Teams desperate to avoid 0-2 start
If at all possible, you don't want to start 0-2 in the NFL. It's not a death sentence, but since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, only 19 teams have climbed out of an 0-2 hole to make the playoffs. That's 19 teams in 18 seasons of play, or about one per year.
Of course, that one 0-2 team last year was the New York Giants, and as I recall, things worked out pretty well for them in the end. The 2001 Patriots and the 1993 Cowboys also won Super Bowl rings despite dropping their first two games of the season, so history says you get the ultimate confetti-shower aberration to the 0-2 trend every six years or so.
But back to our premise: 0-2 is not a happy place to be. Autumn will not even have begun and the odds will already be stacked against you. At the moment, obviously, there are 16 teams staring 0-2 in the face after Week 1 losses. That should make for 16 very desperate teams this weekend, all willing to do almost anything to get to .500 and keep their seasons alive.
Which ones have the most motivation to stop the bleeding before it really gets going? Here's our top eight, ranked in terms of their sense of urgency:
1. Cleveland -- No other NFL team will start the season with consecutive home games, which unfortunately gives the Browns the opportunity to become the league's only 0-2 team to suffer the double whammy of dropping a pair before the hometown fans. When you add in that this week's opponent are the hated Steelers -- who have beaten Cleveland nine times in a row and 15 out of 16 -- and that Sunday night's game is the first of the Browns' five primetime TV appearances, that only jacks the stakes up even higher.
Then there's Cleveland's showing last week against Dallas to consider. The Browns were beaten worse than the 28-10 score indicated, giving up 487 yards of offense while totaling just 205 themselves. One more humiliation like that -- and the Steelers specialize in humiliating Cleveland -- and all those once-hopeful Browns fans are going to start taking Romeo Crennel's name in vain. At 0-2 and two games behind the Steelers, who would own a head-to-head tiebreaker, things could get ugly very quickly in Cleveland.
2. Minnesota -- Just like the Browns were the 2007 non-playoff team picked to make some serious January noise in the AFC, the Vikings were given the NFC's version of that label by many pundits. But then Minnesota went to Green Bay last Monday night and lost 24-19, playing every bit as inconsistently as last year's rollercoaster-like 8-8 club. That makes this week's home opener against the 0-1 Colts pretty close to vital.
For starters, Green Bay has a winnable game at Detroit this week, so the prospect of falling two games behind the Packers should motivate Minnesota. Secondly, let the Vikings lose this one against a Colts team that got embarrassed at home by the Bears last Sunday night and Minnesota's season could snowball in the wrong direction -- even before it's cold enough to actually snow in the Twin Cities. The Vikings next three games are against improved Carolina, at Tennessee and at New Orleans. Not a gimme among them.
3. Jacksonville -- The Jaguars didn't just lose 17-10 last week at Tennessee. They got abused, even though the margin of victory didn't show it. The Titans held the vaunted Jacksonville running game to a paltry 33 yards (1.9 average) and twice picked off quarterback David Garrard, he of the three interceptions all of last season. Garrard was also sacked seven times and lost a fumble. And don't forget that both the Jaguars' starting guards were hurt in the game, only adding to their offensive line injury problems.
Playing more physical than an opponent was supposed to be the Jaguars' game, but it wasn't the case last week in Nashville. Jacksonville now comes home to face a Buffalo team brimming with confidence after the Bills thrashed visiting Seattle 34-10. The Jaguars, who had their share of preseason Super Bowl hype, have to get their mojo back right now because in Week 3 looms their annual trip to division rival Indianapolis, the team Jacksonville has been chasing since coach Jack Del Rio arrived in 2003.
4. Tampa Bay -- After losing 24-20 last week at New Orleans, the Bucs face the dangerous Falcons (did I just write that?) in their home opener. Atlanta will be sky high after taking apart Detroit at home, thanks to more than 300 yards rushing along with a very impressive rookie debut for first-round quarterback Matt Ryan. The defending NFC South champion Bucs simply can't afford to go 0-2, falling two games behind perhaps the entire division (Carolina, New Orleans and Atlanta all won last week).
If that happens, we'll be well on our way to the usual sequence of events in this wacky division, where the first-place team from the previous year typically finishes in last place the next year, and the last-place team from a year ago vaults into first place this time around (you can look it up). Tampa Bay has one added handicap this week in that starting quarterback Jeff Garcia is out with a sprained ankle. Fortunately for the Bucs, the drop-off is ever so slight with backup Brian Griese.