It is hard to say what the meaning of making it through the first two weeks will mean for this season. I suspect that it can’t hurt. In the case of the San Francisco 49ers, they’ve already beaten the favorite to win the division on the road and beaten the perennial division winner (while knocking out their QB). They could not have asked for a better start. With that said, not all 2-0 records “are created equal.” Before proceeding, let’s take a quick look back.
What did 2-0 mean in 2008?
Last year, 11 teams began the season at 2-0. Two of those teams played in the Super Bowl (Pittsburgh and Arizona). One of those teams played in a conference championship game (Baltimore). 3 more of those teams made the playoffs (New York Giants, Tennessee Titans, Carolina Panthers).
Of the five teams that did not make the playoffs, four suffered the exact same fate: injuries to their quarterbacks. New England lost QB Tom Brady for the season in a game vs. the Kansas City Chiefs. The Buffalo Bills lost QB Trent Edwards for a few weeks in a road game vs. the Arizona Cardinals. The Dallas Cowboys lost Tony Romo for a few weeks in a road game vs. the Arizona Cardinals.
The other two teams that began the season 2-0 (Denver and Green Bay) also suffered an identical dilemma: atrocious defense. The Packers surrendered 187, 217, 178, and 176 yards on the ground in the first five weeks of the season. That contradiction could not stand. The Broncos (30th in points allowed, 29th in yards), honestly, didn’t even win in Week 2. Only an uncharacteristic error by referee Ed Hochuli awarded the Broncos a win over the Chargers. The Chargers would eventually oust the mediocre Broncos from playoff contention in Week 17. Justice was served in poetic fashion.
So, in 2008, more than half of the teams beginning at 2-0 made the playoffs. Of those who did not, injuries to the star offensive player was a factor for 3 of 5 teams. In the remaining two instances, the defenses were the cause of the problems.
What did 2-0 mean in 2007?
Two years ago, the New England Patriots finished the regular season undefeated. The New York Giants stumbled out of the game and throughout much of the season. But, during a season in which 10 ten began at 2-0, 6 made the playoffs. The Indianapolis Colts finished at 13-3, but wound up losing at home in the division round of the playoffs to the underdog San Diego Chargers. The Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys also finished at 13-3 in the NFC. Both were beaten at home, in successive weeks, by the New York Giants. The other playoff teams from that season were the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) and the Washington Redskins (9-7).
The Washington Redskins season was defined by an injury to QB Jason Campbell (a recurring theme with 2-0 teams that either miss the playoffs or squeeze in). Campbell was in the midst of an extended losing streak when he was injured in a game that the Redskins eventually won. Todd Collins finished the season winning 3 in a row, before the ‘Skins were manhandled by the Seahawks.
For the teams that failed to make the playoffs, the themes are familiar. The Detroit Lions finished at 7-9, but had the absolute worst defense in the NFL. They finished dead last. The Denver Broncos, also 7-9, finished 28th in defense and played the season under the offensive guidance of rookie Jay Cutler. The Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers were both hit with injuries to their starting quarterbacks: Matt Schaub and Alex Smith.
Evaluating the Early Leaders in 2009
If we apply the lessons of the past two seasons, we see that two factors tend to eliminate promising 2-0 teams from playoff contention: injuries to the starting quarterback or a poor defense.
This season, 9 teams have emerged: the New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens, Denver Broncos (3 consecutive years), and the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC. In the NFC, the aforementioned 49ers, the New York Giants, the Minnesota Vikings, Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints are all 2-0. So what does it all mean?
New York Jets – If Mark Sanchez can stay healthy behind his talented offensive line, one that includes Canton-lock Alan Faneca, the Jets are going to the playoffs. The defense is rock solid and has yet to surrender a touchdown in 2009.
Baltimore Ravens – Joe Flacco appears to be a durable player. The defense, historically, has been the anchor for this team. Right now, they’re not playing well. Is this an aberration or an indication? Two years ago, the Ravens defense ranked 22nd in points allowed. Perhaps Flacco’s health is not as important as that of aging stalwarts Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
Denver Broncos – They’ve been here before and I’m not a believer. They are a once in a lifetime play away from being 1-1 and removed from this conversation. Wins over Cincinnati and Cleveland cannot catapult you to favorable considerable. If any 2-0 team stubs its toe this season, it will be the Broncos. In fact, I would not be the least bit surprised if the Broncos lost every single one of their next 9 games: at Oakland, Dallas, New England, at San Diego, at Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Washington, San Diego, and the New York Giants.
Indianapolis Colts – Peyton Manning is teflon. The defense is tapioca. The Colts win 12 or 13 games as they always do and make the playoffs. The play of two little men: Donald Brown and Bob Sanders, control the fortunes of this team.
San Francisco 49ers – No team is in a better position to make the playoffs. They’ve knocked off their primary competition and delivered serious challenges to all comers. Even if Shaun Hill goes down, this team can still make a serious run to the playoffs. Defense reflects the style, power and passion of head coach Mike Singletary.
New York Giants – This may be the strongest team in all of the NFL (when Jason Tuck returns). Eli Manning’s health is unlikely to take a turn for the worst. He has the protection, not merely of his line, but of his power running game led by Brandon Jacobs. Ahmad Bradshaw ain’t half bad, neither. The maturation of Mario Manningham and the pristine route running of Torry Holt-wannabe Steve Smith have all of New York excited. The Giants are the favorites to win the powerful NFC East.
Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings are going to make the playoffs. The defense is solid. Of course, were defensive tackles Kevin and Pat Williams (no relation) to be suspended, all bets would be off. These two players ground Leslie Frazier’s dynamic defense. They are the true cornerstones of the franchise. The showpieces: Adrian Peterson and Brett Favre are as dynamic as ever. They’re not immune from injury (see Favre, NY Jets, 2008, late-season collapse), but their roles are not complementary. Favre has never played with a back as talented as Peterson, and vice versa. The Vikings haven’t beaten “anyone” yet, but the league knows what this team is capable of.
Atlanta Falcons – This team made the post-season in 2008. Arguably, they were one Michael Turner fumble away from playing the Carolina Panthers in the division round. The Falcons have only made positive additions, though they have lost two high impact youngsters to injury: #2 wide receiver Harry Douglas during preseason and #1 draft pick Peria Jerry. For me, the jury is still out on the defense. Matt Ryan should be relatively safe with Gonzalez and Turner in the mix to slow down pass rushes. The Falcons should make the 2009 playoffs.
New Orleans Saints – I think Drew Brees is on a magic carpet ride. I don’t believe he’ll be injured because he has a number of factors in his favor: a dynamic offense, tons of weapons, and a power running game. Teams have been reluctant to blitz the Saints. The Eagles found out that even when you get to Brees, he can still launch accurate throws thirty yards downfield that beat the best coverage. I like the Saints to win the NFC South.
So, there it is. In the NFC, I think you’re looking at most of your playoff teams right now. The recent loss of Peria Jerry puts a question mark on the Falcons — but not a big one. This means that the teams on the outside of the 2009 playoff race include the Philadelphia Eagles (injured QB, torched defense), the Arizona Cardinals (down 1 game and a tie-breaker to the 49ers), the Seattle Seahawks (injured QB, loss to SF), and the remaining teams in the NFC North. Chicago can win without Urlacher, but visitors won’t always miss two 4th quarter field goals to hide blemishes. Green Bay has offensive line troubles which mean Aaron Rodgers and Ryan Grant are going to have to do a great deal more. The Packers opened last week’s games with Cincinnati with dropped passes by highly touted tight end Jermichael Finley and star wide receiver Greg Jennings. That’s not playoff football.
In the AFC, I do not believe the Tennessee Titans are going to the playoffs unless they can manage to beat the Jets this week. They are playing a first place schedule which is very demanding. Kerry Collins is mediocre. He only managed 7 points in the second half vs. the Texans. Those points came off a 91-yard run by Chris Johnson on 3rd and 11 from the 9 yard line. How often is that going to happen? (Okay, it happened twice in that game!)
I believe the Steelers are going to the playoffs and that the Chargers should win the AFC West. Regardless of what has happened to Jamal Williams and LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego still has Philip Rivers, Darren Sproles, Vincent Jackson, and Antonio Gates. No team in the division can match that.
The “final” playoff spot in the AFC, then, will be fought out between the New England Patriots (I still think they’ll win the division), Cincinnati Bengals (QB health issues, inexperienced defense) and the Houston Texans (QB health issues, offensive line health issues, inexperienced defense). I don’t see a playoff season coming from Buffalo, Miami, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Oakland, or Kansas City. Oddly enough, Buffalo, Oakland and Cincinnati were all very, very close to being 2-0.