Patriots

A sign of hope for Pats? Examining NFL teams that started 2-4 and still made playoffs

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(Adam Richins for BSJ)

In the aftermath of one of the ugliest losses of the Bill Belichick era in New England, Greg broke down how all was not lost for this Patriots team just yet. A 2-4 start for the Pats hasn’t been seen in nearly two decades, but one win against division-leading Bills on Sunday would put the Pats back within 1.5 games of a playoff spot — and one game in the loss column — with more than half of the season still to play.

To get a better sense of where the Patriots playoff chances stand based on historical data, let's zoom out a bit and take a snapshot of the last 10 NFL seasons to ask the question: Just how many teams have started their regular season with a 2-4 record (or worse) and managed to fight their way back in a playoff spot? The odds are understandably bad, but not quite as dismal as you might have guessed.

In the last 10 years alone, seven teams have begun the season with a 2-4 record (or worse) and found their way to a playoff spot by Week 17. That’s seven out of a total 120 playoff teams in that stretch, which comes in at 5.8 percent of that entire playoff field which climbed their way out of a big early-season hole.

The current Patriots playoffs odds are probably a little bit higher than that 5.8 percent mark when you examine the team's situation in 2020. To begin, the NFL has expanded the playoff field to seven in each conference, which puts another wildcard spot in play for the Pats. They also have the seventh easiest schedule remaining in the NFL according to Tankathon.com while their top foe in the AFC East (Bills) has the seventh toughest schedule left.

All of this will mean nothing quickly of course if the Pats don’t win the first of their two head-to-head matchups with the 5-2 Bills on Sunday afternoon. A 3.5-game hole with nine games to play would require the Pats to play close to perfect football the rest of the way, something that this squad hasn’t strung together in a single week all year.

Still, there could be some lessons learned about the types of teams that have pulled off the 2-4 turnaround during the last decade. Let’s sort them by category and figure out where the current Pats might fit in.

QB CHANGE SPARKS TURNAROUND

2019 Titans
Start: 2-4
Finish: 9-7 (AFC Wildcard No. 6 seed)
Playoffs: 2-1 (Lost AFC Championship to Chiefs, 35-24)
Pro Bowlers: 4
SRS: 3.42 (9th of 32)

Overview: Patriots fans need no introduction to this squad after seeing the Pats get eliminated by the Titans in the Wildcard round last year. Ryan Tannehill made his first start of the season in Week 7 in place of Marcus Mariota which gave this team the steady play it needed at QB to produce more winning football. The bad news for the Patriots is that Jarrett Stidham does not look like the answer behind Cam Newton so a QB switch (probably) does not help them become Titans 2.0. Incredibly, this is the squad that has gone deepest in the playoffs among all the teams on this list, thanks to a stout defense and the impressive play of Derrick Henry in the backfield.

2011 Broncos
Start: 2-4
Finish: 8-8 (AFC West champs, No. 4 seed)
Playoffs: 1-1 (Lost Divisional round to Pats, 45-10)
Pro Bowlers: 6 (4 on defense)
SRS: -5.30 (25th of 32)

Overview: This is another team that you can point to the Week 7 QB change as the turning point with Tim Tebow taking over for a struggling Kyle Orton. The 2011 Broncos had a lot of talent, especially on the defensive end of the field, but they were overall a pretty mediocre squad that really benefitted from a horrific AFC West in 2011. Tebow put together a few magical comebacks, including the game-winning overtime TD pass against the Steelers in the wildcard game, but his career came crashing back down to earth for good against the Pats in the next round.

REALLY GOOD TEAMS THAT JUST STARTED POORLY

2015 Chiefs
Start: 1-5
Finish: 11-5 (AFC Wildcard No. 5 seed)
Playoffs: 1-1 (Lost Divisional round to Pats, 27-20)
Pro Bowlers: 6 (5 on defense)
SRS: 9.00 (4th of 32)

Overview: This was the first team since the 1970 Bengals to qualify for the playoffs after a 1-5 start and they did it on the back of their defense which featured five Pro Bowlers. The 2015 Chiefs also strung together the longest winning streak in franchise history at 10 and even extended it to 11 wins in the playoffs before falling in Foxboro in Round 2. No big turning point for this group beyond All-Pro RB Jamaal Charles going down for the season in Week 5. In his place, Charcadrick West and Spencer Ware stepped up while Alex Smith did just enough to win games as KC rode a tremendous defense that didn’t allow more than 22 points in a game once during their 10-game winning streak.

2015 Seahawks
Start: 2-4
Finish 10-6 (NFC Wildcard No. 6 seed)
Playoffs: 1-1 (Lost Divisional round to Panthers 31-24)
Pro Bowlers: 7 (6 on defense/special teams)
SRS: 11.34 (2nd of 32)

Overview: The best team on this list by the advanced metrics. They were coming off back-to-back trips to the Super Bowl and ended up having one of the best defenses and quarterbacks (Russell Wilson) in the NFL this season. Blown fourth-quarter leads led to their 2-4 start but they turned things around in a hurry during the regular season to snag a wildcard. Ultimately, a 31-0 deficit against Cam Newton and the Panthers in the Divisional round was too much for them to overcome.

FRANCHISE QB LEADS TURNAROUND

2018 Colts
Start: 1-5
Finish: 10-6 (AFC Wildcard (No. 6 seed)
Playoffs 1-1 (Lost AFC Divisional Round to No. 1 Chiefs, 31-13)
Pro Bowlers: 3
SRS: 3.36 (11th of 32)

Overview: They became the third team in NFL history to qualify for the playoffs after a 1-5 start. It was the final season for Andrew Luck (39 TD, 15 INT) who delivered a tremendous offensive performance in the second half of the season to propel their turnaround on a team that had a mostly mediocre supporting cast on both sides of the ball.

MEDIOCRE TEAMS THAT GOT SOME BREAKS

This is the category that the Pats will probably fall into if they end up pulling off the turnaround. The advanced metrics are better for the Pats heading into week 8 than they were for both these squads by the end of their seasons. The same goes for the 2011 Broncos (who could also fall into this category).

2016 Dolphins
Start: 1-4
Finish: 10-6 (AFC Wildcard No. 6 seed)
Playoffs: 0-1 (Lost Wildcard round to Steelers, 30-12)
Pro Bowlers: 4
SRS: -2.40 (25th of 32)

Overview: Next to the Broncos, they grade out as the worst team among this bunch. They benefitted from a soft schedule and some luck in tight games to get to 10-6 despite losing starting QB Ryan Tannehill after 13 games for the season. Matt Moore took over and squeaked out a couple of wins to lock up a playoff spot for them before they got blown away by the Steelers in the wildcard round. Pats should have more talent than this group as a whole if Cam Newton can snap out of his funk.

2015 Redskins
Start: 2-4
Finish: 9-7 (NFC East champs, No. 4 seed)
Playoffs: 0-1 (Lost Wildcard round to Packers, 35-18)
Pro Bowlers: 1
SRS: -1.93 (18th of 32)
Overview: Kirk Cousins took over for injured Robert Griffin in the preseason and guided this team to the playoffs thanks to a horrific NFC East that featured three sub .500 teams as their competition. The offense was slightly above-average with weapons consisting of Alfred Morris, Jordan Reed, Jamison Crowder and Pierre Garcon. Defense was slightly subpar but it was still enough to get this group to nine wins before they were blown out in the playoffs by the Packers.