We have already made it through one month of the NFL season. A quarter of the season has flown by and it's been full of surprises. The Patriots look shaky, the Cardinals look like a threat to the Seahawks, the Bengals have stormed through people and the Raiders have already made a coaching change (okay, maybe that one isn't surprising.)
Now for the teams struggling. More specifically, the teams that aren't supposed to be struggling. Green Bay looks to have taken a step back, the Saints, a popular Super Bowl pick, look like they can't stop anyone and the Colts began the season 0-2. While the 49ers may be 2-2, the whispers continue about Jim Harbaugh's future in San Francisco.
However we've come to see many sluggish starts turn into great seasons and there's still time for these teams to turn it around and salvage their season. Here are the five teams most likely to storm back in the latter stages of the season.
5 Cleveland Browns
What? The Cleveland Browns? Well, the Browns were actually quite impressive through the month of September. While they ultimately won just one of three games, they could very easily have been 3-0.
They came back from 24 points down to Pittsburgh only to lose on a last-second field goal. After a dramatic win over New Orleans, they lost to another division rival, Baltimore, on a last-second field goal. It seems the Browns are just never able to close out games, but for this particular bunch, it's merely a question of them learning how to win.
Brian Hoyer has shown himself to be a capable starting quarterback. He won't be a perennial Pro Bowler or a starter on a fantasy team, but he is a tough competitor and there's a fire inside of him to keep proving people wrong. Couple that in with the fact he's playing for his hometown of Cleveland and we have a QB who's motivated to win.
The Browns have been able to muster offence without their best player, Josh Gordon. The defence has had its good moments and bad ones, still trying to find consistency.
The key for the Browns to make the late push is how well they do before Josh Gordon comes back, in Week 12. The Browns have had their bye week, so Week 11 against Houston will be their last game without last year's receiving yardage leader. If they are .500 after their first 10 games, the addition of Gordon will make them a tough out down the stretch. They just have to stay in the hunt until then.
They do have Jacksonville and Oakland on the way, so that should help them. Their tougher games until Week 12 include Pittsburgh, at Cincinnati and home to Houston. It's entirely possible for them to be 5-5 with Gordon coming back, then they'll have Atlanta, Buffalo, Indy, Cincy again, Carolina and Baltimore. The Browns can make the push.
4 Indianapolis Colts
Many would argue that the 2-2 Colts have already turned the corner after starting the season 0-2. While they may very well be on their way to winning an unimpressive AFC South, their goal was to build off of last season and take an extra step. In that regard, there are still many question marks.
The Colts' defence still doesn't quite look like it has taken that step and Robert Mathis is gone for the season. They've also now lost Laron Landry to a four-game suspension. On offence, they still can't establish a running game. Andrew Luck has carried them.
Plus, the Colts' two losses came to Denver and Philly, two good teams and their wins came against a winless Jaguars squad and a Titans team led by Charlie Whitehurst.
The Colts don't look like they're quite up there with Denver, Cincinnati, San Diego, or even Baltimore. Don't forget about the Houston Texans, a team they're still trying to catch. They'll face them in Week 6.
Indy's weak division will help them salvage their season, unless the Texans can somehow win the division with Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starter. However for the Colts to really make that next step, their running game has to get going and someone else has to step up in their pass rush.
3 San Francisco 49ers
The main reason the 49ers can still make the playoffs and make a run is the simplest answer; their talent can still have them rise to the top. In spite of all the instability in the organization and with Jim Harbaugh's future in question, Harbaugh has always found a way to win.
The 49ers got a huge win over Philadelphia and it was due to their running game finally playing a factor. Getting Anthony Davis back at right tackle proved to make a huge difference, as Frank Gore looked like his old self, rushing for 119 yards and scoring on a 55-yard touchdown reception. The 49ers have to continue going to Gore, one of the more underrated running backs of our time.
On defence, the 49ers are still waiting for NaVorro Bowman to come back from his torn ACL and for Aldon Smith to serve his nine-game suspension. When they're back, all bets are off from this Niners defence.
Their schedule is tough, with two games left against Seattle, a game in New Orleans, San Diego, in Denver, and Arizona to close out the season. However, the 49ers always seem to be able to find a way to come together and this is just going on a gut instinct. Going into their Week 8 bye at 5-2 or even 4-3 will keep them around and on their best day, they can hang with anybody.
2 New England Patriots
The question is asked every year; is the Patriots dynasty over? Well, they haven't won the Super Bowl in a decade, so why is that still a question? Yes, the dynasty you're referring to, three Super Bowls between 2001 and 2004 is over. Regular seasons don't count as dynasties. The Patriots bare a closer resemblance to the Atlanta Braves of the 90s. A shoe-in for regular season titles, but continuously falling short in the playoffs.
However, while the Patriots' days as an elite Super Bowl contender may be over, there's good news. Their division, the AFC East, still hasn't been able to accomplish anything. This season doesn't seem to be any better. The Bills have slipped to 2-2 and have benched E.J. Manuel for Kyle Orton, the Jets' fan base wants Geno out and Vick in under centre and Joe Philbin was contemplating pulling Ryan Tannehill from the starting gig. The Patriots aren't the only mess in the AFC East and if any one of the four teams can dig themselves out, you have to go with the organization that has at least proven time and time again they're the best in their division.
New England has plenty of tough games on its plate. They have Cincinnati, Chicago, Denver, at Indianapolis, home to Detroit, at Green Bay, at San Diego and five divisional games left. It looks like 10-6 will be enough to win the east, meaning the Patriots would have to at least go 8-4 the rest of the way. You have to take those chances.
The problem will surface come playoff time, when we'll see whether the Patriots have truly fallen from an elite franchise to just a stable, very good one.
1 New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints were many an expert's pick to win the Super Bowl, the only team many saw as capable of dethroning the Seattle Seahawks. What we've seen from them has been catastrophic.
The Dallas Cowboys, who have never established AT&T Stadium as a dominant home turf, did just that by whipping the Saints 38-17 in Week 4.
Adding Jairus Byrd in the offseason appears to have solved nothing in their secondary, as they're 28th in the league against the pass. Rob Ryan's group looks like a mess. They were lit up by Matt Ryan in a 37-34 loss in Week 1, Brian Hoyer marched the Browns down the field to beat them late in Week 2 and this past week DeMarco Murray dropped 149 yards on them. Tony Romo had his most complete game of the season.
Drew Brees's passing yards aren't translating into points and wins. The offence has looked quite predictable. Even their lone win, Week 3 against Minnesota, came in a game where the Vikings were juggling two quarterbacks, following an injury to Matt Cassel, and were without Adrian Peterson. The Saints were as unimpressive as you can look in a 20-9 victory.
Here's the good news; the Saints have only played one home game. Going to the SuperDome is a tall task for any team and the Saints can beat anybody in New Orleans. They were given a rough start to their season, with three of their first four on the road. However, with the way they've looked on the road, they'll have to be perfect at home to get into the postseason. Them overtaking Seattle for the no.1 seed appears to be out of the question. Now it's about survival in the NFC South. The Falcons can't win on the road either, the Buccaneers are still a work in progress and the Panthers are decimated on their o-line and secondary, allowing the Saints to stay in the NFC South race.
The Saints will prove to be too explosive to keep down for the whole season. When they get more home games, they'll get into their groove, establish some momentum and steal a few games on the road. Until we're proven wrong, you have to go with the franchise that has shown stability under Sean Payton and Drew Brees. The great ones always find a way; they're great, they will.