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Nine Lives: Which Winless Team Will End Up in the Playoffs?

Nine teams entered Week 3 with a winless record. Which ones have the best shot to buck the numbers and make a run to the playoffs?

You probably saw the numbers this week. The exact figure depends on the cutoff you choose, but since the league went to its current divisional structure in 2002, just 10 of the 107 teams that started the season 0-2 ultimately made a postseason run. That’s 9.4 percent. By the end of Week 2, we were left with nine 0-2 teams around the NFL. You can see where I’m going with this one. Even if you fudge the numbers a tiny bit, recent history suggests that a typical season will see just one of those nine 0-2 teams rebound and head into the postseason. The other eight are playing for fantasy football and draft position purposes. Yikes.

Given how good some of this year’s 0-2 teams were expected to be heading into the season, it’s perhaps more likely we’ll see two or more of these teams advance into January than we would in other years. FiveThirtyEight’s Elo model suggests that two or three of these teams will make the postseason if they play as expected the rest of the way. Of course, it may also be possible that the numbers don’t know some important detail about these teams that has led them to that fateful 0-2 start. We’re all left simultaneously trying to avoid overreacting to the dismal first two weeks while frantically searching to find what might be a fatal flaw. Football can be confusing, especially in September.

If 0-2 is bad, 0-3 is virtually a point of no return. The last team to start 0-3 and make the playoffs was the 1998 Buffalo Bills, who rode Doug Flutie to the playoffs after their initial three-game skid. Eighty-two teams have started 0-3 since without making it to the postseason. It’s not out of the question for a team to do it again, but it’s taking a long shot and stretching it even further. After the 0-2 Giants beat Washington on Thursday night, that leaves us with eight must-win games coming up in Week 3.

Let’s run through the nine teams that started 0-2 and try to figure out why they might be the ones to buck history and advance into the postseason. These aren’t power rankings of how these teams would perform in a vacuum, but instead a comparison of their relative playoff chances given their talent level, circumstances, injuries, etc. And it starts with the team I think everyone can agree belongs at the bottom of the list:

9. Chicago Bears

OK, it’s not exactly easy to find reasons to believe that the Bears should have high hopes for 2015. They weren’t expected to do very much before the season, and after an 0-2 start, they’re about to head to Seattle to face a pissed-off Seahawks team in a home opener that will now include Kam Chancellor. Oh, and because Jay Cutler is injured, Jimmy Clausen — whose only win in a 1-10 career came over John Skelton in 2010 — will be under center for Chicago, with both wideouts who would start for Chicago (Alshon Jeffery and first-rounder Kevin White) likely absent as well. The Bears are the league’s biggest underdogs in Week 3, and it’s exceedingly unlikely they’ll come close to the playoffs.

There have been things to like for Chicago this season. The defense was better than expected against Aaron Rodgers in Week 1, albeit in a game where they allowed the Packers to score 31 points, mostly on throws past overmatched starting corner Alan Ball. And the much-maligned Cutler actually played very well for most of his short run against the Cardinals, starting 8-of-8 for 120 yards and a touchdown against the stout Arizona pass defense before throwing a pick-six and injuring his hamstring while trying to tackle Tony Jefferson. Baby steps! But, you know, like a baby with a pulled hamstring.

8. Detroit Lions

The Lions are already in a lot of trouble. They’ve started the season by losing their first two games on the road by a combined 15 points, and each of those games needed garbage-time touchdowns from Detroit to make things look more competitive than they were. The Lions are already two games behind the Packers and 1.5 games down on the Vikings, given that Minnesota beat the Lions last Sunday. Mike Zimmer’s defense beat up poor Matthew Stafford during that game, knocking him down eight times on 53 dropbacks and leading to a terrifying observation afterward:

That sounds like the worst game ever, and while it looks like Stafford will play through a rib injury this weekend, injuries are giving the Lions fits. Star linebacker DeAndre Levy has missed the first two games with a mysterious, unexplained hip injury; the team had to deny rumors this week that Levy was suffering from a Chilean parasite, which seems absurd. Defensive end Ziggy Ansah missed practice time this week. The right side of the offensive line, Larry Warford and LaAdrian Waddle, missed Week 1. Warford is back, and Waddle should make his season debut in Sunday’s game against the Broncos, who have pressured opposing quarterbacks on a league-high 50 percent of dropbacks. If the Lions can’t beat Denver in their home opener, their playoff chances might very well not exist.

7. Houston Texans

Much like the Lions, Houston’s performance looks a lot better by virtue of what it’s done late in the fourth quarter of comfortable losses. The Texans went down 27-9 against the Chiefs before two scoring drives in the final five minutes left it as a seven-point loss. Things were closer last week when they scored a touchdown with 6:31 left to make it 24-17, but their attempt to tie included a blocked field goal, two extended drives thanks to Kony Ealy penalties on third down, and a fourth-down conversion before Carolina came up with a fourth-and-16 stop.

The problem has been an offense squeezed by poor quarterbacks and injuries. Bill O’Brien benched Brian Hoyer after three quarters for Ryan Mallett and stuck with the backup for the Panthers game, saying Mallett had given the team a “spark.” It seems bad when your team needs a spark in early September. Mallett promptly started the second game 11-of-29 for 74 yards as part of a game plan that eventually saw the overmatched passer throw 58 passes. The offense badly misses Arian Foster, who is likely a week away from returning after groin surgery. Even worse, star wideout DeAndre Hopkins has missed practice this week with a concussion, which would leave Houston with a passing attack built around Mallett throwing to Nate Washington and Cecil Shorts III. On the bright side, the Texans do get to face the Buccaneers. Dumpster fires need sparks, too.

6. New Orleans Saints

Would you believe it: another offense felled by an injury to a totally irreplaceable player! Here, the precious cargo is Drew Brees’s rotator cuff, which was bruised during Sunday’s loss to the Buccaneers. The Saints attempted to take some heat off Brees this offseason by investing in an improved offensive line and doubling down on running backs, but first-round pick Andrus Peat has played just five offensive snaps at tackle, while C.J. Spiller played seven snaps in his season debut last week.

The Saints will be happy to see the return of Jairus Byrd and Keenan Lewis from injuries if they can make it back Sunday, but that might not be enough if Brees misses the game. The last time Brees missed a start because of injury was in 2003, when no. 1 receiver Brandin Cooks was in fifth grade. A bruised rotator cuff can be a week-to-week injury; Marc Bulger missed a game with a similar rotator cuff injury in 2009. On the bright side, it would push Luke McCown into the lineup, which would complete the most unlikely run of notoriety Luke McCown ever could have expected after those commercials. The Saints get the Panthers this weekend, and while they’ll be happy to face a Carolina team that hasn’t exactly looked incredible despite a 2-0 start, a loss would put them 3.5 games behind Carolina before October has even begun.

5. Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore might have been my pick to win the AFC North before the season, but losing the first two games wasn’t part of the plan. Losing to the Broncos in Week 1 after Steve Smith Sr. dropped a pass in the end zone was one thing, but losing to the Raiders and giving up 37 points in the process was another. Derek Carr even left a few big plays on the field. Could Terrell Suggs have really been that valuable to the defense?

Like New Orleans, Baltimore finds itself in a divisional must-win against the current leaders. The Ravens can’t afford to fall three games and a tiebreaker behind the Bengals before the end of September, and while Baltimore may be a narrow favorite in its home opener Sunday, it hasn’t come close to putting together a complete quarter, let alone a complete game. Carr torched the Baltimore secondary last week, and a wildly impressive Bengals offensive line has helped Andy Dalton avoid a single sack or turnover. If that keeps up, the Ravens will be in serious trouble.

4. New York Giants

The Ravens would be strong favorites over the Giants on a neutral field, but here, the situation favors Big Blue. Granted, I’m cheating and counting the victory the Giants claimed last night to get out of the NFC East cellar, but the Giants have now had double-digit leads in the fourth quarter of each of their three games. Granted, they’ve managed to hold on to exactly one of them, but it’s still a sign that they’re playing well in otherwise-meaningful situations before playing some incredibly unclutch situational football.

It will disappear quickly because the Giants won the game, but let’s not forget about Tom Coughlin’s latest fourth-quarter mistake. Here, Coughlin threw his challenge flag after a Washington touchdown, costing the Giants their final timeout. It’s inexcusable for a head coach to make that sort of mistake, especially a veteran coach like Coughlin. It was certainly the most “Dad, you’re embarrassing me” penalty a coach can get, and it makes me wonder whether teams will eventually have their head coach cede challenge duties in the same way they occasionally give up play-calling duties.

The newly clutch Giants weren’t all that different last night. The late score that appeared to seal it was a third-down lob from Eli Manning to a covered Rueben Randle that was bobbled and then grabbed out of space for a touchdown. The Giants promptly allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown and then had Manning throw another ugly pass on third down, extending the game. It didn’t matter, because Kirk Cousins appears to develop a low-grade fever when he faces the Giants on national television, but — sadly, for the Giants defense — they don’t get to play Cousins every week. This team should be 3-0; instead, it’s just happy to be 1-2.

3. Philadelphia Eagles

Even knowing that the Eagles are a half-game behind the Giants and a game and a half behind the Cowboys in the wide-open NFC East, I like their chances a little more than those of the Giants. It’s far easier to imagine the Eagles making the sort of adjustments they need, given the talent they have, than it is to believe that the Giants will suddenly blossom a couple of offensive linemen and a safety and a pass-rusher by the end of the season.

The improvements have to come, to some extent, from Chip Kelly. Chris Brown noted on Twitter how Philadelphia’s play-calling was so obvious by virtue of how stagnant their personnel groupings and spacing on offense have been. Reacting to last week’s disastrous performance from Sam Bradford and this offense, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Kelly really focus on showing different looks to the opposition starting Sunday against the Jets. He almost has to make schematic changes, given that it’s too early to make personnel decisions like benching Bradford or DeMarco Murray (who may not even play given his hamstring injury).

Even if Kelly does, the offense may still struggle to get going. The Jets may be lucky to have recovered all eight fumbles under Todd Bowles, but the former Arizona defensive coordinator brought in a bevy of defensive backs this offseason and has installed his favored blitz-happy scheme. Darrelle Revis (questionable with a groin injury) and the rest of his defensive backfield brethren can hold up against Philadelphia’s athletes in man coverage, freeing Bowles to send exotic pressures at Bradford, who is already naturally inclined to check down. With the Giants choking and the combination of Tony Romo and Dez Bryant both injured, the Eagles could possibly be in a more advantageous spot than they were before the season started, even at 0-2.

2. Seattle Seahawks

Per FiveThirtyEight, the Seahawks had a league-best 78 percent chance of making the playoffs before the season started. Now, just two weeks later, their odds are down to 56 percent. If the unthinkable happens and they lose at home to Chicago this weekend, the Seahawks will be in serious danger of falling below 50 percent. As 14-point favorites, that seems extremely unlikely.

Seattle should really be concerned less about this week and more about the weeks to come. After the Bears, four of Seattle’s next five games come against 2014 playoff teams. And while I’m not super high on Detroit or Cincinnati, a stretch that includes them alongside the Panthers and Cowboys won’t be easy. The Seahawks won’t have to deal with Romo during their crucial November 1 meeting since he is on short-term IR and won’t be eligible to return. If the defense fixes itself (and it should) and the offense gets just enough Jimmy Graham to get going, the Seahawks should be fine. Their concern at this point is less about the playoffs and more about beating the Cardinals for first place in the NFC West.

1. Indianapolis Colts

As bad as they’ve been, the Colts are no. 1 for me. I wrote Monday about why they should improve in the weeks to come, and much of that boils down to schedule. Indy is about to start a three-game run through the AFC South, and by the end of that stretch, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was atop the division at 3-2.