NFL: Who are the contenders and pretenders?

Three weeks into the 2017 NFL season, we have just two remaining undefeated teams. Trendy Super Bowl picks like the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and 1-2 Seattle Seahawks have all been up and down, while the AFC West — home of the 3-0 Chiefs — has proved to be every bit the gauntlet we expected. The Los Angeles Rams, meanwhile, sit atop the NFC West, with Jared Goff – yes Jared Goff – outpacing Russell Wilson in nearly every statistical category.

With all of that in mind, let’s examine which fast-starting teams are contenders and which are pretenders. Just remember, it’s still September. There is a lot of football left.

New England Patriots (2-1): Contenders

After a rough opening loss to Kansas City, Tom Brady and company has bounced back as only they can. Brady has compiled 825 yards via the air to go along with eight touchdown passes in consecutive wins. More importantly, he has finally gotten on the same page as Brandin Cooks. Against Houston, the two hooked up for the game-winning score, while Cooks went off for 131 yards and two TDs. The lone concern with the Pats right now is a defense that has been torched by both the Chiefs and Texans at home. The Texans had six plays of 20 yards or more and three completions of more than 30 yards. Additionally, opposing quarterbacks have recorded a 112.9 passer rating against the Pats, the third-worst mark in the league.

Last season, the Patriots ranked ninth in the league in total defense. Maybe just as importantly, they accumulated 23 takeaways, not a great number, but good enough. Think about it as simply as possible: More takeaways translates directly to more possessions for Brady. More possessions for Brady translates to more points, which means more wins.

Tom Brady may be 40, but no quarterback is performing better through the first three weeks of the season. (AP)

Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1): Pretenders

Ben Roethlisberger is not the same Hall of Fame quarterback we have grown accustomed to seeing. For three games now, he has missed on a variety of throws — both intermediate and deep — while totaling a 6.7 yards per attempt. We can keep expecting things to improve, and Big Ben has certainly earned that level of trust, but when do we accept the fact that he’s not an elite player anymore? He has a litany of weapons, including perhaps the best receiver and best running back in all of football. According to Pro Football Focus, Roethlisberger — normally a deep ball savant — was just 8 for 22 for 122 yards on passes that went more than 10 yards down the field in Sunday’s loss to the lowly Bears.

Seattle Seahawks (1-2): Pretenders

Seattle’s inability to protect Russell Wilson will be the theme of the offense all year. Against Tennessee, however, Wilson had great success and yet the defense couldn’t get off the field. We will chalk it up to the long-distance travel and heat, but it’s still troublesome to allow 195 yards of rushing offense. The Seahawks should also be concerned over their porous running game. Rookie seventh rounder Chris Carson runs hard, but with little room it doesn’t matter. In other words, all of the Hawks’ offensive woes trace back to the worst line in the league.

Buffalo Bills (2-1): Pretenders

Give Sean McDermott a ton of credit. He’s clearly a culture guy — hence the Sammy Watkins trade — and has coached up a defense that dominated Cam Newton, as well as a red hot Trevor Siemian and the Broncos. My concern is strictly with Tyrod Taylor. Unless he’s on the move, Taylor looks pedestrian and inept. Granted, he was very effective against Denver’s terrific defense, but let’s see how he plays on the road before we deem the Bills as someone who can challenge New England in the AFC East. Taylor (562 yards passing through three games) still has to prove he can make enough plays to win big games.

Tennessee Titans (2-1): Pretenders

The upstart Titans were a trendy preseason pick. At 2-1 with an impressive home win over Seattle, there is plenty to like. But that shouldn’t underscore the fact that Mike Mularkey’s club ranks 28th in total defense after getting thrashed by Russell Wilson. It’s an odd division, the AFC South. Indy is terrible, the Jags don’t have a quarterback — but play great defense — and Houston apparently found its quarterback in the aforementioned Watson. The Titans will be in plenty of games because of Marcus Mariota and because they run the ball well. But they aren’t contenders just yet.

Los Angeles Rams (2-1): Pretenders

Give a ton of credit to 31-year-old head coach Sean McVay. Jared Goff looks like a totally different player — more comfortable and confident. Todd Gurley is back on track and the defense should be pretty good. But the NFC West still goes through Seattle, and until Goff shows us he can beat a good team on the road, let’s remember that this was still a four-win football team just last year and has an assortment of young players — including its quarterback — still learning how to win.

Minnesota Vikings (2-1): Contenders

Defensively, the Vikings make life miserable for opponents. They tackle extremely well and will find a way to force more turnovers. Sam Bradford will be back soon and with Stefon Diggs on the perimeter, Adam Thielen in the slot and Kyle Rudolph in the seams — along with an absolute stud in rookie running back Dalvin Cook — Minnesota has all the makings of a Super Bowl team. Bottom line: The Purple People Eaters may still be a year away, but then again, maybe not.

Green Bay Packers (2-1): Pretenders

As good as Aaron Rodgers is, asking him to throw the ball 40 times a game remains a losing philosophy. Run the ball with Ty Montgomery, maximize play-action and control the tempo. That’s what this offense needs to do. In Green Bay’s comeback win at home over the winless Bengals, Rodgers threw the ball 42 times, while Montgomery rushed for 35 yards on 12 carries. Ultimately, though, it’s the defense that will determine the outcome of Green Bay’s season. Rookie cornerback Kevin King has been excellent, but this defense needs plenty more.

Oakland Raiders (2-1): Contenders

Oakland is legit. Offensively, there isn’t a better unit than Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, Marshawn Lynch and the excellent offensive line. The only potential hold up here is a defense that last year ranked 26th and has shown little signs of improvement. After getting torched by Kirk Cousins for 365 yards and three touchdowns in a Week 3 loss, it’s time to be a tad concerned. To be sure, though, there remains plenty of playmakers on a defense that simply needs to be adequate for this team to contend.

Kansas City Chiefs (3-0): Contenders

Alex Smith is winning football games with his deep ball and Kareem Hunt (401 yards) is leading the league in rushing with a fantastic 8.5 yards per carry. Ironically, it is the Chiefs defense — normally very sound — that we are concerned about. The Eric Berry injury was just a killer — he’s that good. You can’t replace Berry, so now it’s a matter of finding ways to supplant his production.

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