Opening a season with three losses can pretty much ensure an organization will have full attention on getting ready for the draft come January while a dozen other teams are preparing for postseason play. Since 1980, 176 teams have opened their regular season schedule with three losses. Only six of those teams have gone on to earn a postseason bid.
Since 1990, when the National Football League adopted the 12 team playoff format, only four teams have advanced to the playoffs after an 0-3 start. Last year, the Houston Texans became the first team since 2002, when the league adjusted to the four divisions in each conference format, to crack the postseason field after losing their first three games.
What this information tells us is that if you want to earn a playoff spot, starting with three losses in not recommended. But, if you are going to still advance to the postseason after a winless streak to open the campaign, a few linchpins need to be in place. First, you need to be grouped in a division without a dominant team, and second, there must be a reason for your slow start that can be corrected on the fly.
In 1993, the Dallas Cowboys became the first team in league history to open the season with a pair of losses and then go on to win the Super Bowl. But, they played their first two games that year without runningback Emmitt Smith, who was holding out for “quarterback” money. Before the Cowboys visited the Arizona Cardinals for a third week game that season, they agreed to terms with Smith, making him the highest paid runningback but not giving in to his “quarterback” money demands. With the addition of Smith, the Cowboys went on to win Super Bowl XXVIII in what proved to be Jimmy Johnson’s last game as Dallas’ head coach.
This year, the Pittsburgh Steelers opened the regular season with three losses, and on Sunday have an opportunity to move back into the thick of their playoff race with a win over the Baltimore Ravens.
The Steelers have an advantage of there being no dominant team in the AFC North Division this season, with the Cleveland Browns and Ravens currently leading the four team race with records of two wins and two losses. Behind the Steelers, who got their first win of the season on Monday night against the winless Cincinnati Bengals, are that 0-4 team from the Queen City.
Okay, Steelers fans, you started 0-3 but aren’t chasing a dominant team. Now, how about the reason your squad is better now than during their season opening losing streak?
Whoops, they aren’t. In fact, it can be argued with some veracity, that the current Steelers are not as good as the team that lost their first three games. During their losing run the starting quarterback was Ben Roethlisberger, who is now out for the season after injuring his elbow and requiring surgery.
If you think the Steelers are better with Mason Rudolph behind center than they were with future Hall of Fame member Roethlisberger, I’d like to book your action. But, if you know Pittsburgh is not as reliable on offense with their longtime starter sidelined, then how can you expect them to get back into the AFC North race?
Well, for Pittsburgh, it is one thing at a time. The first step was winning last Monday night over the Bengals, the second is catching the Baltimore Ravens in the standings with a win at home on Sunday.
The Ravens opened the season with a 59-10 win over the hapless Miami Dolphins, and picked up a second straight victory in second week action over the Arizona Cardinals. Now, we know, beating the Dolphins and Cardinals is not the stuff you write home about, and a third week loss in Kansas City against the Chiefs was the first result against the Ravens this season, including their 4-0 preseason record.
What happened next to Baltimore is most revealing. They hosted the Cleveland Browns last Sunday, and with a win would have cemented their hold on first place in the AFC North. Instead, the Ravens got run out of their own building by the upstart Browns, 40-25, and fell to 2-2 on the year.
What does that mean for this week?
It means the Steelers are coming off a win looking to get back in the thick of their division race, and the Ravens are hoping to end a two-game losing streak while keeping at least a share of first place in their division race. From a need standpoint, the game would appear to be more desperate for Pittsburgh, but from both a talent and motivational perspective, the advantage swings dramatically to the visitors this Sunday in Pittsburgh.
The Ravens are preparing for playing a Steelers squad on par with the Pittsburgh units they have battled in recent years. Instead, Baltimore will meet a Mike Tomlin led team that didn’t crack the playoff field last season and are likely to join the large majority of teams that didn’t make the playoffs after losing their first three games this year.
Off back-to-back losses, the Ravens are not likely to under prepare for this game, and instead be in a perfect position to dominate on the road.
Qoxhi Picks: Baltimore Ravens (-3½) over Pittsburgh Steelers