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NFL schedule 2015: How important are early season games?

If you want to make the NFL playoffs, it's crucial to get off to a fast start.

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Breathe, relax, the NFL has finally released its 2015 schedule. By now you probably have all your road trips planned, and even have started thinking about those tailgate recipes for the home games. And most importantly, you've got an idea of the actual path your team has to take to get to the NFL postseason.

So how critical is navigating the early slate of games and getting off to a good start during the first month? If you want to play meaningful games in January and are hoping to book that trip to Levi's Stadium in February, those first couple of opponents are more important than you might think.

Let's start with the modest goal of simply making the playoffs. Since playoff expansion in 1990, only 25 percent of teams that started 0-1 reached the postseason. That may seem like a small number, but there is hope if you look at recent trends. In each of the last five seasons, at least four teams that lost their first game ended up in the playoffs, including five last year (Colts, Cowboys, Packers, Patriots, Ravens).

On the other hand, winning your first game is obviously not only a nice confidence booster, but it does a pretty good job of improving your postseason odds. More than half of the teams since 1990 that started the season with a win have made the playoffs. Basically, if you're celebrating after your team's first game of the season, you've got a 50-50 chance to watch it in the postseason. Last year, seven of the 16 Week 1 winners were playoff teams.

Things start to get dicey, however, if you can't turn it around after losing that first game. Just 12 percent of teams since 1990 that began the season 0-2 reached the playoffs. The only squads in the last five years to pull off that feat were the Colts last year and the Panthers in 2013.

And if you happen to lose more than two games in a row to start the season, well ... you can probably start making vacation plans for that golf trip to Florida or that Colorado skiing adventure in January. The only teams since playoff expansion to reach the postseason after starting 0-3 or worse are the 1998 Bills, 1995 Lions and 1992 Chargers. That San Diego team remains the only one to lose its first four games and still make the playoffs.

Now, perhaps you have bigger aspirations, like winning the Super Bowl. If that's your goal, a Week 1 win becomes even more crucial. Of the previous 49 Super Bowl winners, 39 started 1-0, nine lost their first game and one began the season with a tie (1967 Packers).

But you don't have to be too nervous yet about a game that is nearly five months away. The expanded playoff format has given teams a much better shot of not only reaching the postseason after a Week 1 stumble, but also winning the big game. Six of the last 14 Super Bowl winners started 0-1 or worse, including last year's champion, the New England Patriots.

Even an 0-2 start is not a death knell. Three Super Bowl champs began the season with a losing streak -- the 2007 Giants, 2001 Patriots and 1993 Cowboys. So if you lose your first two games, you can still win the Super Bowl if David Tyree catches a ball on his helmet, or you have the greatest postseason quarterback of all time in his prime and three Hall of Famers on offense.

The 16-game NFL schedule does not give teams many chances to slip up and remain playoff contenders. Although there have been some recent underdogs that have gotten off to slow starts and still made noise in the postseason, the historical trends favor teams that build momentum by winning those games in September.