Contenders vs. pretenders: Bills, Texans, Colts and Saints
By SAM SPIEGELMAN
Two weeks of the NFL season are in the books, and two of the projected division winners - the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints - find themselves in a winless pickle already.
On the other hand, the Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans, a team we were ready to write off after a disastrous preseason and the team that just had the No. 1 pick in May's NFL draft, have hit the ground running with 2-0 starts.
Who's for real and who's not? Which of these winless teams are contenders and which of the undefeated teams are pretenders? Allow me to explain.
The 2-0 Bills
Buffalo provided us with the upset of the Week 1 by defeating the Bears at Soldier Field, then knocked off AFC East rival Miami on Sunday.
The offense has continued to develop under second-year head coach Doug Marrone, who's continued to exercise a dynamic 1-2 punch in the backfield with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, while piecing together quite a receiving corps featuring the No. 4 overall pick Sammy Watkins, a proven commodity in Mike Williams and a budding talent in Robert Woods.
Defensively, former Lions coach Jim Schwartz has come in and helped continue the ascension of this defense, which features a dynamic defensive line comprised of Mario Williams and Kyle Williams. The linebacking corps is showing no signs of demise without its leader Kiko Alonso, and nobody is wondering where prized safety Jairus Byrd is.
But is anybody 100 percent sold on these Bills?
Would you pick Buffalo to beat the 1-1 Patriots? Or even the Jets? Are you putting all your eggs in the EJ Manuel basket to continue to be a glorified game-manager? Or do you believe the Bills are playing well out of the gate, but are a team that can easily be figured out.
What defense will take Spiller and Jackson out of the equation and force Manuel to make big plays to win games? The Bears don't exactly have the most proven defense in the NFL, while Miami was without a number of its key linebackers.
The upcoming slate includes San Diego, Houston, Detroit, New England, Minnesota, and the Jets. That's two playoff teams from a year ago and some defenses with top-10 potential. It sounds like at Week 8, the Bills will fall back to reality with a 3-5 record.
The 0-2 Saints
The Saints' offseason moves to bulk up an already up-and-coming defense and add the ultra-explosive Brandin Cooks was enough to convince many of us they'd be in the discussion for legitimate Super Bowl contenders. But that new-look D looked like a JV squad against Atlanta Week 1 and caved against the Brian Hoyer-led Browns in the final moments on Sunday, and now sit at 0-2, looking up at the Falcons and Panthers in the NFC South.
The Saints' offense is still a force to be reckoned with - and nobody is throwing the towel in on it - but doesn't it feel like the unit is not living up to its potential. Drew Brees hasn't exactly been Drew Brees these first two weeks, and while statistics dictate the offense is among the NFL's best it just hasn't been as explosive and formidable as we thought it would.
Rob Ryan is a great defensive mind. He'll figure out the Saints need to adjust their personnel in the secondary, perhaps reverting to the three-safety backfield to take a vulnerable Patrick Robinson off the field. Sean Payton is a great offensive mind. He'll find a way to get Cooks and Jimmy Graham big plays down the field, and overcome the one-month loss of Mark Ingram. It should allow Pierre Thomas to see more snaps, which bodes well for the passing game.
The Saints are not the contenders we expect them to be away from the Dome - at least they aren't at this point in the season. They return to The Big Easy to get the Vikings before facing Dallas, Tampa, and then a bye. New Orleans should be 3-2 before another competitive stretch of its schedule, and should be ready to get on a roll at that point.
The 2-0 Texans
What a Cinderella story. In May they're selecting Jadeveon Clowney with the No. 1 overall pick, and after simply replacing Matt Schaub with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Houston is at the top of the AFC South.
Well, Lee Corso fans, not so fast my friends.
The Texans started 2-0 a year ago, with the aforementioned Schaub under center. Sure, Schaub might have been past his prime at that point already and Fitzpatrick is an upgrade, but are you really going to trust a journeyman to lead this team to a division crown?
The Texans have some outstanding pieces on this team, both on the offensive and defensive side of the balls. It sort of reminds me of those early 2000s Ravens squads, with a Trent Dilfer under center just trying to hold things steady while the defense is the heart and soul of the team. That team won a Super Bowl - so what do I know - but I'm not betting the 2014 Texans defense is even in the same breath as the 2000 Ravens. It is, however, good enough to make some noise this season.
The main issue I'm having trouble with is putting my full support behind Fitzpatrick against top-tier defenses. He got past Washington and Oakland, two of the worst defenses in the NFL, and he will probably be able to find success against the porous Giants D, too. But what about the upper echelon of the NFL?
Unlike Buffalo, though, I don't think the Texans' season is going to spiral out of control after this 2-0 start. This Houston team can compete with Indy for the AFC South title, so long as the defense continues to play at a high level. The offense is a middle-of-the-pack unit at best, but then again, are we sold on the Colts?
The 0-2 Colts
That's a transition, huh?
As mediocre as the Texans' offense is, I'm not sure how much better the Colts' defense is. No Robert Mathis has translated to zero impact generating a pass rush, which almost cancels out what's a pretty awesome secondary and talented linebacking corps. But as we saw Monday night against Philadelphia, the lack of pressure on Nick Foles allowed him and other opposing quarterbacks to sit back and wait for the open receiver. No matter how good of a secondary a defense has, a quarterback with time will make a play.
The offense is beginning to look balanced, just as we all anticipated. Trent Richardson showed signs of life against the Eagles, and Ahmad Bradshaw looks like the perfect complimentary back. The offensive line is suspect, but so far it hasn't stopped the two backs from finding holes. The depth at receiver and tight end is also phenomenal, as even Donte Moncrief flashed play-making ability, and he's the No. 4 wideout buried on the roster.
My issue with the Colts is actually the quarterback. In this piece, I described Andrew Luck as an excellent young quarterback, but not yet in the elite category. And because we anoint the 25-year-old Luck elite already, he and the Colts face an unfair pressure to win MVPs and AFC South crowns, and already be vying for Lombardi trophies.
Instead, the Colts are just a good team, and given how the first two weeks have transpired I'm not sure how much better they are than Houston. The Colts won't go 0-16, but they aren't light years better than the Texans.
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