With so many unbeatens, is NFL parity dead, or merely on hold?
The NFL is obsessed with the idea of parity, providing perpetual hope for even the most doldrums-dwelling franchises, where any team can best another on any given Sunday. From the draft to the salary cap to the unbalanced scheduling, everything is designed to level the playing field, to rotate powerhouses and doormats, giving fans reason to cheer even when their team is struggling.
Yet the early season’s top-heavy standings hardly paint a picture of parity. A staggering six teams remain undefeated: the New England Patriots (4–0), the Cincinnati Bengals (5–0), the Denver Broncos (5–0), the Green Bay Packers (5–0), Carolina Panthers (4–0) and the Atlanta Falcons (5–0). Meanwhile, nine teams have registered one win or fewer.
If you feel like all this is unprecedented — with so many powerhouses at the top of the heap— you’d be correct: This is the first time in league history that six teams have started 4–0 or better. By comparison, not a single team last season won its first four games.
And more history could be made this weekend, too. With four teams already at 5–0, and two others vying for their fifth W on Sunday, we could see six teams at 5–0, breaking the record of five set in 2009.
As for the bottom-feeders? At this point last season, there were only seven teams with one win or fewer. In fact, you’d have to go back to 2006 to find more than nine teams this bad through five weeks.
The chasm between the haves and have-nots has seemingly made a mockery of the NFL’s purported quest to create an equal-opportunity league. Worse still, this could yield some unintended — and wholly unwanted — consequences for the league and its partners. With so many teams surging to the top of the standings, several of the division races could be over before Thanksgiving, leaving a slew of uninteresting games for the final month of the regular season.
We’re just past the season’s quarter mark, and among the seven division leaders in sole possession of first place right now (not counting the NFC South, where Atlanta and Carolina remain tied), four have an advantage of at least two games.
That might not seem like an insurmountable deficit, but the odds are severely stacked against the rest of the divisional pack. Per FiveThirtyEight.com’s rest-of-season forecasts, five teams have at least a 70% chance to win their division, while two others boast better than 50-50 odds.
The highest probability belongs to the Green Bay Packers (90%), and it’s not hard to see why. No other team in the NFC North has a winning record. Meanwhile, the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears could legitimately be the two worst teams in the league, owing to point differentials of -55 (30th in NFL) and -56 (31st in NFL), respectively. According to FiveThirtyEight.com’s model, the Packers are favored to win in nine of their 11 remaining games, including all five divisional contests.
The NFL’s six undefeateds might have zeroes in the loss column in common, but the reality is that not all of them are on equal footing. While some have been scary-good straight out of the gate, others have taken a more difficult path to perfection, with each harboring its own distinct weaknesses.
The Patriots have arguably been the most dominant of the unblemished and certainly have the pedigree to back up their record. The defending Super Bowl champs are outscoring opponents by an average of 18 points per game — a touchdown better than any of the other five unbeatens. It’s the second time in the last three seasons the Pats have started 4-0, and the fourth time under Bill Belichick.
But while New England’s high-powered offense is off to a record-breaking start (its 149 points are the most in franchise history through four games), their inconsistent defense — the poster child of “bend but don’t break" — could prove its ultimate undoing. Sure, the Pats held the lowly Jaguars and a depleted Cowboys team to a combined 23 points, but they also gave up 32 to the then-healthier Buffalo Bills.
The Packers are 5–0 for the first time since 2011, when they won their first 13 games en route to a near-perfect 15–1 regular season. While they might not be able to match New England’s sheer statistical dominance, the Packers could be the most balanced club in the NFL, thanks to a much-improved defense that's seemingly growing more stout by the week.
They’re the only team to rank in the top five in both scoring defense and offense, they have arguably the league’s best quarterback, and they wield a rushing attack that’s tallied 126 yards per game thus far. One potential concern: Green Bay’s Swiss-cheese run defense, currently ranked 29th in yards allowed and 31st in yards per carry.
The Bengals didn’t seem long for the ranks of the unbeaten when they fell behind 24–7 in the third quarter against the Seahawks Sunday. Yet Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Co. found a way to rally, authoring one of the more stunning comebacks in recent memory to remain undefeated. In fact, it was just the third time in NFL history that a team erased a fourth-quarter deficit of at least 17 points en route to beating a defending conference champion.
Like Green Bay, Cincinnati features a talented roster, with strengths in key areas on both sides of the ball. But the Bengals lack the Packers’ sterling track record, and much has been made of their recent postseason futility: They haven’t won a playoff game since January 1991. And while this season might feel different, Cincinnati will likely need a few more statement victories to shake its can’t-win-the-big-one reputation.
The Falcons are perhaps the most surprising of the six unbeatens, coming as they are off back-to-back campaigns of double-digit losses. At the beginning of the season, ESPN’s Football Power Index forecast gave the Falcons a 2.7% chance to win their first five games — by far the lowest probability of any of the undefeated teams.
Truth be told, these Falcons may be the most improbable 5–0 squad in league history. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, Atlanta just became the first NFL team ever to start 5–0 with four fourth-quarter come-from-behind wins. While it would be foolish to think the Falcons can sustain this kind of comeback magic, they might not need to with one of the league’s easiest remaining schedules . Just three of their final 11 games are against teams with a winning record .
Similarly, it’s easy to chalk the Panthers’ 4–0 start up to an absurdly easy slate (their first four opponents now have a combined 5–15 record). That creampuff schedule is about to get a whole lot tougher, however, with games against the Seahawks, Eagles, Colts and Packers over the next four weeks.
The Panthers' success can be attributed to two factors in particular: their defense (currently ranked in the top-5 in both yards per play and points allowed), and a plus-eight turnover differential. If anything, it’s Carolina's offensive limitations could prove its ultimate downfall. Outside of Cam Newton, the team lacks consistent playmakers and stands to have an increasingly tough time putting up points — particularly against stronger defenses.
Of course, Peyton Manning and the Broncos are no stranger to fast starts. This is Denver’s second 5–0 start in the last three seasons, and no starting quarterback has more 5–0 starts in his career than Manning (7). Still, it’s easy to see these Broncos are different.
After spending most of his career racking up wins by dint of his arm alone, the future Hall of Famer is merely along for the ride this season, with Denver’s top-ranked defense fueling its unbeaten run. As with Carolina, though, it’s worth wondering how long the D can cover for what has been, at times, a nonexistent Broncos offense. Indeed, Denver is the only team this season to win a game despite not scoring an offensive touchdown — and they’ve done it twice already.
Although the unprecedented number of 4–0 teams — teams that appear to be superpowers — might indicate that parity is dead in the NFL, it certainly doesn’t guarantee that any of them will finish with anything approaching a spotless record. No team is flawless, and it takes both talent and luck — a ton of it, and on both sides of the ball — to notch a win every week.
Still, the sheer disparity between the league’s elite and also-rans is something to keep en eye on as the season unwinds. For as many fronts as Roger Goodell and the NFL find themselves fighting on, the last thing they need is the disappearance of their much-beloved parity, as well.