Debrief: Panic rankings for playoff hopefuls

I'm not worried that the Buccaneers will miss the playoffs. With a favorable remaining schedule and a track record of beating inferior teams, Team Tompa's chances of making the postseason range from 77 to 86 percent, depending on what analytics site you prefer. I'm not worried about the defense either, even after it gave up more than 500 yards to the Chiefs. It's 2020, when few defenses consistently matter, and the Bucs' defense has made enough plays in 11 of its 12 games to give the team a chance, with the prime-time debacle against the Saints as the exception. Ask the Raiders' Derek Carr if he would like a defense that forces the Chiefs into four punts, two field goals and a turnover.

I'm not even worried about the Bucs' seeding in a season where home-field advantage doesn't exist. There isn't that much separating the NFC teams in the playoff hunt, especially if Drew Brees isn't right. I've seen too many teams stumble late in the regular season (the 2018 Patriots, 2015 Broncos, 2012 Ravens, 2008 Cardinals) before turning it on in the playoffs to see the Bucs' 1-3 stretch as a death knell. They have a shot.

I am worried about Bruce Arians' level of denial. He said "yes and no" when asked if he was surprised they are 7-5, explaining that he thought the defense would be better, but that the offense was going to be a work in progress all season. That progress has been hard to find.

The Bucs are the most consistently inconsistent team in football. They look strikingly similar most weeks, able to string together a hot quarter or two while punting quickly and turning the ball over the rest of the game. This boom-or-bust nature is a design of Arians' offense, not a bug. On a day in which Tom Brady hit 4-of-7 passes that traveled over 20 yards for 152 yards, one TD and one INT -- with a drop by Mike Evans included -- the Bucs' offense still couldn't sustain long drives enough.

This is not to absolve Brady, who has consistently traded big-time throws with head-scratching decisions like Jameis Winston with an expensive haircut. It is just to point out that there's been no progress thus far; that the Bucs in November look just like the Bucs in September and they are running out of time.

Arians is still honking about the lack of practice time, but every team dealt with the unusual offseason and COVID-19-related interruptions. Most teams have dealt with greater injury problems. By now, it's worth wondering if the Bucs are erratic, unpredictable and entertaining at their core just like their head coach; good enough to beat any team, but more likely to lose a barnburner than change who they are.

Week 12 was full of playoff hopefuls like the Bucs who suffered dispiriting losses. In this week's Debrief, I'm going to rank my level of panic for each of them, from most to least.

Chicago Bears

I’m taking my cues from Bears coach Matt Nagy, who is transparent about being in full-blown panic mode. After five straight losses, their presence on this list even feels generous. Hope is not arriving offensively this season and they are unlikely to remain on those “in contention” graphics for much longer.  

No organization peddles in false, short-lived hype quite like the Cowboys. Less than a week after enjoying some Gallagher-inspired relief, Dallas fell to 1-5 without Dak Prescott in a 41-16 Thanksgiving Day loss to Washington. When O-lineman Zack Martin went out with a serious injury early in the game, I was finally ready to stick a fork in this team’s season. Tackle Cameron Erving’s injury only adds to the woes.

It’s possible that the Cowboys will face the following quarterbacks down the stretch: Robert Griffin III, Brandon Allen, Nick Mullens, Carson Wentz and Colt McCoy. That slate -- and Dallas’ presence in the NFC East -- will keep hope alive longer than necessary this season. The Cowboys’ coaching staff and personnel have shown me little reason to believe they’ll get to five wins, which looks like the bare minimum to make the playoffs even in the worst division in history. 

Kliff Kingsbury’s krew has lost to the Lions, Panthers and Patriots this season, which is a sign it’s probably closer to a 9-7 team rather than a true title contender. It’s all about expectations. Considering Arizona won eight games in the last two seasons combined, that is not a bad thing!

The Seahawks and Patriots, both struggling up front all year, held the Cardinals under 315 yards in each of the last two weeks, as the offense reverted to its September, dink-and-dunk form. They’ve lost three of their last four games, with the one win coming on the Hail Murray. The Cardinals’ defense can hang in games, but Arizona’s offense needs to be special for this team to be dangerous. It’s not quite there, and that’s no shame in Kyler Murray’s second year. He’s made a big second year leap, even if the MVP chatter was premature. It should not be viewed as a catastrophe if the Cardinals miss the playoffs, but Red Bird fans should be prepared that it’s on the table.

To say it was one of those days for the Raiders’ offense is insulting to the rest of those days. Derek Carr’s four turnovers were part of a nightmare afternoon in Atlanta that was hard to see coming. It’s as if the Raiders, who lost to the Chiefs by four points in Week 11, had a letdown a week after receiving the most credit given to a losing team since the Patriots fell to Seattle in Week 2

The result doesn’t make me that anxious, especially after hearing Josh Jacobsankle injury isn’t guaranteed to keep him out next week. The Raiders’ offense has been steady all season. The mediocre defense, which allowed 4.2 yards per play to Atlanta, has trended up in the past month. More importantly, the Raiders have the winless Jets on the schedule next week. Winning that game gets Las Vegas to 7-5 with decisive matchups remaining against fellow wild-card hopefuls Indianapolis and Miami down the stretch. This loss removed the Raiders’ margin for error, but they’ve been a top-10 offense too long this season to believe they are suddenly going to collapse. 

The Rams are probably the best team on this list. Their defense is fantastic and their head coach is 40-19 in his career. Their loss to the 49ers on Sunday, while devastating, is a prime example of a divisional matchup where the styles make the fight. The 49ers have the Rams’ number.

The placement of my Rams’ panic above a couple teams is more existential. It’s the Jared Goff Dilemma. He’s not going anywhere and he’s just as likely to play clean, efficient football over the next month as he is to continue his slump. He’s an above-average starter. Sean McVay believes in Goff and knows best how to coach around his shortcomings. It’s just that I’m beginning to wonder if and when those shortcomings ever change.

Goff’s awareness in the pocket is not a new problem. His spate of six interceptions and four lost fumbles in the last four weeks is weirdly indicative of his California Cool, where he seems too unbothered by the pass rush. Cam Newton has had this shortcoming for much of his career, which leads to streaky play. But Cam’s athleticism bailed him out plenty, which isn’t an option for Goff. Accuracy was supposed to be Goff’s superpower, but that’s deserted him at times.

After the Rams’ last convincing loss to the 49ers back in Week 6, Goff blamed his accuracy, saying it was, "Uncharacteristic stuff, missing guys open early and something I’ve never done in my life and do not expect to repeat. Probably what I do best is accuracy and it would have given us a better chance to win."

On Sunday -- after Goff tried to give the game away with three turnovers, after his defense scored one touchdown and his running game set up another to put the Rams in position for a comeback victory -- Goff faced second-and-5 at his own 44-yard line with 2:29 left. He missed a wide open Robert Woods. On the next play, he didn’t give Cooper Kupp a chance to make a play on a route up the sideline. 

Goff, with the help of a terrific team and coaching staff elevating him, had a chance to save one of the worst days of his career with a field goal drive against the injury-ravaged Zombie 49ers. He misfired. Too often an entire game gets put on the quarterback, but this game was truly on Goff. Even the perennially optimistic McVay all but admitted it. When Goff struggles early in games, he often can’t find his way out to daylight. That’s a sobering realization for a team when it comes to its franchise quarterback, especially when it’s already happened on the biggest stage possible

I wrote above why my level of panic surrounding the Bucs is simmering, rather than overflowing. The Bucs and Browns should both end the longest playoff droughts in the NFL this season. Tom Brady in Tampa has been a big value add in entertainment this year. The Bucs were aiming higher than being the team no one wants to face (or trusts) in the playoffs, but there are worse fates.  

The Colts entered a three-game stretch against the Titans, Packers and Titans (again) with understandable questions regarding whether they could beat quality opposition. They went 2-1, with a surprising blowout win and a surprising blowout loss in the Titans games.

Weird stuff happens when you play a division opponent twice in three weeks, especially when missing all the quality starters the Colts were on Sunday. (DeForest Buckner and Denico Autry, their best defensive linemen, both were on the reserve/COVID-19 list for the game.) After left tackle Anthony Castonzo went down, with center Ryan Kelly already out, the Colts all but collapsed.  

I’m not incredibly high on the Colts’ chances to go deep into the playoffs. On this list alone, the Bucs, Rams and even Raiders have a higher ceiling. But at 7-4, the Colts have been one of the more reliable, predictable teams all season. Castonzo and Kelly should both be back, ideally sooner than later for Indianapolis. Sunday didn’t change my outlook for this team. Even good defenses can be filleted on the wrong day in 2020, as the Colts and Bears showed on Sunday.  

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter.

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