Pretender or Contender? An Overview of the NFL’s Best Teams

By: Bryce Wadsworth

Week 2:

After two weeks of action (without fans for the most part), the NFL has been very interesting to watch. Despite having no pre-season and an odd offseason workout program- games have been fairly clean. There has only been an average of 12 penalties per game so far (according to the Football Database site). However, with a lack of game speed contact reps before the start of regular season play- injuries should be expected at a high rate. We definitely got a taste of that this week with stars like Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Nick Bosa, Malik Hooker, Marlon Mack, Drew Locke, Soloman Thomas, and many more suffering significant injuries (many were season ending). Regardless, the NFL has definitely been exciting to watch, and no matter who gets hurt- there has to be a winner at the end. So without further ado, here are my “Contenders and Pretenders” so far this season.

For reference:

Status of a contender = having enough talent to make the playoffs and seriously compete with the best of the best in the NFL to win a championship

Status of a pretender = does NOT mean the team is bad and uncapable of winning. Instead, it is a label given to teams with talent, but without the capability of going toe to toe with contenders/secure a playoff spot.

AFC:

Bills (2-0): Since the drafting of Josh Allen and the assemblage of an elite defense- I always thought the Bills were one big time playmaker away from being serious contenders- despite the domination of New England in that division. Acquiring Stefon Diggs from the Vikings was HUGE for Buffalo. He has already stacked up 239 yards on just 16 receptions- plus a touchdown- in just 2 games. Granted, the Bills have played two weaker divisional opponents- they have shown explosiveness, elite defensive ability, and great discipline as a team. I really think this team can finally be considered a legitimate division winner and compete to win the Super Bowl this season. Contender.

Titans (2-0): We all remember that historic playoff run that Derrick Henry and the Titans made last season- and so far a 2-0 start is probably making football fans in Tennessee very happy. Can we call them contenders this season? I don’t know. The first two weeks ended up in very very close games against two subpar teams (Denver and Jacksonville). However, Tannehill has been surgical with 6 TDs and an impressive 71 completion percentage to go a long with a ton of yardage. Henry has been fairly productive as well in terms of yardage, but the so called “King” has a pretty average YPC (3.55). To say the least, this team isn’t the most exciting to watch- but they have gotten the job done so far. Until I see them play in some more competitive contests with better teams, I can’t quite call them a contender yet. Gonna have to go with Pretender status at this point.

Chiefs (2-0): The reigning Super Bowl champs still remain hot this season. Mahomes has been his usual MVP caliber self- while they still have talented weapons on offense like Hill, Kelce, Hardman, Watkins, and the impressive rookie RB Edwards-Helaire (not to mention an improved offensive line). My only concern is still their lack of depth on the defensive side. Outside of Chris Jones and Tyrann Mathieu- who on that defense could step up in big situations? However, this was my huge concern last year and Mahomes was able to carry them all the way to the championship win. This is an easy one. Contender.

Raiders (2-0): Now this is an interesting team. It seems as though Gruden is making things work with Derek Carr (Over 500 yards, 4 TDs/0 INTs, with a 73.5 completion %). The most intriguing thing has been watching the development of the young players the team has brought in. Josh Jacobs and Darren Waller are offensive superstars. The young, revamped defense has played pretty well- despite multiple questionable draft selections. Gruden and Mayock have done an exceptional job at building a young, hard-nosed team of ballers. I really think they’ve brought back that Raider “chip on the shoulder” old school style- which as a football fan you love. Th team certainly has promise, but the lack of depth at receiver and corner/linebacker discourage me. The Raiders are good, but probably play in the best division in the AFC- so a playoff appearance is going to be awfully hard to come by unless they win a bunch of divisional matchups. I guess we will see- but for now they sit on my Pretender list.

Ravens (2-0): This already seems to be a second straight season of Baltimore’s dominance… in the regular season at least. The Ravens have already had two blowout victories over Houston and Cleveland- but the real test comes this week against KC. The reigning MVP, Lamar Jackson, has been surgical as a passer (close to an 80% completion percentage) and is always a threat as a runner. The defense has also been the best in the league statistically (1st in the league in points allowed and forced turnovers, while also putting up 6 sacks in 2 weeks). This team is no joke… in the regular season. The past few years, the Ravens have been excellent in the regular season, but then seem to fall apart in the playoffs. I need to see Lamar Jackson perform at an MVP level in a playoff game before I really make them a legitimate contender, but at the same time they just aren’t a pretender. They have a legitimate shot to win a title, but they need their young QB to carry his load when it matters. Final Verdict: Contender.

(see my initial thoughts on Lamar from 2017 here.. SPOILER, my QB ranking was a bust, but I think still evaluated him better than most ‘notable’ NFL “analysts”. Just saying)

Steelers (2-0): Pittsburgh was a team I had doubts about. The offense was near stagnant last season with James Conner banged up and the loss of Big Ben for the year- but they did do a good job building up their defense- which is now (I think) the most versatile in the league. They have stars at all 3 levels with Stephon Tuitt, Cam Hayward, Devin Bush, TJ Watt, Joe Haden (yeah he still has it a bit), and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Not only are the names great on paper- but they are also extremely productive. Pittsburgh, after 2 weeks, has the most pressures in the NFL. This defense has been elite, but the offense has also picked up. Big Ben looks like he has looked healthy and the running game is coming back to life. With that division realistically only being open to Baltimore and the Steelers, I would put the Steelers as potential contenders. The offense needs to pick up and help out the defense- but they still stand as one of the better AFC teams.

Patriots (1-1): We are used to bad starts to the season from New England in hopes that the dynasty run is finally over, and this was our most promising looking year yet- with the departure of Brady. However, the Patriots (in Patriot fashion) nonchalantly plugged in a former MVP level QB into their offense for a cheap 1 million dollar “prove it” type of deal. Week one he looked sharp and effective both through the air and on the ground. Week two he looked good too, but the Patriots ran into a really tough Seattle team. I don’t think they’re quite as dominant on defense this season (at least not yet), but come on, let’s be real- a Bill Belichick led team is almost ALWAYS a contender. Until I see a team of his really struggle and miss the playoffs, I never count that squad out.

Colts (1-1): As a Colts fan, I had so much hope for this team. The defense last season was dominant- and then got extremely better with the additions of DeForest Buckner, Xavier Rhodes, and rookie Julian Blackmon. However, Week 1 the unit looked atrocious- allowing the Jaguars to walk all over them the entire game. On top of that Philip Rivers continued his hot streak of throwing the ball to the wrong team (several times) AND Marlon Mack tore his achillies early in the game. Week one was not a good way to start the season. Fortunately the entire team bounced back with a dominant week two over the Vikings. The defense looked stellar- holding the Vikings to 11 points, under 200 total yards, while piling up 3 interceptions and 3 sacks. Quite the difference in defensive play. At the same time, rookie RB Jonathan Taylor looks like he has the potential to be a premier bell cow in the league. If he keeps it up, the defense stays stout, and Rivers stops turning the ball over- this team should win the division. This is a team we still need to see more of to really nail down their identity. They’re on the fence for me- but after such a drastic improvement from weeks 1 to 2, I’m going to keep them leaning more towards the contender side.

Chargers (1-1): The Chargers are GOOD. An already elite defense adds an elite corner like Chris Harris and great things happen. The team also did a good job filling a Melvin Gordon sized hole with excellent depth players like Josh Kelley and Justin Jackson- while Austin Ekeler has shown he can be an every down back in the NFL with a solid (5.1 YPC rate). The team has been great, and rookie 1st round QB Justin Herbert looked exceptional in his very first NFL start against KC this past week. Although LA lost, they made things extremely tough for the Chiefs- who still managed to pull an OT victory. I think the Chargers are a legitimate team and could sneak a division title… maybe. Probably not. Either way- they are definitely contenders.

Jaguars (1-1): The Jags looked much better in the first two weeks (I’m finishing things up the Friday after they lost to Miami on a TNF showdown. BUT I’m still only evaluating based on the first 2 games) than anyone could have anticipated. They shocked the Colts week one and really came to play against a solid Titans squad the following Sunday. Minshew has looked super precise throwing the ball, James Robinson has turned out to be a steal UDFA back, and the young group of receivers have been great. Not to mention the young, new look defense has done a good job holding their own. I think Jacksonville is headed the right direction as a team, but they aren’t quite ready to be contenders. They are extremely young on both sides of the ball and are very obviously in the middle of a rebuild. Despite their hot and impressive start, I have to list them as Pretenders.

NFC:

Cardinals (2-0): The Cardinals are one of the most exciting offenses to watch. A young mobile star QB in Kyler Murray, a first ballot HOF receiver in Larry Fitzgerald, a solid RB in Kenyan Drake, and an elite WR at the peak of his prime ion DeAndre Hopkins. The young, up and coming team is ranked 6th in total offense and is even playing really solid defense- although they could get better at holding teams to less yard totals (allowing 120 rush yards per game and 220 pas yards per game). Overall, this team is much better than people give them credit for. Sadly, this team plays in the best division in football- having to compete with playoff spots with Seattle, the Rams, and San Francisco. I don’t think they win the division, but with all the injuries to the stout 49er defense- they have a chance to steal a wildcard spot. Until we see how the next couple weeks go though, I have no choice but to list them as a Pretender… for now.

Rams (2-0): After a disappointing 2019 season (9-7 after a Super Bowl appearance the season before), the Rams look really solid. Goff has been excellent with near 70% completion percentage, 285 YPG, and 3 TDs. The defense looks renewed with shutdown DB Jalen Ramsey teamed up with the best defensive lineman in the game- Aaron Donald. A 2-0 start is solid- especially with such a dominating win against Philly. The big question how they can perform within the division. The 49ers are beat up with injuries, but the Seahawks and Cardinals are both very solid teams. I think the Rams can and will hold their own against their divisional opponents- but only time and games will tell. For now, the Rams have impressed me enough to earn a spot on the Contender list. I love the talent on both sides of the ball, and I trust McVay to have a bounce back season.

Seahawks (2-0): Russel Wilson WILL win an MVP this season- or at the very least he should get a damn 1st place vote for the first time. As always, Wilson has been nothing but electric (he already over 600 total pass yards and 9 yards in just 2 games. WOW). The defense is also playing at a high level, ranking top 10 in total defensive stats and holding off two high powered offenses in Atlanta and New England. There isn’t much else to say, other than this team is elite. Despite their tough divisional matchups, I think they come out on top and earn a 1st round bye this season. They may even be my pick to make the Super Bowl this season for the NFC… we will see. Nonetheless, they are an easy pick for Contender.

Packers (2-0): The Packers offense has been red hot thus far. Aaron Jones is averaging 6.9 YPC. I’ll say it again- Aaron Jones (with Aaron Rogers at QB) is rushing the football at a rate of almost SEVEN yards per touch. That is incredible, and I give props to Matt Lafleur for how he has designed that offense. My issue with them is the defense. They have all the pieces to be successful (Jaire Alexander, Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Kenny Clark, etc.), yet they have let up 55 points in 2 games. In order for the Packers to be truly dominant, the defense needs to hold up their end of the bargain- relying on your offense to score 40+ plus EVERY game just to win is not a good gameplan. In the NFL, teams just do not stay red hot like this offensively all 16 games. So unless the defense starts to help out, it could be a tougher season down the stretch. However, given the status of the Vikings and Lions- the Packers will have a good chance to win the division. For now, they remain a contender– but don’t take these two explosive 40 point performances to keep happening unless the defense gets going.

Bears (2-0): This team has been very interesting to watch. Their strong point is definitely defense- with a loaded set of starters headlined by Khalil Mack (defense is ranked top 3 in total defensive). We know they are good on that side of the ball, but the big surprise has been Mitch Trubisky and the offense. People (especially one particular contributor of this website *cough* *cough*) had already written off the UNC product and were looking at ways in which the Bears could move on. However Mitch has had a nice turnaround season thus far (5 TDs, 2 picks, and almost 500 yards so far). Although the numbers are quite average- he has shown improvements as both a decision maker and a thrower. Then again, they have 2 wins against 2 struggling franchises (Giants and Lions) who have yet to win a game this year. As much as I hate to say it, Mitch, Mack, and the Bears look like Pretenders.

Washington (1-1): Washington was very impressive week one with a huge come from behind victory over Philadelphia. However, things came back down to earth for the “Football Team” (still not over that name) with a punishing 30-15 loss against a promising Cardinals squad. Not the worst start in the world right? The defense has racked up a total of 11 sacks in two weeks and young offensive weapon Terry McLaurin has been more than impressive so far this season. BUT, this team is just not ready to compete at the top of the league with the big boys. I have always had concerns with Dwayne Haskins as an NFL QB prospect and he continues to show signs of being a bust. Ownership is under tons of fire at the moment as well (we all know why). Head Coach Ron Rivera is dealing with very serious medical issues as well. So, you really can’t expect this team to do much with the 2020 season. Although they are a Pretender right now, they do show some promise in years to come.

Cowboys (1-1): Dallas lost week one to a solid Rams team and somehow managed to comeback down 9 with no timeouts and 2 minutes to go in the game (Falcons fans, I’m very sorry). Not the most conventional 1-1 start around the league, but hey- I’m sure they’ll live with it. I was never really high on this team because of their lack of depth defensively (plus the loss of Leighton Vander Esch) and the inconsistent, shaky play of Dak Prescott, and I still feel that way. Yes they scored 40 points last week, but the Falcons defense is NOT all that great and plus they were held in check against the Rams. I could be wrong, but this Dallas team just feels like a Pretender once again. They have some tough games coming up though, so maybe they could change my mind?

49ers (1-1): Man oh man things are not looking good for the 2019 NFC Champs. Star D-linemen Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas both suffered season ending ACL tears. On top of that, offensive stars Jimmy G and George Kittle are out multiple weeks- missing crucial early season reps/games. Playing in such a tough division, with every single game being essential to their playoff hopes- it is tough to keep the Niners in my playoff picture prediction. Although they were dominant week two against a bad Jets team, they already are 0-1 in the division after a tough loss to Arizona. The 49ers have a relatively easy schedule the next 3 weeks (Giants, Eagles, Dolphins), so if they can hang around and win a 2 or 3 of those- they could stay in the race. For now, they are in my Pretender list.

Saints: (1-1): Is it just me, or do the Saints just look bad? Yes they took advantage of an inexperienced Buccaneer defense week one, but they were completely outplayed by a Raiders team they probably should have beat. One of the most accurate and consistent QBs of all time has been missing some easy throws and made some bad decisions- and you NEVER see him do that stuff. Call me crazy, but I don’t know if this team really has it this season. The window for another Drew Brees championship win seems to have closed up after two devastating playoffs losses in a row. They will more than likely win their division- but I have serious concerns for them as a contender… Until I see improvement (especially from the defense who has given up nearly 60 points in 2 weeks), this is a Pretender.

Buccaneers (1-1): Tom Brady, Gronk, Shady McCoy, Leonard Fournette, Godwin, Mike Evans, and HC Bruce Arians. This team sounds stacked and should have no issues winning ball games…right? As I did when Cleveland assembled their “dream team” offense of OBJ and Jarvis Landry with Baker Mayfield- I never bought in to the hype of this Buccaneer team. Brady looked awfully average against a pretty poor Saints defense (2 TDs, 2 picks and only 239 yards) and again in week 2 against a “full-rebuild” mode Panthers team (1 TD, 1 Pick, 219 yards). So far, I’m not sold AT ALL on this team. I’ve seen nothing that screams “Super Bowl Champion Team”- especially with a young, inexperienced defense that has been below average so far. Considering the toughness in the NFC and the fact that I think New Orleans takes the division title- Tampa is a wildcard team at best… sorry to the Brady fans, but this team seems to be a Pretender.

Now, let us all keep in mind that this only a general assessment after only 2 weeks of NFL play. Teams and players may be rusty, not 100% in game shape, recovering from off-season injury etc. So, when we come back to analyze play from weeks 3 and 4- things could look quite different. But, for now here is your Pretender vs Contender final list after week 2:

Contenders:

Bills, Chiefs, Ravens, Steelers, Patriots, Colts, Chargers, Rams, Seahawks, and Packers.

Pretenders:

Titans, Raiders, Jaguars, Cardinals, Bears, Washington, Cowboys, 49ers, Saints, and Buccaneers.

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