Colts v Bengals, Redskins v Bucs? Just dreaming

Oct 11, 2005 1:08 AM

So are we all set for a Colts/Bengals AFC Championship game? The winner would then meet the NFC Champion Redskins or Buccaneers. After all, those were the only four undefeated teams in pro football through four weeks.

Certainly the hot start of the Colts was not a surprise based on having made three trips to the playoffs. But the Redskins, Bucs and Bengals have surprised.

However, let’s not forget that one year ago, there were only four 3-0 teams to start the season. The Seahawks and Jaguars were in that mix with neither making the playoffs. Back in August the Redskins were 35-1 to win the Super Bowl, while the Bengals were 40-1.

So, anyone with future’s tickets had better take a deep breath and be patient before thinking about cashing those long shots. Relax if your favorite team is off to a disappointing start. If your team is off to a hot start, don’t start making preparations for the Super Bowl or playoffs just yet.

A lot was made of the remarkable journey Carolina made two years ago. The Panthers were rode the momentum of a 4-0 preseason into a 3-0 regular season start and eventually the Super Bowl. Sure, hot starts can help a team, but remember that in 2002 those same Panthers started 3-0 and finished up 7-9.

Naturally, a team doesn’t want to start 0-3 like this year’s Packers and Texans. You may recall that last season the Rams started 1-2, made the postseason and even won a playoff game. The Patriots started 0-2 and 1-3 in 2001, yet wound up winning the Super Bowl.

A poor start makes it tougher to get back into an NFL season that is only 16 games long with few teams even qualifying for the postseason. On the other hand, a hot start is not mandatory. In 2003, the Eagles looked terrible during an 0-2 SU/ATS start just before their bye week. Philadelphia then went 11-3 ATS the rest of the regular season, closing 13-2 on the way to the NFC Championship game. The Patriots began 2-2 in 2003, then posted 15 straight wins (12-3 ATS) on the way to capturing another Super Bowl.

The Patriots and Steelers had incredible seasons last year, combining to lose only four games — two against each other! They wound up in the AFC title game, while the eventual NFC champion Eagles got off to a terrific 5-0 SU/ATS start. However, the red-hot start doesn’t always predict a hot finish.

If you think a good start is essential, let’s not forget the 2003 Minnesota Vikings. The boys in purple started 6-0 SU/ATS, only to fold in apocalyptic fashion, missing the playoffs during a 3-7 SU, 2-8 ATS finish. Miami also started 4-1 SU/ATS in 2003, only to go 3-8 ATS and miss the playoffs again.

There’s an old saying in racing, "It’s not the fastest horse out of the gate, but who crosses the finish line first." It’s a marathon and all kinds of things can crop up to derail a potential playoff run: Poor defense, injuries, bad luck, even scheduling.

The Dolphins had to play five of seven games against eventual playoff teams two years ago, losing four. The Chiefs were the hottest team in the NFL the first half of 2003, starting 9-0 SU and 8-1 ATS. There even was a future’s bet offered on whether the Chiefs would run the regular season table and go undefeated. That wager didn’t last long.

Kansas City finished 4-4 SU, 2-6 ATS after that 9-0 start. Poor defense was the culprit.

Balance and depth are two important elements of playoff teams. An ideal team is well rounded, with a quality passing and running game, consistent special teams, low turnovers and a defense that can stop or contain the run. Coaches study game films to find fatal flaws or weaknesses in the opposition that can be exploited on game day.

The 2003 Giants started 2-1 SU/ATS in a forgettable season that ended 2-11, 1-11-1. Last year, Seattle started 3-0 SU/ATS with a defense that allowed 13 total points! No one remembers that start since the Seahawks closed 6-8 SU, 2-12 ATS the rest of the way.

In 2001, the Patriots weathered a 1-3 SU/ATS start filled with a serious injury to All-Pro QB Drew Bledsoe and the suspension of WR Terry Glenn. New players stepped in and the team slowly began to grasp the intricate defensive systems of Bill Belichick and coordinator Romeo Crennel. The Pats closed 9-0 SU/7-1-1 ATS and upset the Rams in the Super Bowl as a +14 dog.

No, it’s not the fastest horse out of the gate, but the one who crosses the finish line.