So…are we all set for a Colts/Bengals AFC Championship game? The winner would then meet the NFC Champion Redskins or Buccaneers, because after four weeks, those were the only four undefeated teams in pro football. Certainly the hot start of the Colts was not a surprise, as they’ve made three trips to the playoffs, but the Redskins, Bucs and Bengals have surprised.

However, let’s not forget that one year ago, there were only four 3-0 teams to start the season, with the Seahawks and Jaguars in that mix. Neither made the playoffs. Back in August the Redskins were 35-to-1 to win the Super Bowl, while the Bengals were 40-to-1. So, anyone with future’s tickets had better take a deep breath and be patient before thinking about cashing those long shots. If your favorite team is off to a disappointing start, relax, and if your team is off to a hot start, don’t start making preparations for the Super Bowl, or even playoffs just yet.

A lot was made of the Carolina Panthers remarkable journey two years ago. The Panthers were 4-0 in preseason, then got off to a 3-0 start and seemingly used that momentum all the way to the Super Bowl. Sure, hot starts can help a team, but remember that in 2002 those same Panthers started 3-0 and finished up 7-9.

Naturally, a team doesn’t want to start 0-3 like this year’s Packers and Texans. You may recall that last season the Rams started 1-2, then made the postseason, and even won a playoff game. In 2001, the Patriots started 0-2 and 1-3, yet wound up winning the Super Bowl. A poor start makes it tougher to get back into an NFL season that is only 16 games long where few teams even qualify for the postseason. On the other hand, a hot start is not mandatory, either. In 2003, the Eagles looked terrible during an 0-2 SU/ATS start just before their bye week. That team then went 11-3 against the spread the rest of the regular season, winning 13 of their next 15 games on the way to the NFC Championship game. The Patriots started 2-2 in 2003, then proceeded to go 15-0 SU, 12-3 ATS on the way to winning another Super Bowl.

Last year, the Patriots and Steelers had incredible seasons, combining two lose only four games, two against each other! They wound up in the AFC Title game, while the eventual NFC Champion Eagles got off to a terrific 5-0 SU/ATS start. However, the red-hot start doesn’t always predict a hot finish. If you think a good start is essential, let’s not forget the 2003 Minnesota Vikings. The boys in purple started 6-0 SU/ATS, only to fold in apocalyptic fashion, missing the playoffs during a 3-7 SU, 2-8 ATS finish. Miami also started 4-1 SU/ATS in 2003, only to go 3-8 against the spread and miss the playoffs again.

There’s an old saying in racing, “It’s not the fastest horse out of the gate, but who crosses the finish line first.” It’s a marathon and all kinds of things can crop up to derail a potential playoff run: Poor defense, injuries, bad luck, even scheduling. In 2003, the Dolphins had to play five of seven games against eventual playoff teams. They lost four of them. The Chiefs were the hottest team in the NFL the first half of the 2003 season, starting 9-0 SU and 8-1 against the number. There even was a future’s bet offered on whether the Chiefs would run the regular season table and go undefeated. That wager didn’t last long, however, as Kansas City finished 4-4 straight up and 2-6 against the spread after that 9-0 start. Poor defense was the culprit.

Balance and depth are to important elements of playoff teams. An ideal team is well rounded, with a quality passing and running game, consistent special teams, low turnovers and a defense that can stop or contain the run. Coaches study game films to find fatal flaws in the opposition, weaknesses that can be exploited on game day.

The 2003 Giants started 2-1 straight up and against the spread. That was all that was worth recalling in a forgettable season. The Giants limped to a 2-11 SU finish while going 1-11-1 against the number. Last year, Seattle started 3-0 SU/ATS with a defense that allowed 13 total points! No one remembers that start, however, as the Seahawks went 6-8 SU, 2-12 ATS the rest of the season. In 2001, the Patriots weathered a 1-3 SU/ATS start filled with a serious injury to All-Pro QB Drew Bledsoe and the suspension of WR Terry Glenn. New players stepped in and the team slowly began to grasp the intricate defensive systems Bill Belichick and coordinator Romeo Crennel were teaching. The Patriots ended the season 9-0 SU/7-1-1 ATS and upset the Rams in the Super Bowl as a +14 dog. It’s not the fastest horse out of the gate, but the one who crosses the finish line.