Which 2-0 Teams Are NFL Playoff Pretenders or Contenders?

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor ISeptember 25, 2015

Which 2-0 Teams Are NFL Playoff Pretenders or Contenders?

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    Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    One week ago, we gave you the numbers on the good news and the bad news when it comes to getting off to a quick start in the NFL. They are certainly worth repeating.

    Dating back to 1990 and under the current playoff format of 12 teams, teams opening 2-0 reached the playoffs 63.1 percent of the time in 25 seasons. On the other hand, clubs that opened 0-2 made it to the postseason only 11.7 percent of the time (24-of-205).

    Yes, while a 0-2 start makes getting to the playoffs a chore, a 2-0 start guarantees nothing. The Buffalo Bills, Houston Texans and Philadelphia Eagles all won their first two games in 2014, and while each of those clubs finished with winning records, all fell short of the playoffs.

    So of the nine teams that are off to unbeaten and untied starts this season, which are legitimate threats to reach the postseason and which could fade in time? Here are our thoughts.

Arizona Cardinals: Contenders

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    It is safe to say that if you don’t believe in Bruce Arians by now, you just haven’t been paying attention.

    The man who has captured NFL Coach of the Year honors twice in the past three seasons—first with the Indianapolis Colts and in 2014 with the Arizona Cardinals—now has the latter off to a 2-0 start for the second straight year.

    In fact, the Cards are an impressive 20-7 in their last 27 regular-season contests since Arians and Co. opened 3-4 in 2013. And he and quarterback Carson Palmer are two of the major reasons this club (so long as Palmer stays healthy) figures to push the defending NFC West champion Seattle Seahawks hard once again.

    In two games, the Cardinals have already scored 79 points and 11 touchdowns, with the offense, defense and special teams contributing to all of those end-zone visits. With new defensive coordinator James Bettcher calling the shots, Arizona has yet to give up a touchdown in the second half.

    What would be intriguing to see is if the Cardinals could win at least 12 games for the first time in the history of this longtime franchise. In any case, look for them to be in the postseason picture all year once again.

Atlanta Falcons: Pretenders

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    We like what we see from the Atlanta Falcons so far. In wins over the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants, new head coach Dan Quinn and his club have found a way to get the job done, even after squandering early leads in games and then finding ways in the fourth quarter to pull out those contests.

    And that remains the concern here. The team’s two wins are by a combined six points. The Falcons have allowed 393.5 yards per game in two weeks, and the much-maligned pass rush has a total of two sacks.

    Give credit where it is due. Quarterback Matt Ryan has made key throws when he has had to, wideout Julio Jones has been magnificent, and the defense has come up with its share of crucial plays. But we’re not sure these Falcons are in it for the long haul.

    The real test actually starts in December when they play four of their final five games within the NFC South. And despite some nice defensive additions and a change in demeanor courtesy of Quinn, the jury remains very much out.

Carolina Panthers: Contenders

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    Back in 2013 when the Carolina Panthers were capturing the first of their two straight NFC South crowns, the team finished second in the league in fewest points and fewest yards allowed.

    After a rough start this past season, Carolina wound up ranked 10th in the league in total defense and played much better during its unbeaten four-game stretch run. Could bigger things be in store for head coach Ron Rivera’s defensive unit?

    “We’re trying to be the No. 1 defense at the end of the season and I definitely feel that we can get it done,” said Panthers outside linebacker Thomas Davis on NFL Network’s NFL HQ (h/t Conor Orr of NFL.com). “It’s just all about us going out and continuing to play the style of defense that we’ve come accustomed to playing.”

    That style gives the Panthers a decided edge in a division that struggled in 2014. With versatile quarterback Cam Newton and a solid running game to complement the defense, Carolina will have a third straight division title on its mind.

    Yes, a seven-win team captured the NFC South last season, but the Panthers are capable of much more this year. Given the early erratic play of the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, along with the jury still being out on the new-look Atlanta Falcons, Rivera’s club is a prohibitive favorite.

Cincinnati Bengals: Pretenders

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    Keep this in mind: Only two teams in the league, the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots, have been to the playoffs more consecutive seasons than the Cincinnati Bengals.

    As was the case a year ago, Marvin Lewis’ squad has gotten out of the gates strong with a pair of wins. Of course, last season’s 3-0 start was followed by a 7-6-1 finish, which included a playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

    A lot of the same pieces that have been there during this run—such as quarterback Andy Dalton, wide receiver A.J. Green and defensive linemen Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap—remain. They’ve been supplemented by the additions of running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill and tight end Tyler Eifert.

    The highly competitive AFC North, a division that has sent at least two teams to the playoffs in six of the past seven seasons (three teams twice in the last four years), has helped make the likes of the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers battled-tested and playoff-ready.

    However, the latter hasn’t been the case for the Bengals. Yes, this is a talented team, and a deep one at that in this day and age of free agency. But something seems to be missing every year, and it will catch up with them by season’s end.

    For the first time since 2010, Lewis and Co. could be on the outside looking in come playoff time. That may not seem likely at the moment, but it’s hard to ignore the Bengals’ recent track record in the postseason. This year, they may not get a chance to lose another playoff game.

Dallas Cowboys: Contenders

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    Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    We already knew there would be no DeMarco Murray. But no Tony Romo and no Dez Bryant?

    A year ago, the Dallas Cowboys offense was led by the NFL’s leading rusher, the league leader in touchdown receptions and a quarterback who was the top-rated passer in 2014.

    Now Murray is with the Philadelphia Eagles (we think, considering his woeful start), and both Romo and Bryant are sidelined with injuries. Who in the name of “The Triplets” is going to save head coach Jason Garrett’s team over the next few months?

    How about that sturdy offensive line that played a huge part in the team’s success this past season? How about Rod Marinelli’s improving defensive unit, one that has allowed just 257.5 total yards per game and just two offensive touchdowns this season?

    Still, can the likes of backup quarterback Brandon Weeden and wideout Terrance Williams fill in adequately for Romo and Bryant, respectively? Can the ground attack, which has yet to find a true workhorse, get the job done?

    Even with all that has gone wrong so far, the Cowboys are not only unbeaten after two games, but both victories also have come within the division. And this looks like a club that has developed some resiliency after years of questioning whether it could escape mediocrity.

    That latter attribute will be tested heavily over the coming weeks, and don’t be surprised if Garrett and his squad pass this test with flying colors.

Denver Broncos: Contenders

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    We are still not sure if quarterback Peyton Manning is going to make it through another season, especially behind an offensive line that is still struggling to jell.

    However, one thing is for sure: The five guys blocking for the 39-year old quarterback haven’t gained much confidence practicing against that talented Denver Broncos defensive unit.

    And that is exactly why this club will remain in the postseason picture throughout the year. Led by new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, the Broncos look downright fearsome on his side of the football. They have allowed a total of 487 yards and two touchdowns during the team’s 2-0 start.

    In those contests, Denver has racked up seven takeaways and six sacks, and Phillips’ unit has been nothing short of astounding on third down. In wins over the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs, the Broncos combined to limit those opponents to just a pair of conversions on 20 attempts—an amazing 10 percent.

    That’s the kind of defense that can make up for an offense that may take a little time to get its cleats wet, especially when it comes to the offensive line protecting its quarterback.

Green Bay Packers: Contenders

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    When you can begin the season with victories over both a longtime and a more recent rival, there’s nothing but positives.

    It’s been quite a relaxing run for the Green Bay Packers. Losers of two of its first three games in 2014, the club is an impressive 13-2 in its last 15 regular-season contests. The Packers have quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who in those 18 games has thrown for a combined 43 scores while being picked off just five times. Five!

    Green Bay is loaded with offensive weapons including wide receivers Randall Cobb, James Jones and Davante Adams, running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks and tight end Richard Rodgers. As the team prepares to host the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday night, it should be noted that Adams and Lacy missed practice on Thursday due to ankle issues, according to the Associated Press (h/t Fox Sports Wisconsin).

    In any case, some felt that minus injured Pro Bowl wideout Jordy Nelson this season, the team that led the league in scoring in 2014 might miss a beat. So far, not so good for the Packers’ opponents. And that figures to be the case this season once again as Mike McCarthy’s club vies for a seventh straight playoff appearance.

New England Patriots: Contenders

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    We will let you know when the New England Patriots are not on a list of contenders of any sort, unless it’s for the rights to securing the first overall pick in the NFL draft.

    The franchise that has won at least 10 games for 12 straight years, posted 14 consecutive winning seasons and made six Super Bowl appearances since 2001 has certainly built a little equity.

    Quarterback Tom Brady is off to a torrid start, throwing for 754 yards, seven touchdowns and zero interceptions in wins over the Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills. Wide receiver Julian Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski have combined for 34 of Brady’s 63 completions and six of those seven aerial scores. Dion Lewis has been a big surprise coming out of the backfield.

    The defense remains suspect, but you have to give head coach Bill Belichick the benefit of the doubt when it comes to that side of the football. That means the eventual development of a secondary that has undergone massive changes this offseason.

    Yes, it is business as usual for the league’s reigning dynasty.

New York Jets: Pretenders

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    A total of 10 takeaways in two games. Wins over the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts by a combined 51-17 score. And the New York Jets are still considered pretenders?

    Consider where we are coming from. Over the past few years, this is a team that has put some pretty good defensive units on the field while the offense did not live up to its end of the bargain.

    So far, veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has been accurate while filling in for a healing Geno Smith. New York’s running game has been steady thanks to a solid offensive line and the backfield combination of Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell. Veteran wideouts Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker have combined to haul in all four of Fitzpatrick’s touchdown passes.

    With new head coach Todd Bowles at the controls, this looks like a physical football team on both sides of the ball. But we can’t help but wonder if Fitzpatrick is the season-long answer behind center. And once healthy, does Smith get his job back, and will that change the team’s approach on offense?

    Right now, the Jets look more like a work in progress than a playoff contender. But that’s not to say that they can’t develop quickly under the guidance of the 2015 NFL Assistant Coach of the Year, Bowles.

    Advanced statistics compiled through author's own research unless otherwise noted. All transactions are courtesy of Spotrac. Depth chart information comes via Ourlads. Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics come from Pro Football Reference and ESPN.com.


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