Analysis: Several NFL teams entering danger zone very early

Fri Oct 22 2:48pm ET
AP Pro Football Writer

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Indianapolis Colts' Jonathan Taylor (28) runs past Houston Texans' Justin Reid (20) for a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

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Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen (19) makes a touchdown catch against Carolina Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn (21) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

While it's too early to write off any NFL team's season - oh wait, we forgot about Detroit, Houston, Miami, Jacksonville and the rotten Big Apple - there is plenty of angst spread across the lower ends of the standings.

As we dismiss those clubs mentioned above, we also present a look at the teams who have entered the danger zone far too early. Such projected contenders as the Colts, Browns, Vikings, Steelers, Seahawks and Patriots have almost wiggled out of whatever wiggle room they might have possessed.

Who has it toughest is difficult to decipher. Maybe the Browns (4-3) and Steelers (3-3) in an AFC North where the resourceful Ravens (5-1) keep winning and the Bengals (4-2) are suddenly a factor.

Maybe the Patriots (2-4), who have little chance of catching Buffalo (4-2), which they meet twice in December, and also have the Chargers (4-2) and Titans (4-2) to deal with.

The Vikings (3-3) are in a similar situation as New England, needing a huge leap in class to compete with Green Bay (5-1), and with their next four games against teams with a combined 19-5 record.

Then there's Seattle (2-4) in the rugged NFC West minus, for now, Russell Wilson and with holes in the defense even Pete Carroll can't seem to patch.

''But there are no options,'' Carroll says. ''You've got to come back. We've got to battle. That's how we do it.''

Not enough, so far.

A look at the precipices some NFL teams are teetering at:


Starting 0-3 and 2-4 with your newly acquired quarterback struggling and playing hurt, your best receiver unable to stay healthy, and your lauded defense showing inconsistency is no way to contend. Not even in the mediocre AFC South.

The Colts have to beat some good teams to turn it around, something they've yet to manage. Sure, they have Jacksonville twice, Houston and the Jets ahead. They also face Tennessee, Buffalo, Arizona and Las Vegas.

But they do have Jonathan Taylor looking like a star running back.


Although they manage to play opponents close, these Patriots can't close. Despite Mac Jones being the most accomplished thus far of the six starting rookie quarterbacks, this is a faulty roster with issues on virtually every unit.

The Patriots head into Sunday's game with the Jets ranked 27th in rushing offense, 26th in total offense, 24th in points per game and 19th in passing offense. They also have 11 giveaways; only Kansas City (14) and Jacksonville (12) turned over the ball more through six weeks.


Yes, the Vikings have won their last two and reversed a trend of folding in crunch time. But they could get crunched over the next month while facing Dallas, Baltimore, the Los Angeles Chargers and Green Bay following their bye.

The offense is percolating, particularly when operating with no huddle, but this defense won't remind many of the Purple People Eaters.

That the Vikings seem to have a better feel for tight situations could help them escape the danger zone.

''We have a bunch of fighters, bunch of guys that aren't stressed out. They're just going out there. It's just laser-focused, and there's not a lot of talk. We're just staying in the huddle and waiting for that play to start to just get going,'' wide receiver Adam Thielen says.


Through the Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin era in Pittsburgh, we've become accustomed to the Steelers finding ways to compete. While a rebuild in Steel City is inevitable and probably imminent, there seems to be enough talent and leadership for them to remain viable in 2021.

There also are enough holes, particularly on both lines and in the secondary, to offset further progress. And this isn't vintage Big Ben at age 39.

Injuries also have been a major factor for Pittsburgh, which returns from its bye on Halloween with a visit to the equally banged-up Browns. That game will say plenty about both teams.


If coach Kevin Stefanski, who did such a masterful job last season, is willing to stick with the throwback mode - run, run and run some more, while playing solid defense - Cleveland could ride that old-style football to another playoff berth. The Browns have a strong pass rush, too.

What they don't appear to have is the collective calm in tight spots nor the on-field leadership that can lift teams from underachievement to success. There's lots of talent on the roster, albeit many of those players are hobbled right now. There are even more question marks about the Browns.


This is one is quite simple. The NFC West is a monster, and the Seahawks already have lost to the Rams. Without Wilson, and with a defense that resembles a Legion of Doom, the Seahawks are in serious trouble of not getting to the postseason for the first time since 2017 and second since 2011.

They also don't have that home-field edge that was so enormous for the past decade, and that needs to change quickly.

''It's going to be a long way down the schedule, there are a lot of things that will happen around the league, and we have to take care of our business,'' Carroll says. ''As it is always the case, postponing judgment is a powerful tool if you have it and that's what we have to do.''

OK for now. Not for too much longer, though.

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Player Notes
Mac Jones Nov 27 12:00pm ET
Mac Jones

New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones has thrown for over 230 yards just once over his last six games. Despite that, his team has won every game, but one of those contests. The rookie quarterback isn't putting together superstar numbers, but is helping his team win. That being said, Jones is unlikely to be worth streaming against the Tennessee Titans in Week 12. A defense that ranks ninth in pass DVOA this season. There isn't a ton of upside here with the Pats being a run-heavy offense. Jones will be towards the bottom in terms of streaming options at QB this week. It's not because he's bad, but because he normally doesn't produce reliable fantasy numbers.

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Cam Newton Nov 27 12:00pm ET
Cam Newton

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is in the QB1 conversation against Miami in Week 12. The QB has been fantastic since returning to his old squad. He has now posted five touchdowns in the last two games, three passing and two rushing. The 32-year-old has proved he still has it in terms of his dual-threat abilities. The Dolphins allow the seventh-most points to fantasy QBs, so Newton is a solid start.

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Christian McCaffrey Nov 27 12:00pm ET
Christian McCaffrey

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey is a solid RB1 against Miami. The RB has accumulated at least 52 rushing yards and 54 receiving yards in the last three games and always has a high chance to get over 100 yards of scrimmage in any contest given his large role. Miami is somewhat stingy to fantasy backs, but McCaffrey's rich volume still makes him an elite play.

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Brandon Bolden Nov 27 12:00pm ET
Brandon Bolden

New England Patriots running back Brandon Bolden is coming off one of his worst games of the season. He finished with one rushing yard and two receptions for 15 yards last week. Now, he could see a significant role in the offense versus the Tennessee Titans in Week 12. Both Damien Harris (neck) and Rhamondre Stevenson (knee) are listed as questionable heading into this contest. That means, Bolden and J.J. Taylor could be asked to pick up the slack, assuming both players are out. A majority of Bolden's value does come in the receiving game. However, two inactive backs would mean more chances for Bolden. A could have some sneaky PPR value, but it would be dependent on the status of Harris and Stevenson.

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Kareem Hunt Nov 27 11:10am ET
Kareem Hunt

The Cleveland Browns officially activated running back Kareem Hunt (calf) and offensive tackle Jack Conklin (elbow) from Injured Reserve on Saturday, and both players are on track to play on Sunday night against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 12. It's great news for a Browns offense that has been slowed of late due to all the injuries to quarterback Baker Mayfield. Hunt has been out since Week 6, so it's fair to wonder if his snaps will be limited in his first game back. The 26-year-old had carved out standalone value in PPR leagues before his injury despite splitting backfield work with Nick Chubb. At the very worst, Hunt will probably be in play as an RB3/flex this week, even though the Ravens have been more vulnerable deep down the field than against RBs this season.

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Mack Hollins Nov 27 11:10am ET
Mack Hollins

Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mack Hollins is coming off his best performance of the season. Last week, he hauled in two receptions for 72 yards and one touchdown in the win. That is not exactly an outstanding performance, but Hollins hasn't been involved much this season. There is a good chance he is quiet again versus the Carolina Panthers in Week 12. A defense that ranks second in pass DVOA heading into this contest. There might be a few targets for Hollins, but it won't be enough to warrant starting him in any formats. There are too many options ahead of him in the pecking order in Miami.

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Blake Jarwin Nov 27 11:10am ET
Blake Jarwin

The Dallas Cowboys placed tight end Blake Jarwin on the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Saturday after he tested positive for the virus. Jarwin is also currently on Injured Reserve after he suffered a serious hip injury in Week 8. However, the 27-year-old has already missed four games, so if is asymptomatic and returns two negative tests, there's a chance he could be eligible to play next Thursday against the New Orleans Saints. The Cowboys have yet to open his 21-day window to return from IR, though, so we'd be surprised if Jarwin is active for Week 13. Jarwin can be left to the waiver wire in most leagues, as he has only 10 catches on 15 targets for 90 yards and two touchdowns in seven games this year as the clear No. 2 TE option in Dallas behind Dalton Schultz when he's healthy.

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Mike Gesicki Nov 27 11:00am ET
Mike Gesicki

Miami Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki has seen at least six targets in all, but two games this season. The Dolphins continue to work the 26-year-old heavily into their weekly gameplan. Sadly, Gesicki could have some trouble making noise against the Carolina Panthers in Week 12. He'll get to play against the second ranked pass defense in DVOA this season. The targets should be there, but Gesicki has also posted two zero-reception duds as well. Despite that, Gesicki should be considered a low-end TE1 for this matchup.

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Albert Wilson Nov 27 11:00am ET
Albert Wilson

Miami Dolphins wide receiver Albert Wilson has seen an increased workload over the last few weeks. Sadly, the increase in targets hasn't exactly resulted in better results. In fact, Wilson has only surpassed 20 receiving yards in a single game once this season. That is unlikely going to change against the Carolina Panthers in Week 12. A defense that ranks second in pass DVOA this season. There could be a handful of targets for Wilson, but that won't be enough to warrant starting him in any formats.

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Myles Gaskin Nov 27 10:50am ET
Myles Gaskin

Miami Dolphins running back Myles Gaskin has been held to 60 rushing yards or less in every game, but three this season. However, Gaskin is coming off a season-high 89 yards in Week 11. He also saw a season-high 23 carries in that performance. Now, he'll head into a fairly favorable matchup against the Carolina Panthers in Week 12. A defense that ranks 19th in rush DVOA this season. The absence of Malcolm Brown (quad) has increased Gaskin's involvement in the offense. Fantasy managers should be able to count on Gaskin as a RB2 for this week.

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Jaylen Waddle Nov 27 10:50am ET
Jaylen Waddle

Miami Dolphins wide receiver Jaylen Waddle has seen eight or more targets in five of his last six games. The Dolphins continue to work the rookie into their gameplan with DeVante Parker (hamstring) and Will Fuller (finger) still sidelined. Sadly, the Dolphins could have trouble getting Waddle the ball in Week 12. He'll head into a matchup against the Carolina Panthers who rank second in pass DVOA this season. Over the last three games, Waddle has been able to surpass 60 receiving yards in all of them. However, that streak could come to an end against Carolina. Fantasy managers should consider Waddle a WR3 in PPR formats for this matchup.

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Tua Tagovailoa Nov 27 10:40am ET
Tua Tagovailoa

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has been an inconsistent fantasy option all season long. However, it's worth noting Tagovailoa has three multiple touchdown games in three of his last five games. Unfortunately, it's unlikely that he is going to succeed against the Carolina Panthers in Week 12. A defense that ranks second in pass DVOA this season. The Dolphins have limited weapons and one of the worst offensive lines in the league. Fantasy managers should continue to consider Tagovailoa a QB2 moving forward.

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David Johnson Nov 27 10:30am ET
David Johnson

Running back David Johnson is expected to be the passing-down back for the Houston Texans in their matchup versus the Jets in Week 12. Johnson is receiving a 16.9% target share but he has only averaged 4.6 rushing attempts per game. The Texans should keep this game close, and Rex Burkhead is expected to dominate the rushing attempts, neither of which bodes well for Johnson. It is very unlikely Johnson puts up a fantasy line that anyone notices. He's a last-resort PPR option.

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Tyrod Taylor Nov 27 10:30am ET
Tyrod Taylor

Houston Texans quarterback Tyrod Taylor showed what he was capable of last week and now he gets his softest matchup of the year in a Week 12 meeting against the New York Jets. Taylor has been limited to just three healthy games all season, where he produced pass attempts of 24, 33 and 43. However, Taylor has three rushing touchdowns on the season and has taken over the goal-line rushing role in the offense. The Jets pass defense is nothing to fear, and Tyrod brings upside with his legs. Consider the Houston QB a viable QB2 streamer this week.

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Brandin Cooks Nov 27 10:30am ET
Brandin Cooks

Houston Texans wide receiver Brandin Cooks comes into his Week 12 matchup versus the Jets with a 43.2% target share, which is near the top of the league. Yet he is only seeing 8.7 targets per game. Cooks has six games where he has seven or fewer targets and only two touchdowns. However, he also has four games of 11 targets or more. The Jets have been the worst team in the NFL against the pass, but Houston has a chance to win this game, and the Texans love to run. Cooks is a viable play in every league, but he's a much better play in PPR leagues where the lack of touchdowns won't kill you.

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Rex Burkhead Nov 27 10:20am ET
Rex Burkhead

Running back Rex Burkhead should remain the lead back on early downs this week for the Houston Texans against the Jets in Week 12. The departure of running back Phillip Lindsay further cemented Burkhead's role. While David Johnson should get the passing-down work, it will be Burkhead who should see the majority of the rushing attempts. The game script may be in his favor, but that is the only positive. The Jets are a bad football team, but the Texans offensive line is in disarray, and Burkhead hasn't shown much explosiveness to this point. He's an emergency streamer in deep leagues but nothing more.

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Zach Wilson Nov 27 10:20am ET
Zach Wilson

The Houston Texans defense doesn't exactly inspire a ton of faith. They have allowed the fourth-most points in the NFL and are in the middle of the pack in sacks. However, they face Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson and an inept offense this week. Wilson has played in six games this season and has managed to throw nine interceptions with only four touchdown passes. The Texans defense is cheap in DFS and can be streamed in any league this week.

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D.K. Metcalf Nov 27 9:30am ET
D.K. Metcalf

Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf (foot) was a full participant while running back Alex Collins (abdomen) was limited during Friday's practice. Metcalf sat out Thursday for maintenance purposes and is all systems go for Week 12 against the Washington Football Team. The Seahawks have struggled to move the ball and have scored just 13 points over the last two weeks. Metcalf has been held to seven catches for 57 yards during those two weeks but remains a mid-range WR2 in Week 12. The Seahawks backfield is banged up as Rashaad Penny (hamstring), and Travis Homer was absent from Friday's practice. Collins has been limited throughout the week with an abdomen injury but is expected to play Monday against Washington. He has rushed for 121 yards on 30 attempts and caught his only target for eight yards over his last three games. Collins is expected to lead Seattle's backfield but is an RB3 in Week 12.

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Chris Godwin Nov 27 9:00am ET
Chris Godwin

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin has caught 29 catches for 373 and three touchdowns over four games with WR Antonio Brown (ankle) sidelined. He will look to continue his impressive run against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 12. The Colts have given up the fourth-most points to opposing wideouts but rank fifth in DVOA against WR2s. Godwin owns 20% of the team's target share and an impressive 6.8 YAC per reception, ranked eighth among all wideouts. In a projected high-scoring affair (51.5 over/under), Godwin is a borderline WR1 against the Colts in Week 12.

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Leonard Fournette Nov 27 8:50am ET
Leonard Fournette

Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette faces an Indianapolis Colts defense that ranks 20th in rush DVOA. He will look to turn things around after failing to find the end zone and rushing for under 50 yards in three straight games. The 26-year-old has been involved in the passing game, catching 17 passes for 101 yards during that three-game span. Fournette should lead Tampa Bay's backfield against the Colts and is mid-range RB2 in a projected high-scoring affair (51.5 over/under) in Week 12.

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