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5. New Orleans Saints front seven

The Saints have been getting pushed around against both the run and pass. (Matthew Emmons, USA TODAY Sports)

The Saints have been getting pushed around against both the run and pass. (Matthew Emmons, USA TODAY Sports)

The Saints have set the standard for volatility in the NFC South, but this season might be one of their most unexpectedly uneven efforts yet. Touted as a Super Bowl contender before the season, New Orleans has sputtered to a 1-3 mark with frustrating performances on both sides of the ball.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s secondary was the defense’s uncertainty entering the year, but it’s been the front seven’s significant step back that has hampered the Saints. What was a relentless pass rush last season has been limited to just five sacks this season. The run defense hasn’t fared much better, with the Cowboys demonstrating how to flatten New Orleans’ front in a 38-17 rout on Sunday night.

The fall from last season is somewhat puzzling, given that the addition of Jairus Byrd was designed to shore up the Saints’ biggest weakness. Ryan can drill the unit on the finer points of tackling and pursuit angles since it showed substantial lapses in both areas against Dallas. But a midseason retooling might also be in order.

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4. Philadelphia Eagles offensive line

A strength last year, this season' Eagles offensive line has thrown off any sense of rhythm. (Bob Stanton, USA TODAY Sports)

A strength last year, this season’ Eagles offensive line has thrown off any sense of rhythm. (Bob Stanton, USA TODAY Sports)

It’s tough to beat out the likes of the Atlanta Falcons offensive line, which was forced to play a tight end at tackle, for a spot on this list. But the Eagles’ front has transformed from one of last year’s best groupings to a serious issue this season.

Chip Kelly’s once vaunted rushing attack ranks 24th in the league, bottoming out with a 22-yard outing in Sunday’s loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Kelly pinned the loss partially on the line, saying “we got whooped up front.” Injuries to guard Evan Mathis and center Jason Kelce have left a thin unit with few options.

A fully formed group that resembles last year’s unit should return at some point, but Kelly needs a stopgap plan. His plan to get the ball to his playmakers in space will have to be sped up, because protection is at a premium right now.

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3. Pittsburgh Steelers secondary

The Steelers' secondary opens up the door for opponents' comebacks. (Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports)

The Steelers’ secondary opens up the door for opponents’ comebacks. (Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports)

Pittsburgh’s penchant for giving up big plays is mitigating any progress the defense has made this season. After denying Mike Glennon once on Sunday, the Steelers made a comeback king out of the Buccaneers quarterback by letting him drive the Buccaneers down field for the game-winning touchdown in the final minute. Even with several drops by his wide receivers, Glennon finished 21-of-42 passing for 302 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

The Steelers rank 20th against the pass, but that doesn’t reveal the true extent of their struggles. Pittsburgh has just one interception so far this season, and a pedestrian pass rush hasn’t done much to help the defensive backs. Even when cornerback Ike Taylor returns, the Steelers’ best hope will be bottling up the long passes and investing in a cornerback or two in the offseason.

4. Philadelphia Eag

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2. Reggie McKenzie, GM, Oakland Raiders

With Dennis Allen gone, Reggie McKenzie will have to answer for his decisions. (Ed Szczepanski, USA TODAY Sports)

With Dennis Allen gone, Reggie McKenzie will have to answer for his decisions. (Ed Szczepanski, USA TODAY Sports)

There’s no question that the Raiders were overwhelmed in Dennis Allen’s first (and last) four games of the season. But after Oakland dropped its coach Monday night, Reggie McKenzie’s long-term future now looms as one of the franchise’s most important factors.

It was McKenzie’s design to bring on the horde of mismatched veterans who now must play out a season under an interim coach and an uncertain future. Poor drafting has left Oakland with little young talent. Even if McKenzie can stay on board for a second coach’s entire tenure, what promising candidate would want to join him?

McKenzie and Oakland need to hire a coach who can embrace a true rebuild. Addressing the offensive line and various holes on defense could accelerate the process, but McKenzie will need help in repairing the problems he long ignored.

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Tom Brady and the Patriots are falling far short of expectations. (Dilip Vishwanat, Getty Images)

Tom Brady and the Patriots are falling far short of expectations. (Dilip Vishwanat, Getty Images)

Suffering was in no short supply in Week 4, as seven teams lost by 21 points or more. And some of the NFL’s heavyweights are now looking for answers.

The Sinkhole takes a weekly look at the people, themes and trends that are threatening teams’ competitive chances. This week’s edition features a quarterback off his game, a general manager under pressure and several teams’ underperforming positional units.

1. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots

Blame the offensive line. Blame the wide receivers. But Tom Brady is ultimately responsible for the well-being of the Patriots’ offense. And he is taking as many missteps as anyone.

Brady’s troubles were on full display Monday in a 41-14 loss to the Chiefs on Monday. With the Patriots depending on Brady to compensate for a struggling defense and forsaken running game, the quarterback threw for just 159 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Even when Brady wasn’t forcing throws, he was out of rhythm.

Yes, the responsibility in New England rests on more than just the signal-caller. A porous offensive line has forced Brady to make snap decisions and limited downfield passing opportunities. And there’s still no reliable receiving threat beyond Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski.

Yet Brady ranks 33rd among quarterbacks in yards per attempt (5.77), and he’s headed for career lows elsewhere. His early struggles might be an aberration, but right now he’s not capable of being the offensive savior he has been in past years. And this is a Patriots offense in need of saving.

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What coach will want to take on Raiders’ massive rebuild?

By 

Turning Oakland into a contender will be no easy task. (Steve Flynn, USA TODAY Sports)

Turning Oakland into a contender will be no easy task. (Steve Flynn, USA TODAY Sports)

The Oakland Raiders made Dennis Allen walk the plank Monday night.

There’s no defending Allen’s record – 0-4 this season on the heels of two 4-12 campaigns. And Oakland looked horrid Sunday in London, giving up 38 consecutive points to a Miami team not to be confused with the ’72 Dolphins. Even what seemed like a Silver & Black lining – the Raiders were oh-so-close to upsetting the New England Patriots on the road in Week 3 – now seems nothing more than a mirage now that the Pats are officially ghosts of themselves after getting embarrassed Monday night in Kansas City.

Say what you want about Allen, but he didn’t have much of a chance.

Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, finally armed with tens of millions in salary cap space this offseason, let two of the team’s best home-grown players – left tackle Jared Veldheer and defensive lineman Lamarr Houston, who both play premium positions – walk in free agency and instead opted to invest huge contracts into graybeards like Maurice Jones-Drew, James Jones, Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, Donald Penn and Antonio Smith.

The results have been disastrous.

Rather than identifying a core group of talent and nourishing (and supplementing) it, the Raiders have a hodge-podge of former Pro Bowlers who aren’t competitive. Not only are they winless, they’ve scored the fewest points in the NFL and gained the fewest yards. The defense? Only marginally better.

Safety Charles Woodson, a member of the last Raiders team to reach the playoffs (or have a winning record) in 2002, summed up this year’s group after it was blown out in its Week 2 home opener by the Houston Texans: “We suck.”

There are some pieces here. Rookie linebacker Khalil Mack should be a future star. Rookie Derek Carr may yet prove to be the best quarterback of the 2014 draft class … provided he’s not running for his life as he was Sunday and suffering knee and ankle injuries. Center Stefen Wisniewski is probably a guy you can build an offensive line around.

But there’s not much else on board.

 So let’s not mince words. This team ain’t ready to “Just win, baby.” Little talent, no stability or continuity, and who knows how many other changes are being mulled by Davis, himself still a bit of an unknown quantity as an owner since he took over for his late father, Al, in 2011.

Not exactly the kind of situation that will entice the best and brightest coaching candidates any time soon.

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(AP)

The New England Patriots were destroyed on Monday night at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs. A 41-14 rout showed the glaring holes throughout the Patriots lineup. Tom Brady could point a few of those holes out, whenever he’s able to get up off the ground.

The Patriots pulled Brady in the fourth quarter after getting picked of twice and sacked three times. He only completed one pass over 10 yards on the night. Brady was bad. By Brady standards, he was terrible. But this isn’t a Tom Brady loss by any stretch. He certainly had his struggles, but yesterday Tom Brady was the New England Patriots’ best player and today, Tom Brady remains the New England Patriots’ best player.

The players surrounding Brady are average, which isn’t necessarily a new concept in New England. Coach Bill Belichick has found schemes that bring the best out of wildly average teams before. In 2013, his wildly average team reached the AFC Championship game. A wildly average Belichick team is usually much better than everyone else’s pretty good team. And as long as Belichick and Brady are together, conventional wisdom tells you that they will find a way.

(USA TODAY Sports)
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(USA TODAY Sports)

There is still plenty of time to find a way in 2014. The NFL this year, unlike many years in recent memory, is wildly erratic and inconsistent. Teams many thought would challenge for a Super Bowl like San Francisco and New Orleans are in disarray. Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Bengals appear to be the best team in the league.

Patriots fans – and players for that matter – can take solace in the fact that no one seems to have it figured out at the quarter. There are problems in New England, of course. There’s a gap in their offensive line big enough to drive a tractor-trailer through, they look to the running game the same way we might turn to an episode of Seinfeld – if we don’t have anything else left, why not? – and Brady’s best receiver inexplicably remains Julian Edelman.

None of these problems are particularly easy to fix, and Monday proved that when none are addressed the result is very ugly. But the Patriots still have the best coach in the NFL and even at 37, one of the best quarterbacks too. There are reasons to be leery of what the rest of this season holds, sure.

It isn’t time to abandon hope … yet.

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HUSAIN_ABDULLAH

The NFL admits officials were wrong to penalize Kansas City Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah for going to knees and saying a prayer after he scored a touchdown in Monday’s win over the New England Patriots.

"Husain Abdullah should not have been penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct following his fourth quarter touchdown," NFL spokesman Michael Signora wrote in an email to USA TODAY Sports.

"Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1 (d) states ‘players are prohibited from engaging in any celebrations or demonstrations while on the ground.’ However, the officiating mechanic in this situation is not to flag a player who goes to the ground as part of religious expression, and as a result, there should have been no penalty on the play."

Abdullah will not be fined, Signora said.

Abdullah, a Muslim who sat out the 2012 season to go on a pilgrimage, told reporters after the game he believed he was flagged for first sliding to his knees – not performing the Sajdah, a religious prostration. But the NFL moved quickly to clarify the situation.

Going to the ground in celebration is forbidden by NFL rules unless the player is praying. Former Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, among other Christian players, have made it a regular part of the game.

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