Last year, 16 teams started 2-1. One (the Philadelphia Eagles) won the Super Bowl. Another (the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) won just three more games the rest of the year.
Going 2-1 does not inspire the euphoria of 3-0 or the despair of 0-3. It also leaves a wide variety of potential scenarios in play. Was the one loss a fluke -- or did you get lucky two times? Since 1990, 54.1 percent of teams to start 2-1 have made the playoffs -- or roughly half. In 2017, that rate held more or less true, as nine of the sixteen 2-1 teams (the Eagles, Patriots, Rams, Jaguars, Bills, Panthers, Steelers, Vikings and Titans) made it. In 2016, the rate was 90 percent (nine of 10), while in 2015, it was 33 percent (two of six).
This year's field of 2-1 teams is an interesting mix. In an attempt to suss out which teams are on the path to glory and which are headed for disappointment, I've examined all 11 teams and, based on the 54.1 percent odds of making the postseason, isolated the six teams (54.1 percent of 11) with the best chance to reach the playoffs, providing a reason to believe for each.
1) Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz will get back into an MVP-style groove. Finally back from the ACL injury that sidelined him last December, Wentz will round into 2017 form and push Philly's offense into the top 10. And he'll have additional help when receiver Alshon Jeffery and running backs Jay Ajayi and Darren Sproles return from injuries of their own. The bottom line is, there isn't much standing in the Eagles' way in the NFC East, with the Cowboys and Giants struggling to gain traction and the Redskins failing to string together consistent quality play.
2) Chicago Bears: Khalil Mack and the D will keep them squarely in the NFC North race. It's hard to imagine a trade that cost you two first-round picks being a candidate for deal of the century, but that's what the Mack acquisition is looking like so far. The early Defensive Player of the Year contender is fronting a strong defense that ranks first in the NFL in sacks (14), second against the run and fifth overall. Mack and Co. look ready to carry Chicago while the overhauled offense finds itself and Mitchell Trubisky (who, don't forget, had just 13 college starts under his belt when he entered the NFL) continues gathering the experience he needs to develop. The NFC North is anybody's division, and in such a closely packed race, the team with the best defense has a good chance to claim the crown. Even if the Bears are edged out there, I like them as a wild-card team.
3) Jacksonville Jaguars: They're too talented to not make the playoffs.Last week's loss to the Titans was a hiccup that very well might have stemmed from overconfidence and a loss of focus after that huge Week 2 win over the Patriots. The Jaguars are still clearly the best team in the AFC South, especially when you look at their fourth-ranked defense. The return of running back Leonard Fournette will boost the offense and help buttress the team against the inevitable downswings that counter the highs of having Blake Bortles as your quarterback.
4) Baltimore Ravens: The offense has improved enough to let the defense shine. You might not realize it, but the Ravens just set an NFL record on offense, becoming the first team to score touchdowns on its first 12 red-zone possessions to open a season. Joe Flacco remains hit-and-miss as a quarterback, but this marker of success reflects the impact of Baltimore's upgrades, including running back Alex Collins (picked up last season) and free-agent receivers John Brown, Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead. I think the offense will finish right around its current rank (13th), which would be the Ravens' best ranking since 2014. That kind of showing would allow the defense (currently ranked No. 1) and special teams to drive a serious playoff push.
5) New Orleans Saints: They employ Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas. The Saints' defense struggled to start the season, but the offense is looking like its usual world-beating self, especially with Thomas currently on pace to finish with 202 catches this season (Marvin Harrison's record mark is 143). New Orleans is still missing a pass rush (the selection of Marcus Davenport in the first round has not helped as much as you'd like to see), and I still wonder about the defense overall, which is ranked 30th this year despite returning most of last year's 17th-ranked unit. But New Orleans has a one-game lead on Atlanta and seems to have Carolina's number, and you have to like the Saints' chances in the NFC South, even after their loss to the Bucs.
6) Tennessee Titans: They know how to win ugly. In fact, the Titans have done so not once but twicethis year. Marcus Mariota hasn't exactly developed to the point I thought he would, but he can still be a winning quarterback. When Mariota (who has been dealing with an elbow injury) and the O-line (Taylor Lewan missed Week 2 because of a concussion and Jack Conklin is poised to make his season debut this week after tearing his ACL in the playoffs) are healthy and back at full strength, the offense will be fine. The defense is very good, and I love coach Mike Vrabel, who knows how to get it done.
ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
Note: The following five 2-1 teams are arranged according to their chances of beating the historic odds and squeezing into the playoff picture, each listed with a key question they're facing.
1) Carolina Panthers: Can they beat the Saints? Of the remaining 2-1 teams on this list, the Panthers have the best chance to sneak in, especially if injured tight end Greg Olsenreturns to health soon. I just don't know if I see multiple teams coming out of the NFC South again like last year. Everything will likely come down to a final stretch that includes matchups at home against the Saints in Week 15 and the Falcons in Week 16 before wrapping up with a potentially pivotal Week 17 trip to New Orleans. Don't forget that the Panthers lost to the Saintsthree times last season (including the playoffs).
2) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Forget FitzMagic -- what about the secondary and the ground game? More worrisome than Ryan Fitzpatrick's so-so outing on "Monday Night Football" (and the question of whether Fitzpatrick or Jameis Winston will start at quarterback) was the exposure of Tampa Bay's weaknesses in the secondary and the run game in the loss to Pittsburgh. Those issues don't show signs of being resolved soon. While there is plenty to like about the way the Bucs exceeded expectations in this first stretch of the season, can they sustain success despite a defense that ranks 31st overall and couldn't get a needed stop at the end of Monday's defeat?
3) Washington Redskins: Are they Jekyll (Weeks 1 and 3) or Hyde (Week 2)? Certain things about Washington are very promising, including a veteran quarterback (Alex Smith) who doesn't turn the ball over, a 10th-ranked offense and a second-ranked defense. But there is an alarming lack of consistency, with a confounding loss to the Colts sandwiched between an encouraging season opener and Week 3's win over the Packers. There's also the schedule, which gets hairy down the stretch: Washington's final five games include two against the Eagles and one each against Jacksonville and Tennessee. Will Adrian Peterson hold up as a 33-year-old workhorse running back?
4) Cincinnati Bengals: Just how trustworthy are they? We'll learn a lot about Cincinnati from an upcoming four-game stretch that features showdowns with two of the hotter teams in the NFL (Miami in Week 5 and Kansas City in Week 7) and two prominent contenders (Atlanta in Week 4 and Pittsburgh in Week 6). And that's just the first gauntlet; three of Cincinnati's final four games are on the road against very good teams (the Chargersin Week 14, the Brownsin Week 16 and the Steelersin Week 17). Andy Dalton has to stop throwing interceptions after tossing four against the Panthers.
5) Denver Broncos: Is there any way they can keep up in the AFC West?The Week 3 loss in Baltimore was probably a better indicator of where this team is right now than the two home wins to open the season. I'm a fan of Case Keenum, but he needs to play better; he's only thrown three touchdown passes against five interceptions, with a passer rating (71.6) far below what he accomplished last year (98.3). The secondary really has missed Aqib Talib. Denver does have good running backs, but a realistic look at the AFC West (where the Chiefs have a very strong advantage in both record and momentum) and the Broncos' lackluster showing on the road suggests this team will miss the playoffs for a third straight year.