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What the Eagles’ & Vikings’ 0-2 Starts Really Mean For Their Hopes of Making the NFL Playoffs

What the Eagles’ & Vikings’ 0-2 Starts Really Mean For Their Hopes of Making the NFL Playoffs article feature image

Getty Images. Pictured: Carson Wentz, Kirk Cousins

  • Ten teams have opened the NFL season with an 0-2 record, including the Eagles and Vikings, who were expected to contend in the NFC.
  • What does their 0-2 start mean for Philadelphia's and Minnesota's playoff chances? And should you buy low on them in Week 3?
  • Chris Raybon takes a deeper look at historical trends to answer both questions heading into Sunday's games.

It’s Week 3 in the NFL, which guarantees we’ll be bombarded with some form of the “I know it’s crazy to say this early in the season, but this is a must-win game” cliche.

Except it’s not crazy at all.

0-1, 0-2, 0-3, Cancun!

Since the NFL expanded to 32 teams in 2002, 87 teams have started 0-3. As far as making the postseason goes, all of them were toast. There were no exceptions, as in the plural; there was literally one: The 2018 Texans were the only team to come back from 0-3 and make the postseason. Three (3.4%) finished with a winning record, and only 10 (11.1%) made it to .500.

But Week 3 doesn’t mark the onset of the “must-win” game; those honors go to Week 2. In fact, of the 11 teams that started 0-2 this season, five — the Jets, Panthers, Dolphins, Giants and Bengals — already lost their must-win game.

How do we know?

Not All 0-2 Starts Are Created Equal

Each of those five teams I just mentioned entered the season with preseason win totals below 7, which has proven to be the threshold for which the improbable turns to impossible for teams that begin 0-2.

Here’s how 0-2 teams have finished, based on their preseason win total (since 2002):

  • 6.5 or fewer: 8.8% reach .500; 2.2% win 9-plus; 2.2% make playoffs
  • 7 to 7.5: 19.5% reach .500, 17.1% win 9-plus, 8.9% make playoffs
  • 8 to 10: 29.8% reach .500, 21.1% win 9-plus, 17.5% make playoffs
  • 10.5 or more: 83.3% reach .500, 50.0% win 9-plus, 50.0% make playoffs

Scramble up some eggs — or fry them, or go over-easy, whichever you prefer — and serve them with the Jets/Panthers/Dolphins/Giants/Bengals, because those teams are toast.

While it’s not surprising that teams considered to be among the NFL’s worst have a more difficult time rebounding from a slow start, that’s not to suggest that starting 0-2 is simply the product of bad luck or randomness. If that were the case, we would expect teams to still perform at the level of their preseason expectation from Week 3 on. For example, we would expect a team with a win total of 8 to still go .500 and post a 7-7 finish over its final 14 games.

For every team that started 0-2 since 2002, I calculated  an updated expected win total for Week 3 on, and compared expected wins to actual wins at the end of the season.

The results are in the table below — I also threw in the rate at which 0-2 teams ended up going over their initial preseason win total.

Even after adjusting win totals down to negate the effect of an 0-2 start, those teams are still underperforming expectation by -0.86 wins and going under the updated total at a rate of 66%, which is massive considering that we’re gaining all of this intel from two games — 12.5% of an NFL season.

Why is this the case? It’s difficult to pinpoint one overarching reason, but I believe injuries and simple misevaluation of talent play the largest roles, with artificially-inflated preseason win totals and bad schedule luck factoring in to a lesser degree.

Are Slow-Starting Teams Profitable to Bet On?

Week 3 is generally a good spot to back teams that start 0-2, but the market has generally been able to properly correct beyond that, as teams that start 0-2 have gone 1025-1012-18 (50.3%) against the spread over the remainder of the season since 2002.

These teams have seen an uptick in profitability as of late, posting five straight seasons above 53.0% before dipping below 50.0% against last season, so I’m not sure if there’s anything more to it other than randomness.

What It Means for 2020

After removing teams with Vegas win totals below 7, we’re left with six teams — Philadelphia (9.5), Minnesota (9), Houston (7.5), Atlanta (7.5), Denver (7.5) and Detroit (7.0) — that are essentially playing for their seasons this Sunday.

Despite those teams combining for an 0-12 record and 48 quarters of mostly disastrous football, odds are that we’ll see at least one in the expanded 14-team playoff format. In fact, based on historical probabilities, it’s more likely than not that at least one would have made the playoffs in the former 12-team format (53.1%). And the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of at least one of finishing with a winning record (70.6%).

Of course, that’s largely contingent on avoiding the dreaded 0-3 hole.

Using the consensus win probabilities from our projected Week 3 spreads, here is each team’s odds of notching its first win this week:

  • Eagles (vs. CIN): 68.0%
  • Falcons (vs. CHI): 59.1%
  • Vikings (vs. TEN): 48.3%
  • Denver (vs. TB): 33.5%
  • Houston (at PIT): 32.4%
  • Detroit (at ARI): 31.3%

The Broncos and Lions face long odds of winning in Week 3 and may struggle to capitalize either way due to injuries, while the Texans slow start can mostly be explained by a brutal schedule that dealt them the Chiefs and Ravens to start the year (not to mention, they’re the one team that managed to reach the playoffs after starting out 0-3),  so let’s focus on the Eagles, Falcons and Vikings.

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles not only have the highest win total of the 0-2 teams, but they have the best odds of avoiding 0-3. They’re also fortunate to be the only 0-2 squad facing a winless opponent this week: The 0-2 Bengals.

Winless is not only the theme of this game because of the matchup, it’s also the theme of Carson Wentz’s career during times when it matters most, because in order to win big games, one has to actually play in them.

Despite being drafted in 2016 and Eagles winning the Super Bowl in 2017, then advancing to the Divisional Round in 2018 and making the postseason again last season, Wentz has somehow managed to be on the field for exactly one game and nine snaps of playoff football. Now he finds himself marred in the worst two-game stretch of his career, which morphed what would otherwise be a fascinating but ultimately meaningless inter-conference matchup of top-two quarterback picks into a must-win affair that can arguably be considered one of the biggest games of Wentz’s career.

An aging core and a tough schedule was always going to cap this team’s ceiling — Philadelphia has road games at San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Arizona, as well as home games against Baltimore, Green Bay and New Orleans. But elsewhere in the NFC East, the Cowboys have a similarly tough slate and are a Falcons meltdown away from being 0-2, while the Giants just lost Saquon Barkley, so it’s not as if the division title is exactly out of reach for the Eagles. But history tells us that won’t matter if they don’t get it done against Cincy.

Stay tuned.

Atlanta Falcons

After preserving Dan Quinn’s job in what may go down as the least valuable 6-2 finish in NFL history, the Falcons again find themselves in a lose-lose situation this Sunday.

If they lose to the Bears, the Falcons are all but guaranteed to miss the playoffs for a third straight season. But if they win, they’ll just be delaying the inevitable with Quinn, as their Weeks 4-9 slate includes just enough winnable matchups — Carolina (twice), Detroit and Denver (and maybe Minnesota, if it’s defense doesn’t stop playing like … Atlanta) — to allow the franchise to again put together a damaging winning streak that gets Quinn to the other side of their Week 10 bye.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for Atlanta … to lose Sunday’s game.

Minnesota Vikings

We should never count Mike Zimmer out — the Vikings have been adept at exceeding expectations throughout his tenure, compiling the second-best winning percentage against the spread (60.8%) in the league since he took over. But the Packers and Bears are already 2-0, and especially if the Falcons take care of business by not taking care of business and allow Chicago to jump out to 3-0, the Vikings may be better off using this season as a mini rebuild.

The season was likely jinxed from the moment Kirk Cousins decided to be a dick about COVID. He’s looked incapable of beating the Packers for two years now — or any pass rush with a pulse, for that matter — and he can’t even be counted on for his dominant 1 p.m. ET outings these days.

With Stefon Diggs now in Buffalo and Justin Jefferson still developing, there’s no point in wasting newly-expensive Dalvin Cook carries on a defense that will just leave Cousins in shootouts he can’t win.

Minnesota will likely improve as the year wears on and has a decent shot at avoiding 0-3 with a home matchup against a Tennessee team that has been overachieving, but this Vikings franchise just doesn’t have the makings of a dangerous playoff team.

You Are What Your Record Says You Are

This year’s group of 0-2 teams is not particularly intriguing from an upside perspective. The two teams that we least expected to be here are the Eagles and Vikings, but they’re here because they’ve been bad, not unlucky.

Week 3 is the perfect time to buy low on them, but long-term, they both seem destined for football purgatory.

The Texans have the best quarterback in Deshaun Watson, but we already got Watson vs. Patrick Mahomes twice in the last nine months, and Watson vs. Lamar Jackson was one-sided for the second consecutive year, so a playoff berth would essentially be a dead end for the Texans.

The Bengals have the most interesting quarterback in Joe Burrow and could be a fun Red Zone team, but they’re not going anywhere this year.

The best thing about this year’s crop of 0-2 squads is that there are so many, which means we’ll get a bunch of 0-3 teams and the official beginning of the first coach fired race, which I like to call The Gase Race — but only because I can’t think of a creative play on Dan Quinn’s name.

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