There is always annual chatter about how important a fast start is to NFL teams. If you don't get off to a strong start, as the story goes, you're dead in the water. Depending on how the playoffs shake out, just about every team will be as hot as possible late – regardless of how they started – and September records won't mean all that much. The few teams that have struggled lately may surprise you, but, for the most part, the playoff teams and playoff hopefuls that remain in contention have done so not by banking largess early on, but earning it late.
The AFC playoff field has been set and those that made it (and those that didn't) did so by what they did late, rather than early. A look at the haves and the have-nots shows that December has been critical to who made the playoffs and who didn't.
Houston – The exception to the rule, the Texans started 11-0 and the only reason they haven't locked down the No. 1 seed and home field is that they have lost two of their last three games and have been transformed from a lock for the No. 1 seed to a team that, if they lose Sunday at Indianapolis (where the new Houston franchise has never won in 10 tries), they will have to play in the wild card weekend round of games.
Denver – Arguably the favorite in the AFC, the Broncos started 2-3 in their first five games and have won 10 straight since – negating the hole they dug for themselves early.
New England – The Patriots lost two of their first three games and the reactive NFL media started throwing dirt on their collective grave. Since then, they've won 10 of 12 games and have those early-season naysayers singing their praises as the franchise of the last decade-plus.
Baltimore – The Ravens entered December with a record of 9-2 and, like Houston, looked like a lock to secure one of the two first-round playoff byes. But, like Houston, the arrow is pointing in the wrong direction. They lost three games in a row and, while winning last week clinched their division and the No. 4 seed in the playoffs, they are a team that looks vulnerable and isn't playing the style of ball the other AFC playoff teams are.
Indianapolis – The Colts got off to a 2-3 start and both of their wins – against the Vikings and Packers – were viewed as flukes. Who's a fluke now? Since then, Indy has gone 8-2 in the last 10 games and has put up the kind of record Peyton Manning did in his heyday, with a rookie quarterback on a team that won just two games the previous year. November and December has punched their playoff ticket, not September.
Cincinnati – No team has been more Jeckyl-Hyde than the Bengals. They lost their season opener, then won three straight. Then they lost four straight and, at 3-5 at the midway point of the season, their playoff chances looked doomed. Since then, they've won five of six games and put themselves in the playoffs.
Just the opposite was the case for a trio of preseason favorites to make the playoffs – Pittsburgh, New York and San Diego. At 6-3, the Steelers looked like the same team that has been a playoff mainstay. But over the last six games, they've lost five times and are out of contention – eliminating the early edge they put on the playoff field. The Jets started 2-1 in September and were the talk of New York. Since then, they've lost eight of their last 12 games, including the last two, and are out of contention. San Diego won three of their first four and seemed to have their playoff destiny locked when the calendar flipped to October. Since then, the Chargers have gone 3-8 and the organization is going blow up the front office and coaching staff and start over.
The same story has played out in the NFC. When it was late September and you really should be back in school, the teams that got off to the strong starts haven't always made that the precursor to being playoff teams. The song remains the same on the NFC side of the ledger.
Atlanta – The Falcons have locked down the No. 1 seed the old-fashioned way – they earned it. They're 13-2 and their only losses haven't come to playoff teams (New Orleans and Carolina on the road). Against potential 2012 playoff teams, they're 3-0. But, the fact that, when all is said and done, they only played three playoff-caliber teams all season could be a bad portent of things to come when they match up with teams that have been hardened by playing championship-caliber teams.
Green Bay – There was joy in Mudville when the Packers started the season 2-3 and were written off by the revisionist historians that clog the media arteries on a 24/7 basis. In early October, eulogies were being prepared. Since then, the Packers have won nine of their last 10 games and earned their way into the postseason.
San Francisco – No team has been more consistent than the 49ers, which doesn't bode well for their postseason hopes. They've won two straight games five times. They haven't won three straight all season. Their record has been two wins, a loss, two wins, a loss, two wins, a tie, two wins and a loss. Statistical probability says they win Sunday and their first playoff game and then they lose. Thank you for playing (again).
Seattle – Seattle looked like one of those teams that would be in the running but always gasping for life in the postseason picture. At midseason, they were 4-4 and looked like a team that could dominate one week and drop the ball the next. Since then, they've won six of eight games, including their last four (the last three by an arcane combined score of 150-30). Nobody wants to face the Seahawks, even if they are more dominant at home than on the road.
Washington – When the Redskins started off 1-2, nobody was blaming Robert Griffin III. When they were 3-6 heading into their bye week the second weekend in November, RG3 was a feel-good story, but was lipstick on a pig. Since their bye, the Redskins have won six straight and are now the favorites to win the NFC East.
Minnesota – The Vikings were riding high in September, shot down after that. A week into October, the Vikes were 4-1 and building up some equity. From then until two days into December, the Vikes went 2-5 and were listed as M.I.A in the playoff hunt. For the next three weeks, they played elimination games – two of them on the road and the home game against a Chicago team that entered play that day with a record of 8-4 and in the hunt with Green Bay for the division lead. The Vikings haven't won four straight games since 1999. If they accomplish that feat in 2012, they deserve to be in the playoffs.
Dallas – The Cowboys were 3-5 at the midway point of the season, but they had only played three home games in that span. There was hope. Since then, they've won five of seven games. If they make it six of eight, they deserve to be there.
On the flip side are a trio of teams that many penciled in as playoff teams – the defending champion Giants, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Chicago Bears. New York hit the midway point of the season at 6-2 and it seemed that the NFC East was going to be a runaway. Since then, the champs have lost five of their last seven. Stick a fork in them. They're done. The Eagles were 3-1 in September and whispers of "Dream Team" resurfaced. Then the nightmare set in. The Eagles lost eight straight and, in the process, Andy Reid has lost his job. When the Bears were 7-1, their fans were booking hotels in New Orleans for the Super Bowl. They have since lost five of their last seven games. If they make the playoffs, it will be an embarrassment.
All of the talk back in September about the playoff probability of teams that get off to slow starts can be buried. It doesn't matter. The NFL is a "what have you done for me lately?" style league, which is why eventual Super Bowl champions in recent vintage have won four games away from home after the postseason starts. The teams that make the 2012 playoffs – unless the Bears make it – will have all deserved it by what they did in November and December – the way it should be and, in 2012 anyway, the way it looks like it will be.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Playoff teams will be battle-tested late
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