Unless you’ve been in a coma, you’ve probably noticed that through 6 weeks of mesmerizingly sloppy football, there are 5 undefeated teams left on the board.
The New England Patriots. The Denver Broncos. The Cincinnati Bengals. The Green Bay Packers. The Carolina Panthers. Surprising group? Pretty much (The Atlanta Falcons being excluded from this tier despite a schedule filled with more cupcakes than a little girl’s birthday party is surprising, but we’ve learned to never count out Drew Brees and the Saints at home in primetime.).
You’ll most likely hear about if any of these five teams can stay undefeated, and which one is the most likely. But what about the flipside? Which of these undefeated teams is most likely to miss the playoffs entirely?
At this rate, all five teams have had their bye week, and they are all 6-0. It’s rare to see 6-0 teams not make the flight to January, but yes, it’s happened.
The 2003 Minnesota Vikings started 6-0, but collapsed in the 2nd half of the season only to watch Josh McCown ruin everything Paul Allen held dear with a Hail Mary TD pass to win a heartbreaker for the Cardinals in week 17. The Vikings finished 9-7. The 2009 Denver Broncos are the most recent team to have this dubious honor, starting 6-0 before too collapsing to finish 8-8, having the shame of drafting Tim Tebow the following season. (Also from that season, the 2009 New York Giants started 5-0 before ending up at 9-7 and missing the playoffs themselves.)
According to the NFL, five 6-0 teams is the most in any season in NFL history. Barring any tie, four teams at the most will remain undefeated, as the Packers and Broncos face off on Sunday Night Football this week in Denver. The Patriots face the Dolphins on Thursday Night Football, the Panthers face the Colts on Monday Night Football, and the Bengals, the only undefeated team without a primetime game this week, face the Steelers in Pittsburgh with Ben Roethlisberger returning from injury.
Moving forward, I’ll give a full summarization of all five undefeated teams, as well as what I expect to see from them for the remainder of the season. For the record, I think all five teams will make the playoffs at this point. This article is simply looking at which team would have the biggest chance to miss out on the playoffs. So, without further ado, I present (from most likely to make playoffs to least likely) my thoughts on all five teams.
- New England Patriots
Shocking, isn’t it? Well, in the preseason it was. Remember when we all thought the Dolphins, Bills, or Jets would rise up and take control of the AFC East? It certainly didn’t help that the Patriots lost guys such as Darrelle Revis, Shane Vereen, Vince Wilfork, and Stevan Ridley. Would their dominance in the division come to an end?
We have confirmed that is a lie, as the Patriots look better than the 2014 edition, running off to 6-0 start while blowing out teams not named the New York Jets. This is the 3rd time in the Brady/Belichick era that NE is off to a 6-0 start, after 2004 and 2007.
The 2015 Patriots are closer to the immortals (to anyone but the Giants) that were the 2007 team than 2004, though without the deep passing style of the 07 team.
Tom Brady has been off to a much better start than in 2013 and 2014, where he struggled early. He’s not known for being a good deep passer, but he’s actually improved in that area, whether due to scheme or progression (mostly likely scheme). Like 2007, Brady is the current MVP frontrunner, though competition such as Carson Palmer and Aaron Rodgers lurk about.
Brady has passed for 16 TD and 1 INT this season, with a few comparisons to his unbelievable 2007 season.
Brady is also on pace to tie Peyton Manning’s single season record of passing yards. Manning had 5,477 in 2013, and that’s what Brady’s projected to have so far.
The set pieces around TB seem to be better as well. We know about Gronk, but Julian Edelman has had a nice season, as has the discovery of Dion Lewis. The offensive line continues to offer quality pass protection, and the defense, while not great, has been able to stand tall.
But it’s Bill Belichick that once again stands out. His creativity as a coach seems to have no limit, as he’s able to exploit the weaknesses of teams, trick defenses into changing up their coverage, thus leaving getting receivers open, and making superb halftime adjustments. His system is proof that you don’t need star power-esque talent to be a star in his offense.
And thus, the Patriots are the safest bet of all the undefeated teams to make the playoffs.
- Cincinnati Bengals
Before the offseason, the Bengals were heralded for having a great non-QB roster. After 6 games, this is an accurate statement. The load of non-QB talent on this roster is on fire; Giovanni Bernard at RB, with Jeremy Hill in the back, AJ Green, Mohammad Sanu, and Marvin Jones at WR, Tyler Eifert at TE, Adam Jones on special teams, a fantastic offensive line, and an above average defense.
In other words, this is a dream come true for any quarterback.
In his first 4 seasons, Andy Dalton has been anything but great, but now Cincinnati has been able to mask his accuracy with a better cast, meaning the Bengals are no longer winning in spite of the Red Rifle. Indeed, he’s played well up to this point, able to hit his receivers and make bucket deep passes.
Speaking of deep passes, Dalton’s situation is so great that his downfield accuracy and statistics have increased dramatically. See below.
Dalton doubled his deep ball yards and yards per game, and his 61.5 CMP% on downfield throws is the most I’ve ever charted with my deep ball research. If his 133 yards per game (2,128 yards in a total season) holds up, it’ll also be a record.
OC Hue Jackson has done a tremendous job with thus group, being able to cater to each player’s strengths by offering favorable matchups and creative calls. At full health, this team is due for a long playoff run.
The rest of the schedule is manageable, with the only tough games being week 11 at Arizona and week 16 at Denver. As long as Dalton continues to provide competent QB play, this season could be a turning point in the reputation of the Bengals.
- Green Bay Packers
The 3rd least likely team to miss the playoffs, the Green Bay Packers are off to their first 6-0 start since 2011, where they finished 15-1. But how are they when compared to the 2011 Packers team, especially in terms of first downs, giveaways, and takeaways?
There’s less points scored, but there’s more first downs, less giveaways, and (despite defenses in 2011 being affected by the lockout) almost as many takeaways.
Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers is without Jordy Nelson, and while that’s affected him a bit, it hasn’t been enough to stop him from continuing his elite play. The return of James Jones has patched this shortcoming somewhat, and he’s been playing really well as a #1 WR. The OL is very good, as has been the home field advantage.
So why are the Packers ranked 3rd least likely/3rd most likely to miss the playoffs? For starters, they’ve struggled as a unit in their last 3 games, scoring less points and managing to just barely edge the Rams and Chargers at home. Eddie Lacy has been underwhelming thus far, and the offense hasn’t clicked as much as they’re used to.
The remaining schedule includes a few bumps. This week, Green Bay plays at Denver, then at Carolina next week. They face an additional challenge in Dallas at home in Week 14, depending on if Tony Romo and Dez Bryant return, and travel to Arizona in Week 16.
Green Bay has only faced 1 divisional opponent, and mid November-early December gets a 4-game stretch against all 3 divisional rivals (they play Detroit twice in that span), which also includes 2 consecutive Thursday games.
I had trouble determining whether Cincinnati or Green Bay should be lower, but ultimately I leaned towards Green Bay because of their recent struggles. It doesn’t help that their first game off a bye week is against the Broncos defense on their turf, but the Packers should still ride the road to the playoffs just fine.
- Carolina Panthers
Do I even need to say who #1 is at this point?
This team continues to shock everyone by going against the playoff predictions.
Thanks to 2015’s start, The Carolina Panthers are the first ever expansion team founded after 1976 to start a season 6-0. Only 2 other times has an expansion team in that era started at least 5-0; the 1998 Jacksonville Jaguars, and the 2012 Houston Texans.
Despite a relatively limited surrounding cast, Cam Newton has managed to play very well this season with solid decision-making. Jonathan Stewart is a fine running back, and Greg Olsen has done a nice job filling in as Newton’s #1 target with Kelvin Benjamin out for the season.
It’s the limited cast around these players that worries me. Carolina faces some tough tests ahead of them, including Green Bay, at Dallas, at New Orleans, at Atlanta, and at the Giants. The Panthers are not known for adequate pass protection, and their receivers outside of Olsen are practically nothing.
Still, I like Newton’s play, and the defense will make games close. That’s good enough for me to keep them away from the #1 spot.
- Denver Broncos
Yes, the Denver Broncos are, in my mind, the undefeated team that has the best shot of missing the playoffs altogether.
Denver has an incredible defense this year under new DC Wade Phillips, having the 2nd most takeaways (17) behind the Eagles, and have allowed the fewest amount of yards. You’d think that’s all they need for a winning formula, right?
Not quite. Future HOF QB Peyton Manning has been known for making the players around him better for years. In 2015, it’s become the opposite. His arm strength was already an issue, but he was still able to use his IQ to play at a very elite level. However, with a combination of bad accuracy and poor arm strength, Manning has become a sitting duck, and is on pace to throw for 27 interceptions.
I don’t endorse QB WINZ, but what’s odd is that the 39-year old QB has a winning record when throwing 2+ INT with the Broncos.
Now, let’s put things into context. Before 2015, Broncos era Peyton could still throw for a boatload of touchdowns, even when throwing multiple picks. I’m sure there are also a numerous amount of interceptions than weren’t on him either. However, this is pretty alarming.
The offensive line has done nothing to help mask Manning’s problems either, ranking amongst the very worst. The run game is practically non-existent save for a few flashes. Combine that with PM’s poor play, and you have something that likely isn’t sustainable.
Tough games on the remaining schedule include New England, at San Diego, at Indianapolis, Green Bay, Cincinnati, and at Pittsburgh. Most of these teams are known for their high power offenses, and if the defense falters, what will Denver rely on?
That’s why the Denver Broncos are my pick for the likeliest of the undefeated teams to not make the playoffs.