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The Schein Nine

NFL PANIC SCALE: Patriots hitting rock bottom; can injury-riddled Bills, mistake-prone Ravens get right?

Nine years ago, Green Bay got off to a slow start, prompting Aaron Rodgers to provide one of his most famous sound bites:

"Five letters here, just for everybody out there in Packerland and yourself today: R-E-L-A-X," Rodgers said during a radio interview on ESPN Milwaukee. "Relax. We're gonna be OK."

Five weeks into the 2023 NFL season, though, a number of teams and fan bases are facing the prospect of a very different five-letter word: P-A-N-I-C.

So, in this edition of the Schein Nine, let's rank teams on the PANIC SCALE, beginning with a longtime league standard-bearer that has crashed hard into irrelevance ...

Welcome to the depths of despair. And while I predicted back in May that the Patriots would finish in the AFC East cellar, thus ending Bill Belichick's tenure in New England, this is even worse than I anticipated.

I actually thought Belichick, as the greatest coach in the history of North American sports, could drag this overmatched team to seven or eight wins. But here the Pats lie at 1-4, having just been blown off their own field by a mediocre Saints team. Choose your nugget of futility.

  • Sunday's 34-0 loss to New Orleans was the second-biggest margin of defeat in Belichick's head-coaching career. The first? The previous week's 38-3 loss to Dallas.
  • The Patriots just suffered back-to-back 30-point losses for the first time since 1970, the franchise's first season in the NFL.
  • In his first 453 regular-season games as an NFL head coach, Belichick lost by 30-plus points once. In the last two weeks, he's done so twice.
  • In Belichick's first two opportunities to earn his 300th regular-season win, New England has been outscored 72-3.
  • New England has scored a league-low 55 points this season, while opponents have scored 55 points off of Patriots turnovers.

Yikes. And I could go on, but you get the point.

Back in March, Pats owner Robert Kraft said it was "very important" for the team to return to the playoffs. A month into the season, New England's much closer to earning the No. 1 overall pick. The offense is simply offensive: Mac Jones has been dreadful, the line's a sieve and the weaponry's nonexistent. Meanwhile, the defense has been devoured by the injury bug, with the unit's best pass rusher (Matt Judon) and best cover man (rookie stud Christian Gonzalez) among the many victims.

After Sunday's humiliating home defeat, Belichick said New England needs to "start all over," as if that's an option. Truth is, New England just needs this lost season to be over.

You simply CANNOT lose by 20 points -- at home, in prime time, on a short week -- to the previously winless and rudderless Bears. Chicago entered that contest on a 14-game losing streak dating back to last October! The Commanders, who purportedly have one of the best defensive fronts in football, have now allowed 30-plus points in four straight games, losing the past three.

Magic Johnson, who knows a thing or two about winning, tweeted that his new team "played with no intensity or fire" last Thursday. Frankly, I think the flat-as-a-pancake first half, which saw Washington fall behind 27-3, was a hangover from the Week 4 loss in Philadelphia, where Ron Rivera inexplicably didn't go for two -- and the win -- citing fatigue.

The new ownership group is not going to stand for this, nor should they. Rivera and Co. need to get this train back on the tracks immediately, or else ...

At 1-4, the Giants are off to their worst start in a decade. And 1-5's approaching fast on the horizon, considering New York has to travel to Buffalo this week to face an angry Bills team on Sunday Night Football.

Honestly, the record doesn't shock me, but the putrid ineptness underscoring it does. Owning an NFL-worst -91 scoring differential, the Giants have been outplayed in every single phase. Don't forget: Brian Daboll is eight months removed from winning Coach of the Year honors in his first season as a head man. Granted, last year was clear overachievement; I expected the Giants to fall back to the pack in 2023 and miss the postseason. But I didn't expect them to plummet to 31st in scoring offense and 29th in scoring defense.

The roster remains flawed in numerous areas, and the team's $160 million quarterback is playing the worst football of his professional career. The 2023 Giants have flunked the eye test, and the vision for the future suddenly looks pretty darn cloudy.

Buffalo isn't here because of Sunday's London defeat to Jacksonville. Sure, the Bills' inability to establish a run game -- which would take a little pressure off do-everything star Josh Allen -- was disappointing in that contest. But this team's most crippling losses aren't coming on the scoreboard; they're coming on the personnel front.

Week 4's inspiring blowout of the Dolphins was spoiled by the season-ending injury to star CB Tre'Davious White. This past Sunday, the Bills lost standout DT DaQuan Jones and heartbeat LB Matt Milano. Milano's injury, which likely will cost him the rest of the season, is particularly devastating. The versatile 'backer is arguably the third-most important player on this entire roster, behind only Allen and Stefon Diggs.

Now, I am not backing off my preseason prediction of the Bills hitting the Super Bowl, but that expectation is why they're so high on this list. And while I continue to think they'll ultimately be the team to beat in the AFC, I'm not screaming it with my usual intensity. These injuries really hurt.

Minnesota was 11-0 in one-score games during the 2022 regular season. In 2023? Four one-score losses in five weeks of action. Regression isn't fun.

Look, the 2022 Vikings were never a real Super Bowl threat, but they were a solid, clutch regular-season squad. Now Minnesota's in the NFC North cellar, with Justin Jefferson's hamstring injury almost certainly turning this team into a full-fledged pumpkin. And we're still weeks from Halloween. Brutal.

The thing is, this is now a thing. After Sunday's painful loss to the rival Steelers, the Ravens are now tied with the Raiders for the most blown double-digit leads since the start of the 2022 season (five). Oof.

Lamar Jackson is 1-3 with four total touchdowns, 10 turnovers and a 66.8 career passer rating in starts against Pittsburgh. The Ravens quarterback was seen throwing his helmet in frustration on the sideline, and frankly, I don't blame him. After all, the man's teammates completely failed him on Sunday, dropping crucial passes all game long. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh's offense had been inept for most of the season ... until Kenny Pickett and Co. put 12 points on the board in the fourth quarter to steal the win.

I still really like this Ravens team, but this was a REALLY bad loss -- one that officially put the Steelers in first place.

Truth is, I don't think the Titans are very talented, but they are brilliantly coached by Mike Vrabel.

That said, Sunday's 23-16 loss in Indianapolis was disheartening. Tennessee had just lambasted Cincinnati, 27-3, in Week 4. Instead of backing that up with another promising showing, they lost to the Colts' backup quarterback.

In a muddled AFC South where every team is either 3-2 or 2-3, Tennessee fails the vibe test to me -- as in, evidence tells me to feel much better about Jacksonville, Houston and Indianapolis.

Sean Payton ripped Nathaniel Hackett to shreds this past summer. Presumably, he was trying to change the culture and communicate a new expectation to everyone in Denver. But in order for that sentiment to stick, Payton's Broncos had to get out to a good start -- and definitely had to beat Hackett in his return to the Mile High City. Not so much, on either front. It's been an embarrassing, unacceptable start to the Payton era in Denver. Heck, the Broncos needed a wild second-half comeback to earn their lone win of the season against the Bears!

Now the Broncos have to face the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs in two of the next three weeks. How many more games will they win in 2023? How extensive will the fire sale be before the Oct. 31 trade deadline? What's next on the Russell Wilson front? These are all uncomfortable questions for a proud franchise that hasn't even made the playoffs since winning Super Bowl 50 eight seasons ago.

As the only winless team remaining, the Panthers have looked pretty awful across the board. Normally, though, this would put them in the driver's seat for the ultimate silver lining: the No. 1 overall pick. But no: Carolina already sent its 2024 first-rounder to Chicago in order to snag Bryce Young with the top pick in this past April's draft. And unfortunately, Young has shown the least promise of the three quarterbacks selected in the top four. Not ideal.

Yes, this season was always about Young's development and a new Frank Reich-led coaching staff changing the culture in Charlotte. In the moment, though, this sure feels like rock bottom. And there's no immediate hope in sight. 

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