Insiders

Four Teams Primed To Start Fast

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It’s often said that “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” and in the NFL, that statement is applicable both in individual games and over the balance of a season.

However, that does not mean that how a team starts a season doesn’t matter at all. In fact, over the last 25 years, NFL teams have proven that getting off to a fast start can be just as important as closing strong. Since 1990, 83 percent of NFL teams that began the season 4-0 went on to make the playoffs. The numbers are only slightly lower among teams that have started 3-0, as just under 75 percent of those teams go on to make the postseason. Simply winning three of your first four games puts you in a good spot, as nearly 2/3 of those teams get into the playoffs.

While no team went through the first month of the season unbeaten last year, three teams got out to an 3-0 start and, true to form, two of them made the postseason. This year there are a handful of teams primed to do that once more. Let’s break them down.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

It’s been seven years since a team other than the New England Patriots won the AFC East, but Miami’s soft schedule to start, combined with Tom Brady’s pending suspension, has the Dolphins primed to jump out to an early lead in an effort to break that trend.

Miami opens the season with back-to-back road games, a rare occurrence, but those games come against two of the five worst teams in the league last year. The Dolphins begin in Washington, against one of the league’s biggest trainwrecks, a Redskins team they should be able to handle with ease. In Week 2, they make the short trip up the Florida coast for the second straight year, to Jacksonville where they’ll take on a Jaguars team that is improved, but that Miami’s balanced squad is well positioned to defeat once again.

The Dolphins then kickoff their home slate in Week 3 with a divisional battle against the Buffalo Bills, who they finished a game behind in the standings last year after the teams split their season series with the home team winning each game. Week 4 sends the Dolphins off to London for another very winnable divisional game against the Jets.

That quartet of contests could very easily send Miami into their Week 5 bye at 4-0 or at least 3-1. And as if that weren’t enough, they come out of the bye with a game in Tennessee against the Titans and then host the Houston Texans in Week 7. So collectively, over their first six games, the Dolphins will face four teams that don’t really have a quarterback and two AFC South cellar dwellers with very young quarterbacks who are far from sure things.

Early season schedules don’t get much softer than that and Miami’s should put them in prime position to make a playoff run this year.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

Of the three teams to post 3-0 records to start last season: the Bengals, Cardinals and Eagles, only Philadelphia failed to make the postseason. In fact, the Eagles became just the third team in the last 25 years to post a 9-3 or better record through their first 12 games and then miss the postseason. So Philadelphia is proof positive that a fast start doesn’t guarantee anything.

The Eagles are also no stranger to quick starts, particularly in the Chip Kelly era. Philadelphia memorably began Kelly’s first season as head coach in 2013 by running circles around the Washington Redskins with a jaw dropping offensive performance in the first half on Monday Night Football. Washington went on to make a game of it, but the Eagles pulled out the win and the way their offense played is all that anyone remembers from that night.

What stands out about the way the Eagles start each season under Kelly is that Philadelphia always appears to be a level above their opponents, athletically, early on. It’s a credit to the way Kelly conditions his players with one of the most rigorous and physically demanding training camps in the league. It’s been reflected again this preseason, where the Eagles have looked like men among boys against each team they’ve faced. Preseason victories mean nothing, but momentum is real, and Philadelphia is primed to carry plenty into the season, which they’ll start off with a bunch of favorable matchups.

For the second time in three seasons, the Eagles open up on Monday Night Football where they face an Atlanta Falcons team that will test them, particularly Atlanta’s passing offense against the revamped backend of the Philly defense. But beyond their air attack, the Falcons are a suspect team with a new coach, new schemes being implemented and a leaky defense, making this a very winnable game for the Eagles. In Week 2, Philadelphia hosts a grudge match against the Dallas Cowboys, whose win at Lincoln Financial Field in Week 15 last year was the catalyst for the Eagles’ downward spiral. Philly gets Dallas at an ideal time this year, as the Cowboys will still be working things out both in their running game and on their defense, which will be missing some key pieces early in the season. That could certainly work in the Eagles’ favor in this divisional matchup.

The Eagles follow up their first home game with two more on the road, first in New York to take on the Jets, who have a very good defense but what’s looking like a very bad offense, which Philly could and should take advantage of. Then they head to Washington to take on a Redskins team that brought the Eagles’ season to an end in Week 16 last year. That is certain to be on Philadelphia’s mind as they aim to continue what should be a fast start, and it could lead them to bury a team that is likely to be one of the league’s worst again this season.

Those four games could set the Eagles on a path to another excellent start, but it remains to be seen whether they wear down again this season, like they did last year, and whether treating the marathon that is an NFL season like a sprint out of the gate in August catches up to them once more.

ARIZONA CARDINALS

The Cardinals are also one of the three teams to open last season with three consecutive victories and, like the Eagles, that start catapulted them deep into the season. But Arizona took it a few steps further, extending their run to 11-3. That put them in position to clinch a playoff spot despite the fact that they too faltered down the stretch, losing their final three games of the season including their Wild Card playoff game.

The Cards will be in position to get off to a similar start this season, with a quartet of teams that posted losing seasons in 2014 on their slate for their first four games of the season.

Unlike the other teams on this list, Arizona opens the year at home, but the caliber of opponent is a bit more of a challenge as they’ll be welcoming the New Orleans Saints to town on the opening afternoon of the season. However, a Saints team that is suspect on defense and that has seen their options on offense dwindle in recent years could well be ripe for the picking in Week 1. In Week 2 the Cards will be off to Chicago, where they’ll face another former NFC power that has seen better days in the Bears. That too is a very winnable game for Arizona, even in the usually unfriendly confines of Soldier Field.

The Cardinals then head back home for back-to-back divisional games against the San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams. Those two games should play out very differently. The 49ers are primed to be one of the worst teams in the league this year and Arizona should have no trouble disposing of them. The Rams, however, likely pose the greatest early-season test for the Cardinals. Both teams will be gunning to dethrone the Seattle Seahawks this year in the NFC West and this game will be a pivotal battle to determine who has a better shot at doing so.

If the Cardinals can win it and get off to another 3-1 or perhaps even a 4-0 start, they’re likely to once again have a leg up on a Seahawks team that has another tough September slate to deal with and some issues of their own they’ll need to work out early. It will then become a question of it they can hold Seattle off this time.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

The division they play in sets the Indianapolis Colts up for a strong start to every season. But last year, the Colts opened with an incredibly difficult two-game stretch against Denver and Philadelphia and actually had to overcome a 0-2 start to make the postseason. That shouldn’t be an issue this year.

Although the AFC South is slowly catching up with team, the Colts remain the class of the division and perhaps even the conference and they begin the season with five straight intra-conference games, including contests against each of their division rivals. But first they start with back-to-back battles against the bottom two AFC East teams, the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets.

Week 1 sends the Colts up to Buffalo, for what should be a tough game against the Bills, but one that an Indianapolis team that is comfortable and successful in their system should be able to win over a Buffalo team that will still be searching for that comfort zone in several areas. Next, the Colts head home for a Monday Night showdown with a Jets team that is a fixture on the schedule of teams on this list. That’s because while the Jets, like the Bills, are still searching for their identity, the teams herein like Indianapolis have a clear one, and therefore should be able to handle whatever New York has for them.

From there, the Colts break into the divisional portion of their schedule, starting with a Week 3 trip to Tennessee to take on the Titans. That’s followed by a home game against the Jacksonville Jaguars and then a quick turnaround for a Thursday night game against the Texans in Houston. All three of those games are undoubtedly winnable contests for an Indianapolis team that has gone 12-0 against AFC South foes over the past two seasons.

A 4-1 or 5-0 start — which both seem well within their reach — would certainly set the Colts, one of the prohibitive Super Bowl 50 favorites heading into the season, off in the right direction toward a title.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys