|Tuesday, September 25
Updated: September 26, 6:20 PM ET
Start 2-0? You go to the playoffs
By Len Pasquarelli
He has been with the San Diego Chargers long enough to have witnessed the agony that accompanied season-opening losing streaks of four, five and 11 games and the ecstasy of breaking from the chute 6-0 in 1994. Linebacker Junior Seau knows first-hand the significant difference between September momentum and malaise.
"Let me tell you," said Seau, after the Chargers' victory at Dallas on Sunday, "getting off to a 2-0 start is a pretty big thing."
Certainly, it is too early for surprise teams like San Diego, Cincinnati and Jacksonville to begin making Super Bowl plans -- and the exhilaration of September could dissolve into a December of stark reality -- but the numbers indicate that a 2-0 start to any season gives a team a leg up on a playoff berth. No matter how much coaches insist that it's premature to assess any team at this early juncture, the fact is that the two-game mark is a relatively proven demarcation line for prognosticating what might transpire the rest of the way.
The old saw that playoff berths are usually earned in the December stretch run can't be discounted, but neither can the importance of getting out of the starting blocks with a September winning skein, even one of modest duration.
The numbers don't lie:
This isn't to suggest that the Bengals -- who haven't won two games in September since 1995 and whose stunning 2-0 record represents as many opening-month victories as the club had in the past four seasons combined -- are poised for one of the most inexplicable turnarounds in NFL history. Nor does it mean that the Tennessee Titans, the favorite of many pundits to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXXVI, should stow their equipment away for the rest of the season.
What the numbers do augur is that early season momentum does matter to some degree in determining at least some teams in the playoff pool.
"I think as the game wore on Sunday, you could see in the eyes of Bengals players that they were starting to believe in themselves," said Baltimore tight end Shannon Sharpe of Cincinnati's mind-boggling upset of the defending Super Bowl champions. "That kind of positive reinforcement can be a powerful thing. I've been around this league 12 years and I've never seen a Cincinnati team play like that."
Despite the locker room hysteria that accompanied the Bengals' most memorable victory in years, most of the senior veterans on the Cincinnati roster were quick to temper such a notable moment with a dose of reality, noting that the team plays in a division rife with powerhouse franchises. There is no denying, though, the Bengals' unexpected start to the season could have a galvanizing effect on coach Dick LeBeau's young team.
The same could be true in Jacksonville, where there remain enough veterans from the club's strong seasons of the past several years, and where the youngsters are beginning to believe a bit more in their own abilities. His detractors aside, coach Tom Coughlin has done a masterful job so far in shepherding his team through a spate of injuries and in handling a roster weakened by salary cap problems.
Even in some NFL precincts where the expectations are high, and where a 2-0 start to the season was probably anticipated, the significance of a two-game winning streak has been emphasized. "If you can get on a roll early, it kind of reinforces everything that you did in training camp and builds confidence," said Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning.
In a weird sort of symmetry, there are eight teams with 2-0 records and eight with 0-2 marks as well. What has given the season a topsy-turvy appearance at this nascent point is the number of surprises at each end of the spectrum. No one expected Minnesota or the Titans to go through the kind of early-season woes each has experienced, and most felt that Kansas City would be a playoff contender in Dick Vermeil's first season there.
Those teams could still recover, and Minnesota coach Dennis Green was near-defiant in insisting the Vikings' goals have not changed, but the turnaround has to come soon. The hole at 0-2 may not seem like a crater, but it still requires some mighty scrambling to crawl out of it.
"It becomes a test," said Titans guard Bruce Matthews. "Right off the bat, early in the year, you're suddenly being challenged. And you have to respond."
Titans coach Jeff Fisher, who began the 1994 season as the Houston Oilers' defensive coordinator and completed it as their head coach, watched the team's 0-2 start that year deteriorate into a 2-14 finish. It would take a total collapse by the Titans to sink to that level of ineptitude, but Fisher understands that momentum works in both directions.
"We always talk about taking it one game at a time, and that still holds true, and always will," Fisher said. "But winning and losing, even at this early point of a season, can build into a cumulative thing that carries over into the rest of the year."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.