Ranking the NFL’s winless teams: Where do the Bengals, Colts, and Raiders go from here?

There are seven winless teams remaining in the NFL. Which of these clubs has the best chance to rebound and make the playoffs?

While every game counts the same in an NFL season, getting off to an 0-2 start can often be a death knell. Since 1970, 400 teams have begun the season 0-2 — only 38 (9.5%) eventually earned postseason berths. There are currently five winless teams in the NFL, and we’ll throw in the 0-1-1 Colts and Texans for good measure. Which of these seven clubs has the best chance to rebound and make the playoffs?

Ranking the NFL’s winless teams through two weeks

An 0-2 team hasn’t gone to the postseason since 2018, when both the Texans and the Seahawks made it to the tournament after inauspicious starts. Houston actually began that year 0-3, which made their eventual playoff berth all the more surprising. Since 1970, only 2.6% of clubs that started 0-3 went to the postseason.

The NFL’s new 17-game season skews the numbers a bit, but it’s safe to say teams don’t want to start the year winless. Starting 0-2 is a problem; starting 0-3 means your season is probably already over.

Let’s examine the NFL’s seven winless teams and rank them in order of the likelihood that they’ll improve enough to contend by season’s end.

7) Houston Texans

The Texans are 0-1-1 thanks to a Week 1 tie with the division rival Colts, but they could easily be 2-0. Houston gave up 17 unanswered fourth-quarter points to Indianapolis to send the game to overtime, while 10 fourth-quarter points from Denver in Week 2 led to a Texans defeat.

We can praise Lovie Smith and Co. for hanging with two teams that were viewed as contenders before the season began. Still, those close results are likely more indicative of poor play from Houston’s opponents than anything the Texans did themselves. Houston is dead last in the NFL in offensive yards per play, and no team has lost as many expected points on offense.

No one expected the Texans to compete for anything in 2022, so their early lackluster results are hardly surprising. This is a “figure out stuff” season in Houston. Can Davis Mills be a franchise quarterback? Is Nico Collins a viable No. 2 receiver? Are there any interesting pieces on defense? Can the Texans’ rookie class flash in Year 1?

As long as some of those questions are answered by the time the final whistle blows in Week 18, the 2022 season will have been considered a success in Houston. In the more immediate future, the Texans play the Bears in Week 3, so that first win might only be days away.

6) Atlanta Falcons

After allowing the Saints to storm back and win in Week 1, the Falcons almost played the same trick on the Rams in Week 2. Down 31-10 with 12:13 left in the fourth quarter, Atlanta scored two touchdowns and a two-point conversion to make it 31-25. A Cooper Kupp fumble on LA’s next drive gave the Falcons a chance to win, but Marcus Mariota was intercepted with 1:18 to go. The Rams took an intentional safety and won the game 31-27.

The Falcons are essentially in the same place as the Texans. Atlanta needs to see some development from young players like Drake London, Arnold Ebiketie, Troy Andersen, and Drew Dalman to call 2022 a win. Still, the Falcons are showing some signs of life.

For one, Arthur Smith made an excellent coaching decision during Atlanta’s comeback. After scoring a touchdown to make the score 31-23 Rams, Smith called for a two-point play. That may seem backward at first glance. An extra point would have put the Falcons down by seven, so why not just send out Younghoe Koo?

Going for two is the correct choice in that situation, and it gave the Falcons some free win probability. Atlanta had to make decisions as if they’d score another touchdown to win. If they’d missed the first conversion attempt, they could have tried again after their next TD. Given that two-point plays have roughly a 50% success rate, the math checks out.

That’s the type of aggressive maneuver Smith should be making week in and week out. His decision to go for two starkly contrasted with his choice to punt on 4th-and-1 at the end of Atlanta’s loss to the Saints in Week 1. The Falcons had to convert one (admittedly long) yard to win the game against a New Orleans team that had no timeouts left. Win expectancy models suggested that Smith cost Atlanta roughly 15.5 percentage points of win probability by deciding to punt.

The Falcons are finding other ways to make themselves interesting, too. They’ve leaned into Mariota as a rushing threat, as his 10 designed runs are third-most among quarterbacks. He’s used play-action on 40.6% of his dropbacks, third in the league behind only Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa.

Atlanta has also relied on varied personnel groupings to create offensive success. Eleven different skill position players logged at least 20% playtime against the Rams. The Falcons’ most common lineup — the 11-man group that they’ve used the most — has only been deployed on 5.47% of their plays, second-fewest in the NFL.

5) Carolina Panthers

Baker Mayfield was supposed to raise the floor and the ceiling for the Panthers. But through two games, he’s posted lower adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) — the passing metric most correlated with winning — than Sam Darnold did in 2021. Mayfield is dead last in the NFL with a 23.8 QBR, meaning an average team would be expected to win fewer than a quarter of its games with him under center.

The Panthers have far more talent than the division rival Falcons, but they’ve achieved the same results through two weeks. They lost to the Browns in Week 1 after rookie kicker Cade York drilled a 58-yard field goal at the end of the fourth quarter. In Week 2, Carolina lost fumbles on their opening kickoff and their first drive, leading to six points for the Giants in a game New York eventually won by three.

They’ve gotten a bit unlucky, and the Panthers have performed well in other areas. Carolina’s new-look offensive line is playing well outside of first-round left tackle Ikem Ekwonu (who is showing some growing pains, as expected). Christian McCaffrey and Co. lead the league in rushing EPA on a per-play basis. The Panthers’ defense is a top-10 unit by EPA, and Brian Burns is tied for second in the NFL with 12 pressures.

All in all, though, Carolina has to feel deflated by their 0-2 start. There’s no denying this is a make-or-break season for both Mayfield and head coach Matt Rhule. If Mayfield keeps up this level of play, he’ll be a backup somewhere in 2022, while Rhule could be sent packing back to the collegiate ranks.

The NFC is the weaker conference in the NFL, but it’s hard to imagine the Panthers turning things around quickly enough to be in playoff consideration. The Deshaun Watson-less Browns and the Giants were supposed to be the easy wins. Carolina’s next five games are against the Saints, Cardinals, 49ers, Rams, and Buccaneers; 0-7 is very much on the table.

4) Tennessee Titans

The Titans went 12-5 and earned the AFC’s No. 1 seed in 2021, but it seemed clear they were due to take a step back (or two) this season. Part of that was by design. During the draft, Tennessee traded A.J. Brown — their best offensive player — to the Eagles in exchange for a first-round pick. They used that selection on fellow wideout Treylon Burks, who couldn’t have been expected to match Brown’s production in Year 1.

Meanwhile, Ryan Tannehill was coming off his worst season as a Titan and entering his age-34 season. Derrick Henry is a year older, too, and missed nine games in 2021 after fracturing his foot. Tennessee was set to work in two new offensive linemen, left guard Aaron Brewer and rookie right tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere, and their only meaningful veteran additions on offense were wideout Robert Woods (recovering from a torn ACL) and tight end Austin Hooper.

Through two games, the results have been as discouraging as you might expect. The Titans lost to the Giants in Week 1 when Randy Bullock missed a 47-yard field at the buzzer. Then, they got absolutely shellacked by the Bills on Monday Night Football in Week 2. It was a total comedy of errors, as Tennessee lost the turnover battle 4-0, got outgained by 227 yards, and committed nine penalties for 87 yards.

It barely looked like the Titans and Bills were playing the same sport. Of course, Tennessee isn’t going to have to play a Buffalo-caliber team every week, and they happen to reside in the AFC South. The Jaguars currently lead the division at 1-1, while the other two clubs are both on this list. Due to that muted competition, FiveThirtyEight still gives the Titans a 38% chance to make the playoffs, just ahead of the Colts and Jaguars at 37% each.

There’s a clear tier break between the four teams we’ve discussed and the three other winless teams, beginning with the club that the Titans will face in Week 3.

3) Las Vegas Raiders

It’s hard to get too upset about the Raiders’ performance through two games. In Week 1, they lost a close divisional battle to the Chargers. In Week 2, they blew the largest lead in Raiders history (20 points) in a stunning defeat to the Cardinals.

Clearly, you don’t want to allow historic comebacks at any point in your season, but losses like that don’t happen very often. Still, we’ve already seen how luck has started to turn against the Raiders in 2022. After going 7-2 in one-score games last season, Las Vegas is already 0-2 in such contests this year.

Derek Carr has largely been effective and wisely made Davante Adams the focal point of the offense with 17 targets in Week 1. But against the Cardinals, Adams received just seven targets and caught only two of them for 12 yards. Hunter Renfrow (whose fumble in overtime cost the Raiders a chance at a game-winning field goal) and Darren Waller will have to step up if opposing defenses find a way to neutralize Adams.

Las Vegas also has one of the worst offensive lines in the league. They’re rotating between Lester Cotton Sr. and Dylan Parham at right guard and Jermaine Eluemunor and Thayer Munford at right tackle. Last season, Carr finished 25th in passer rating when pressured but 12th when kept clean. It seems likely that the Raiders’ OL issues will creep up as the season progresses, hampering the offense as a whole.

Even if you feel good about what Vegas can become, they play in the best division in the NFL! The 2-0 Chiefs and 1-1 Chargers are among the best teams in the league, and the Broncos eked out a victory in Week 2, as well. If the Raiders are to have any realistic chance of turning things around, they probably need to win three of their next four games: at Tennessee, vs. Denver, at Kansas City, vs. Houston.

2) Indianapolis Colts

The Colts made a lot of mistakes in their Week 1 tie with the Texans, but after storming back with 17 fourth-quarter points, Indy had to feel good heading into Week 2. The Colts put up 200+ more yards than Houston. It was Matt Ryan’s first game in blue and white. Things had to get better against the Jaguars, right?

Wrong. The Colts got shut out 24-0, their third shutout defeat to Jacksonville over the last five seasons. Admittedly, Indianapolis was without their top two receivers in Michael Pittman Jr. and Alec Pierce, but it’s unclear if those pass-catching options would have helped all that much in a brutal loss.

Two games is an inherently small sample size, but Dak Prescott is the only quarterback who’s posted a worse EPA/play than Ryan. The longtime Falcons QB was supposed to represent a significant improvement over Carson Wentz, but so far, Wentz is playing much better in Washington than Ryan is in Indianapolis.

Ryan isn’t exactly getting any help on offense. The Colts gave Jonathan Taylor just nine carries on Sunday, the fewest he’s received in a game since midway through his rookie season. And the once-vaunted Indy offensive line, playing with two new starters in left tackle Matt Pryor and right guard Danny Pinter, can’t get any movement in the run game and gave up five sacks against the Jaguars.

On defense, first-year coordinator Gus Bradley is unsurprisingly playing far more Cover 3  than any other team in the NFL. In a league where two-high shells have become the norm, it’s almost odd to see the Colts stubbornly lean into Cover 3, but Bradley hasn’t shown much willingness to change his stripes.

Indianapolis could get this ship turned around by midseason, and the AFC South is one of the weakest divisions in football. But it’s worth remembering that the Colts have never won the division under Frank Reich, and it’s fair to wonder where the ceiling is for this team.

1) Cincinnati Bengals

Raise your hand if you thought the defending AFC champions would lose their first two games of the season to Mitchell Trubisky and Cooper Rush?

Sure, there were plenty of signs that the Bengals could regress in 2022. Although their offense was viewed as a consistently high-powered unit, they ranked just 18th in offensive DVOA. Cincinnati only turned the ball over twice from Week 15 through the Super Bowl, an unsustainable rate that had no chance of continuing into this season. And they caught a bunch of breaks during their playoff run against the Raiders, Titans, and Chiefs that allowed them to reach the Super Bowl.

But no one expected that regression to hit this hard or this early. To be fair, the Bengals lost both their games on last-second field goals. But let me reiterate: those losses were to Mitchell Trubisky and Cooper Rush.

The Bengals spent heavily to revamp an offensive line that allowed Joe Burrow to be sacked a league-high 51 times in 2021, but he’s already been taken down 13 times in two games. David Carr took an NFL-record 76 sacks in 2002. Burrow is on pace to be sacked 110 times.

Cincinnati faced two of the league’s best defenders in T.J. Watt and Micah Parsons over their first two games, something they won’t have to do every week. But the offensive line — which includes four new starters in LG Cordell Volson, C Ted Karras, RG Alex Cappa, and RT La’el Collins — has looked disjointed and unorganized. That uninspiring performance has bled over into the run game, where the Bengals rank dead last with a 23.1% success rate.

It hasn’t been all the offensive line’s fault, though. Burrow has only been pressured on 30.9% of his dropbacks, 16th in the NFL. He’s allowing that pressure to turn into sacks by holding onto the ball too long and failing to hit his checkdown options. After finishing second in ANY/A in 2021, Burrow ranks 31st in the same metric this year, ahead of only Justin Fields and Dak Prescott.

Cincinnati’s offensive scheme is inherently stagnant, as Ollie Connolly of the Read Optional has detailed. If the Bengals are under center, they’re running. If they’re in shotgun, they’re passing. And even with all that under-center running, they hardly use play action. Burrow has faked the run on just 14.5% of his dropbacks, 30th in the NFL.

There are other issues on the roster. Zac Taylor has gotten better at fourth-down decision-making, but he still misses some obvious calls. On defense, the Bengals have next-to-no depth on the defensive line, so Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard, and B.J. Hill are all at or approaching a 90% snap rate. One injury at corner could kneecap Cincinnati’s secondary, and the coaching staff hasn’t found a way to get first-round safety Daxton Hill (eight defensive snaps) on the field.

This was supposed to be the easy part of the Bengals’ schedule, which gets much tougher later in the year when Cincinnati has to face the Browns, Buccaneers, Patriots, Bills, and Ravens to close the season. Every other team in the AFC North is 1-1, so there’s room for the Bengals to turn things around. But if they don’t win against Joe Flacco and the Jets in Week 3, it might be curtains.

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