4 NFL teams with something to panic about right now

There was really only one team we could start off the panic index with this week. Some teams lose even when they win — none more so than the Browns.

At some point over the last two months, the Browns and Raiders swapped identities. Oakland became the ascendant AFC team surprising foes en route to a winning record behind an efficient quarterback, a dynamic running attack, and a defense that jelled into a better-than-expected unit. Meanwhile, Cleveland was out there making poor decisions, losing winnable games, getting constant flags, brawling with rivals, and seeing a defensive player suspended for the season.

The Browns beat the Steelers Thursday night to improve to 4-6 and remain in the AFC playoff hunt, but threw a wrench in their comeback plans by losing Myles Garrett indefinitely after he ripped off Mason Rudolph’s helmet and summarily struck him with it. Garrett was the catalyst of the Cleveland pass rush, recording 10 sacks in his first seven games. The club will also be without tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who ranks second on the team with five sacks, for Week 12’s game against the Dolphins due to his role in that Pittsburgh melee.

The Browns likely have to win out — or at worst go 5-1 — to find a spot in the 2019 postseason. They’ll have to do so without arguably their best player. And if the previous 11 weeks are any indication, they won’t just have to beat their opponents; they’ll have to overcome their own stupid mistakes.

No team in the league has had more ejections or given up more yardage to penalties than the Browns, who’ve gifted opponents 822 yards over the course of 10 games. Cleveland’s been flagged an average of 11.2 times per game, effectively keeping the team from finding the rhythm that pushed the 2018 Browns to a 5-3 finish in the back half of the season.

Baker Mayfield, often tasked with having to throw his team back into contention late in games, has thrown more interceptions (12) than touchdown passes (11) in what was supposed to be his breakout season. If those paces continue, it’ll be a 12th straight losing season in Ohio.

Panic index: The Browns have the easiest remaining schedule in the league, so if there ever was a good time to lose a defensive player of the year candidate (there is not), this was it. Cleveland will have to win out against a schedule that includes games against the Dolphins, Cardinals, Steelers, and two matchups against the 0-10 Bengals. The Browns can still rally here — as long as the team doesn’t inflict too much damage on itself to prevent takeoff.

The Steelers have drafted several quarterbacks in the last 11 years as insurance for mainstay Ben Roethlisberger. Dennis Dixon, Landry Jones, and Joshua Dobbs worked as backups and emergency options in Pittsburgh, but that was their ceiling. The Steelers didn’t really need them to be anything else, either, because Roethlisberger had never missed more than four games in any given season.

In his first four games, Rudolph put up solid stats (67 completion percentage, 7:2 TD:INT ratio, 102.5 passer rating), even if the Steelers didn’t ask him to do too much. His last four games have been a different story, though.

Now that teams have more game tape on him, Rudolph has seen a major dip in his numbers (59.5 completion percentage, 5:6 TD: INT ratio, 70.8 passer rating). This season, only embattled Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is throwing for fewer yards per pass than Rudolph’s 6.3.

Rudolph is coming off the worst game of his NFL career, too. He threw just one touchdown pass and four interceptions in the loss to the Browns (though what he’ll be remembered for most is his involvement in the Myles Garrett brawl).

That loss moved Pittsburgh to 5-5 and even further down the wild card playoff picture. While Rudolph hasn’t been entirely to blame, he falls short when he needs to make plays rather than be a game manager:

Roethlisberger still has two seasons left on his current contract, but he’s 37 years old, and is coming off his biggest injury yet. Without a first-round pick next year (due to the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade), the Steelers could find themselves in the same boat next season if Roethlisberger gets hurt again: slipping out of the playoff race because of not having an adequate backup plan.

Panic index: It might be a little soon to give up on Rudolph after just seven starts, especially because his best playmakers (including JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and James Conner) have been banged up.

If Roethlisberger is fully healthy next year, that’ll give the Steelers more time to develop Rudolph and determine if he’s worth an investment, or if they should try once more to draft Big Ben’s replacement.

Or, they could just listen to some of the fans and see what third-stringer Devlin Hodges can do again.

The Panthers’ future suddenly looks like “long-term mediocrity”

Just a month ago, moving on from Cam Newton in the offseason looked like it could be the right move for the Panthers. His play declined since his 2015 MVP season and, for the second year in a row, his season ended early due to injury.

The good news for Carolina was the play of Kyle Allen softened the blow. In his first four starts of the 2019 season, he threw seven touchdowns, no interceptions, and had a 106.6 passer rating. Allen appeared to have a real chance at being the Panthers’ quarterback of the future.

Now, not so much.

In his last four starts, Allen has three touchdowns, nine interceptions, and a putrid 60.3 rating. It was understandable when he threw three picks against the 49ers, arguably the best defense in the NFL. But four interceptions against the lowly Falcons? That’s awful. It was so bad that it sent Panthers owner David Tepper into an existential crisis. Via ESPN:

Tepper’s frustration over losing was evident, as he continually said that long-term mediocrity would not be accepted. He also said fans, many of whom left the stadium early Sunday, were smart enough to recognize long-term mediocrity.

Newton may end up sticking around in Carolina after all, given Allen’s recent play. But that might not be enough to get the Panthers back on track.

Panic index: It’s better to have an owner who’s determined to fix a team rather than one who’s fine with being stuck in neutral. The Panthers have several good things in place, including Christian McCaffrey, one of the most dynamic players in the league. The sky isn’t falling even if Allen’s not the answer.

The Bengals are reaching new levels of terrible

It’s not surprising that the Bengals are among the league’s bottom teams, but they weren’t expected to be this bad. They’re 0-10 on the season, and the switch from Andy Dalton to Ryan Finley at quarterback has not resulted in anything but much shakier play from under center.

Their latest loss was against the Raiders, a rather pitiful 17-10 game in which the Bengals never really threatened to win despite actually leading at one point. More than anything, the Bengals look lost and lethargic on the field. There’s no consistency outside of their winless record, and it’s hard to see any real identity on either side of the football, except maybe apathy:

Following the loss to the Raiders, the Bengals were officially eliminated from the playoff race. It’s the earliest a team has been knocked out of postseason contention since at least 2002, per ESPN.

That was also the last year the Bengals had won fewer than four games. They finished 2-14. But at this point, even getting one win seems like a pipe dream.

Panic index: After that dreadful 2002 season, the Bengals ended up with No. 1 pick in the draft — and landed longtime quarterback Carson Palmer. Currently, they are in line for No. 1 pick again and can take whichever quarterback they like the most. The best thing that can happen at this point is the Bengals look to the future and figure out what kind of team they want to be.

Another option for Bengals fans? Just accept this dire present and decide nihilism is the only way forward.

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