Are the Packers and Cardinals really this good? Barnwell ranks the top playoff risers

    Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for ESPN.com.

Last week, I looked at the NFL teams whose playoff chances have fallen most significantly since the start of the 2020 season. This week, I’m going in the opposite direction and looking at the five teams whose chances have improved the most since the beginning of the campaign, according to the estimates of ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI).

While they only qualify for honorable mention status here, there are some interesting risers toward the bottom of the top 10. Would you believe that Washington’s chances of making it to the postseason have improved more since the start of the season than those of the 5-1 Seahawks? FPI still thinks Seattle has a much better shot of making it into January, of course, with its chances jumping from 60% before the season to 82.3% after Week 7 for a difference of 22.3 percentage points.

Washington started with only a 6.2% shot of making it to the playoffs, however, and two wins in the NFC East are enough to give Ron Rivera’s team a 29.5% chance of making it into January, pushing it slightly ahead of the Seahawks by virtue of a 23.3-percentage-point rise. There’s a chance Washington could consider moving on from players such as pass-rusher Ryan Kerrigan in advance of Tuesday’s trade deadline, but it is simultaneously a half-game out of first place in the worst division in football. What a season!

Let’s run through some more conventional improvements, starting with a dominant offense that got back on track on Sunday:


Green Bay Packers (5-1)

Preseason playoff chances: 48.1%
Current playoff chances: 92.0%
Difference: +43.9%

I’m not sure I can recall an offense quite like what we’ve seen from these Packers. They’ve been great every week except for one — Week 6 against the Buccaneers — when they were their normal selves for a drive or two and then utterly collapsed after a pick-six. They came into the season with one wide receiver of note, lost that receiver and their No. 2 wideout across the first six games, and didn’t seem to skip a beat. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers didn’t have his other star playmaker last Sunday when running back Aaron Jones sat out, but with wide receiver Davante Adams going for 196 yards, it didn’t really matter.

The numbers on the Packers make the simultaneous arguments for why they’re special and why they might not be quite as dominant as they seem. Through seven weeks, Rodgers & Co. are averaging 3.03 points per possession. Just six teams since 2001 have averaged more points per drive across the first seven weeks of their respective seasons, and it’s a bunch of teams that were quarterbacked by Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Patrick Mahomes. The 2020 Packers are ahead of any Rodgers-era Green Bay team, including the 2011 edition, which started 7-0 and finished 15-1.

At the same time, scoring is up in 2020. A whopping six teams this season are in the top 16 for most points per drive through seven weeks. The 2020 Raiders (2.80 points per possession) are averaging more points per drive so far than those 2011 Packers (2.73 points per trip). Adjusting for the leaguewide scoring rate by year, 2011 Green Bay is more like the 42nd-best offense going back through 2001, in line with teams like the 2012 Falcons and 2014 Ravens. (And yes, after making that adjustment, the 2020 Jets are the worst offense of this millennium so far.)

Still, being the best in 2020 is damn good, and we really haven’t seen any team slow down the Packers outside of those three quarters against the Bucs. How did Tampa Bay get that done? Pressure. Rodgers is the league’s best quarterback in Total QBR without pressure, but once the opposing team flusters him, his QBR falls from 91.4 to 35.5; that latter mark is still good for 13th best, but it’s the quickest way to get this offense to look ordinary.

The Bucs pressured Rodgers and Tim Boyle 13 times in their win, five more times than any other team pressured Green Bay’s quarterbacks this season. Tampa Bay was particularly successful in getting pressure with its front four, racking up eight pressures against the Packers without blitzing when no other team has mustered more than four. The Bucs have a great front four and a deep, talented secondary, so they were able to disguise some coverages immediately after the snap and then get home with four-man pressure before Rodgers could adjust.

Here’s the problem with copying that strategy: Tampa Bay is comfortably the league’s best defense in football by DVOA, so even if teams try to emulate what it does, they’re probably not going to be anywhere near as good while they’re doing it. At the same time, we haven’t really seen the Packers play difficult defenses; the Texans rank 29th in DVOA after the Packers torched them on Sunday, and the only top-10 defense Green Bay has played outside of the Bucs are the Saints, who rank 10th overall and 16th against the pass.

Three of the Packers’ next five games come against teams that rank in the top eight for defensive DVOA, including the Colts (fourth), Bears (sixth) and 49ers (eighth). Virtually all of the evidence we have suggests that Green Bay is a great offense, but the one thing it has yet to prove is whether it can do it against the league’s top defenses. The Green Bay defense jumped from 30th to 22nd in DVOA after the win against the Texans, and its pass rush is always going to play up, but this team is going to go as far as Rodgers will take them.

The Packers might see that upcoming 49ers game in Week 9 as a nightmare given what happened to them last season. San Francisco stomped them in two different ways: ruining Rodgers’ night with a brutal pass rush in the regular season before running all over Mike Pettine’s defense in the NFC title game. Of course, the stars of those games — namely pass-rusher Nick Bosa and running back Raheem Mostert — are injured. A win over even a compromised 49ers team might alleviate any concerns that the Packers can’t hang with the very best in the NFC.

Arizona Cardinals (5-2)

Preseason playoff chances: 25.3%
Current playoff chances: 66.9%
Difference: +41.6%

The Cardinals, coincidentally, are coming off their most important victory since that famous double Hail Mary matchup with Rodgers in the 2015 playoffs. Being the first team to beat the Seahawks put the Cardinals a half-game back in the NFC West after seven weeks while leaving them with a 2-0 mark inside what might be the league’s toughest division. This is a team that didn’t have a winning record for even one week from 2016 to 2019.

Even given the Cardinals’ record, I’m still trying to figure out how good this team really is, in part because of its schedule. Arizona’s two losses were to the Lions and Panthers, teams that will be on the fringes of the NFC playoff picture. The Cardinals picked up quality wins over the 49ers and Seahawks by a combined seven points, but their three blowout wins came against the Jets, Washington and the remains of the Cowboys. Those teams don’t represent tough opposition.

This is a question we can ask for each of the NFC West teams, which have been blessed with a gift from the scheduling god this season. Each gets four games against the vaguely football-like substance that is the NFC East and a fifth game against the Jets, the one team NFC East teams might see as a week off. The Cardinals, as you can count from the prior paragraph, have already played three of those five games.

The best-positioned team here is Seattle, which still has four of those five layups to come after beating the Cowboys in September. The 49ers still have two games of these matchups to come, while the Rams have already swept the NFC East and just have that lone game against the Jets due later this year. On the other hand, FPI thinks the Cardinals have the ninth-toughest schedule remaining, but that’s still the easiest of any NFC West team.

What I’m finding difficult when it comes to calibrating the Cardinals is getting a sense on what their stars are going to do from week to week.

Nobody embodies that more than quarterback Kyler Murray, who was getting MVP attention early this season before cooling off. He was 9-of-24 passing against the woeful Cowboys secondary, although one of those completions was an 80-yard touchdown, and the former first overall pick added 74 rushing yards.

On Sunday night, Murray did a little bit of everything. He hit wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins with a perfect throw early in the game for a 35-yard touchdown, then missed later on what could have been a 93-yard scoring play. On a failed goal-to-go possession following a Budda Baker interception, Murray made the wrong read on second down, costing the Cardinals a walk-in touchdown. He threw what seemed to be a backbreaking interception in the fourth quarter, then missed badly on a third-and-12 throw that would have set up a field goal.

From that point forward — taking spikes and a kneel-down out of the equation — Murray was 7-of-8 for 69 yards and carried the ball twice for 21 yards and two first downs. A tired Seahawks pass rush couldn’t get anywhere near Murray, who looked like the best player on the field. We know that it’s in his range out of outcomes every week, but it would be unrealistic to suggest that he’s that guy all of the time. I wonder whether the presence of Chase Edmonds as the primary running back as opposed to Kenyan Drake, who is out several weeks with an ankle injury, will help make Murray’s life easier.

On the other side of the ball, it was a quietly impressive game for cornerback Patrick Peterson. There’s been talk around the league that Peterson has slipped. Heading into Week 7, he was allowing 0.54 expected points per target as the nearest defender in coverage, a mark that ranked 60th out of 77 qualifying cornerbacks who have played at least 100 coverage snaps. For a guy in a contract year who turned 30 in July, a sudden drop-off can be worth tens of millions of dollars, as we saw when Chris Harris Jr. hit free agency after leaving the Broncos in March.

Peterson was likely hoping to have a big game in front of the bright lights on “Sunday Night Football,” and while he did, the problem is that the eight-time Pro Bowler might have been too good to attract much attention. He took on the job of stopping DK Metcalf and helped hold the star wideout to his quietest game of the season, interception chase-downs aside. By my count, Peterson had 34 snaps in which he was the primary defender on Metcalf and didn’t allow a single completion.

Metcalf was targeted three times against Peterson. One throw produced an interception when Metcalf broke off his route and quarterback Russell Wilson expected him to keep going. Metcalf then beat Peterson on a go route, but Wilson’s throw was short and Peterson was able to catch up and make the (still-catchable) pass a difficult grab. A third throw was tossed out of bounds.

At the same time, Peterson allowed a 34-yard catch to wide receiver Tyler Lockett on the opening play of the game. Peterson was blocked by Lockett out of the play on a screen that Metcalf took to the house for what looked to be a game-winning touchdown, only for the score to be called back for holding. Peterson also was the nearest defender in coverage on a 47-yard Lockett score, but he didn’t appear to be the primary defender, with Baker seemingly losing track of the ball and stopping while Lockett continued to run by him.

Against Seattle, Baker had that incredible interception and a near pick-six, but he got lost on the Lockett touchdown and overpursued on a 28-yard catch-and-run by Will Dissly. Hopkins, who is battling an ankle injury, had a huge catch early and should have had a second long touchdown, but he lost a fumble and had just 23 receiving yards after halftime. Rookie top-10 pick Isaiah Simmons, who intercepted Wilson to set up the winning score, is still on the outs and only finished the game with six defensive snaps, three of which came in overtime.

This team still feels like a work in progress, but the second half and overtime of the Seahawks game reminded us just how high its ceiling can be.

Pittsburgh Steelers (6-0)

Preseason playoff chances: 59.1%
Current playoff chances: 98.5%
Difference: +39.4%

As it turns out, being the last undefeated team in football helps your chances of making it to the postseason! The Steelers haven’t always been dominant — they have one victory by more than 10 points — but they might be the team with the most combined upside on offense and defense. Mike Tomlin’s defense hasn’t been the takeaway machine it was a year ago, but Pittsburgh is second in the league in defensive DVOA.

The offense’s upside is more on paper and theoretical than it is something we can expect to see on a week-by-week or even drive-by-drive basis. The Steelers are still frustratingly inconsistent on offense. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger & Co. rank ninth in points per drive, have the third-best third-down conversion rate and somehow also have the fifth-highest three-and-out rate of any team.

Take Sunday’s game against the Titans. The Steelers scored three touchdowns and a field goal across their first four possessions to go up 24-7. They even took over after a failed fake punt before halftime with 14 seconds to go and the chance to add three more points, although Roethlisberger threw an interception to end the half. After halftime, their five drives produced a field goal on their opening possession, followed by two punts and two more interceptions. I can’t fault Roethlisberger trying to find JuJu Smith-Schuster up the seam against a linebacker on his third pick, but the Steelers nearly lost the game because the offense stalled to a halt after its hot start.

The three-interception game might have been an outlier for Roethlisberger, but his play-by-play performance has been all over the place. If we split his season into 12 halves, Roethlisberger has three halves with a QBR of 80 or more and two with a QBR below 27. Pittsburgh’s receivers haven’t always helped out, as the Steelers have the NFL’s fourth-highest drop rate. At the same time, those drops haven’t made a huge difference; Roethlisberger has one of the highest drop rates in the league within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage, but the Steelers haven’t dropped a single one of his passes 16-plus yards downfield.

While he has made a few deep plays, he has generally been conservative this season. His average pass has traveled just 6.7 yards in the air this year, which ranks 27th in the NFL. The future Hall of Famer is taking a league-low 2.27 seconds to get rid of the football, and as ESPN’s Mina Kimes noted earlier this week, Roethlisberger was at just 2.06 seconds before his pass attempts on Sunday against the Titans. No quarterback has gotten rid of the ball as quickly in a 30-attempt game since Russell Wilson against these very Steelers just over a year ago, when he got rid of the ball in an average of 1.89 seconds. There’s nothing inherently wrong with getting the ball out quickly, but it’s different from how Roethlisberger has played in the past; he was at 2.55 seconds before his attempts in 2018, his last full season.

One thing is coming clear, though: This offense is different with wide receiver Chase Claypool in the lineup. Roethlisberger’s splits with and without the rookie on the field are dramatic. We’re looking at samples of only about 100 passes on either side, and Pittsburgh is seemingly planning on rotating Claypool with Diontae Johnson and James Washington when all are healthy, but he has been a different quarterback with the second-rounder:

Having Roethlisberger available goes a long way, and depending on how you slice it, the Steelers have been healthy this season. Pittsburgh has just three players on injured reserve; only the Falcons (two) have fewer players on IR. The problem is that those three players were all expected to be meaningful contributors: Devin Bush was emerging as a star linebacker, Zach Banner had won the right tackle job and Stefen Wisniewski was the swing lineman who was filling in for David DeCastro. DeCastro and Johnson have missed time, but a lot of teams would be envious of what the Steelers have left through six games.

As long as Pittsburgh doesn’t lose Roethlisberger or a significant chunk of its core, it’s difficult to see this team taking a major step backward. It has faced the second-easiest schedule in football, but its schedule toughens to become the 10th-easiest in the league over the remainder of the season. The Steelers have outplayed their point differential so far, as we would expect them to have 4.4 wins as opposed to their 6-0 start, but there’s no reason to think they are suddenly going to fall off.

Tennessee Titans (5-1)

Preseason playoff chances: 56.0%
Current playoff chances: 91.3%
Difference: +35.3%

If the Titans had come back and beaten the Steelers last week, I’m not sure I would have been able to believe that they would ever lose a close game again. Tennessee blew out the Bills and has otherwise gone 4-1 while outscoring its opposition by a total of nine points. Its biggest win of the season outside of the Bills game was the overtime victory over the Texans, a game it tied with four seconds left before winning on the first drive of overtime. Those four non-Bills wins came against teams who are a combined 5-21 this season, and yet the Titans were within a Stephen Gostkowski miss of going to overtime and starting 6-0.

At the same time, if you’re waiting for the Titans’ formula to stop working … you’ve been waiting for a full year now without much success. Ryan Tannehill is fourth in the league in QBR this season and averaging a league-best 10.8 yards per attempt off of play-action. The Titans have a turnover margin of plus-nine, the top mark in football. Mike Vrabel’s late-game management helped create a comeback opportunity when most other teams would have been out of luck. This sure seems like the real Titans.

Tennessee’s red zone performance is what really sticks out. Once Tannehill took over last season, this offense converted 86.8% of its red zone trips into touchdowns on offense through the end of the postseason. No other team topped 73%. The league average was 58%. Even with Derrick Henry in the fold, the Titans hadn’t been anywhere near that mark before Tannehill took over, and there’s not really much precedent for it reoccurring.

This season, the Titans have dropped and fallen all the way to … an 80% touchdown rate. Only the Seahawks have converted for touchdowns more frequently. The Titans are 14-for-14 in goal-to-go situations. It seems like they’re automatic, but of those 14 conversions, four were on third down and one was on fourth down. The only other perfect goal-to-go team in the league is the Buccaneers, who are 20-for-20.

On defense, though, it’s a different story. After Tannehill took over last season, the Tennessee defense was below average in the red zone. It allowed opposing teams to convert 61.9% of the time, which ranked 23rd in the league. This season, the Titans are allowing conversions 81% of the time, which is 31st. Only the Saints have been worse at stopping opposing teams from scoring inside the 20. It’s one thing to let the Steelers score inside the 20, but the Jaguars, Vikings and Texans were all very good inside the red zone against Tennessee’s defense.

The question, then: Do you believe that the Titans are going to keep converting 80% of their red zone trips into touchdowns on offense? If you do, they have a solid shot of improving their performance level and maintaining a great record in the weeks to come, because their red zone defense is likely to regress toward the mean. If you don’t, it’s a different story; they will likely see both their red zone offense and defense head toward the pack, but they probably won’t maintain this sort of turnover margin. They were only plus-two in Tannehill’s 10 regular-season starts a year ago.

As we approach the trade deadline, the one other thing that would concern me is just how dependent the Titans are on Tannehill and Henry staying healthy. Every team would drop off if they lost their quarterback or their most prominent offensive weapon, but the Titans would have arguably the worst depth chart at quarterback or running back in the league if they lost their starter. We’ve seen teams like the 2015 Bengals and 2016 Raiders sputter to a halt in the postseason after excellent regular seasons because they lost their starting quarterback to an injury and didn’t have a qualified backup. Tennessee has Trevor Siemian on its practice squad, but 2018 seventh-round pick Logan Woodside has zero career pass attempts. If Tannehill stays healthy, though, the Titans are essentially playoff locks.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-2)

Preseason playoff chances: 64.0%
Current playoff chances: 93.5%
Difference: +29.5%

The Bucs have the league’s best DVOA after seven weeks, which is driven by the No. 1-ranked defense. If you’re surprised that the Buccaneers are great on defense, well, you shouldn’t be. We talked about this a bunch after Tom Brady arrived in Tampa, and the Bucs’ 29th-place finish in scoring defense last season was a product of factors almost entirely out of their control.

If you evaluated Tampa Bay by points allowed per game last season, its defense was held responsible for the seven pick-sixes thrown by Jameis Winston. It inherited the worst average starting field position in football, another product of Winston turning the ball over and handing the opposing team short fields. Because the offense typically either scored or turned the ball over quickly, the Bucs faced 189 meaningful possessions, which was tied for the league high. They also faced the league’s toughest schedule of opposing offenses. None of that was likely to recur this season.

With Brady taking over at quarterback, the defense has had things much easier. He has thrown two pick-sixes, but the Bucs have had only seven giveaways in seven games. They’re facing 11.2 possessions per game, down from 11.8. They’ve inherited close to a league-average starting field position and faced a league-average slate of opponents. Last season, they finished seventh in expected points per drive on defense at 0.14 points per possession. This season, at 0.34 points per trip, they rank atop the defensive leaderboard.

Losing tackle Vita Vea hurt, especially against the run, but this is a great defense and in different ways from what we saw a year ago. Shaquil Barrett had an out-of-nowhere 19.5-sack season in 2019, and while he has only three sacks through seven games, Jason Pierre-Paul is up to 5.5 on the opposite side of the line. William Gholston, who has been a run-stopping end here forever, has two sacks and a career-high 11 knockdowns, which is impressive given that we’re not even halfway through the season.

The young players in the back seven have been difference-makers. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. continues to make a strong case to be in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year, having intercepted his first career pass against the Raiders. Linebacker Devin White was good as a rookie and has looked even better in his sophomore campaign; the 2019 first-rounder just claimed NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors after racking up three sacks of Derek Carr. Vea had developed into a superstar before his ankle injury, and Carlton Davis has emerged as one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks. Pro Football Reference notes that the 2018 second-rounder is allowing a passer rating of 59.4 in coverage, down from 80.0 a year ago.

Only the Jaguars and Rams have gotten more defensive snaps out of players on rookie contracts than the Buccaneers this season, and the Bucs have far more talented players on those rookie deals. The only team in the league who can compete with them for young difference-makers on defense is the Steelers.

As for the other side of the ball, well, you can understand what’s generally driving the good and bad games for Brady and the Tampa offense in one table:

If there was any way to stop Brady going back through his time in New England, it was simple. Get pressure, preferably without having to blitz, and play coverage behind. This book also happens to work on everyone — no quarterback gets better under pressure throwing against seven defenders — but for a while, it was the only way to beat Brady. This season, it has been the only way to slow down the Bucs on offense. The Raiders posted the worst pressure rate of the year for any defense facing the Buccaneers, and Brady responded with his best passer rating of the season.

Despite that success, this offense is still evolving. Rob Gronkowski was anonymous over the first month of the season, and then over the past three weeks, he’s fifth among tight ends in yards per route run. Wideout Scotty Miller had 83-yard games in Weeks 3 and 4, totaled 6 receiving yards between Weeks 5 and 6, and then came back with 108 yards and a touchdown against the Raiders. Mike Evans, who was targeted 9.5 times per game during the Winston era, is averaging 5.6 targets per game so far with Brady. If anything, with six touchdowns across just 25 catches, he’s the new Gronk.

In Week 9, Antonio Brown will get added to this mix. I’ve already wasted too much of my life previewing how post-Steelers Brown might impact a new team, so I’m not going to repeat that mistake. Brown took a step backward in 2018 and has played one game since, so I don’t think we have any idea about what his skill set is going to look like. When Evans and Chris Godwin are healthy, he’ll take Miller’s spot in the lineup and draw targets away from everyone else, resulting in a situation where neither Evans, Godwin nor Brown will be particularly thrilled with how many passes they’re seeing. He also might last a week before being released.

The Bucs don’t have the best record in football, and it hurt to lose Vea, but this is about what Bruce Arians & Co. could have hoped for when they signed Brady and acquired Gronk this spring. Brady hasn’t been perfect, but with improved weapons, he looks much more like the guy who won the Super Bowl in 2018 than the one who couldn’t move the ball with the Patriots last season. His arrival has unlocked what was already a good defense by drastically improving its surrounding context. Ryan Succop has even been a competent kicker for a team that hasn’t had one for years.

With games against the Saints, Rams and Chiefs coming up before their Week 13 bye, a lot of people are going to find out whether the Bucs are for real. The available evidence suggests we already have our answer.

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