Beginning in the 1978 season, the NFL expanded its schedule from 14 games to 16, and it increased the number of playoff teams from eight to 10, adding a second wild-card spot for each conference.
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Since that expansion, there have been 10 teams to make the postseason after starting 1-4 – and that’s exactly where the Atlanta Falcons find themselves five games into the 2018 season. Four teams since 2011 have climbed back to reach the playoffs after such a start, and the 2017 Chargers finished with a 9-7 record but missed out on a wild card spot due to tie-break rules.
The point is this: While a 1-4 start is certainly not the best place to be, there are teams, and several recent teams, who have climbed out of such a hole and secured a playoff spot. It won’t be easy for the Falcons, but there is a path to the postseason.
Let’s take a look at how each of those 10 teams rebounded from its slow start and made a run at the playoffs.
1983 Detroit Lions
The 1983 Lions began their season with a shutout win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before losing the next four games by an average of about nine points. After its 1-4 start, Detroit’s offense kicked into gear.
The Lions hadn’t scored more than 26 points in any of its first five games but then proceeded to score over 30 points in three of its next four games, which helped them pull to a 4-5 record with seven games remaining. From there, the defense found its stride and kept Detroit in games.
Detroit’s offense scored more than 23 points just once over its final seven games, but its defense held opponents to 20 points or fewer in all but one of those games. The defense’s emergence helped the Lions go 5-2 down the stretch and win the NFC Central with a 9-7 record.
That run came to a tough end in the playoffs, however, as the Lions lost by a single point to the 49ers in the divisional round after their kicker missed a 44-yard field goal with five seconds remaining.
1992 San Diego Chargers
The 1992 Chargers opened their season with four straight losses before finally winning their first game of the season. After their first five games, the Chargers had a bye week to get things straightened out, which is exactly what they did.
San Diego would lose just once more over its final 10 games of the season to win the AFC West with an 11-5 record. The key to the turnaround was an offensive resurgence. The Chargers’ offense went from averaging 9.2 points through their first five games to averaging 29 points after the bye week.
In the first round of the playoffs it was the Chargers’ defense that showed up, helping them shutout the Chiefs in the wild card round. San Diego would then get shutout, itself, in the divisional round against the Dolphins.
1993 Houston Oilers
Like the Chargers, the 1993 Oilers went on an incredible run and did not lose another game after their 1-4 start. The emergence of running back Gary Brown, who ran for over 1,000 yards and scored eight touchdowns despite not logging a single carry until Week 8, certainly played a role.
But the Oilers were a complete and balanced team who just appear to have begun playing like it after a slow start.
The Oilers’ 11-game win streak came to a screeching halt in the playoffs, however, as they lost 28-20 to the Chiefs in the divisional round.
2002 New York Jets
The 2002 Jets dropped four straight games after winning their season opener, putting them at 1-4 heading into their Week 6 bye. In three of their four losses, the Jets scored a combined 13 points, but the insertion of Chad Pennington as the starting quarterback and corrections on defense seem to have had the biggest impact.
After giving up an average of 32.4 points in its first five games, New York held teams to an average of just 15.8 points over its final 11 games. The Jets won eight of its last 11 games to finish 9-7 and atop the AFC East. The Jets shut out the Colts 41-0 in the wild card round before being knocked off by the Raiders, 30-10, in the divisional round.
2002 Tennessee Titans
Tennessee won its first game of the season but then lost its next four, including an overtime loss to the Browns. After those four losses, the Titans went on a five-game win streak before losing by one points to the Ravens. Following that loss, the Titans ended the season with another five-game win streak to win the AFC South with an 11-5 record.
The 2002 Titans were a balanced team who finished just outside of the top 10 in both scoring offense and defense. They didn’t always win prettily, but they got things rolling when they needed to. Tennessee kept things rolling in the playoffs, beating the Steelers by a field goal in the divisional round, but the Titans fell to the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game.
2004 Green Bay Packers
After winning their season opener on “Monday Night Football” against the Panthers, the 2004 Packers dropped their next four games to fall to 1-4. Following their disappointing start, Packers head coach and general manager Mike Sherman took over direction of the offense and helped them average 29.5 points the rest of the way.
That uptick in offense helped the Packers finish in first place of the NFC North with a 10-6 record and reach the postseason for the fourth straight season. Green Bay’s return to the playoffs didn’t last long, however, as they lost to the Vikings in the wild-card round.
2011 Denver Broncos
The 2011 Broncos season is one of the wildest ones in recent history. Denver was 1-4 heading into their bye week in Week 6. Beginning in Week 7, the Broncos benched quarterback Kyle Orton and named Tim Tebow their starter.
Tebow responded by leading the Broncos to wins in seven of their next eight games, including a six-game win streak. The Broncos had six game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or in overtime once Tebow was inserted as the starting quarterback. Denver lost its final three games of the season, but it still managed to win the AFC West with an 8-8 record.
The Broncos’ improbable run continued in the postseason when they earned an overtime victory over the Steelers, who tied for the second-best record in the AFC, in the wild-card round. Denver would get crushed by the Patriots in the divisional round, though.
Most would agree that this is easily the least-replicable path.
2015 Kansas City Chiefs
After starting their 2015 season with a win, the Chiefs lost their next five games to fall to a 1-5 record. That fifth loss was the last one the Chiefs would have in 2015, as they rattled off 10 straight wins to finish second in the AFC West and earn a wild card spot with an 11-5 record.
During their losing streak, the Chiefs lost star running back Jamaal Charles for the year due to a torn ACL. It was the defense that led the way for Kansas City during their 10-game win streak as a secondary that included Eric Berry and rookie Marcus Peters helped the team record 22 interceptions, the second-most in the NFL.
The Chiefs knocked off the Texans – the next team on this list – in the first round of the playoffs, but they could not get past the Patriots in the divisional round.
2015 Houston Texans
The Texans’ 2015 season began with four losses and their first win nestled right in the middle of those four losses. The Texans didn’t immediately flip a switch after their 1-4 start, and they even dropped to 2-5 before stringing together back-to-back wins.
The biggest turnaround for Houston came on defense. During their first seven games, the Texans gave up 28.4 points per game. In their final nine games, seven of which were wins, the Texans’ defense allowed an average of 12.6 points. Defensive end J.J. Watt led the NFL with 17.5 sacks in 2015, and linebacker Whitney Mercilus was sixth in the league with 12 sacks.
Houston finished with a 9-7 record to end up atop a lackluster AFC South.
2016 Miami Dolphins
The 2016 Dolphins’ only win in their first five games was an overtime victory against the Browns. After starting 1-4 in Adam Gase’s first season as head coach, the Dolphins began a six-game win streak that included five victories by a touchdown or less.
Eight of the Dolphins’ 10 wins were by seven points or fewer in 2016, which is indicative of luck playing a role in at least some of Miami’s victories. The Dolphins finished with a 10-6 record in Gase’s first season, ending up in second in the AFC East and earning a wild-card spot. Miami did not last long in the postseason, losing to the Steelers in the wild-card round.
What does it all mean for the Falcons?
Many of the teams on this list appeared to have flipped a switch at some point or made noticeable improvements on one side of the ball. With the offense already posting three 30-plus-point games, the Falcons could benefit the most from an improvement on defense.
Injuries have undoubtedly impacted the team’s start, but the experience the Falcons’ defenders have gained while playing new roles and next to new faces in the wake of those injuries could pay off.
Atlanta’s 2016 season provides a starting template for how the Falcons could make a run this year. That season, the Falcons allowed 30 or more points to their first four opponents and gave up an average of 28 points through their first four games.
Through five games this year, the Falcons have given up an average of 32 points, which isn’t far off from where that 2016 unit began. The biggest difference of course is on offense, but the Falcons have played well enough offensively this year to win at least two of the games they lost.
It’s too much to ask the Falcons to replicate the 2016 season offensively, but they are currently averaging over 27 points per game and have shown the ability to score much more. The key difference is in 2016 the Falcons were winning their shootouts. This season, they’re 1-2 in such games.