Barnwell: Expect these six teams to win fewer games in 2018

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On Monday, we used underlying metrics from 2017 to project which teams are most likely to improve upon last season’s record. Today, we look in the opposite direction to try to identify the teams that have the best chance of declining in 2018. The numbers mentioned below have exhibited some ability to project future performance in past years. You can read more about those metrics here.

More: Six teams likeliest to improve

Minnesota Vikings (13-3)

Point differential in 2017: +130
Pythagorean expectation: 11.7 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 3-2 (.600)
2017 strength of schedule: 0.514 (seventh toughest in NFL)

There might not be a more talented team in football, top to bottom, than the Vikings. Defensive coordinators would beg their general managers to get the sort of high-end talent and depth Mike Zimmer has on his preferred side of the football. The Vikings also return the best one-two wideout duo in football from a year ago and a running back who looked like a star before tearing his ACL, and they had enough cap space to pay Kirk Cousins $28 million per year, which should lock in both a higher floor and higher ceiling at quarterback versus Case Keenum.

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  • So why are they likely to decline in 2018? Start with the schedule. Last year, the Vikings went up against Aaron Rodgers for a total of two possessions before Anthony Barr essentially ended the Packers’ season by breaking their star quarterback’s collarbone. They picked off replacement Brett Hundley five times over two games while holding the Packers to a total of 10 points. Rodgers will be back in 2018, and the Bears should be fielding an improved roster after investing heavily this offseason. The NFC North could be the toughest division in the league — the Vikings probably won’t go 5-1 within it again.

    It’s no surprise the Vikings’ defense was great last season, but it was able to pull off one of the most remarkable outlier seasons in recent memory by allowing opposing offenses to convert on only 25.3 percent of third-down attempts. has play-by-play data going back through 1994, and no team over that time frame was stingier on third down than last year’s Vikings.

    Even great defenses can’t keep that up. The 25 best third-down defenses before the 2017 Vikings allowed teams to convert on 30.0 percent of their third downs. Each of those teams gave up conversions 36.8 percent of the time the following year, which was far closer to the league average of 38.5 percent. As you might suspect, their defenses were worse. They allowed an average of 43.8 more points the following season, which would bump the Vikings from their top-ranked finish in points allowed to fifth.

    Minnesota’s defense also ranked as the league’s healthiest by adjusted games lost last season. While that number doesn’t include Sharrif Floyd, who would have started at defensive tackle if he hadn’t been ruled out with what appears to be career-ending nerve damage in his knee, the remaining Vikings defenders were remarkably healthy. Minnesota’s 11 defensive starters missed a total of four games: three from Andrew Sendejo and one from Everson Griffen. That’s not going to recur, and if you remember how the Vikings’ defense declined once Harrison Smith suffered a high ankle sprain in 2016, you’ll know that even the most talented defenses need only one missing star to run the risk of falling apart.

    The Vikings might be able to make up for a modest defensive decline with an improvement on offense, but what are the chances Cousins is an upgrade on the version of Keenum we saw last year? It would have been easy to suggest that the former third-stringer would have regressed toward his previous career averages had he stayed in Minnesota, and Cousins’ track record certainly suggests a higher floor than Keenum’s level of play before last season, but Keenum was great last season. Between the two, Keenum topped Cousins in Total QBR, passer rating, completion percentage and interception rate.

    You would still pick Cousins if you were deciding between the two passers, but Cousins’ ceiling in 2018 is likely the sort of season Keenum had in 2017. He’ll also be working with a new offensive coordinator in John DeFilippo, who drew rave reviews as the quarterbacks coach in Philadelphia but ranked 32nd in points scored during his lone season as a coordinator with the Browns in 2015. There will likely be some growing pains for the Vikings early during the 2018 season, which has to be disconcerting given that they start with games against the 49ers, Packers, Bills, Rams and Eagles. The Vikings should still be a very good team, but 13 wins would be an enormous ask.

    Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)

    Point differential in 2017: +98
    Pythagorean expectation: 10.5 wins
    Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 8-2 (.800)
    2017 strength of schedule: 0.497 (14th toughest in NFL)

    By point differential, the Steelers and Ravens finished in a dead heat in 2017. Pittsburgh outscored the opposition by 98 points, and Baltimore topped teams by 92 points. The Steelers finished third in DVOA, and the Ravens, in sixth, weren’t far behind. The primary reason Pittsburgh won 13 games and Baltimore won only nine is the Steelers swept the Ravens and went 8-2 in games decided by one score, while the Ravens went 2-4 in those same contests.

    The Steelers were certainly a good team independent of their record in close games, but they really pulled out some squeakers:

    • In Week 6, the Steelers came up with a goal-line stand against the Chiefs in the fourth quarter of what would eventually be a 19-13 victory.

    • In Week 8, Pittsburgh led the Lions 20-12 heading into the fourth quarter, only for the Lions to shoot themselves in the foot. Jim Caldwell kicked a field goal from the 1-yard line on fourth down (after failing on a fourth-and-goal in the same situation earlier in the half), Golden Tate fumbled away a ball on the Pittsburgh 24-yard line and the Lions came up short on a late drive that ended inside the 10-yard line.

    • In Week 10, facing a second-and-17 on his own 18-yard line with 1:26 left in a tie game against the Colts, Ben Roethlisberger got the yardage over the next two downs to keep the drive alive, before Chris Boswell hit a 33-yard field goal as time expired.

    • In Week 12, Roethlisberger drove the Steelers 35 yards in 13 seconds before Boswell hit a 53-yarder to beat an Aaron Rodgers-less Packers team 31-28 at Lambeau.

    • In Week 13, the Steelers trailed 17-3 at halftime vs. the Bengals in the game in which Ryan Shazier suffered his career-threatening injury before fighting their way back and winning 23-20 on another Boswell field goal as time expired.

    • In Week 14, they trailed the Ravens 38-29 with 6:45 to go, only for Roethlisberger to lead them back for 10 points in just under six minutes, with Boswell again hitting a game winner from 46 yards out with 46 seconds left.

    You also may remember the game Pittsburgh didn’t pull out, when it trailed the Patriots 27-24 with 56 seconds left. Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for 69 yards and then completed a pass to Jesse James for what looked to be a game-winning touchdown, only for the Steelers tight end to be laid low by the catch rule. Roethlisberger threw an interception two plays later.

    Of course, it would be easy to look at a veteran team like the Steelers and assume they have some secret to pulling out football games when they need a stop, but that hasn’t been the case under Mike Tomlin. The 8-2 performance is an outlier — the Steelers were 41-38 in games decided by seven points or fewer under their longtime coach before the 2017 season. And when you look at teams that won six more close games than they lost in a season, those squads did not keep it up the following year. A group that includes veteran teams such as the 1999 Titans, 2004 Steelers and 2015 Broncos went 101-23 in the close ones during their standout campaigns but followed it by going a combined 38-37 in one-score games the following season. Their overall record declined by an average of nearly three wins.

    Sadly, there also have to be concerns about the Steelers’ defense without its star linebacker Shazier, given that it struggled mightily after he suffered his spinal injury on Dec. 4. Pittsburgh allowed 17.8 points per game through the Bengals contest, which was the fifth-best mark in the league. The Steelers’ defense was seventh in win probability added over that time frame. Afterward, though, the Steelers allowed an average of 28 points per game, including 38 to the Ravens, 27 to the Patriots, 24 to the Browns and 38 to the Jaguars (with a defensive touchdown making it 45). Their only effective defensive performance after the Shazier injury came against T.J. Yates and the Texans.

    The splits for Shazier on and off the field support the rise. Opposing runners averaged 4.1 yards per carry and a 21.1 percent first-down rate with the star linebacker on the field and 5.1 yards per carry with a 27.4 percent conversion rate with him sidelined. Quarterbacks facing the Steelers posted a 34.9 Total QBR with Shazier active and a 58.4 QBR with him unavailable.

    Strangely, Pittsburgh didn’t do much to address the position this offseason, choosing to bring in special-teamer Jon Bostic, who has struggled when used as a defender in multiple locations. Morgan Burnett could take some snaps there on passing downs, but the competition appears to be between Bostic and Tyler Matakevich. Teams are going to attack the Steelers at inside linebacker until Pittsburgh proves it can hold up there.

    On the other hand, the Steelers got a rare season in which both Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell were healthy for the entire campaign. Each sat out the Week 17 win over the Browns, but Pittsburgh’s star duo stayed on the field for the other 15 games, marking just the second time in which they’ve both managed to stay healthy (if not active) for an entire season. Antonio Brown missed only one game because of injury, and Pittsburgh’s offense was the sixth healthiest in the league by Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost metric.

    All of this isn’t to suggest the Steelers will be bad. As long as Roethlisberger doesn’t suffer a debilitating injury or drop off suddenly at the age of 36, the Steelers should be favored to make a return trip to the playoffs. With the Ravens likely transitioning from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson at quarterback during the season, any growing pains from Baltimore’s quarterback-to-be would hand Pittsburgh an easier path to the division title, barring an unexpected rise from the Bengals or Browns. The Steelers should be in the thick of things come January, as always, but it’s more likely to be as a 10-win or 11-win team this time around.

    Carolina Panthers (11-5)

    Point Differential in 2017: +36
    Pythagorean expectation: 9.0 wins
    Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 7-1 (.875)
    2017 strength of schedule: 0.527 (fourth toughest in NFL)

    At the risk of belaboring the point, the dramatic year-to-year swings the Panthers seem to experience under Ron Rivera have been explained, to some meaningful amount, by their record in close games over the past seven years:

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