Sports

Which 2-0 NFL Teams Are Real Contenders, and Which Are Just Pretend?

Keep the power rankers in your thoughts this week. Nobody in NFL media will have it tougher over the next 24 hours, as they try to re-sort teams based on a chunk of games that went flying off the rails within the first hour of the early slate. I can’t even make sense of what I watched this weekend—forget about reconciling those performances with what went down in Week 1.

As we head into the final game of Week 2, nearly half the league is sitting at 1-1. That group includes heavyweights like the Chiefs, Bills, Browns, Ravens, and Seahawks, with the Packers likely to join them Monday night. By the end of the season, those teams figure to be near the top of the standings; but for now, a surprising group has taken hold of those spots. Seven teams remain unbeaten as we head into Week 3, and only two of those—the Rams and Buccaneers—made the playoffs a season ago.

So what should we make of the teams off to perfect starts? Which of them are legit, and which will fade away over the next few months? Let’s sort the seven 2-0 teams into three tiers: the legit Super Bowl contenders, the pretenders, and the ones that could go either way. We’ll start at the bottom.

Tier 3: The Pretenders

Carolina Panthers

It’s easy to write off Carolina’s 2-0 start as small-sample-size nonsense. Home wins against the Jets and Saints, who were missing eight assistant coaches and four defensive starters, don’t tell us much about this team’s playoff chances. But that doesn’t mean these first two weeks haven’t offered encouraging signs.

Sam Darnold’s post–Adam Gase glow-up will be the story this week after another solid performance: 26-of-38 for 305 yards and two touchdowns. Sure, there were a few cameos from Bad Sam—we’ll try to ignore the chest pass he threw to a Saints defensive lineman and the bad sacks he took—but let’s try to focus on the good from the 26-7 win. Darnold looks comfortable in Joe Brady’s offense. He has time in the pocket, open receivers to throw to, and a willingness to take advantage of those perks that were rarely on offer in New York. Brady deserves a lot of credit for Darnold’s increased comfort. With play-action rollouts, easy-to-execute quick passes, and general Christian McCaffrey awesomeness, the Panthers have constructed the ideal offense for a quarterback who is at his worst when he has to think too much. If you want to see what a QB-friendly scheme looks like in action, watch Carolina’s film from the first two weeks.

Things will get more difficult for Darnold when he goes up against defenses that can field 11 legitimate starters, but even if the offense regresses, the Panthers’ defense might be good enough to keep them in the playoff race. Carolina leads the NFL in both EPA allowed and success rate, per RBSDM.com.

Playing against Zach Wilson and Jameis Winston has certainly inflated those numbers, but there is plenty of young talent on this roster, and Phil Snow’s scheme has stood out, especially in the obvious passing situations that gave the Panthers issues a year ago. The Jets’ and Saints’ offensive lines consistently had trouble diagnosing who was coming on the rush and who was dropping into coverage, and it led to multiple unblocked hits on the quarterback.

But what will happen when Carolina goes up against an offense better suited to handle those looks? Or a defense capable of making things uncomfortable for Darnold? We probably won’t get any answers next week with a trip to Houston on the docket, but the Week 4 tilt with Dallas should tell us everything we need to know about these Panthers.

Las Vegas Raiders

You can’t say the Raiders haven’t played anybody. With wins over the Ravens and Steelers, Las Vegas might have the best résumé of any of the 2-0 teams. But the Raiders will remain stuck in the pretenders section until we see their defense against a real NFL passing game. Baltimore and Pittsburgh are good teams, but neither has offered this seemingly improved pass defense a true test.

On the other side of the ball, it’s probably time to admit that the Derek Carr–Jon Gruden partnership is somehow working. Actually, that’s underselling it. These two are straight-up thriving this season—though it’s not like that’s a big departure from what we saw last season when the Raiders passing game finished ninth in DVOA. Gruden doesn’t always sound like a coach who’s out in front of the NFL’s schematic evolution, but this offense is highly modern. They run RPOs, jet motion, a bunch of play-action, and their deployment of tight end Darren Waller has been both creative and effective. Gruden may not be fit to run an NFL team, but he knows how to put together a playbook. Carr, meanwhile, has come into his own under Gruden’s watch. He’s not nearly as timid in the pocket as he once was, and he’s finally starting to use his athleticism to create openings in the passing game. When Carr is chucking the ball downfield, like he’s been doing more and more over the past year or two, this offense is legit. Like … playoff legit.

I’m not so sure about the defense, though. The early returns are certainly encouraging: Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue have just harassed opposing quarterbacks so far this season, and the two joined forces to pressure Ben Roethlisberger into throwing a pick on Sunday.

But this unit has been susceptible to the big play. The Raiders have allowed three passes of 40-plus yards his season. Only the Chiefs have allowed more. Even Roethlisberger, who hasn’t shown any interest in throwing deep since 2018, connected on a few deep shots on Sunday. Tackling has also been an issue. The Raiders finished with the 24th-ranked tackling grade in Week 1, per Pro Football Focus, and they missed a handful of tackles in Pittsburgh. Explosive plays and missed tackles are the hallmarks of bad defense, and they’ve been all over the Raiders’ tape this season. Unfortunately for Vegas, this isn’t a schematic problem that can be solved by the coaching staff. It’s a personnel issue that will require a few offseasons to fix. Until then, Las Vegas will max out as a fringe playoff contender in the tough AFC West.

Denver Broncos

When do we start the Teddy Bridgewater MVP talk? I’m joking (I think), but by most useful advanced metrics, Bridgewater has been one of the very best passers in the NFL this season. He ranks second in ESPN’s QBR, second in success rate, and third in EPA per play.

This is not the Teddy that even his most ardent supporters expected to see this season. He was supposed to be a game-managing, checkdown-throwing QB who tried his best to not lose games for Denver. Instead, we’ve seen a far more aggressive passer who gives his deep receiver group chances to make plays down the field. His 9.6-yard average intended air yards ranks seventh among passers and is a full two yards more than his average a season ago, per Next Gen Stats. I don’t know how long he can keep this up, but we’ve seen lesser quarterbacks sustain good play for a full season with this kind of supporting cast.

There are fewer questions about the defense’s ability to sustain its performance. The Broncos rank just inside the top 10 in most advanced metrics, and while games against two bad offenses have padded the numbers a bit, Vic Fangio is still running the show, and he has plenty of talent at his disposal—including a healthy Von Miller, who is already back to terrorizing quarterbacks. There’s no reason to believe this unit won’t be among the league’s best by year’s end.

The Broncos will be in the playoff race all season, but we’re here to discuss their Super Bowl chances. That’s a far less optimistic conversation. Even if Bridgewater continues to play well, it’s hard to envision him matching Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, or even Carr throw-for-throw for 60 minutes. He’s comfortably the fourth-best quarterback in his own division, so unless Denver’s defense is truly elite, even a playoff berth will be a long shot.


Arizona Cardinals

As entertaining as their 34-33 win over Minnesota on Sunday may have been, the Cardinals did not earn a lot of style points this week. They were a chip-shot field goal away from not making this list, so it shouldn’t be too hard to explain their inclusion in the pretenders group—even with their plus-26 point differential, which leads all 2-0 teams.

Arizona’s hopes start and end with Kyler Murray. The 24-year-old is the reason the Cardinals’ record remains unblemished. This offense is much too QB-centric. And, yeah, that can be said about every NFL team, but no franchise relies on its quarterback’s ad-libbing as much as the Cardinals. Last week, Kyler’s supporting cast helped out a lot, and his improv work felt more like a luxury than a necessity. But on Sunday, Arizona’s offense fell back into “Bail us out, Kyler” mode.

That was enough against the Vikings’ mediocre defense, but when games against the Rams, 49ers, and Seahawks start popping up on the schedule, Kyler will need some more help.

We’ll soon find out whether Kliff Kingsbury is up to the challenge. But, either way, the Cardinals’ Super Bowl aspirations hinge on the defense, which followed up a dominant Week 1 performance against the Titans with a dud against the Vikings. In all the ways the defense was good against Tennessee, it was decidedly not good against Minnesota. The run defense, which held Derrick Henry to a meager 58 yards rushing, got gashed, allowing Dalvin Cook to rack up 131 yards on 22 carries. The pass rush sacked Kirk Cousins just once after getting to Ryan Tannehill six times in Week 1. And the secondary, which was so good against Julio Jones and A.J. Brown last Sunday, couldn’t cover Adam Thielen or Justin Jefferson. I don’t know which performance is more real, but the Titans offense devolved into a one-dimensional mess early in the opener, which skewed that performance. Against a more balanced offense that majors in misdirection—much like the units Arizona will see in the NFC West—the defense was simply not good enough.

The Cardinals went all in this past offseason, bringing in veterans like J.J. Watt and A.J. Green to help end a five-year playoff drought. That outcome is certainly on the table after a 2-0 start, but this team is still a year (and maybe a new coach) away from Super Bowl contention.

Tier 2: The 50/50 Teams

San Francisco 49ers

Jimmy Garoppolo is the 49ers’ best option at quarterback right now. And as long as that remains the case, I won’t take them seriously as Super Bowl contenders. Kyle Shanahan clearly doesn’t trust Garoppolo. He hasn’t admitted that publicly, but his play-calling practically screams it. In Sunday’s laborious 17-11 win over the Eagles, Garoppolo’s average throw traveled just 3.6 yards downfield, per Next Gen Stats. Shanahan had the training wheels on all afternoon—and he had them on in Week 1, too.

If this is how the offense is going to look, why not play Trey Lance? Shanahan is already calling plays as if he has a rookie under center, not a 29-year-old with a $26.4 million cap hit. And for all that money, the 49ers coach is lacking the boost in the run game that Lance would provide. Given Lance’s raw skill set—and the fact that he’s started one football game since his 20th birthday—it’s not a surprise the 49ers are biding their time before handing him the keys. The last time Garoppolo was healthy for a full season, it ended with a Super Bowl appearance. He’s gotten the team there before; he could do it again.

But that 2019 team wasn’t driven by Garoppolo’s play. It found success because of Shanahan’s play-calling and a dominant defense. Well, Shanahan is still wearing the headset, and the defense is back healthy after an injury-marred 2020 season. But some key pieces are missing, including all-world defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, and the pass rush that powered that 2019 defense isn’t nearly as intimidating as it once was. Through two games, Nick Bosa is the only 49ers pass rusher who has consistently penetrated the pocket. He was the only one to register a sack against the Eagles, and the unit allowed Jalen Hurts to average 3.25 seconds per throw, the third-highest mark in any game this season, per Next Gen Stats.

The formula that the 49ers rode to the Super Bowl a year and a half ago is no longer good enough. This defense won’t be able to match what it did that season, and Garoppolo is largely the same quarterback he was at that time. This offense needs something more from its QB. Lance isn’t quite ready to provide that something, but if he’s able to get to that point in 2021, I’ll be willing to reassess this team’s ceiling.

Los Angeles Rams

Matthew Stafford will be the story all season, but we might soon have to start talking about the Rams defense as a potential issue. A week after allowing the Andy Dalton–led Bears offense to post the third-best success rate of the week, per RBSDM.com, Los Angeles watched Carson Wentz and the banged-up Colts march up and down the field on Sunday. It’s not like the Rams have given up a ton of points so far—24 against Indy, and 14 against Chicago—but this unit looks suspect in areas that it dominated just a season ago.

That’s not surprising—Los Angeles was due for some defensive regression after 2020, and it lost defensive coordinator Brandon Staley in the offseason. Former Falcons coordinator Raheem Morris is calling the plays now, and while he’s still running the same basic scheme, it feels like a cheap knockoff. There is a lot more air in the pass coverage, and the run defense isn’t nearly as sound; and while those underlying issues have been masked by unsustainably good play in the red zone and timely takeaways—the Rams allowed just 9 points in four Colts red zone trips on Sunday and stymied the Bears with an end zone interception and a fumble close to the red zone—Los Angeles needs to start ending drives long before they get to that point. The Rams were the last team to force a three-and-out this season.

But who wants to worry about defense when we have this cool new offense to fawn over? Sean McVay is clearly enjoying his new quarterback. The Rams are passing more on early downs than they did last season, and the shotgun package has grown considerably. In years past, this Rams offense became predictable: When Jared Goff lined up under center, the defense knew it would get a run or play-action pass; when Goff lined up in the gun, defenses could count on a pass coming. But now that McVay has a QB he can trust to make quick decisions, he’s been able to add RPOs to his play-call sheet, which has helped diversify things. After finishing dead last in RPO usage a year ago, according to Sports Info Solutions, the Rams led the league in those calls in Week 1 and used more of them on Sunday in Indianapolis. As McVay continues to add to his playbook, the offense will only get harder to defend.

The question is, how far can the offense carry the team if the defense isn’t what it was a year ago? That’s still an unknown two weeks in. We’ve never seen McVay with a quarterback this talented, and we’ve never seen Stafford with a play-caller this sharp. But until the defense shows us who they really are, the Rams will be stuck in this purgatory between contenders and pretenders.


Tier 1: The Contenders

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Welp, this one’s pretty easy to explain. The offense looks unstoppable, Tom Brady is on pace to throw 76 touchdowns, and the biggest in-division threat is quarterbacked by Sam Darnold. Tampa Bay might sleepwalk to a first-round bye.

Depth looked like the one potential weakness for the reigning champs entering this season, and that remains the case two weeks in. Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaq Barrett, and Ndamukong Suh all popped up on the injury report this week, which was another reminder that this team enjoyed exceptional injury luck a year ago and may not be so fortunate this time around. But as long as those injuries remain minor, it’ll be hard to find any weak spots in this group.

I’d be more concerned with the defensive performance—the Bucs are giving up 27 points a game—if not for Todd Bowles’s track record … or if the two opposing quarterbacks Tampa has faced (Matt Ryan and Dak Prescott) hadn’t needed to pull off minor miracles to keep their teams in the game. The Bucs defense will look a lot better when they get a break from playing good quarterbacks.

I don’t even know if it will matter if the defense continues to bleed points with the way the offense is moving the ball. There are just too many weapons and the quarterback is just too good. The Buccaneers put up an easy 48 against Atlanta and they didn’t even play all that well, at least according to Brady. The margin for error is just that big for Brady and his team of superstars. Meanwhile, opposing defenses have no margin for error. If Mike Evans isn’t open, Chris Godwin probably is. Or maybe it’s Gronkowski or Brown. No matter who it is, Brady will find the open guy, get the ball out on time, and put it right where it needs to be. Over and over again.

The Buccaneers have now won 10 consecutive games going back to last season, and they’ve scored at least 30 points in their last nine. That’s never happened in NFL history, according to ESPN Stats and Info. A 44-year-old quarterback has never won a Super Bowl either. But there’s a decent chance that will change in February.


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