When we examined the NFL’s unbeaten teams in Week 6, six teams had yet to lose a game, the most of any season in league history. Now at the halfway mark, four undefeated teams remain after the Falcons lost to the New Orleans Saints in Week 6 and the Green Bay Packers lost to the Denver Broncos last week.
The Panthers have subverted all expectations this season. Cam Newton is playing at an MVP level despite a void at receiver. Jonathan Stewart has been healthy and running better than ever, leading the Panthers to a league-best 144 rushing yards per game. The defense is a top ten unit that can keep Carolina in games against opponents with one of the league’s best line-backing duos in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, while the young secondary led by Josh Norman has been strong. The Panthers have already proven themselves against fellow playoff contenders with wins over Seattle and Indianapolis. Their second half schedule looks pretty easy, and they face just two teams with winning records: Green Bay this week and Atlanta in Weeks 14 and 16, although if Dallas find some form when Tony Romo returns the Cowboys could prove a test. This week’s clash with Green Bay will provide the biggest threat to Carolina’s unbeaten record, and could decide home-field advantage in the NFC playoff race.
The Bengals are one of the most balanced teams in the league. They have perhaps the league’s most dangerous backfield with Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard. Andy Dalton has been playing at a Pro Bowl level and not holding the team back. Cincinnati has one of the league’s best offensive lines and plenty of skill position talent with A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Mohammad Sanu. The defense is also strong and has depth at most positions. The Bengals finally look like a team that can win in the post-season, and already have a stranglehold on the AFC North after beating their three division rivals. Just three games left on their schedule are likely to give them trouble: Week 11 at Arizona, St. Louis in Week 12, and at Denver in Week 16. The Bengals are certainly capable of beating the Cardinals, who have yet to beat a team with a winning record. St. Louis can be defeated by a strong passing game, which makes the Week 16 clash at Denver the most likely time for the Bengals to be defeated.
New England Patriots
The Patriots have the best quarterback and coach in the league in Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Brady is playing at an MVP level and the offense has improved even more with the addition of new weapon Dion Lewis. The defense is playing much better than expected, with one of the best pass rushes in the league. The last time the Patriots had their integrity questioned, they went 16-0 in the regular season. Can they do it again after the DeflateGate scandal? The Patriots have reasserted their status as the best team in the AFC East with wins over their division rivals. Their remaining schedule looks pretty comfortable, apart from a titanic clash with Denver in Week 12 and another round with the Jets in Week 16. The battle in Denver, likely the last showdown between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, could decide who gets home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. As good as they are, Brady and the Patriots may not come out of Denver with a win.
The defense has been the league’s best all season, keeping the Broncos undefeated while Peyton Manning has struggled. But the offense seemed to turn a corner against the Packers last week as Manning looked more comfortable and the running game was better. If this holds for the rest of the season, Denver are even stronger contenders for the Super Bowl. Denver’s remaining schedule looks pretty comfortable, but the Broncos have not yet faced an offense at the peak of their powers; they will face two in the latter half of the season. The New England Patriots come to town in Week 12 and the Bengals visit in Week 16. The Patriots and Broncos have been the AFC’s best over the past two seasons, and have had some great battles in the past. Week 12 should be another great game that the Broncos might not be able to win.