There’s an old cliche that says “it’s not how you start, but how you finish.” Well, that certainly can be true … but in the NFL, the first month often foreshadows the playoff picture, and a slow start (or an early-season hot streak) can have a major impact on a team’s playoff odds.
Even the first two weeks can be telling: Last year, just one of the nine teams that started 0-2 ended up in the postseason (the Saints), and going back to 2007, that number is just 10 out of 92. Losers of the first three see their odds dip to about a 3 percent chance of a postseason berth (just five of 173 teams have done that since 1980). And if your team starts out 0-4, you might as well start looking ahead to next season: Since the NFL expanded the playoff field to 12 teams in 1990, just one team—the 1992 Chargers—lost its first four games and went on to make the playoffs.
On the other hand, recent history shows that about half of teams that start out 2-0 end up in the postseason (four of the eight did last year; and going back to 2007, that number is 48 of 83) while around 75 percent of the teams that start 3-0 eventually punch their postseason ticket (like both the Chiefs and Falcons last year). Win your first four games, and you’re not quite a shoo-in (ask the 2016 Chiefs and Vikings), but about 80 percent of those teams go on to win playoff berths.
With that in mind, let’s take a look around the league at early-season slates to determine which teams have the toughest—and easiest—September roads ahead of them.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: at Saints, vs. Eagles, vs. Steelers, at Bears
The Bucs’ playoff hopes might be all but dead by the time starting quarterback Jameis Winston returns from suspension in Week 4. Tampa Bay is staring down what’s easily the most daunting opening three-game slate of any team in the league. The Buccaneers head to New Orleans in Week 1 before hosting the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles and Steelers the next two weeks, respectively—all with backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick under center. Even when Winston gets back, a Week 4 road matchup with the Bears should be anything but a cakewalk, especially with Chicago’s recent trade for pass rusher Khalil Mack.
The Bucs play the NFL’s most difficult September schedule, per Sharp Football Stats, drawing the toughest slate of pass defenses and the second-toughest lineup of offenses of any team the league in that stretch (total efficiency is based on last year’s metrics). Tampa Bay’s made upgrades to their defense during the offseason and still has plenty of talent on offense, but their difficult early schedule (they’re not favored to win any of their first four games, per FiveThirtyEight’s ELO rating) could mean they spend most of the season digging themselves out of an early hole.
Buffalo Bills: at Ravens, vs. Chargers, at Vikings, at Packers
Josh Allen’s rough preseason Week 3 outing might’ve played a part in the Bills’ decision to name Nathan Peterman the starter to open the season, but the team also may have wanted to avoid throwing Allen out to the wolves. Buffalo opens with three out of four games on the road—and their first three are coming against elite defenses. In the opener, Peterman will have to contend with a Baltimore squad that held opposing passers to a 72.4 passer rating last year (second) and allowed just 6.5 yards per attempt (tied for second) while picking off a league-high 22 passes. In Week 2, the Bills host Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and the Chargers’ top-tier defense—we all remember how well Peterman coped with that last year—and in Week 3, Buffalo travels to Minnesota to play Harrison Smith, Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Sheldon Richardson, Xavier Rhodes, and the Vikings’ defense, which ranked second last year by DVOA. Things could get ugly for Buffalo in the early going.
Per Sharp Football Stats, the Bills face the second-toughest slate of defenses in the first four weeks and draw the fourth-toughest slate of offenses, too—including matchups against quarterbacks Philip Rivers, Kirk Cousins, and Aaron Rodgers. The Bills snapped a 17-year playoff drought last season, but the first four weeks will tell us a lot about whether or not a return trip is in the cards.
San Francisco 49ers: at Vikings, vs. Lions, at Chiefs, at Chargers
There’s a big jump down from Tampa Bay and Buffalo when it comes to the magnitude of schedule difficulty, but the 49ers’ opening slate headlines the second tier. Jimmy Garoppolo and Co. open up on the road against the Cousins-led Vikings before heading home to host a strong Lions offense and Matt Stafford. In Week 3, San Francisco goes on the road again to face off against the Chiefs, helmed by Patrick Mahomes, then heads to L.A. in Week 4 for a matchup with Rivers and the Chargers. Based on last year’s numbers, that’s the toughest slate of opposing offenses any team will have to face in the first four weeks (though, obviously, the Chiefs now have a new quarterback). The 49ers are heavy underdogs per ELO in all but one game—that Week 2 matchup with the Lions.
The Niners’ early draw doesn’t exactly feature a bunch of pushover group of defenses, either. The 49ers new-look offensive line will have to contend with a few of the league’s top pass rushers to keep Garoppolo on his feet and carrying the team, including Griffen, Hunter, Richardson, Ezekiel Ansah, Justin Houston, Chris Jones, Bosa, and Ingram.
Kansas City Chiefs: at Chargers, at Steelers, vs. 49ers, at Broncos
Mahomes’s career as the team’s starter kicks off with a nice, relaxing run through a gauntlet of potential top-10 defenses—all of which come on the road, no less. The 22-year-old strong-armed quarterback draws early matchups with the Chargers, Steelers, and Broncos, and while the Niners’ defense is a bit of an unknown, it’s a unit that’s added some talent (including Richard Sherman) and could be poised for a jump.
Defensively, the Chiefs are going to have to figure out how to slow down Rivers, Roethlisberger, Garoppolo, and a new-look Broncos offense, who, under Case Keenum, should finally have something resembling a functioning passing game.
Atlanta Falcons: at Eagles, vs. Panthers, vs. Saints, vs. Bengals
Let’s start with the good news: Atlanta plays three out of their first four games at home. OK, now here’s the bad news: All four are against potentially very tough opponents. Matt Ryan and Co. open the year on the road against the defending champs before returning home to face a physical Panthers team, an incredibly balanced Saints unit, and the Bengals, who have an underrated pass-rushing group (and could be better on offense than people might think).
The Falcons have gone 53-27 (.663, seventh-best) at home during the Ryan era, but their first month features the third-toughest slate of opposing defenses along with the fifth-toughest lineup of offenses, per Sharp.
New Orleans Saints: vs. Buccaneers, vs. Browns, at Falcons, at Giants
In the NFL, nothing’s actually “easy,” per say, but the Saints’ first month of matchups looks like a relative cakewalk. New Orleans draws the Fitzpatrick-led Bucs, the Browns, and the Giants in September, and the latter two combined to win all of three games last season. Both Cleveland and New York look better, but the only major challenge the Saints should have is in dispatching division rival Falcons in Atlanta.
It’s not hard to imagine a 3-1 start for New Orleans, and no one’s going to be too surprised if they come out of the first month 4-0. That’s the kind of start the Saints might need to take another run to the postseason, though, as they face one of the most difficult schedules in the second half of the year.
Philadelphia Eagles: vs. Falcons, at Buccaneers, vs. Colts, at Titans
Opening the season against a fellow NFC powerhouse without starting quarterback Carson Wentz isn’t exactly ideal for the Eagles, but the schedule the following three weeks gives Philly a chance to compete. From Weeks 2 through 4, the Eagles will face the second-easiest slate of opposing offenses and the seventh-easiest lineup of defenses from last year in facing the Buccaneers, Colts, and Titans. Even with questions around Wentz’s return, they’re heavily favored in all three games, per ELO.
Jacksonville Jaguars: at Giants, vs. Patriots, vs. Titans, vs. Jets
After a quick Week 1 trip up the coast to face the Giants, Jacksonville gets to spend the rest of September at home. In the first month, the Jags will pit their elite defense against Tom Brady and the Patriots, yes, but also draw Eli Manning (who is 37 years old and coming off his second-worst season of the past decade), Marcus Mariota (who threw more picks than touchdowns last year), and Sam Darnold (who is still an untested rookie, no matter how much this website loves him).
The Jaguars have built their offensive identity around a punishing smashmouth ground game, and the first month presents an enticing opportunity for Jacksonville to flex their muscles in that area. Per Sharp Football Stats, Jacksonville faces the second-softest slate of run-defending teams in the NFL in September (based on last year’s non-garbage time run defense success rates). The ability to take Blake Bortles out of the equation as much as possible can be only a good thing for the Jags.
Carolina Panthers: vs. Cowboys, at Falcons, vs. Bengals, BYE, vs. Giants
The Panthers have a similar story for their first four games: three out of four at home; three out of four against quarterbacks coming off down years (Dak Prescott, Andy Dalton, and Manning); and the NFL’s lightest slate of run defenses, per last year’s non-garbage time success rates. For a team which leans hard on Christian McCaffrey and quarterback Cam Newton in the ground game, Carolina should have success playing ball-control football for much of the first month.
New York Jets: at Lions, vs. Dolphins, at Browns, at Jaguars
It feels a little strange to include the Jets in this category considering they play three out of their first four on the road—but based purely on opponent, New York’s first month looks relatively favorable for easing a rookie quarterback into the league. That Week 4 game in Jacksonville is obviously not going to be an easy one, but from Weeks 1 through 3, Darnold will go up against the easiest slate of pass defenses in the NFL (by neutral-situation success rate). All three teams took steps to bolster their pass defense units during the offseason, but Darnold is set to go up against a Lions defense in transition under new head coach Matt Patricia, then the Dolphins, who finished 29th in DVOA against the pass in 2017, and finally the Browns, who gave up an opposing passer rating of 102.3 under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and picked off just seven passes all year.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to Ryan Fitzpatrick as Fitzgerald on second reference.