This season’s second annual “Real or Fake” look at the NFL’s 2-0 teams includes an eye-catching fact:
The league isn’t as top-heavy as usual.
Seven clubs stand at 2-0, the lowest number to open a season since 2005. In the previous five seasons, an average of 10 teams entered Week 3 undefeated.
The reduction in dominant squads is a boon for a league that loves parity, especially since only 22 of the 177 teams that opened 0-2 since 1990 have rebounded to make the playoffs. On the flip side, 64 percent of the 175 2-0 teams reached the postseason.
Reflecting upon my FOXSports.com picks last season, three of the four teams I pegged as “real” were in the playoffs. That includes Super Bowl XLV representatives Green Bay and Pittsburgh (New Orleans was the third). I missed on Houston but am willing to take the same risk again this season (see below).
Chicago and Kansas City also proved my “fake” prognostication incorrect by winning their respective divisions, while Miami and Tampa Bay did indeed fail to qualify for the postseason.
Let the speculation begin anew:
New England: At his current pace, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will shatter Dan Marino’s single-season passing record of 5,084 yards in Week 11.
The Pats are the league’s only team to have four players (wide receivers Deion Branch and Wes Welker and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez) with double-digit catches. New England’s offense could become even more prolific if Chad Ochocinco can work his way into the flow.
But these Patriots aren’t a one-trick pony. The defense is improved thanks to the maturation of young players and upgraded depth, especially across the front four.
The 2-0 start for both New England and the archrival New York Jets adds even more anticipation to their Oct. 9 matchup at Gillette Stadium.
New York Jets: Speaking of the Jets, New York’s defense and special teams deserve the bulk of the credit for this 2-0 start. A four-interception effort in last Sunday’s 32-3 rout of Jacksonville helped result in Luke McCown finishing with a lower quarterback rating (1.8) than his jersey number (12).
But as evidenced in the past two AFC Championship Games, the Jets need better offensive production to get over the hump and into their first Super Bowl since the 1968 season.
Third-year quarterback Mark Sanchez has made some brilliant throws in 2011, but two terrible decisions on his interceptions against the Jaguars probably would have proved costly against a better opponent.
New York’s problems rushing the football in its first two games have compounded the offensive woes and make it even more imperative for Sanchez to raise his game.
Green Bay: The Packers averted what would have been one of the biggest upsets in recent memory by overcoming an early deficit last Sunday and defeating Carolina.
Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy should use this as a lesson for his players that the defending NFL champions will regularly face inspired performances by opponents wanting to topple the king from its throne.
Defensive line depth and the season-ending neck injury suffered by Pro Bowl free safety Nick Collins are a serious concern, but the Packers also have enough offensive firepower to win most shootouts. Aaron Rodgers and New Orleans’ Drew Brees are the only two starting quarterbacks with at least five touchdown passes and no interceptions so far this season.
Houston: Even if Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning were healthy, the Texans are primed to take control of the AFC South. Yes, I thought the same thing last season, but this Texans team seems far more complete.
The defense has taken well to new coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 principles with Mario Williams (two sacks, one forced fumble) becoming increasingly comfortable as a stand-up outside rusher.
The Texans also are thriving offensively despite not having 2010 NFL rushing leader Arian Foster (hamstring) at full speed. A great litmus test of where the Texans stand will come Sunday in New Orleans.
The Saints’ run defense was embarrassed during a preseason loss to Houston and will use that as pregame motivation. New Orleans also fields the NFL’s No. 5 offense.
Detroit: I abandoned my seat on the Lions bandwagon in shame when the 2008 squad I predicted to reach the playoffs finished 0-16 instead. I’m ready to hop back onboard after watching Detroit’s first two games.
Matthew Stafford is the real deal at quarterback, although he took too many shots in last Sunday’s rout of Kansas City for my liking considering his injury history.
The defensive line is among the NFL’s fiercest and the cornerbacks are holding up better than expected. Another piece of good news: The nationally televised Thanksgiving Day game against Green Bay — Detroit’s first meeting against the Packers in 2011 — should actually be meaningful this time.
Buffalo: Enjoy these next few days, Bills fans. The first loss of the season is coming Sunday when New England rolls into town.
However, I do expect the Bills to be more competitive against an AFC East foe that has beaten them 15 consecutive times. A roster full of NFL castoffs and unheralded college prospects is jelling under head coach Chan Gailey.
The Bills have found a leader at quarterback (finally) in the late-blooming Ryan Fitzpatrick. Undrafted running back Fred Jackson continues to keep 2010 first-round draft pick C.J. Spiller relegated to a backup role. The run defense also is much improved thanks to the infusion of defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and linebacker Nick Barnett into a more aggressive front seven.
But the Bills have a major Achilles’ heel that will likely get exposed as the year unfolds — depth. Bills general manager Buddy Nix needs another season to shore that problem and give Buffalo the roster talent needed to make a playoff run.
Washington: No 2-0 team has a shakier starting quarterback situation than the Redskins do with Rex Grossman.
After a turnover-free, 305-yard passing effort in the season opener against the New York Giants, shades off the old Grossman resurfaced during his two-interception effort in last Sunday’s 22-21 victory over Arizona. Making that performance especially disappointing: Grossman was facing a battered pass defense that had just surrendered 422 yards to Carolina’s Cam Newton in his NFL debut.
Four of Washington’s next five games are on the road, with the lone home contest coming Oct. 16 against Philadelphia. By that point, the Redskins should have come back Earth. Back-to-back home games against the Jets and Patriots also loom in December.
The Redskins, though, have a sound enough running game and defense to remain a legitimate contender in the NFC East if the Eagles, Cowboys and Giants don’t shore their early season deficiencies.