History says winning Week 1 is key for Patriots and all NFL teams

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Hope springs eternal in 32 NFL cities these days as the fall football season arrives.

Heading into the season opener, teams and fan bases alike channel their inner Kevin Garnett. “Anything is possible!”

In New England, that means Bill Belichick’s rebuilt Patriots have every reason to expect a bounce back, playoff season is in the offing.

The hype train touting Mac Jones as the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year is warranted as he prepares for his pro debut against the Dolphins, even if it will be the first time the No. 15 overall pick out of Alabama takes a first-unit offense into battle against a first-unit defense thanks to his weird preseason reps in the competition with Cam Newton this summer.

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Sunday evening’s game against Miami at Gillette Stadium is the first of 17 steps in a season-long process for Belichick, Jones and the rest of the Patriots. But, based on NFL history, it’s a key first step.

Since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978 – the league is going to play 17 games for the first time in 2021 – winning a season opener had a dramatic impact on a team’s chances for a successful season. According to the NFL’s communications department, of the 633 teams to win on opening day since 1978 more than half, 53-percent, qualified for the postseason. By comparison, only 24-percent of teams that lost on opening day went on to make the playoffs that year.

The numbers are even more dramatic if a team hopes to win its division. Nearly one-third of teams to win their opener since 1978 (32.2 percent) went on to win their division, as opposed to just 13.6 percent of teams that lost on opening day.

Want to win the Super Bowl? Well, unless your team has Tom Brady at quarterback don’t plan on losing on opening day and still hoisting a Lombardi Trophy come February. Dating back to 2014, Brady’s Patriots and his 2020 Bucs squad are the only two teams to lose the season opener and still go on to win the Super Bowl. The combined opening day record of the 55 eventual Super Bowl champions is 44-10-1.

A year ago teams that ended up among the NFL’s 14 playoff participants went a combined 11-3 on opening day, while eventual division winners were a perfect 8-0.

Good news is that the Patriots have a stellar opening day record under Belichick. New England is 16-5 on opening day since 2000, with three of the five losses coming in Belichick’s first four years in Foxborough.
The Patriots actually advanced to the Super Bowl in four of the five years (2001, 2003, 2014, 2017) the team opened the schedule with a loss, though that was all in the Brady era.

Belichick is 2-2 in New England season openers without Brady, losing with Drew Bledsoe in 2000 and 2001, while Jimmy Garoppolo and Cam Newton got the job done in 2016 and 2020, respectively.

No NFL team should feel better about its opening day chances than the Jaguars. Yes, a Jacksonville squad that earned the No. 1 overall pick with a 1-15 record might be the best bet this weekend. It’s not just because they have the luxury of opening up with the dismal Texans in Trevor Lawrence’s NFL debut. But, new coach Urban Meyer has an undefeated record over his career on opening day. Meyer was 17-0 in season openers as head coach at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State. And let’s be honest, playing Houston is about as close as an NFL team can get to playing a cupcake college football opener.

Of course as Newton and Co. learned a year ago, opening day success certainly doesn’t guarantee anything. Newton made his post-Brady New England debut by completely controlling the game in a 21-11 victory over Miami only to finish the year with a 7-9 mark and miss the postseason.

But as NFL history shows, getting off to a good start is an important first step to be in the playoff conversation later in the season more often than not.