Funtime Lions to Saints surge: which current losing teams will make the NFL playoffs?

<span>Photograph: Philip G Pavely/USA Today Sports</span>
Photograph: Philip G Pavely/USA Today Sports

A lot can change over the course of an 18-week NFL season. This time last year, there were 10 teams with one win or fewer. Three went on to make the postseason: the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles. This year, there are nine teams below the .500 mark entering Week 5. At least one is still likely to make the playoffs – let’s grade who has the strongest shot.

New England Patriots, 1-3 record

The Patriots are bottom of an AFC East headlined by two of the best teams in the conference, Mac Jones has a high ankle sprain and Bill Belichick is deciding whether to start Brian Hoyer at quarterback or roll with the Bailey Zappe Experience. Not great, Bob.

Add to that: Belichick’s defense is not as strong this season as a year ago. Like a student cramming for finals after skipping class the entire semester, the Pats cobbled together a brand-new blueprint for their matchup with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. How sustainable is that one-off model the rest of the way? Based on the early season evidence, not very. The Pats have a below-average defense with a couple of high-level playmakers who can cover up some structural flaws. That’s not a recipe for success when your offense is being marshaled by a rookie – or Hoyer.

Chance of making playoffs: 3/10

Detroit Lions, 1-3

The Detroit Lions: officially fun
The Detroit Lions: officially fun. Photograph: Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Who cares about boring things like the team record when you’re playing in a fireworks show every Sunday? The Lions have scored 140 (!) points this season, an average of 35 per game, and the league’s high-water mark. They also so happen to have conceded 141 points, an average of just over 35 per game, also the league’s high-water mark. No other team in the league has conceded more than 115 points through four weeks.

The nerdy metrics paint an even grimmer picture. Detroit field the only defense that has slipped below the minus-0.200 threshold on EPA per play, which is probably the mark when the league calls in the feds to figure out if someone is throwing games [LEGAL DISCLAIMER: the Lions are not throwing games]. That’s not something a team solve overnight. And for all the firepower on offense, it’s likely that Jared Goff will fall back to Earth at some point.

Chance of making playoffs: 5/10

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Pittsburgh Steelers, 1-3

Now that the Steelers have ended the Mitch Trubisky experiment, things suddenly look a lot brighter. Kenny Pickett may play the part of a frazzled-looking rookie who’s in over his head, but he’s a frazzled rookie who can at least bring a spark to a flagging unit.

The AFC North is a bloodbath. But the Steelers have just enough parts to keep them in the race until the midpoint of the season. The Steelers’ run game currently ranks fifth in EPA per play, a measure of a team’s down-to-down efficiency. The defense ranks 12th in the league by the same measure, a good enough mark to keep Pittsburgh in any game.

Ultimately, it will come down to how quickly Pickett can acclimate. Mike Tomlin has built a set-up to ease him in, focusing on the run game and defense, but take a look at the next six defenses (and defensive minds) on Pittsburgh’s schedule: The Bills, Bucs, Dolphins, Eagles, Saints and Bengals. Woof. Five of those groups sit in the top 10 in EPA per play (three in the top five). The lone outsider? The Dolphins, whose blitz packages are nightmare fuel for even the most experienced quarterbacks. Good luck, rook!

Chance of making playoffs: 4/10

Indianapolis Colts, 1-3

It’s been a disastrous start to the season for Indy. Matt Ryan plus a league-leading run game and a frisky defense was supposed to be enough to guide the Colts to a comfortable AFC South title. Through four weeks, they’re way off the pace. The offense looks constipated, with Ryan proving more of a liability than a sparkplug. Worse: The NFL’s most expensive offensive line is playing as though they receive a bonus for every busted protection.

Plus, the AFC South is better than anticipated. The Jags are good, the Texans are better than their record suggests, and the Titans continue to be a nuisance – despite several second-half wobbles. If Ryan and the Colts offense can click into gear, they still have a shot; no one fears the Jaguars or Titans just yet. But with each passing week, it looks like Ryan’s game has tipped past the point of no return.

Chance of making playoffs: 5/10

Houston Texans, 0-3-1

Try not to laugh: The Texans aren’t awful. Honestly. Their record may be laughable, but the Texans of 2022 are not the laughing stock of the recent past. Like Milhouse’s flood pants, the evolution of the league’s offenses – and how defenses have built counters – has synced up nicely with Lovie Smith’s dogma. The head coach just so happens to have the perfect antidote to the current brand of McVay-LaFleur-Shanahan offense that has spread throughout the league, even with an imperfect roster.

The Texans might not be good, but they’re competitive – and further along in their rebuild than anticipated at this point 12 months ago.

Chance of making playoffs: 1/10

Las Vegas Raiders, 1-3

Will Allegiant Stadium host playoff football this season?
Will Allegiant Stadium host playoff football this season? Photograph: Gary A Vasquez/USA Today Sports

Josh McDaniels must be kicking himself. The first-year head coach has lost three of his first four games by a combined 13 points, including a stomach-churning loss to Kyler Murray and the Cardinals in overtime. Ordinarily, that would point to a team who are better than their record suggests, who have some bad habits that they could correct in time for a playoff push. For the Raiders, it’s probably too little too late. The defense stinks, and in a stacked AFC West, handing over a two-game advantage to the Chiefs and Chargers is simply too much to overcome – which means they have to knock off KC this weekend to stand a chance.

Chance of making playoffs: 4/10

Washington Commanders, 1-3

For the second year running, Washington’s defense is a disjointed mess. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio likes to call one style; Rivera another. The head coach has been more hands-off with the defense than he was in Carolina, where he piloted a consistent top-five unit. In Washington, he’s delegated things to Del Rio while maintaining his general style. It was a strange decision, like handing a menu to a stranger and asking them to order lunch for your group of 11. Can everyone eat shellfish?

The easy fix: To move on from Del Rio as coordinator for someone more aligned with Rivera’s philosophy, or for Rivera to take more control over the defense himself.

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Otherwise, they’re relying on Carson Wentz – a quarterback who sits behind the now-benched Trubisky, the banged up Jameis Winston and Joe Flacco in the all-important RBSDM composite – to take them to the promised land. That’s not happening.

Chance of making playoffs: 3/10

Carolina Panthers, 1-3

Forget this year. Let’s talk about next year. By the end of this season, Matt Rhule and his staff will be out. What will be left is the cap sheet (and stripped assets) of the Rhule era. Here are some of the 2023 cap hits on the Panthers’ books: DJ Moore, $25m; Taylor Moton, $24m; Shaq Thompson, $24m; Robbie Anderson, $21m. That’s almost $150m of a projected $225m cap tied up in four decent-to-good players. You read that right.

Carolina’s roster is a mess. The decisions have been poor, the contracts wince-inducing, the coaching ugly, the on-field product is bordering on a crime against the football gods. The sooner this regime comes to an end, the better.

Chance of making playoffs: 1/10

New Orleans Saints, 1-3

The Saints’ schedule over the next few weeks is favorable, even with Andy Dalton as the presumptive starter. They head to the Cardinals in Week Six but surround that with home games against the Seahawks, Bengals, and Raiders. Those aren’t easy match-ups, but they are winnable. If the Saints can split those and head into November with a 4-5 record, they’ll have a shot at clinching one of the wild-card berths.

Chance of making playoffs: 6/10