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NFL Cold Starts and September Surprises

By: Jim Feist
Date: Sep 28, 2015
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by Jim Feist

So…are we all set for the Jets/Bengals AFC championship game in January? Followed by the Falcons/Cardinals NFC title tilt? That would be quite a surprise, wouldn’t it, with Atlanta off a 6-10 season and the Jets off a 4-12 train wreck in 2014. Both seasons got their coaching staffs fired.

However, last season is ancient history. And that's the thing about the NFL: parity is very much alive and well, the life blood of the league for decades. They’ve been part of a group of surprise teams so far in the NFL.

The Jets blew out the Browns in the opener but many thought, "Anyone can beat the Browns." Then the New Yorkers went to Indianapolis and as a 7-point dog shut down Andrew Luck and the Colts on Monday night, opening a lot of eyes.

Even the Rams got in the act opening day by slaying the Seahawks. But, as hoop legend Red Auerbach used to say, “It ain’t the 5 that start, it’s the 5 who finish.” Just think back one year ago at this time. The Eagles, Bengals and Cardinals were the only 3-0 teams in the NFL. The eventual Super Bowl matchup was....Patriots/Seahawks. In fact, those Patriots started 2-2 with all kinds of problems, prompting one national commentator to bark, "The Patriots aren't good anymore." To which Bill Belichick replied, "We're on to Cincinnati." Those same 3-0 Bengals got roasted by the Patriots and the rest was history.

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. Three times in the last four years the Chicago Bears had hot start before losing key players, including QB Jay Cutler, to injuries. Protecting vital assets like Cutler, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees is priority No. 1 for their head coaches -- and Brees is already banged up in 2015.

This is the era of offense in the NFL with all the rule changes, but no one told that to the Seahawks, Jets or Cardinals. Those Seahawks started 0-2 this year, but they are still a sizzling 37-17-1 ATS against the NFC, including 37-18-2 ATS at home.

In 2013 Andy Reid's Kansas City Chiefs started perfect, but didn’t finish up that way. They were league's first 3-0 team including a satisfying 26-16 win over the Eagles, Reid’s old team. However, they didn’t face many tough quarterbacks during their 9-0 start and were actually outgained twice during their 3-0 start, so cracks were evident – if anyone cared to look close.

You want a strong finish, but you don’t want a cold start, either. The 2013 NY Giants started a miserable 0-6, then started to win and cover down the stretch. Of the 164 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 season before getting hot down the stretch. We saw that four 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.

Five 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, seven 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 Ravens, Colts, Texans, Lions 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. In 2013 Carolina started 1-3 but ended up 12-4 winning the division. Another 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.

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.

  Jim Feist
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