Pretender or Contender? (After Week 4)

Another exciting 2 weeks of football has been played and now comes the time where I swap teams between lists, eliminate some teams, and attempt to predict the eventual Super Bowl matchup.

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 (4-0): I can’t say enough about this Bills squad. Josh Allen is in the MVP race, their defense is playing at a high level, and they recorded 2 impressive victories against the Rams and Raiders the past 2 weeks. In those games, Allen has put up over 500 yards, 4 TDs and only 1 interception. This team is really good, and running away with the division. Look for them to battle the Chiefs for a 1st overall seed in the AFC. Easily a contender.

Titans (3-0): Since the last edition of Contender/Pretender, the Titans have only played one game against Minnesota, where they narrowly won. Tannehill was underwhelming (23/37 321 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT) and the defense let a struggling Vikings team score 30. The lone bright spot was Derrick Henry was dominant with *almost* 120 yards and 2 TDs (4.6 YPC). However, I haven’t seen enough to change their status just yet- they still sit on my pretender list.

Patriots (2-2): The Patriots have caught a very tough break as of recent. They started off the 2 week period with an impressive win against the Raiders, but then were struck by the virus and lost to the Chiefs without Cam Newton (COVID). New England also received word that star corner Stephon Gilmore had tested positive for COVID and are now unable to practice for the time being. A rough couple of weeks like this would be worrisome for most other teams, but we are talking about the Patriots. I’ve seen Belichick come back from similar situations (slow starts, injuries, etc.), so I have no doubt that they can only go up from here- especially considering how well the defense has been playing. I’m gonna keep the Pats on my contender list… for now.

Steelers (3-0): Another team who were only able to get in 1 game in this 2 week span (Titans COVID outbreak postponed their matchup in week 4). Pittsburgh was able to pull together a decent win against the winless Texans– where their defense was very dominant (5 sacks and 1 INT). Big Ben looks healthy, Conner has remained active and is the undisputed #1 ball carrier we all knew he could be. I really do like this Steelers team and like to think they could steal the division from the heavily favorited Ravens… with that being said, the Steelers are a pretty obvious contender in my eyes.

Ravens (3-1): Baltimore has dominated in all 3 of their wins… against subpar teams. The only legitimate squad they’ve faced has been Kansas City- and they were toyed with through most of the game (L 34-20). Obviously, the Ravens have a very good defense and one of the most exciting offenses in the NFL (Lamar Jackson is a pretty good QB), and I still don’t see them as a contender. However, I said it before and I will say it as much as I need to, Lamar needs to prove that he can face adversity and pull through against great teams (especially in the playoffs).

Browns (3-1): Cleveland is 3-1????? WOW they must be a contender! Things have changed right?!?! Uhhh, not really. They’ve won against 3 really poor teams and have allowed a TON of points (OPP PPG = 31.5). Yes, that means they have also scored a bunch of points to compete and win- but they have only faced one serious contender (Baltimore) and they were completely plowed through. Please do not fall for this trap. The Browns are still a pretender, plain and simple.

Colts (3-1): Last edition, I was on the fence about this squad. They were upset by a pretty bad Jaguars team week 1 and then finally seemed to catch their stride against the Vikings (also not that great of a team right now). However, I needed to see some more from Indy to be certain about their status going forward. How does 1st in opponent points and yards, 5th in lowest opponent completion percentage, 6th in allowed rush yards, and 4th in fourth most forced turnovers. This is the type of production you would expect out of such a talented group (Darius Leonard, DeForest Buckner, Justin Houston, Xavier Rhodes, and so on). Plus, Rivers has been a very good game manager, while rookie back Johnathan Taylor has been very impressive with his fill in for the injured Marlon Mack. Now, with a 3 game win streak and the best rated defense in the league- I can confidently say this team looks like a contender.

Chiefs (4-0): The Chiefs, since last time, have beaten the Ravens and a short handed Patriots team– regardless of the circumstances, both wins have been against legitimate contenders. With the Chargers sliding downhill with losses and the Raiders (I think) not being quite up to the task of winning this division- I think the Chiefs are primed to run away with another division title. Pat Mahomes has been electric and he has gotten help from his defense the past couple weeks. Look for KC to keep the ball rollin’ and sit on the contender list for awhile now.

Raiders (2-2): After a super promising start, the Raiders have lost their past 2 matchups (New England and Buffalo). Granted they held their own against the Bills and gave the Patriots a fight, they lost both games– which shows me they can’t hang with contenders. They have all the right pieces for the future to be great, but they aren’t quite there yet. Pretender.

Chargers (1-3): The Chargers are a really tough team that is going to compete every single matchup. Justin Herbert looks like the future of the franchise, and the defense is extremely solid. However, they just haven’t gotten the job done against the less than average Panthers and the up and down Tampa squad. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen enough in them at this point to keep them as contenders to this point… so they have to be pretenders.

NFC:

Washington (1-3): Over the course of 4 games, I think Washington has shown flashes of becoming one of the better defense in the league in the near future. That front seven is very very talented and the defensive backfield gets better every year. However, they are just no ready to compete for a title with the state of their offense. Haskins is officially benched for Kyle Allen in the upcoming week 5 and Alex Smith was listed as the #2 option if Allen gets hurt. So the young Haskins has a very uncertain future with the team. Outside of the QB issue, the line is aging, the run game has been subpar, and they have no real receiving threats outside of Terry McLaurin. They remain “in the hunt” at this point solely because of the state of the NFC East. Pretender.

Eagles (1-2-1): Philly has probably been one of the most disappointing teams to watch in football. Carson Wentz has gone from one of the most promising young QB talents to a lost cause. He’s been off target a ton (has the most missed throws in the league) and has turned the ball over at an extremely high rate. Yes, I understand that the weapons he has are not great, but he showed us previously that he can work with what’s he given. The great QBs in NFL history can turn practice squad guys into weapons with their arm– and Carson, thus far, has not shown that ability to be elite. Tack on a swiss cheese offensive line, questionable play calling, and a defense that appears lost at times– this team is simply not good. However, they sit atop the division with a (not so) staggering 1-2-1 record. Don’t be fooled though, if this team somehow manages to sneak into the wildcard round they will more than likely finish the season with another 1 and done appearance. Pretender.

Cowboys (1-3): Offensively, this team is extremely efficient. Dak Prescott seems to be thriving in HC Mike McCarthy’s new offense (#1 in Pass Yards with 1,690 through 4 games) — which makes sense considering he has Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Mike Gallup, and Zeke Elliot to work with. However, without the disastrous mismanagement the Falcons had late in a game that was already over, the Cowboys would be 0-4. Why? The answer is simple… their defense is atrocious. The past 3 weeks (which includes their W against Atlanta) the Cowboys defense has allowed 126 points… which averages out to 42/game. You don’t have to look at any other statistic or be an NFL analyst to know that the number is insanely high and unacceptable. If you want to win a championship in the NFL, you need to play defense and Cowboys seem completely unable of doing so– making them a total pretender.

Packers (4-0): The Packers have continued to roll through the league while staying red hot offensively (averaging 38 PPG). Both Aaron Jones and Aaron Rogers have been phenomenal, despite the absences of DeVante Adams and Allen Lazard at wideout. On top of that, the defense has been excellent in supporting the offense (12 total sacks, 5 from Za’Darius Smith) and giving the team a great chance to win every week. Overall, Green Bay is extremely balanced and I really don’t see any weak points on their team. I really consider them to be the most complete team in the NFC– which obviously keeps them as contenders on my list.

Bears (3-1): The Bears have a nice record, a top 10 defense, and plenty of offensive weapons. What makes me question things is their decision to pull Mitch Trubisky, despite a very productive start, for Nick Foles. Yes, Foles came in and pulled off a comeback against the Falcons, but then came in and played very poorly against Indy (granted they are the #1 ranked defense right now). He missed several key throws and was a huge reason the Bears were unable to keep up with the Colts. An early season QB switch when the team is 2-0, playing well, and looking to keep rolling can be detrimental to the team- especially after how Foles played week 4. Unless Foles comes back the next couple of weeks and impresses me, I have to keep them as pretenders.

Buccaneers (3-1): Last edition, I looked right past the Bucs with their slow start. To be fair, a loss to the Saints and a short margin win against a rebuilding Carolina was NOT a good look. However, after dominating Denver and Brady leading the team with 5 TDs against a very good Chargers defense- I might just have to change my opinion on them. Their defense definitely needs to be more consistent, but they have shown flashes of excellent play. For now, the Bucs will be moved to the contender list, but they have a tight leash with me.

Panthers (2-2): The Panthers are very much in rebuild mode, yet they’ve stacked up two very impressive wins against the Chargers and the Cardinals in back to back weeks without CMC– which is extremely better than what I thought they’d do without their best player. Carolina also has a tough schedule coming up, so I’ll keep my eye out to see how they do (Atlanta, Chicago coming up the next 2 games). I’m going to move them up from a “no show” on my list to a Pretender.

Saints (2-2): I was impressed with how the Saints competed with the Packers in a shootout, but was very disappointed in their play against a struggling Lions squad (which they still managed to win). This Saints team, even when Michael Thomas was healthy, has just not looked the same as the past few seasons and I worry for them. The Bucs and the Panthers have been extremely competitive and if New Orleans isn’t careful they could easily slip to 3rd place and miss the playoffs in an extremely competitive NFC conference. They still haven’t shown me anything to make me take them off the pretender list… and with more disappointing play they could even end up off my list entirely.

Seahawks (4-0): Along with the Packers, Seattle is one of the more balanced teams in the league (let alone the NFC). They have an excellent defense and the probable MVP on offense with Russell Wilson, who has been electric. With the state of their division and their dominance over all teams that have come their way so far, this is an easy contender label.

Rams (3-1): The Rams have shown flashes of excellence, but their 3 wins are all against NFC East teams…. let that sink in. Plus they barely got away with a W against the Giants. Yikes. They did, however, play well against the undefeated Bills, so I’ll give credit where it’s due. 3 wins and one loss is a great start, but I need to see them pull off some wins against some better teams to feel a bit more confident. However, I’m going to keep them on the contender list due to their star power and spot within the division.

Cardinals (2-2): The Cardinals started off with 2 very impressive wins, but followed those with 2 disappointing losses to Detroit and Carolina. This team definitely has all the right pieces, but has shown some inconsistency along the way. The Murray and Hopkins duo is elite, plus a young defense, young and talented HC in Kliff Kingsbury– this team gobs potential. AT this point though, the two losses are tough, especially in a super competitive division. Pretender is my final verdict for now… and they are on watch to drop off the list entirely.

49ers (2-2): The Niners have so much talent on their roster– most of whom are injured. They are depleted on the defensive line, struggling to find a tolerable backup to replace Jimmy G, and they are coming off a very bad loss to a terrible Eagles team– which is alarming. Their division is very tough and playoff spots are going to be very hard to earn in the NFC, especially with all their injuries at key positions. I have no choice but to list them as pretenders and put them on watch to be dropped off the list.

Final Post Week 4 List:

Contenders: Bills, Chiefs, Seahawks, Colts, Ravens, Steelers, Rams, Packers, Buccaneers, Seahawks.

Pretenders: Titans, Raiders, Cardinals, Bears, Washington, Philly, Cowboys, 49ers, Saints, Browns Chargers.

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