Green Bay Packers (2-4)

The Packers are either an early-season disappointment or running right on schedule, depending on your perspective.

The kindest preseason projection for a team full of young players went something along these lines: the Packers, adjusting to their post-Aaron Rodgers era, would stumble through the opening weeks of the season, iron out issues by the midpoint of the year and hit the gas down the stretch. That idea, though, banked on a couple of things: that there would be flashes on offense and that the defense would, finally, show signs of growing. Neither has happened.

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Part of the excitement around Green Bay moving on from Rodgers to Jordan Love was that they would finally be able to run Matt LaFleur’s offense, unedited. The Packers rank 12th in EPA per play – a measure of the unit’s down-to-down effectiveness. But that number doesn’t tell the full story. The Packers’ offense feels clunky and has been one of the worst groups in the league in the first half of games. The young unit – as expected – has made mistakes, the run game has vanished and Love is hitting next to nothing over the middle of the field, the area that LaFleur’s offense is designed to expose.

The concerns run deeper on defense. Defensive coordinator Joe Barry continues to get minimal production out of a group filled with early draft picks and top-end talent. They are passive to the point of boredom – and this in a league where defenses are experiencing a blitz-fueled renaissance.

According to Aaron Schatz’s calculations, the Packers have around a 26% chance of reaching the postseason, mostly due to the fact that, in a weak NFC, they could sneak into a wildcard slot. In the wider picture, though, the back half of the season is about figuring out whether Love is the long-term answer at quarterback or not.

Verdict: Stutter to a seven-win record

It’s been an uneven start for Jordan Love as Green Bay’s QB1.It’s been an uneven start for Jordan Love as Green Bay’s QB1. Photograph: Ron Chenoy/USA Today Sports

LA Chargers (2-4)

Not even a new, high-flying offense has prevented the Chargers from Charger-ing this year. They have lost three one-score games already and the same issues that have plagued the Brandon Staley’s side for three years have persisted. Bad defense. Dumb mistakes. Ill-timed turnovers.

Once again, Staley’s defense looks like a sieve. The Chargers rank 31st in EPA per play on defense, ahead of only a historically poor Denver defense. Staley is still capable of delivering great, one-off gameplans. For a couple of seasons, that’s cute. But in year three, for a defensive guru, that’s not close to good enough.

Any hope for the Chargers this season rests on Justin Herbert’s arm. The team’s offense has been reinvigorated under Kellen Moore. Through seven weeks, the Chargers have cracked the top-five in offensive production and hit the highest number of explosive plays (13%) in the Herbert era. But despite the gaudy numbers, the Chargers offense has been rickety at times with Mike Williams off the field. Before Williams’ season-ending injury, Herbert and Co were pouring hot lava over the league. Without Williams, it’s been more of a grind.

There’s little more that Herbert can squeeze out of the offense. It’s over to the defense to hold up its end of the bragin. And what evidence do we have that Staley’s group can flip the switch?

If a team from the two-win group is going to make the postseason, it will probably be the Chargers. They have a relatively kind schedule over the next eight weeks and are capable of grabbing at least six wins in that span. But sneaking into the playoffs was not the plan. Winning it all was the goal. With the current state of the defense, the Chargers are a longway from being true contenders in the AFC.

Verdict: Sneak into the playoffs and upset a contender in the wildcard round

Two-win teams’ playoff chances

Tennessee Titans (2-4)

Mercifully, the Titans’ long-awaited teardown has begun and it appears they are now planning for the future. They dealt away safety Kevin Byard last week. By the time the trade deadline has closed, DeAndre Hopkins, Derrick Henry, Dan Brunskill, Ryan Tannehill and Denico Autry may have followed Byard out the door.

In a jam-packed AFC, that’s the right move. But it means they’re unlikely to put a run of games together in the second half of the season to sneak into the postseason.

Verdict: Good news for fans – a top-three pick looks likely

New England Patriots (2-5)

Guess who finally showed up to the 2023 party?

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The Patriots have looked lifeless for much of the season. But against the Bills, they put into practice what they preached all offseason. They ran the ball well, sustained drives and played tough, smart defense. If they’re able to replicate their performance against Buffalo, the Patriots could win four of their next six games: at the Dolphins; home to the Commanders and Colts; at the Giants; home to the Chargers; at the Steelers.

Still, there’s little you can bank on with New England week-to-week. What should have been one of the league’s most effective defenses has been hit by injuries. Who knows if Ezekiel Elliott’s resurgence is real? Which Mac Jones will show up in Week 8 or 9? Who is he throwing the ball to?

The Patriots have enough coaching acumen to keep games close. But at this point, the early-season deficit will be too much to overcome.

Verdict: Lose games they should win; win games they should lose; miss the playoffs

The Patriots’ win over AFC East rivals Buffalo could revive their season.The Patriots’ win over AFC East rivals Buffalo could revive their season. Photograph: Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports

Chicago Bears (2-5)

Forget the playoffs, the Bears are in survival mode. Staying competitive the rest of the way is the only shot the Bears staff and Justin Fields will have at keeping their jobs.

Last week’s win over the Raiders was a feelgood story. Tyson Bagent, who looks more like a Waffle House line cook than a starting NFL quarterback, was outstanding in relief duty for Fields. But the underlying problems that have plagued the Bears for 18 months remain: the defense lacks a consistent pass rush and the offense lacks ideas and talent.

Verdict: Bail on the season by Week 11 for a high draft pick

New York Giants (2-5)

The NFL is an odd league. Franchise growth doesn’t always unfold along one neat, continuous line. Last year’s Giants lacked talent but were competitive. They got by with a wonky offense and frenzied defense, and rode the two all the way to a playoff win.

This year’s Giants are more talented than last year’s group but have been awful for much of the year. The defense rediscovering some of its 2022 form over the past two weeks has offered New York a lifeline. But with a porous offensive line and a lack of consistency on offense in general, it’s tough to picture the Giants climbing out of an early-season hole.

Verdict: Embroil themselves in a pointless quarterback controversy; win six games

Denver Broncos (2-5)

Given how disastrously Denver’s defense has performed this season, it’s a minor miracle that they’ve been semi-competitive. Denver have lost twice by one-score and, somehow, held the Chiefs to 19 points. But there’s little chance of the Broncos turning it around the rest of the way. Their remaining schedule is daunting. Hiring Sean Payton was never going to be a cure-all, and the franchise is in the same spot today as it was when it acquired the coach this offseason: staring down a rebuild in one of the league’s most competitive divisions.

Verdict: Roll on draft season