Intrigued fans are dying to know whether they’re real or fake.
I’m talking about the NFL’s eight undefeated teams, of course.
Predicting whether a squad will go boom or bust isn’t easy after just two weeks. Nine clubs were 2-0 last season, including the eventual Super Bowl representatives. New Orleans and Indianapolis proved, to borrow a famous line from Seinfeld, real and spectacular. But four other teams – Denver, San Francisco, Atlanta and the New York Giants – eventually sagged and missed the playoffs altogether.
Here are my picks on which of this year’s 2-0 clubs will augment their fast starts with more wins and which can be considered the league’s version of Heidi Montag.
There’s a lot to love about this team so far. Chicago’s defense is thriving like the Monsters of the Midway – a theme that embattled head coach Lovie Smith pushed throughout the preseason. The Bears also have far more offensive flash under new coordinator Mike Martz than at any point during Ron Turner’s five seasons at the helm.
But I get the sneaking suspicion quarterback Jay Cutler isn’t going to finish the season because of his mediocre offensive line. Even the Nip/Tuck surgeons couldn’t beautify the ugly unit assembled by general manager Jerry Angelo. If Cutler ultimately goes down – four home-and-away games against Minnesota and Green Bay are especially perilous – the backup options are Todd Collins and Calib Hanie. Season over.
Even in a region that sports more silicone in rock-hard beach bodies than a cookware factory, Miami’s defense is once again invoking 1980s flashbacks of the Killer B’s under new coordinator Mike Nolan.
Inside linebacker Karlos Dansby was a monster free-agent acquisition. Kendall Langford has quietly become one of the league’s best 3-4 ends. Randy Starks has made a seamless transition to nose tackle. Outside linebacker Cameron Wake is the second coming of Jason Taylor. The youth movement of outside linebacker Koa Misi, defensive end Jared Odrick, safety Chris Clemons and cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Sean Smith have laid the foundation for years to come.
But in a division with powerhouses like New England and the New York Jets, you must generate more than the two offensive touchdowns Miami has scored in its first two games. The two biggest problems: Greenhorn quarterback Chad Henne is still trying to build chemistry with wide receiver Brandon Marshall, and the interior of the offensive line is filled with NFL rejects. There is major offensive long-term upside, but I get the feeling New England and New York are still a step ahead. We’ll find out soon enough. Miami hosts the Jets and Patriots in its next two games.
Game-changing plays on defense and special teams like those contributed by cornerback Brandon Flowers (34-yard interception return against Cleveland) and wide receiver Dexter McCluster (96-yard punt return against San Diego) can only take a team so far.
Quarterback Matt Cassel ranks near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories, and running back Jamaal Charles – one of the offense’s few bona fide playmakers – is being underutilized behind plodding starter Thomas Jones. As quickly as they’ve started, the Chiefs will come crashing back to earth Oct. 10 and 17 in road games against Indianapolis and Houston. But all is not lost for Todd Haley’s squad. A favorable schedule and strong coaching staff should keep the Chiefs in the playoff hunt for a while.
Having the NFL’s lowest payroll isn’t the only reason for Tampa Bay’s miserly management to celebrate with a bottle of Cook’s champagne. A team that, according to profootballtalk.com, has allocated $80.8 million for 2010 player salaries is undefeated, while the second-biggest spender – Dallas ($166.5 million) – stands at 0-2. Such frugality, though, will eventually catch up with the Bucs.
While general manager Mark Dominik has done a nice job stocking the roster with young talent, the Buccaneers still lack a strong outside pass rusher and quality wide receiver to complement rookie standout Mike Williams. The lack of proven depth will be another major concern as the season unfolds.
That being said, the Bucs should be ready to make a strong playoff push in 2011 as Josh Freeman continues to blossom as one of the league’s best young quarterbacks.
Combined with Minnesota’s 0-2 start, quarterback Aaron Rodgers is making Packers fans forget about Brett Favre once and for all. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews (six sacks) is flourishing in Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense. At this torrid pace, Matthews and Packers cornerback Charles Woodson could become the first teammates to win consecutive NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors since Baltimore’s Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, respectively, in 2003 and 2004.
The biggest concern is at running back. Starter Ryan Grant (leg) is out for the season. Marshawn Lynch would be a nice replacement, but Buffalo has shown no willingness to part with its ex-starter even with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson on the same roster.
Cliche time: Good teams know how to pull through in crunch time. New Orleans has done that the past two weeks in close victories against Minnesota and San Francisco. The Saints, though, still have problems that need fixing.
After watching 49ers running back Frank Gore slice through the Saints for 145 yards on Monday night, Vikings coach Brad Childress should be kicking himself for not riding Adrian Peterson more in the season opener. Big plays also are missing from the Saints offense. Drew Brees is averaging almost 2 yards less a completion than last year’s 8.5-yard mark. The projected four- to six-week absence of running back Reggie Bush (fractured fibula) won’t help matters.
Even so, the Saints still have the kind of scoring threats and opportunistic defense that will keep New Orleans marching toward another playoff berth.
Pick your poison. Houston’s offense can beat you with the run or pass, as evidenced in wins over Indianapolis and Washington. By guiding a 17-point comeback against the Redskins, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub cemented his status among legitimate early NFL Most Valuable Player candidates.
The Redskins, though, did expose holes in Houston’s young secondary that will make Peyton Manning salivate for their Nov. 1 rematch. Starting cornerbacks Glover Quin and rookie Kareem Jackson must mature quickly so the Texans don’t have to try to win shootout-style every week.
So who will be Pittsburgh’s quarterback Sunday at Tampa Bay: Charlie Batch? Byron Leftwich? Cliff Stoudt? It really doesn’t matter with the way running back Rashard Mendenhall and Pittsburgh’s suffocating defense have excelled in the absence of Ben Roethlisberger.
The passing game should get into gear quickly once Roethlisberger returns from his four-game NFL suspension. The Steelers have a brutal remaining schedule that includes New England, Miami, New Orleans and the New York Jets besides six games against division rivals. There’s a very real chance Pittsburgh may only finish with nine or 10 wins. But it’s looking like this is the type of team nobody would want to face in the playoffs.