Heading into this season, the San Francisco 49ers were viewed as sure title contenders brimming with potential. Now, after a 1-2 start, folks are asking if the Niners actually are on the brink of disaster.
I looked at seven teams coming off surprising or disappointing losses in Week 3 in an effort to get a handle on just how bad things are for them. These teams were all thought to be competitive at worst and elite at best, but all -- with one (lucky) exception -- have losing records, calling into question any preseason visions they might have had of playoff berths and postseason success.
Here's my take on each squad's biggest area of weakness. Teams are ranked in order from least likely to make the playoffs to most likely.
1) New York Giants
The Giants have an outstanding organization and coaching staff, and I think that led lots of folks to believe they could win in 2013. But just three weeks into the season, Big Blue looks doomed; I really don't see how New York can salvage a playoff spot at this point.
The Giants' problems seem to stem from their offensive line. Right now, that unit is just not very good. Everyone who came back from 2012 is a year older. Rookie Justin Pugh has not been much of a factor at right tackle. This has significantly hindered New York's ground game, which has, in turn, hurt Eli Manning. (Of course, the fact that the unit has allowed 11 sacks certainly hasn't helped the signal-caller, either.) The trouble is, if there's a scarcity of talent at any position in the NFL -- even more so than at quarterback -- it's among offensive linemen; there just aren't enough good ones to go around.
That's all on top of the 2012 contributors who either didn't come back (Martellus Bennett, Osi Umenyiora, Ahmad Bradshaw, Chris Canty) or have had a reduced presence (Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck). And then there's Manning's bad luck. The somewhat fluky pick by Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman DeMarcus Ware -- almost 99 percent of the time, a defensive lineman will drop or merely tip a ball like that -- on Manning's first pass attempt of the year seemed to set the tone for his season.
2) Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers have shown themselves to be vulnerable to the ravaging forces of age and the salary cap, thanks in large part to a recent rough patch when it comes to drafting new talent.
Consider that, in 2010, Pittsburgh passed on Sean Lee -- who is now starring for the Cowboys at middle linebacker -- to take Jason Worilds, who has started just 11 games, including one this season, since entering the league. Last year's top two draft picks -- first-rounder David DeCastro and second-rounder Mike Adams -- have not played up to the kinds of expectations that made them sought-after prospects. That's not the kind of early round return that the Steelers, who historically have drafted very well, are used to getting.
The dearth of young talent makes it tough to buttress older, slower veterans (like Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor) or replace injured stars (like Maurkice Pouncey) and salary-cap casualties (like Mike Wallace and James Harrison). Thus, we have troubling statistical indicators like a minus-9 turnover differential or a sacks-allowed pace that could land Pittsburgh with a total of 50 this season. I really don't see how the Steelers can recover from their first 0-3 start since 2000.
Still, I don't think the Rooney family will blow this team up and start over; that's not their style. At this point, the Steelers just have to hope they can finish with a record that will let them pick high enough next May to land their quarterback of the future.
3) Washington Redskins
Robert Griffin III reminds me of an injured golfer who, after a career of topping 300 yards on his drives, is convinced he's back to normal even as he struggles to reach 275. RGIII seems to be playing at about 75 percent, which is just not enough in the NFL, where the competitive balance demands that cornerstone players be at full capacity.
The quickness and speed that made opposing defenses worry that RGIII might take off and run aren't there this year; defenders aren't biting on fakes, because they know he's not running. This makes it harder for RGIII to complete as many intermediate throws as he did last season, as safeties and linebackers aren't taking the bait like they once did.
The Redskins' defense should be better than it is, with Brian Orakpo returning from injury, but the unit has struggled, thanks in part to uneven secondary play and London Fletcher being older and slower. Washington has given up more yards through the first three games of a season than any other team in NFL history since the merger. Still, if RGIII were 100 percent, he'd be able to help Washington overcome that area of deficiency.
Griffin needs to follow the example of Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck and quit talking to the media so much. Mike Shanahan is a very good coach who no doubt would be working wonders with a fully healthy RGIII. Unfortunately for Washington, I think the quarterback is as close to normal as he'll be able to get this year; I don't think this is a case where we'll see him get better and better every game. For Griffin -- and the Redskins -- the offseason awaits.
4) Green Bay Packers
Offensive line troubles (Green Bay has surrendered 10 sacks through three games) and an unreliable running game leave too much on the shoulders of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He's a very good player, but I don't think you can win with just one man in this league anymore. Sure, he had that great game against the Redskins, but by the end of the season, I think we'll be able to say that about a lot of guys.
Sometimes, when you see things like the apparent sideline argument between Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy in last Sunday's surprising loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, and hear things like the critical comments made by former receiver Greg Jennings after he left for the Minnesota Vikings, you start to wonder about the togetherness of a team. Going back through NFL history, incidents like those usually indicate something is going on.
The Packers have an early bye (which I don't like) and a tough road schedule. This will surprise a lot of people, but I still wouldn't be shocked if Green Bay missed the playoffs, as I predicted back before the season. Their defense is going to give up a lot of yards, while the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears figure to make for significant hurdles in the NFC North. I suppose the outcome of the Packers' Dec. 29 showdown against the Bears might prove whether I was right or wrong.
5) Houston Texans
I worry about Arian Foster, who doesn't seem to have the quickness he once had. Andre Johnson, meanwhile, does not seem to be the player he was a year or two ago; at 32, the receiver might be a step away from making the kind of impact he's used to making.
The problem for the Texans is that, with the steady-but-not-sensational quarterbacking of veteran Matt Schaub, they need someone on offense to make big plays. Thus, this team is not a slam dunk to reach the playoffs -- especially because I don't think Houston can beat the Indianapolis Colts.
The Texans are 2-1 despite being outscored by 12 points, thanks in large part to late-game luck. Fortune couldn't save them from a 30-9 loss to the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday, though, and their schedule doesn't figure to lighten up anytime soon, with matchups against the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams and Kansas City Chiefs over the next four weeks.
Again, Schaub is a good guy and a pretty good player, but he can't win by himself, and that might prove to be Houston's undoing.
6) San Francisco 49ers
You never want to start a season 1-2 when you've played two of those first three games at home. This is a good team, but the question is, did the Niners overrate Colin Kaepernick?
The quarterback had a standout second half after taking over as the starter midway through last season, although some thought the Baltimore Ravens caught up with him somewhat in the Super Bowl. This season, Kaepernick already has eclipsed his interception total from 2012, and his passer rating is down 25 points and his rushing average is down a yard per attempt.
Ultimately, San Francisco needs to get injured players like Vernon Davis and Patrick Willis back on the field. If the Niners lose to the St. Louis Rams on Thursday, the questions about this team obviously will become more urgent.
7) Atlanta Falcons
After a season in which the Falcons started 8-0 and went on to be the No. 1 seed in the NFC, many observers were high on Atlanta (one of the few teams that NFL.com analysts unanimously picked as a division winner). Assigned such lofty expectations, the Falcons might seem to be a disappointment after starting 1-2, but I really don't think they are in trouble. They've merely hit a low spot, losing two tough road matchups (at New Orleans and at Miami).
The Falcons have another rough set of games coming up, against the New England Patriots, New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (the latter two are better than most think). Ultimately, though, I think quarterback Matt Ryan, who seems to improve every year, is just too good; he'll be enough to keep Atlanta in the chase. In that respect, I think the 1-2 Falcons have a better chance of enjoying a successful season than the 1-2 Niners with Kaepernick. I think both squads should make the playoffs, but obviously there are no guarantees at this point.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.