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One reason each NFL Playoff team will struggle this season

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

A total of eight teams that earned a postseason spot back in 2016 missed out on the playoffs altogether last season. It’s been a theme around the NFL. Some of the teams we expect to be among the best in the league during the summer struggle big time when the calendar hits fall.

This isn’t going to be any different heading into the 2018 season. All 12 of the teams that earned a playoff spot last year have holes — some larger than others. Each one of them could potentially struggle in 2018. Here’s why.

Atlanta Falcons: Steve Sarkisian hasn’t improved as OC

Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian

It seems like the media world continues to beat this dead horse into the ground, only to hope that Sark himself fails moving forward. At the very least, that’s the narrative being thrown around. In no way does this mean that the former Washington and USC head coach did himself any favors as a rookie offensive coordinator in Atlanta last season.

After seeing Kyle Shanahan lead this unit to a No. 1 ranking in scoring (33.8 points per game) and a No. 2 ranking in total yards (415.8) in 2016, Atlanta dropped to 15th in scoring (22.1) and eighth in total yards (364.8). Given that we’re talking about the same talent on the field, this was a dramatic drop.

If Atlanta hopes to return to Super Bowl contention this season, Sark will have to up his game in a big way as a play-caller. Without any real past success to show in the NFL, it’s reasonable to believe that this isn’t going to happen.

Buffalo Bills: The quarterback situation is a hot mess

Nathan Peterman threw five interceptions in his only half of action as a rookie last season. Josh Allen is considered the most inaccurate rookie first-round pick to enter the NFL in ages. A.J. McCarron’s free agent market took a total dive, leading to him having to settle on a two-year, $10 million deal with Buffalo. These are the Bills’ three options to replace recently traded former Pro Bowler Tyrod Taylor under center.

In and of itself, these three offer very little to the Bills heading into 2018. Given that Peterman himself might very well be the one to beat out, that’s a scary proposition for a Bills squad that’s coming off its first postseason appearance since 1999.

The larger issue here is LeSean McCoy at running back. Having proven himself to be among the game’s best, the six-time Pro Bowl performer will likely be forced to run against eight-men boxes. We’ve seen other top-end running backs struggle in that situation in the past. Adding to the issues here, top receivers (Zay Jones and Kelvin Benjamin) caught a combined 41 percent of the passes thrown in their direction last season. Ouch.

Carolina Panthers: Lack of balance, offensive line play

Relying on Matt Kalil to hold down the fort at left tackle has never been a recipe for success. This rung true in Minnesota and has been the case thus far in Carolina. Despite being among the most mobile quarterbacks in league history, Cam Newton was sacked 35 times last year. He was also hit at the fifth-highest clip among regular starting quarterbacks in the NFL. That, too, is not a recipe for success. It’s also a way to risk further injury to the former league MVP.

On the same note, there’s no telling whether Carolina’s offense will be balanced this coming season. The team released veteran stalwart Jonathan Stewart in the offseason, and will now be pairing C.J. Anderson with Christian McCaffrey in the backfield. Add in the season-ending injury to third-down back Fozzy Whittaker, and there’s a lot of reasons for concern here.

If the Panthers don’t have a rushing game that can take pressure of Newton under center, it’s going to enable opposing teams to pin their ears back and go after the quarterback. That wouldn’t be good for anyone involved.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles

Jacksonville actually had an opportunity to move on from Bortles this offseason and replace him with an upgrade. The team was initially linked to Kirk Cousins and Alex Smith before both ideas fell through. Instead, the Jaguars extended Bortles on a three-year, $54 million deal. While that doesn’t include any guarantees beyond the 2018 season, it certainly means that Jacksonville is relying on the long-embattled signal caller to perform well this year.

Bortles, 26, turned in his best season to date in 2017. The former Central Florida standout threw 21 touchdowns compared to 13 interceptions en route to leading Jacksonville to a surprising division title. With that said, he did struggle late in the season. That included five interceptions in his final two regular season games and an 87-yard outing in an ugly wildcard win over Buffalo.

Boasting the best defense in the AFC, an elite rushing attack and what could be a dominating offensive line, Jacksonville is certainly a top Super Bowl contender. But if Bortles fails to put up an impressive season, the Jags will likely disappoint.

Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes isn’t ready for primetime

NFL star in the making, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes

Alex Smith is underrated. This is by now well known. We just didn’t realize how much the Chiefs themselves underrated the new Washington Redskins starter. Smith knew that his time was numbered in Kansas City when the team traded up for Mahomes in the first round of the 2017 draft. He proceeded to put up over 4,000 yards with 26 touchdowns and five picks en route to leading the NFL’s sixth-best scoring offense. That can’t be taken for granted.

Certainly, Mahomes provides more upside. He has an absolute cannon for an arm, one that has been compared to one of the best quarterbacks to ever play. Even then, Mahomes has started a grand total of one meaningless regular season game throughout his career. Who is to say that he’s anywhere near ready to duplicate or surpass what we saw from Smith last season? It’s the unknown that comes with starting a wide-eyed second-year player at the game’s most important position.

Los Angeles Rams: Jared Goff regresses

NFL offenses are symmetrical in that balance enables the pieces to come together and align in a perfect manner. This is something we saw with the Rams last season. In overcoming rookie struggles under former head coach Jeff Fisher, Goff threw for 3,804 yards with 28 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions en route to turning in a Pro Bowl sophomore campaign.

As a product, reigning NFL Offensive Playe of the Year Todd Gurley wasn’t forced to run against stacked boxes. This led to Gurley putting up nearly 900 more total yards than the previous season. In turn, the Rams had the best offensive turnaround in NFL history under first-year head coach Sean McVay, going from 32nd in the league in scoring to No. 1 overall.

Now, with Super Bowl expectations after earning a surprising NFC West title last season, the Rams certainly hope that Goff doesn’t regress to the mean. In fact, he needs to take his game to the next level. Should that not happen, a season that starts with Lombardi on the mind could end in disappointment.

Minnesota Vikings: Kirk Cousins proves to be a failure

In the unlikely scenario that Cousins struggles in John DeFilippo’s offense, these Vikings would go from unstoppable force to simply top-end Super Bowl contender. Based on the construct of the roster and what we saw last season, this is the narrative being thrown around the Twin Cities and the larger NFL.

However, here’s certainly a scenario in play that depicts Cousins being a downgrade from Case Keenum a quarterback. If that’s the case, any real Super Bowl aspirations can be thrown out the window. Having averaged nearly 4,400 yards with 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions over the past three seasons, it’s highly unlikely that Cousins will in fact regress. That’s magnified by a better supporting cast than what he had in the nation’s capital. Even then, it’s an open question just how good Cousins can be moving forward.

New England Patriots: Father Time catches up with Mr. Brady

Those who don’t think this will ever happen simply refuse to understand how the aging process works. Brady is entering his Age-41 season. Postseason included, he’s tossed the rock around NFL stadiums north of 10,000 times. Brady might be GOAT, but at some point he’s not going to be able to overcome Father Time.

Consider this. Peyton Manning threw for 4,727 yards with 39 touchdowns and 15 interceptions during the 2014 campaign. The following season — Manning’s last in the NFL — he threw nine touchdowns compared to 17 interceptions. No one saw that type of regression coming.

Brady is the Patriots. He’s been the Patriots since taking over as the team’s starter back in 2001. That’s magnified further this coming season with the departures New England saw during the spring. The Pats go as Brady goes. And if he struggles, the team certainly will follow suit.

New Orleans Saints: Mark Ingram’s suspension hurts

The Saints were already planning on 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara taking on a larger role this season. That was brought to a whole new level with news that incumbent starter Mark Ingram has been suspended for the first four games of the 2018 campaign.

One might think that this is good news in that it gives Kamara more of an opportunity. That’s until we realize just how inexperienced the young running back is. He attempted just 120 carries last season and never rushed the ball more than 107 times in a season during his college career.

Let’s say for a second Kamara struggles in a three-down role early in the season. That would make the Saints’ offense rely more on an aging Drew Brees. In turn, it’s possible the team could struggle through the first quarter of the season. If so, home-field advantage at any point during the playoffs would be thrown out the window. Not a good scenario for a team that has struggled some away from New Orleans.

Philadelphia Eagles: Super Bowl hangover

Of the past 19 Super Bowl winners, only the New England Patriots of 2004-05 repeated as champs. Dating back to 1990, this has happened just two times. As the Eagles go from hunters to the hunted, it stands to reason that they’ll have a hard time repeating as champs. It’s simply history.

On that note, there’s a scenario in play that suggests the Dallas Cowboys will be more competitive than we saw last season now that Ezekiel Elliott is slated to play a full season. Heck, the New York Giants should rebound from a disastrous 2017 campaign. If that’s the case, Philadelphia’s path to an NFC East title and a first-round playoff bye will be narrow — potentially leading to the team failing to meet expectations.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Offense continues to underperform

Given that Pittsburgh boasts the best running back (Le’Veon Bell) and wide receiver (Antonio Brown) in the NFL as well as a future Hall of Fame quarterback, it’s somewhat surprising that its offense has not been among the game’s best. Last season saw the Steelers finish eighth in points scored. For a unit as talented as this, that’s certainly what we’d call underperforming.

The good news here is that Pittsburgh’s defense held up its end of the bargain last season, yielding the seventh-fewest points in the NFL. The bad news? It gave up 45 points to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional around of the playoffs. The theme here is that if Pittsburgh’s offense doesn’t show itself to be elite, the team will continue to fall short of expectations.

Tennessee Titans: This is the real Marcus Mariota

Fans and experts alike were thrown for a loop last season when Super Mario looked like nothing more than a bad rip off of his namesake. In his third season, most anticipated Mariota would take the next step to elite status. After all, the former Heisman winner was coming off a 2016 campaign that saw him throw 26 touchdowns compared to nine interceptions.

It was not to be. Mariota struggled to the tune of just 3,232 yards with 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. His team was able to overcome the bad play en route to earning a surprise playoff appearance. With the AFC in general becoming stronger this spring, that’s not going to happen again. Mariota needs to be the reason this team contends, not one of the reasons it continues to be held back. It’s that simple.