by Alex Langer
We’ve just finished Week Three of the NFL season, less than one-quarter of the way through, but if your team was 0-2 going into this week, you most likely wasted three hours watching them, because history says they have very little shot at making the playoffs. Every year before Week Two, articles come out with statistics about how often 0-2 teams make the playoffs versus 1-1 teams. For instance, this 2009 ESPN article points out that teams that begin 0-2 only make the playoffs ten percent of the time. Since then, only three teams (the Seahawks last season, the 2014 Colts, and the 2013 Panthers) have made the playoffs after beginning 0-2. The point of that article was to highlight the improbability of the New York Giants’ Super Bowl victory over the undefeated New England Patriots, especially because the Giants began the season 0-2. This ESPN article’s thesis was that the pessimism surrounding an 0-2 start was nearly impossible to recover from; that establishing momentum after such a poor start is extremely difficult.
Last week, the Nate Silver website, fivethirtyeight.com, argued that the first few weeks of the season are critical to the hopes of NFL teams. The article is worth a read, but the basic gist is that wins in the beginning of the season matter more than near the end of the season, and are better at predicting overall records than later wins. It argues this in spite of teams such as the 2007 and 2011 Giants, the 2012 Ravens, and the 2014 Seahawks, who all began the season slowly, only to make the Super Bowl. Silver, always a fan of analytics, argues that the early games in a season are of greater predicative worth than the games near the end of the season. In layman’s terms, wins in week two are worth twice as much as wins as late as week twelve or so. So, teams that go 1-1 are expected to finish at 8-8, he claims, while teams that begin 0-2 are only expected to win six games at the most.