So…are we all set for the Texans/Chargers AFC Championship game? Because after just two weeks, those were the only two undefeated teams in the AFC. After three weeks the NFC had only two unbeatens, as well, the Falcons and Cardinals.
Did anyone pick a Cardinals/Chargers Super Bowl? The Cardinals haven’t been on anybody’s radar to win the NFC. Yet, there they were at the end of September among the NFL elite in the standings.
I bring this up to emphasise the importance of patience.
A hot start is nice but guarantees nothing. Scheduling, injuries, personnel changes are all significant factors in the success of a football team. A hot start doesn’t mean that a team is great, just as a cold start doesn’t mean a club is out of it.
This happens all the time. Scheduling can hurt a team out of the gate, as can injuries. A year ago the Bears started 7-3 before losing QB Jay Cutler and their top running back and finished 8-8. Speaking of playing .500 football that’s what the Giants were late last season before getting hot at the right time and winning their second Super Bowl in four years.
Basketball guru Red Auerbach used to say, “It’s not the five who start, it’s the five who finish.” We saw that two years ago as the Green Bay Packers were fortunate to stumble into the playoffs on the final day of the season, then went on a red-hot roll on the way to winning the whole thing.
Two years ago at this time the Bears and Chiefs were two of the remaining three unbeaten teams. They made the playoffs, but the Chiefs were one-and-done while the Bears fell short in the NFC title game. The Chiefs had been 85-to-1 to win the Super Bowl that season.
Sure, in 2009 the eventual Super Bowl participants, the Colts and Saints, had red-hot starts, both not far from 16-0 regular seasons. Yet, four years ago as late as last Xmas the Cardinals were an 8-7 team and had just gotten thrashed at New England, 47-7. No one was talking about Arizona as Super Bowl material, but a month later, there they were.
Naturally, a team doesn’t want to start 0-3, but a poor start isn’t a death knell. You may recall that seven years ago the Panthers started 1-2, but ended up in the NFC Title game. A poor start makes it tough as there are only 16 games and few teams even qualify for the postseason. On the other hand, a hot start isn’t mandatory.
In 2003, the Eagles looked terrible during a 0-2 SU/ATS start just before their bye week. That team then went 11-3 against the spread the rest of the regular season, winning 13 of their next 15 games 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 on the way to winning the Super Bowl.
If you think a good start is important, remember the 2003 Vikings. The boys in purple started 6-0 SU/ATS, only to fold, missing the playoffs during a 3-7 SU, 2-8 ATS finish. Miami also started 4-1 SU/ATS that season, only to go 3-8 against the spread and miss the playoffs. In 2009 the Broncos started 6-0 SU/ATS, then went 2-8 SU, 3-7 ATS to miss the postseason.
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, or bad chemistry. The Chiefs were the hottest team in the NFL the first half of the 2003 season, starting 9-0 SU and 8-1 against the number. There even was a future’s bet offered on whether the Chiefs would run the regular season table undefeated.
That wager didn’t last long as Kansas City finished 4-4 straight up and 2-6 against the spread after that 9-0 start. The same thing happened with the 13-0 Colts of 2005. When the AFC Championship game was being played, the Colts were home watching it on TV.
Can the Giants repeat? The last time they were the defending champion, the Giants started a sizzling 11-1 SU, 10-2 ATS in 2008 but finished 1-4 SU, 2-3 ATS and failed to win a playoff game. That was somewhat reminiscent of the 2003 Giants, who started 2-1 SU/ATS, then limped to a 2-11 SU finish while going 1-11-1 ATS.
If your team is off to a disappointing start, relax. If your team is off to a hot start, don’t make preparations for the playoffs. It's not the fastest horse out of the gate, but the one who crosses the finish line (just as Tom Coughlin and his two Super Bowl rings).
Jim Feist, author and leader in sports information for over 40 years, hosts TV’s Proline as well as running National Sports Services since 1975. Reach him at [email protected]