Beware of Early Season Phonies!

by Jim Feist of

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 Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals. Did anyone pick a
Cardinals/Chargers Super Bowl? The Cardinals haven’t on anybody’s radar to win
the NFC. Yet, there they were at the end of September among the NFL elite in the

I bring this up to emphasis 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, and 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.

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, too, 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 Chicago Bears and KC 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 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 like this year’s Chiefs, Colts, Dolphins, Rams and Vikings,
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

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 2005 13-0 Colts. When the AFC
Championship game was being played, the Colts were home watching it on TV.

Can the NY 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, failing 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 against the number. If your team is off to a disappointing start, relax;
and if your team is off to a hot start, don’t start making 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).

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