Every NFL season starts with hope inside a locker room and within a fan base. A loss in Week 1 is damaging. A second consecutive loss in Week 2 is an immediate crisis. Teams can make it to the postseason after starting 0-2, but a two-game losing streak to begin the season puts their backs against the wall before the campaign has even really begun.
Since 2002, 98 teams have started 0-3. One of those teams (the 2018 Texans) made it to the playoffs, while the 2013 Steelers would have joined them if the league had 14 playoff teams at the time. Going 0-3 is basically hopeless, and 0-2 doesn’t feel too great, either.
Since 2022, just 9.6% of teams that started 0-2 have made it to the postseason, and while that seems survivable, no 0-2 team has made it to the postseason since 2018. The 17-game season gives teams an extra week to catch up to the rest of the league, but only one of the seven teams that started 0-2 a year ago posted a winning record, and that team — the 9-8 Colts — missed out on a playoff berth because it lost to the Jaguars in Week 18.
With five teams starting 0-2 in 2022, history tells us it would be a surprise if even one of them made it to the postseason. I’ll hold out hope that at least one of them turns things around. Let’s run through those five 0-2 teams (in order of least to most likely to make the playoffs) and detail what has gone wrong for them and what they can do to fix things before their seasons collapse.
Facing a schedule that began with two likely NFC playoff contenders, the Falcons have given a solid accounting of themselves. They outplayed the Saints for most of Week 1 before collapsing in the fourth quarter, with a brutally conservative decision from coach Arthur Smith breaking their back.
Last week’s loss to the Rams flipped the script, as the Falcons turned things on in the second half. Down 28-3, they scored two touchdowns amid a Rams field goal, then blocked a punt and returned it for a third. Smith correctly went for two while down eight points and converted, making the score 31-25 with five minutes to go. Atlanta then had a short field to take the lead after forcing a Cooper Kupp fumble, only for quarterback Marcus Mariota to be intercepted in the end zone to seal things.
With slightly better execution, the Falcons could be 2-0. Mariota fumbled away a red zone opportunity with a big lead in the third quarter against the Saints. They had one red zone whiff in each game so far, while opposing offenses have scored seven touchdowns and a field goal in eight trips. Kicker Younghoe Koo, who went 27-of-29 on field goal tries last season, already has two misses (one was a blocked 63-yarder to end the Saints game).
The Falcons have to be pleased with Mariota, even if he is slightly below league average in most passing categories through two games. Smith unsurprisingly has built in plenty of movement for Mariota, whose nine pass attempts on play-action boots are the fourth most in the league. The 28-year-old averages more than 9.0 yards per pass attempt when the Falcons use play-action, a mark that falls to 5.4 yards per attempt when they have him drop back without a play fake.
Mariota has run plenty through two weeks, carrying the ball 18 times for 88 yards and a touchdown. If anything, I’m a little surprised the Falcons didn’t install more quarterback run concepts for the former Titans starter; just about all his rush attempts have come on scrambles or zone-read looks. Mariota needs to do a better job of protecting the ball in the red zone, but he has been sacked on only 4.8% of his dropbacks, down from an untenable 12% during his last two seasons in Tennessee (2018 and 2019).
What has been notable, though, is the Falcons have not gotten the desired results from their most promising young players. Cornerback A.J. Terrell, who emerged as a bona-fide superstar in 2021, already has allowed as many touchdowns (three) as he did throughout all of last season. Saints receiver Michael Thomas outmuscled Terrell on a pair of fades for touchdowns in Week 1, and the Rams liked it enough on tape to go to the same matchup for an Allen Robinson II touchdown last Sunday. No player has allowed more expected points added (EPA) as the nearest defender in coverage so far. Terrell is still a great player, but Atlanta likely counted on being able to put Terrell on an island this season.
Tight end Kyle Pitts also seemed set for a mammoth season, but he has fewer receiving yards than the likes of Johnny Mundt and Zach Gentry through two games. Pitts has run only 51 routes, which ranks 17th among tight ends, and his four catches have produced a total of 8 yards after catch. He ranks 27th out of 34 qualifying tight ends in yards per route run (0.8) after finishing fifth in that category a year ago (2.1).
I watched all of Pitts’ red zone routes and expected to see a player who was getting double- or triple-teamed by opposing defenses, but that hasn’t been the case. He generally has been in one-on-one matchups, but the Falcons haven’t prioritized getting him targets in that area (or any area) through two weeks. The most notable thing he has done through two weeks is have a snap bounce off his leg while in motion.
Smith rejected criticism of Pitts not getting opportunities by dismissing the idea as fantasy football, but it’s not something we see elsewhere around the league. The Rams prioritize getting Cooper Kupp touches because he’s their best receiver. The Bills find ways to get Stefon Diggs the football. Chiefs coach Andy Reid mixes in all kinds of looks for Travis Kelce. It’s only two weeks, so I’m not too concerned, but it’s hardly unreasonable to suggest the Falcons aren’t creating opportunities for Pitts to be a difference-maker in key situations.
Field Yates asks the Falcons to get Kyle Pitts more involved as the tight end has 38 yards total in the first two games.
Realistically, given how many replacement-level players the Falcons are using for meaningful snaps, they aren’t going to be able to do much unless Pitts and Terrell are bona-fide All-Pros. If they harbor any sort of competitive aspirations, they can take heart in the fact that there are only three 2-0 teams in the NFC through two weeks, while the rest of the NFC South is a combined 3-3. With the Seahawks and Browns coming up, Atlanta has its best shot at taking home an early win or two before the slate gets tougher.
When Matt Rhule was coaching in college, the third year was the season in which his teams flourished. Temple went 2-10 in his first season, 6-6 in Year 2 and 10-4 in Year 3. Baylor started 1-11, then improved to 7-6 and 11-3 during Rhule’s third and final season in Waco, Texas. Panthers fans would have been thrilled with double-digit wins in Rhule’s third season, even given that he gets three extra games to work with at the pro level. At the very least, Carolina needed to show significant progress this season.
Through two games, it’s difficult to see signs of that progress. The Panthers have lost to the Browns (a team playing out the string while waiting for Deshaun Watson‘s 11-game suspension to expire) and the Giants (a team using the season to eat its salary-cap vegetables and evaluate Daniel Jones). The losses have come by two and three points, so the Panthers have been competitive, but these are the sorts of teams they need to be beating.
I will admit I’m surprised by Carolina’s offensive philosophy. After hiring Ben McAdoo as coordinator, the Panthers are flinging the ball around on early downs like they’re the Bills. They actually have the league’s highest early-down pass rate in neutral situations this season, ahead of those Bills, Chiefs and various other teams with superstar quarterbacks. The other teams in the top five — the Chiefs, Ravens, Chargers and Bills — average 0.33 EPA per dropback when they throw in those situations. The Panthers are generating minus-0.1 EPA per dropback, which is well below league average.
What this really comes down to is first down. The Panthers have thrown the ball at the league’s fifth-highest rate on first down. Quarterback Baker Mayfield hit receiver Robbie Anderson on a blown coverage for a 75-yard touchdown on a first-down pass, which is wonderful. Mayfield’s success rate on first-down dropbacks, though, is only 39.3%; quarterbacks leaguewide are successful on 45.1% of their first-down dropbacks. Mayfield ranks 20th in success rate on first down, which is fine but doesn’t seem to support such a heavy usage rate.
What makes this even weirder is the Panthers have had a healthy start from running back Christian McCaffrey, who has missed most of the past two seasons because of various injuries. McCaffrey’s passing-game routes suggest they either don’t want to use him in his old role or don’t think it’s important. He has been targeted 10 times through two weeks, but one was on a throwaway by Mayfield and the other was starting what ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt would call a “pitchy pitchy woo woo” attempt with eight seconds left in regulation against the Browns.
The other eight targets are mostly screens and immediate passes into the flat. The choice routes McCaffrey used to terrify opposing linebackers in space haven’t been part of the offense; he has just one catch on an option route all season. That route, coming 4.2 yards downfield, is his longest target of the season. Part of what made him such a valuable player was his ability to stress opposing teams as a receiver outside of the backfield; it’s bizarre to see Carolina avoid getting their star in space.
Mayfield is not off to a great start. His completion percentage is 9.5% below what NFL Next Gen Stats would expect from an average quarterback through two weeks, which is the fifth-worst mark in the league amongst starters. His overall success rate as a passer — 29% — is the second-worst mark, ahead of only Justin Fields, who has barely been allowed to throw the football. Drops can impact those numbers, but Next Gen Stats has credited the Panthers with only one drop so far.
The Carolina defense has been better in the early going, ranking 12th in DVOA through two weeks, albeit against middling quarterbacks. Only two defenses have hit opposing quarterbacks more frequently through two weeks than Carolina, though that contact has led to only four sacks. The defense has been able to keep games close by surviving in the red zone, where seven opposing drives have yielded only two touchdowns and five field goals.
For this team to start winning games, the defense is going to have to lead the way and force turnovers. The Panthers don’t have a single takeaway through two weeks. Cleveland quarterback Jacoby Brissett‘s one notable skill is avoiding takeaways, so it’s not a surprise the Browns protected the football, but it was a bit of a disappointment to see Carolina face Jones without taking home any gifts. Frankie Luvu dropped what should have been a pick-six on the sideline, so at least one significant opportunity was there for the taking.
A Brissett interception was overturned by a pass interference call on CJ Henderson, which has been another woe for Carolina. The Panthers have cost themselves 133 yards with penalties this season, the seventh-worst mark in the league. It’s even more damaging for a team that plays at one of the slowest paces in the league. The Panthers don’t have the sort of margin for error that comes with being sloppy.
It’s difficult to pin down what the Panthers hope to be good at, let alone where they’re actually succeeding in Rhule’s third season. They can rush the passer. They’ve done a good job of punting and covering kicks with Johnny Hekker. They’ve generally been efficient running the football, as McCaffrey & Co. rank eighth in rushing DVOA.
They’ve been competitive against middling opponents, but their next five games come against the Saints, Cardinals, 49ers, Rams and Buccaneers, each of whom posted winning records a year ago. Panthers fans were restless at the end of last season. Now, having gotten off to an 0-2 start before what will likely be a leap in terms of opponent quality, I can’t imagine they’re going to be any more patient.
Rhule is 2-14 in his past 16 games, and one of those wins was against a Cardinals team starting Colt McCoy at quarterback. While Rhule’s college teams seemed to get better with each passing year, the Panthers are getting worse. I’m not rooting for Rhule to be fired, and I don’t think getting rid of their coach in midseason would materially help them. If Carolina starts 0-4 or 1-5 and falls out of the playoff picture before college basketball season begins, though, it’s difficult to imagine him being back with the organization in 2023.
The Raiders were in total control of their home opener against the Cardinals in Week 2. With 8:45 left in the fourth quarter, Josh McDaniels’ team held a 97.5% win expectancy and a 16-point lead. They were one fourth-down stop away from regaining possession from Arizona and beginning to bleed out the clock in the same way McDaniels’ Patriots offenses had so many times over the years.
And then, Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray went supernova. The Cardinals converted that fourth-and-4, scored a touchdown and outlasted the Raiders’ defense on a 20-second 2-pointer. After a punt, Murray converted one fourth down, picked up another on a holding call and then scrambled into the end zone on the final fourth down of regulation. The Raiders allowed another 2-pointer to send the game to overtime, and while they were able to get a stop by forcing a pass out of Marquise Brown‘s hands on another fourth down, Hunter Renfrow‘s fumble handed the Cardinals a stunning victory.
If this reminds you of Vegas’ legendary game against the Chargers to end the 2021 regular season, it should. Like Murray, Justin Herbert somehow propelled his team forward by converting a series of fourth downs in spectacular fashion. Like Murray, Herbert scored a touchdown on the final play of regulation to push the game in overtime. The similarities end there, as the Raiders won the coin toss, both teams kicked a field goal and then that wild endgame happened.
Liz Loza explains why Derek Carr has a chance to put up good numbers vs. the Titans in Week 3.
Those fourth-down and 2-point plays matter, of course, but they’re a few plays in the course of an entire game and season. In 2021, the Raiders typically had those moments go in their favor, which is why they went 7-2 in one-score games and won six games in walk-off fashion. This season, they have struggled in key moments against the Chargers and Cardinals and started winless in those same contests.
The Raiders aren’t playing appreciably better or worse than they did during their playoff run in 2021. Those Raiders were outscored by 3.8 points per game. These Raiders have been outscored by 5.5 points per game. Those Raiders were 21st in DVOA. These Raiders are 20th in DVOA so far. Same team, different results.
To be fair, the specific way Las Vegas is getting to be below average is different. The offense carried the load last season. This season, the defense is 15th in the league in DVOA, while the offense is 24th. Derek Carr‘s three-interception game in the opener didn’t help matters, but the Raiders have been bizarrely bad on second down. Carr’s 6.6 QBR on the down is the worst in the league, as he has posted a minus-9.9% completion percentage over expectation (CPOE), thrown two picks and averaged just 3.9 yards per attempt. This likely isn’t anything beyond the vagaries of a two-game split, but whatever they have attempted on second down has not worked.
For all the attention the Raiders attracted after trading for wideout Davante Adams, the glaring weakness on the offense wasn’t really addressed. The offensive line looked bad before the season, and when the organization chose to give up on 2021 first-rounder Alex Leatherwood, one of the few hopes for high-ceiling production went out the door. Starting center Andre James suffered a concussion in Week 1, which led to practice-squad player Lester Cotton Sr. making his first career start. Right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor, a utility lineman with the Patriots, has allowed two sacks in two games.
McDaniels and general manager Dave Zeigler are attempting to address their issues, as they swapped late-round picks with their former employers to acquire tackle Justin Herron and brought in former starters Oday Aboushi and Kelechi Osemele for visits. The Raiders were rotating through linemen in Week 1 when everyone was healthy, and it’s possible they could land on a solid five-man group as the season goes along. It also wasn’t difficult to anticipate they would struggle up front given their personnel, and after two weeks, they rank 26th in pass block win rate.
If you’re an optimist, you’re probably going to suggest the offense is too talented to stay in the bottom quarter of the league, while the defense is proving it’s ready to exceed expectations. If you’re a pessimist, you might expect a defense that has been able to limit teams to a 33.3% conversion rate on third downs to struggle keeping that up over an entire season.
The bigger concern is that playing below-average football with even average luck won’t cut it against a difficult schedule. ESPN’s Football Power Index projects the Raiders to face the league’s eighth-toughest schedule from here on out. There’s a brief respite after their Week 6 bye, but before that point, they will travel to Tennessee in what feels like a must-win game for both teams, host Denver and take a trip to Kansas City to face a Chiefs team that beat them by an average of 33 points per game a year ago.
It’s possible for a team to start 1-4 and make the postseason, but for the Raiders to feel like they can push back into playoff contention after the bye, Carr & Co. probably need to win two out of their next three games.
Slipping on a banana peel against the Giants was one thing. Getting absolutely blown off the field by the Bills was another. While nobody would mistake the Giants for the league’s best team, the Titans were supposed to have Buffalo’s number. In 2020, Tennessee blew out Josh Allen and the Bills in Nashville. Last season, in a home rematch, the Titans ran all over Buffalo’s league-best defense before stopping Allen on a fourth-and-goal sneak to seal a 34-31 victory.
The Titans haven’t stopped much of anything through two weeks. After Saquon Barkley ran through them in Week 1, Allen and the Buffalo passing attack torched them for 317 yards and four touchdowns in the first three quarters of a Monday night blowout before taking the fourth quarter to rest and reflect. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill also took the fourth quarter off for different reasons, as he was removed from the game to get rookie third-rounder Malik Willis reps.
The identity the Titans carefully carved out during their run between 2019 and 2021 doesn’t seem to remotely resemble the team we’ve seen through two weeks. In part, that’s because the player who was most closely identified with their rise to prominence in the AFC has struggled. A year ago against the Bills, Derrick Henry carried the ball 20 times for 143 yards and three touchdowns, including an electrifying 76-yard scamper to the house.
On Monday, Henry had 13 carries for 25 yards. He scored on a 2-yard plunge on fourth-and-1, but that was his only first down of the game. Just two of his runs went for more than four yards, and he topped out with a longest gain of 9. It’s always tempting to blame the blocking, but as ESPN’s Seth Walder noted on Twitter, Henry actually gained 2.6 fewer yards than what an average back would have picked up in the same situation, his worst game going back through 2018.
The Fantasy Focus crew discusses what Derrick Henry’s lack of production can mean from a fantasy standpoint.
Henry had 21 carries for 82 yards in the loss over the Giants, but again, he struggled for efficiency (38.1% success rate) and explosiveness (a long gain of 18 yards). Just one of those 21 carries produced a first down. An average back in those same situations, per NFL Next Gen Stats, would have gained 93 yards and four first downs. Henry has two first downs on 34 carries when an average back would have gained seven; that five-conversion difference is the most through two weeks.
This would be disappointing in a two-game sample, but as I wrote about when Henry went down with a broken right foot last season, we were already seeing worrying concerns about his decline. He had been spectacularly efficient in 2019 and 2020 by most metrics, but his yards per carry, rushing yards over expectation (RYOE) and big-play rate had all fallen during the first half of 2021. The impact on his overall production was masked by the heaviest workload any running back has ever endured during the first half of 2021, but he already was struggling before the foot injury.
Despite Henry’s struggles, the Titans have managed to maintain stratospheric production on play-action this season, as they did during Henry’s peak run in 2019 and 2020. Without play-action, though, Tannehill has basically been hanging on for dear life. His completion percentage over expectation (CPOE), QBR and yards per attempt with and without a play-fake attached are two different people:
With play-action: 70.6 QBR, 16.1% CPOE, 12.5 yards per attempt
Without play-action: 32.8 QBR, minus-12.7% CPOE, 4.7 yards per attempt
The Titans are struggling with injuries, which is worrisome for a team more top heavy than most. Harold Landry III, who broke out as the team’s leading edge rusher a year ago, went down with a torn ACL just before the season began. The Titans still managed to sack Jones five times in Week 1, but I would chalk at least some of that up to an underwhelming interior on the Giants’ offensive line. Facing a better line in Week 2, Tennessee took down Allen once on 39 dropbacks.
When the Titans haven’t gotten pressure, their pass defense has ranked 28th in QBR, aided mostly by a terrible decision by Jones to toss up an interception in the red zone. Cornerback Kristian Fulton struggled in the Week 1 loss to the Giants, but when he was ruled out of the Buffalo game, the Titans just didn’t have anybody capable of covering wideout Stefon Diggs. Tennessee had to roll out inexperienced cornerbacks Caleb Farley, Chris Jackson and Roger McCreary and undrafted free agent Tre Avery, who was making his NFL debut on defense. Avery had the best ticket in the building to the Diggs show, with the Bills star running past him in Cover 3 for a 46-yard touchdown.
Tennessee also lost left tackle Taylor Lewan to a knee injury on its opening snap of the game on offense, which cost the team its best offensive lineman. The Titans already were installing a new right tackle in Nicholas Petit-Frere; Lewan’s injury forced coach Mike Vrabel to turn to Dennis Daley, who was just acquired from the Panthers three weeks ago.
On top of that, the Titans have been uncharacteristically sloppy. They had Barkley stopped in the backfield on the deciding 2-point conversion in Week 1, only for Barkley to break a tackle and score. Kicker Randy Bullock then missed a 46-yarder that would have won the game. Drops plagued them in the Giants loss. On Monday night, Kyle Philips muffed a punt return, and when Vrabel tried to land on a safer pair of hands by installing Amani Hooker as the return man, the safety fumbled away Buffalo’s second punt of the evening.
At their best, the Titans have been a physically imposing team built around controlling the line of scrimmage, winning on third down and in the red zone and creating big plays through Henry and the play-action attack. Right now, they’re something very different. They can feel blessed that the AFC South has started a combined 1-5-2 through two weeks, but they aspired to more than another division title heading into this season. Now, with what amounts to an eliminator game coming up against the 0-2 Raiders in Week 3, Tennessee has no choice but to improve quickly.
The good news for the Bengals is they were able to correct the brutal minus-five turnover margin they posted in Week 1, as they didn’t throw any interceptions and recovered both fumbles in their game against the Cowboys on Sunday. The bad news is, well, just about everything else. Backup quarterback Cooper Rush rode Dallas’ opening script to touchdowns on his first two drives, Joe Burrow was sacked six times on 42 dropbacks and a last-second field goal by Brett Maher gave the Cowboys a 20-17 victory.
Let’s start with the offense, which has scored a total of three touchdowns across 23 meaningful possessions. The Bengals rank 32nd in offensive DVOA through two weeks. As was the case in the opener, we saw their new-look offensive line struggle in Week 2. While the left side of the line was the issue in Week 1, the chief culprit against the Cowboys was right tackle La’el Collins, who was blistered by former teammate Micah Parsons during his return to Dallas. Neither Collins nor fellow tackle Jonah Williams could handle Parsons, and the line on the whole struggled to protect against Dallas’ games up front.
As Geoff Schwartz noted on Twitter, the offensive line’s struggles have sped up Burrow in the pocket, which has led to missed opportunities and extra pass pressures. When Burrow gets the ball out within two seconds of the snap, his 97.0 QBR ranks second best in the league. Anything beyond that and Burrow’s QBR falls to 42.7, which is 25th. We know how explosive the Bengals can be at their best, but I wonder if the solution might be more quick game, if only to get Burrow into a better rhythm.
I also wonder if the Bengals might want to go back to when Burrow was truly devastating in college and work more out of empty sets. He is 14-of-17 for 132 yards and a QBR of 86.6 out of empty this season, with his QBR dropping to 34.9 out of all other looks. It might seem illogical to take a quarterback who doesn’t feel protected and remove extra blockers from the formation, but the empty sets might allow Burrow to have a clearer sense of his protection and create quicker solutions in the passing game.
Joe Burrow says the Bengals need to stop beating themselves following back-to-back losses to start the season.
One other solution would be to run the ball, but nothing has working there. Joe Mixon has averaged 3.0 yards per carry so far and has four first downs on 46 carries. The NFL Next Gen Stats model suggests an average back in the same situations would have generated 3.8 yards per attempt. Mixon’s carries have generated a league-low minus-10.1 EPA, and his 19.2% success rate ranks last among backs with more than 10 carries. As frustrating as the passing attack has been, the running game has been worse.
Cincinnati’s defense has been much better, especially considering the offense offered up a pick-six and left the defense facing short fields in the opener. It’s a bit of a surprise that one of the league’s most active defensive lines has only two sacks in two games, but the Bengals have a league-average pressure rate and have blitzed at a rate just below league average. They rank 30th in terms of sack rate when they get pressure, which isn’t too sticky of a metric. If Trey Hendrickson and the front seven continue to get pressure, the sacks will come.
To be fair, things could be worse. The Browns and Ravens both blew fourth-quarter leads Sunday, which kept the Bengals’ AFC North rivals from starting 2-0. The Steelers are also 1-1, and their best player is out indefinitely. Starting 0-2 isn’t ideal, but it’s not quite as bad when the rest of the division starts 1-1. The Bengals have too much talent on the offensive side of the ball to rank last in the league in DVOA for any extended length of time.
The Bengals have to hope the easiest solution to their problems is getting to face the Jets, who have allowed a total of 54 points to the Ravens and Browns over the first two weeks. If that solves the Bengals’ problems, we can write this off as two bad weeks, although the defending AFC champs probably would have hoped to get more than one win in three games against three backup quarterbacks masquerading as starters.
Given that the strength of the Jets’ defense is its pass rush, there’s a chance Burrow scuffles again in Week 3. Remember that the Jets beat the Bengals last season in a game in which backup quarterback Mike White threw for more yards and posted a better passer rating than Burrow. I don’t think the Bengals are buried, but if history repeats itself against Gang Green, their defense of their conference title might be all but finished.