|From left to right: Mark Sanchez, Carson Palmer and Jay Cutler all quarterback three-loss teams.|
It didn't take much homework to realize three losses by Week 8 puts a team in a tough spot for a Super Bowl run. It took even less to conclude that it's still plenty possible.
Can any of this season's three-loss teams turn it around like Green Bay did after the seventh week of the season? I'll take my best guess at which squads stand a chance.
SUPER BOWL CONTENDERS
Signature Win: Week 3, Jets, 34-24. The Jets pride themselves on being a tough-nosed defense that doesn't shy away from a dirty game on the ground. So when Darren McFadden pounded it down their throats for 171 yards and two touchdowns, it didn't just send a message to New York. It sent one to the whole league: The Raiders are for real.
Telling Loss: Week 4, Patriots, 31-19. A few disclaimers here: I'm throwing out the 28-0 loss to the Chiefs. Yes, it's an excuse, but I can't blame Oakland for losing a game after the ridiculous amount of distractions it had to deal with leading into this game. To suggest a loss is "telling" when a newly-acquired quarterback plays with only three practices under his belt wouldn't be fair. So we'll go with the Patriots' loss here -- only because it shows Oakland still needs to make progress before it can hang with the best.
Ring Theory: I haven't expected this much from the Raiders since I was abusing defenses with No. 34 in Tecmo Bowl. I like Hue Jackson, and I believe Carson Palmer is an upgrade over Jason Campbell. I don't mind a three-loss team that dropped two games to solid squads like the Patriots and the Bills. While I still have concerns about a vulnerable pass defense that's given up way too many points, the Raiders' offense has a chance to carry this team until the defense tightens up. So just win, baby!
Signature Win: Week 4, Panthers, 34-29. A big season-opening win against the Falcons became diluted by two subsequent losses to the Saints and the Packers, so getting past the Panthers went a long way toward validating the Bears as the team that made a sound first impression. Thanks to running back Matt Forte's 205 rushing yards, the Bears were back on track. For a week.
Telling Loss: Week 5, Lions, 24-13. The Bears wouldn't even be included in this three-loss conversation had they managed to keep the momentum going by picking up a marquee win against Detroit. But like their two other games against the Saints and the Packers, the defense was outmatched by an elite quarterback and an elite running back. Cutler and Forte did fine, but they were outdone by Matt Stafford and Jahvid Best.
Ring Theory: The Bears might be the most deserving of the league's respect of any of the three-loss teams. Their three losses came to three of the NFL's hottest squads in the Packers, Saints and Lions. While Chicago needs to prove capable of a deep postseason run by bouncing an elite team, there's plenty of time to grow. This is an easy pick for the playoffs. Once they get there, though, it's a whole different set of questions.
Signature Win: Week 7, Chargers, 27-21. Forget the Week 6 win against the Dolphins. Sure, it built confidence. But it was a facade. The most recent win, against the Chargers, was the first true sign that New York might be back on track. Down 21-10 at halftime, the Jets' season could have spiraled down the drain. Instead, 17 unanswered points against a decent Chargers team might have been the high point of the season.
Telling Loss: Week 4, Ravens, 34-17. Baltimore returned two fumbles and an interception for three touchdowns. Mark Sanchez had a passer rating of 30.5, completing just 11 of 35 passes. The ground game added just 38 yards on 19 carries. Although the defense was adequate, the offense was awful. Combined with a loss to the Raiders a week earlier, the heat was on.
Ring Theory: I'm still skeptical of the Jets, as I've been all season. But every Super Bowl squad has its turning point. Can't you just picture the storylines at the Super Bowl? The overcoming adversity in Weeks 5 and 6? At the risk of buying into this team too early, a post-bye win against the Bills in Week 9 would be massive.
THE BELIEVABLE UNDERDOG
Signature Win: Week 7, Lions, 23-16. Even if it's nothing more than proof that it can defeat one of the NFL's top teams on the road, Atlanta's most recent win certainly provided a major boost of confidence heading into the bye week. The Falcons are nicely situated for a playoff run, but if the Saints maintain their pace, Atlanta can't let off the pedal in what surely will be a tight wild-card race.
Telling Loss: Week 3, Bucs, 16-13. If the Falcons are going to ascend to an elite team, something they're fully capable of accomplishing, they'll need to make sure to maintain their grip on this rivalry. The Bucs are also young and talented, but Atlanta (which won the five previous matchups) needs to stay ahead of the curve. They turned it over three times in this game and Matt Ryan was sacked four times.
Ring Theory: The NFC South is turning into a very solid division, and the youth on the rosters of the Falcons and the Bucs should make it that way for years to come. The Falcons, with one of the league's elite personnel departments, are poised to make a playoff run for several seasons. But if they're going to make a postseason run, they still have some consistency issues to work out, particularly on defense. Still, it's very tough to count them out, especially nearing the midway point.
Signature Win: Week 7, Titans, 41-7. There's nothing quite like routing a division rival, on the road no less, especially when it stops a two-game skid. Maybe most importantly, the Texans proved for the first time that they can still win without wide receiver Andre Johnson.
Telling Loss: Week 6, Ravens, 29-14. It wasn't so much that the Texans lost. Heck, they were ahead of a solid Ravens team at one point during the third quarter. They were also down only 19-14 during the fourth quarter. But that's the problem: When are the Texans going to get over that hump? When are they going to learn how to win a close, critical game like this one?
Ring Theory: I'm like many others who keep expecting the Texans, maybe as much as any team in the NFL, to break into the crop of elite teams. They've got arguably the best receiver in the league, last year's rushing champion and a fantastic quarterback. So quit teasing us, Houston. Get Johnson back to health (he should return this week) and go make a run at this thing!
Signature Win: Week 2, 49ers, 27-24 (OT). This might go down as one of his best games in the up-and-down career of Tony Romo. Playing with a fractured rib, Romo was inspirational as the Cowboys finished the job with a 77-yard completion to Jesse Holley on the first play of overtime to set up the game-winning field goal. It provided vindication after a bad collapse one week earlier against the Jets.
Telling Loss: Week 6, Patriots, 20-16. It wasn't so much that this was a bad loss -- only that it was a complicated one. After fourth-quarter inconsistencies that led to previous losses, Romo didn't get the chance to win this game late. Instead, coach Jason Garrett chose to put the ball in Tom Brady's hands with more than two minutes to play. Time for the trust to be restored.
Ring Theory: When I recently mentioned on Twitter my belief that the Cowboys' roster is loaded with enough talent to make a real playoff run, NFL Network's Albert Breer (who used to cover the 'Boys) chimed in with a good point: Dallas has always had talent. This team has always been missing something else, which is something Breer says Garrett needs to figure it out. This is a veteran team, and it's time for it to play like one. Which means playing with consistency. Can they do it? Before the win over the crowd, it's clear they'll need to prove it first.
Signature Win: Week 6, Saints, 26-20. The Bucs pulled themselves back into a tie with the Saints because of this win, even if they relented that lead a week later. But hanging around the top of the division is obviously key -- something the Bucs managed to do with such a critical win. Just as important, Josh Freeman was able to bounce back from a bad loss by throwing for 303 yards and two touchdowns.
Telling Loss: Week 5, 49ers, 48-3. Maybe the 49ers are just that good? Maybe Alex Smith was just on fire with his three touchdown passes? Maybe Frank Gore was feeling the energy, too? The Bucs better hope that's the case, because this was one terrible performance. Freeman never found his flow and the Bucs looked like a bye week did more to get them out of sync than to freshen their legs.
Ring Theory: The Bucs don't make sense. They get scorched by 48-3 after three consecutive wins. Then, they bounce back with a major victory against the Saints. Where did that loss to the 49ers come from? Was it a total aberration? Should it be forgotten -- even though there's no obvious reason to forget it (see: Raiders lose 28-0 to Chiefs)? Tampa Bay is a team on the rise, without question. But that bad loss leaves a strange funk in the air -- one that can't resonate into the postseason when one hiccup sends you home.
STILL NOT CONVINCED
Signature Win: Week 1, Giants, 28-14. The Redskins have their faults, of course. But when they get consistent play from their quarterback, they seem capable of some real success. That was the case in Week 1, when Rex Grossman justified winning the starting job with a pair of touchdown passes that provided Washington with a big division win to start the season.
Telling Loss: Week 7, Panthers, 33-20. After the Redskins yanked the short leash on Grossman, who helped get the team off to a 3-1 start, their first experience with John Beck didn't provide a whole lot of hope for the future. Beck completed 23 of 37 passes for 279 yards with a TD and a pick. Not horrible. But not exactly the answer that provides immediate confidence moving forward.
Ring Theory: Much like a few other teams in the NFC East, the Redskins are a constant puzzle to figure out. They don't feel as far away from a postseason berth than might have been expected heading into the season, but the one prediction made by many seems to be coming true: The ultimate success will be dictated by the quarterback position. Can Beck or Grossman get it done? That's a question that's going to take more than seven weeks to conclude.
Signature Win: Week 2, Ravens, 26-13. Wait, the Titans beat the Ravens? Really? Hard to remember it -- or believe it -- only seven weeks deep. But it's true. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck chewed up a defense that clearly was anticipating more from running back Chris Johnson. Here's the problem: Johnson still isn't performing like his old self, and teams are no longer respecting him as much. With all due respect, no way Baltimore loses this game if it's played today.
Telling Loss: Week 7, Texans, 41-7. You can't lose this badly at home to a divisional foe without losing some serious confidence, particularly when Johnson continued to struggle badly with 10 carries for 18 yards. This is a bad sign for Tennessee. Not just because it lost one game, but because Johnson's early-season woes are looking more like a trend than an outlier.
Ring Theory: I'll admit it: I'm shocked by Johnson's struggles. He's not the same player as he was last season, and I'm guessing I'm not alone when I start to wonder just how seriously he took this offseason. Maybe it's just taking him way too long to get started, but if he takes much longer, he's going to knock his team right out of contention. If he finds his groove, though, it could change everything.
SELL, SELL, SELL!
Signature Win: Week 2, Colts, 27-19. Before the drama heated up around Peyton Hillis, he provided some decent optimism with 94 yards and two touchdowns against the Colts. It wasn't spectacular (3.4 yards per carry), but it made you think the Browns could compete. But that was before we realized just how bad Indianapolis would be without Manning.
Telling Loss: Week 4, Titans, 31-13. Crashing back to reality after a 2-1 start, the Browns employed quarterback Colt McCoy to throw 61 -- 61! -- times in a bad loss. Meanwhile, Hillis carried just 10 times for 46 yards. The game plan clearly didn't work, given Cleveland's offense didn't score its first touchdown until the fourth quarter.
Ring Theory: Hillis has carried just 16 times for 60 yards since that win against the Colts. The Browns have once again begun their slide toward irrelevance, regardless of their boring 6-3 win against the Seahawks. No chance here. See you next year.
Signature Win: Week 7, Raiders, 28-0. Um, yeah. See above.
Telling Loss: Week 1, Bills, 41-7. The Chiefs aren't quite as bad as this defeat indicated, which is a good thing considering it was the most lopsided season-opening loss in franchise history and the worst home loss in 35 years. But this loss was still a pretty proper indication of their postseason outlook.
Ring Theory: It'd probably be easy to glance at Kansas City's results -- three consecutive losses followed by three consecutive wins -- and assume they're the most likely three-loss team to chase a Super Bowl. They've bounced back, right? Not exactly. Their three wins are against two losing squads (the Vikings and Colts) and a team dealing with a quarterback transition (the Raiders). A win might be a win -- but it's going to take a few more impressive ones to change the vibe.
Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington