NFL Cold Starts and September Surprises

So…are we all set for the Chiefs/Saints Super Bowl?
Because after just three weeks, they were a handful of undefeated teams. The
surprising Chiefs started 3-0, similar to one year ago when the Arizona
Cardinals began 3-0, a pair of teams who weren’t on anybody’s radar to make deep
playoff runs. Yet, there they were at the end of September among the NFL elite
in the standings. 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. The last two years the Chicago Bears had hot start before
losing key players, including QB Jay Cutler, to injuries. Protecting Cutler has
been a top priority for new Coach Mark Trestman and he had to be delighted
(along with Chicago fans) to see Cutler sacked just once the first two games.
This is supposed to be the NFL of offense, but Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs
are doing it the old fashioned way, a conservative offense and a tough defense.

The league’s first 3-0 team had a sweet 26-16 win over the Eagles, Reid’s old
team. Three games in, and the Chiefs have been outgained twice but went
undefeated because they’re plus-nine in takeaways and have what looks like one
of the league’s best defenses. But can they sustain it? The NY Giants are on the
other end, a miserable 0-3 start. Of the 161 teams that have started the season
0-3 since 1978, only five made the NFL playoffs. In each of their recent Super
Bowl years the Giants played .500 football for much of the seasons before
getting hot down the stretch. Basketball guru Red Auerbach used to say, “It’s
not the five who start, it’s the five who finish.” We saw that three 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.

Three 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, five 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 get off to bad starts, like this year’s
Steelers, Jags, Browns, Panthers, Bucs, Vikings and Giants, but a poor start
isn’t a death knell. 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. One recent season the Eagles looked terrible during a 0-2 SU/ATS
start, then went 11-3 against the spread the rest of the regular season, winning
13 of their next 15 games. If you think a good start is essential, 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. 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.

Written by Jim Feist for

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