The Brandt Report

Steelers trending up, Packers & Dolphins down among 4-4 teams

If past history is any guide, it's not so bad to be 4-4.

Going back to 1990, 31.6 percent of teams to start 4-4 went on to make the playoffs (49 of 155). Last season, the Seahawks built on a 4-4 start to reach the Divisional Round -- though four other teams (the Bills, Raiders, Eagles and Rams) failed to reach the postseason after starting 4-4.

So what to make of this season's six 4-4 squads? It's obviously tough to say who will make the playoffs, but we can say whose arrow is pointing up and whose is pointing down. See below.


1) Pittsburgh Steelers

Though an ineffectual offensive attack is what helped drop Pittsburgh to 4-4 in Sunday's loss to Baltimore (the output of 277 total yards was a significant drop from their per-game mark of 372 heading into the matchup), the offense is actually why I put the Steelers at No. 1. There is still plenty of upside for this unit. I expect Ben Roethlisberger, who looked very rusty in his first game back after undergoing knee surgery ahead of Week 7, and Le'Veon Bell, who hasn't seemed as quick or sharp as normal, to return to their Pro Bowl-caliber levels. Plus, new tight end Ladarius Green could finally start contributing. The 24th-ranked defense has not played well, and a lack of sacks (the Steelers have just 11) has hurt, though the unit is giving up less than 100 rushing yards per game. Getting Bud Dupreehealthy again should provide a real boost.

2) New Orleans Saints

Drew Brees' usual excellence has been augmented by the outstanding play of rookie receiver Michael Thomas, but the real difference for the Saints this season is their success running the ball. Even with Mark Ingram starting off slowly, New Orleans has upped its rushing averages by about 15 yards per game (from 93.2 in 2015 to 108.1 in 2016). Ingram, who looks quicker and faster, exploded for 158 yards and two total touchdowns on Sunday, while Tim Hightower has really been a pleasant surprise. And the defense, while clearly flawed, is not quite the dead weight it's often made out to be. Yes, the unit ranks 30th, but there have been improvements since Week 1, including a dip in yards allowed (419.4 per game through Week 5; 390.33 per game over the last three games). The most crucial stat: a turnover differential of plus-4, which indicates a team heading in the right direction.


3) Philadelphia Eagles

This team is playing about as well as it can, given the dearth of offensive playmakers on the roster. Drops are killing rookie quarterback Carson Wentz, who is otherwise continuing to perform reasonably well after sprinting out of the gate early in the season. The Eagles' defense has tailed off a bit, but it still ranks in the top 10 and -- crucially -- has a turnover differential of plus-6. I still think Philadelphia is more on the ascending side rather than the descending side, and there's a decent chance at securing a playoff berth, but the Eagles haven't looked very good in their two-game losing streak.


4) Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins are scoring slightly better in Adam Gase's first year (21.6 points per game in 2016) than they did in 2015 (19.4 ppg). Running back Jay Ajayi has proven to be a difference-maker for Miami the last three weeks, rushing for 176 yards per game in that stretch. Interestingly, Ryan Tannehill is attempting about five fewer passes per game than he did in the four seasons before this one, and he's on pace for 16 touchdown passes, which would easily be his lowest total since his rookie season. The next two weeks will be a significant test for the Dolphins; their run defense, which has not been playing well, will be pushed on the road by the Chargers' Melvin Gordon and the Rams' Todd Gurley.

5) Baltimore Ravens

This is a hard team to get a bead on, with a 3-0 start being followed by a four-game losing streak before Sunday's win over Pittsburgh. The second-ranked defense has been outstanding, giving up less than 300 yards per game, but the offense is killing Baltimore. Quarterback Joe Flacco is on pace for a career-low 12 touchdown passes and currently sports one of the worst passer ratings in the NFL (76.0, behind everyone but Brock Osweiler, Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Fitzpatrick). The Ravens should be able to win low-scoring games, but they'll have trouble keeping pace with teams that manage to put points up against them.

UPDATE:Ravens defeated the Browns, 28-7, on Thursday night.

6) Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers is actually playing slightly better, stats-wise, than he did last year, though that hasn't translated into wins for Green Bay. The Packers' defense, which ranks a respectable seventh, is also giving up more points than it did in 2015. But Green Bay's biggest flaw is the lack of a running game, with the Packers scrambling to replace the injured Eddie Lacy and James Starks. Yes, Rodgers is athletic, but it's still not a good sign when he's 3 yards away from being your team's leading rusher over the past four weeks (Ty Montgomery has 119 to Rodgers' 117). The turnover differential of minus-1 is also troubling. When it comes down to it, when you watch the Packers play, it looks like they're not enjoying it. Rodgers has to play better and the defense has to start forcing more turnovers. Luckily for Green Bay, Starks is expected back this week.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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