Two weeks into the 2018 NFL season, only seven teams remain undefeated — and they’re not the seven anyone would have guessed before Week 1, either. Four of the lucky seven finished last season below .500, and two owned top-10 picks in the 2018 NFL Draft.
While many are eager to overreact to each of the seven’s hot start, a sample size of just two games makes it worth examining whether the early wins are signs of things to come or simply an aberration. Using Pro Football Focus’ grades and advanced statistics, let’s identify whether each of the league’s seven 2-0 teams is a contender or a pretender.
Cincinnati Bengals: Combine a top-five pass-rush with a top-10 cornerback, and you have the recipe for a Super Bowl-caliber defense. Add in a competent quarterback (Andy Dalton) with several playmakers around him and a much-improved offensive line, and you have a Super Bowl-caliber team.
The wild card in Cincinnati is cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. The former first-rounder has flashed dominant games over the course of his career, but he has far too often followed that up with awful performances. Through the first two games, however, he’s been the corner they had in mind when they gave him a big contract extension. He’s been targeted 18 times and only allowed eight catches for 103 yards, with four pass breakups. If he can be close to that for the entire season, the Bengals will have one of the best defenses in the league.
Jacksonville Jaguars: No surprise here. The Jaguars were just a second-half collapse away from making the Super Bowl a season ago. Now, Blake Bortles and company are fresh off a beating of their biggest competition in the AFC (New England), and it looks as though injuries are the only thing that could derail their playoff chances. Jacksonville’s hopes once again reside on Bortles’ right arm. While the results have been great, Bortles is still on pace for 24 turnover-worthy throws — three more than he had last season.
Kansas City Chiefs: While it’s still early, the Chiefs’ young quarterback has played at an elite level so far. Dating back to his first career start against the Pittsburgh Steelers last season, Patrick Mahomes’ three starts in the NFL have netted him 76.3, 82.6 and 95.5 passing grades. Combine that with the league’s most explosive set of weapons, and it’s an absolutely terrifying proposition for even the best NFL defenses.
Mahomes ranks third in adjusted completion percentage (82.0) despite having the farthest average depth of target in the league. He is averaging a whopping 13.2 air yards per target through Week 2, which is 0.2 yards behind the deepest PFF has ever recorded for a quarterback in a single season. Mahomes has no reason to stop slinging it downfield anytime soon, with speedster Tyreek Hill ranked second in the NFL in wide receiver grades.
Los Angeles Rams: They were a Super Bowl contender last season, and it can’t be understated how much the defense actually improved this year. Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters and Ndamukong Suh are game-changing talents off to outstanding starts in their Rams uniforms. Opposing quarterbacks are terrified of even challenging Talib and Peters. Peters is on pace to be targeted 64 times this season; Talib is on pace for only 40 targets. By comparison, former Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson was targeted 90 times last season. Peters and Talib combined to give up all of 37 yards in Weeks 1 and 2. Everyone knows what the offense can do, but it’s time to see the Rams as a top-five NFL defense, as well.
Denver Broncos: Quarterback Case Keenum has had his turnovers, but it’s not the offense that should be a worry so much as it is the regression of the defense. This isn’t even close to the unit that fueled Denver’s Super Bowl victory a few years back. The cornerback trio of Chris Harris Jr., Bradley Roby and Talib used to be able to line up across from any set of wide receivers in the league and have the upper hand, but the advantage is no more.
Roby hasn’t come close to replicating the success Talib had as an every-down player. Through two games, Roby has allowed 10 of 11 targets into his coverage for 101 yards and a touchdown and a 135.2 passer rating. Talib never allowed a completion percentage higher than 60.2 nor a passer rating higher than 82.7 during his time in Denver. The Broncos rank 29th in overall coverage grade after having gone against two quarterbacks — Russell Wilson and Derek Carr — that were shut down in their games not against Denver. That’s not going to win championships.
Miami Dolphins: Two numbers show that the Dolphins’ 2-0 start is merely an anomaly: Miami ranks 21st in the league in passing offense grade, and 30th in pass coverage grade. The numbers don’t really get better elsewhere, either. The Dolphins’ only saving grace has been their first-ranked running backs, as third-year pro Kenyan Drake and the seemingly ageless Frank Gore are averaging 3.2 and 2.8 yards, respectively, after contact per attempt. Those are impressive numbers, but this is 2018. The team’s struggles in the passing game on both sides of the ball will ultimately prove too much to overcome.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: As difficult as it is rain on quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s parade, the magic in Tampa Bay isn’t built to last. The Bucs are like a speeding train that’s one sharp curve away from flying off the rails.
While no team has two more impressive wins than Tampa Bay’s upsets over the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles, the pair of victories were products of Fitzpatrick putting together the two highest-graded games of his 14-year NFL career. In fact, his 98.8 overall grade is the best mark a quarterback has earned through the first two weeks of the season since PFF started grading games in 2006. Even though this is likely the best collection of offensive weapons Fitzpatrick has played with in his career, it’s better to trust the sample size of his previous 4,039 pass attempts than the 61 of the past two weeks.
Mike Renner is a senior analyst for Pro Football Focus.