Giants are contenders, jury out on other 2-0 teams

BY Alex Marvez • September 23, 2009

Predicting whether the NFL's undefeated teams are legitimate contenders or overrated pretenders is tailor-made for a Schein 9.

Sorry, Adam. For this column, I'm stealing your Schein schtick.

Seven of the league's 2-0 teams sit alone atop their respective division. The other two — Atlanta and New Orleans — share the NFC South lead.

The Falcons, Minnesota, Indianapolis, Baltimore and New York Giants were playoff teams in 2008. A few weeks ago, Denver, San Francisco and the New York Jets seemed more likely to start the season 0-2.

But while a fast start helps, it doesn't guarantee a playoff appearance. Since the NFL's expansion to 32 teams in 2002, roughly 57 percent of the postseason qualifiers began the season at 1-1 or 0-2.

So which current 2-0 squads are for real? Here's my ranking of those that will "Schein" or fade as the season unfolds.

1. New York Giants

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Preseason vibe: The defense wasn't a concern with such a deep and talented front four. The big question was whether QB Eli Manning could carry the passing game sans a bona fide No. 1 wide receiver following the offseason release of Plaxico Burress.

What we know now: General manager Jerry Reese's confidence in his young receiving corps has paid early dividends. Steve Smith and Mario Manningham each had 100-yard outings in last Sunday's 33-31 victory at Dallas. 2009 first-round pick Hakeem Nicks also should contribute once he's recovered from a foot injury suffered in an impressive season-opener.

What's going to happen: The defense under first-year coordinator Bill Sheridan will continue to improve as players like CB Aaron Ross and DT Chris Canty get healthy. RB Brandon Jacobs should get on track after averaging a pedestrian 3.4 yards through two games. Already having wins over Washington and Dallas will go a long way toward New York's quest to repeat as NFC East champion.

2. Baltimore

Preseason vibe: A depleted wide receiver corps was bolstered by the return of Derrick Mason after a brief retirement. The adjustment from esteemed defensive coordinator Rex Ryan to Greg Mattison went smoothly because the Ravens re-signed star LBs Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs during the offseason. K Steven Hauschka proved he was a competent replacement for Matt Stover, who wasn't re-signed after 18 seasons with the franchise.

What we know now: Like Ryan in Atlanta, QB Joe Flacco has made considerable strides in his second NFL season. Flacco already has five touchdown passes, a mark he didn't reach until his eighth start in 2008. With an average of 406 yards a game, the Ravens are on track to finish with their most productive offense since the franchise moved from Cleveland in 1996. The Ravens also remain stout against the run, allowing an NFL-low 41 yards a game.

What's going to happen: Pittsburgh won all three match-ups against Baltimore last season en route to winning Super Bowl XLIII. For a legitimate shot at winning the AFC North, the Ravens need at least a split in two late-season games against the Steelers. By that time, Baltimore must shore up flaws in its pass defense or risk getting schooled again by Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger.

3. Atlanta

Preseason vibe: The only drama ended quickly after WR Roddy White ended his early holdout and signed a new contract. A tranquil training camp and healthy roster afforded Falcons coach Mike Smith a golden chance to build upon last year's surprising 11-5 finish.

What we know now: Tony Gonzalez still has plenty left in the tank. Acquired via trade with Kansas City, the 33-year-old Gonzalez has added a receiving dimension at tight end (12 catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns) the Falcons were sorely missing. Mike Peterson was another solid offseason acquisition by second-year general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Peterson, who played on Smith's defense in Jacksonville, and fellow linebacker Curtis Lofton have combined for 35 tackles in two games. The only linebacker duo credited with more stops is St. Louis' James Laurinaitis and Will Witherspoon (38).

What's going to happen: In his second season, Matt Ryan should continue blossoming into one of the NFC's top quarterbacks. The Falcons will need that offensive firepower to keep pace with New Orleans. The season-ending knee injury suffered last Sunday by rookie DT Peria Jerry was a major blow to the defense.

4. Minnesota

Preseason vibe: This team's complexion completely changed when QB Brett Favre was signed after the first preseason game. His rust from an offseason "retirement" was evident, but Favre quickly won over his new teammates and was elected an offensive captain.

What we know now: Favre's caretaker role at quarterback has gone smoothly thanks to RB Adrian Peterson. A.P. is the early MVP frontrunner with a league-high 279 rushing yards. A standout defense received good news when run-stuffing DTs Pat and Kevin Williams were cleared to play for the rest of the season as they fight a suspension for positive drug tests.

What's going to happen: The defense and rushing attack are good enough to win a Super Bowl. The rest depends on the player DE Jared Allen has nicknamed the "Silver Fox." Favre has played efficiently, completing a league-best 77.1 percent of his throws without an interception. Yet he also has only 48 pass attempts, the lowest number among the NFL's top 28-rated quarterbacks, with a long completion of 21 yards. The jury is still out on whether Favre can be effective in the deep passing game — especially because of his limited mobility when trying to escape pressure — once the Vikings face better opposition than Cleveland and Detroit.

5. New Orleans

Preseason vibe: There were never doubts about QB Drew Brees and the Saints' high-powered passing offense. But concerns remained about whether New Orleans had done enough to bolster the two areas (running game and defense) that derailed last year's playoff run.

What we know now: Mike Bell's emergence gives New Orleans the chance to field a three-headed rushing attack with Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas once he returns from injury. Bell, a once-promising player in Denver, ranks fourth in the NFL in rushing with 229 yards. The Saints also have shown defensive improvement under aggressive new coordinator Gregg Williams. Like in Minnesota with the Williams Wall, the Saints don't have to worry that starting DEs Charles Grant and Will Smith will be suspended as the Starcaps situation will not get resolved until 2010.

What's going to happen: Even with Philadelphia using a first-time starter at quarterback in Kevin Kolb, a 48-22 stomping of the Eagles was impressive for a Saints squad that was 2-6 on the road last season. We'll find out whether New Orleans is for real starting in October when the Saints play the Jets, Giants and Falcons in a five-week stretch. The good news for New Orleans: Those three teams have to come marching into the Louisiana Superdome.

6. Indianapolis

Preseason vibe: After seven consecutive playoff appearances under Tony Dungy, the Colts were no longer considered a postseason lock because of major changes at head coach (Jim Caldwell) and defensive coordinator (Larry Coyer). There also was uncertainty at wide receiver with the Colts not signing a veteran replacement for Marvin Harrison, who was released in the offseason.

What we know now: The transition under Caldwell has gone smoothly. QB Peyton Manning — the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 2008 — is still brilliant. He is leaning heavily on WR Reggie Wayne and TE Dallas Clark, who have more combined receiving yards (421) than any other duo except for Smith and Manningham (422).

What's going to happen: Having won their first two games against Jacksonville and Miami by a combined six points, the Colts could easily be 0-2. An undersized defense was gouged for 239 rushing yards in last Monday's 27-23 victory over Miami. The imminent return of SS Bob Sanders (knee) will help, but the Colts may still struggle when matched against physical running teams like defending AFC South champion Tennessee. Indianapolis can't depend solely upon Manning, whose overall lack of playoff success is the only blemish on his Hall of Fame resume.

7. New York Jets

Preseason vibe: Besides learning Ryan's complex 3-4 defensive scheme, the Jets also needed to settle upon a starting quarterback. The franchise selected 2009 first-round pick Mark Sanchez over fourth-year veteran Kellen Clemens.

What we know now: Sanchez is ready for prime time despite having only 16 college starts. He showed great poise despite a rough start in last Sunday's 16-9 victory over New England, a team that usually feasts on newbie QBs. New York's underrated offensive line has done well protecting Sanchez and opening lanes for RBs Thomas Jones and Leon Washington. The Jets also have held two of the NFL's top offenses (Houston and New England) without a touchdown and are ranked atop the NFL in fewest yards allowed.

What's going to happen: A swarming defense should only get better with the return of OLB and top pass-rusher Calvin Pace after a four-game steroid suspension. There's no reason to believe Sanchez can't lead New York into the playoffs as a rookie like Matt Ryan and Flacco did with their respective teams in 2008. Even if the Jets fall short, Rex Ryan's brash demeanor should provide plenty of entertainment along the way.

8. San Francisco

Preseason vibe: Mike Singletary entered his first preseason as 49ers head coach with the same intensity that marked his Hall of Fame career at linebacker. The 49ers held a quarterback competition between Shaun Hill and Alex Smith that the former won convincingly. WR Michael Crabtree, the No. 10 overall pick in April's draft, never arrived and remains unsigned.

What we know now: Hill may be the NFL's most underrated quarterback. While he isn't flashy, Hill has a 9-3 career record as a starter and provides excellent leadership. He also has benefited from a return to health by RB Frank Gore, who zipped for 207 yards and two touchdowns last Sunday against Seattle. Defensively, LB Patrick Willis has emerged as the NFC's version of Ray Lewis. Willis is a tackling machine with power, as evidenced by the hit that broke one of Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck's ribs. With sacks in each of the first two games, third-year DE Ray McDonald is a nice pass-rushing surprise for a team that struggled to pressure quarterbacks during the Mike Nolan era.

What's going to happen: The 49ers surprised Arizona in the season-opener and then toppled Seattle for two strong division wins. I still think the Cardinals are the team to beat in the NFC West, but a 49ers victory Sunday against Minnesota would show Singletary's crew is for real.

9. Denver

Preseason vibe: No atmosphere surrounding an NFL team was more toxic than the one in Denver. Not only did the Broncos trade their franchise quarterback (Jay Cutler) to Chicago in April, top WR Brandon Marshall was suspended after a meltdown in practice. Cutler replacement Kyle Orton struggled with interceptions in his first two preseason games, then damaged a finger on his throwing hand in the third.

What we know now: First-year head coach Josh McDaniels may have a clue after all. The Broncos got a break — finally — when WR Brandon Stokley caught an 87-yard touchdown pass in the waning seconds of a 12-7 season-opening victory over Cincinnati. The Broncos then showed some surprising defensive spunk in a 27-6 flogging of Cleveland. With four sacks, OLB Elvis Dumervil has made a nice switch from defensive end in the 3-4 scheme Nolan has installed.

What's going to happen: Broncos fans should enjoy this perfect season while they can. The schedule turns miserable after Sunday's game at Oakland (1-1). Denver's next five opponents are Dallas, New England, San Diego, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. A 2-6 record at midseason is more plausible than a winning mark. But with San Diego wracked by injuries and Kansas City and Oakland not scaring anyone, the Broncos may be able to compete for the AFC West crown. That in itself would make McDaniels' controversial first season in Denver a success.