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NFL Panic Index 2017, Week 7: Life after Aaron Rodgers begins for the Packers

The Falcons and Patriots aren’t nearly as good as they were last year. And why do the 49ers keep losing close games?

Green Bay Packers v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

What could go wrong with Brett Hundley taking over for Aaron Rodgers? According to NFL Research, Hundley’s 107.3 passer rating is the highest out of 52 quarterbacks with 100 or more passes in the preseason. That has to mean something, right? That’s a little glimmer of hope.

But preseason probably isn’t the greatest indicator of a player’s regular-season potential. Hundley would have accomplished that against a bunch of second- and third-string players, and even some guys who didn’t land on NFL rosters. What about his regular-season numbers?

Hundley replaces Rodgers, who left last week’s game against the Vikings with a broken collarbone. In that game, Hundley completed 18 of 33 passes for 157 yards, one touchdown, and three picks. He matched Rodgers’ interception total for the entire season so far in that single game. That’s not great, and the Packers lost, 23-10.

At least the Packers play the Saints, and the league’s 28th-ranked pass defense, this week. Maybe that will make things a little easier for Hundley.

Panic index: Unless the Packers can invent time travel and bring in Brett Favre from 1996, any replacement for Rodgers will be a significant downgrade. Don’t get your hopes up, Packers fans.

Falcons vs. Patriots sequel is not going to live up to the original

Dust off your 28-3 jokes, because we’ve got a rematch of one of the most entertaining games in Super Bowl history coming up this week. The only problem is that neither the Falcons nor the Patriots are as good as they were last season. There’s no way this one will match the intensity of Super Bowl LI.

Oh, the Falcons can still run up an early lead. They can still blow one, too, which is exactly what happened last week against the Dolphins. Matt Ryan threw just seven interceptions all last season, and he’s already up to six picks over five games this year. The playcalling isn’t quite as sharp with Steve Sarkisian at the helm, and Atlanta just can’t get out of its own way.

And the Patriots hardly resemble the team that came surging back in the second half of that Super Bowl to overcome a 25-point deficit and win it in overtime. The Patriots have just two losses this season, but they’ve also barely squeaked by in most of their wins.

Panic index: If the season ended today, the Patriots would at least win the AFC East. The Falcons wouldn’t even make the playoffs. There’s a lot of season left for the Falcons and Patriots to get it together, but the expectations for these teams certainly don’t line up with their actual performances so far.

49ers are only going to lose cruelly close games

San Francisco made history Sunday, but not the good kind. More like the most painful history possible. The 2017 49ers are the first team to ever lose five consecutive games by three points or fewer.

At least Week 6 was merciful enough to end in regulation. The final blow against Washington was a questionable offensive pass interference penalty on Pierre Garcon that knocked San Francisco back into their own territory and eventually forced rookie C.J. Beathard to try to convert a fourth-and-20.

The 1994 Houston Oilers hold the record for torturous losses by a margin of a field goal or less with seven during a 2-14 season. It was also the year that got coach Jack Pardee fired and introduced the NFL world to interim head coach Jeff Fisher.

With 10 games still on the schedule, the 49ers need just three more painfully close losses to knock the Oilers from the top spot.

Panic index: What’s there to panic about? Yeah, it sucks, but that 2018 draft pick is looking real nice. Rebuilding takes time and expectations for the 2017 season were low anyway.

The Broncos are in their own version of Groundhog Day

The Broncos start off the season hot. The defense is as scary as ever. Trevor Siemian looks capable enough at quarterback that we learned to spell his name. And then it all starts to unravel. First the offense turns back into a shriveled corpse and not even the defense can mask it. Then a shoulder injury for Siemian makes you wonder, wait, is it Simian? Siemen? Then the losses start coming ...

If that sounds familiar, it’s because the Broncos look like they’re Groundhog Day-ing and reliving last season, when they just missed the playoffs.

At this point last season, the Broncos were 4-2 after a rare loss to the Chargers. This year, they’re 3-2, coming off an inexplicable loss to the previously winless Giants, a team that had been the Murphy’s law of the NFL all week — so much so that it prompted Al Michaels to make an ill-advised joke on national TV that he immediately regretted.

After this week’s game against the Chargers, the next few weeks is the toughest stretch anyone faces this year: Back-to-back road games against the league’s two best teams right now (Chiefs, Eagles), and a home date with the defending Super Bowl champions.

The Broncos are beat up, especially on offense. Siemian might not even miss time with his shoulder injury, but does it really even matter? He’s thrown just two touchdowns and four interceptions in the Broncos’ last three games. Opposing defenses have remembered that if you force him to beat you, he probably can’t do it.

Panic index: The Broncos might want to start Brock Osweiler for a few games. But before you do your best impression of The Scream, let’s explain why that could be a good thing: The last time the Broncos did that, they ended up winning a Super Bowl later that season. Why Groundhog Day last year when you can Groundhog Day 2015?

So all together now: For those about to Brock!

Washington is breaking in a new kicker, what could go wrong?

Kickers in the NFL seem to be recycled more often than they previously were. The NFL moved the extra point back to a 33-yard attempt, and it’s ushered in a new era for kickers in the NFL.

Washington is on the bad side of the kicker spectrum this week after placing Dustin Hopkins on injured reserved. The team signed Nick Rose, who has never kicked in a regular season game before.

No pressure on the newbie, but Washington really needs to be as perfect as possible when it travels to Philadelphia for Monday Night Football this week.

Panic index: Washington will have to hope Rose takes a page from the other sideline, where rookie kicker Jake Elliott has excelled for the Eagles. They would certainly hate to become the Bucs.

The Dolphins could make the playoffs again and they're unwatchable

The Dolphins found a way to do the impossible. They made a team with Jay Ajayi, Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills, and DeVante Parker boring.

At 3-2, the club is in playoff contention despite being a breeding ground for screen passes and receiving routes that stop 7 yards downfield. Jay Cutler, effervescent as always, is averaging just 5.2 yards per pass after ending his months-long offseason retirement. No one on the roster has had a 100-yard receiving performance yet. The longest play of Miami’s season has gone for just 31 yards.

And yet, after coming back from a 17-0 halftime deficit against the Falcons in Atlanta, the Dolphins, against anyone’s better judgment, are a postseason contender. One of the league’s stingiest defenses — Miami has allowed fewer than 17 points per game this fall — could make three hours of Wild Card weekend entirely unwatchable. Case in point: On Sunday they held Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and the extremely fun Falcons offense to zero second-half points.

As fun as it would be to watch Cutler nonchalantly stride into the playoffs while averaging 155 passing yards per game, something needs to change to make this Dolphins team anything more than a description you scroll past while trying to find better football games.

Panic index: The Dolphins have lost to the Jets and Saints by a combined 40-6 score. Unless their defense makes insane plays every week from here on out, we probably don’t have to worry about a repeat playoff appearance.

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