NFL contenders or pretenders? 49ers, Rams, Cardinals are for real; fade Raiders, Broncos after Week 2

carr-murray-stafford-091921-getty-ftr.jpeg
(Getty Images)

With Week 2 of the 2021 NFL season down to one more game, seven teams will be 2-0 going into Week 3. On the flip side, seven teams, including the loser of Monday night's Lions vs. Packers game, will have dug themselves 0-2 holes.

The history of each extreme start is well-documented. Since 2007, nearly 60 percent of NFL teams that have opened 2-0 have made the playoffs. During that same 14-year span, nearly 90 percent of teams that have fallen to 0-2 have failed to make the playoffs.

Last season, when the league expanded to 14 playoff teams, the trends continued. Eight of the 11 teams that started 2-0 in 2020 (72 percent) made the playoffs. All 11 teams that started 0-2 failed to make the playoffs.

Two seasons ago, when there were only 12 teams qualifying for the postseason, seven of the 9 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.

This season is a little different with a 17-game schedule, allowing a little more margin for error for 2-0 teams and a little extra makeup time for 0-2 teams. Once again this year, there are some surprising teams at both 2-0 and 0-2. Here's a breakdown of the 15 undefeated or winless teams and whether they are real contenders or true pretenders:

NFL POWER RANKINGS:
49ers, Cowboys, Broncos climb; Steelers, Seahawks, Saints slide into Week 3

Getty Images

2-0 teams: Contender or pretender?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Do we need to explain this one? The Super Bowl 55 champions have the GOAT QB Tom Brady at his GOATest level and don't have any glaring weaknesses offensively or defensively, save for a few secondary issues that every team in the NFL seems to have. They will roll through the NFC South and are headed to the expected top NFC playoff seed as contenders.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers don't get style points for how they escaped the 0-1 Lions and 1-1 Eagles on the road, but they're still away victories with a good mix of versatile offense and timely defense, even while contending with more injuries everywhere. But the Niners are back on track in 2019 form with Jimmy Garoppolo buoyed by the running game and Nick Bosa sparking the pass rush again. After a hungover 2020 for various reasons, Kyle Shanahan has made San Francisco a contender again.

MORE: NFL players sound off on taunting penalties

Las Vegas Raiders

The Raiders started 2-0 last season, only to finish 8-8 and miss the AFC playoffs again behind the Chiefs. Will Jon Gruden learn from his mistakes and get this team at least a wild-card berth, for his first playoffs during his return to the organization? The Ravens win was wild, crazy and amazing in its own right, but the Steelers victory on a short week in Pittsburgh was stamped by more explosive offense and more inspired defense at critical times.

Derek Carr has played at a high level and the Raiders have just beaten the two toughest teams on their slate that aren't either the Chiefs (twice) and Browns (once). Even without a reliable running game despite a deeper backfield, they look more put-together with improved scheming on both sides. This is a tough call, but their overachieving isn't sustainable for a second straight season. The Chiefs and 1-1 Chargers are still the best two teams in the West and its best bets for the playoffs, so go with the safer Vegas bet and call the Raiders pretenders.

Getty Images

Denver Broncos

The Broncos have looked impressive taking down the 0-2 Giants and 0-2 Jaguars, both on the road to open the season. Teddy Bridgewater has stabilized their run-heavy offense with just the right dose of big pass plays and the defense is re-energized with Von Miller fronting for Vic Fangio again. They have a great shot to get to 3-0 with the 0-2 Jets looming for their home opener in Week 3.

But their future schedule is loaded with the full AFC West gauntlet and the entire daunting AFC North. The degree of difficulty will be raised for Denver starting in Week 4 with Baltimore. The Broncos profile as a playoff team early with a good cupboard of young talent, but they will hit a wall at some point as pretenders to keep them out of the playoffs in a loaded division.

Los Angeles Rams

The Rams are a more complete offensive team with Matthew Stafford and strength in the running game with different personnel than expected. They have lost some mojo defensively, but their top-level talent of Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey set the tone for a still dangerous Brandon Staley-less defense. They are no-brainer contenders.

MORE: Grading NFL's rookie QBs after Week 2

Arizona Cardinals

The NFC West is a combined 7-1 after two weeks, with the Seahawks providing the only blemish. The Cardinals might be the weakest overall team in the division and they are still downright dangerous with Kyler Murray and several good defensive pieces. They just missed the playoffs last season, tied to Murray having a shoulder injury that limited him down the stretch. They dominated the Titans on the road in Week 1 and followed by surviving a tough Vikings team at home in Week 2. There's room for four teams from the same division to make the playoffs now. That's still the most likely scenario, confirming Arizona is a contender.

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers have dispatched the Jets and slammed the Saints in a much more impressive victory, both at home. Sam Darnold has overachieved at quarterback, helped by a healthy Christian McCaffrey opening up the rest of the offense again. The aggressive young defense is making more big plays than it is giving up.

Carolina had a favorable strength of schedule when considering the combined 2020 record of its 2021 opponents. The Texans provide a very winnable first road game on Thursday night to begin Week 3. Outside of the NFC South, the Panthers play all of the AFC East and the NFC East, too. There will be no division won behind the Buccaneers, but there are enough opportunities to pad a wild-card resume. A 9-8 or 10-7 mark should be sufficient for the last seed. The Panthers have a low ceiling but their high starting floor gives them a shot as contenders should one of the NFC West teams falter through inter-division attrition.

(Getty Images)

0-2 teams: Contender or pretender?

Jacksonville Jaguars

Let's get the easy ones out of the way. Urban Meyer isn't inspiring in his first foray into NFL coaching. The support system for first overall pick QB Trevor Lawrence is dysfunctional as expected and the defense has deficiencies everywhere. The Jags can already think what they will do to help Lawrence in the 2022 NFL Draft as clear-cut pretenders.

New York Jets

The Jets haven't faced offensive juggernauts to start their Zach Wilson-Robert Saleh era but still haven't had enough of their own positives to be competitive. The Panthers and Patriots just needed to be play solid defense and basic offense with a few big plays to beat them. New York has a good structure in place but the fronts on both sides can keep it from overachieving to flirt with half-dozen wins. The Jets are pretenders now, hoping to emerge as dangerous in a season or two.

Getty

Atlanta Falcons

Rookie head coach coach Arthur Smith is still trying to figure out the offensive identity around Matt Ryan, who is starting to crumble. The defense is a major rebuilding project that can't stop much of anything for savvy Dean Pees. Atlanta will get better every week and the midseason schedule helps, but there's a brutal end to squash any hopes of finishing above .500, confirming the team's preseason status as a pretender.

Indianapolis Colts

This one's tougher. The Colts' defense, toughness and good coaching under Frank Reich can keep them in games, but their rushing attack has disappointed out of the gate and Carson Wentz isn't serving as the right kind of offensive caretaker yet, let alone an upgraded playmaker over Philip Rivers at quarterback. Indy is developing into a nondescript fading pretender. The boulder is coming down the cave fast.

MORE: How Bill Belichick, Patriots continue to dominate rookie QBs

(Getty Images)

New York Giants

Daniel Jones has been a pleasant surprise with little help from his new receivers and somewhat healthy feature back Saquon Barkley. The defense has been up--and-down so far in the bad home loss to the Broncos and the close road loss at Washington. The Giants went in as a boom-or-bust team with a wide range of finishing outcomes, from winning the NFC East to crashing down and prompting big change after the season. With the Cowboys, Eagles and Washington all looking better in different ways, the Giants are massive pretenders.

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings have lost a pair of heartbreakers with varying last-second field goal drama on the road, first to the Bengals and then to the Cardinals. They are the only 0-2 team that is two plays away from 2-0. Every team in the NFC North already has lost once, which helps. But the Vikings' defense, despite a few impact players,, has been a big disappointment when needing a big rebound for Mike Zimmer. The offense is fine and familiar with Dalvin Cook and Kirk Cousins, but there's some finishing flair still missing and there are few breaks on the remaining schedule, first continuing with Seattle and Cleveland back-to-back in Minnesota. Just like their 0-2 start last year, it's easy to call the Vikings repeat pretenders.

Latest News

nfl-power-rankings-082621-ftr
NFL power rankings: Raiders, Steelers rise again; Browns, Bears, Seahawks slide for Week 7
NFL power rankings, Week 7
Josh-Allen-Derrick-Henry-101521-Getty-FTR
What channel is Bills vs. Titans on today? Schedule, time for 'Monday Night Football' in Week 6
What channel is Bills vs. Titans on today? Schedule, time for 'Monday Night Football' in Week 6
TJ-Watt-Geno-Smith-101721-Getty-FTR.jpg
Steelers' T.J. Watt proves he's worth every penny of record contract as he goes through squadron of Seahawks
DeCourcy: Watt shows Seahawks why Steelers gave him all that money
Peyton Manning and Eli Manning
Why Peyton, Eli Manning aren't on ESPN 'Monday Night Football' broadcast in Week 6
Why Peyton, Eli Manning aren't on ESPN 'Monday Night Football' broadcast in Week 6
Patrick-Mahomes-101721
Jackson Mahomes apologizes for dancing on Sean Taylor's number at Chiefs vs. WFT game
Jackson Mahomes apologizes for dancing on Sean Taylor's number