Most football followers consider November and December as the months when the true NFL contenders separate from the pretenders. Not according to FiveThirtyEight, a sports blog that specializes in mathematical analysis.
In a recent article titled "Crunch Time of the NFL Season is Right Now," Benjamin Morris makes his case:
The first two weeks of the season alone mark the difference between having a 61 percent chance of making the playoffs (for a 2-0 squad) and a 10 percent chance (for 0-2).
Each of the first two weeks tells us roughly as much about who will or won’t make the playoffs as four win-or-go-home games, which would decide eight teams’ fates. So it’s almost as if the season starts off with two rounds of playoffs — except that all the excitement is spread thin across the entire league.
According to 538's "Playoff Chances By Record" chart, teams that begin the season 2-0 have a 61% probability of earning a trip to the playoffs. Teams that start 1-1 reduce their chance of making the playoffs to 41%. 20% is a significant advantage.
Of course, the level of competition should be taken into account. Defeating a shorthanded Bills team at home and a Browns team that some have speculated could finish the season 0-16 is not as impressive or important as beating the Bengals and Steelers would be. But the Ravens do not have any control over the schedule.
If they do defeat the Browns this weekend, they will have a share of first place in the division with two conference wins and a divisional road win under their belt. These early contests count the same as late season games. A 2-0 start in the conference could certainly be helpful later in the season when playoff tiebreakers come into play.
The Ravens are currently listed as six and a half point road favorites, Week 2 is a very winnable game. The Ravens have owned the Browns for much of John Harbaugh's tenure. Emerging victorious would be beneficial to the team as they continue to rebuild confidence following last season.
The early season schedule sets up nicely for the Ravens as they break in an inexperienced left side of the offensive line, while a laundry list of veterans returning from season-ending injuries last year look to knock the rust off. Building some momentum can only help the team as they prepare for more challenging AFC matchups in Weeks 3, 4 and 7.
Head coach John Harbaugh dusted off the mantra from the Ravens 2012 championship run after the Week 1 win - "It wasn't pretty, it wasn't perfect, but it was us...the Ravens play winning football, team football..."
When the Ravens square off against the Browns in Cleveland on Sunday, they won't have to be pretty or perfect. What the Ravens need is a win.