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Doctor is in to prescribe remedies for underachieving teams

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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There were five undefeated teams a year ago at this time. Today there are none.

That makes the race to the playoffs a lot tighter than last season, when the Saints, Colts, Vikings, Giants, and Broncos were all sitting at 5-0.


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A lot of teams that got preseason hype aren't living up to the billing. Granted, they have performed below expectations, but no team is out of the playoff hunt -- even if they sit at 0-5. Just ask 49ers owner and president Jed York, who still expects his team to win the NFC West.

The Cardinals are three games ahead of the Niners with 11 to play, but a comeback is not unprecedented. At the end of six weeks last year, the Chargers were four games behind the Broncos, and San Diego still won the AFC West. The Titans lost their first six, but won eight of their final 10 and just missed the playoffs.

Below is a look at eight teams I picked in the preseason to make the playoffs and, in the case of seven, win their divisions. I'll offer an assessment of where they are now and a prognosis of where they go from here.

Alphabetically, here's a look at the issues facing these teams:

Bengals: Step up the pass rush

Diagnosis: Injuries have not played a big role in their 2-3 record. Defensive tackle Jonathan Fanene has been out, but the Bengals seem to be solid on defense except for the pass rush. Cincinnati only has six sacks, which is a pace of 19 for the season after having 34 last year. ... The Bengals have not been a good third-down offense at 33.8 percent. ... The receivers have dropped nine passes overall, and Carson Palmer doesn't look like he's on the same page with his receivers.

Prognosis: The passing game looks better when it is a quick-rhythm package from the no-huddle, and more of that seems the way to go. ... Get rid of an NFL worst 12 false starts. ... As for the defense, with the excellent corners on the roster, I would consider more pressure calls and don't rely on the four-man rush to get the job done. The Bengals use pressure calls about 30-35 percent on third down, so it might be time to bump that up another 10 percent. ... Right now it looks like Cincinnati will struggle to make the playoffs.

Cowboys: Leaders need to emerge

Diagnosis: The Cowboys are only averaging 20 points a game, and the pressure from being 0-2 at home is starting to mount. ... It seems like they don't close out drives, especially when you consider they have had 10 possessions of at least 10 plays but only 17 points to show for it. ... Their offense is not balanced between the run and pass, yet they made strides to fix that last week. The first down calls are now 50/50. ... Penalties have been a major factor, with 50 called against them in four games. When it comes to explosive plays of 20 yards or more, all indications are that they are right on pace to match last year, when they were No. 2 in the NFL.

Prognosis: What's needed in Dallas appears to be more of a mental issue. The real leaders have to take over. Tony Romo and the other veterans have to take ownership of this team and play with a chip on their shoulders. ... Start by eliminating all the holding penalties and false starts on offense. ... Dallas has only played four games and it can jump right back in the race.

Keep on running
The Packers lost starting running back Ryan Grant for the season, but why they've abandoned the running game with Brandon Jackson and Co. is a bit of a mystery. More ...

Packers: Weather the injury storm

Diagnosis: The Packers are plagued with injuries. Ryan Grant (ankle) is on injured reserve, and Atari Bigby (ankle) and Al Harris (knee) began the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list. Add Nick Barnett (wrist), Jermichael Finley (knee), Brandon Chillar (shoulder) and a concussion to Aaron Rodgers, and they are a mash unit. ... The Packers' defense has 21 sacks, which is well ahead of the 37 they had last year. ... Green Bay averages over 100 yards rushing a game, its sixth in scoring with 119 points, and the pass protection is improved with Rodgers being sacked once out of every 20 attempts, as compared to last year's one in 11.

Prognosis: Weather the injury storm, and consider a trade for a running back next time a guy like Marshawn Lynch is available. ... The two games against the Vikings will define their path. ... Any more significant injuries, and the season is in jeopardy.

Colts: Defense must do its part

Diagnosis: The Colts also have the injury bug to blame for their slow start. They are thin at safety and seem to have health issues every week. ... Peyton Manning is still holding up his end of the bargain, leading the league with 11 touchdown passes, but they don't have one run over 20 yards. ... The defense has already given up five rushing touchdowns and six passing scores.

Prognosis: The offense continues to come out in the no-huddle spread attack with an emphasis on the quick passing game and some more run plays mixed in. The young receivers are doing well, but there has also been more than 10 drops, which has to get cleaned up. ... All four teams in the division have the same record, and the winner could do it with 10 victories.

Distracted, disinterested
The Minnesota Vikings find themselves in an unexpected 1-3 hole, and there's a certain, obvious aging quarterback at the heart of the matter, writes Steve Wyche. More ...

Vikings: Favre has to find rhythm

Diagnosis: Brett Favre is a year older, and it shows in his mobility. ... Acquiring Randy Moss offsets the loss of Sidney Rice. He will help the deep passing game and open up some running lanes for Adrian Peterson. ... Minnesota has only scored 63 points (15.8 per game). ... Favre threw 34 touchdown passes last year and only has five to date, which equates to 19 for the season. ... There are concerns about the pass rush. Last year the Vikings led the NFL with 48 sacks, and this year they have just six after four games.

Prognosis: The Bears and Packers are having their own problems right now, and the Vikings could get back in the race with two games against both division rivals still on the schedule. ... Favre must eliminate the interceptions (seven) and the sacks (10), and the offense has to stop beating itself. ... The pass rush has to come alive. If Minnesota can get to .500 before Rice's return, then it will be a very dangerous team down the stretch and still could win the division.

Saints: Bush loss big

Diagnosis: The Saints have injury issues, with Reggie Bush being the biggest one. His absence affects the explosive plays, the matchup problems for opponents and encourages teams to blitz more. ... Also injured is corner Tracy Porter (out three to four weeks with a knee injury) and safety Darren Sharper, who is on the PUP list. ... The offense is scoring 12 fewer points a game and producing about 100 yards fewer than last season. ... WR Marques Colston has yet to catch a touchdown. ... The team only produces 75 yards rushing a game. ... The 2009 Saints did a better job scoring off turnovers when they generated 141 points. To date, they have 16.

Prognosis: A guy like RB Chris Ivory has to blossom and handle some of the things Bush did. ... New Orleans is one game behind Atlanta, and I get no sense of panic coming out of New Orleans. The rematch with the Falcons on Dec. 27 in Atlanta could be for the division title.

Chargers: Fix special teams, problem solved

Diagnosis: The Chargers have had two holdouts, but they get left tackle Marcus McNeill back, which should limit the increase in sacks from last year. ... Special teams have prevented San Diego from being 5-0 instead of 2-3. This team has been in this situation before and knows how to fight its way out. ... They are 0-3 on the road, but there are some very good signs that things will turn around. ... They are No. 1 in yards per pass attempt, which has always been a solid indicator of success. Philip Rivers is tied with Manning for the most touchdown passes (11). The offense has more plays of at least 20 yards (37) than any team in the NFL. ... The defense already has 18 sacks without any help from Shawne Merriman.

Prognosis: The Chargers clean up the special teams and win the division title. If they have to use more starters on special teams, so be it. I remember Bill Parcells using Carl Banks and Lawrence Taylor when he had to.

49ers: Playmakers needed

Diagnosis: The 49ers were an 8-8 team last year that happened to sweep the division champs (Arizona), and when Kurt Warner retired the Niners were anointed the team to beat. ... QB Alex Smith is under siege, but there is no real alternative on the roster. ... The rushing situation isn't much better at 78 yards per game. ... San Francisco is playing two rookies on the offensive line, and the inexperience shows. ... The Niners were a 2-6 road team a year ago and are 0-3 at this point. ... They were 24th in yards per pass attempts last season and sit in the 24th spot again this year. ... The defense has given up nine touchdown passes, and coach Mike Singletary is feeling his way through the job.

Prognosis: They need to pass more to Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree. Davis has been targeted 30 times, with 19 receptions and no real drops. I would like to see him targeted 10 times a game instead of six. As for Crabtree, he gets targeted five times a game and has just 11 receptions. Double his targets and keep working the quick-slant game. ... Stop giving points away off turnovers (43 in five games).

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