Can the Vikings Make the Expanded Playoffs After Starting 0-2? The Math Says Probably Not

Photo credit: Trevor Ruszkowski (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings have lost their first two games for the first time since 2013. The historical outlook for teams that start 0-2 is bleak — it’s is often a death knell. There have been plenty of examples of an 0-2 team rising from the dead, even a couple who won the Super Bowl (the 2007 Giants and 2001 Patriots). Over the last 10 years, about 12% of 0-2 teams have gone on to make the playoffs. Justis Mosqueda went back and calculated that for the recent 14-team playoff expansion, and it looks like this:

But probability can be a tricky thing to navigate. Most 0-2 teams won’t make the playoffs. Almost no 0-2 teams will make a deep run, let alone take home a championship. But it’s not impossible, and that’s a strange thing for our binary lizard brains to compute.

A quick lesson in probability. There are currently 10 teams that are sitting at 0-2. If you give each of them a flat 12% chance of making the playoffs, you can calculate and get a sense for how likely it is for no 0-2 teams to make the postseason, and one 0-2 team, two 0-2 teams, and so on. This is called a binomial distribution or Bernoulli process. Obviously, that oversimplifies the differences between a good but chaotic team like Atlanta, and a simply struggling team like New York (Jets or Giants, your choice).

Using the chart linked above, we see the likeliest outcome is exactly one 0-2 team. Maybe there can be two, maybe there can be none. So let’s examine that special minority that gets to burst from its 0-2 grave and smack future opponents with its tombstone. Once we’ve gotten to know them, we can ask if the 2020 Vikings line up. We’ll start with the aforementioned Super Bowl teams.

The 2001 Patriots

Bill Belichick started 0-2 in his second year of coaching with an underwhelming Drew Bledsoe at the helm. Bledsoe, 29, was a one-time All Pro and three-time Pro Bowler in the prime of his career. But in that Week 2 loss, he took a hard hit from Jets linebacker Mo Lewis, and Tom Brady took over. That guy turned out pretty well for them.

The 2007 Giants

The ’07 Giants are a unicorn in many ways, as a 9-7 underdog that ripped through elite team after elite team in the playoffs. It started, however, with two consecutive opening losses against the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers. Those teams ended up being the first and second seeds in the NFC, respectively, and the Giants would avenge both losses in the postseason.

In the last five years, the pickings are slim:

The 2015 Texans

The only Hard Knocks team on the list, the Texans started out with a brutal first two games, against the eventual 11-5 Chiefs and eventual 15-1 MVP-led Panthers. They were also dealing with a quarterback controversy that led to a 3-5 first half of the season. But thanks to some T.J. Yates heroics and more clarity from the staff, Houston ended up winning a weakened AFC South at 9-7, only to get clobbered 30-0 by those same Chiefs.

The 2015 Seahawks

The Seahawks started with a 34-31 overtime loss to the Rams and a very poor game in an NFC Championship rematch in Green Bay. Importantly, they won their next two and made it into a Week 9 bye at 4-4. Like the Texans, they slipped into the playoffs after going 6-2 in the back half of their season. We won’t discuss what happened in their Wild Card game.

The 2016 Miami Dolphins

Miami had something of an identity crisis in 2016. They started an abysmal 1-4, with the sole win coming in overtime against Hue Jackson’s eventual 0-16 Browns. Their turnaround was stunning, where calls to replace Ryan Tannehill were silenced in a six-game winning streak. Head Coach Adam Gase cited a philosophical locker room shift, but there were some early offensive line injuries that cleared up as well. In the playoffs, they quietly fell to the AFC runner-up Steelers.

The 2017 New Orleans Saints

The Saints never looked too bad in their first two games. You’ll remember the first, a Monday Night Football tilt where Sam Bradford looked like Dan Marino in heat. The second came against the defending Super Bowl champion, MVP-led Patriots. If ever there was an 0-2 team not to worry about, it was the powerful 2017 Saints, who rallied to 11-5 and a division title. We will discuss how their postseason ended.

The 2018 Houston Texans

Houston started the year with Deshaun Watson coming off of an ACL injury and some other lingering maladies from their 2017 campaign leaking into the start of their season. They started 0-3, falling short by one score in each game. They went on to win three one-score games in a row, and nine total before their next loss. That took them to 11-5 and a division title, though they lost to the visiting Colts on Wild Card weekend.

Conversely, look at the 0-2 teams that didn’t make it, and a much simpler pattern reveals itself: The teams were bad. Of the nine teams that started 0-2 last year, six ended up drafting top 10. Go further back, and you’ll find a similar pattern. So what we’re looking for is extenuating circumstance. Lingering injuries, an unusually hard start to the schedule, or some corner case that indicates that this 0-2 team is different from all the rest.

The Vikings have one injured piece they can expect back in future games, Danielle Hunter, but otherwise started the year as fresh as can be. Their first opponent, Green Bay, is polling fifth in MyBookie’s Super Bowl odds. But their second opponent isn’t even in the top third. It’s a stretch to apply either of these circumstances to the Vikings in the way they applied to the 2018 Texans or 2017 Saints. There is, however, one corner case that could apply: The lack of a normal preseason.

I’ve criticized the Vikings for being one of the only teams that seemed unable to get ready for the season without a normal camp regimen. While I hold to that as a criticism of the staff, it’s also one that would naturally wear off once a few weeks have gone by. Like Gase’s 2016 Dolphins, a turnaround isn’t impossible if it simply takes a few weeks to get warmed up. If they can get it turned around by the end of the month and claw back to .500 before November, they can make a run. But that’s a tall order, and it requires the Vikings to prove that the last two weeks were the exception and not the rule.

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