Don’t cash 45-1 tickets on Jaguars yet

Oct 5, 2004 1:05 PM

So, are we all set for a Jaguars/Falcons Super Bowl?

After three weeks of the NFL season, there were only four 3-0 teams. The Seahawks and Eagles joined the Falcons and Jags among teams that were 3-0 after Week 3. However, take a deep breath before you start thinking about cashing that 45-1 futures ticket on the Jaguars.

If your favorite team is off to a disappointing start, have patience. If your team is off to a terrific start, don’t make preparations for the Super Bowl, or even the playoffs.

A lot was made of the Carolina Panthers remarkable journey a year ago. The Panthers were 4-0 in preseason, then got off to a 3-0 start and seemingly used that momentum all the way to the Super Bowl. Hot starts help, but remember that in 2002 those same Panthers began 3-0 and missed the playoffs with a 7-9 record.

Naturally, a team doesn’t want to start 0-3 like this year’s Rams, Dolphins, Chiefs and Buccaneers. That makes it tougher to get back into an NFL season only 16 games long. On the other hand, a hot start is not mandatory. A year ago the Eagles looked terrible during an 0-2 SU/ATS start just before their bye week.

What a miserable bye week of soul searching that must have been! The Eagles then went 11-3 ATS the rest of the regular season, winning 13-of-15 on the way to the NFC Championship game. The Patriots started 2-2 in 2003, then proceeded to go 15-0 SU, 12-3 ATS and won the Super Bowl.

If you think a hot start is important, remember the 2003 Minnesota Vikings. The boys in purple started 6-0 SU/ATS, only to fold in apocalyptic fashion. The Vikes missed 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 sports, "It’s not the fastest horse out of the gate, it’s who finishes the race."

This is a marathon and all kinds of things (poor defense, injuries, bad luck, scheduling, etc) can crop up to derail a potential playoff run.

Last season the Dolphins had to play five of seven games against eventual playoff teams. Miami lost four of them, and one (a 12-0 defeat) was at New England in the snow. The schedule-maker wasn’t kind in sending the warm weather Dolphins north the first week of December for a showdown with their AFC East rivals.

The Chiefs were the hottest team in the NFL the first half of the 2003 season, starting 9-0 SU and 8-1 ATS. There even was a futures bet offered on whether the Chiefs would run the regular season table and go undefeated. The suspense didn’t last long as Kansas City finished 4-4 SU and 2-6 ATS after that strong start. Poor defense was the culprit.

Balance is certainly an important element 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 at least contain the pass and the run. Coaches study game films to find fatal flaws in the opposition, weaknesses that can be exploited on game day. The Chiefs’ big flaw was an inability to stop the run (30th in the NFL in 2003), which was a major part of their demise and poor start in 2004.

Last September, the New York Giants started 2-1 both SU and ATS in what became a forgettable season when the players essentially tuned out coach Jim Fassell. The Giants limped to a 2-11 SU finish, going 1-11-1 ATS.

Injuries to quarterbacks Michael Vick and Chad Pennington seriously derailed the hopes of the Falcons and Jets a year ago. Other times teams can experience an adjustment halfway through the season that could turn also-rans into winners, regardless of a bad start.

The Jets went through this in 2002, turning a 2-5 start into an eventual AFC East championship. Coach Herman Edwards chewed out the players after a dismal 24-21 home loss to the Browns as a 3-point favorite. Inspired and focused, the Jets were a different team after that and caught fire.

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 Bill Belichick and coordinator Romeo Crennel were teaching. The Patriots ended up going 9-0 SU/7-1-1 ATS and upset the Rams in the Super Bowl as a +14 dog.

It’s not the fastest horse out of the gate that counts, but the one who crosses the finish line.