Whether they'll ever admit it or not, a fast start in the NFL gets everyone -- fans, media, players, and even play-'em-one-at-a-time coaches -- dreaming about a magical run through January and the road trip to the game that's so big they use Roman numerals to identify it. Which way to the press conferences?
But while a fast start in the NFL often seems like a ticket to the playoffs just waiting to be punched, many times it ends up feeling more like a punch to the gut by the time late December rolls around.
It's all hiccups and giggles right now in NFL locales like Denver, New Orleans, Minnesota, Indianapolis, New York, and Cincinnati, where the teams all have at least four wins in the bank with no more than one loss. First place feels great and all, but they don't start the playoffs on Halloween, and if you're looking for a six-game schedule this year, try the UFL.
The 4-1 Bengals and 5-0 Broncos are feel-good early season stories, and we're not trying to rain on their parade. But then again, our point is nobody should be planning the parade this early. And to underline that sobering reminder, look back to last year at this time to re-learn the lesson of premature celebration.
Entering Week 6 of the 2008 season, Buffalo was 4-1 and led the AFC East. Denver was 4-1 and led the AFC West. Chicago was 3-2 and led the NFC North. Dallas and Washington were both 4-1, just a half-game back in the NFC East. None of those five teams made the playoffs, and we haven't even mentioned the Jets, who started 8-3 but didn't get to play in January, or a Patriots team that finished 11-5 and became the first 11-game winner to miss the dance since the 1985 Broncos.
To look at it another way, last season at this point, four of the six eventual AFC playoff teams were either 2-2 (Miami, Baltimore, Indianapolis), or 2-3 (San Diego). In the NFC, two of the conference's eventual playoff teams were under water at 2-3 as Week 6 dawned (Philadelphia and Minnesota). Add those totals together and half of the league's 12-team playoff field last year was playing .500 or worse ball through the season's first five weeks.
Kind of makes you want to think twice before buying that pair of business-class, non-refundables to Miami, doesn't it?
Without trying to throw a laundry list of fast starters who didn't make it to the finish line at you, here are just a few recent reminders of how quickly a strong getaway can turn into a furious fade in the NFL:
• 2008 Bills, Jets, Broncos and Redskins -- Entering Week 6 last year, these four teams were a combined 14-5 and riding high. But they went just 18-27 cumulatively thereafter, with only New York squeaking over .500 at 9-7. The Bills and Redskins finished in last in their divisions, and none of them made the playoffs. New York (Eric Mangini) and Denver (Mike Shanahan) fired their head coaches immediately after the season concluded. Buffalo and Washington gave Dick Jauron and Jim Zorn another year, but with the struggles continuing in 2009, they'll both be gone any minute now.
• 2007 Lions -- With the resurgent Lions at 6-2, Detroit was abuzz with playoff fever halfway through the '07 season, and Rod Marinelli was being hailed as coach of the year material in the NFC. Only two teams in the NFC had better records than Detroit -- the 7-1 Cowboys and Packers -- and even the piñata formerly known as Matt Millen was being given some props for finally assembling a winner.
And then the Lions woke up, looked around, saw all that Honolulu blue, and realized who they were. Detroit lost seven of its final eight games and finished tied with Chicago for last in the NFC North at 7-9. We didn't know it when Marinelli was 6-2 at the turn in '07, but that one second-half win would be the last in his final 24 games as the Lions head coach.
• 2004 Giants -- In Tom Coughlin's first season as New York's head coach, the Giants raced to a 4-1 start, and then 5-2, staying right on the heels of first-place Philadelphia, the eventual NFC champion. With Kurt Warner enjoying somewhat of a renaissance season at quarterback, New York looked ready to wipe out the stench of its 4-12 mark in 2003, when Jim Fassel's final club dropped its final eight games of the season.
And then the '04 Giants lost eight in a row of their own, in the process tossing the keys of the offense to a rookie quarterback named Eli Manning. Peyton's little brother lost the first six starts of his career, before finally beating visiting Dallas in Week 17 to conclude a 6-10 season. The Giants haven't missed the playoffs since.
• 2003 Vikings -- You think Brett Favre fever is fun? It was also a heady time to be a Minnesota fan in September and October of 2003. The Vikings started 6-0 that season, beating teams by an average of 12.5 points per game. Daunte Culpepper to Randy Moss was maybe the premier offensive tandem in the league, and head coach Mike Tice led a team that owned its division by 3½ games after just seven weeks.
But then the Vikings did the impossible. They lost four in a row, and seven of their final 10 to finish 9-7 and become just the second 6-0 team to miss the playoffs (joining the 1978 Redskins). Green Bay, which had started 3-4 while the Vikings were going wild at 6-0, won seven of its last nine games to catch and pass Minnesota for the NFC North title at 10-6.
And who can forget the excruciating way it ended for the Vikings in Week 17 in Arizona? The Cardinals, a 3-12 club coming into the game, knocked Minnesota out of the playoffs on a miraculous 28-yard touchdown pass from Josh McCown to the little-known Nathan Poole -- Moss's college teammate at Marshall -- as time expired in Arizona's 18-17 win.
The Cardinals barely got the 4th-and-25 play off with just seconds to go, and Poole's touchdown was reviewed because officials didn't know if he had control of the ball when it was ruled he was forced out of the side of end zone by two Vikings defenders. By today's NFL rules, Poole's play wouldn't have been a touchdown, the Vikings would have gone to the playoffs and the Packers would have stayed home. Ah, the cruel twists of fate.
One deserving footnote: The Vikings started 5-1 in 2004, lost seven of their final 10 games, but somehow made the playoffs at 8-8 and even got a measure of revenge on Green Bay by beating the Packers at Lambeau Field in a first-round playoff game.
• 2002 Dolphins -- Miami's season peaked in Week 6 when it improved to 5-1 on the strength of a dramatic 24-22 win at Denver in a Sunday-night thriller. Olindo Mare's 53-yard field goal through the thin air was the game-winner with six seconds remaining, and it came just 39 seconds after Jason Elam's 55-yarder had given Denver a 22-21 lead and the apparent win. At 5-1, Miami led Buffalo and New England by two full games in the AFC East, and appeared headed for its sixth consecutive playoff berth and eighth in nine years.
But the Dolphins must have spent themselves in Denver, because they immediately dropped three in a row -- scoring just 10 points in each game -- and then found themselves facing a must-win Week 17 trip to defending Super Bowl champion New England. Miami took an 11-point lead with less than five minutes to play, but the Patriots rallied to force overtime, and won it on a 35-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal early in sudden death. Had Miami won, they were the AFC East champs at 10-6. But the Patriots and Dolphins, both at 9-7, were eliminated together later that day when the Jets destroyed Green Bay at Giants Stadium to win the division at 9-7 on tiebreakers.
• 2002 Chargers -- All of San Diego was ga-ga over Marty Schottenheimer in the first half of 2002. The Chargers were the turnaround story of the young season, going 4-0 and 6-1 after enduring the misery of a combined 6-26 mark the previous two years under head coach Mike Riley. San Diego's defense gave up just 38 points in the first four games of the season, and the Chargers offense averaged almost 25 points per game throughout the 6-1 getaway.
But San Diego's sole possession of first place through eight weeks of the season was just a mirage. The Chargers started losing, and losing big, dropping a 44-13 decision to the Jets, a 30-3 rout at Miami, and a 27-7 homefield humiliation to the hated Raiders. San Diego lost seven of its final nine games, and its last three wins of the season all required overtime. The resulting 8-8 record left the Chargers tied with Kansas City for last place in the AFC West, three games behind division champ Oakland and a game out of the wild-card picture.
• 1993 Saints -- This edition of the Saints is a cautionary tale to those four 5-0 clubs of this season who might be starting to feel pretty good about themselves these days. New Orleans began the season 5-0 and steamed into their Week 6 bye with a nice two-game lead over their NFC West division rival 49ers (3-2). With 34-year-old quarterback Wade Wilson starting a career-high 14 games that season, New Orleans scored 33 points or more in three of those five early wins. But the Saints would score more than 20 points just once (26) in their final 11 games, limping to season's end.
The Saints got to 6-2 at the season's halfway point, but then completely collapsed, losing six of their next seven games to sink under .500 at 7-8. New Orleans rallied to beat Cincinnati at the Superdome in Week 17, but it was too little, too late, and the 8-8 Saints missed the NFC's final two wild-card berths by one game to 9-7 Minnesota and Green Bay.