NFL pretenders and contenders among the 2-0 teams

    It wouldn’t be Week 2 of an NFL season without a segment asking which 2-0 teams are for real. So, who are pretenders and who are contenders?

    Saturday, October 17, 2020

    It wouldn’t be Week 2 of an NFL season without a segment asking which 2-0 teams are “for real.” And far be it for NFL Recap to break from tradition! Sure, we think the Baltimore Ravens are legit and the Chicago Bears are suspect, and you think so too. But read on for more details, some deep thoughts, and perhaps a surprise or two.

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    Are the 2-0 Arizona Cardinals for real?

    The Cardinals may not be “for real,” but they are really delightful. Kyler Murray is a joy to watch when throwing and scrambling, their offense looks like something dreamed up during College Coaches’ Tequila Night, and DeAndre Hopkins has picked up right where he left off in Houston (he’s once again the binkie for a fine young quarterback who could use a little more help from his offensive line and defense).

    The Cardinals may not have what it takes to hang with the pack in the NFC, but I would hate to be a divisional foe with Super Bowl aspirations and a ton of injuries because the Cardinals could sail past a team like that in the standings. Sorry, San Francisco 49ers.

    Verdict: Wild Card contender.

    Are the 2-0 Baltimore Ravens for real?

    Yes. Duh. 

    Verdict: Super Bowl contender.

    Are the 2-0 Buffalo Bills for real?

    Who knows? First, there were technical difficulties that blacked out Sunday’s eventual 31-28 victory over the Miami Dolphins for a while. Then came a lightning delay. By the time play resumed, most of the early games were already heating up in the fourth quarter. While this game was getting wild early in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys and Falcons were getting wilder at the end. Finally, Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson took the field, and it was time to stop caring about the Bills.

    Josh Allen’s stats (417 yards, four TDs) were great, which will make the Internet a fun place to work this week. He led a fourth-quarter comeback, which begs the question of whether a true contender should need a fourth-quarter comeback to defeat the Dolphins. 

    The Bills can only play the opponents on their schedule, and they came out of the first two weeks relatively healthy, which is a positive sign. Their schedule is about to stiffen up with a visit from the Rams. We’ll know more about them in a week. Until then, note that the Patriots started out a few seasons with a schedule as soft as the Jets-Dolphins doubleheader the Bills just won. But they tended to win the games by a combined score of about 69-10, not 58-45.

    Verdict: Playoff contender.

    Are the 2-0 Chicago Bears for real?

    Mitch Trubisky in the first half of Sunday’s 17-13 win over the New York Giants: 13-of-18, 159 yards, two TDs, zero INTs. Trubisky in the second half: 5-of-10, 31 yards, zero TDs, two INTs (one of which was wrestled from his receiver’s hands), and one fourth-down conversion to help munch the clock which caromed off a defender into the belly of offensive lineman Bobby Massie.

    Someday, the two Trubiskys should come face-to-face and really duke it out, like a superhero symbolically battling his demons in a comic book, or Good and Evil Kermit the Frog in that meme. Until then, the Bears’ model for success is not sustainable. 

    Verdict: Pretender.

    Are the 2-0 Kansas City Chiefs for real?

    If some other contender needed an overtime field goal for a 23-20 win over the Los Angeles Chargers and rookie quarterback Justin Herbert, I would worry about their consistency and their inability to get out of their own way on the first few series of the game. But the Chiefs are more like a perennial NBA powerhouse that comes out flat once in a while in mid-December road games against cupcakes. They’ll be fine.

    Verdict: Super Bowl contender.

    Are the 2-0 Los Angeles Rams for real?

    Here are some of the encouraging signs from the Rams’ back-to-back wins against the NFC East “powerhouses,” including Sunday’s 37-19 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

    1. The scheme looks unpredictable again. Opponents appeared to have Sean McVay figured out at times last year. This season, all of the presnap motion and misdirection is once again creating the matchups that McVay hopes to create.
    2. Small-money players are stepping up. Micah Kiser recorded 16 total tackles after making some big stops (and a big whiff or two) in Week 1. Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown (168 scrimmage yards on Sunday) are getting the job done as a running back platoon with Cam Akers out. Andrew Whitworth is playing like he’s 27 years old again, but more importantly, lesser-known (and lower-paid) linemen are also stepping up. High-priced stars like Aaron Donald and Jared Goff are going to need lots of contributions from the bottom of the payroll.
    3. The Rams are doing little things. They are blocking well on screens and handling their coverage assignments with few lapses. They haven’t been killing themselves with penalties. 

    All in all, these Rams look more like the 2018 version of the team than last year’s model. Let’s see how they look after a meeting with the Bills.

    Verdict: Super Bowl contender.

    Are the 2-0 Pittsburgh Steelers for real?

    The Steelers are the Bills, but with street cred. Ben Roethlisberger, like a certain starter in Buffalo, looks fantastic until you start digging into all the stalled drives and miscues. The defense looks overwhelming until it allows someone like Jeff Driskel to throw for 256 yards and two TDs. A win is a win, but the Steelers allowed both the Giants and injury-plagued Broncos to linger a little too long in their games. 

    Like the Bills, the Steelers are about to face some stiffer tests in the form of the still-dangerous Houston Texans, the Titans in Tennessee, and the maybe-possibly-still-dangerous Philadelphia Eagles. They need to prove that they can make more routine plays on offense and allow fewer big ones on defense.

    Verdict: Wild Card contender.

    Are the 2-0 Seattle Seahawks for real?

    The biggest takeaway from both the Seahawks Week 1 victory over the Atlanta Falcons and Sunday night’s down-to-the-wire 35-30 win over the Patriots is that Russell Wilson finally has a real supporting cast. Tyler Lockett has always been reliable, but DK Metcalf can be counted on one or two big plays per game, and Chris Carson is more effective when rotating with Carlos Hyde. Most importantly, the offensive line is now fairly competent, though it won’t draw any comparisons to The Hogs.

    The Seahawks’ defense still has a way to go before it becomes more than Jamal Adams and fond memories. And we saw a little bit of the old Seahawks offense (Wilson runs around in circles trying to make things happen with no support) at times in the first half. But Wilson + Decent Weapons + a playmaker or two in the secondary has always been a recipe for a Seahawks playoff run, and this year the weapons may be better than decent.

    Verdict: Super Bowl contender.

    Are the 2-0 Tennessee Titans for real?

    If NFL Recap was forced to rank the 2-0 AFC middleweights right now, we would rank the Bills first, then the Steelers, then the Titans. At least the Bills win over the Jets was convincing. The Titans almost let the Jacksonville Jaguars come back from a 30-17 deficit on them; and no, that’s not an indication that the Jaguars are secretly good, stop being silly. 

    Everything about the Titans still screams “final Wild Card berth,” from the plodding running game they rely too much upon to a defense that doesn’t quite live up to its billing. A Vikings-Bills-Steelers-Texans slate before the bye will help us find the Titans’ level. Right now, it’s probably close to the bottom of that pack.

    Verdict: Wild Card contender that could win the division because the AFC South is pretty much the Sun Belt Fun Belt.

    Mike Tanier is the Senior NFL Writer for Pro Football Network and the author of NFL Recap. You can follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.