In 2017, the Jacksonville Jaguars were three minutes away from their first Super Bowl appearance after arguably the best season in franchise history. In 2018, the club brought back nearly every important player from that AFC South championship team — and after Week 8’s loss, the Jaguars are on pace for a return to their 6-10 roots.
Jacksonville isn’t the only NFL team that’s seen its postseason hopes suffer significant casualties over the first half of the year. 2017 contenders like the Falcons, Titans, Eagles, and Vikings would all miss the playoffs if the season ended after Week 8. Some of those teams are in better shape than others, but none can be happy with the way the first eight weeks of the season have played out.
So what’s been the problem ailing these teams whose lofty preseason hopes have been torn apart and left to be reassembled like jigsaw puzzles with varying degrees of difficulty? Let’s take a look at five teams who’ve disappointed to start 2018 and where their postseason chances currently stand — starting with the Jaguars.
Blake Bortles finally played badly enough to get himself benched. He regained his spot atop the depth chart in Week 8, but his inability to tap into the weird, geographically unlocked powers of Bloke Bortles (his London counterpart) leaves the Jags with several questions to answer. Jacksonville has sputtered without a healthy Leonard Fournette. Its scoring has dropped from 25.9 points per game in 2017 to just 16.8 points. Bortles’ 6.4 yards per pass ranks 26th among NFL offenses this fall.
Those flaws have manifested into frustration on the other side of the ball as well. The Jaguars had allowed 14 points per game in a 3-1 start that included a dominant win over the Patriots. They’ve given up more than double that (28.5) in the four-game losing streak that’s followed. While that defense is still capable of playing at a championship level, the lack of support from an overwhelmed offense is leaving that group on the field entirely too long — the Jags rank 27th in the league in time of possession.
Head coach Doug Marrone will have to make an important decision before Week 10. Jacksonville is reportedly not interested in trading for a quarterback like Tyrod Taylor or Eli Manning, but Kessler — who looked entirely competent in Week 7 — could be a legitimate replacement behind center. Can he make a difference for the Jags? Or can this defense overcome the persistent limitations of a haggard offense again in 2018?
Chance of making the postseason: 60 percent. The Jaguars need 6-7 wins over the back end of a front-loaded schedule to make a repeat performance in the postseason. They’ve got the defense to get there — the question is whether Fournette can return at full strength and Bortles can get out of his own way long enough to meet Jacksonville’s potential.
The defending Super Bowl champs got back to .500 by topping the Jags in Great Britain Sunday, but they’re still looking up at Washington in their quest to be the first repeat NFC East champion since 2004. Carson Wentz’s return (and the signing of his old running mate Jordan Matthews) has given the Philadelphia offense a little extra juice, but the club’s resume isn’t especially inspiring; the four teams it has beaten are a combined 9-19 on the season.
The Philly defense has been great in pressure situations — namely when pressed up against their own end zone and on third down — but has struggled to contain big plays, leading to gashing, demoralizing gains:
The Eagles’ offense also has questions to answer, particularly on the ground. Jay Ayaji is done for the season with a torn ACL, putting the fate of the running game on the shoulders of Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement. With Jason Peters and Lane Johnson both struggling with injuries this season, that could be a major weakness that prevents the team from salting away the clock late in games where Philadelphia has a lead. The team’s 4.0 yards per rush ranks just 24th in the league.
But these are problems that can be overcome by a top-tier quarterback, and that’s what Wentz has looked like through six games of his comeback season.
Chance of making the postseason: 75 percent. Wentz is back on his pre-injury, MVP-caliber track after recording a 13:2 TD:INT ratio in his six starts this year. He’s also got a new weapon after the team traded for Golden Tate. The back half of the Eagles’ schedule will give him plenty of opportunities to chop down the NFC East’s other contenders — he’ll see Washington and Dallas twice each and face the hapless Giants once after a Week 9 bye. Wentz hasn’t lost to any of those teams since 2016.
The Falcons have a pretty good excuse for their 3-4 start — they’ve gotten absolutely destroyed by season-ending injuries. A quick look at the team’s IR suggests Mercedes-Benz Stadium was built upon the ruins of a haunted mansion which, in turn, had been constructed atop a sacred burial ground. And the rest of Atlanta is just a giant hellmouth we don’t like to talk about.
Both the team’s starting guards are done for the season. So is the hard-hitting safety tandem of Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal. Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones and starting tailback Devonta Freeman are both likely out until 2019.
These losses have decimated a defense that’s giving up more than 30 points per game. While Matt Ryan has maximized his contributions from Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley to overcome some of those lapses, it hasn’t been enough over the course of a rough early schedule. The good news is the team has started to regress back towards the mean after a 1-4 start. The bad news the Falcon defense gave up 943 total yards the past two weeks in wins over unimpressive Buccaneer and Giants teams.
Chance of making the postseason: 30 percent. The NFC South is still brutal, and five of the team’s final nine games are against current playoff contenders. Ryan is going to have to win at least two-thirds of those games, all of which appear destined to be shootouts. The former MVP is capable of raising his team’s level of play to get there — but that’s still a tremendously difficult path.
After one quarter of the season, the Titans were 3-1 and had wins over the Jaguars, Eagles, and Texans under their belts. Hitches in their offense were explained away by a minor Marcus Mariota malady, and a swarming defense had proven itself capable of picking up any slack the offense left behind.
But then Tennessee scored 31 total points in its next three games, and now sit a game-and-a-half behind Houston in the AFC South. The Titans’ losing streak includes a loss to the Bills (don’t lose to the Bills) and a shutout against the Ravens where they managed just 106 yards of total offense. Mariota, one year after a 13:15 TD:INT ratio, has thrown 3 touchdowns on 150 passes. At 15.1 points per game, the team is only outscoring hapless Buffalo and Arizona in 2018.
The good news is Mike Vrabel’s defense has stepped up to carry more than its share of the load. Logan Ryan, Kevin Byard, and Adoree Jackson have been good enough to paper over Malcolm Butler’s disappointing first year in Nashville, and that’s bolstered a unit that’s allowed fewer big plays than all but three teams in the league. Tennessee is only allowing 18.1 points per game, but the NFL’s least-explosive offense hasn’t been able to turn that into wins the past three weeks.
Chance of making the postseason: 30 percent. The Texans have gone from 0-3 to legitimate contender. The Jaguars are lurking a half-game behind the Titans and have the more talented roster on paper. But Tennessee has a relatively weak final nine games to finish the year, with only three opponents on their schedule who are currently in the playoff picture.
The Titans shouldn’t be as bad as they’ve been over the past month; at some point, all the upgrades the team has made in the draft and in free agency will pay off. They’ll need a healthy Mariota to break out of his now seasons-long slump to get there, though — and that doesn’t seem like a safe bet based on his early 2018 returns.
The Cowboys were the NFC’s top team in 2016, then backslid to 9-7 in 2017. But Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott were coming back for ‘18 as was the heart of a aging offensive line and many of the important members of a defense that ranked eighth in yards allowed last season.
But while Elliott has looked like the league’s most devastating tailback in stretches and Prescott has wrung as much as humanly possible from an underwhelming group of receivers and tight ends, Dallas is still languishing at 3-4. Jerry Jones’ team has alternated losses and wins, and with the exception of a 40-7 thrashing of the Jaguars, has failed to look threatening or explosive in 2018.
That’s wasted the efforts of an up-to-the-task defense. The Cowboys have been one of the league’s best defensive teams this fall, especially when it comes to shutting down opponents’ home run threats downfield.
Help is on the way, courtesy of a swap that sent a first-round pick to Oakland in exchange for 24-year-old, two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Amari Cooper. Cooper gives the team the No. 1 wideout it’s been missing, but he’ll have to prove he can return to his 2016 form — and not the 2017 version that caught fewer than four passes per game — to boost Dallas’s uneven offense.
Chance of making the postseason: 50 percent. The NFC East is weird, and getting Prescott some real relief in the form of Cooper could be a difference maker. But Washington keeps hanging around at the top of the division, and the Eagles have a legit MVP candidate behind center. The rest of 2018 could reward Jones’ decision to push his chips into the middle for a playoff push. Or it could see the Cowboys fall flat on their faces. Either one seems equally likely.