WASHINGTON — There may be no trope as overused in the NFL as that of the “must-win” game. In a 16-game season, every game carries added weight, but there aren’t really any games you absolutely need to win in the first quarter of the season. Any team that started 0-4 could theoretically win 12 straight, which would guarantee them a playoff spot.
That being said, based on historical precedent, Washington’s game Sunday against the New York Giants at the Meadowlands is as close to a must-win game as you can have in Week 3.
History is already against the defending NFC East champs, for a number of reasons. As Neil Greenberg points out in The Washington Post, since 2002 only 12 of 116 teams to start 0-2 (or 10.3 percent) have made the playoffs. Only one of those 12 — the 2003 Eagles — did so after losing their first two games at home.
Those numbers aren’t encouraging. But they also aren’t a death sentence for a season just two games old. However, over that same time period, no team has started 0-3 and still made the playoffs.
In fact, only five teams have ever dropped their first three games and still made the NFL’s second season, the most recent being the 1998 Buffalo Bills, who finished 10-6 and earned a Wild Card berth. The Bills came out of a bye week in Week 4 to win five straight, including three victories over eventual playoff teams.
There is also the recent rotating door history of the NFC East working against the defending division champs. Not only has there not been a repeat division winner in the NFC East since the Eagles won it four straight years from 2001-04, but no prior year division winner has even reached the playoffs as a Wild Card team since then.
Making things even tougher, as defending NFC East champs, Washington faces two other division champions that the rest of the NFC East doesn’t have to play. Since the league expanded to 32 teams and divisions realigned in 2002, each division winner from the prior year faces two other division winners in its conference, while the respective second, third and fourth place finishers take on their counterparts. Those two matchups — a Week 13 trip to face the Cardinals in the desert and a Week 15 Monday Night home date with defending NFC East champ Carolina — come late in the season, making a poor start even more problematic.
Beginning with Sunday’s Odell Beckham Jr.-Josh Norman extravaganza, Washington plays eight of its final 14 games on the road, against opponents who are a combined 17-11 so far this season (the Giants and Eagles, who are both 2-0, are counted twice). The fact that they still have two games apiece against the Giants and Eagles presents an opportunity to close ground, but also underscores the importance of Sunday’s matchup, as a loss would not only make them 0-3, but put them three games behind the division leader.
So, no, Washington’s season might not be mathematically over with a loss Sunday. But it might as well be.