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:
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.