Sport NFL contenders or pretenders? Steelers, Packers, Seahawks are for real; Eagles, Vikings are done after Week 2

10:43  21 september  2020
10:43  21 september  2020 Source:   sportingnews.com

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With Week 2 of the 2020 NFL season down to one more game, 10 teams — plus whoever wins the "Monday Night Football" matchup between the Saints and Raiders — will be 2-0 going into Week 3. On the flip side, 11 teams have dug themselves 0-2 holes.

The history of each extreme start is well-documented. Since 2007, 57 percent of NFL teams that have opened 2-0 have made the playoffs. During that same 13-year span, 89 percent of teams that have fallen to 0-2 have failed to make the playoffs.

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Last season, seven of the nine 2-0 teams made the playoffs, with the Cowboys and Rams narrowly missing. Also in 2019, the nine teams that started 0-2 all missed the playoffs.

There is a twist to the NFL's postseason field in 2020, however; it has expanded to 14 teams, one more in each conference. That allows for a little more margin for error. For example, the Rams and the Steelers would have made it under the current parameters last season. Pittsburgh started 0-2.

Everyone knows the Chiefs and Ravens, as Super Bowl 55 favorites, are for real after flying out of the gate. Everyone knows the Dolphins, Bengals, Jets, Giants and Panthers were supposed to be this bad this early. Once again this year, there are some surprising teams at both 2-0 and 0-2.

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Here's a breakdown of the 13 undefeated or winless teams that are in the muddled middle and whether they are real contenders or true pretenders:

2-0 teams: Contender or pretender?

Pittsburgh Steelers

They have beaten up the Giants and Broncos, two teams with second-year quarterbacks, in seven days. Their defense has had more lapses than expected in each game, especially in giving up big plays in the passing game despite an elite pass rush and loaded secondary.

That said, Ben Roethlisberger looks healthy and sharp. He is taking advantage of his upgraded weapons. They've also run the ball very well, despite having offensive line injuries, with James Conner and Benny Snell Jr. The Ravens have played two better teams and won, but the Steelers look complete, too, with no holes. Pittsburgh is very much a contender and a threat to take away the AFC North from Baltimore.

Green Bay Packers

The Packers have opened their NFC North title defense by lighting up two division opponents, the Vikings and the Lions. Aaron Rodgers and Aaron Jones have had fun alternating passing and running for chunk plays and touchdowns, to the tune of 43 and 42 points in the two games.

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Their defensive issues are lingering and they're still not really a 13-3 team like they were a season ago. But they are already in the driver's seat to repeat and the rest of the division doesn't look worthy. Green Bay again should be considered an NFC title contender, too.

Chicago Bears

The Bears are tied for first place in the North with the Packers, but they needed a massive fourth-quarter rally to beat the Lions and and a big fourth-quarter stand to beat the Giants. They took advantage of two teams that had major injury issues. Their running game-defense combination is working well and Mitchell Trubisky has played better than expected after winning the QB job over Nick Foles.

They can lift and hide Trubisky only so much, though. The defense also won't hold up as well against better all-around offenses. The early wins prove the Bears are not near the bottom of the league but also confirm they have no business near the top. Chicago is a classic schedule-based pretender.

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Seattle Seahawks

Many quarterbacks have had great starts, but every bit of Russell Wilson's right arm and his legs were needed to stop the challenges of Matt Ryan's Falcons and Cam Newton's Patriots. He is looking determined to finally get that elusive league MVP award. The Seahawks also continue to operate at a high level with the best receivers Wilson has ever had.

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The defense has some concerns after being shredded by both pass and run, but Jamal Adams has been a key glue guy and the rest of their secondary and maligned front are picking good spots to make game-changing plays. Seattle is a Super Bowl contender and should be considered the new NFC West favorite over 1-1 reigning champion San Francisco and the two other 2-0 teams in the division.

Los Angeles Rams

The Rams are one of the quietest 2-0 teams after dispatching the Cowboys and the Eagles, two teams that are expected to be a little better than them. They don't have the same explosive offense, but they grind away with a Todd Gurley-less running game and have more of a Tyler Higbee-centered passing game. Their defense has been the big story as Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey are getting plenty of players to step up around them. The Rams can still be run on, but they have become downright stingy against the pass, thwarting both Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz. This team is a contender, maybe to the point of jumping the injury-riddled 49ers as second-best in the West.

Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals got DeAndre Hopkins to boost Kyler Murray, and the results have been remarkable, with convincing wins over the 49ers and Washington. Murray is operating like a one-man video game with his downfield passing and lightning-fast running. He looks completely in command of Kliff Kingsbury's offense. The pass rush and coverage have been better as the defense has complemented the offense. Arizona can beat teams in many ways with Murray making a Year 2 jump reminiscent of Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson. It is a contender, even in a tough NFC West, thanks to playoff expansion.

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Buffalo Bills

Speaking of MVP, Josh Allen wants his helmet thrown in the ring, too. Like Murray with Hopkins, he has responded well to having a new veteran go-to guy, Stefon Diggs, who has made Allen's old veteran go-to guy, John Brown, even more dangerous. The Bills have two talented young backs, but Allen remains their most effective rusher.

The Bills' defense has certainly lost punch up front and teams are exploiting the back end away from Tre'Davious White. They also won't get to beat up the Jets or Dolphins every week. But they're a returning playoff team in first place, playing the same brand of football as the second-place Patriots. Buffalo, as expected and with Allen improving, is a contender and an increasing threat to Kansas City and Baltimore.

Tennessee Titans

Ryan Tannehill has picked up where he left off after earning the big new contract, producing more stellar play while working off Derrick Henry's elite power running. With A.J. Brown hurting, he has had to connect with other receivers, led by Corey Davis, Jonnu Smith and Adam Humphries, to continue the best passing stretch of his career.

The defense, however, has been overrated. The Broncos and Jaguars had more success than expected both running and passing. The Titans don't look particularly daunting against the run or the pass. They have a one-game lead in a weak division, but they're also in a top-heavy conference. The Colts and Texans can be a lot better and the Jaguars look pesky. Tennessee by default is in contention, but it has the feel of a pretender, because the team can't be considered safe to punch an express ticket as an AFC elite.

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0-2 teams: Contender or pretender?

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles had high expectations going into the season, thinking they had rounded back into their Super Bowl 52 form of three years ago under Doug Pederson with a balanced, explosive offense and a balanced, explosive defense. Instead, after a rash of new injuries, they have imploded. Wentz is forcing the issue behind shaky pass protection and with limited wide receivers. The running game has looked better with Miles Sanders, but it's also destined to be inconsistent because of sudden blocking woes, something that hadn't been an issue for a while.

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They folded early against the Rams after they folded late against Washington. The Eagles have a lot of holes in the middle of their defense at inside linebacker and safety, and they're being exploited. That in, turn, is rendering their strengths, defensive line and cornerback, ineffective.

This doesn't look like the Eagles that rallied late to sneak into the playoffs as a wild card and weak NFC East champion, respectively, the past two seasons. The vibes aren't as good after Wentz's poor play and they could be toast by mid-October after playing the 49ers, Steelers and Ravens in consecutive games. Philadelphia, unlike Rocky vs. Creed, Lang or Drago, is a pretender rather than a contender.

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings used to have good vibes, too. They were looking forward to their running game-defense formula of 2019 leading to even better results after finishing second in the NFC North and winning a playoff game last season. Unfortunately for them, an offseason exodus of veterans has turned the defense into a real liability. Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph are gone. Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander are gone. Danielle Hunter is on the shelf. Harrison Smith and other core players have tried to keep it together, but it's not happening vs. either run or pass.

Because of the bad defense, the Vikings can't stick with their effective run-heavy game plan with Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison. That, in turn, means Kirk Cousins has to throw in uncomfortable, predictable passing situations, where opponents can tee off on him. He misses Diggs and is force-feeding Adam Thielen with few others involved. Minnesota had the look of a contender in the preseason but it's in full pretender mode now.

Houston Texans

The Texans made the playoffs after an 0-2 start with Bill O'Brien in 2018, so recent history is on their side. So is Deshaun Watson.

Their defense has looked terrible and it's not getting better. They have gotten mixed results in the traditional running game with new lead back David Johnson. There's no doubt Watson misses Hopkins. The schedule stays tough with the Steelers next week.

Still, it's hard to trust Tannehill, Philip Rivers and Gardner Minshew more than Watson. The AFC South tends to be a roller coaster where things even out over the course of the season. It's also a division where eight or nine wins might be good enough. For those reasons, plus Tennessee being a shaky first-place team, Houston has to be considered a contender still. Watson gives the Texans a floor higher than most not-so good teams.

Atlanta Falcons

The defense gave up 38 points in the loss to the Seahawks in Week 1, which forced Ryan and the big-time passing game to play catchup most of the time. Then they gave up a 29-10 halftime lead and 40 more points total in the loss to the Cowboys. Dan Quinn keeps seeing the defense have the same old issues against the run and in downfield coverage, and the pass rush is a perpetual work in progress. He's done his best to fix it by changing coordinators and schemes, but it's just not happening.

Atlanta, with Ryan, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Todd Gurley and Hayden Hurst, can score with just about anyone in the league, and it must do that to have a chance to win games. The problem is, the team can't run the ball well enough to protect the defense, which causes a breakdown in complementary football that puts too much pressure on Ryan to be prolific, precise and proficient on every possession. Despite the talent, this team is a confirmed pretender.

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Denver Broncos

The Broncos had great expectations of breaking out as a playoff team in their second season under Vic Fangio. They liked having Von Miller anchor their defense. They loved the potential of Drew Lock to lift the offense. Then Miller went down. Now Lock has gone down, as well.

They were respectable in the first two games with narrow losses to the aforementioned Titans and Steelers. They have adapted well to Pat Shurmur's offense, showing a strong running game with Melvin Gordon now in the lead and looking diverse with passing-game playmakers. Tight end Noah Fant has put his stamp on things.

But the Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers all look more dynamic on offense, and the Chiefs and Chargers are better on defense. Denver is a pretender. In reality, even if Miller and Lock had both stayed healthy, the Broncos were still a "year away" team.

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