Caulton Tudor

2-0 start would be big step forward for Panthers

Posted September 14

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) passes against the San Francisco 49ers during the first half of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

A lot of football fans, virtually all players and most coaches are quick to say all games are equally important, but that’s not entirely accurate in the NFL.

Even in this age of much professional parity and the 16-game regular-season schedule, history tells us that the second game for several teams is disproportionally important for setting trends.

Specifically, teams that come out of the second week 2-0 usually wind up in the playoffs, while the 0-2 teams have become prohibitive long shots for the postseason.

There were nine 0-2 teams in 2015. Only two – Seattle and Houston – wound up in the playoffs. On the flip side, there were nine 2-0 teams and only three – Atlanta, Dallas and the New York Jets – missed the playoffs.

Last year was a bit of an anomaly in that four of the eight 2-0 teams missed the playoffs, but all four – Denver (8-8), Baltimore (8-8), Minnesota (8-8) and Philadelphia (7-9) – at least went to the final two weeks of the season with playoff hopes alive. Of the eight 0-2 starters, only Miami finished in the playoffs.

In 2014, only one 0-2 starter (Indianapolis) made it. The same was true in 2013, when the Carolina Panthers got a playoff spot after starting the season with three losses in their first four games.

How the equation works out this season will take longer to determine since Miami, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay will not begin play until Sunday.

Fifteen teams have started 1-0, including the Panthers and Buffalo, who meet Sunday at 1 p.m. in Charlotte (Fox TV), and it clearly is a game the favored Panthers need to win.

The Bills aren't a great team by any stretch, but they went 7-9 in 2016 and showed a lot of offensive balance in an opening win over the Jets.

The Panthers, 6-10 last season after reaching the Super Bowl in 2015, easily won at San Francisco and did so without having to put a lot of pressure on quarterback Cam Newton.

From the start, the early schedule offered the Panthers an inviting season entry. If they beat Buffalo, they’ll be 2-0 heading into a Sept. 24 game in Charlotte against the New Orleans Saints, who are struggling as the Drew Brees era nears it end.

If the Panthers are able to start 3-0, history makes them a near-lock for the playoffs. More than 75 percent of NFL teams with a 3-0 record get into the postseason. The schedule gets more difficult in the fourth and fifth weeks, though, with road games at New England and Detroit.

Meanwhile, there are four games this week involving 0-1 teams – Houston at Cincinnati on Thursday, Arizona at Baltimore, New England at New Orleans and San Francisco at Seattle.

Unless all 2017 preseason logic turns out to be completely useless, you have to assume New England and Seattle will wind up in the playoffs regardless of what happens Sunday.

The teams with the most to fret will be Houston and Cincinnati. The Texans, in a weak division, were able to get to the playoffs last season while the Bengals were a major disappointment at 6-9-1 in the AFC North. The loser Thursday likely will be plowing uphill all the way until Christmas.

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