It goes without saying that if a team has a winning record through the first five weeks of a season that said team is more likely to make the playoffs than not. But for fans of those teams below .500 entering Week 6 this year, not all is lost. History has shown than a slow start in the NFL week 1 can overcome in terms of getting to the postseason.
Research by SBR Forum shows that since 1990, which is when the NFL expanded the playoff field to its current 12-team format, 54 teams have advanced to the playoffs after starting the season 2-3 or worse. A total of 17 teams have rebounded from being at least three games under .500 after five weeks or later to qualify for the postseason. That number includes a surprising seven 1-4 teams that went on to win their division.
Last year, the Houston Texans were just 1-4 in the beginning of the season and then 2-5 but behind a stellar defense they finished at 9-7 and won the AFC South. It certainly helped Houston’s cause that the South was the NFL’s worst division with no other winning teams. The Indianapolis Colts were preseason favorites to repeat as division champions but star quarterback Andrew Luck missed nine games and Indy was just 8-8.
In 2014, the Carolina Panthers looked dead in the water at 4-8-1. But they won their final three games to claim the NFC South at 7-8-1 — only the second time in a non-strike season that a division title was won with a losing record. Carolina then won a playoff game as well and gained momentum into 2015 when the Panthers finished an NFL-best 15-1 and reached the Super Bowl.
The 2016 Panthers are one of the NFL’s biggest disappointments at 1-5 so they will need one of those remarkable turnarounds. But the good news for them is they play in the NFC South, which is likely the league’s second-worst division this year behind the AFC South.
Carolina is favored this week at New Orleans and should beat the 1-3 Saints as long as Cam Newton returns from a concussion. Then comes a bye week, and the Panthers should be favored in their following four games: Week 8 vs. Arizona in an NFC Championship Game rematch, Week 9 at Los Angeles, Week 10 vs. Kansas City and Week 11 vs. New Orleans.
Winning the division could be tough for the Panthers as they already are three games behind Atlanta, which holds a head-to-head tiebreaker. But a wild-card spot is attainable. Carolina is now +1500 on SBR’s best sportsbooks to repeat as NFC champions. I believe the Panthers are the only 1-4 team with a shot at this year’s playoffs.
Every year this decade a team at least three games under .500 after Week 5 has made the playoffs other than in 2013. The best record a team that was a least three under after Week 5 finished with was the 1993 Houston Oilers, who started 1-4 and won their final 11. Last year’s Kansas City Chiefs were 1-5 but won their final 10 regular-season games to earn a wild-card spot.