (New Orleans). All in all, there were two games on their schedule that you would have deemed as impossible, road games against the Packers and Niners. And yet here they stand at 1-4 with a loss to one of the teams they were supposed to beat handily (the Jets).
What’s going wrong? Look at the defense. So far they are 28th in passing TDs given up (vs. first last season) and 21st in scoring defense (down from fifth in 2012). There are also injuries to Jackson and receiver Roddy White. Jackson has only played two games and White has tried to tough it out but only has 14 catches for 129 yards after five games. Their point differential has gone from +7 to -3, and their takeaway/giveaway disparity has fallen from +10 over their first five games in 2012 to -2 over five games in 2013. There have also been some truly bad playcalling decisions in the past two weeks, from the final sequence against the Patriots in week 4 to some really stupid fourth down calls in week five.
The prospects for a turnaround? On the bright side, their four losses are by a combined 19 points and none were blowouts; they could easily be 5-0 right now. They have seven games against teams that are doing bad so far this season, and two of their four tougher opponents have to come to Atlanta (Seattle and New Orleans). If White gets back to 100% and Jackson comes back the offense will be better. Also, the second wildcard spot looks to be up for grabs among teams that are at or under .500; a quick turnaround would put them right back in the hunt for that. On the dark side, the Saints are out to a 5-0 start and the division is pretty much out of reach. They still have to run the table against the seven weaker opponents just to get to eight wins and get two wins from the Niners, Packers, Seahawks, and Saints. I wouldn’t bet on them getting back to the playoffs. (Update: Julio Jones is out for the season. They have no chance now.)
Houston (2-3 vs. 5-0 in 2012) – Like the Falcons, the Texans had high hopes coming into 2013. The team that beat them in the playoffs, New England was looking like it would not be a playoff force in 2013 and the Super Bowl Champion Ravens were rebuilding. They only had rival in their division, a Colts team that is young and not quite ready to do more than just qualify for the playoffs. The rest of the conference was looking weak outside of the Denver Broncos. They added Ed Reed to the pass defense; Super Bowl talk wasn’t considered ludicrous. And they’re 2-3, with two of the three losses coming in blowouts (by 21 to Baltimore and 31 to San Francisco). In their division the Colts are 4-1 and the Tennessee Titans are a surprising 3-2. And there are games looming ahead with the 5-0 Broncos and Chiefs, 4-1 Patriots, and two games in division against the Colts.
What’s wrong? Matt Schaub has been terrible at quarterback going from an 8 to 2 TD to int ratio in 2012 to 8/9 this season after five games. He has four straight games with a pick six. The rushing offense was 7th in 2012; right now they are 27th. The turnover differential has gone from +8 after five games in 2012 to -8 after five games in 2013. And the point differential has gone from 26-21 for all of 2012 to 19-28 for the first five games of 2013. And health isn’t really an issue. Other than Ed Reed, their major players are all there. The mix just isn’t working and unlike the Falcons they aren’t a few plays away from not being mentioned in this piece. You flip their winnable losses and they’re 3-2 instead of 2-3. Any hope? I say no in this case also. Like the Falcons, they have to seep their winnable games just to get to 8 wins, then have to add at least 2 wins from the Broncos/Colts/Chiefs quartet of games. Given the way they’re playing now, that’s a pretty tall order.
The others (Minnesota and Washington) – Both teams squeaked in last year, the Redskins a little more decisively. Both are 1-3 right now. Both have suffered in both the running and passing game on offense, and the Redskins defense has been particularly awful. The Vikings play in the toughest division in the league with three other teams who are legit playoff contenders, and the Redskins have a pretty rough schedule the rest of the way (Chiefs and Broncos, 49ers and Bears all loom ahead along with division games against the Cowboys). Coming back under those circumstances is a very tall order given the level at which they are currently playing and the number of wins they would need just to get back in the hunt. It looks for all intents and purposes, these two teams and the contenders above are done for 2013.