Why Falcons won’t be another 0-2 team to make NFL playoffs

By now you’ve likely heard that just 16 of 148 teams that started 0-2 went on to the playoffs since 2002, the year the NFL adopted eight divisions and a more balanced schedule. None of the nine 0-2 teams in 2019 pulled it off, but at least one did so in seven consecutive seasons before that. There’s also an extra Wild Card this year, so the playoff odds are better than ever for 0-2 teams.

The Falcons are 0-2 after they inexplicably forgot how to cover an onside kick at Dallas on Sunday. FiveThirtyEight.com’s projection still puts their playoff chances at 19%. The offense was fantastic against the Cowboys. The blocking has looked much better in both games and Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley form a formidable trio of skill players.

There’s enough there to talk yourself into believing the Falcons will become the latest 0-2 team to make the playoffs. In that spirit, I took a closer look at the 16 teams who’ve done it to see if the Falcons fit the profile. I’m not seeing it.

About half of those 16 teams were good all-around squads that started the season slowly. That includes the 2002 Falcons. They ranked fifth in points scored and eighth in points allowed. Those Michael Vick Falcons were good enough to give the Packers their first-ever playoff loss at Lambeau Field.

That 2020 Falcons are not a good all-around team. They are a very good offensive team that aspires to be average on defense. And coach Dan Quinn is on his third consecutive season of leading his team to a stumbling start. Things only got worse in 2018 and 2019.

There have been some middling NFL teams that recovered from 0-2 to make the playoffs. Even if the Falcons can clear that relatively low bar, it might not be enough. Most of those not-so-great 0-2 teams that made the playoffs had a premier pass rusher or ball-hawking pass coverage (or both). The Falcons have neither.

Luck is another factor. That includes injuries, which (mostly) can’t be controlled. There are fumble recoveries (they are fluky) and victories in close games (less random, but luck is involved). Many of the 0-2 teams that rallied to make the playoffs had good luck with at least one of those things.

It’s foolhardy to count on good fortune for Quinn’s Falcons. They’ve made history blowing games they had in hand. They once enjoyed great injury luck but that’s changed, as it always does eventually.

The Falcons might figure out a way to be more disruptive in pass coverage. It’s harder to imagine them being good enough to win by large margins or lucky enough to win more close games than they lose. The Falcons have a chance to make the playoffs, but it’s been a long time since Quinn’s team surprised us for more than a game here or there.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Quinn’s old boss, Seattle coach Pete Carroll, led two teams to the playoffs after an 0-2 start. The 2015 Seahawks were great. The 2018 Seahawks finished 10-6 with lesser offensive talent than the 2020 Falcons. Seattle ranked sixth in scoring and 11th in points allowed that season.

But the 2015 Seahawks had very good luck by recovering 14 of their 18 fumbles. They also had 64 passes defended. That’s a key statistic because deflected passes are takeaway chances. Sacks also correlate with takeaways. Quarterbacks who don’t see them coming can fumble. The Seahawks were 11th in sacks per pass play in 2018.

After Sunday’s games, the Falcons ranked 20th in sack percentage. Their best showing in Quinn’s previous five seasons was 14th in 2017. They were 26th or worse during the other four years.

The Falcons have just five passes defended with no interceptions this season. They had 57 passes defended and 12 picks in 2019. But cornerback Desmond Trufant, last season’s team leader in combined PDs and INTs, now plays for the Lions.

The Texans also went from 0-2 to the playoffs twice. The 2018 team was balanced. The 2015 team wasn’t good offensively (21st in points scored and 25th in Football Outsiders efficiency). It was very good defensively (seventh and seventh) with J.J. Watt producing 17½ sacks and three forced fumbles.

It’s at least feasible the Falcons can manage that in reverse: great offense, OK defense. But it’s going to be hard without a great edge rusher or pass defenders who get their hands on lots of passes.

The last great year by a Falcons pass rusher was 2008, when John Abraham had 16½ sacks and four forced fumbles. The Falcons are searching for defensive backs who can consistently stay close to their man. They’ll have to do that before they can hope to make more plays on the ball.

The Falcons probably have more talent than the 2016 Dolphins, who went from 0-2 to the playoffs despite being average in all areas (Ryan Tannehill was the quarterback). The Dolphins recorded 75 passes defended with 16 INTs. They were lucky to recover 18 of their 26 fumbles and were 8-2 in games with a one-score margin (eight points or less).

The Dolphins also made the playoffs in 2008 after an 0-2 start. That team was pretty good offensively, not so good defensively and bad on special teams. Chad Pennington was the quarterback. Two keys: a 7-2 record in close games and 17½ sacks and four forced fumbles from Joey Porter.

At first glance, it seems the 2020 Falcons are a good match for the 2008 Chargers. The Chargers recovered from 0-2 to make the playoffs that year with a great offense and below-average defense. They had average luck on fumbles and a 2-8 record in games decided by one score.

But the 2008 Chargers managed to win the AFC West with an 8-8 record. The Chargers won twice by one point against the Chiefs, who finished 2-14. The Chargers did have 78 passes defensed but, overall, being OK and not very lucky was good enough that season.

The NFC South had a year like that when the Panthers won the 2014 division title with a 7-8-1 record. Those days are over. The Saints have dominated the South three years in a row and are good again. The Buccaneers have Tom Brady. The 2020 Falcons, unlike the 2008 Chargers, aren’t going to win their division with eight victories.

The 2007 Giants are the gold standard for 0-2 teams that qualified for the postseason. After losing their first two games, the Giants won six in a row. They lost two of their last three-regular season games before going on one of the most improbable playoff runs in NFL history.

That Giants team was statistically average. Their only Pro Bowl player was pass rusher Osi Umenyiora (13 sacks, five forced fumbles). The Giants were 5-1 in games decided by one score during the regular season. They won two road playoff games by four points or fewer than beat the Patriots 17-14 in the Super Bowl (one of the sport’s great mysteries is how Eli Manning bested Bill Belichick’s team in two Super Bowls).

As of Monday afternoon, you could get 95-1 odds on the Falcons to come back from 0-2 to win the Super Bowl. I wouldn’t bet on it. I also don’t foresee the Falcons becoming the latest 0-2 team to bounce back and make the playoffs. The Falcons are talented, especially on offense, but their pass defense doesn’t create much havoc.

Good luck to the Falcons on rallying to make the playoffs using that formula. History shows it’s not enough.