There are 32 teams in the National Football League. Eleven are undefeated.
Two games into the season is far too early to say with any confidence that these teams are what they are, but that won’t stop us from passing early judgment on the yet-unbeatens. I went through all 11 squads to identify who I believe are true contenders, and who are just pretenders among the top records of the young season.
Chicago Bears — Pretenders
I want to firmly give the Bears their due. Chuck Pagano’s got the defense playing fast and aggressive in his second year at the helm, and rookie corner Jaylon Johnson has more than held his own when being thrust into a starting role against two fairly solid wide receiver corps. The offensive line has taken a significant step forward from last season, with Cody Whitehair and James Daniels both settling into their roles, and free agent addition Germain Ifedi providing quality starting reps.
I’ve been critical of the Bears this offseason and projected a sub .500 season from them—in the win/loss column, this is a good start. However, for as long as Mitchell Trubisky is the Bears’ quarterback, I remain skeptical of their status as a contender. Trubisky tried to give the game back to the New York Giants last week and has been a weirdly good passer against the Detroit Lions for the duration of his career. So while the Bears are 2-0, we should regard their offensive output with a heavy dose of suspicion. I like what they’ve got from Year 2 David Montgomery thus far and hope he returns healthy—but in a matchup with a good team, Trubisky will likely be the worst quarterback by a comfortable margin. Tough to buy stock there, though good defenses can take you far—just ask Bears fans two years ago.
Green Bay Packers — Contenders
Rumors of regression were grossly exaggerated. It’s still there, really—the Packers have yet to play a legit offense to test that defense, and actually had a poor DVOA for their Week 1 win over Minnesota. Too much of this passing offense relies on virtuoso improvisation from Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams, and the latter also fell victim to the league’s Week 2 injury bug. The Packers still desperately need another wide receiver to step up behind Adams.
But that offensive line remains suffocating, Aaron Jones is the ideal no-nonsense runner to operate behind it, and critically, Rodgers’ magic remains. A safe argument concerning the Packers’ claims is that we don’t know anything about them that we didn’t know coming off of last year, save for perhaps some more confidence in Rodgers post-Jordan Love selection. Last year the Packers were contenders, and for now, they’ll be contenders as well.
Seattle Seahawks — Contenders
I was tempted to throw a pretenders label on here to get unbelievably spicy, but I bit my tongue. Seattle’s sudden embrace of a pass-heavy approach on early downs, long petitioned from their suffering fan base, has shrouded what is a concerning defensive performance through the first two weeks of the season—their defense ranks 24th in DVOA and just lost both Bruce Irvin and Marquise Blair for the season. However, Seattle was 12th in Pass Rush Win Rate to this point despite their shaky talent on the defensive line—I don’t think that number’s going to hold, nor do I think their pass defense will hold given their inability to cover slot receivers.
Nevertheless! If Russ continues playing at an MVP clip—and there’s no reason to suspect otherwise—then the Seahawks can hang 40 on pretty much anyone. This is the era in which offense wins games and championships, so I’m still buying Seattle stock.
Los Angeles Rams — Contenders
Few teams have impressed me more than the Rams in the early goings of this year. The defense has been stout both against a high-octane Dallas Cowboys approach and wacky Philadelphia Eagles fiasco without many names beyond Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald—particularly linebacker Micah Kiser, safety Jordan Fuller, and EDGE Leonard Floyd are all bringing high-impact plays despite cheap price tags or late draft picks. That side of the ball, captained by first-year defensive coordinator Brandon Staley who was stepping into the big shoes left by Wade Phillips, is the the story in Los Angeles for me.
But many will focus on the offensive resurgence under McVay, who has perhaps more legit pass-catchers than ever before given the emergence of tight end Tyler Higbee and running back Darrell Henderson, not to mention the immediate impact of rookie wide receiver Van Jefferson. This keeps things easy for quarterback Jared Goff, while the running game is revitalized by an offensive line that grew throughout last season and seems fully gelled. I’m in.
Arizona Cardinals — In-Betweeners
The Cardinals are right on the border for me, as it would not be hard to circle plenty of positions on the defense and claim these will be prohibitive to a Cardinals’ run in the postseason. It’s a young defense that will likely be better by the end of the year than it is right now, and they’ve played well in the first two weeks of the season, but it’s tough to imagine that Chandler Jones, Budda Baker, and Patrick Peterson can drag that unit through three playoff offenses come January.
With that said, the Cardinals are bordering the Seattle argument: this offense might be good enough that they can, at their peak, go punch-to-punch with anyone. The Cardinals’ offensive line isn’t perfect, but the ball gets out to the boundary so quickly in this Kliff Kingsbury Air Raid that it almost doesn’t matter in pass protection. San Francisco beat up on these guys and Kyler Murray never really felt the heat, as he continues to unlock his running game. Give me a couple more weeks to fully buy in, but I’m nearly there.
Pittsburgh Steelers — Pretenders
Nobody told Pittsburgh that defense was supposed to regress. This team is playing with their ears pinned back, accosting the quarterback at the second-best rate in the league, while still playing complex and aggressive match coverages on the back end. Perhaps the two most ferocious defenses in the league rest in the same division, and we get to see them play twice. Exciting stuff.
With that said, I am too apprehensive of what I’ve seen from Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback to call the Steelers legit contenders. Among the likely heavyweight AFC playoff teams, Roethlisberger is clearly the worst quarterback of the bunch that includes Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Cam Newton. His arm looks weak and his process in the pocket is panicked, as he’s never been so limited as a thrower. The Steelers were a playoff-caliber team without Roethlisberger back there, and I do think he makes them better, just not enough for me to be convinced this team has what it takes.
Baltimore Ravens — Contenders
I feel no need to explain this one. Baltimore was a contender last year that got better pretty much everywhere this year. Off of two games, this is the best team in the league by a comfortable margin.
Tennessee Titans — Pretenders
Two wins against Jacksonville and Denver, both by the skin of their teeth—I understand what happened with the kicking situation in Week 1, I get it—does not a contender make. This team made a deep playoff run in 2019 and deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the offense, as the marriage of Ryan Tannehill and Arthur Smith remains seamless and humming into 2020. But the team hasn’t gotten the tiptop performance out of the offensive line that powered that run last year, and mightily struggles to generate a pass-rush even with the addition of free agent Jadeveon Clowney. Last year, this defense only gave up 30 points to the Chiefs (twice), the Saints, and an extremely weird game to the Panthers—this year, Jacksonville’s already put 30 on them. We’ll learn more on the upcoming stretch: Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Houston.
Kansas City Chiefs — Contenders
The Chiefs’ offense hasn’t nearly clicked on all cylinders early in the year. Pass protection has been an issue, target distribution to the wide receivers is still getting riddled out, and as many predicted, the running game may be getting a little bit too much volume following the drafting of Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round.
These are trifling concerns with a team boasting Patrick Mahomes at quarterback. I refuse to put a Mahomes-led team outside of a contender list until the offense proves it has truly crippling and unsolvable problems, and we are far from that stage. Which team can you say with certainty would beat the Chiefs?
Las Vegas Raiders — Pretenders
Monday night’s win was huge for the Raiders—that’s a feather in their cap, and I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if it’s a launching point for them into a solid season. I had the Raiders as an 8-8 squad, on the fringe of playoff contention, in the preseason. I love this offensive line, which has been as billed in the first two weeks of the season even as it deals with injury. And while the defense is young, the playmakers are legit and they play with a ton of juice.
But this offense will only go as far as Derek Carr will take it, and with every week that passes, an opportunity for live reps of pushing the ball downfield to Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards goes with it. Carr is the AFC version of Trubisky—every game the Raiders play against a legit AFC contender, their quarterback will be significantly worse than the opponent’s. That alone keeps them out of the deep run conversation for me—but I do think the playoffs are attainable.
Buffalo Bills — Contenders
I’m all the way in on the Bills. Save for Smith and Tannehill in Tennessee, I think there is no better marriage between play-caller and quarterback than Josh Allen and Brian Daboll, in terms of how much the offense is elevated by their chemistry. The Bills continue to find edges in the quarterback run game with the physical and explosive Allen, work play-action and boot concepts to get Allen on the move in the passing game, and run easy man-beaters everywhere for Allen to throw without much processing or footwork necessary. He’s playing backyard ball, which has always been his strength—and the talent around him is maximizing those plays. Stefon Diggs may be the pickup of the year when this is all said and done.
The defense has been ready in Buffalo for a couple of years, as Sean McDermott can take any mixture of talent and churn out key third-down stops or a consistent rush. The New England Patriots are good with Newton at the helm, but I truly believe the Bills are better this year, and with their physical style of play, are well-suited for a deep winter run.