There is no safe haven in the NFL, even for returning division champions. None of the four division champs from 2010 is in first this season, more testimony to NFL parity. Here are six teams that made the playoffs last season but are in trouble this year:
1.) Eagles: They assembled the “Dream Team” but lost something in translation. The Eagles’ defense is still soft against the run, and the offense has trouble protecting Michael Vick. In a home loss to the 49ers, Philly fans began chanting, “Andy must go,” in reference to coach Andy Reid. But the Eagles still have a chance. They get the rest of their non-division games at home, including against the Bears, Patriots and Dolphins.
2.) Steelers: Seven of the past 10 Super Bowl losers failed to qualify for the playoffs the following year. The Steelers are threatening to make it eight of 11. They looked absolutely ancient in a 35-7 loss to the Ravens in the season opener, and they were gouged for 180 rush yards by the Texans in Week 4. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger once again is straddling the line between being hurt and playing through it. Somehow, the Steelers always keep it together. They have their two toughest games left – Patriots, Ravens – at home in Weeks 8 and 9.
3.) Falcons: Atlanta splurged on wide-out Julio Jones in the draft and somehow lost its identity as a physical run team. Winning at Tampa Bay in Week 3 restored some order in the NFC South. The Falcons have both games left with New Orleans, so they’re not out of it. Aside from the Saints, the schedule seems to play to Atlanta’s favor. The Falcons were the No. 1 seed a year ago when they were blasted by the Packers in the divisional round.
4.) Jets: Rex Ryan came into the season wanting to cede more control to Mark Sanchez, but the former USC quarterback hasn’t shown he’s ready for it. Worse, the offensive line is in shambles; the result is that Sanchez has taken a beating and the running game has struggled. The defense hasn’t played particularly well, either, so Ryan will have a tough time getting to his third straight AFC championship game.
5.) Bears: In a division with the Packers and Lions, the Bears have almost become an afterthought. Monday night’s game at Detroit can change that. But the Bears haven’t played well on either side of the ball so far, and a team that lost to the Packers in last season’s championship game is definitely reeling. Quarterback Jay Cutler, who became a lightning rod of controversy in that championship game, has not distinguished himself yet.
6.) Colts: The only thing the Colts are in contention for at this point is first pick in next April’s draft, where, ironically, the top prize will be Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. Peyton Manning’s career appears in jeopardy and the Colts can’t overcome the loss of their leader. The schedule isn’t going to help, either. They’ve got road trips to New Orleans, New England and Baltimore remaining. Even the non-division home games – Kansas City, Atlanta and Carolina – could be tough.