The Jets just played the Baltimore Ravens and now have to turn around and play the New England Patriots. Both were in the playoffs last season. While we do not know how those teams will turn out this year, we can guess that it is a pretty tough early schedule. So what does history say when you face two good teams early?
I am going to pimp a really cool feature at pro-football-reference.com that was unveiled last month called the team game finder, which you can use to quickly run all sorts of queries without having to dig through lots of pages. For example, I can run a search of all eventual playoff teams who lost their first game to an opponent that finished the year with a winning record, since 1990. Forty-three teams appear on that list. I can then run the counter search, and check for all teams that missed the playoffs after losing to a team that would finish with a winning record. That gives us 159 teams, which tells us that teams that played a “tough” opponent in week 1 (one that would ultimately finish with a winning record) would go on to reach the playoffs 21.3% of the time.
Let’s compare that to teams that played teams that would ultimately finish at 8-8 or worse on the season. Eventual playoff teams lost 31 times to these type of teams in the season opener. Teams that would miss the playoffs had 88 losses to these type of teams. Combine those numbers, and 26.1% of teams that lost an opener to a team that would eventually finish 8-8 or worse ended up making the playoffs. Whoa. You might notice that we get the counterintuitive result that teams that played worse opponents (at least based on the season record) made the playoffs slightly more frequently than those that played winning teams.
So let’s check teams that start 0-2. Fifty-four different teams since 1990 have started 0-2 by losing to two teams that would finish with a winning record. Of those 54, only three of them made the playoffs: 2002 Pittsburgh Steelers, 2007 New York Giants, and 2008 Miami Dolphins. Overall, 13% (22 of 169) teams that started 0-2 made the playoffs. Not what I would have expected.
My wild guesses as to what is going on here:
1. lots of random noise as wins is not fully correlated with team quality;
2. it may be indicative of a tougher schedule overall if we know the first two losses were against winning teams;
3. teams do change over the course of a season. Injuries take their toll, new players emerge, teams fall apart or start playing better together. For example, New England in 2001 opened with a loss to 6-win Cincinnati before losing the next week to the Jets, but Brady became the starter the following week and they destroyed Indianapolis and began their run;
4. it probably hurts your tiebreaker chances if we know you lost two games to winning teams.
Now, does this mean you are sunk if you happen to lose two games to tough opponents? No. Most teams that start 0-2 do so because they are bad. You only get so many losses before you are eliminated–usually you get maybe 6 or 7 losses before you are relying on tiebreakers. If you spot the field two of them right away, you just have less room for error.