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Ranking the 0-2 NFL teams, from the hopeful (the Bengals!) to the hopeless (Panthers, c’mon)

Just because your year didn’t start the way you envisioned doesn’t mean all hope is lost. An NFL season is long — 17 games to be exact. Such an extended schedule usually translates into a roller coaster of emotions from week to week.

But after their slow starts, a handful of teams can’t afford to ride Six Flags’ terrifying speed demons as much as others.

Five squads — the Bengals, Titans, Raiders, Falcons and Panthers — are 0-2 to begin their 2022 campaigns. By historical standards, their years might already be over from a playoff standpoint. Since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, only 9.5 percent of teams have made the postseason after starting 0-2. It’s not an impossible task to recover from a listless start, but you sure as heck better not have many more missteps.

Let’s break down the playoff chances for the NFL’s five 0-2 teams and diagram their reasons for hope and despair through the rest of 2022.

All playoff odds via Tipico Sportsbook.

5
Atlanta Falcons (+1500 to make playoffs)

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Reason for optimism: Rookie receiver Drake London already appears to be acclimating well to the speed of the pro game. His 19 targets, 13 catches, and 160 yards all lead the Falcons’ offense as he resembles more “veteran” than “rookie.” And, even despite some unfortunate team collapses, it’s not as if Atlanta’s ninth-ranked attack in points has struggled to light up the scoreboard. Any team with London, Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Pitts should be relatively prolific. The Falcons will likely be in every game through the rest of the year because they can keep pace, shot for shot, with these sorts of matchup problems.

Plus, the NFC is so bad and top-heavy that it feels like anyone — even the Falcons — can sneak into the January fun this season.

Reason for pessimism: Unfortunately, while Atlanta has some great offensive playmakers, it really doesn’t have much else worth writing home about.

Let’s see:

  • The Falcons currently have the NFL’s 24th-ranked defense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Poor A.J. Terrell and Grady Jarrett trying to lift up a unit of no-names.
  • While their turnover differential is adequate through two games (-1), only the Rams and Saints (six each) have given the ball away more than the Falcons (five).
  • Meanwhile, Marcus Mariota — the NFL’s 22nd leading passer — is just 18th in air yards. So it’s not as if Mariota is maximizing his stellar supporting cast of acrobats and exceptional athletes.

The Falcons might scrounge up a surprising win or two over the rest of the year, but they are otherwise too inconsistent to count on breaking any 0-2 precedent. Though, not all hope is lost. Maybe a salty Arthur Smith figures out how to involve the league’s arguable best pass-catching tight end in Pitts (four catches, 38 yards) by the time Atlanta calls it a wrap on 2022.

4
Carolina Panthers (+700 to make playoffs)

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Reason for optimism: D.J. Moore and Christian McCaffrey (when healthy) are both excellent and good at football. Uh, that’s all I got.

Reason for pessimism: Oh, man. Where do I even start?

By almost every relevant metric (passing yards, completion percentage, yards per attempt, etc.) Baker Mayfield has been one of the NFL’s worst starting quarterbacks so far. If this is how Mayfield was supposed to show out after an over-dramatic exit from Cleveland, hoo boy, is he in for a rough go of it over the next three and a half months.

As a team, the Panthers are 28th in total offense and just 20th in total defense (despite playing against the anemic Browns’ and Jets’ attacks). They have the league’s 29th-ranked third-down offense and the 17th-ranked third-down defense (again, despite playing the anemic Browns’ and Jets’ attacks).

To put the cherry on top, Matt Rhule looks lost as a tactician and leader as head coach. Usually, you want to be good at something as a coach! It’d be news to me if someone has a hotter coaching seat than him.

3
Las Vegas Raiders (+200 to make playoffs)

USA TODAY Sports Network

Reason for optimism: The Raiders do not have the roster of an 0-2 team. They just have the luck of one. That said, they will have to start being more consistent.

A fourth-quarter rally at the hands of the bona fide Super Bowl contender Chargers in Week 1 fell just short. A stunning fourth-quarter collapse at the hands of the Cardinals and a magical Kyler Murray probably shakes out a little differently in another dimension.

Put simply: I am not going to bet against a team with Davante Adams (the best receiver in football), Darren Waller (a top-five tight end), Hunter Renfrow (perhaps the league’s premier slot receiver), and a defense with All-Pro level pass-rushers Chandler Jones and Maxx Crosby on the edges. Derek Carr might not be elite per se, but even he can’t waste such a core.

Las Vegas has a cadre of playmakers most GMs and coaches should envy. Honestly, that’s a squad you piece together for yourself while playing Madden. It’s absurd, and this team is too talented to be stuck in a thick muck for long.

Reason for pessimism:

As talented as the Raiders are, an 0-2 hole in the AFC — especially the AFC West — might be a death sentence.

For example, despite some early stumbles in-games, it sure seems like Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs are on the precipice of playing like the Big Red Machine we’re all accustomed to. In L.A., the new-look Chargers and Justin Herbert might have a lot of potential as they mature. Even the Broncos and their human Aaron Rodgers bait, a.k.a. Nathaniel Hackett, probably won’t look so discombobulated all year.

The AFC itself is challenging enough. But the AFC West might be the worst division to start 0-fer. Josh McDaniels and Co. have a lot of ground to make up, and they’ve already lost some breathing room.

2
Tennessee Titans (+140 to make playoffs)

George Walker IV/Tennessean.com /USA TODAY Sports Network

Reason for optimism: Have you ever heard of the AFC South? You know, the division that teams seemingly win by default sometimes? Well, good for the Titans because they’re a member of the AFC South!

The two-time defending division champions might be in a pit of misery to start 2022 (just ask Mike Vrabel), but they have more leeway than some of their Nevada peers. When you have a membership to the AFC South — currently home to the potentially washed-up Matt Ryan/winless Colts, a rebuilding Texans squad, and the Jaguars with a still-developing Trevor Lawrence — you can take your time finding yourselves.

The Titans could not have had a worse start to the year by losing to the rebuilding Giants while getting absolutely torn apart by the best team in the league, the Bills. But it might not even matter! Such is the luck of the draw when it comes to divisions. Taken a step further: Are we to believe Derrick Henry will average just over 3.1 yards per carry all season? Is a defense with a human-wrecking ball Jeffery Simmons anchoring the pass rush to resemble a turnstile all year? I’ll say no.

Reason for pessimism: On the other hand, while Derrick Henry is Derrick Henry, it’d be fair to consider whether his best days are behind him. By the tailback’s high standards, 107 total rushing yards and terrible blocking are a shadow of the bulldozer in a No. 22 jersey we all know and love. Maybe those 700-plus touches from 2019-2020 took a toll on a human being’s body. Who knew?

The same could be said for Henry’s 34-year-old signal-caller, Ryan Tannehill, one of pro football’s least effective quarterbacks through eight quarters of game time. Tannehill hasn’t looked this bad since his early up-and-down days in South Beach with the Dolphins. Calls for potential prodigy Malik Willis would likely be louder if the rookie were ready to actually play. But he isn’t.

Whatever the Titans manage as a squad in their last 15 games will hold little weight if Henry and Tannehill don’t get it together. The offense quite figuratively runs through Henry’s stiff arms and Tannehill’s ability to make defenses pay over the top as support.

1
Cincinnati Bengals (+140 to make playoffs)

Credit: USA TODAY Sports Network

Reason for optimism: Almost no one in the league has been more of a victim of field-tilting plays going against them than the Bengals thus far.

Cincinnati had five turnovers against the Steelers in Week 1 (including four Joe Burrow picks). This isn’t a slight to the superb Pittsburgh defense, but turnovers, contrary to what some Football Guys might believe, are rooted far more in variance and bounces of the ball than any outright skill.

At the same time, even with offensive line upgrades, Burrow has been sacked on 12.7 percent of his dropbacks in 2022. During Cincinnati’s Cinderella (or “Cincerella”) run to Super Bowl 56 last year, Burrow was sacked on 9.6 percent of his dropbacks. It’s clear that the quarterback plays a more significant part in getting driven to the turf than we initially thought, but I have a hunch talent up front (especially once chemistry between Ted Karras, La’el Collins, and Alex Cappa is better established) will win out in the end.

And when Burrow is staying upright and giving the ball away less, that means more touches for Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Joe Mixon. In other words, the Bengals will cook with gas.

Oh, and don’t look now, but the Bengals have a top-10 defense in DVOA. Sam Hubbard, Trey Hendrickson, and Von Bell are flat-out balling after being more of a liability (19th in DVOA last year) en route to their AFC title.

Reason for pessimism: Where the Bengals stand is simple.

Last year, they caught everyone off guard multiple times by making it to February’s Big Game. This season, they’re the defending AFC champs and could have a big target on their back. I can’t attribute this assertion to anything tangible save for watching how the Steelers and Cowboys pounced on Burrow like a pack of lions hunting an antelope.

If that weren’t enough, the Bengals have the eighth-hardest remaining strength of schedule at .533. In addition to their usual division opponents, Cincinnati has national dates with the Dolphins, Chiefs, Buccaneers, and Bills — with the last three matchups coming in the final December to January stretch of the season. Usually, when making a surprise playoff run, you were abysmal the year before — like the Bengals were in 2020 before ascending in 2021 — and had a more manageable schedule the ensuing season.

To have three bona fide (maybe four if the Dolphins are for real) heavyweights on an end-season slate might be all that she wrote for those on the Ohio River if they’re not careful.

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