Friday September 12th, 2008

If at all possible, you don't want to start 0-2 in the NFL. It's not a death sentence, but since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, only 19 teams have climbed out of an 0-2 hole to make the playoffs. That's 19 teams in 18 seasons of play, or about one per year.

Of course, that one 0-2 team last year was the New York Giants, and as I recall, things worked out pretty well for them in the end. The 2001 Patriots and the 1993 Cowboys also won Super Bowl rings despite dropping their first two games of the season, so history says you get the ultimate confetti-shower aberration to the 0-2 trend every six years or so.

But back to our premise: 0-2 is not a happy place to be. Autumn will not even have begun and the odds will already be stacked against you. At the moment, obviously, there are 16 teams staring 0-2 in the face after Week 1 losses. That should make for 16 very desperate teams this weekend, all willing to do almost anything to get to .500 and keep their seasons alive.

Which ones have the most motivation to stop the bleeding before it really gets going? Here's our top eight, ranked in terms of their sense of urgency:

1. Cleveland -- No other NFL team will start the season with consecutive home games, which unfortunately gives the Browns the opportunity to become the league's only 0-2 team to suffer the double whammy of dropping a pair before the hometown fans. When you add in that this week's opponent are the hated Steelers -- who have beaten Cleveland nine times in a row and 15 out of 16 -- and that Sunday night's game is the first of the Browns' five primetime TV appearances, that only jacks the stakes up even higher.

Then there's Cleveland's showing last week against Dallas to consider. The Browns were beaten worse than the 28-10 score indicated, giving up 487 yards of offense while totaling just 205 themselves. One more humiliation like that -- and the Steelers specialize in humiliating Cleveland -- and all those once-hopeful Browns fans are going to start taking Romeo Crennel's name in vain. At 0-2 and two games behind the Steelers, who would own a head-to-head tiebreaker, things could get ugly very quickly in Cleveland.

2. Minnesota -- Just like the Browns were the 2007 non-playoff team picked to make some serious January noise in the AFC, the Vikings were given the NFC's version of that label by many pundits. But then Minnesota went to Green Bay last Monday night and lost 24-19, playing every bit as inconsistently as last year's rollercoaster-like 8-8 club. That makes this week's home opener against the 0-1 Colts pretty close to vital.

For starters, Green Bay has a winnable game at Detroit this week, so the prospect of falling two games behind the Packers should motivate Minnesota. Secondly, let the Vikings lose this one against a Colts team that got embarrassed at home by the Bears last Sunday night and Minnesota's season could snowball in the wrong direction -- even before it's cold enough to actually snow in the Twin Cities. The Vikings next three games are against improved Carolina, at Tennessee and at New Orleans. Not a gimme among them.

3. Jacksonville -- The Jaguars didn't just lose 17-10 last week at Tennessee. They got abused, even though the margin of victory didn't show it. The Titans held the vaunted Jacksonville running game to a paltry 33 yards (1.9 average) and twice picked off quarterback David Garrard, he of the three interceptions all of last season. Garrard was also sacked seven times and lost a fumble. And don't forget that both the Jaguars' starting guards were hurt in the game, only adding to their offensive line injury problems.

Playing more physical than an opponent was supposed to be the Jaguars' game, but it wasn't the case last week in Nashville. Jacksonville now comes home to face a Buffalo team brimming with confidence after the Bills thrashed visiting Seattle 34-10. The Jaguars, who had their share of preseason Super Bowl hype, have to get their mojo back right now because in Week 3 looms their annual trip to division rival Indianapolis, the team Jacksonville has been chasing since coach Jack Del Rio arrived in 2003.

4. Tampa Bay -- After losing 24-20 last week at New Orleans, the Bucs face the dangerous Falcons (did I just write that?) in their home opener. Atlanta will be sky high after taking apart Detroit at home, thanks to more than 300 yards rushing along with a very impressive rookie debut for first-round quarterback Matt Ryan. The defending NFC South champion Bucs simply can't afford to go 0-2, falling two games behind perhaps the entire division (Carolina, New Orleans and Atlanta all won last week).

If that happens, we'll be well on our way to the usual sequence of events in this wacky division, where the first-place team from the previous year typically finishes in last place the next year, and the last-place team from a year ago vaults into first place this time around (you can look it up). Tampa Bay has one added handicap this week in that starting quarterback Jeff Garcia is out with a sprained ankle. Fortunately for the Bucs, the drop-off is ever so slight with backup Brian Griese.

5. Indianapolis -- For a team that has started 7-0, 9-0 and 13-0 the past three seasons, an 0-2 getaway would be quite the (horse) kick in the gut. The Colts haven't lost their first two games of a season since 1998, Peyton Manning's rookie year.

That's what makes Sunday's Colts at Vikings game an early season Desperation Bowl. Neither team can laugh off an 0-2 start as a minor inconvenience. As we noted before, the Colts return home next week to take on the Jaguars, the team that has finished at least tied for second the AFC South four years in a row.

After a Week 4 open date, Indianapolis goes to Houston, where the Texans have played the Colts very tough in recent years. With Manning looking less than his usual sharp self against the Bears, the rest of the division would have some real hope if he comes out and struggles against the Vikings porous pass defense.

6. Washington -- The stench from the Redskins' egg-laying performance against the Giants has had too long to linger. Let quarterback Jason Campbell and the offense look as ragged at home against the Saints as they did against New York and I guarantee you we'll hear the drumbeat for backup Todd Collins begin to build. After three straight woeful performances, starting with their fourth preseason game, the Redskins and new head coach Jim Zorn need any positives they can muster.

7. Houston -- Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a must-win for the Texans. And yes, we know it's Week 2. But Houston got manhandled at Pittsburgh last week, and this was a Texans team expected to build on the momentum of last year's franchise-best 8-8 record. If Houston can't beat up on the likes of Baltimore, with rookie quarterback Joe Flacco starting again for the Ravens, how does it expect to compete the next weeks at Tennessee and at Jacksonville, with both division rivals coming off playoff seasons last year? Just as in Washington, a quarterback controversy could be on the way in Houston if Matt Schaub doesn't turn in a strong game. Sage Rosenfels went 4-1 last season as the team's fill-in starter.

8. San Diego -- I'm not really worried about the Chargers; they've owned the Broncos in recent years. But they are my pick to win the Super Bowl, and you don't want to test that 0-2 to Super Bowl champion stat every year. The Chargers aren't going to panic. They dug themselves out of a hole early last season and they also know that Denver is the only team in the division truly capable of giving them competition for the AFC West. Still, San Diego lost a heartbreaker last week to Carolina and following that up with a division loss on the road would mean a lot on the line in Week 3 at home against the Brett Favre-led Jets.

• Just wondering, but with Tom Brady out for the season, will teams that beat New England consider it something of a hollow victory this year, kind of like the rest of the PGA Tour knowing that any major won when Tiger Woods isn't competing doesn't mean as much?

I know golf is an individual sport and football is the ultimate team sport, so the comparison isn't apples to apples. But honestly, will beating the Pats this year have the same cache it would have if Brady were healthy and playing? I say no way, no how.

Does that mean the eventual Super Bowl this season is the NFL's version of Padraig Harrington?

• Got to thinking the other day about the remarkable turn of events in New England since the Patriots beat San Diego in the AFC title game to go 18-0. Has any team ever had two more shocking back-to-back results than Billy Belichick's history boys?

They go from the cusp of football immortality, to the biggest upset loser in Super Bowl history, to Tommy "Cover Boy'' Brady being knocked out in Week 1 of the following season, all in the combined span of less than 10 minutes of on-field action? Can't remember a magic carpet ride that ever ended quite so abruptly or cruelly as that.

• What choice does Tennessee head coach Jeff Fisher really have at this point other than to make the Titans Kerry Collins' team for the foreseeable future? The bottom line is that Vince Young cannot be counted on right now. Not physically or emotionally. And until he can be a consistent presence for his teammates and the franchise, why would you trust him?

Young's maturity level has never been as high as you'd like, but his sensitivity level has been far higher than is healthy for a guy playing the most scrutinized position in professional sports. He needs to grow up, and grow some thicker skin. But the problem is, that's not a three-week process in either case. And Tennessee is going to have to live with that reality as best it can for now.

• Say what you will about Randy Moss, I've always loved the way he talks without anything resembling a filter at times. On a conference call with media members on Wednesday, Moss was asked what it was like Sunday to be on the field when Brady went down with his season-ending knee injury:

"I was happy the way our team responded, not just (Matt) Cassel,'' Moss said. "Just with the magnitude, it was like taking the helium out of the balloon. When Tom went down, everything got quiet. Guys were looking at each other with deer in the headlight eyes. Guys were like stuck in the moment, looking at each other like, 'Is this really happening?' ''

I think it's fair to say that was a slightly more descriptive account of the moment the Patriots season changed forever in comparison to, say, Coach Belichick's post-game comments.

• I say don't feel sorry for 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. That broken bone in his shoulder saved him from having to have a front-row vantage point on what would likely have been a long, painful season in San Francisco anyway. Smith's 49ers career is over; everyone is aware of that at this point. It didn't work out for the 2005 No. 1 overall pick in the City by the Bay, but it was hardly a debacle entirely of his own doing.

For now, Smith joins the likes of Jeff George, Tim Couch, Michael Vick and David Carr as former No. 1's whose NFL dreams didn't all come true. But he still has time to have a successful second -- or even third -- act in his NFL career, just as former No. 1's such as Jim Plunkett and Vinny Testaverde managed.

• I didn't have a problem with Shawne Merriman's decision to try to play on his injured knee this regular season, and I didn't have a problem with him coming around to the realization that he needed to shut it down and get the reconstructive surgery. Either way, he was the one making the call about what his body could or couldn't endure, after consultation with five doctors.

And just to repeat, Merriman's absence will be a loss for San Diego's defense, but not a devastating one. Second-year linebacker Jyles Tucker is a young edge-rushing talent in the Merriman mode. San Diego and NFL fans are going to like what they see of him this season in Merriman's position.

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