What Does An 0-2 Start Say About Your NFL Team?

By Scott Kacsmar

Two weeks into the NFL’s 2023 season, there are nine teams who currently have an 0-2 record. They range from surprising (Bengals and Chargers) to predictable (Cardinals, Panthers, Bears, and Texans) with some headscratchers (Vikings, Patriots, and Broncos) in between.

You probably have seen the statistics that your team’s chances for the playoffs are now grim despite it only being two games into the season.

Since 1990, teams starting 0-2 have made the playoffs just 11.5% of the time (31 of 270) and they average 5.8 wins for the season. Only 15.6% of the teams finish with a winning record (42).

We use 1990 as that was the year the wild card expanded, allowing 12 teams to make the playoffs. But even with more playoff expansion in 2020 creating 14 playoff teams and the addition of a 17th regular season game in 2021, only 1-of-23 (4.3%) teams to start 0-2 since 2020 made the playoffs, and that was the 2022 Bengals.

Can the Bengals beat the odds again? They are currently -110 at FanDuel to miss the playoffs. No team in NFL history has made back-to-back postseasons after starting 0-2 both years.

But with the AFC down to a pair of 2-0 teams (Ravens and Dolphins), there is a good chance at least one 0-2 team will make the playoffs this year. What are the signs to look for in an 0-2 team turning it around, and what exactly does an 0-2 start say about your favorite team?

Let’s dig into the data and figure out which teams are just doing what we expected them to do in 2023, and which ones might still be relevant come January.

The Critical Data

Despite what Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells once said about “you are what your record says you are,” there are levels to starting 0-2 in the NFL. Records are not created equally.

For the Arizona Cardinals, the team projected to have the worst record in 2023, starting 0-2 was expected. But with the way the Cardinals led in the fourth quarter before losing to Washington and New York, you could say the team has already exceeded expectations, and they may win 3-or-4 games instead of 0-to-2 wins.

But what does the data say about the expectations and performance of 0-2 teams? We will set aside the 2023 teams for now with their uncertain futures and focus on the 270 teams to start 0-2 since 1990. We have a few different categories for breaking these teams down.

Preseason Win Totals for 0-2 Teams

Again, when a team everyone expected to be bad starts 0-2, no one should bat an eye. How do we know when a team is expected to be bad? We consult the preseason win totals from a site like Pro Football Reference.

From highest to lowest, here were the over/under in preseason win totals for the 9 teams sitting at 0-2 this season:

  • Bengals (11.5)
  • Chargers (9.5)
  • Vikings (8.5)
  • Broncos (8.5)
  • Patriots (7.5)
  • Bears (7.5)
  • Panthers (7.5)
  • Texans (6.5)
  • Cardinals (4.5)

As we said in the intro, the Bengals and Chargers are the biggest surprises, but does their higher preseason win total give them a better chance of turning things around to still make the playoffs?

First, we can say that among 0-2 teams, the correlation between their preseason win total and final winning percentage is 0.40, which is not a strong relationship, but it still reflects well on how Vegas sets these totals.

It gets interesting when you group the teams into bins. We excluded the 2011 Colts since they never had a real win total due to the uncertainty over Peyton Manning’s neck surgeries. He never played and the Colts finished 2-14, so our data here will add up to 269 teams.

  • Win total of 3-6: 68 teams, 1 playoff team (1.5%), and an average of 4.6 wins.
  • Win total of 6.5-8: 123 teams, 11 playoff teams (8.9%), and an average of 5.5 wins.
  • Win total of 8.5-11.5: 78 teams, 19 playoff teams (24.4%), and an average of 7.3 wins.

Hats off to Chad Pennington and the 2008 Dolphins for being the only team to beat the long odds of low expectations and an 0-2 start to make the playoffs. It all turned around in Week 3 with the debut of the Wildcat formation in New England, which was missing Tom Brady (torn ACL in Week 1). But that was the only team with fewer than 6.5 win total to come back from 0-2 to make the playoffs.

But this does show that if your win total is not at least 8.5 in the preseason, your chances of overcoming an 0-2 start to make the playoffs are in the single digits.

This also bodes well for a team like Cincinnati with its 11.5-win total. Of the 10 teams with a win total of at least 10.5, half of them made the playoffs.

When a Playoff Team from Last Year Starts 0-2

Teams like the Bears and Texans, who battled for the No. 1 pick last year, starting 0-2 does not surprise anyone. But the Bengals, Vikings, and Chargers all won 10-plus games and made the playoffs. They are all 0-2, and with the Chargers and Vikings meeting this Sunday, someone is going 0-3.

Of the last 270 teams to start 0-2, we removed 3 expansion teams (1995 Jaguars, 1995 Panthers, and 1999 Browns) who were in their first year. Of the remaining 267 teams, 196 of them (73.4%) were coming off a season in which they missed the playoffs.

That means only 71 teams (26.6%) were coming off a playoff season and started 0-2, including 6 teams who were in the Super Bowl with a pair of champions. The 1999 Broncos had a rough start after quarterback John Elway retired. The 1993 Cowboys started 0-2 before Emmitt Smith ended his holdout and returned to help the team repeat.

But here are the numbers you want to see:

  • Of the 71 0-2 teams coming off a playoff year, 12 of them made the playoffs again (16.9%).
  • Of the 196 0-2 teams coming off a non-playoff year, 19 of them made the playoffs (9.7%).

When a playoff team starts 0-2, the odds they make it back are almost double that of a non-playoff team. However, the odds are still not good at 16.9%, which is basically a 1-in-6 chance. The Vegas win totals are considerably better here as 24.4% of those teams with at least 8.5 wins make the playoffs after starting 0-2.

Does it help if the team made a deep playoff run like the Bengals did to the AFC title game last year? In short, yes it does.

Of the 40 0-2 teams who made it past the wild-card round in the previous year, 8 of them reached the playoffs again (20.0%). But only the 1993 Cowboys won the Super Bowl. The 2003 Eagles, 2014 Colts, and 2022 Bengals lost in the Conference Championship Game.

The 2022 Bengals are only the fifth team since 1990 to start 0-2 and finish 12-4, the best final record for any 0-2 team in that span. Between that record and the title game appearance, you can say the 2022 Bengals were already testing the limits of what is possible after an 0-2 start. Of course, they lost those games by a combined 6 points, and that should be considered too.

Looking At 0-2 Teams by Scoring Differential

Chargers coach Brandon Staley was not happy this week about a question regarding the Jacksonville playoff loss where his team blew a 27-point lead and if that has a lingering effect on this season. One thing Staley is correct about is that the Chargers have lost two tough games by a combined 5 points this season to the Dolphins (36-34) and Titans (27-24 in overtime).

Sean Payton was a favorite for Coach of the Year in Denver this season, but he also has an 0-2 record despite Denver only being outscored by 3 points in the games. The Broncos have blown a fourth-quarter lead in 7 of their last 15 games.

Those situations feel different from teams like Houston (-27 scoring differential) and Chicago (-28), who have lost both their games by double digits. The Texans have not had a lead yet this season.

Does losing a couple of very close games bode well for the future compared to getting thoroughly outplayed during an 0-2 start?

The answer is no, not necessarily.

  • The correlation between scoring differential in an 0-2 start and scoring differential for the rest of the season is only 0.22.
  • The correlation between scoring differential in an 0-2 start and final winning percentage for the season is only 0.20.

In other words, we cannot use the scoreboard in the first two games to reliably predict the scoreboard or record for the rest of the season, which makes sense and is likely true of any team’s 2-game start regardless if they are 1-1 or 2-0.

But let’s look at it another way as the extremes do matter.

  • Of the 41 teams to start 0-2 despite not being outscored by more than 9 points, those teams made the playoffs 9 times (22.0%) and averaged 6.8 wins.
  • Of the 47 teams to start 0-2 after getting outscored by 35 or more points, those teams made the playoffs 3 times (6.4%) and averaged 5.2 wins.

As it turns out, getting your teeth kicked in during an 0-2 start does make it much more likely that your team is going to stink this season. Losing a couple of very close games does give your team a better-than-average chance to rebound for a playoff appearance.

The -35 bin does not apply to any of 2023’s teams as the Texans (-28) have the worst scoring differential so far. But the better success rate for teams who lose close does look optimistic for the Broncos (-3), Chargers (-5), Cardinals (-7), and Vikings (-9) who have all only lost close games.

Who Did They Lose to?

So far, we have observed that it helps to be a team that was expected to be good and has been good in the past, and it also matters to play competitively in defeat and not get blown out twice.

Based on this, we might expect the Chargers to be the team most likely to rebound in 2023. But what about the teams they lost to? Even the Patriots have lost a pair of one-score games after just missing a 4th-down conversion by inches, and they were against the Eagles (NFC favorite) and Dolphins (playoff favorite that hung 36 on the Chargers).

Cincinnati is 0-2 against division rivals this year that have a history of owning them. Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski is 5-1 against Joe Burrow, and Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson is 7-1 as a starter against Cincinnati.

The opponent should matter as some teams are handed a much tougher schedule. The 2007 Giants started 0-2 because they played the Cowboys and Packers right away, two teams that finished 13-3. But the Giants got their revenge in the playoffs by beating both on their way to winning the Super Bowl.

When you look at the opponents faced for our 0-2 teams, you find more interesting results:

  • All 38 teams who started 0-2 against teams that finished the season without a winning record failed to make the playoffs. That means all 31 0-2 teams who made the playoffs played at least one opponent who had a winning record.
  • Of the 87 teams who started 0-2 against teams that both finished with winning records, only 9 of them made the playoffs (10.3%).
  • The only 0-2 teams to make the playoffs after losing as a favorite against the spread in Weeks 1-2 are the 2002 Steelers (-6.5 total spread), 2003 Eagles (-7), and 2022 Bengals (-14).

Wow, the more we dig, the more it looks like the 2022 Bengals had a singular type of turnaround last year. They lost as a 7-point favorite against both the Steelers and Cowboys.

This year, the Bengals (-5.5), Chargers (-5.5), and Broncos (-7.5) are the only 0-2 teams to lose both games as the favorite. It will be interesting to see if any of them still make the playoffs with the strong presence of the Chiefs and Ravens in their divisions. At least Aaron Rodgers tearing his Achilles for the Jets frees up one wild card spot, so there is a break that is unique to this season.

What Sparks an 0-2 Team to Turn Things Around?

Putting it all together, here are what the stats look like for the average 0-2 team that makes the playoffs and the many who fail:

You can see the teams who make the playoffs score more points and allow fewer during their 0-2 start, producing a scoring differential that is nearly a full touchdown better. They have better past success, higher spreads, and more expectations in preseason wins than the teams who miss the playoffs. But the numbers are not that overwhelming in most categories.

For many of the 0-2 teams who made the playoffs, it took some kind of drastic change or a series of fortunate outcomes (read: they got lucky) to turn things around for their season:

  • The 1990 NFC race was dominated by the 49ers and Giants as only 5 teams had a winning record in the conference, which allowed the Saints (8-8) to make it as a wild card.
  • Emmitt Smith ending his aforementioned holdout in 1993 helped Dallas pick up the pieces of an 0-2 start to win another Super Bowl.
  • Not long after starting 0-3, the 1998 Bills turned to 36-year-old Doug Flutie, a star quarterback in college and the CFL, for a magical Pro Bowl season that came out of nowhere.
  • The 1998 Cardinals were outscored by 47 points to start 0-2, the worst margin for any playoff team on this list, but they finished 9-7 thanks to second-year quarterback Jake Plummer leading 7 game-winning drives in a wild season.
  • The 2001 Patriots were 0-2 when Drew Bledsoe was injured and replaced by Tom Brady, and the rest is history (Tuck Rule and all).
  • Despite going to the AFC Championship Game with Kordell Stewart the year before, the 2002 Steelers benched their quarterback in Week 3 for Tommy Maddox, who won the game in overtime and took the job the next week.
  • The 2008 Chargers were 4-8 at one point, and their season would have ended in December if not for an onside kick recovery against the Chiefs. San Diego then won out to steal the division at 8-8 after Denver lost the final three games of the season.
  • We mentioned the 2008 Dolphins with the Wildcat, Chad Pennington’s magical year, and taking advantage of a season without Brady in the AFC East.
  • The 2014 Colts had Andrew Luck, the 2017 Saints had Drew Brees, and after starting 0-2 against 10-win teams with elite offenses, they turned things around as expected before their defenses finally imploded in the postseason.

Even with the 2022 Bengals, Ja’Marr Chase returned from injury just in time for the big Kansas City matchup, the Buffalo game was ultimately canceled after Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest, and the Ravens lost Lamar Jackson for the season in December while leading the division.

It is not looking great for any of 2023’s hopeful 0-2 teams to find a unicorn at quarterback or win a weak division. In the playoffs for the NBA and NHL, a golden rule is you never want to lose back-to-back games unless you want to get yourself in real trouble. The NFL’s regular season may not be that extreme, but it is a big hole to climb out of when you start your season 0-2.

Great teams usually find a way to avoid that.

Which 2023 Teams Rebound From 0-2?

The last time the Patriots started 0-2, they won the Super Bowl (2001). But Bill Belichick already sold his soul for that year, so that’s not happening again. If you are going to pick any of the nine 0-2 teams to make the playoffs, you have to go with the top four in preseason win total (Bengals, Chargers, Vikings, and Broncos).

When only 1-of-99 teams since realignment in 2002 have made the playoffs after starting 0-3 (2018 Texans), Week 3 becomes a must-win game for these teams.

That puts Denver in a bad spot with a tough trip to Miami, which has a hot offense and a defense that has a coordinator (Vic Fangio) and pass rusher (Bradley Chubb) ready to show the Broncos what they’re missing. The Broncos have also lost 15 games in a row to the Chiefs and 7 games in a row to the Raiders, so Year 1 of Sean Payton may be a bust after blowing two very winnable games at home.

The Chargers and Vikings play each other in Minnesota on Sunday, so the loser should be close to done at 0-3. You can expect a very entertaining game between the teams that know nothing but close finishes. The Vikings may have the edge in that one too given how bad the pass defense has been for the Chargers, and Kirk Cousins looks very good right now with Justin Jefferson dominating weekly. That could be a repeat of Week 1’s loss to Tua Tagovailoa and Tyreek Hill.

Vikings to make the playoffs (+194 at FanDuel) is the value pick I’d go with right now.

That just leaves the Bengals, who did this last year, but as we mentioned multiple times, it already was a big outlier. It also felt different last year as Joe Burrow was healthier and the team was moving the ball much better. They would have won the Pittsburgh game in Week 1 if the emergency long snapper had not messed up two short kicks to win the game. They lost a tough one in Dallas without Dak Prescott playing.

But this year, the Bengals were a mess in Cleveland with Burrow passing for 82 yards. Even Kenny Pickett had a 71-yard touchdown pass against that Cleveland defense. The Bengals also scored just 17 offensive points against the Ravens, and despite the 27-24 final score, the Ravens were in control of that game with Jackson significantly outplaying Burrow. The Bengals rank 32nd in yards and they haven’t even been turning the ball over yet with just 1 giveaway.

Now the reports are Burrow aggravated his calf injury and may not play in Week 3 against the Rams, a Super Bowl rematch from two years ago. The Bengals just made Burrow the richest quarterback in the league, but they did not invest in the backup position. Jake Browning, an undrafted free agent in 2019, would start in his place. He is 27 years old and has 1 pass attempt in his NFL career. You could trust this team to beat the Rams at home with a veteran like Case Keenum or even Mitch Trubisky at quarterback, but they chose to only invest in Browning.

The Rams ended Cincinnati’s season in the Super Bowl two years ago. They might end this one in Week 3 at the rate things are going.

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