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Beware of Early Season Phonies

   by Jim Feist - 10/08/2010

So…are we all set for the Bears/Chiefs Super Bowl? Because after three weeks, those were two of the remaining three undefeated teams in the NFL, along with the Steelers. To put that in perspective, before the season started the Bears were 13-to-1 to win the Super Bowl, the Steelers 18-to-1 and the Chiefs, fresh off a 4-12 season, 85-to-1. 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.
Sure, last season the eventual Super Bowl participants, the Colts and Saints, had red-hot starts, both not far from 16-0 regular seasons. Yet, two 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.
Six years ago the Steelers were 7-5 and on the outside of the playoff bubble down the stretch. The rest is history, with the Black and Gold winning 8 in a row and the Super Bowl. That same year, the Atlanta Falcons were 7-4, before losing four of their final five, crashing their playoff hopes. At the end of Week 4 in 2005, there were only four undefeated teams: The Bengals, Redskins, Buccaneers and Colts. The positive news is all four ended up in the playoffs. The bad news is none got to the Super Bowl or even the conference championship games.
Naturally, a team doesn't want to start 0-3 like this year's Bills, 49ers, Browns, Panthers and Lions, but a poor start isn't a death knell. You may recall that five 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 an 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, let's not forget the 2003 Minnesota 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. Last year 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. In 2003, the Dolphins had to play five of seven games against eventual playoff teams. They lost four of them. 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.
Back in 2004 there were just four 3-0 teams to start the season, with the Seahawks and Jaguars in that mix. Neither made the playoffs. If your favorite 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.
The defending champion NY 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. In 2004, Seattle started 3-0 SU/ATS with a defense that allowed 13 total points! No one remembers that start, however, as the Seahawks went 6-8 SU, 2-12 ATS the rest of the season.
In 2001, the Patriots weathered a 1-3 SU/ATS start filled with a serious injury to QB Drew Bledsoe and the suspension of WR Terry Glenn. New players stepped in and the team began to grasp the defensive schemes, ending the season 9-0 SU/7-1-1 ATS, while upsetting the Rams in the Super Bowl as a +14 dog. It’s not the fastest horse out of the gate, but the one who crosses the finish line.

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