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NFL Cold Starts

   by Jim Feist - 09/29/2013


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.

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