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23 Sep 2006
by Ryan Wilson
The NFL regular season is two weeks old and television analysts, newspaper columnists and talk radio hosts are already calling this week's games "must wins" for certain teams. Heading into the season, the Washington Redskins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina Panthers, Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs were all favorites to make the playoffs â€“ or at least be in the conversation â€“ and SI.com's Dr. Z even had the Dolphins beating the Panthers in the Super Bowl. A lot can change in a fortnight. All of these teams are 0-2 and while it's too early to write them off completely, history suggests it is very difficult to make it to the postseason after spotting the rest of the league two games. So is Week 3 must-win for teams already two down in the loss column?
Since 1993, only two teams -- the Buffalo Bills and the Detroit Lions -- started the season with three straight losses and made it to the postseason while 48 teams earned playoff births after a 1-2 start.
In 1998, the Bills finished the regular season by winning 10 of 13 games after losing the first three by nine points. Buffalo lost to Miami in the AFC wild card game.
After a 3-6 start, the 1995 Lions won their next seven before losing the wild card game to the Eagles.
Even though it's early, this week's results will determine, in large part, which teams will be playoff-bound and which teams will get a head start on preparing for off-season free agency and the NFL draft.
Regression analysis can predict how many total regular-season wins a team can expect given its record after the first three weeks of the season. This gives us a better idea of each team's playoff chances. Using data from 1993-2005, we estimated a model that predicted total regular-season wins based on a team's record through the first three weeks of the season and its total wins from last season. The results show that a team going winless in 2005 and starting 2006 0-3 will, on average, finish the season 3-10. The Oakland Raiders didn't go 0-16 last season, but there's a real chance they might this year, and if nothing else, this result should offer the organization and its fans hope for 2007: Don't give up; three wins is a possibility.
More interesting were the results for the five teams noted as playoff contenders in the opening paragraph. Given the collective 0-2 starts and factoring in last season's performance, the model predicts, on average, a six-win season if any of these teams drop to 0-3.
|Predicted Regular Season Wins after 0-3 Start|
|Predicted Regular Season Wins after 1-2 Start|
The fact that 0-3 teams average six wins over the course of the season isn't surprising. But if these teams can manage a victory in Week 3 the chances of making the playoffs increase from two percent to 33 percent.
|Percent of Teams Making Playoffs Based on Record through Week 3|
At 1-2, the post-season is a long shot, but still in the realm of possibility; a 0-3 start is a death knell.
Based on the projected win totals in the tables above, seven or eight means the postseason is almost certainly out of the question, and for Tampa Bay or Carolina, Week 3 could certainly be described as a "must-win." Both teams are two games back in the NFC South behind the resurgent Falcons and the very surprising Saints. On Tuesday morning, either the Bucs or the Panthers will be three whole games behind the winner of Monday Night Football.
Miami can also get back on track by defeating the hapless Tennessee Titans but it still could be too late. The Dolphins are currently last in the division after losing to the Bills at home a week ago, and with the Patriots already 2-0 (both division wins), making the playoffs will require as much luck as skill at this point.
The Redskins are in a less precarious situation, but not by much. Washington faces the winless Houston Texans this week, but luckily, every other team in the division is 1-1 and the Redskins have five more division games on their schedule.
Kansas City lost its starting quarterback in Week 1 and that, coupled with new head coach Herm Edwards brining his clock management skills with him from New York, has put the Chiefs in a 0-2 hole. Luckily, the team is on its bye this week, but if Trent Green isn't ready soon, Kansas City will have to make a playoff run with backup Damon Huard, who prior to 2006, started a whopping six games in his nine-year career.
The national sports media have earned a reputation for gross overstatements and hyperbole and for the most part it's well deserved. In this case, however, the early season "must-win" mantra looks to be a real live phenomenon, and one that's likely to sink the postseason hopes of a few preseason favorites.
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