Assessing The NFL's Undefeated Teams

Through five weeks (and one Thursday night game in Week 6) exactly five NFL teams remain undefeated. Despite being undefeated, each of these teams have question marks which would impact them as their seasons progress. This article will analyze the rest-of-season outlooks for the NFL's unbeaten: the Patriots, Bengals, Broncos, Packers, and Panthers. 


New England Patriots

The Patriots began the season with a projected win total of 10.5 based on Vegas odds, tied for third best with the Colts behind only the Seahawks and Packers. That win total appears to have been conservative, as the Patriots offense has come out of the gates extremely hot, with the league's second highest scoring offense (37.2 PPG) and highest yards per game (423.8). 

New England's offense will score plenty of points this season. Wide receiver Julian Edelman has developed into a true WR1 despite not having the prototypical WR1 build (5 ft. 10 in., 200 lb.). In four games played Edelman has racked up 34 catches for 399 yards and three touchdowns. 

In addition, the emergence of RB Dion Lewis has added an explosive element out of the backfield that the Patriots were presumed to have been missing this season with the loss of Shane Vereen in free agency. A threat in the run and pass game, Lewis has already produced 418 total yards and three touchdowns and the production appears poised to continue with talented plays such as this: 


Still, as good as the offense has been, there's reason to expect tougher days ahead for New England. Consider the fact that two of their four games have been played against teams missing their best offensive weapon. Game 1 against the Steelers was the first of Le'Veon Bell's two-game suspension. Game 4 against the Cowboys featured the Brandon Weeden-Terrance Williams show, filling in for all-stars Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. Then of course they had the helpless Jaguars in Week 3, who are scoring a mere 18.6 PPG this season, good for sixth worst in the league. 

With the exception of the Bills in Week 2 (who tallied 32 points that week), the Patriots have yet to really be tested. That bodes poorly for New England's defense, which figures to struggle down the line with glaring weaknesses at cornerback and interior d-line. Losing Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in free agency leaves this untested unit as a big question mark, especially concerning their abilities to play man coverage against higher-caliber passing games.

Despite these concerns, it could take until the playoffs for the Patriots to be truly slowed down. They have arguably the easiest remaining schedule in the NFL, with only four games against plus-.500 teams, plus three games apiece against the weak AFC South and NFC East. 

Projected Finish: 14-2


Cincinnati Bengals

For a while now the AFC North has espoused three competitive teams sans the Cleveland Browns. That's not the case this year, as Baltimore has quickly fallen out of the race with a poor 1-4 start. Expectations were modest for the Bengals entering Week 1 (8.5 projected wins), yet five games in, Cincinnati has emerged as the team to beat out of this typically wide open division. 

The first thing that jumps out when reviewing Cincinnati's success is the remarkably easy schedule they've enjoyed thus far. The Bengals have flat out bullied the AFC West, winning games against the Raiders, Chargers, and Chiefs for a cumulative +40 point differential in those three games. 

Add the three AFC West bouts to two very tough games against Baltimore and Seattle, and the Bengals, believe it or not, do not have a +.500 opponent under their belt to date. Obviously Cincinnati contributed to this result, but even without their games against Cincinnati none of those five teams have performed above .500. The takeaway is that Cincinnati has benefited from a highly favorable schedule up to this point, and it's reasonable to predict losses in tougher games to come (Bills, Steelers x2, Cardinals, Broncos). 

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY SportsDespite the easy schedule, it's impossible to entirely scoff at some of Cincinnati's numbers. They've averaged 29.6 PPG, good for fourth best among all teams. The most surprising part of the offensive production is easily Andy Dalton's stat-line: 67.5% completion rate, 1,518 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions. Such a pace sustained over sixteen games would not only amount to the best season of Dalton's career by far, but it would also put him in MVP front-runner territory. 

The question remains going forward whether or not Dalton can sustain his current level of production. The Bengals have surrounded him with an elite offensive line led by Pro Bowler Andrew Whitworth, an athletic wide receiving corps hallmarked by superstar A.J. Green, and a deadly one-two punch running game in young studs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. Simply put, Dalton has everything a quarterback could ask for to succeed. At this point, he's the only remaining question mark in Cincinnati's offense. 

Projected Finish: 11-5


Denver Broncos

On pace to win the AFC West for the fifth straight season, the Denver Broncos are doing it with a whole new formula this time around. QB Peyton Manning's arm strength has noticeably declined and, with it, Denver's formerly gaudy offensive numbers. Instead, the defense has carried the team, led by a fearsome pass rush featuring Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, among others. 

Through five games, Denver's defense has given up the second fewest PPG (15.8) and the fewest YPG (278.0). They've also allowed the lowest 3rd down completion percentage in the league at 30%. A huge reason for this is the overwhelming pressure they've put on opposing quarterbacks, with a league-leading 22.0 sacks. 

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The Broncos boast a complete defense, with elite coverage corners to back up the stout front seven. Cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who was ranked last year as Pro Football Focus' top coverage corner, has two interceptions this season including a game-sealing pick-six against the Oakland Raiders. Veteran Aqib Talib also has two picks (one a pick-six as well), and Denver's 2014 first round pick, Bradley Roby, has yet another one. 


There's little doubt Denver's defense will make them contenders almost by default this season, but how far they can push this momentum in the postseason will bear on the offense's ability to find a rhythm. So far, the offense simply hasn't lived up to the bill, posting the league's third-lowest metrics in YPG (302.6) and first downs per game (17.8). 

It would be irresponsible to talk about Denver's offensive struggles without mentioning how poorly the offensive line has played of late. Only one of Denver's starting linemen was on the roster last season, a stat which, for a position that requires so much chemistry and communication, really should have been looked at more closely by Denver in the offseason. 

The lack of protection is especially problematic for a quarterback like Manning who requires a clean pocket due to his lack of mobility. In sixteen games last season, Manning was sacked just 17 times; in five games this season, he's already been sacked 12 times.

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The question going forward will be two-fold: can the Broncos offensive line figure it out as they get more games together, and relatedly, can the Broncos run game take some pressure off Peyton Manning? All of the struggles in the passing game are compounded by Denver's rushing ineptitude so far this season, as they currently rank second-worst in yards per carry (3.3) and third-worst in rushing yards per game (71.6). That the only team with worse metrics in both these categories, the Detroit Lions, currently sits at 0-5, should tell you something about just how much the rest of the team is producing in the run game's absence. 

Denver has survived so far with very little offensive production, but it's unclear whether that will continue against tougher competition. With the Minnesota Vikings the only .500 opponent they've faced thus far, Denver will have to show balance offensively to contend with the likes of Green Bay, Indianapolis, New England, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati in weeks to come. 

Projected Finish: 12-4


Green Bay Packers

Different year, same story for the Packers, who with Aaron Rodgers in his prime figure to always be contenders. Following his MVP season last year, Rodgers is on pace for yet another MVP-caliber season, with a career best 70.6% completion rate, along with 13 touchdowns and just two interceptions. For what it's worth, those two interceptions came last week at home against the St. Louis Rams, and ended Rodgers' 19-game streak without an interception at Lambeau Field. 

Green Bay has done just enough to remain undefeated so far, not racking up ridiculous scoreboard numbers like the Patriots every game (although they did explode against the Chiefs). Instead, the offense currently sits at just fifth-best in the league in points per game (27.4), a mark which seems surprisingly low given Rodgers' ability to make plays such as this:


If one were to really nitpick with Green Bay's offense so far this season, perhaps there's something to be said for the loss of Jordy Nelson, who tore his ACL in the preseason. Despite Rodgers' strong overall numbers, his YPA currently sits at his lowest mark of the last three seasons (8.08). Though James Jones has been a remarkable addition on the outside, Green Bay's receiving corps has apparently struggled to replace Nelson's deep threat ability, especially with sophomore Davante Adams being hampered by injury. Still, with household playmaking names like Randall Cobb and Eddie Lacy, it's tough to have any real concerns about Green Bay's offense going forward. 

Likely the biggest difference for the Packers this season, apart from the absence of Nelson, is the expansion of Clay Matthews' role on the defense. Matthews, traditionally an outside linebacker in Dom Capers' 3-4 defense, shifted to middle linebacker this season and has really shined in the new role. He's already on pace to break his career record in sacks (currently 4.5), and has 15 tackles along with an interception to date.

The mark of a truly exceptional franchise, Green Bay develops nearly all of their players in-house, preferring to build through the draft over time and make only minor changes in free agency. It's no surprise, then, that not a whole lot changes for the Packers from year to year, and they look just as ready to compete for the Super Bowl as they did last season. 

Projected Finish: 14-2


Carolina Panthers

My personal pick for the worst remaining undefeated team, the Carolina Panthers have been overwhelming benefactors of an extremely generous schedule. With a bye in Week 5, the Panthers' first four games came against the Jaguars, Texans, Saints, and Buccaneers. Those four teams had a combined 21 wins last season, a mark which gives Carolina the easiest strength of schedule so far. 

The easy schedule is a huge reason why the Panthers' defense currently sits at fourth-best in points allowed per game, as all four of their opponents to date rank in the bottom half in points per game. That the Panthers stifled these offenses without their best player (on either side of the ball), Luke Kuechly, should tell you something about the level of competition they faced during the first four games. 

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While the win streak surely won't hold up for long, Carolina still has plenty of reason to be excited about the fact that franchise quarterback Cam Newton appears finally healthy. After battling injuries on and off the field all of last season, "Superman" is back and running the ball more than ever. He's currently on pace for 172 rushes this season, a mark that would best his career high by 45. 

At the same time, much of Cam's running is out of necessity, since the Panthers lack consistent receiving options without Kelvin Benjamin, who tore his ACL in the preseason. Rookie Devin Funchess hasn't put it together to date and Tedd Ginn Jr is simply not a number one (or two) option in a standard passing offense. 

Carolina's schedule gets much tougher from here on out. Their next four games are against the Seahawks, Eagles, Colts, and Packers, all 10+ win teams last season. Further down the line they face the Cowboys, Giants, and Falcons twice. Add the incredibly difficult upcoming schedule to the lack of offensive weapons and highly favorable schedule thus far, and the result is a team which should see a major drop in the standings going forward. 

Projected Finish: 8-8


Conclusion

The momentum of a 4-0 or 5-0 start typically makes it very difficult for these teams not to make the playoffs, but the concerns brought to light in this article may come to light as soon as Week 6 and could pose problems for these teams in the playoffs. Still, each of these teams has shown significant strengths in one area or another, and a few adjustments could be big difference-makers going forward. 

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