The Four Teams That Have the Most to Lose by Starting 0-2

If you want to be playing meaningful football at the end of the season, 0-2 isn’t a very good place to start. I’m not exactly revealing a state secret by suggesting that teams that start the season with a couple losses are less likely to make the playoffs than teams that start with wins, and it’s easy to get carried away with one week’s worth of information about a team, but a slow start really, really hurts. Our colleague Benjamin Morris over at FiveThirtyEight ran a chart detailing the historical likelihood that a team with a given record will make the playoffs. Morris noted that 0-2 teams have made the playoffs just 12 percent of the time.

That figure runs back through 1990, but the league’s structure has changed a bit since then. If we go back to 2002, when the NFL switched to its current divisional and schedule format, there have been exactly 100 teams to start 0-2. Just nine have made the playoffs. The most recent example came last year, when the Panthers started 0-2 with narrow losses to the Seahawks and Bills, the latter inspiring Ron Rivera to very famously turn into Riverboat Ron. The Panthers were the first 0-2 team since 2008 to make the playoffs, and it damn near required a coaching miracle to turn them around. It’s no easy feat.

With Baltimore blowing out Pittsburgh last night, we’re left with 15 0-1 teams heading into Week 2. Three matchups pit 0-1 teams against one another, so at the bare minimum, three 0-2 teams will head into Week 3. Using the Vegas odds for each team’s money line1 in a Monte Carlo simulation of Week 2, I found that the most likely outcome is that we’ll end up with seven 0-2 teams. And of those seven teams, we would expect at most one to make the playoffs. So, realistically, we’re eliminating six teams from playoff contention this weekend. In Week 2. Ouch.

It’s safe to say nobody’s very comfortable with the idea of going 0-2. But, among those 15 teams that might, which has the most to lose? Truthfully, I don’t think it really matters very much if the Raiders, Buccaneers, Jaguars, Rams, or Browns start the year 0-2; their quarterback troubles already make me skeptical that they can do very much even with a win this weekend. Likewise, the Saints, Packers, and Patriots are still probably going to do just fine in 2014, even if they get upset by the Browns, Jets, or Vikings on Sunday. Those seven other teams in the middle? They’re the ones that have the most to lose this weekend. We can eliminate the three from the NFC East (Washington, Dallas, and the New York Giants), whose futures are far more dependent on the Eagles losing to the Colts on Monday night than anything they themselves might do; it’s the four other 0-1 teams that have the most to lose heading into Week 2.

Chicago Bears

You know that thing fans do when they run through their schedule the day it’s announced and pencil in a win or a loss for every matchup on their calendar? What percentage of Bears fans do you think looked at the Bills in Week 1 at home and said, “Ahh, that might be a tough one, let’s chalk that one up as an L?” It might literally be zero percent. Sure enough, variance happens, and the Bills pulled out a 23-20 victory in overtime on the road over the Bears. Even worse, no fewer than four offensive starters left the game for Chicago, who had the league’s fewest missed games by starters on offense last year. All four of those starters — Roberto Garza, Matt Slauson, Brandon Marshall, and Alshon Jeffery — did not practice Thursday.

While most would have expected the Bears to be underdogs when traveling to San Francisco for the first regular-season game at Levi’s Stadium,2 they were considered an underdog that would have matched up well on offense against their opposition’s biggest weakness. The 49ers are undersize and mediocre at cornerback, a problem when battling against the physical 6-foot-3 Jeffery and 6-foot-4 Marshall. But if Jeffery and Marshall can’t go, the Bears would be forced to start Santonio Holmes and Josh Morgan at wide receiver. That’s not exactly the same thing.

A loss would knock Chicago down to 0-2 in a division that’s already looking exceedingly difficult, with Detroit and Minnesota looking very impressive in Week 1 victories. The Lions and Vikings are both underdogs this week against the Panthers and Patriots, respectively, but the Monte Carlo simulation suggests there’s a 47.7 percent chance Week 2 will end with the Bears at 0-2 and one (or both) of those teams atop the NFC North at 2-0. The Packers are also heavy favorites to beat the Jets in Lambeau Field, which would leave the Bears last in the NFC North with arguably their easiest game of the season on paper already in the loss column.

Chicago gets an easier road matchup when it travels to New York to play the Jets in Week 3, but its schedule ramps up after that: The Bears host the Packers, travel to face the Panthers and Falcons, host the Dolphins, and play the Patriots in Foxborough before Chicago’s Week 9 bye. I’m not going to pencil in wins and losses for those matchups — you just saw how useless that is — but a road win against the 49ers would be an enormously valuable way to make up for last week’s mistake.

Kansas City Chiefs

I suspect few Chiefs fans had a 16-point home walloping by the Titans in their plans for Week 1, but that’s exactly what happened. Even worse, the game was really more about the Chiefs playing poorly than it was the Titans playing especially well. The replacement-level talent filling in for suspended players was really bad, as players like Mike McGlynn and Frankie Hammond were overmatched by competent NFL competition. The Chiefs badly missed injured corner Marcus Cooper, and while he’s likely to be back Sunday, they’ll be without linebacker Derrick Johnson and defensive end Mike DeVito, each of whom are done for the year. I mean, without De’Anthony Thomas around, the Chiefs even looked terrible on special teams3 in Week 1. When you make Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub look bad, you’re really playing awfully.

The good news is that the Chargers and Raiders also lost. The bad news is that the Broncos are still great. It’s exceedingly likely the Chiefs will need to qualify for the playoffs by winning a wild-card spot; they almost surely can’t hope to sneak into the playoffs by winning their division with eight wins like the Packers did last year, so the Chiefs are probably looking at nine and preferably 10 wins to feel confident about their chances of making a return trip to the playoffs.

Losing a home game to a team from the AFC South isn’t a great way to start that playoff trek. Unfortunately, playing the Broncos in Denver is basically already a loss. The Vegas money line suggests the Chiefs have just a 12.8 percent chance of winning Sunday. It’s not impossible to beat the Broncos in Denver, as the 2013 Chargers will happily remind you, but you need a lot of things to go right, and everything seems to be going wrong for the Chiefs right now.

A loss in Denver would put the Chiefs two games behind the Broncos in the AFC West with the tiebreaker in hand; it might already sink Kansas City’s chances to win the West before things even really get started. AFC wild-card rivals like the Titans, Texans, Colts, and Dolphins are also favored in most places Sunday, meaning there’s a pretty good chance the Chiefs could be two games back in that race, too. I’ve compared this team to the 2011 Chiefs, a group that followed an unexpected run to the playoffs by losing their first game in a home blowout (41-7 to the Bills) and seeing a star defender go down for the season (Eric Berry). In Week 2 of 2011, the Chiefs lost 48-3 to the Lions and had Jamaal Charles tear his ACL. Maybe an innocuous, injury-free loss to Denver wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world after all.

San Diego Chargers

Kansas City’s AFC West brethren, meanwhile, have a more agonizing loss to mull over. The Chargers were up 11 points on Arizona at the beginning of the fourth quarter and had a 90 percent win expectancy with less than 10 minutes to go, only for luck to cruelly bounce in the opposite direction. A road win against NFC West competition would have been an enormous boost in San Diego’s chances going forward, but it was not to be.

More good news/bad news: The good news is that the Chargers don’t have to play the Broncos in Denver this week; the bad news is that they have to play the Seahawks. The game is in San Diego, which is obviously better than traveling to Seattle and facing football’s best home-field advantage, but the Seahawks are still a very good football team outside of the Pacific Northwest. Vegas gives San Diego a 29.3 percent chance of beating the defending champions in Southern California on Sunday. It probably doesn’t help that San Diego is coming off a short week after appearing on Monday Night Football, while the Seahawks opened up the NFL calendar last Thursday and have had four extra days of rest.

But take heart, Chargers fans — there are a bunch of very winnable games coming up. After the Seahawks game, San Diego travels to Buffalo, comes home to host the Jaguars and Jets, and then travels to Oakland to kick off its divisional slate. The schedule gets tough later on — that three-game stretch in December against the Patriots, Broncos, and 49ers isn’t fun — but imagine how great it would be if the Chargers could hit the weakest part of their schedule with a win over the defending Super Bowl champions.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts were supposed to be here. Beating the Broncos in Denver was always going to be a tall order, and there’s no shame in starting the year off with a loss. Losing Robert Mathis for the year, however, was not in the cards. The Colts were supposed to get their star defender back from his Clomid suspension after Week 4, but after Mathis tore his Achilles last week, he’s now done for the season without an obvious replacement. With no pass-rusher waiting to drastically improve their defense at the end of the September tunnel and both the Titans and Texans winning in Week 1, it’s more important for the Colts to start winning sooner rather than later. The AFC South looks like it’s going to be a much tougher fight than it was a year ago.

No problem. All they’ve got to do is beat the Eagles, and hey, the Jaguars nearly did that on the road last week, right? Not so fast. As Sheil Kapadia noted in his indispensable midweek Eagles columns, most of the Eagles looked great against Jacksonville on Sunday. It was only really Nick Foles who struggled. Philadelphia left a number of big plays on the field, with Kapadia suggesting that even an average Foles could have broken Donovan McNabb’s single-game Eagles passing record of 464 yards. Given that Foles isn’t working with a known injury, it seems more likely he had an isolated bad game than a dismal performance that would signify future problems to come. And while the Jaguars forced Foles into mistakes by sacking him five times during the first half, the Eagles offense went into overdrive during a 27-point4 second half, during which Foles was not sacked. Without Mathis, which pass rush do you think the Colts will be more likely to resemble?

The Colts are favorites to prevail in their home opener, with Vegas giving them a 60.4 percent chance of pulling out the win over Chip Kelly & Co., but there’s still the danger that Indy ends up 0-2 and looking up at the top of the AFC South. The Texans and Titans are both favored in Week 2, with Houston traveling to Oakland while Tennessee hosts a Cowboys team in disarray. The Monte Carlo simulation suggests that Indianapolis has a 35 percent shot of waking up Tuesday morning trailing either Houston or Tennessee by two games in the division. That would serve as an interesting prelude to the beginning of Indianapolis’s AFC South operations, as the Colts travel to Jacksonville in Week 3 before hosting the Titans in what’s suddenly looking like an important AFC South encounter. Indy may still be the favorites to win the division, even after losing both Mathis and Week 1 in a matter of days. If they’re two games back of the Titans or Texans come Tuesday, well, that might not be the case anymore.

Filed Under: NFL, Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell