It's never good to be in last place, but now that the 2018 NFL season has advanced past the quarter mark, sitting in the cellar carries a little extra weight.
Of course, it's not so late that it's completely impossible to turn things around. After all, since 1990, 21 percent of 2-3 teams and 6.6 percent of 1-4 teams have reached the playoffs, which means there is some hope for today's last-place squads (with the exception of the 2-2-1 Steelers, every last-place team is either 2-3 or 1-4).
As we roll into Week 6, I thought I'd evaluate all eight last-place teams and predict which squads have the best chances of climbing out of the basement, as you'll see below. Note: Divisional record was used to break ties.
1) Pittsburgh Steelers (2-2-1 in the AFC North): Week 5's blowout win over the Falcons provided the first glimpse this season of what the Steelers could be. Working without Le'Veon Bell for the fifth straight week, the offense began to regain its balance, with James Conner (185 yards from scrimmage, two touchdowns) getting back on track. After an early slump by Antonio Brown (and someeyebrow-raising comments), the squeaky wheel got the grease and put up numbers, with Brown registering his first 100-yard, multi-score game of 2018. Ben Roethlisberger has played reasonably well, compiling the most passing yards in the AFC (1,664) while driving the eighth-ranked offense in the NFL. Defensively, T.J. Watt (three sacks on Sunday) has emerged as a major-league pass-rusher, which will help cover for a secondary that has been lacking. Pittsburgh still has a chance to win the AFC North, with Sunday's matchup against the division-leading Bengals looking like a significant indicator of the Steelers' fortunes going forward. Encouragingly for Pittsburgh, the Steelers have won nine of their last 10 games against Cincinnati.
2) Detroit Lions (2-3 in the NFC North): The Lions have been all over the map this season, mixing truly discouraginglosses with impressive showingsagainst competitive teams. That inconsistency can probably be blamed on the fact that Detroit is adapting to new coach Matt Patricia's system. The bottom line is, this is a good team with advantages at quarterback (Matthew Stafford) and on the offensive line. The Lions' prospects will only be further enhanced by the emergence of second-round pick Kerryon Johnson (286 rushing yards, 5.7 per carry), who is the best back drafted by Detroit since Stafford arrived in 2009. Kenny Golladay is a wild card in a receiving corps that also includes the talented Golden Tate and Marvin Jones. If they can crank up a defense that ranks 26th in points allowed and 17th in yards allowed, they have a pretty good chance to push for the NFC North title in this very tight division.
3) Atlanta Falcons (1-4 in the NFC South): The 2018 Falcons remind me a lot of the Dan Marino Dolphins of the 1980s: loaded with offensive firepower but hamstrung by a real lack of defense. Of course, Atlanta can't be blamed for the injuries to Keanu Neal, Deion Jones and Ricardo Allen. Jones should be back this year, which will be a plus, but I think the Falcons are too far in the hole in the NFC South, where they already carry a home loss to the division-leading New Orleans Saints, to make a viable push for the division. Head coach Dan Quinn went through a similar situation last season, when Atlanta started 4-4 but then went 6-2 and won a playoff game. I think this defense will come around and prove able to support the offense, and I see the Falcons scrapping for a wild-card berth.
4) Indianapolis Colts (1-4 in the AFC South): I don't think the Colts have it in them to snag a playoff spot this season. But I do think Indianapolis has assembled a quality coaching staff, led by Frank Reich, while GM Chris Ballard has restocked a talent cupboard that was completely bare when he assumed the job. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus has coaxed a better-than-expected performance from his unit, helped along by the emergence of Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Darius Leonard (who leads a promising draft class that also included offensive lineman Quenton Nelson and running back Nyheim Hines). Andrew Luck, meanwhile, has played pretty well; I think he'll only get better as he continues to accumulate reps.
5) Oakland Raiders (1-4 in the AFC West): After last week's loss to the Chargers, I think the honeymoon may be over for Jon Gruden. The Raiders have some things going for them, including an offense that ranks sixth in yards. At times, Derek Carr plays like a franchise QB, but he struggles with consistency. The pass rush, meanwhile, continues to struggle, as Oakland is tied for last in the NFL (with the Giants) with six sacks. I do think the Raiders can get out of last place in the AFC West, because Denver looks quite vulnerable. But I don't think they'll make the playoffs.
6) New York Giants (1-4 in the NFC East): A lot of people, including myself, were optimistic about this team after a well-received offseason, only to have a gallon of cold water dumped on those optimistic thoughts. In order for the Giants to have a chance at the playoffs, they need to have much better offensive line play (the unit has given up 16 sacks), and the defense has to generate more sacks, having six in five games. New York's defensive backs, with the exception of Landon Collins, have to improve in coverage if this team is to escape last place. The loss to Carolina -- their third defeat this season by five points or less -- marked the first time since Week 17 of the 2015 season that the Giants scored 30 points or more, with Eli Manning and Co. setting season highs in passing yards (382) and offensive yards (432). Of course, 57 of those passing yards came via the arm of receiver Odell Beckham, who also put up his highest receiving yards total (131) since Week 16 of the 2016 season. There are still some questions about an offense that ranks 25th in the NFL, but while Manning might look like a convenient scapegoat for outsiders, he remains the kind of quarterback who can push a team to postseason glory. Right now, Saquon Barkley -- who has been a stud in the aerial game and on the ground -- has proven he deserved to be the No. 2 overall draft pick in April, but he can't carry this team by himself. On the other side of the ball, Olivier Vernon's return to health will shore up the D. Thursday night's showdown with an off-kilter Eagles team offers an appealing chance to begin catching up in a still-wide-open NFC East. I like the Giants' chances to win the division.
7) New York Jets (2-3 in the AFC East):Sunday's win over the Broncos included a number of promising signs, including Isaiah Crowell becoming the fourth player in NFL history to rush for 200-plus yards on 15 or less carries, and defensive lineman Leonard Williams notching the second multi-sack game of his career. Robby Anderson (three catches, 123 yards and two touchdowns) and Sam Darnold (3:1 TD-to-INT ratio and a 98.1 passer rating) also played well. But while I think Darnold could someday challenge the all-time passing mark that Drew Brees set on Monday night, he's still a rookie, and he'll continue to work through ups and downs. In fact, the entire team seems to run hot and cold. While the Jets should finish ahead of Buffalo and potentially Miami, they likely aren't consistent enough to do better than 8-8 or make the playoffs, especially with New England still ruling the AFC East roost.
8) San Francisco 49ers (1-4 in the NFC West): San Francisco is better than what we saw in last Sunday's loss to Arizona. The Niners did, after all, convert 33 first downs, which is the most for the franchise in any game since 1988. But they didn't have much to show for it, thanks to the fact that they committed five turnovers without forcing any in return. Basically, Jimmy Garoppolo's season-ending ACL tear crushed the Niners' chances of doing anything other than wrestling with the Cardinals for third place in the NFC West.