- The Washington Times - Friday, September 25, 2009

Although there are 22 examples since 1990 of teams rebounding from an 0-2 start to make the playoffs, including two Super Bowl champions this decade and three teams last year, a 2-0 start produces optimism and a head start to the postseason.

Since 2000, 47 of 80 teams that started 2-0 qualified for the playoffs.

This year, nine teams have won their first two games. Only Atlanta has done its work entirely at home. San Francisco, Minnesota and the New York Giants have won division road games.

So who’s for real like Tennessee, which started 10-0 last year? And what team is a fluke like Buffalo, which started 4-0 only to finish 7-9?

ATLANTA

For real: Expect the Falcons to battle New Orleans for the NFC South, especially with Carolina and Tampa Bay limping to 0-2 starts. Matt Ryan has a 108.5 passer rating, and Tony Gonzalez has 12 catches and two touchdowns. Plus the Falcons are great on special teams.

A fluke: It’s unlikely because Ryan is that impressive and the defense seems to be decent enough. The next five games will determine a lot: The Falcons play at New England, at San Francisco, vs. Chicago, at Dallas and at New Orleans.

BALTIMORE

For real: Flacco has been given more responsibility this year, and he has responded with five touchdowns and a 96.1 passer rating. Ray Rice and Willis McGahee form a productive running back combination (267 combined yards). And the Ravens still play defense - first against the run.

A fluke: Only injuries to Flacco, Ray Lewis, etc., will stunt the Ravens’ progress. Their next two road games are toughies - Week 4 at New England and Week 6 at Minnesota - but the Ravens will survive. Don’t be surprised if they outlast Pittsburgh to win the AFC North.

DENVER

For real: Kyle Orton has thrown no interceptions in 65 pass attempts, and Correll Buckhalter is averaging 7.2 yards a carry. Most shockingly, the Broncos are second in total defense and first in scoring defense.

A fluke: Of all the undefeated teams, the Broncos are the most likely to return to their expected form. They won on a miracle in Cincinnati, and the schedule sets up for a 3-0 start - they pounded the lowly Browns and play at Oakland this week. The nine-game gantlet starting in Week 4 includes New England, Dallas, San Diego, Pittsburgh and the Giants.

INDIANAPOLIS

For real: They have Peyton Manning, who continues to show he will find ways to win games even when the offense is on the field for less than a quarter (14:53 against Miami).

A fluke: The Colts are without receiver Anthony Gonzalez for an extended period, and the loss of Marvin Harrison is felt in the passing game. Indianapolis has won its two games by a combined six points and can’t run (29th). Its defense can’t stop the run (30th) and stinks on third down (last). Don’t be sold on the Colts just yet.

MINNESOTA

For real: As long as quarterback Brett Favre and running back Adrian Peterson stay healthy, the NFC North is the Vikings’ to lose. Favre has completed 77 percent of his passes, and Peterson is averaging 6.8 yards a carry. The defense has three interceptions and seven sacks.

A fluke: If Peterson misses several games, the Vikings will become vulnerable if they have to rely on Favre to win by himself. If Peterson is nicked up, they can ride Chester Taylor for a game or two.

NEW ORLEANS

For real: They certainly are the real deal on offense: The Saints are the first team since the 1968 Raiders to score 45-plus points in their first two games, and Drew Brees’ nine touchdown passes are the most in an opening two games. Four players already have at least eight catches.

A fluke: Wait to anoint the Saints a contender until their offense is held under 20 points and they still win. In Weeks 4 and 5, they will be tested at home by the Giants and Jets.

NEW YORK GIANTS

For real: They struggled to finish drives against the Redskins, but Eli Manning directed a game-winning march against Dallas. Steve Smith and Mario Manningham (combined 29 catches) have made people forget about Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer.

A fluke: The Giants are for real. They’re just so well-rounded even without safety Kenny Phillips (out for the year with a knee injury) and even if they’ve struggled to stop the run (tied for 27th). They’re the early class of the NFC East.

NEW YORK JETS

For real: The Jets are seventh in rushing offense and first in fewest yards allowed, two huge helping hands for rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez. New York thumped Houston and held New England without a touchdown.

A fluke: Sanchez is bound to hit a slump - he’s not as experienced as Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco - and teams will begin throwing curveballs at him. But if the Jets can get through the next five weeks with three wins, they’ll be in good shape.

SAN FRANCISCO

For real: The 49ers opened the season by winning at defending NFC champion Arizona, and they rank ninth in rushing. Mike Singletary has put his stamp on the defense - third against the run. Frank Gore is averaging 6.2 yards a carry.

A fluke: San Francisco is still in prove-it mode - that’s how long it has been since the 49ers were respectable. A big test is this week at Minnesota, but the start is encouraging.

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