The High-Flying NFC West and Other NFL Observations From Week 2

The NFL expanded the playoff field to three wild card entrants per conference a year ago.

It’s a good thing, too, because the NFC West has four teams that look primed to make a postseason push.

The division is a combined 7-1 after two weeks, with the Seahawks’ overtime loss to the Titans on Sunday the lone blemish. 

The Rams, 49ers and Seahawks were already seen as strong postseason contenders heading into the season. The Cardinals were the biggest unknown, but they are now 2-0 with a division-best point-differential of plus-26 after surviving against the Vikings in Week 2.

According to Football Outsiders, all four teams have a better than 50% chance of making it to the playoffs. The 49ers lead the way at 76.8%, followed by the Rams at 72.5%, the Seahawks at 57.5% and the Cardinals at 53.8%.

The betting markets agree. The Rams and 49ers are heavy favorites to make the postseason, while the Cardinals (-165) and Seahawks (-140) are projected to qualify as well, per DraftKings on Sept. 20.

Los Angeles and Seattle made it last year. The Cardinals fell a game short but have gotten off to a nice start in 2021. 

The battle for divisional supremacy could be epic. The 49ers are the slight favorites over the Rams, with the Cardinals and Seahawks bigger underdogs. However, all four have shown enough upside to be competitive.

The NFC West’s point-differential through two weeks is a gaudy plus-72. NFC Best, indeed.

Teddy Bridgewater Excelling With Broncos

The Denver Broncos entered the season with a talented overall roster but a huge question mark at quarterback.

It’s only been two games against inferior opponents, but Teddy Bridgewater is making it easy to be optimistic in the Mile High City.

The Broncos are 2-0 after double-digit wins over the Giants and Jaguars, and Bridgewater has thus far been phenomenal. He has averaged 8.5 yards per pass attempt with a completion percentage of 77.1, four touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Bridgewater is second in ESPN’s Total QBR with a score of 83.2, behind only Tyrod Taylor of the Texans. He has a Pro Football Focus grade of 81.1, which is among the best in the NFL. The Broncos had a competitive quarterback battle during the preseason, with Bridgewater beating out Drew Lock for the starting job, and the choice looks like the right one.

One thing stands out above the rest about Bridgewater’s play this season. He has usually avoided interceptions in his career, but sometimes to the detriment of the offense because there weren’t enough downfield shots.

This year, Bridgewater has been aggressive, as his average intended air yards of 9.6 is among the highest rate in the NFL. Even with Jerry Jeudy sidelined because of an ankle injury, the Broncos’ passing game is flying high, and Bridgewater is captaining the plane.

The Broncos have another eminently winnable game against the Jets in Week 3, and then the schedule toughens up considerably with matchups against the Ravens, Steelers, Raiders and Browns.

Bridgewater will need to prove he can keep this up against higher-caliber opponents. If he can, the Broncos should be a playoff team.

The Panthers Are Roaring

Raise your hand if you picked the Panthers to lead the NFL in Football Outsiders’ DVOA through two weeks.

Carolina has been one of the league’s most pleasant surprises early on during its 2-0 start. The defense has allowed only 10.5 points per game, including a dominant performance in Sunday’s 26-7 win over the Saints.

Outside linebacker Haason Reddick already has three sacks and a forced fumble, as the one-year, $6 million deal he signed in free agency looks like a bargain. Rookie first-round pick Jaycee Horn has an interception, while Brian Burns, Shaq Thompson and Derrick Brown have all looked good.

This team’s ceiling rests on the right arm of Sam Darnold, and the early returns are encouraging. Darnold is averaging 8.0 yards per pass attempt with three touchdowns and an interception.

He has only been sacked three times and is currently No. 6 in the NFL in Total QBR. Darnold looks like a different quarterback from the one that struggled so mightily with Adam Gase in New York.

At only 24 years old, Darnold still has serious upside if this start is not a mirage.

Cardinals Sharing The Wealth

The passing game in Arizona was often a one-man show last season. DeAndre Hopkins finished with 1,407 receiving yards while no one else reached 650.

In the first two games this year, the balance has been notable.

Rondale Moore leads the team with an average of 91 receiving yards per game, while Hopkins (68.5 yards/game), Christian Kirk (67.5), Maxx Williams (47.0), Chase Edmonds (36.0) and A.J. Green (34.5) are all being used regularly.

Last season, only Hopkins and Kirk averaged more than 34.5 receiving yards per game for the Cardinals, compared to the aforementioned six this season.

This year’s team also has a much more potent yards-after-catch element to it. Moore is the headliner, as he has 151 yards after the catch this season, which is second in the NFL behind only the 49ers’ Deebo Samuel.

Moore caught a 77-yard touchdown after an otherworldly scramble and throw from quarterback Kyler Murray on Sunday. Former Cardinals All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson, who is now with the Vikings, was charged with not covering the deep left side of the field on the play.

Peterson allowed four catches for 78 yards and two touchdowns in the game, per Pro Football Focus. Murray had a perfect passer rating when throwing toward Peterson.

Tony Pollard Makes His Case

The Cowboys have one of the most high-profile running backs in the NFL, but his backup is making some noise.

It’s been a slow start to the season for Ezekiel Elliott, who has carried the ball 27 times for 104 yards and a touchdown, an average of 3.9 yards per carry. Granted, the first game was against a fearsome Buccaneers defense, but Elliott didn’t exactly dominate on Sunday against the Chargers.

Tony Pollard, meanwhile, looked fantastic, carrying the ball 13 times for 109 yards and a score in Los Angeles. Pollard is averaging 7.7 yards per rushing attempt in limited action this season, which leads NFL running backs.

Elliott has more than 1,400 career NFL carries at a position that tends to favor younger players. He’s making so much money and has such pedigree that the Cowboys will likely stick with him as the main back for a long time, but if Pollard keeps impressing, he may command more touches.

Pollard is averaging 5.0 yards per carry during his career, although it’s unquestionably easier to put up better numbers as the change-of-pace back instead of the workhorse. He also has seven catches for 60 yards, with a sterling receiving grade from Pro Football Focus.

Mike Zimmer’s Gaffes Hurt The Vikings

The Vikings should have won on Sunday. Let’s get that out of the way first. 

Kicker Greg Joseph missed a 37-yard field goal at the end of regulation as the Cardinals escaped with a 34-33 victory.

However, coach Mike Zimmer did not do his team any favors with his in-game management.

According to EdjSports, Zimmer had three of the five worst coaching decisions of the week. His worst was the choice to punt on fourth-and-6 from his 29 with 2:52 remaining, trailing 34-33. That cost Minnesota a 12.4% chance of winning, the worst decision of any coach in Week 2.

Zimmer’s decision to punt on fourth-and-1 from his 40 in the third quarter cost his team a 5.8% chance of winning. And his choice to punt on fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 34 in the second quarter cost the team another 4.7% game-winning chance.

All told, EdjSports said Zimmer made seven fourth-down errors, which cost the team a total of 28.7% game-winning chance.

It’s particularly notable because  NFL coaches are becoming increasingly aggressive on fourth down. The Ravens beat the Chiefs on Sunday night when coach John Harbaugh went for it on fourth-and-1 from the Baltimore 43.

The decision increased the win expectancy by 16.4%, and the Ravens ran out the clock after quarterback Lamar Jackson converted on the play.

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