The New York Giants were not expected to be competitive in 2022, but a surprising 2-0 start has made them one of the league’s undefeated teams. They’re playing better on both sides of the ball, backed by a new coaching staff led by Brian Daboll and his aggressive mentality. Kick a game-tying extra point against Tennessee? Run on third-and-long and punt to give Carolina one more drive? No thank you. The Giants play to win.
So why are the Giants only 18th in the Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings? It would be understandable if these ratings included prior data; that’s part of why the Giants are so low in the ESPN FPI ratings, for example. But the DVOA ratings are only based on the first two games, and they don’t even include opponent adjustments this early in the season, so it isn’t an issue of the Giants getting dinged for beating a bad Carolina team and a declining Tennessee squad.
It turns out the Giants have been somewhat lucky in escaping with two close wins to start the season. When we drill down to their play-by-play performance with DVOA, we find that the Giants are one of the weakest 2-0 teams we’ve ever measured, going back to 1981.
Let’s take a look at the worst 2-0 starts here and see how these teams compare to this year’s G-Men.
This is not a bad list to be on, certainly. First of all, advanced metrics may be good for predicting the future but only the wins and losses count in the standings. The “worst 2-0 teams” can be very happy about starting 2-0.
Second, many of these teams played better football over the rest of the season. Sometimes, a team with a surprising 2-0 start will see its luck regress and start losing games. Other times, these teams have seen their performance improve so they are playing better — and they are fortunate to have two wins already banked. Two of the teams described below even made it to the Super Bowl! On the other hand, most of the teams that got better after Week 2 were coming off better prior seasons than this year’s Giants — and Tom Brady isn’t walking through that door.
You’ll notice a lot of repeating patterns when we talk about the “worst 2-0 starts.” Almost all of the games we’ll talk about were decided by one score. Fumble recovery luck comes up a lot, as do missed field goals and long final drives by opponents that didn’t quite get points on the board.
Here’s a look at the 12 worst 2-0 starts since 1981 by DVOA.
How it started: The 49ers opened the season with the late Monday night doubleheader game at home against the Cardinals. Both offenses were horrible, with Arizona’s Matt Leinart throwing for just 102 yards while San Francisco’s Alex Smith threw for just 126. The 49ers took the lead with just 22 seconds left on an end around from Arnaz Battle, then picked off a deep desperation throw from Leinart to close it out and win 20-17.
Week 2, Smith again had just 126 passing yards but Frank Gore rushed for 81 and two touchdowns in 20 carries. The 49ers were down 16-14 when Dante Hall muffed a punt for the Rams, and the 49ers recovered on the Rams 26. San Francisco’s drive went all of four yards, but they took a 17-16 lead on a Joe Nedney field goal with 3:28 left. Then Jeff Wilkins missed a 56-yard attempt for the Rams with 1:04 left. That’s two wins by four points.
How it finished: The 49ers lost their next eight games in a row. They finished the year 5-11 and dead last in DVOA. Four different quarterbacks started games for them. It was bad.
How it started: First, the Bills went to New Jersey and beat the Giants 23-20 in overtime. The Bills fumbled five times, but the Giants could only recover one of those fumbles. The next week, the Bills came home to beat the Patriots 17-10. The usually reliable Jim Kelly threw three picks, and the Bills averaged just 2.2 yards per carry on the ground, but the Patriots couldn’t get any offense going either. The Bills benefited from good luck on special teams when Patriots’ new kicker Adam Vinatieri missed three field goals from 25, 45 and 47 yards. Buffalo let the Patriots’ final drive go 78 yards to the Buffalo 2-yard line, but the Patriots couldn’t get the ball in the end zone on three tries.
The Bills were eighth in defensive DVOA after two weeks but 18th on offense and 27th on special teams.
How it finished: The Bills’ special teams recovered and ended the season fifth in the league, but their offense collapsed. Kelly struggled all year with a hamstring injury, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns and missing three starts at midseason. The Bills finished the year 26th in offensive DVOA.
And yet the Bills kept winning games against an easy schedule. Their luck on special teams continued all season, as no team saw its opponents lose more expected value from missing field goals. (Opponents were 23-of-36, although three of those were blocked by the Bills.) The Bills finished the year 10-6 and made the playoffs, but were upset at home by upstart Jacksonville in the wild-card round.
How it started: Las Vegas opened its season in Carolina and blew a 27-15 lead but then came back to win 34-30 after a Josh Jacobs touchdown with 4:08 remaining. That wasn’t the weird game. Week 2 was the weird game. On a Monday night, the Saints outgained the Raiders on a per-play basis, 7.4 yards to 5.0 yards, and on a total basis, 424 yards to 377 yards. But the Saints simply could not stop committing big penalties. They finished the game with 10 penalties for 129 yards, and the Raiders won 34-24.
How it finished: The next week, the Raiders went to New England and lost 36-20 to the Cam Newton Patriots. The rest of the Raiders season was a lot like the first two games. The offense was a little bit above average (14th in DVOA for the year) and the defense was terrible (28th). The Raiders started 6-3 but lost five of their next six games and finished the season 8-8.
How it started: The Steelers opened the season with a 20-13 win over the Ravens, helped along when Baltimore kicker Matt Stover missed three field goals. Pittsburgh won despite losing the turnover battle 3-0 and giving up over 100 more yards to Baltimore than they gained themselves, although 45 of those yards did come on Baltimore’s final play (which needed to gain 81 yards to reach the end zone).
In Week 2, the Steelers only converted two out of 11 third downs. This time, they let the Bears gain over 70 more yards than they gained themselves. They won the game 17-12 anyway. The Bears were driving for the win in the fourth quarter and went from their own 33 to the Pittsburgh 16, but Erik Kramer threw an interception on third-and-10 with 54 seconds left.
How it finished: The Steelers were spanked 21-0 by the Dolphins in Week 3, then rebounded with another close win over Seattle in Week 4. By mid-November, the Steelers were 7-4, but 5-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less. They went into a tailspin after an overtime loss to Detroit on Thanksgiving, losing their final five games to finish 7-9.
How it started: The Giants have won two games by a combined four points. They won 21-20 in Week 1 when Randy Bullock of the Titans missed a 47-yard field goal as time expired. The Panthers fumbled the ball away to the Giants twice in the first five minutes of Week 2, but the Giants still needed two field goals over 50 yards to beat Carolina 19-16. Through two games, New York has an offensive success rate of just 38%, 29th in the league. They’ve allowed 5.6 yards per play and gained just 5.1 yards per play themselves. Daniel Jones has made all kinds of bad throws, including what would have been a sure pick-six for Carolina if Frankie Luvu didn’t let the ball go right through his hands.
The rest of the season: We shall see. It certainly helps that we projected the Giants with one of the league’s 10 easiest schedules before the season — and that was before we learned that the Cowboys would be without Dak Prescott for at least one of their meetings with New York.
How it started: Buffalo beat the Chiefs and Vikings at home by a combined six points. There were six fumbles in the two games, and the Bills recovered five of them (four of their own, one on a sack of Kansas City quarterback Bill Kenney). The sixth fumble was on a carry by Bills running back Booker Moore, and it bounced out of the end zone for a safety instead of having a Vikings defender pounce on it for a touchdown. The Bills also had a very poor special teams rating after two weeks thanks to three missed field goals for kicker Nick Mike-Mayer.
How it finished: The NFL went on strike for eight weeks. When the league came back in November, the Bills played a little better than in those two early games but they weren’t escaping with the close wins anymore. Buffalo climbed to 10th in the league in DVOA by the end of the season, partly thanks to shutout wins over Baltimore and Pittsburgh, but finished the year 4-5 and didn’t make the expanded 16-team playoff tournament.
How it started: By final score, the 2016 Texans had the biggest wins of any of the teams on this list. On the other hand, they had Brock Osweiler at quarterback.
Houston’s 23-14 win over Chicago in Week 1 was not really a “surprising” win, and the Texans had the higher DVOA in this game. The win that dragged their rating down was Week 2, 19-12 over Kansas City. The Chiefs fumbled three times in this game and the Texans recovered all of them. Both teams combined to go 0-for-6 in red zone opportunities. Kansas City went 76 yards down the field on their final drive but ended up with fourth-and-7 at the Houston 12. They decided to try to hit the near-impossible “field goal-onside kick-Hail Mary” triple-bank shot, making the field goal but not recovering the onside kick.
How it finished: In Week 3, the Texans went to Foxborough and got pummeled 27-0 by a Patriots team that was starting a third-string rookie quarterback. (More on them in a moment.) The Texans went through the first half of the season alternating close victories with big losses, then went through the second half of the season alternating close victories with close losses. Over the course of the 2016 season, Houston was outgained by opponents on the average play, 5.1 yards to 4.7 yards, and had a negative turnover margin. By the end of the year, they were 9-7 but 28th in the league in DVOA. Only two teams ever made the playoffs with a lower DVOA rating, the 2004 Rams (8-8) and the 2010 Seahawks (7-9).
And yet the Texans won their first playoff game because Derek Carr was hurt and the Raiders had to start Connor Cook. Then they had a rematch with New England and ended up as roadkill on the Patriots’ way to another title. In the offseason, the Texans handed a 2018 second-round pick to the Browns in order to get Osweiler’s contract off their hands. And then they drafted Deshaun Watson.
How it started: Perhaps you remember something about deflated footballs and the Patriots playing with a backup quarterback? Nobody was worried about whether the Patriots’ 2-0 start was hiding an underperforming team when it was Jimmy Garoppolo eeking out the wins.
Nonetheless, the first two Patriots wins (23-21 over Arizona and 31-24 over Miami) featured many of the hallmarks of “worst 2-0 starts.” Missed field goals? Arizona’s Chandler Catanzaro missed one from 47 yards with 41 seconds left to give the Patriots the win in Week 1. Fumble recoveries? The Patriots recovered four of six fumbles (two from each team) in their Week 2 win over Miami. A deficiency in yards per play? Miami gained 7.5 yards per play to only 6.2 for the Patriots. Opponent with a long late drive that falls short? The Dolphins made it to the Patriots 29 before Duron Harmon intercepted Ryan Tannehill’s fourth-down Hail Mary with nine seconds left.
How it finished: Tom Brady came back from suspension. The Patriots went 14-2, finished the season No. 1 in DVOA, and won the Super Bowl.
How it started: John Skelton started the first game for Arizona, having beaten out Kevin Kolb in one of the least inspiring quarterback camp battles of NFL history. Then Skelton got hurt with the Cardinals down 16-13 to Seattle in the fourth quarter. Kolb entered the game and led a long drive that ended in a touchdown pass to Andre Roberts to give Arizona a 20-16 win. Seattle went 76 yards on its final drive, but Russell Wilson threw three incomplete passes from the four-yard line to end the game.
Week 2 was the weird game, though. The Cardinals went to Foxborough with Kolb starting and beat the Patriots and Tom Brady. New England outgained Arizona 387 yards to 242, but the Cardinals got one of their two touchdowns after a blocked punt set them up at the New England 2-yard line. At one point the Cardinals were winning 20-9, and then the Patriots started a patented Brady comeback. But they couldn’t finish it when Stephen Gostkowski honked a 42-yard try wide left, and the Cardinals escaped with a 20-18 victory.
How it finished: With the football public doubting them, the Cardinals went out the next week and stomped the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-6. Maybe they were for real? They won in Week 4 as well, although it took overtime to get past the Miami Dolphins. Was it possible that the Kevin Kolb-led Arizona Cardinals were a Super Bowl contender?
No. No, it was not possible. The Cardinals took their 4-0 start and then lost nine games in a row. They ended the season 5-11 and 24th in DVOA. In this case, that low DVOA and those close wins were a sign that the early Cardinals were not as good as their record. Ken Whisenhunt was fired, and the quarterback trio of Kolb, Skelton and Ryan Lindley was replaced by free-agent signing Carson Palmer.
How it started: The first Rams win came 16-10 over the St. Louis Cardinals. The teams were evenly matched in most stats, and the Rams pulled it out thanks in part to 103 penalty yards from the Cardinals. St. Louis marched 62 yards down the field in the final two minutes and converted fourth-and-2 from the 4-yard line with a Stump Mitchell run off right tackle, only to see time run out before they could get a play off from the Rams’ 1-yard line.
Week 2 was the real reason for the Rams’ low DVOA, though. Los Angeles hosted the 49ers with Jeff Kemp starting and Joe Montana on the sidelines with an injury. They won 16-13 even though the 49ers outgained the Rams 325 yards to 192 yards… despite running fewer plays in the game! The Rams’ only touchdown came when they blocked a 44-yard field goal by 49ers kicker Ray Wersching and returned it for a score. The game was tied in the fourth quarter until the Rams won on a Mike Lansford 18-yard field goal with two seconds left.
How it finished: The Rams were coming off an 11-5 first-place season and were expected to be contenders in 1986. They escaped with two early wins when they weren’t playing that well but returned to their usual level of play for some more significant victories over the course of the season. The Rams finished 10-6 and 10th in DVOA despite having to start three different quarterbacks: Steve Bartkowski, Steve Dils and first-round rookie Jim Everett. They lost to Washington in the wild-card round.
How it started: Like the 2022 Giants, the 2004 Jaguars won their first two games by a combined four points. They couldn’t move the ball but played good enough defense to keep games close. First came a 13-10 victory over the Bills where the Jaguars got their only touchdown on a game-winning Byron Leftwich pass to Ernest Wilford as time expired. This was back when the “force out” rule still existed, and review ruled that Wilford had been forced out of bounds after catching the ball. The Wilford touchdown came on fourth-and-goal, one of three fourth downs the Jaguars converted on the final drive. Otherwise, this game featured a lot of the things you’ve been reading about in this entire article. The Bills missed a field goal and had bad fumble recovery luck, with the Jaguars recovering two out of three fumbles.
Week 2 was another close game with very little scoring, a 7-6 win for the Jaguars. The Broncos outgained the Jaguars 356 to 176, running 74 plays to just 40 for the Jaguars, but they couldn’t get the ball into the end zone. The Jaguars went three-and-out on five out of 10 non-kneeldown drives. Again, the Jaguars were beneficiaries of a missed field goal, this time a 51-yarder by Jason Elam. And the Broncos were in position for Elam to kick a game-winning field goal with 37 seconds left until running back Quentin Griffin botched a handoff at the Jacksonville 23 and Akin Ayodele recovered the ball for the Jaguars.
How it finished: The Jaguars were 6-3 after nine games with their wins coming by a combined 22 points. That couldn’t last, and it didn’t. Jacksonville’s actual play on the field improved, as they went from 28th in DVOA to 13th by the end of the year. However, the Jaguars went 3-4 in their final seven games to finish the season at 9-7 and out of the playoffs.
How it started: Here’s another team that won its first two games by a combined four points. Week 1 was a 24-23 victory at home against Jacksonville. There were five fumbles in this game, and the Panthers recovered all of them (four of their own and one from the Jaguars). Rodney Peete started for the Panthers and had minus-1 net passing yards at halftime when he was pulled for Jake Delhomme. Delhomme managed 121 net passing yards in the second half and threw three touchdown passes along with two interceptions. The last of those touchdowns came with 22 seconds left to give Carolina the win. Jacksonville moved the ball 26 yards after the kickoff, but Carolina blocked a 55-yard Seth Marler field goal try.
For Week 2, the Panthers went to Tampa Bay and won 12-9 in overtime. This time Delhomme started, but he could barely move the ball, going 9-for-23 for 96 yards with two interceptions and no touchdown passes. Brad Johnson had over 300 passing yards for the Bucs but couldn’t get the ball into the end zone, and Carolina blocked two Martin Gramatica field goals. When Johnson led an 82-yard drive in the final two minutes and finally found Keenan McCardell for a touchdown to make it 9-9, the Panthers then blocked the Gramatica extra point to send the game to overtime. After Tampa’s only drive in the extra period, Steve Smith had a 52-yard punt return which led to a game-winning John Kasay 47-yard field goal.
Through two weeks, the Panthers had been outgained on average 5.2 yards to 4.0 yards per play. They ranked 31st in offensive DVOA and 25th on defense. The Panthers were living off blocked kicks, which we consider “nonpredictive plays” at Football Outsiders. Blocked kicks aren’t luck, they certainly take skill, but they’re so rare that we don’t include them in our DVOA ratings because they don’t do anything to predict how well a team will play in the future.
How it finished: In fact, the Panthers didn’t block another field goal or extra point for the rest of the regular season. But they did block a field goal in the Super Bowl, putting an exclamation point on the remarkable fact that the 2003 Panthers turned around from this start and almost won the Super Bowl.
The Panthers were better for the rest of the season, outgaining their opponents by an average of 5.4 yards to 4.7 yards per play. However, they also had great luck in close games and finished with a 9-3 regular-season record in games decided by less than a touchdown. Carolina finished 16th in the league in overall DVOA at minus-0.2%; only the 2008 Arizona Cardinals have gone to the Super Bowl with a lower regular-season DVOA. But then the Panthers went on a great playoff run and finished a field goal away from a Super Bowl championship. Like the 2016 Patriots, the 2003 Panthers are great reminder that sometimes teams that get outplayed in early victories will see their performance improve, not their luck regress.