Last year, the division champions in the NFC were the Green Bay Packers (NFC North), Atlanta Falcons (NFC South), Washington Redskins (NFC East), and San Francisco 49ers (NFC West). Wrapping up the wildcard spots were the Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings. Not counting the Seahawks, these five playoff teams from a year ago are a combined 3-12 in 2013. Let’s look at each on a case-by-case basis.
Green Bay Packers – 2012 Record: 11-5, 2013 Record: 1-2
Even with the infamous “Fail Mary” play that resulted in a Week 3 loss at Seattle, the Green Bay Packers ended last season with an 11-5 record. This season, they’ve dropped two out of three games.
In Week 1, they registered a 34-28 loss at San Francisco to a seemingly respectable 49er team that was ranked third in most preseason polls. The Packer defense played poorly, especially in coverage, but they showed signs of improvement from 2012. In Week 2, the Packers thrashed a hopeless Redskin defense 38-20 en route to Aaron Rodgers’ franchise-record tying day. Rodgers put up 480 passing yards, largely in the first two quarters, in a contest that was decided well before halftime. Week 3 brought another set-back, as the Packers lost 34-30 to a determined Bengals team in Cincinatti.
Neither of these losses was especially troubling or terrible, as both the Bengals and 49ers were playoff teams from a year ago. Regardless, the Packers had lofty expectations for this season and have one of the most effective quarterbacks in a pass-happy league. Look for the Packers to bounce back over the next two month, as they have easy contests against the 1-2 Browns, the 0-3 Vikings (twice), and the 0-3 Giants, with the still suspect 2-1 Lions at home. But if the Pack can’t win at least five out of eight games moving forward, they’re going to be in dire straits.
Atlanta Falcons – 2012 Record: 13-3, 2013 Record: 1-2
The 2012 Atlanta Falcons started out the season with a nine-game winning streak and ended the season with a divisional title. This year, however, the Falcons have already fallen prey to a resurgent Saints team in the NFC South. Atlanta heads into Week 4 with a disappointing 1-2 record.
The 2013 season began with a 23-17 away loss at New Orleans. While many analysts expected a shoot-out, the game featured a revitalized Saints’ defense that negated a Falcons’ fourth-quarter comeback. Traditionally, these two teams have split the divisional series; this loss isn’t anything to worry about, but now the Falcons need to beat the Saints in Atlanta to have a realistic shot at winning the division. In Week 2, the Falcons almost lost at home to the St. Louis Rams, a team that made some bold off-season acquisitions. Regardless, this isn’t a particularly talented or experienced team; Week 2 certainly raised a few eyebrows. Week 3 saw the Falcons traveling to Miami, where they lost a close game to the surprisingly tough Dolphins. Miami looks like a playoff team this year, so the Falcons need to find a way to win these games.
Atlanta’s big acquisition in free agency was veteran Steven Jackson, a bruising running back who, they hoped, would shore up a pathetic running game and create a bit of balance on offense. The Falcons averaged 3.7 yards per carry in 2012, good enough for 29th in the league. Jackson injured his hamstring in Week 2; the Falcons think he’ll be sidelined until Week 7. This is definitely a blow for Atlanta’s offense, but so far Jackson hasn’t been dominant. Wide receiver Roddy White is also injured and playing in a limited capacity, so these injuries are starting to pile up. Their redzone efficiency needs to improve, as their defense is getting scoring on early and often. The Falcons still have scary matchups with the Panthers (twice), the Saints, the Seahawks, Green Bay, and San Francisco. If they can’t capitalize against less dominant teams, the Falcons are going to be out of the playoffs this year.
Washington Redskins – 2012 Record: 10-6, 2013 Record: 0-3
Last season, the Redskins drafted Heisman Trophy-winner Robert Griffin III and implemented an exciting read-option offense, energizing the nation’s capital and making a household name out of Robert Griffin. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, as the Redskins coaching staff took a lot of heat for playing RGIII through a knee injury in the 2012 playoffs. This season, RGIII is back in the lineup but doesn’t seem like his old self. The Redskins defense looks absolutely terrible through three weeks, but the offense isn’t blameless. So far in 2013 Washington is 0-3.
In Week 1, Michael Vick and the Chip Kelly-led Philadelphia Eagles made the Redskins defense look like amateurs en route to a 33-27 Redskins’ loss. Vick marched the team up and down the field at will, catching cornerbacks out of position and handing it off to running back LeSean McCoy for huge gains. Griffin wasn’t stepping into throws, he looked tentative on scrambles, and overall just seemed rusty. Philadelphia took away the run game and hit Griffin whenever they could; it turned out to be a solid strategy that other teams have emulated.
Green Bay just absolutely dominated the Redskins, piling up the receiving and rushing yards on the way to a 38-20 Redskins loss. If the Packers hadn’t taken their foot off the gas pedal starting in the second half, the score could have easily passed fifty. Griffin showed a few flashes in the passing game, but overall he looked like a shadow of his former self. In Week 3, Washington lost a relatively close 27-20 game at home to the Detroit Lions. RGIII talked about implementing more designed quarterback runs, but so far he hasn’t come close to his 6.8 yards per carry average from 2012.
Washington reportedly has issues in the locker room between head coach Mike Shanahan and Robert Griffin III. On the field, their defense is allowing the second-most rushing and passing yards in the league. While this team led the league in rushing yards last year, they’ve had little success in 2013; so far, they’re ranked 20th overall with 100.7 yards per game. First and foremost, the Redskins need to fix their porous defense. On both sides of the ball, the Redskins aren’t starting with enough energy. When the offense stalls and can’t convert any third downs early in the game, the team falls into a two-touchdown hole. Griffin is certainly having problems, but if Washington can solve its defensive woes they can be successful again.
San Francisco 49ers – 2012 Record: 11-4, 2013 Record: 1-2
Over the last two years, the 49ers are 25-7. They’ve clinched the NFC both years, and in doing so haven’t lost two games in a row. However, over the last two weeks the San Francisco 49ers were outscored 56-10 and Colin Kaepernick played the worst back-to-back games of his career.
In Week 1, the 49ers dominated the Packers defense through the air on the way to a 34-28 home win. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin racked up almost 200 yards receiving and Vernon Davis caught two touchdowns after the Packers forced Kaepernick to stay in the pocket and took away the run game. Week 2 saw the 49ers in Seattle, where the Seahawks put on an absolute clinic. The Seahawks’ defense took center spotlight; cornerback Richard Sherman shut down Boldin and the rest of the team created turnovers and made stops all over the place. Kaepernick and the 49ers looked terrible in a 29-3 blowout victory for Seattle. In Week 3, the 49ers drew the Indianapolis Colts in San Francisco. Again, Kaepernick looked out of sync and confused in a 27-7 loss. Indianapolis took away certain aspects of the 49ers’ pistol offense and really had Kaepernick’s number.
Out of all five teams on this list, the 49ers’ struggles are probably the most worrisome. While they are still missing a few players (notably #1 wide receiver Michael Crabtree), the 49ers are getting dominated. Not only have they sustained the most lopsided losses, but San Francisco is now losing their star linebacker Aldon Smith to rehab for an undisclosed period of time. San Francisco plays in perhaps the most competitive division in the NFL, so these early-season losses are especially troubling. With out-of-conference matchups against the Texans, Falcons, Saints, and Panthers, this team has to address their shortcomings quickly.
Minnesota Vikings – 2012 Record: 10-6, 2013 Record: 0-3
Purely on the back of MVP Adrian Peterson (with an early-season campaign by Percy Harvin), the Minnesota Vikings clinched a wildcard appearance in last year’s playoffs. No such luck yet this year, as the Vikings are 0-3.
Week 1 found the Vikings in Detroit, where they lost a fairly close game 34-24 to the resurgent Lions. Detroit running back Reggie Bush ran all over the Vikings, as did his backup Joique Bell. Minnesota struggled in pass protection and run defense, leaving little hope for their offense to keep the game close. In Week 2, the Vikings put up a solid fight but lost after a last minute Bears’ touchdown, dropping the contest 31-30 in Chicago. The Vikings offense was inept for most of the game, but did enough to secure one offensive touchdown and three field goals. Minnesota’s defense scored on a fumble return and kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson ran one 105 yards to the house, but they were still overpowered by Chicago’s balanced attack and home-field advantage. Minnesota finally had a home game in Week 3, where they figured to destroy the hapless Browns. Cleveland was coming off the most publicized high-profile trade of the last few seasons, sending first-round pick Trent Richardson to the Colts for 2013 draft picks. Most analysts and Browns fans assumed that meant this season was effectively over; Cleveland sent a message to the contrary in Week 3, when they squeaked out a 31-27 away victory over the Vikings.
While quarterback Christian Ponder has been typically awful in the early going, Peterson’s complete lack of running room has absolutely killed the Minnesota offense. Peterson faced stacked boxes and eight-man fronts all last year, and yet he powered through it on his way to a nearly record-setting 2012 campaign. If Ponder can’t improve marginally and show some consistency, this team has little chance of repeating their 2012 playoff appearance. So far, Ponder’s only thrown two TDs to five INTs. Turning over the ball with that kind of frequency just digs too large of a hole, and it figures to be a point of emphasis for the Vikings moving forward.
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