Ten weeks into the NFL season and there’s a pretty clear line between who’s in and who’s out. There are patterns beginning to emerge, as well as powers. The playoff picture is beginning to take shape.
But it would be a mistake for teams to look forward toward the Lombardi Trophy in the distance without at least glancing a few times in their rearview mirror. If they do, they’ll notice a bunch of sub-.500 teams who may really loom larger than they appear.
Here are the five most dangerous “losing” teams in the NFL right now. All of them still have a shot at the playoffs. And all of them should be making the teams in front of them in the standings worry – at least a little bit:
New Orleans Saints (4-5)
There is no team in the NFL that wants to play the Saints right now, especially after the way they knocked off the undefeated Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. They remain an explosive offense (the NFL’s second-best passing attack) that can out-score anyone and the Superdome remains one of the loudest and toughest places to play.
And now they’re rolling. They are 4-1 after they got off to a disastrous 0-4 start under the weight of the BountyGate scandal. This is not a team that was short on talent. It was a team that had too many outside influences. Those are still there, to an extent, but they’ve become part of New Orleans’ new normal and now the Saints have learned to thrive.
It may be too late for them to catch the Falcons (8-1) in the NFC South, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-4) should be frightened, along with all the other wild-card contenders in the NFC.
San Diego Chargers (4-5)
The enigmatic Phillip Rivers and the strange coaching of Norv Turner tends to make life tough on this team, which has now lost four of its last five games. They also head into a dangerous two-week stretch with a road trip to Denver and home game against the tough Baltimore Ravens after that.
So yes, this could fall apart in a hurry. But this team can play a little defense (seventh in the NFL) and it would be a mistake to completely count out this Rivers-led offense. He’s struggling without departed receiver Vincent Jackson, but he has weapons on his team if he could just manage to find them. He’s done it in the past, and if he can do it again this team is capable of a little run.
They better beat the Peyton Manning-led Broncos (6-3) on Sunday, though, otherwise the AFC West will likely be out of reach.
Dallas Cowboys (4-5)
Don’t look now, but Tony Romo and Dez Bryant are showing signs of clicking and becoming what could eventually turn into one of the most dangerous QB-WR combos in the NFL. Running back DeMarco Murray is coming back, too. And the Cowboys, despite all their problems, have the NFL’s eighth-ranked defense.
Also, it’s worth noting, that the Cowboys’ recent two-game losing streak that dropped them under .500 including a narrow loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Giants and another narrow loss in Atlanta against the NFL’s last undefeated team. That’s not exactly a major crisis (except in Jerry Jones’ world).
Are they good enough to catch the Giants (6-4)? They were good enough to beat them on Opening Night in New York. The Giants also have lost two straight games and are in their annual second-half swoon. The Cowboys could be just a half-game out by the time the Giants return from their bye on Sunday night, Nov. 25.
Cincinnati Bengals (4-5)
The Bengals announced their return to relevancy with authority on Sunday with a 31-13 humiliation of the Giants. They flashed the talent that had made up their underachieving defense and showed everyone why the combination of quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green is something to be feared.
Everyone knew that going into the season, but the Bengals fell apart with four straight losses – including inexcusable ones to the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns. They were in all four of those games, which is something to consider but not enough of a positive for a true contender. The way their defense played against the Giants – now that’s the sign of a contender.
It’s unclear if there’s really an opening in the NFC North, though. The Ravens (7-2) lost Ray Lewis, but have somehow managed to survive and thrive anyway. But the loss of Ben Roethlisberger for the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3) could be just the opening the Bengals need.
Tennessee Titans (4-6)
It’s hard to like a team with the NFL’s 25th-ranked offense and the 29th-ranked defense. Jake Locker hasn’t done a whole lot to inspire confidence as a playoff-caliber quarterback and he’s hardly surrounded with excellent weapons. Chris Johnson is experiencing a revival at running back (862 yards on 5.1 yards per carry), but is that enough for a team that can’t stop anyone else from scoring?
Probably not, especially in a division led by the Houston Texans (8-1) and, not far behind them, the Andrew Luck-led Indianapolis Colts (6-3).
Here’s why there’s hope, though. Down the stretch they face the awful Jacksonville Jaguars twice, the dysfunctional Jets once and they get another shot at Luck’s Colts. If Luck experiences any type of second-half fade – certainly possible for any rookie quarterback -- that might just be enough to get the Titans to 8-8.
Would that be good enough in a wild-card race where the Steelers (6-3) and Colts (6-3) are the leaders? Probably not. But if the Titans can ride their rushing attack, they might not just go away.
—By RALPH VACCHIANO