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NFL Panic Index 2018: Will Le’Veon Bell ruin the Steelers’ chemistry if he comes back?

Do the Steelers even want Bell back? Plus, Aaron Rodgers can’t relax, Amari Cooper’s not enough to make the Cowboys good, Sam Darnold can’t stop turning over the ball, and more things to freak out about this week.

NFL: AFC Championship-Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Is this finally it? After false hope after false hope, is Le’Veon Bell really is ready to return to the Steelers?

Or maybe he just got tired of partying in the city where the heat is on, all night, on the beach till the break of dawn.

Because on Monday, Bell (in a creatively spelled way) bid adieu to Miami, where he’s been training while away from the team. Does that mean he’s headed back to Pittsburgh, ready to play the second half of the season under the franchise tag? Not necessarily. When he left Miami for parts unknown, he still hadn’t been in contact with the team.

The Steelers might be fine with that. They have moved on. Sure, they had a rough go of it there for a while, looking like a shell of their former self. They started the season off 1-2-1, including a tie against the Browns that had them doing the walk of shame back home.

But James Conner was there to help them pick up the pieces. Now, the Steelers have their act together and as winners of four straight, they’re back atop the AFC North. Conner has been a rock, too. Drama free. He even does things Bell never did.

The running game in particular has found a nice rhythm. During their winning streak, Conner has rushed for at least 100 yards and has added at least four receptions in each game. He’s scored seven total touchdowns in that time. And he’s made sure to give the offensive line credit.

And yet, Bell hangs over the team, whether they like it or not.

“I don’t want to waste the energy,” Steelers guard David DeCastro told Sunday. “I have to block some of the best players on the best defense in the world. Do you think I’m going to worry about a guy who’s not here?”

So they finally have a good thing going here again, and now Bell (perhaps) wants to come back into their lives and (perhaps) mess it all up?

Panic index: Well first of all, we still don’t know if Bell will report to the Steelers. But we should know by Nov. 13 at the latest, because if Bell doesn’t show up then, he won’t be able to play this season.

And if he does return? Then, oh no, the Steelers will have ANOTHER dynamic weapon on offense that every other team in the league would covet. They’re all paid professionals (though Bell understandably wants to be paid more than the Steelers are willing). Even if there are any hard feelings, they can figure out how coexist because they all have the same goal at the end of the day.

Washington’s whole damn team is on injured reserve

Getting blown out by the Falcons came at a bad time. Washington had a chance to take a commanding lead in the middling NFC East, but dropped to 5-3 instead — just one game ahead of the 4-4 Philadelphia Eagles.

But the bigger problem is what the loss cost them in injuries:

Those aren’t small losses. Losing one starting offensive lineman is bad, let alone two on the interior. Things were so disastrous that defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis almost had to play offensive guard against the Falcons.

They scooped up a few linemen off the street, but it’s probably fair to say that it’s going to be tough sledding for Adrian Peterson behind a pieced together line.

Losing Richardson hurts too. He was a big free agent addition in the offseason for Washington, and he’s the only player on the team with more than one touchdown reception. He didn’t put up huge stats this year with just 20 receptions for 262 yards, but that was behind only tight end Jordan Reed in receiving yardage.

Washington’s injured reserve list now has 15 players — including three running backs, four receivers, one tight end, and four offensive linemen. Yikes.

Panic index: Washington was already No. 25 in total offense. The team is 5-0 when holding teams to 17 points or fewer, so defense is really the key. But points may be even harder to come by now, and that means some alarm is warranted.

Sam Darnold has been a turnover machine this season

Rookie quarterbacks almost always tend to play poorly, but Darnold has been turning the ball over at a high rate recently. In the Jets’ last three games, Darnold has two touchdowns to seven interceptions. This includes a three-interception game against the Vikings and a four-interception game last week against the Dolphins.

Over that three game stretch, the Jets are 0-3 and have scored just 33 points. They’ve really struggled to get into a groove offensively and it looks like it’s probably going to cost head coach Todd Bowles his job with the team.

Panic index: Part of the reason we don’t need to panic yet about Darnold is because this is who he was at USC for the most part. He led the NCAA in turnovers before declaring for the draft. He’s also the youngest quarterback to ever start a game in the NFL.

It’s too early to definitively say whether or not Darnold will be good. This stretch of play has been disheartening, but he’s such a young player and has incredible peaks with his play that Jets fans should keep the faith.

One man can’t save the Cowboys

Amari Cooper came as advertised for Dallas in his blue-and-silver debut Monday night. He stood out as the team’s top receiving target, caught the bulk of the passes thrown his way, and even scored a first-half touchdown that gave the Cowboys a 7-0 first quarter lead.

But that wasn’t enough to fix the flaws that have dragged the Dallas offense to a 3-5 record. Dak Prescott’s inability to shake off the mistakes has marred his development from rookie dynamo to league-average QB. On Monday, he threw one interception in the end zone and fumbled in his own territory, setting up 14 Titans points in a 28-14 loss.

It’s a disappointing continuation of 2017’s regression. Prescott’s stats through eight games are virtually the same as last year’s, when his Cowboys went from the NFC’s top seed to out of the playoffs. His lack of aerial production has allowed opponents to key in on stopping Ezekiel Elliott, who has averaged 3.3 yards per carry and scored only a single touchdown in his team’s last four games.

That’s put a better-than-expected defense on the ropes and forced Dallas into a position where it needs a miracle finish just to get to 10 wins. There’s a chance Prescott and Cooper build a rapport that elevates both their games, but time is running out to make 2018 anything more than a lost season.

Panic index: Jason Garrett isn’t going anywhere:

Which is great news for the Raiders and their extra 2019 top-15 pick, courtesy of Cooper.

Aaron Rodgers no longer seems R-E-L-A-X-E-D

Rodgers saw his Packers fall under .500 after the Patriots figured out Mike Pettine’s cornerback-heavy defense, and now Green Bay needs a furious finish to avoid missing the playoffs. That’s not anything new for the two-time MVP. He was famously unbothered in 2014 when his slow start led him to tell Packer fans to “R-E-L-A-X.”

But on Sunday night, he looked pretty bothered.

Rodgers’ frustration boiled to the surface after a road loss in a winnable game left his team at 3-4-1. He put most of the blame for his team’s rough start directly on his shoulders, pointing out missed connections with Devante Adams and general inaccuracy while refusing to pin any of his struggles on a lack of help from his teammates or the knee injury that has bothered him since Week 1.

But it’s clear Rodgers hasn’t been up to his normal standards in 2018. His 60.6 percent completion rate is a career low as a starter, as is a 4.6 percent touchdown rate. He’s getting less from a group of wideouts that, due to injuries to Geronimo Allison and Randall Cobb, has had to start rookies Equamineous St. Brown and Marquez Valdes-Scantling multiple times. That’s all very troubling in a season where Green Bay’s struggles are forcing Rodgers to throw more than he has in his career.

He’s not getting much help from his defense, either. The Packers rank just 21st in the league in points allowed — and that kind of performance means Rodgers is going to have to throw his way out of this funk or risk a second-straight season that ends at Week 17.

Panic index: On one hand, it’s Aaron Rodgers. He’ll be fine. On the other, his typical quiet confidence escaped him Sunday night, and that’s ... concerning. Fortunately, the NFC North hasn’t exactly inspired confidence this fall, and an entirely manageable 6-2 finish could be all the Pack needs to return to the postseason.