Fast start usually equals playoff berth

Bill Belichick, left, and the Patriots play three of their first four games at home. Mike McCarthy's Packers face two divisional foes in the first four weeks. Getty Images

Playoff berths, and even some Super Bowl championships, are won in November and December. It's an adage almost as old as the NFL itself.

How a team performs in the winter months -- the degree of momentum it builds up as it prepares to enter the playoffs -- is typically critical for a franchise.

But the numbers demonstrate that, although the season's first quarter isn't quite as important as the final two months of the year, it is still extremely crucial. In fact, a franchise's standing in the first four weeks of the season is many times indicative of a club's overall playoff-worthiness.

Early success doesn't always translate into a playoff spot. But more often than not, it seems those clubs that win in September are still playing in January.

"As a team, we always talk a lot about getting off to a fast start," said Indianapolis Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday. "It's important [because] it kind of sets the tone. Coming out of the chute as strong as you can, and winning games in September, is one of the keys to our success. It's preached around here all the time. We feel like it's pretty big."

With good reason.

Since 2002, when the NFL implemented the eight-division format, the Colts are 24-4 over the first four weeks of those seven seasons. During that stretch, the Colts lost one game or fewer six times, and were undefeated on four occasions. It wasn't until last year, when Indianapolis dropped two of its first four outings, that the Colts were less than dominant in the first quarter of a season. For coach Tony Dungy, the manner in which the Colts opened the season was generally a precursor of their performance for 16 weeks.

Over the past seven seasons, 61 teams started a campaign 4-0, 3-0 (with a bye), or 3-1 in the first four weeks of the schedule. It is no coincidence that 42 of those teams, nearly 70 percent, went to the playoffs.

The significance of winning in the first four weeks is magnified by the reality that most teams are evenly matched early in the season. Injuries are fewer in the first month of any season, because players haven't experienced the physical erosion of playing a whole year.

So while it is important to pore over the final two months of the season, as many players and fans did when the schedule was released Tuesday evening, a team's slate in the first four weeks of the year is almost as significant.

With that in mind, here's a quick glance at some teams that have favorable schedules in the first four weeks, and that could get off to a quick start in 2009:

Denver Broncos: The schedule maker must have owed rookie coach Josh McDaniels a huge favor. Although the Broncos play two of their first three games on the road, the opening three contests are against Cincinnati, Cleveland and Oakland, three clubs that had a combined record of 13-34-1 in 2008.

Denver hosts Dallas in Week 4, but by that time the replacement for Jay Cutler, whether it's Chris Simms or Kyle Orton, should have some wins under his belt.

Green Bay Packers: The Packers meet division rivals Chicago and Minnesota in their first and fourth games, so coach Mike McCarthy will know quickly how his 2009 team stacks up in the NFC North. Those two games are separated by contests against Cincinnati and at St. Louis, teams that combined for only six victories last year.

Minnesota Vikings: The defending NFC North champions play their first two games on the road, the only 2008 playoff club to do so. But the contests are at Cleveland and at Detroit, two teams that combined for only four victories in 2008. The third game, before the Vikings host division rival Green Bay on a Monday night, is a home contest against San Francisco. So the Vikings open up with three games against clubs that were 11-37 last season.

New England: Obviously, the return to health of quarterback Tom Brady is paramount for this team. The competition is difficult in the first four weeks, but the Patriots play just one road game. And that's against the New York Jets, a bitter rival, and a game for which the Patriots should be emotional, even without Eric Mangini in New York.

New England is one of just four teams that play three home games in their first four outings. The Patriots face two AFC East teams, the season opener against Buffalo on a Monday night and the Week 2 contest on the road against the Jets, so they'll have a pretty good idea early on about the shape of the division.

Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles have a tough opening assignment at Carolina, where the Panthers play well. But Philadelphia then settles in for three straight home games, interrupted by a bye. The three home contests are against New Orleans, Kansas City and Tampa Bay, teams that did not qualify for the playoffs in 2008. Having a bye week in the first month of the season isn't often good for a team, but that might be offset by the relatively weak schedule, particularly after the Carolina contest.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.