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Ranking NFL's nine winless teams: Who has the most hope to turn this season around before it's too late?

When an NFL team suffers successive stumbles in the first two weeks of a season, foreboding stats come to the fore. From 1990 through 2022, per NFL Research, just 31 of 270 teams to start 0-2 reached the playoffs (11.5%). Sixteen of those teams won a division title (5.9%). A measly three of the 270 (1.1%) completely turned things around to win a Super Bowl (1993 Dallas Cowboys, 2001 New England Patriots, 2007 New York Giants).

However, hope remains.

The 2022 Cincinnati Bengals offer the latest example of a club starting 0-2, righting the ship and propelling itself to a division title. Those Bengals represent the only club to start a season 0-2 and still make the postseason since the NFL playoffs expanded to 14 teams in 2020.

A swift turnabout, however, is necessary for these teams. Since 1990, just four of 158 (2.5%) that started 0-3 ultimately reached the playoffs. Two (1.3%) won their division. None lifted a Lombardi.

Can any of the Notorious Nine in 2023 climb out of this early-season hole, defying the statistics? Let's look at reasons for optimism, with the clubs ranked in order of their chances to turn this season around.

Cincinnati Bengals

Reason for hope: They've been here before. 

Remember last year, when things were crumbling after an 0-2 start that included a loss to the Cooper Rush-led Cowboys? We're back at it again after two division losses to open up the 2023 campaign.

Slow starts have become old hat for Zac Taylor's teams. In five seasons with Taylor in charge, the Bengals have started 0-2 four times. The only time they avoided such a start was in 2021, when they squeaked out an overtime win against Minnesota.

Last year, the Bengals yo-yoed their way through the start of the schedule before getting hot in mid-November and ultimately reaching the AFC title game. A similar streak could be had in 2023.

Through two weeks, Cincinnati is off to a wobbly start on offense, partially due to Joe Burrow's calf injury. The offense has lacked explosive plays and took about six quarters to look anything like what we're used to seeing.

Losing two division tilts makes life difficult, but hey, they lost their first three in-division games last year and still won the title. The Bengals boast horses to ride back into contention. They need Burrow to get healthy (even if it means missing a game to get there) and the explosives to return. Cincy must also see Lou Anarumo's defense congeal after breaking in new pieces on the back end. Of all the 0-2 teams I'd trust to round back into form, the Bengals undoubtedly top the list.

Reason for hope: Too much talent to continue failing.

What a maddening way to start the season for L.A., losing two games by a combined five points.

The Chargers became the first team in NFL history to start 0-2 despite scoring 50-plus points and having zero giveaways in their first two games (58 points, 0 giveaways).

The main culprit is Brandon Staley's defense, which has given up the most total yards (438.5 per game) and third-most points (63) entering Week 3.

Kellen Moore hasn't unlocked the deep passing attack with Justin Herbert, but they've moved the ball, ranking fourth in the NFL in total yards and sixth in yards per play. Unfortunately, they've been at their worst with the game on the line, going three-and-out in overtime last week and failing to pick up the first down they needed late in Week 1.

For the Chargers to turn things around, the defense must get better pressure on the QB and stop giving up big plays on the back end.

Minnesota Vikings

Reason for hope: The offense remains explosive. 

If you're going to be good at just one aspect of the NFL in 2023, it might as well be passing.

Justin Jefferson and Kirk Cousins have come out of the gate hot. Jefferson leads the NFL with 309 receiving yards, while Cousins has put up 708 passing yards (second-most) and is tied for first with six passing touchdowns. Add in rookie Jordan Addison's big-play ability, and the Vikings can score points in waves.

Unfortunately, Minnesota has been putrid in basically every other facet.

The Vikings have turned the ball over seven times, including six lost fumbles. The running game is nonexistent -- maybe the trade for Cam Akers can offer a spark. The offensive line is already riddled by injury. And the defense has gotten burned on blitzes.

After going 11-0 in one-score games a year ago, the Vikings started the season 0-2 in such contests.

Assuming the lousy fumble luck stops, the defense improves under Brian Flores, and Jefferson and Cousins continue to pile up numbers, the Vikings could turn things around in a wide-open NFC North.

Denver Broncos

Reason for hope: Sean Payton still has time to put his stamp on the club. 

The Broncos lost their first two games by a combined three points despite woeful second halves, self-inflicted penalties and a defense that can't stop a nosebleed.

The big question moving forward is whether Russell Wilson is the QB we've seen in the first halves of the first two games or the lost-in-the-wilderness one he's been after the break. Take a look at his production, broken down by half:

  • First half: 85.2 completion percentage, 10.3 yards per attempt, 4:0 TD-INT ratio, 149.3 passer rating.
  • Second half: 56.4 completion percentage, 5.3 yards per attempt, 1:1 TD-INT ratio, 69.0 passer rating.

Sunday's loss to Washington encapsulated the entire experience. Wilson looked like his Seattle self, divebombing deep shots early as the Broncos built a 21-3 lead. Then the turnovers reared their heads, Wilson became overwhelmed by the pass rush, and the early efficiency disappeared. Denver needs better consistency out of Wilson moving forward.

The Broncos have averaged a league-best 3.0 points per drive through two weeks ... but have given up 2.83 points per drive, the fifth-worst mark. Couple that with ill-timed turnovers and back-breaking penalties, and it adds up to two close losses.

Payton called out last year's penalties this offseason, but they've still burned the Broncos in critical moments, including multiple roughness calls, defensive pass interference, holds that wiped out plays and fixable pre-snap penalties. Can he coach those mistakes out of his club on the fly?

Payton started the season 0-2 five times as head coach with the Saints. He made the postseason in one of those years (2017), winning eight straight after an 0-2 start. Wilson started a season 0-2 twice prior in Seattle (2015, 2018). The Seahawks made the playoffs in both of those seasons.

It doesn't hurt that the entire AFC West has had a shaky start in 2023.

Reason for hope: They've played two playoff teams from last season down to the wire. 

There are no consolation prizes in the NFL, so two close losses to playoff clubs means zip in the grand scheme -- particularly when they both come at home. But for this exercise, the defeats offer a glimmer of optimism that the Pats can turn things around.

The defense has been solid versus two explosive opponents, and rookie CB Christian Gonzalez looks like a stud early on.

The offense has looked better under Bill O'Brien than the moribund scheme the Pats trotted out last year. But the group needs more explosive plays from Mac Jones. The ground game has been poor through two weeks. And the offensive line has predictably struggled to open the season. New England can't survive as a one-dimensional offense that lacks explosive threats.

Then there is the Patriots' tendency to shoot themselves in the foot. In the season's early goings, it's been one step forward, two steps back. Turnovers, mental busts and back-breaking sacks have characterized the first two weeks.

Can Belichick's club turn "just short" comebacks into wins, or is coming up shy New England's new identity?

Houston Texans

Reason for hope: C.J. Stroud has survived the early onslaught.

Despite brutal play from a banged-up offensive line, Stroud has been stellar.

The best of the three rookie first-round QBs through two weeks, Stroud has racked up 626 yards with two TDs and no INTs. His ability to see it and rip it has been phenomenal. The rookie's pre-snap recognition and calmness in the pocket allow him to make plays despite facing the fifth-highest pressure rate (42.7%) through the first two games (min. 50 pass attempts), per Next Gen Stats.

Stroud's capacity to hit receivers in stride has helped overcome a poor rushing attack. Nico Collins has burst out of the gate, ranking second in yards per catch (17.4) among WRs with at least 10 grabs. Rookie Tank Dell flashed in Week 2. And Robert Woods is once again a trusty veteran. The Texans have a fun little passing offense.

The run game, however, is poor behind a struggling offensive line. Stroud has been under siege, getting sacked 11 times. And the secondary has been scorched.

The Texans might not have been expected to compete for a playoff spot this season, and likely won't after an 0-2 start, but Stroud's play through two games offers optimism they've found their man under center. That's a good place to start.

Chicago Bears

Reason for hope: It can't get any worse, right?

It took just two weeks for all the offseason optimism in the Windy City to get blown away.

Getting trounced at home by your nemesis and watching Baker Mayfield light up your D will have that effect.

Nothing has looked good for Chicago through two weeks.

The offense, expected to make a leap in Justin Fields' third season with the addition of DJ Moore, remains an ugly affair. Directing an inefficient operation with no run support, Fields is averaging 5.0 air yards per attempt, worst in the NFL (min. 50 attempts). Dink and dunk isn't getting it done.

The quarterback has rightfully taken heat for his play. Fields continues to process slowly, miss reads or refuse to pull the trigger. His anticipation is nearly nonexistent, and he freezes up, inviting pressure leading to sacks that could be avoided. Perhaps it's a product of getting destroyed in his first two seasons, but there is an obvious lack of confidence from the QB.

Then there is Matt Eberflus' defense, which has been eviscerated for two weeks despite the money spent to upgrade the unit in the offseason. With little consistent QB pressure and just two sacks, it's a unit that can't disrupt offenses.

This week, Fields lit another fire at Halas Hall, suggesting part of his issues were "coaching" -- comments he later walked back.  

Maybe desperation from a coaching staff under immense pressure and a QB feeling the heat will lead to some changes in Chicago. Scrapping an unproductive short passing game for one that allows Fields to take deep shots, where he's 5-of-6 this season, and relying on the QB's legs for explosive plays would be a start.

Arizona Cardinals

Reason for hope: They've put up a fight!

Given the perception that the Cardinals were playing for 2024, Jonathan Gannon's club has looked pesky through two weeks.

Arizona hung with Washington, taking a 16-10 lead into the fourth quarter before surrendering it. Last week, they jumped out to a 20-0 halftime lead over the Giants, then crumbled down the stretch. It's better than two predicted blowouts!

Joshua Dobbs, acquired less than three weeks before the start of the season, has done an admirable job moving the offense. The Cards lack explosive plays, but Dobbs has been accurate, completing 68.9 percent of his passes without an INT. The QB has gotten the ball out quickly to avoid pressure, keeping Arizona out of bad down-and-distances, and has used his legs to avoid disaster. James Conner showed juice Sunday, rushing for 106 yards and a TD.

A defense widely expected to be among the worst in the league has found some solid pieces, with edge Dennis Gardeck emerging for three sacks. The Cardinals have given up big plays and allowed the Giants to march down the field repeatedly last week, but it's been better than the sum of its parts so far.

If the goal was to lay a foundation and use the hoard of draft picks to make a move in 2024, that process looks pretty good through two weeks. If Gannon can keep his players fighting like they have through 17 games, consider it an accomplishment.

Carolina Panthers

Reason for hope: They have been in both games into the fourth quarter, thanks to the defense.

Despite the offensive struggles with Bryce Young under center, the Panthers battled deep into each contest.

Brian Burns has been a stud off the edge with two sacks. Frankie Luvu's star continues to rise (2.5 sacks, four QB hits, three TFL). Derrick Brown is a load in the middle. And the safety trio of Jeremy Chinn, Xavier Woods and Vonn Bell has covered up a lot on the back end. Shaq Thompson's injury is a big blow, but there is optimism that the defense can keep games close until the offense catches up.

The question is whether that will happen in Young's rookie campaign. The offensive line has struggled to protect the quarterback. The wide receiver crew is giving the No. 1 overall pick little help. Of the Panthers four receivers with at least 20 routes run this season, none has averaged 3.0 yards of separation, per Next Gen Stats: Adam Thielen (2.9), Terrace Marshall (2.3), D.J. Chark (2.0) and Jonathan Mingo (1.8). That's not a recipe for lifting a rookie QB.

The Panthers, averaging 5.0 yards per carry, fourth-most in the NFL, must lean on the ground game and a solid D until Young and the passing attack find footing. Carolina also needs Young's ankle injury, which has officially sidelined him for Sunday's game in Seattle, to heal quickly.

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