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.
This is another way of saying that teams that begin the season poorly are not likely to make the playoffs, hence the title “Crunch Time of the NFL Season is Right Now.” Silver argues that teams need to win one of the first two games of the season, or they are setting themselves up for failure. The ESPN article contends that “attempting to right a team after such a poor start is often like digging oneself out of a deep sinkhole armed only with a teaspoon.” The gist of both these arguments are true. Teams that enter week three without a win are not likely to be contenders in week seventeen. However, the larger argument bears scrutiny. Both articles are designed to make the fan worry about week two as a turning point. Their argument isn’t “teams that lose the first two games of the season aren’t very good,” their argument is “teams that lose their first two games go on to be very bad.” Its a small, but crucial, difference, that seeks to put pressure on week two as a must-win, rather than a litmus test for how good a team truly is. Instead, I argue that week two does nothing more than show the fan whether their team is any good. Perhaps a focus on Week Two games obscures the larger point of early games and provides them with outsize importance.
The numbers do not lie: teams that begin the season 0-2 are not likely to make the playoffs. This season, eight teams have that dubious distinction. For fans of eight teams, the season is all but over. But looking at the list of teams that share that honor, its difficult to feel like any of those teams faced a do-or-die Week Two. The record after Week Two is a reflection of their talent coming into the season, not a consequence of failing in a “must-win.” To treat week two as “crunch time” for NFL franchises is to pretend that the first two losses matter more than two losses at the end of the season. What both the articles I mentioned before do is identify a truth, but give it too much importance. Teams that lose the first two games are, by and large, bad teams. They’re not bad because they began 0-2, they began 0-2 because they are bad. Losing two games in a row at the end of the season is as important to a team’s playoff chances as losing the first two. Its only because week two is the first “normal” week of an NFL season that we give it importance.
Long story short: If your team is 0-2, it’s probably time to give up hope of a playoff berth. However, this has nothing to do with momentum, or digging themselves out of a hole, or believing in themselves, and everything to do with the underlying reason they lost their first two games. They just aren't very good. They lose the first two games because they are, most likely, not going to win very many games. Fans of those eight teams need to ask themselves if they had high expectations for their team going into the season. If they did, then perhaps the two losses are a fluke, and much like the 2007 Giants, they will rise from the ashes and make it to the Super Bowl. If not, then the early losses do no more than confirm what they already knew. Its a harsh truth, but it will save some anguish. This time next year, when another article comes out just before Week Two reminding you to worry over this pivotal game, just lean back, relax, and accept that Week Two will tell you how successful your team will be. Not because Week Two is magical, but because losing the first two games of the season typically means your team is not very good. Week Two is just an easy way for you to know how bad your team is, give up, and spend your fall Sundays enjoying life outside the NFL. Enjoy!
 As of Week Two, the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, the Washington NFL team, the Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints have 0-2 records.
 By normal, I mean a team has only one week to prepare for their opponent and they have regular season game tape to look at.