Did the 0-2 rule hold up?

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Andrew Luck look poised to take the Colts to the playoffs in 2015. Instead, they fell into an 0-2 hole and couldn’t find their way back. (Photo credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Waayyyy back in late September I took a look at a trend involving 0-2 teams and the playoffs. It’s probably the most repeated stat after two weeks of football, but in case you forgot, the rule is basically this: historically, around only 12% of teams that start 0-2 end up making the playoffs.

This year, we had a staggering nine teams drop their first two games. According to the rule, only one of these teams (1/9 = 11%) would end up making the playoffs. This was hard to believe at the time given some of the heavy-hitters in the group (Ravens, Colts, Seahawks, etc.). Now that the season has come to an end, we can take a look back and answer the golden question:

Did the rule hold up?

I’ll make this simple. Below are the teams that started 0-2 and then whether or not they later clinched a playoff spot:

Detroit Lions? No

New York Giants? No

Philadelphia Eagles? No

Indianapolis Colts? No

Chicago Bears? No

Baltimore Ravens? No

New Orleans Saints? No

Seattle Seahawks? Yes

Houston Texans? Yes

So did the rule hold up? No! Not exactly, anyways.

It held up in the sense that at least one of these teams would still make the playoffs, but if going to be strict with that 12% figure, then no, the rule did not hold up. Two teams (22%) managed to find their way into the postseason, showing us that an 0-2 start is not quite as deep a hole as we thought. Or maybe it tells us that the more 0-2 teams there are, the better chance there is of multiple teams making it out alive (duh). We hardly ever see nine teams start this poorly and it’ll be interesting to see how many of these teams we’re left with next season. If it’s around the number we’re used to seeing (5-7), then I don’t expect more than one team to get so lucky.

It’s worth noting that six of the remaining seven teams on that list finished with losing records, the lone exception being the Colts at 8-8. The dreaded 0-2 start may not be a death sentence, but it still remains an ominous indication of where your season is headed. Super Bowl hopefuls Baltimore and Indianapolis learned that the hard way this season. Who will fall victim to the 12% rule next? See you in eight months.

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Buy or Sell: November

October is history. It’s time to review how we did and then buy or sell some new teams for November.
Philip Rivers is on pace to throw for one million yards. Will the wins finally follow in November? Photo credit: ESPN.com

Philip Rivers is on pace to throw for one million yards. Will the wins finally follow in November? Photo credit: ESPN.com

Last month I started a new segment where I advise you guys on which teams to get behind and which teams to abandon for the upcoming month. We do this so we look smart before anyone else. Before we get into who I love for November, let’s see how you did if you took my advice last month:

BUY: Atlanta Falcons (3-0) → (6-1) = 3-1 in October — Great Success

BUY: Philadelphia Eagles (1-2) → (3-4) = 2-2 in October — Mild Success

BUY: Tampa Bay Bucs (1-2) → (2-4) = 1-2 in October — Mild Failure

SELL: St. Louis Rams (1-2) → (3-3) = 2-1 in October — Standard Failure

SELL: Detroit Lions (0-3) → (1-6) = 1-3 in October — Great Success

Not the best start in the world, but I’d say we still managed alright. The Bucs were a risky buy and it was just a play or two away from paying off with a win over the Redskins. But taking risks is what this game is all about. For the month of November, I’ve added four new teams–including three losing teams–to my portfolio and highlighted a couple to stay far away from:

San Diego Chargers (2-5): BUY

The Chargers have dropped three straight and their only two wins are against the Lions and Browns. Everyone is bailing on San Diego and that’s when you know it’s the perfect time to go all in. Deep down, we all know the Chargers are better than 2-5. Philip Rivers has the most passing yards of any QB and is tied for 3rd in passing touchdowns (15). Sooner or later those yards and scores are going to translate into wins. Why wait until they win one when you can jump on the bandwagon now and look like a genius for it? Check out the November schedule for this team: at Ravens (can’t seem to win a game to save their lives), home vs Bears (night game where a mediocre team has to travel west), home vs Chiefs (cover the 5-yard checkdown from Alex Smith and you’re good), and then at Jaguars (a rebuilding team with a lot of problems). These are all very winnable games and if they run the table like I think they could, they can be heading into December with a winning record. Even conservative estimates have them going 3-1 in those four games, putting themselves in much better shape than they are now. Don’t wait around for the Chargers to look good. They’re poised for a great November so the time to buy is now.

Indianapolis Colts (3-4): SELL

Speaking of teams we know are better than their record states, the Indianapolis Colts are bound to go on a run at some point. Since drafting Andrew Luck, they seem to be inching closer and closer to the Super Bowl each year. Many thought this would be the year they finally busted open that door. We have to figure a team with such strong talent and high expectations is going to figure it out and string together some wins, but November will not be that time. Their next three games are brutal. They face the undefeated Panthers on the road, the undefeated Broncos at home, and the 1-loss Falcons on the road. They round out November with a home game against the Bucs, but those first three games are where they can get pummelled if they’re not careful. I was admittedly skeptical of the Panthers until they beat the Seahawks in their own stadium. This Carolina team can straight-up play and their talent on defense will be chomping at the bit to shut down Andrew Luck. Luck and his offense won’t get a rest as they have to face the best defense in the NFL six days later. I feel a little bit better about their prospects in the following game with Atlanta, but based on how they’re playing right now (26th in rushing yards, 21st in scoring, 20th in points allowed), that will be a tough road game to steal. Put all this together and you’re looking at a Colts team that could realistically go 2-2 or even 1-3. For a team that we considered to be among the AFC elite, a 5-6 record after a couple months is falling dangerously below expectations. Fortunately for them, that’s probably still a good enough record to lead the pitiful AFC South. You may be eager to get behind this team before they get hot (because they likely will), but resist the temptation for now.

 

The sky must be falling because the Jets are good again. Photo credit: ESPN.com

The sky must be falling because the Jets are good again. Photo credit: ESPN.com

New York Jets (4-2): BUY

Call me a sucker, but I really like this Jets team. Their loss to the Pats told me more about them than did any of their five prior games. Even in a loss, they outgained New England in total yardage and held them to just 16 total rushing yards. They sit in the top 10 in scoring offense and in the top five for points allowed. Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn’t have to be a hero to help this team get wins. Their defensive talent is staggering (Revis, Cromartie, Harris, etc.) and I love Chris Ivory’s punishing running style that has helped him become one of the NFL’s best rushers. The next five games for the Jets consist of the Raiders, Jaguars, Bills, Texans, and Dolphins (combined record 13-21). The Jets will likely be favored in all five of those games and I wouldn’t be shocked if they won all of them. However, knowing the NFL, they will more realistically go 4-1 or even 3-2 over that stretch. No matter how you look at it, the Jets are set up for a huge November. Let’s look even further down the road here. If they do manage to go 4-1, they’ll be sitting at 8-3 with only five games remaining. Just two wins in those final five will put them at 10-6 on the year, a great spot to be in for the AFC wildcard race. The Jets have been the punching bag of the league for years now. This November is their chance to turn a corner. With manageable opponents coming up, I’m betting on the Jets to deliver.

Seattle Seahawks (3-4): BUY

I wish I could buy the Seahawks for the rest of the year. The toughest part of their schedule (by far) is behind them and they are still a top five team in rushing yards and points allowed. Their offensive line is still a weak point, but they still have that winning formula they’ve had for the past couple years. They’ll keep pounding the ball through the running game, allow Russell Wilson to make frustratingly smart decisions, and then suffocate you with their defense. I know they’ve come out on the losing end in four games, but they outplayed every one of those opponents–including the unbeaten Packers, Panthers, and Bengals–until the fourth quarter. Against some easier competition in November, those fourth quarters won’t be a problem. Seattle gets the Tony Romo-less Cowboys, the Cardinals (at home), the 2-win 49ers, and the Steelers (at home). I see four games Seattle should win. Buying the Seahawks is less about their schedule, however, and more about how good we know they can be. I still consider them a top 3 team in the NFC, so they could be playing just about anybody and I’d still buy them. Don’t sleep on the 3-4 Seahawks like we did last year when they were 3-3. Seattle is coming.

 

Can Washington survive a brutal November schedule? Photo credit: ESPN.com

Can Washington survive a brutal November schedule? Photo credit: ESPN.com

Washington Redskins (3-4): SELL

We’ve said it before, the NFC East can likely be won with eight wins. There’s a good handful of people who like what they’ve seen from the Redskins in some games and think they may be able to make a run in a weak division. I’m here to tell you to avoid joining this group at all costs and if you are already in, get out now. While I believe the Skins have some good pieces and have showed promise, their upcoming schedule might very well ruin them. They come off the bye to face the Patriots in Foxborough, where New England has lost just four out of their last 52. It gets slightly easier as they get the Saints at home–still a tough game–but then they face the unbeaten Panthers in Carolina. They round out November at home against the Giants, a team that roughed them up earlier this year. That’s a pretty rough schedule. If I’m optimistic, I say they can get out of this month with a 2-2 record. More realistically, they’ll lose some combination of three of these games. The game that really matters is that second matchup with the Giants. If they can pick up a division win, even if it’s their only win this month, it may be enough to stay afloat in the NFC East. Washington needs to be careful. Even in this weak division, there are still three other teams that could leave them in the dust if they stumble hard in November.

New Orleans Saints (3-4): BUY

This is a really tough buy for me. Just a few weeks ago, I announced that I was done with the Saints. Since then, they’ve gone 3-2. Is the real Saints team I was waiting for finally coming? I’m still skeptical. However, if I just look at their prospects in November, I have to like their chances. Saints play the Giants and Titans at home, then the Redskins and Texans on the road. The only two games that worry me at all here are the Giants (the only opponent with a winning record) and the Redskins. The Giants’ secondary and pass rush leave a lot to be desired (second-worst passing offense in the NFL), so Drew Brees could potentially have a big game. This will still be a tough game, but even if they lose, they have a great chance of going 3-1. Washington has lost to teams with good QBs (Eli Manning, Ryan Tannehill, Matt Ryan) and could have similar problems against Drew Brees. What may be the deciding factor between going 3-1 or 4-0 is the Saints’ defense. They’ve allowed less than 22 points in three of their past four games, but in the one that they didn’t, they allowed 39 to Philly in a horrible loss. If New Orleans can keep those bad defensive games at bay, they have a great shot at making a run in November. Consider this my risky buy of the month.

The 12% rule: Seahawks, Ravens, and Giants headline a diverse 0-2 field

We all know how tough it can be to bounce back after an 0-2 start, so which teams have a chance to pull off the improbable?
Although Seattle may be wondering what went wrong, an 0-2 start shouldn't worry the Super Bowl runner-ups.

Although Seattle may be wondering what went wrong, an 0-2 start shouldn’t worry the Super Bowl runner-ups. Photo credit: ESPN.com

Throughout the current week, everyone from ESPN to your fun-fact-tweeting friend will remind you of the sobering correlation between 0-2 teams and the playoffs. On the off-chance that you’ve dodged the oft-repeated stat in all your time watching football, let me be the first to clue you in: historically, around only 12% of teams that start 0-2 make it to the playoffs. The reason this trend is so attractive to repeat on television and in casual conversation is because losing the first two games is so easy. It can happen to any team, really. Whether it’s last year’s Super Bowl runner-ups or a team with an injured QB, letting those two games slip by–no matter how slim the margin–drastically reduces that team’s chances of reaching the postseason. Historically, that is.

Unfortunately for the 0-2 hopefuls, we’ve seen this trend hold true over and over. Last year, only one slow-starter (Colts) out of seven clinched the playoffs. The year prior, again only one (Panthers) out of the eight clinched. In 2012, not one of the six could reach the postseason. If we’re keeping count, that’s two 0-2 teams out of 21 (9.5%) that managed to extend their season. Chances are only one of the nine teams below will do the same, if the trend holds.

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The trend makes sense. Most teams that start 0-2 lost those games because they aren’t good teams. But, as noted before, it can strike great teams as well. The Seahawks are perhaps the most notable of these supposedly “great” teams that have dropped their first two. Seattle is considered one of the NFC elite, having won the last two NFC championships and having been a yard away from winning a second straight Super Bowl. Hopes were high again this season for Seattle (I predicted a third-straight NFCN appearance), but the first two weeks have brought two losses.

My gut says they’ll be fine, as most of their wins will come at home. They’ve lost to some pretty tough competition, having to deal with a vicious Rams defense and then Aaron Rodgers, both on the road. Although there are definitely some areas to improve (offensive line, running game), I haven’t seen much that tells me this Seattle team is significantly worse than last year’s. In all likelihood, the Seahawks are the one team–or one of–out of the nine that will make the playoffs.

If there is only one team to make it, that should worry Ravens fans. Baltimore had sky-high expectations coming into this year, hoping an elite defense and great offensive line would propel them to the Super Bowl. The offense had major difficulty moving the ball against Denver in their opening loss, scoring only 13 points on 173 total yards. And yes, I know how good Denver’s defense is but I’m sorry, those are the type of defenses they’ll have to face in a playoff run. They did not look prepared to handle that task at all. The offense looked much better against the Raiders, nearly eclipsing 500 total yards. This time it was the defense that let them down, allowing Derek Carr to pass for over 350 yards and 3 TDs in a 37-33 loss. The bright side in all this is that, like Seattle, both these games were on the road and hopefully not indicative of how this team can perform overall. It wouldn’t surprise me if Baltimore still clinched a playoff spot, but they will have to do so in what looks to be a very competitive AFC North.

The Giants have put themselves in positions to win in two straight games. One of these days they might actually close the deal. Photo credit: ESPN.com

The Giants have put themselves in positions to win in two straight games. One of these days they might actually close the deal. Photo credit: ESPN.com

The polar opposite of a division like that would be the NFC East, where all four teams look to have dire issues of all kinds. This is good news for the Giants and Eagles who’ve both caught the 0-2 bug in their own special ways. If you follow the Giants this week, you’re bound to hear the phrase, “they should be 2-0.” No, they shouldn’t. They’re not 0-2 because of some freak misfortune that caused the ball to bounce one way and not the other. They’re 0-2 because of poor clock management decisions and porous 4th quarter defense. In other words, they lost because they were the New York Giants. Did they have a chance to win both games? Definitely. But to say they should be 2-0 is just plain inaccurate.

What New York can hope for is that they manage these flaws well enough to win some games. Luckily, they’re in a division where every team has problems. If they can just find a way to be the least problematic of those four, their 0-2 start doesn’t have to be a death sentence. They face the Redskins on Thursday night in a game that just became a lot more important after Week 2.

The Eagles are in the same boat division-wise, but they look to be much worse off than the Giants. In two games, they’ve managed to gather a whopping 70 rushing yards. That is disgraceful. I can’t even come up with a comparison that will do justice to how pitiful that number is. And this is the team that nabbed last year’s top running back in the offseason in DeMarco Murray. Their total of 34 points over two games actually seems high after having watched them. Like the Giants, they are blessed to be in a division that may forgive these shortcomings if remedied soon.

Speaking of underperforming offenses, how about the Indianapolis Colts? A popular Super Bowl pick that boasted the 6th-highest scoring offense last season, the Colts rank dead last in scoring after two weeks. How does that happen? Indy added veteran receiver Andre Johnson to complement T.Y. Hilton and also nabbed Frank Gore to improve the running game. Somehow, they only muster up 21 points in their first two games. Although Indy still sits in one of the weakest divisions in the NFL, I feel a lot more confident about the Seahawks’ or Ravens’ chances to rebound in the coming weeks. I have to believe the Colts will figure it out eventually, but they’ve looked downright dysfunctional to start the season.

New Orleans is another team that could benefit from a poor division, but I am honestly just about done with them. I keep holding out hope that a great QB-coach combo can carry the half-decent remains, but I’m let down every time. Last year I took a major chance and penciled them into the Super Bowl only to see them stumble to a 7-9 record. This year I tabbed them as the NFC South division winners, thinking this had to be the year they got back. Even this week I picked them to snap their despicable 5-game home losing streak against a Bucs team that looked abysmal in Week 1. Every time, let down. When will I stop falling for it?

With more than a few surprising 0-2 teams out there this season, our playoff outlook may need some adjusting. Only time will tell which of these teams can buck the trend and which ones drown in the pressure of a bad start.

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Other notes from Week 2:

–What’s going on with the top running backs from last year? I already mentioned the woes of Murray and he’s hardly the only one. LeSean McCoy is averaging around 65 yards per game, 17 less than last year. Marshawn Lynch’s average is down 24 yards and Jeremy Hill’s is down 19 yards. Lamar Miller, a back who gained over 1000 yards last year, is barely getting the ball (23 attempts) and has gained a measly 67 yards in two games. Eddie Lacy, even before getting injured on Sunday night, has been struggling as well. Justin Forsett, along with McCoy, Lynch, and Miller, has yet to reach the end zone. I realize it’s only been two weeks and I expect things to balance out, but it sure is a weird start for the NFL’s elite rushers.

–The Patriots and Packers look to be easily the two best teams in the NFL so far. New England’s offense is getting everything it can out of Gronk and Brady looks to be aging backwards. Rodgers continues to amaze without key players like Jordy Nelson and Eddie Lacy. And I’m definitely not just saying this because I picked these teams to meet in the Super Bowl………..definitely not.

–A cool catch from this week:

–My pick for this Thursday: Giants over Redskins. Despite the 4th quarter issues, New York has been playing decently well and will hopefully not need late-game smarts to win this one.

Jets in the playoffs? It’s not as crazy as it sounds

History tells us one of six very bad teams from last year will make it to the 2015-16 NFL Playoffs. But can we trust it?

When thinking about the playoffs, some teams just seem like a lock even before the season starts. Betting on the Patriots, Packers, Colts, or Seahawks won’t lose you any money this year. But I’ll be keeping a close eye on a small handful of teams that seem like a lock to miss the playoffs, because a recent trend suggests one (maybe even two) of them will shock the NFL.

The teams we’re talking about here are the Jets, Redskins, Jaguars, Raiders, Titans, and Buccaneers. Six teams with one thing in common: they’re bad. Or at least, they were bad in 2014-15. They all won four games or less. And if you watched them play, you don’t need me to tell how bad they actually looked.

Going back to the 2005-06 season, at least one very bad team (4-12 record or worse) made it to the playoffs the next year. Except for one time, which we’ll get to later. That leaves eight of the last nine seasons where a team or two made an incredible turnaround. In five of those eight seasons, two teams made it back, including 2010 through 2012.

In 2010-11, the Broncos and Bengals each won four games but clinched the playoffs in 2011-12 with records of 8-8 and 9-7, respectively. In 11-12, it was the Vikings (3-13) and Colts (2-14) who turned it around to finish with records of 10-6 and 11-5. And in 2012-13, the Eagles (4-12) and Chiefs (2-14) did the same, going 10-6 and 11-5 the very next season. The Eagles even won the NFC East.

So is this trend reliable? Eight out of nine years seems like a strong indicator. If we look back beyond the 2005-06 season, we see this turnaround only occur twice in six years (2003 and 1999). So are those eight years an interesting coincidence or indicative of a new “era” in the NFL, where the draft and free agency helps struggling teams right the ship? What makes this question even more intriguing this year than any other is when we consider that one time (remember from earlier?) out of the last nine where the trend didn’t occur. That was last year.

Will "Gang Green" be the next 4-12 team to make the following year's playoffs?

Will “Gang Green” be the next 4-12 team to make the following year’s playoffs? Photo credit: ESPN.com

The 2013-14 season saw a staggering seven teams go 4-12 or worse (most since 2005), and yet not one of them made it to the playoffs in 2014-15. The Texans (9-7) and Falcons (6-10) came closest. Even at 6-10, Atlanta was just one tiebreaker win away from actually clinching the abysmal NFC South, which Carolina won at 7-8-1. So again we have to ask, was last year a return to the difficulties that “bad” teams had from 1999-2004, or a blip in a new trend of eight straight years of miraculous turnarounds? On the surface, I’m inclined to believe last year was an anomaly in the last decade of the NFL where one-year turnarounds are becoming less and less surprising. Either way, let’s take a quick look at the four most recent teams to be a part of that trend to see if their turnaround came out of nowhere or was a result of some major personnel or system change.

2012-13 Philadelphia Eagles
2012-13 record: 4-12
2013-14 record: 10-6
Result: +6 wins, won division, lost in wildcard playoffs

If you’re having trouble remembering the Eagles around this time, “dream team” may help jog your memory. The hopeful “dream team” was formed in 2011 but instead lived a nightmare on their way to an 8-8 season, then 4-12 the next year. This 4-12 season was the first year we saw Nick Foles play as a rookie after Michael Vick got taken out mid-season due to a concussion. Andy Reid was fired after the season and replaced with now-former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly. Vick remained the starting QB, but led Philly to a 1-3 start. In what was perhaps a blessing in disguise for the Eagles, Vick was injured again and replaced with Foles. In 11 games he started*, Foles went 9-2 and led the Eagles to a 10-6 record and the NFC East title. Philadelphia’s return to the top exceeded expectations, but wasn’t completely unprecedented given the offensive overhaul under new coach Chip Kelly. What we couldn’t have seen coming was the early switch to Foles, who thrived under Kelly’s fast-paced passing offense.

*Foles would have started 12, but was replaced by Matt Barkley due to an injury suffered the week prior

2012-13 Kansas City Chiefs
2012-13 record: 2-14
2013-14 record: 11-5
Result: +9 wins, second place in division, lost in wildcard playoffs

The Chiefs were the worst team in 2012, earning the first overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft (drafted OT Eric Fisher). Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn shared duties at QB, but neither could find success, each earning one win in their eight games. Kansas City fired head coach Todd Haley with three games remaining and was replaced with interim coach Romeo Crennel who finished out the season. Two major offseason additions are generally attributed with the sudden success KC found the very next season. Remember Andy Reid? After being fired from the Eagles (see above), Reid was hired by KC and given a brand new QB to work with in Alex Smith from the 49ers. The Reid-Smith duo clicked immediately, as the Chiefs jumped out to nine straight wins. With a much-improved defense to go with it*, the Chiefs finished with a solid 11-5 record. Much like Philly that year, KC found a solid new head coach and a QB that thrived in his system. The difference is we knew Smith was the guy in KC, so many predicted an improvement. Far less could have predicted they would win nine more games and compete in the playoffs. Nevertheless, there were some distinct changes (including defensive coordinator) from year to year that helped KC turn it around.

*The Kansas City defense shaved off 7.5 points allowed per game from 2012 to 2013 with new defensive coordinator Bob Sutton

2011-12 Minnesota Vikings
2011-12 record: 3-13
2012-13 record: 10-6
Result: +7 wins, second in division, lost in wildcard playoffs

The 2011 Vikings had QB and defensive issues in 2011. Despite Jared Allen setting a franchise record for sacks in a season (22), the Minnesota defense allowed the second most points of any team. The Vikings benched Donovan McNabb after an abysmal 1-5 start and handed the reigns over to rookie Christian Ponder. Ponder didn’t fare much better, winning only one game in eight starts. It didn’t help that 10 games in, Ponder’s 4th start, Adrian Peterson got injured and was virtually unavailable for the rest of the season. It was head coach Leslie Frazier’s first year as coach of the Vikings and kept the job in 2012. In that second try for Frazier, Ponder had a solid season (2935 yards/18 TDs on 62.1% passing) and the defense improved, finishing around the middle of the pack for both points and yardage allowed. But what explains the seven win improvement more than anything was Adrian Peterson’s astounding MVP season, picking up 2,097 yards on the ground, just nine yards away from the NFL record. To say Peterson carried this team would discredit solid contributions from the rest of the team, but it is fair to say he propelled the team to an incredible turnaround season as the heart and soul of the Vikings. Who could have seen such an incredible performance coming? And even if they did, who could have predicted it would launch the 3-win Vikings to seven more wins the following year? A running back can seemingly only do so much for a team, but Adrian Peterson raised the ceiling on just how much a team can improve with an MVP performance. If you were high on Peterson to start the season, you may have expected to see a jump for Minnesota as long as Peterson stayed healthy. But for the most part, this kind of turnaround came out of nowhere.

2011-12 Indianapolis Colts
2011-12 record: 2-14
2012-13 record: 11-5
Result: +9 wins, second in division, lost in wildcard round

I’m not gonna spend a lot of time on this one because we know the story: Andrew Luck. The 2011-12 season for the Colts was a “transition” year, with Peyton Manning sitting out after neck surgery. Pretty much everything fell apart in his absence and after their 2-14 record assured them the first pick in the NFL draft, Indianapolis released Manning and started a new era of Colts football with Andrew Luck. Head coach Jim Caldwell was also let go and replaced with Chuck Pagano. Luck turned out to be as good as advertised and led the Colts to a 11-5 record in his rookie season. With all the hype surrounding Luck around draft time, it wasn’t exactly surprising the Colts improved in a big way. But like many of these turnarounds, a nine-win improvement likely surpassed even the most hopeful of fans’ predictions.

Although this is a small sample, we can see that the turnarounds of these four teams were largely the result of major changes, or in the Vikings’ case a major breakthrough from an elite player. If we went back further, we’d see similar changes in some teams (ex. rookie Andy Dalton leading Bengals to playoffs in 2011, Crennel as DC of Chiefs in 2010, Chad Pennington as new QB for Dolphins in 2008, etc.).

That brings us back to today. Will we see the ninth year in a decade where a “4-wins-or-less” team make it to the playoffs? Seems hard to believe when you just look at the names. Raiders in the playoffs? Titans? Jaguars? My mind has trouble even processing that information.

Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston will try to lead their respective squads to improbable turnarounds.

Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston will try to lead their respective squads to improbable turnarounds. Photo credit: TBO.com

Let’s break it down here. Four of these teams have relatively new QBs, either in their rookie or sophomore season. Can rookies Jameis Winston (Bucs) and Marcus Mariota (Titans) have an Andrew Luck-esque breakthrough? They may turn out to be solid players at some point in their career, but I’d personally be shocked if either one could manage to bring their 2-win squads to the playoffs. Many expected the Bucs to be fairly good last season with improved personnel, so perhaps some of those improvements will come to fruition this year. Even so, Winston’s potential success as a rookie is one of the bigger question marks this year.

Sophomores Derek Carr (Raiders) and Blake Bortles (Jaguars) showed flashes of greatness throughout their rookie seasons, but weren’t nearly the caliber QB to carry their talent-deficient teams to a decent record. Jack Del Rio will be the new coach for Oakland, but based on his lackluster history (68-71, 3 playoff appearances), I doubt he can have an Andy Reid-type debut and put the Raiders in the postseason.

That leaves us with the Jets and Redskins, who each went 4-12 last year. Washington is sticking with new coach Jay Gruden and Robert Griffin III at QB, though Griffin’s leash seems to be getting shorter and shorter. Griffin hasn’t looked close to as good as he did in his rookie season–largely due to his ACL tear–and more injury issues have seem to set him back further. At the risk of sounding like an overly hopeful (delusional?) Redskins fan, I’ll say that if RGIII can play at a somewhat similar level as his rookie season, I could conceivably see the Redskins having a decent year. They have some good talent in Alfred Morris at running back and an improving defense with LOLB Ryan Kerrigan and sophomore ROLB Trent Murphy. But playoffs? They’d have to beat out a competitive NFC wildcard field that saw the 10-6 Eagles left out of the playoffs last year.

The Jets went through a major overhaul in the front office this offseason, firing GM John Idzik and head coach Rex Ryan, and hiring a new DC and OC. Will new management in GM Mike Maccagnan and head coach Todd Bowles usher in a successful era of Jets football? And if so, will it start this year with a playoff berth? Again, hard to imagine based on classic Jets luck (or lack thereof), but they did pick up fantastic WR Brandon Marshall from the Bears and reclaimed CB Darrelle Revis from the Pats.

Perhaps an egregious locker room scuffle, sending Geno Smith to the bench with a broken jaw for 6-10 weeks, was the last piece of a bizarre puzzle for the New York Jets. A blessing in disguise, much like when Vick went out to be replaced by Foles? Ryan Fitzpatrick will handle the QB duties for New York for likely the first three weeks of the season. Fitzpatrick is a seasoned veteran, with varying success on five different teams. His best run came in 2011-13, throwing for 3,000+ yards and 23+ TDs for the Bills. In 11 games for Tennessee and 12 for Houston, Fitzpatrick kept his completion percentage above a respectable 62% and his QBR above 50, the best of his career when playing more than four games. He’s not spectacular and he may not win you a Super Bowl ever, but he can play. And after 11 seasons, his football IQ is higher than most. The job is expected to be handed back to Geno when he’s able to return, but I could realistically see a scenario where Fitzpatrick is kept in after a 3-0 start, or even 2-1 if that loss comes in a close game at Indianapolis.

Geno Smith hasn't impressed in two seasons and will look to improve in his third, if given the chance.

Geno Smith hasn’t impressed in two seasons and will look to improve in his third, if given the chance. Photo credit: ESPN.com

It sounds crazy, but if I was forced to choose one of these six teams to make the playoffs this year, it may very well be the Jets. They’ve completely overhauled their coaching staff and management and will see a different QB start the first three weeks, not to mention a new star wide receiver and the return of an elite cornerback. It sounds like they would fit in perfectly with those turnaround teams from above. Big changes, surprising success.

If you are looking to win big money, you may want to place a risky wager on one of these teams you feel confident in. But I wouldn’t advise placing any Super Bowl bets on these teams. Of all 15 teams since 1999 that have completed this particular turnaround season, none have went on to appear in a Super Bowl.

Perhaps you may want to bet against recent history and say none of these six teams will make the playoffs. Let me know if you do, I may just join you.

Four very different teams left, but they all have one thing in common

Seattle likes to punish you with the run and swarms to the ball on defense. Green Bay relies on hanging large numbers on the scoreboard, using their top-scoring offense (30.3 points/game). New England will beat you in any way possible using the veteran leadership of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. And Indianapolis doesn’t have a whole bunch of playmakers, but they have one guy who leads the top passing offense in the NFL. They are the last four teams left in the NFL Playoffs. Despite their differences, they all have one thing in common and it’s a huge reason why they’re here: they have a great QB.

Quarterbacks run the NFL and it's why you see four great ones left.

Quarterbacks run the NFL and it’s why you see four great ones left.

To win meaningful games in the NFL, you need to be great at the QB position. You can fly through the regular season just fine without a great one, just look at Philadelphia or Cincinnati. But if you want to be a legitimate contender for the Super Bowl, a great QB is an absolute must. Or at the very least, a great playoff QB. And it’s been that way for about the past decade. Here is a quick list of the past eleven Super Bowl QBs:

Tom Brady (2)
Ben Roethlisberger (2)
Eli Manning (2)
Peyton Manning
Drew Brees
Aaron Rodgers
Joe Flacco
Russell Wilson

Most of those are unquestionably elite QBs. The only ones who may not amaze at first glance are Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, and Russell Wilson. But if you take a look at those three guys’ playoff performance, you’ll see why they were invaluable to their team. Flacco threw 11 TDs and 0 INTs on the way to winning Super Bowl 47. An absolute tear. Wilson’s numbers won’t jump out at you (524 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs in three games), but his ability to extend a play with his feet and make the smart decision just doesn’t show up on paper. You have to watch him to see just how important he is to Seattle. As for Eli, he’s never been a spectacular regular season QB. But once again, much like Flacco, he lights it up in the postseason. In his two playoff runs, Manning threw 15 TDs and only 2 INTs. That’s quite a feat for a guy considered to be an “interception machine” in the regular season. It’s worth noting that Manning dealt with the worst ranked rushing offense in 2011 and Flacco had an average defense (17th) behind him in 2012. If your QB isn’t one of the best, he better play like it when it counts. And that’s exactly what these three guys did.

No matter what happens, this won't be the last time Wilson or Rodgers sees the playoffs.

No matter what happens, this won’t be the last time Wilson or Rodgers sees the playoffs.

The other names on the list are just consistently outstanding performers. And what happened to the guys that weren’t good enough? Andy Dalton. Done in round 1. Matt Stafford. Done in round 1. Ryan Lindley. Done in round 1. See a pattern? They all lost to QBs better than them. The only exception would be Flacco over Roethlisberger in the first round, though even in that game Big Ben was outplayed.

So now here we are. Luck vs. Brady, Wilson vs. Rodgers. With great QBs at the helm for all four teams, it’s now the time to see who has the best team. Last year, I don’t think anyone would have taken Wilson over the MVP Peyton Manning, but Seattle was clearly the better team. It’s a team sport. Probably the biggest team sport out of the major four. Yes, you need a great QB to win the Super Bowl, but that’s because you need a great QB to even give you a chance first.

Sunday’s games, which I think will be fantastic, will give us the best indication so far as to who is solid all around. Indianapolis looks to be at a disadvantage at first glance, relying on Andrew Luck nearly all season to carry a below-average rushing attack and average defense this far. A much more rounded New England team should win that one, but does Luck have the magic? Aaron Rodgers is the best QB in the league right now by my estimation, but can he handle the noise of Seattle or, more importantly, their vicious defense? I had the Pats and Hawks in the big game before the postseason began and nothing’s really changed for me. Those look like the best teams in the NFL, but we’ll find out the true story Sunday.

May the best team win.

Sunday Divisional Playoff Quick Picks (2013-2014)

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NFC Divisional: San Francisco 49ers (12-4) at Carolina Panthers (12-4)

January 12, 2013 FOX 1:05pm

Pick: 49ers

You won’t have to wait long on Sunday to see the best matchup of the weekend. At home, with the 2-seed, and a victory over San Francisco already under their belt, Carolina is the underdog by 1 point. Two of the best defenses in football are putting the over/under at 41.5, the lowest of the four divisional games. As the home dog, you better believe Carolina will play with a chip on their shoulder. They boast quality wins over New Orleans, San Francisco, and New England, not to mention the countless other teams they have crushed. So why do I like the Niners? Jim Harbaugh has his troops locked in. The defense has only allowed an average of 16.2 points a game in their past seven games (all wins) and Colin Kaepernick has only thrown two picks (one of them against Seattle’s defense). In Kap’s first nine games this season, he had four 0 passing TD games. He’s thrown a TD pass, and often more than one, in every game since. In five of the seven games he finished with a passer rating over 100. Get the picture? Kaepernick is on a roll and even when he doesn’t have a great game, like last week at Green Bay, the Niners can win. It’ll be a battle for the ages, but watch Kaepernick have a solid game against a defense that harassed him earlier in the season.

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AFC Divisional: San Diego Chargers (9-7) at Denver Broncos (13-3)

January 12, 2013 CBS 4:40pm

Pick: Broncos

San Diego is the biggest underdog of all four games this weekend, but don’t count them out. They’ve already proved they can handle the Broncos at home after a 27-20 victory in Week 15. Just five weeks before, however, Denver topped San Diego on the road 28-20. In both games, San Diego held the ball for over 38 minutes, forced one turnover, and passed for under 200 yards. So what gave San Diego the edge in Week 15? It may have had something to do with the Chargers’ success in the running game on both sides of the ball. In their victory, San Diego held Denver to just 18 rushing yards the entire game, compared to 84 in their defeat. Likewise, San Diego torched Denver on the ground for 177 yards in Week 15 and 131 in Week 10. While Peyton Manning will grab the headlines before and after the game, it will likely be the success of these two ground attacks that determines our winner. As you can see, Denver doesn’t have to out-run San Diego to win, but they do have to put the ball on the ground enough to take some of the pressure off Manning. If San Diego can keep Denver’s running backs at bay while applying pressure to Manning, they can pull off a shocker. I still have to go with the Broncos. Denver has so many offensive weapons that it will be too hard for San Diego to keep up. In one game Eric Decker caught four TD passes, in another Demaryius Thomas caught three, and both Wes Welker and Julius Thomas have had multiple 1+ TD games. Beating Denver once is something, but beating them twice in a row is something else entirely. Peyton Manning won’t let it happen.

Saturday Divisional Playoff Quick Picks (2013-2014)

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NFC Divisional: New Orleans Saints (11-5) at Seattle Seahawks (13-3)

January 11, 2013 FOX 4:35pm

Pick: Seahawks

It’s tough not to think back to Week 13 when Seattle rolled New Orleans 34-7. Seattle looked like the much better team then and they are still the better team now. If the Saints want to advance, it will have to come from the arm of Drew Brees (as always). Brees was held to a season-low 147 yards in that Week 13 matchup, though he managed to avoid throwing any picks. Even if Brees plays a great game, he’ll need an average run defense to contain the best running game in the NFL (allowed 127 rushing yards against Seattle). Even then, they still need to contain the mobile QB Russell Wilson, who threw for 310 yards against the Saints. Can the Saints win? Of course they can, Seattle is vulnerable like everybody else. Having said that, I have to go with the team that owns the best defense (leads NFL in takeaways), the best running game, and the best home field advantage in the league. It may not be the blowout we saw in Week 13, but Seattle has more than enough talent to advance to the NFC Championship.

Colts-NFL-Logo-psd35492new-england-patriots-logo

AFC Divisional: Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at New England Patriots (12-4)

January 11, 2013 CBS 8:15pm

Pick: Patriots

Picking against the Colts makes me feel uneasy, especially after watching them storm back against KC. Indianapolis is on a mission. Luckily for New England, they own the best coach in the NFL, Bill Belichick, and one of the best QBs, Tom Brady. These two guys are the main reason why I’m picking New England. They’ve been here before and they know how to handle the big time. Crippled by injuries from the very start, namely the WR corp, New England still found a way to win 12 games and only needs one more to advance to the conference championship. Even when New England lost, it was only by an average of 4.5 points. The bottomline is that New England is really tough to beat. Even without Gronk, Brady will do what he does best to win, spreading the ball around to keep the defense on their toes. I’m taking New England in a late 4th-quarter victory.