Starting an NFL season 1-3 ends with a trip to the playoffs just 14 percent of the time. If that average holds up in 2018, it likely means just one of the nine teams that have three losses through four weeks earns a spot in the postseason.
Part of the reason so few 1-3 teams end up playing in January is that it’s not easy to dig out of a hole in a season with only 16 games. The bigger reason is the more obvious one, though: Those teams just usually aren’t good.
Thanks to a weird start to the season that included two ties, there are another three teams that are stuck at one win each. The Browns, Vikings, and Steelers each have 1-2-1 records, which is a little better than 1-3, but not by much.
Sometimes a decent team will stumble out of the gates, but most of the one-win teams are already sunk. So which ones still have a shot at turning things around, and which ones should just start eyeing the 2019 NFL Draft class now?
They still have a shot
The top spot was an easy choice for this list. The Falcons’ defense is bad and it’ll probably stay that way with Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, and Ricardo Allen all on injured reserve. But the good news is that the offense is still dangerous.
The Falcons are No. 6 in points scored and No. 7 in total yards, despite starting the year with a an 18-12 loss to the Eagles. Since then Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Calvin Ridley have been cooking, even if 37 points weren’t enough to be the Saints and 36 weren’t enough to beat the Bengals.
Ryan’s numbers against the Saints and Bengals are among the best a quarterback has ever put up in a loss. Jones is on pace to become the first receiver ever to crack 2,000 yards in a season, and Ridley leads the league in touchdown receptions with six.
All things considered, narrow losses to Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Cincinnati aren’t that damning. The NFC South has an argument as the toughest division in the NFL, but the Falcons’ schedule will be easier ahead, beginning with a three-game slate against the Steelers, Buccaneers, and Giants before a Week 8 bye. It’ll be a good chance for Atlanta to climb back into the mix.
2. Minnesota Vikings
The reason the Vikings let Case Keenum walk and handed over $84 million guaranteed to Kirk Cousins is because the team felt they were on the doorstep of a Super Bowl. Three people on our seven person panel here at SB Nation picked Minnesota to come away NFC champions.
So Minnesota is probably the most surprising member of the one-win club through four weeks, but it’s not exactly fluky. The defense has been surprisingly pedestrian at No. 22 in points allowed and No. 21 in yards allowed.
The only team it held under 300 yards was the Bills and in that 27-6 loss, the Vikings’ offense disappeared.
But there’s still reason to be optimistic. The offense is still No. 12 in total yards, despite a nonexistent running game. And the defense kept opposing passers in check for the first three weeks before they were run over by the truck that is Jared Goff and the Rams’ offense.
The NFC North is still plenty winnable for the Vikings, especially with two games against the Bears and another matchup with the Packers still on the schedule. It’d be foolish to count out Minnesota so soon.
3. Cleveland Browns
The Browns are agonizingly close to having a winning record, but they just seem to have a knack for finding new ways to lose.
Cleveland blew a 12-3 lead in the fourth quarter against the Saints in Week 2 and a 42-34 lead in the final minutes of a Week 4 loss to the Raiders. If the Browns just knew how to win a game, they might be in first in the AFC North right now.
The bad news is that’s mostly Hue Jackson’s fault and he’s probably not going anywhere unless the Browns fall far out of contention. The good news is the team’s defense is filled with young stars, and its offense looks revived with Baker Mayfield leading the way.
They’re No. 10 in points scored and No. 19 in points allowed. Both of those are good enough marks to mean more victories are probably on the way.
They maybe belong a tier lower, but let’s lean on the side of optimism.
Deshaun Watson is playing really well — possibly even better than his brilliant, but abbreviated 2017 season — even if the statistics don’t quite show it. Part of the reason is because he’s running for his life behind an offensive line that has already allowed him to be sacked 17 times. His completion percentage and yards per game average are both up and he has a 93.5 passer rating.
DeAndre Hopkins is as tough to cover as it gets, Will Fuller is one of the NFL’s best deep threats, and Keke Coutee is another exciting addition to the wide receiving corps.
But although the Houston offense is No. 5 in total yards, it’s had problems translating those yards into points. It’s possible that trend will continue, but the likelier scenario is we see that offensive success start resulting in more touchdowns like it did in their 37-34 win over the Colts.
The defense is the bigger question mark, but J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are back to wreaking havoc. Clowney had two sacks and a fumble recovery touchdown in Week 4, and Watt is tied with Khalil Mack in sacks (five) and forced fumbles (four). With those two jelling more each week, and teams not having much success running against the Texans, the Houston defense may improve as the year goes on.
A rally is possible, but unlikely
The seven teams in this tier could probably go in any order, but we’ll start with the one that led at halftime in each of its three losses. The defense can’t rush the passer (gee, I wonder why), Derek Carr has continued to regress, and Jon Gruden seems to be getting killed by halftime adjustments.
But maybe Week 4 was the turning point. They shredded the Browns’ defense in the fourth quarter to come back and get their first win of the second Gruden era. Carr looked significantly better down the stretch, and Oakland finished with 565 yards of total offense.
Opening the year against the Rams is a trip through the meat grinder for any team. Yet the Raiders’ schedule has much more winnable games in the latter half of the year. Don’t count on a spot in the playoffs, but don’t count them out either — the Raiders could climb back into AFC West contention if the Chiefs follow their 2017 arc and slow down.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers
It’s been a very long time since the Steelers were a bad team, but it sure looks like they may be exactly that in 2018.
In the last three weeks, the Steelers have given up 449, 455, and 451 yards of total offense. It’s the first time in franchise history Pittsburgh has allowed over 420 yards in three consecutive games. It probably isn’t a problem that’s going to magically fix itself, either.
The offense is still a dangerous, top-10 unit, but it’s also been a soap opera so far. Le’Veon Bell is still holding out, but plans to return in time to play Week 8. That can’t come soon enough, because the rushing attack led by James Conner has disappeared after a good start in Week 1.
It’s been up to Ben Roethlisberger to lead the way, and even though he’s averaged 353.5 yards per game, it hasn’t been enough. Winning would smooth things out, but a Week 4 matchup with the Falcons is pretty much a must-win at this point for both teams. Lose at home to Atlanta and it’ll probably be time to give up on the Steelers.
After beating up on the Lions in Week 1, the Sam Darnold hype train has come grinding to a halt. In the last two weeks against tough Browns’ and Jaguars’ defenses, Darnold passed for 169 yards and 167 yards, respectively. The running back combination of Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell hasn’t found much success either.
New York’s offensive downturn has dropped the team to No. 21 in the NFL in scoring, despite scoring 48 to kick off the year.
The defense has been a different story, though. It had a rough outing against the Jaguars, but the Jets are still No. 3 in defensive marginal efficiency. They’re one of only four defenses that has forced at least 10 turnovers.
If the defense keeps games close and Darnold grows as the year goes on — he’s still just 21 — the Jets could be a better team in the latter half of the year.
8. Indianapolis Colts
Andrew Luck had a good day against the Texans in Week 4 when he wasn’t getting tossed around by J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. He finished the game with 464 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions — easily his best game since returning from injury.
It wasn’t enough for a win, but it was a good sign for the Colts, who need Luck to keep being that productive. They’re one of the worst teams in the NFL at running the ball and dead last at getting moving the chains on first or second down.
Luck’s arm strength has been questioned mostly because the Colts haven’t been great at finding big plays. They’re one of 10 teams that hasn’t yet reached 10 pass plays of at least 20 yards, although Luck strung together a few throws in Week 4 that suggest his arm is just fine.
The problem is that even if Luck is fine, there are just too many other issues with the Colts to really believe a turnaround is coming. They were ravaged by injuries in a 38-24 loss to the Patriots in Week 5, another game where Luck had to do too much. But the schedule does get easier from here.
9. New York Giants
Drafting a running back early in the first round usually helps a team do a 180. That’s how it went when the Cowboys picked Ezekiel Elliott and the Jaguars picked Leonard Fournette, but that hasn’t been the case for the Giants after taking Saquon Barkley. For the most part, they still look like the team that only won three games in 2017.
It’s not a mystery why the offense is still terrible: the offensive line stinks.
Eli Manning is off to a great start with a career-best completion percentage and passer rating, but he’s already been sacked 15 times and that’s taken a toll on his ability to connect with Odell Beckham Jr.
The defense has been good against the pass yet shaky against the run, although facing Fournette, Elliott, and Alvin Kamara in three of the first four weeks can do that.
There’s so much talent at the offensive skill positions and enough on defense that it’s hard to throw in the towel on the Giants. The NFC East is still wide open too. But unless the offensive line starts pulling its weight, New York looks like it still needs another offseason before its ready to compete.
There are plenty of statistics that would suggest the 49ers belong higher on this list, but you probably already know why they’re in the bottom half. When Jimmy Garoppolo went down for the year, it killed the momentum the San Francisco offense was building.
In the first game with C.J. Beathard under center, the 49ers were still competent offensively, but there’s a definite downgrade.
They’ve got winnable games on the schedule, but It’s tough to feel too optimistic about San Francisco. It’d be surprising if the 49ers were able to climb from No. 21 in total offense to suddenly compete for a playoff spot, especially when the Rams look like they’ll have the division locked up by Halloween.
11. Detroit Lions
How the Lions were able to stunt on the Patriots in Week 3 is one of this season’s greatest mysteries. Because aside from that one game of brilliance, Detroit has mostly looked inept.
The Lions were embarrassed at home by the Jets, and lost to two more subpar opponents, the 49ers and Cowboys.
The formula to beat Detroit is pretty easy to figure out at this point: run, run, and run some more. The Lions are giving up 5.3 yards per carry and 157.8 rushing yards per game.
Opposing offenses need an average of 5.4 yards on third down, the lowest number any defense has forced. The pass defense statistics look good for Detroit, but that’s mostly because no team has bothered to pass much. And why should they?
It doesn’t seem likely that the Lions will bottle the magic that helped them beat the Patriots and come close to contending in a division with three much more promising teams.
Stick a fork in them, they’re done
12. Buffalo Bills
Yep, it’s just you down here, Buffalo.
Like the Lions against the Patriots, the Bills had a random moment of shockingly competent play when they blew out the Vikings in Week 3, 27-6. Then the team came crashing back to Earth with their 22-0 loss to the Packers. On the year, the Bills have been outscored by 56 points.
Josh Allen showed off his rushing abilities against Minnesota, but unless his passing skills show dramatic improvement, there’s no way Buffalo is going to find a way to compete.
They’re bottom three in almost all of Bill Connelly’s advanced offensive statistics, and the defense isn’t good enough to pick up the slack.
It was a relatively tough slate of teams to start the year with, but the Bills aren’t going to turn things around this year.