Roundtable: Which of the NFL’s six unbeaten teams will be next to fall?
Through four weeks of the 2015 season, six teams are still undefeated: the Patriots, Broncos, Packers, Falcons, Bengals and Panthers. They have taken different paths to the top of the early-season standings, and every week from here on out the pressure of staying hot through the season’s critical middle months intensifies. Only Carolina, off this weekend, is assured of a spotless record entering Week 6, while New England and Cincinnati take on playoff teams from a year ago on Sunday afternoon.
Which one of the NFL’s six unbeatens will be the next to fall? Our writers and editors weighed in below, making the case for five different teams to take their first loss on Sunday. (Looks like you’re safe this week, Patriots.)
Don Banks: Panthers
The 4–0 Panthers are on their bye this week, but one of the tougher challenges in the NFL looms in Week 6: A trip to Seattle for a game against the two-time defending NFC champion Seahawks amid the raucous environs of CenturyLink Field. The Panthers are one of the more surprising unbeatens left in the NFL, but they’ve lost five games in a row to Seattle, with four of those coming in the past three seasons.
The only loss the Panthers have suffered in their past 10 games came in the Pacific Northwest, when their late-season magic carpet ride ended in January with a 31–17 defeat at the hands of the Seahawks in the divisional round. Before that, these two well-matched teams played a trio of low-scoring, smashmouth games, with Seattle winning all three in Charlotte by four or five point margins. The Panthers have a defense that can nearly match the Seahawks’, but Seattle has Carolina’s number and finds a way to make the game-deciding plays that matter. The Panthers are 0–4 all-time in Seattle, and after next week’s journey to “The Link’’, Ron Rivera’s team will be undefeated no more.
Chris Burke: Broncos
I called for a Raiders upset of Denver on this week's podcast, so may as well push all my chips to the middle. The Broncos also have another tester next week in Cleveland. It’s certainly possible that they roll through both of those games to get to 6–0 ahead of a bye and a Week 8 matchup with Green Bay. But they also have been the most vulnerable of the undefeateds thus far, struggling to score points and turning the ball over.
Eventually, even with their outstanding defense, that’s going to catch up to them. Oakland will need close to a perfect game to draw that line in the sand Sunday. If Derek Carr can find a groove early, though, the Broncos could have a hard time keeping up.
Doug Farrar: Packers
I don’t know if Aaron Rodgers will throw his first Lambeau Field interception since December 2012 this Sunday against the Rams, but St. Louis’s strengths are set up to give the Packers problems. Teams aren’t running on Green Bay’s defense because Rodgers has forced opponents to play catch-up, but the Packers have allowed 4.8 yards per carry on 95 carries. Here comes Todd Gurley, fresh off his breakout 146-yard performance against the Cardinals. In addition, the Packers may or may not get right guard Bryan Bulaga back for this game, and Rodgers was under near-constant pressure against San Francisco last Sunday.
The St. Louis defensive line presents far more serious problems, especially with either Chris Long or Robert Quinn lined up over Bulaga or backup Don Barclay, and super-tackle Aaron Donald wreaking havoc in the middle. The last time Rams quarterback Nick Foles played in Lambeau just under two years ago, he threw three touchdowns and no picks for the Eagles in a 27–13 win. It’s always iffy to go against the Packers when Rodgers is dealing like he is these days, but this has trouble written all over it.
Joan Niesen: Falcons
I’m going to go Falcons here—but mostly because their Week 6 game is on a Thursday night, and that’s the first week I see potential losses for this group of teams. (I’m also predicting that the Panthers will lose to the Seahawks in Seattle that Sunday, and I wouldn’t rule out the Bengals losing to the Bills on the road, either.) Now, this pick might sound dumb considering I spent a good 1,000 words on Wednesday saying the Saints are done, but I really think New Orleans has a decent chance to beat Atlanta in the Superdome, even if it isn’t the better team of the two. The Saints and the Falcons seem to always play each other competitively, no matter how inferior one team may be, and it’s hard to count New Orleans out in a home game that could well be a shootout.
Austin Murphy: Broncos
Yes, Peyton Manning is still the Sheriff, with a gaudy, lopsided record against the Raiders. But the Sheriff is older now, and less mobile, and even from the safety of the Pistol will be harassed and sacked at least three times by Khalil Mack and Aldon Smith. The ageless Charles Woodson collects his first-ever interception off Manning. Latavius Murray, the goat of last week’s close loss in Chicago, bounces back in a big way, going over 100 yards against the NFL’s eighth-ranked rushing defense.
The Raiders’ offensive line has been better than solid and will keep DeMarcus Ware off of Derek Carr long enough for the second-year starter to find Amari Cooper over and over. In what could be their last chance to see the Silver and Black take on the despised Broncos in Oakland, the spiked and dog-collared denizens of the Black Hole go home happy.
Bette Marston: Bengals
Many are predicting that this could be the week that the Bengals deliver a statement win against Seattle, solidifying themselves as a true contender this season. And it’s easy to see that, since the Seahawks have sputtered out of the gate, to say the least. After losing to the Rams and the Packers, they shut out the woeful Bears and then won much in part to #batgate on Monday Night Football. However, if the Seahawks’ No. 2-ranked defense can shut down the Bengals’ No. 2-ranked offense, which has averaged a total of 422 yards in their first four games, the game will be theirs to take.
The Seahawks have a list of issues early this season, topped by a weak offensive line and Jimmy Graham’s lack of explosiveness (he has only 18 receptions for 174 yards in four games). Those two problems likely won’t go away against the Bengals, but with Kam Chancellor back, the secondary should succeed in limiting the impact of Andy Dalton’s deep ball. Last season, the Bengals suffered their first loss in Week 5 (after a bye in Week 4), and it will happen again this year.
Michael Beller: Panthers
I think all the unbeaten teams in action in Week 5 will win, including the Bengals taking care of business against the Seahawks in Cincinnati. However, I do believe that Seattle will be the team to deliver one of these teams its first loss, and that will happen next week when the Panthers head to the Pacific Northwest. Since 1990, 83% of teams that started 4–0 made the playoffs. Conveniently for our purposes here in 2015, that’s exactly five out of six. If I’m betting on one of these six to ultimately fall short of the postseason, it’s the Panthers. Their wins have come against the Jaguars, Texans, Saints and Buccaneers, four teams that have combined to go 4–13 to this point. A downturn for Carolina is on the horizon, and it starts in Seattle next week.
Amy Parlapiano: Bengals
I’m sure Cincy is a popular choice to fall this week, but I actually think all of the remaining undefeated teams are going to stay perfect heading into Week 6. I don’t think any of the unbeatens’ Week 5 opponents have much of a chance, other than the Rams, who really intrigue me but have the misfortune of playing their game against the Packers at Lambeau. The Bengals and their fearless leader Andy Dalton are bound to come back down to earth at least a little bit at some point, but I don't think this is the week they will, as I am not at all sold on the Seahawks.
Seattle has won two in a row against teams who have a combined record of 1–7. Big deal. I think the Bengals will win pretty convincingly at home this week, Red Rifle Fever will kick into full gear, everyone will start talking about a Patriots–Bengals AFC Championship Game … and then they’ll travel to Buffalo next week and be completely stifled by Rex Ryan’s defense.
Eric Single: Broncos
They can't keep getting away with this, right? Denver hasn't run anyone out of the stadium during an opening slate that looks tamer in hindsight, and many teams need a whole season to get the number of favorable bounces the Broncos have in the final minutes so far: a Steve Smith dropped pass, a Jamaal Charles fumble, a Teddy Bridgewater strip-sack.
Peyton Manning has beaten the Raiders nine straight times, and the Broncos have won their six games against Oakland since signing Manning by an average margin of 22.8 points. This year, there's reason for optimism that Derek Carr and the Raiders’ offense can keep up in a shootout. The recipe for an upset starts along the offensive line, which has given up just five sacks so far and could hold back Denver's relentless pass rush long enough for Carr to stay in rhythm.
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