The first month of the NFL season has a way of lending itself to hyperbole.
While early returns can prove compelling — and at times alarming — they are but a small piece of a larger landscape that only becomes clear after time. Remember that at this time last year, the eventual Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers still looked off-kilter while the Baltimore Ravens sparked conversations about whether they should be considered the AFC front-runners.
In the first two weeks of the season, several players and teams have turned heads with their performances. So we asked USA TODAY Sports' team of NFL reporters, columnists and editors:
Who needs to prove that their hot start to the season isn't a fluke?
The Raiders defense. Will this “new and improved” unit hold up for the long haul? While Derek Carr has ignited an offense that ranks No. 1 in the league through two games, the impact of a defense rolling with new coordinator Gus Bradley has been just as significant. In knocking off the Ravens and Steelers, Las Vegas won the type of games that it was prone to lose last year in that it did not wilt in crunch time. That speaks well for a defense that to this point has improved from 24th to 16th in yards allowed and has received a jolt, too, from a rebuilt D-line that is using a deeper rotation that includes newcomers in edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue and relentless defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson. The Raiders allowed 478 points in 2020, which was third-most in the league. This year, with the offense capable of consistent production, the defensive makeover could be the difference between a playoff berth or another mirage. The big plays late in the game that helped upset Baltimore and the handling of Pittsburgh formulated what could be a good omen. Bradley has his unit humming. Still, it’s early. The Raiders started 6-3 last year before fading to an 8-8 finish. They started 6-4 in 2019, then finished 7-9. They’ll need to keep improving to avoid another late-season tumble, but clearly they are headed in the right direction.
In a division an overtime away from an 8-0 start, the San Francisco 49ers can’t rest easy. Sure they’ve collected two early W’s and as NFL coaches love to say: Winning is hard in this league. But who is this San Francisco team and what will be their edge? Can they stay healthy and can they start the best possible option at quarterback? The Niners showed they’re capable of winning a shootout when they raced to 41 against the Lions; they flashed their defensive prowess in Week 2 holding the Eagles to just 11 points. On "Sunday Night Football," Aaron Rodgers and the Packers figure to give the Niners a steeper challenge — and perhaps a chance for two-time Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle to elevate his team.
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There’s no question it’s Derek Carr. As one of the founding members of the Carr-is-overrated club (Derek please unblock me on Twitter), I’m in awe of what we’ve seen from him this season. Carr had a history of mentally melting down at key points in games and could be wildly inaccurate. Yet there was Carr with a 126.2 passer rating against an excellent Steelers defense last week. The old Carr would throw two picks and get sacked five times in his upcoming game against Miami and lose a contest he should win. Not so sure we’ll see that Carr. I think we’re seeing a new player who will remain in the MVP race.
The Arizona Cardinals. We saw them win their first two of the 2020 season to kick off a 5-2 start. But then, they went on to lose six of their last nine games and miss the playoffs. So, their blowout victory of Tennessee in Week 1 of this season and skin-of-their-teeth win over Minnesota last week were nice, but plenty of questions still surround this team. Can Kyler Murray stay healthy? Has Kliff Kingsbury finally figured out how to lead an NFL team? Have the additions on defense bolstered the unit to contender level?
When the Denver Broncos acquired Teddy Bridgewater in a trade this offseason, the move appeared to be a half-measure intended to delay any big investment in a quarterback via the draft. Several months later, the eighth-year veteran looks like the proper catalyst for a Denver team desperate for an answer behind center. While he ranks second in the NFL in completion percentage at 77.1%, "Steady Teddy" hasn't merely been dinking-and-dunking his way past opponents, as he has averaged 9.6 air yards per attempt, according to Next Gen Stats. Ultimately, however, there's only so much that efforts against the overmatched New York Giants and Jacksonville Jaguars can reveal. This week's matchup with the New York Jets likely won't provide much more clarity, but October games against the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers will serve as proving grounds for Bridgewater as he tries to demonstrate that he can keep up his torrid early-season pace.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Which NFL figures need to prove their hot starts weren't flukes?