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It’s a Head Game for the Winless

In 2001, when “NFL dynasty” was a term of the past, the New England Patriots lost their first two games of the season. And they were 1-3 before Coach Bill Belichick resorted to drastic measures.

Not normally given to gimmicks, Belichick nevertheless gathered his players close, dug a hole just off the practice field, delivered a brief eulogy, then buried a football. The mock funeral was his way of laying to rest the first quarter of the season, which had been a miserable disappointment.

The club went on to win 10 of its next 12 games, rumble through the playoffs, and score the first of its three Super Bowl victories in four years.

The Baltimore Ravens can take heart in that story. So can the Houston Texans, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals. Each is 0-2, and none is ready to write off the season -- although next spring’s Matt Leinart derby already appears to be taking shape.

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For some of those teams, the end is near. Since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, 96% of the teams that started 0-3 failed to reach postseason play.

But focusing on that, or anything but the task at hand, can spell doom. Raven Coach Brian Billick says the key to pulling your team out of an early-season tailspin is not to panic. He has traveled this bumpy path before.

“When you come out and do this job, you’ve got to free your mind up mentally and emotionally,” said Billick, whose 2000 team won the Super Bowl despite having lost three consecutive games during one stretch.

“You don’t want to carry around the negativity and feeling sorry for yourself, or the frustration and the emotion of not living up to expectations. [If you do that], you’re going to get hurt and not do your job well. Some of us have jobs where we can do that -- go in your office and pout and feel bad about yourself. But here ... you can get yourself killed out here with that mentality.”

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Some winless teams aren’t waiting around to make changes. The Texans fired offensive coordinator Chris Palmer this week, replacing him with Joe Pendry, whose teams made the playoffs in six of his 10 seasons as a coordinator. In Minnesota, new Viking owner Zygi Wilf gave Coach Mike Tice a dreaded vote of confidence this week. Dreaded, because that’s what usually comes just before the ax falls.

“We’re going to turn it around,” Wilf told reporters.

But it wouldn’t be a surprise if Tice wound up the first head-coaching casualty of the season, particularly if the Vikings lose at home to New Orleans on Sunday.

Minnesota has lost three consecutive home games and hasn’t lost four home games in a row since 1993. It doesn’t get any easier after the Saints; the Vikings play at Atlanta the following week, and then get the week off. If they go 0-5, or even 1-4, Wilf might show Tice the door and use the week off as transition time for a new coach.

Oakland and San Diego are better than their winless records suggest. The Raiders, looking to avoid starting 0-3 for the first time since 1992, played well against New England and Kansas City, two of the league’s best teams. No one has intercepted a Kerry Collins pass this season, and Randy Moss has been everything the Raiders hoped he’d be.

Still, the Raiders play at Philadelphia on Sunday, and are quietly grumbling about their sledgehammer schedule, which includes road games against both of last season’s Super Bowl teams in the first three weeks.

The Chargers have lost their two games by a total of seven points, and that’s without getting All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson involved the way they have in the past. Tomlinson, who is injury free and apparently itching to contribute, has yet to carry the ball 20 times in a game this season, and he hasn’t caught a pass.

So far, Green Bay and Arizona look like lousy teams. Each plays in a bad division, though, where it might be possible for an 8-8 team to make the playoffs.

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Sunday, the Packers play host to Tampa Bay, which has not given up an offensive touchdown this season and has held its first two opponents -- Minnesota and Buffalo -- to a combined 80 yards rushing.

Things look just as bleak for Arizona, which has lost 21 of its last 22 road games and will play at Seattle, where the Seahawks have won six of seven against division opponents. The Cardinals are 0-2 for the 10th time in 18 seasons, but Coach Dennis Green says it’s wrong to judge this team on past ones.

“We don’t need to focus on this idea that there’s something magic about the Cardinals that make us unlike the other six teams that are 0-and-2, that we got a different 0-and-2,” he said. “We got the same kind of 0-and-2. It’s called disappointing.”

Meanwhile, Denver defensive end Trevor Pryce breathed a sigh of relief this week that the Broncos had improved to 1-1 with a three-point victory over San Diego. At least his team isn’t among the winless.

“Had we lost, we would have been so far behind the 8-ball, we would have been off the pool table,” he said.

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Quarterbacks want to be fast. Quarterbacks want to be loose. What they don’t want to do, however, is play fast and loose with the football.

In the first two weeks of the season, there were 98 turnovers by quarterbacks. That is the second-most since 1991, according to STATS LLC, which also points out that the 486 penalties through two weeks are the second-most since 1972.

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After his team won at Oakland, Kansas City Coach Dick Vermeil gave his players three days off. He wants them fresh for Monday night’s game at Denver, where Vermeil is 0-4.

Vermeil was quick to credit the players -- and not his coaching -- as the difference-makers in last Sunday’s 23-17 victory at Oakland.

“We took the right team on the road,” he said. “That’s always been my point. People always say, ‘Why does a coach have a great road record?’ It’s because he takes a great team with him. They don’t leave all the great players behind.”

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Think it’s tough catching Moss on the field? Try getting him after the game. Reporters who cover the Raiders said the star receiver was escorted to his car after last Sunday’s game by beefy security guards who warded off anyone attempting to interview him.

Think how big his head will get if the Raiders win.

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At a loss

Winless teams, their average point differential (PD) and next opponent:

*--* Team PD Opponent (W-L) Oakland 8.0 Sunday at Philadelphia (1-0) San Diego 3.5 Sunday vs. Giants (2-0) Arizona 14.0 Sunday at Seattle (1-1) Green Bay 8.0 Sunday vs. Tampa Bay (2-0) Minnesota 20.0 Sunday vs. New Orleans (1-1) Baltimore 16.0 Oct. 2 vs. Jets (1-1) Houston 17.5 Oct. 2 at Cincinnati (2-0)

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Paying the penalty

Most yards passing and from scrimmage negated by penalty (with touchdowns) this season:

*--* PLAYER PASSING TEAM FROM SCRIMMAGE Daunte Culpepper 82 Oakland Raiders 118 (2) Jake Delhomme 66 Minnesota Vikings 100 (2) Brett Favre 59 New York Giants 77 (1) Joey Harrington 49 Green Bay Packers 72 (1) Carson Palmer 43 Carolina Panthers 72 (1) Eli Manning 41 Source: STATS LLC

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