NFL
September 21, 2021

Contender or Pretender: Which Undefeated NFL Teams Should We Take Seriously?

Week 2 of the NFL season is in the books and there are still seven undefeated teams. Some of these squads have legit Super Bowl aspirations while others are just a flash in the pan. 

Who are the imposters? Who are the legit threats to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February? We've deciphered which 2-0 teams are legit and which are frauds. 

Contender: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers have picked up right where they left off. After returning all 22 starters from a year ago, Tampa Bay has looked nearly unstoppable in their first two contests.

The offense is a well-oiled machine with Tom Brady and his favorite target Rob Gronkowski, aka Red Zone Robbie G, has four touchdowns in two games. If Brady and Gronk are going to be the best duo in NFL history again, the 2021 season might be a wrap.

From top-to-bottom, the offense is just loaded. Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin have been sensational this year while Mike Evans rebounded nicely from being a non-factor in Week 1 with two touchdowns against the Falcons on Sunday. 

The defense is talented, but they have some early-season concerns. The Cowboys and Falcons have shredded this secondary. On the season, the Buccaneers are allowing 342 passing yards per game. However, the Cowboys and Falcons have two of the best passing attacks in the league, so these early-season stats do not tell the full story of this defense. They are only allowing 57.5 rushing yards per game, but that is also without context since the Falcons and Cowboys do not run the ball much.

There should be no concerns with this secondary as we get deeper in the season and the offense will continue to stay unstoppable as long as they stay healthy. The defending Super Bowl champions are, of course, contenders

Pretender: Denver Broncos

Coming into the season, the Broncos were a sneaky pick to make some noise in the AFC. With one of the better young-skill rooms in football, it seemed like they were just a good quarterback away from being a legit team. With Drew Lock not living up to expectations, Denver acquired Teddy Bridgewater, who has lit it up through the first two games. 

Bridgewater has been very efficient, ranking second in QBR (83.2) while completing 77% of his passes with no turnovers. The level of competition has not been great as they have faced the Giants and Jaguars so far, but Bridgewater has done exactly what has been asked of him: do not be the reason we lose games.

The defense has been stifling, allowing just 251 yards per game and 13 points per game. Unfortunately, Denver did lose Bradley Chubb to an ankle injury, but Von Miller and the secondary have been suffocating. 

It'll be hard for Bridgewater to keep up this level of play all season, but even with him coming back to Earth, the Broncos' defense will keep them in games all season. Unfortunately, they are in the highly competitive AFC West. The Broncos might make the playoffs, sure, but they aren't winning a Super Bowl. 

Pretender: Las Vegas Raiders

The Raiders can thank Derek Carr for Las Vegas' 2-0 start this season.

With a league-high 817 passing yards and a 66% completion percentage, Carr has done an excellent job leading the Raiders' offense. With Josh Jacobs banged up, the Raiders' only other reliable weapon is Darren Waller. Henry Ruggs emerged Sunday with a much-needed breakout performance. Teams could do a lot worse than Waller, Ruggs, Bryan Edwards and Hunter Renfrow in the passing game. 

Defensively, the Raiders have gotten a big boost from Maxx Crosby and Carl Nassib. They have terrified both Lamar Jackson and Ben Roethlisberger and forced three turnovers, including a clutch strip-sack of Jackson in overtime. Free-agent acquisition, Yannick Ngakoue has had some early-season success which makes Las Vegas' front-seven even tougher to defend. 

The Raiders' biggest crutch remains the defensive secondary. They were killed all last season by explosive plays and they are showing that same weakness this year. The offense has been very sharp to start the season, but the defense is not talented enough to keep this team on a roll. If the offense continues its success, the Raiders will be a .500 team. The defense is what is going to keep them out of contention.

Pretender: San Francisco 49ers

Even with Jimmy Garoppolo still taking the snaps, the 49ers are a team that will win on talent alone. After the injury-riddled season of 2020, the defense is healthy and showing signs of being elite once again, even if they are missing a few faces from that 2019 season.

In his first two games back from an ACL tear, Nick Bosa looks better than ever, tallying three sacks while sending out potential Defensive Player of the Year vibes. He's the biggest difference-maker on the 49ers' defense and completely transforms them from a mediocre unit to one of the NFL's best. 

The problem is the offense, which is weird to say for a Kyle Shanahan-led team. The training wheels are still on this offense despite the Niners' not playing rookie Trey Lance. Starting Jimmy G might deliver victories over the Lions and Eagles, but his performance won't cut it against the rest of the NFC West. 

Until this team passes the keys to Lance, San Francisco doesn't have a realistic road to the Super Bowl, especially in this division. The Niners are talented, sure, but there's a ceiling to this offense with Jimmy G, which everyone saw in their Super Bowl loss to the Chiefs

Pretender: Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals are very lucky to be 2-0 after escaping with a 34-33 win over the Vikings on Sunday, but let's get to the exciting part first.

They are going to live or die with Kyler Murray at quarterback, and they are living good right now. On the season, he is completing 73.5% of his passes for 689 yards and seven touchdowns. He's also leading the league in the "How the Hell Did He Just Do That?" plays. His playmaking ability, accuracy, and overall athletism have made him an early MVP frontrunner.

As a team, the offense is second in yards per game with 445.0 and first in scoring with 36 points per game. The running game leaves a bit to be desired, but the emergence of rookie receiver Rondale Moore has been a big bonus for the Cardinals. 

The defense is where we fall back to reality a little bit. They were able to hold Derrick Henry to 58 yards rushing and practically neutralize the entire Titans offense in Week 1. Against the Vikings, Dalvin Cook ran for 131 yards and Kirk Cousins lit up the secondary with three touchdown passes. It took a missed 37-yard field goal by the Vikings in the final seconds for the Cardinals to improve to 2-0.

The tandem of J.J. Watt and Chandler Jones has already proven to be lethal and Isaiah Simmons is starting to break out in his second season. The Cards look like a playoff team, but it's hard to bet on a Kliff Kingsbury operation. 

Contender: Los Angeles Rams

The Rams came into the season as one of the favorites to win Super Bowl, and they have shown why. Matthew Stafford has been great in his first season with Sean McVay and the Rams have opened up their offense thanks to Staffy's big arm. 

While Darrell Henderson is a fine second-option as a running back, he is very limited and makes this offense almost one-dimensional. The longest rush the Rams have this season is 15 yards while newly-acquired Sony Michel has been a non-factor in the first two games.

The Rams clearly miss former defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, though. The defense has struggled to get pressure on the passer and needs Aaron Donald to heat up a little bit while the secondary — outside of Jalen Ramsey — could be an issue. 

Despite that, the Rams still have the look of a Super Bowl contender. 

Pretender: Carolina Panthers

The Panthers have been one of the surprise teams of the NFL season. 

Sam Darnold is naturally playing better now that he's not being ruined by Adam Gase, but the real revelation is the Panthers' defense. They look like the real deal. 

The Panthers lead the league in almost everything. They are allowing 190 yards per game, 143.5 passing yards per game, 46.5 rushing yards per game, and have only given up 21 points in two games. Now, let's be honest here, they have had one of the easiest roads to 2-0 ever. In-game one, they went up against a brutal Zach Wilson-led jets team and then took on Jameis Winston and the Saints, who accidentally blew out the Packers in their first game.

When they go up against good teams, they will be humbled. I am impressed with how comfortable Darnold has looked, but this 2-0 start means nothing until we see them play real competition.

Photo: Getty Images