This time last year, we knew more than we realized we knew about the eventual outcome of the 2013 NFL season. Through seven weeks of the schedule, four fast-starting teams had one or fewer losses, and two of them wound up meeting in Super Bowl XLVIII. Denver and Seattle were both 6-1 through Week 7, with upstart Kansas City still surging at 7-0 and New Orleans starting 5-1. All four, of course, went to the playoffs, with the Broncos and Seahawks as their respective conferences' top seeds and the Chiefs and Saints as wild-card entries.
This year? Once again there are just four one-loss teams (and no unbeatens this time) remaining through Week 7. Will our Super Bowl XLIX matchup come from the group of Denver (5-1) in the AFC, with Dallas (6-1), Philadelphia (5-1) and Arizona (5-1) fighting it out to represent the NFC? As we approach midseason, let’s explore the possibility that history will repeat itself in 2014, rewarding those who start fast.
• Dallas Cowboys -- The turnaround season these Cowboys are working on is in many ways an even bigger stunner than Kansas City’s torrid start of a year ago. Those Chiefs were ripe for significant improvement with the arrival of head coach Andy Reid and starting quarterback Alex Smith. The perpetually 8-8 Cowboys lost some key defensive components in DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee and Jason Hatcher, dropped their opener at home to the 49ers and still have managed to roll to the NFL’s best record, sitting 6-1 for the first time since 2007 and owning a league-leading six-game winning streak.
What in the name of Rod Marinelli is going on here? No wonder that ear-to-ear grin is plastered on Jerry Jones’ face -- I mean, even more than usual. The Cowboys’ 196 points scored trails only Green Bay’s 199 in the NFC, and Dallas has already humbled the Saints on Sunday Night Football and punctured the air of invincibility the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks had at CenturyLink Field in Seattle. Even more implausibly, the Cowboys have somehow salvaged the career of linebacker Rolando McClain, who could serve as the personification of the franchise’s unexpected success in the face of long odds.
Having vanquished the Giants 31-21 in its first NFC East game of the season on Sunday, Dallas stays home to take aim at last-place Washington (2-5) on Monday night. Then comes an NFC heavyweight bout with Arizona in Week 9 and a trip to London to face Jacksonville in Week 10. The Cowboys figure to be 8-2 at worst when they reach their mid-November bye.
But it’s after that Week 11 break that the real test begins for Jason Garrett’s surprising club. In the span of four weeks, the Cowboys go on the road three times and play a pair of monstrous nationally-televised showdowns with the Eagles -- first in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, and then 17 days later, on Sunday Night Football in Philadelphia in Week 15. All told, the Cowboys will play exactly one home game over a 48-day span that stretches from Nov. 3-Dec. 20, a scheduling quirk that promises to reveal their real potential for Super Bowl contention.
• Arizona Cardinals -- Can’t remember the last time the Cardinals were this hot just six games into the season? It was a mere 38 years ago in 1976, when Ford was president, the franchise was in St. Louis, and an infant Peyton Manning couldn’t even form the word "Omaha" yet. So suffice to say it’s been a while between 5-1 starts for the football Redbirds.
Like the Cowboys, it’s hard to fathom how the Cardinals got here. They had a ridiculous string of defensive defections and injuries to overcome, were forced to play half of their first six games without their starting quarterback and happen to reside in the NFL’s toughest division. But very quietly, Arizona has claimed sole possession of first place in the NFC West while the locker room drama in Seattle and the internal warfare in San Francisco have dominated the headlines.
Only fellow elite Denver has beaten the Cardinals, but that doesn’t seem to impress second-year head coach Bruce Arians, who said this about his team in the wake of the Cardinals' 24-13 win at Oakland on Sunday: "We know we’re not special. The one thing we talked about all week is you never underestimate an opponent, (and) you damn sure don’t overestimate yourself. We haven’t done anything yet except get to 5-1. There’s a lot of football left."
Indeed. But the reality is these Cardinals are pretty special and cannot be considered flukey at this point. They’ve won 12 of their past 15 games dating to last year’s 7-2 finish, almost an entire regular season of dominance. They may be winning despite not playing their best football, as veteran receiver Larry Fitzgerald maintains, but whatever they’re doing has been plenty good enough for a while now.
The next two weeks should be very telling for the Cardinals. The only two NFC clubs with their pedigree are just ahead on the schedule: home against Philadelphia this week, at Dallas next week. If Arizona hits midseason at 5-3, its early success will start to look like a mirage in the desert. But at 6-2 or 7-1, the Cardinals’ dream of being the first team to ever play a Super Bowl in its own stadium will be alive and well. Start wrapping your head around that one, NFL fans, because it could happen.
• Philadelphia Eagles -- As it turns out, reports of the NFC East’s demise were greatly exaggerated. A record of 9-7 or 10-6 has won the division the past four years, but that streak doesn’t look likely to reach five with both Dallas and Philly off to great starts. In fact, the last time two NFC East teams started 5-1 or better was back in the division’s glory days of 1986, when both Washington and New York went 5-1. Those two met that season in the NFC Championship Game, with the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants blanking Joe Gibbs’ club 17-0. An Eagles-Cowboys NFC title game in January? You heard it here first.
The Eagles are a strange team this year, however. Their record sounds much better than they've looked on the field. They've overachieved on defense and underachieved on offense. To their credit, they won after playing well for only portions of their games against Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Washington and St. Louis. But their most complete effort of the season happened to be their most recent, a 27-0 domination of the red-hot Giants in Week 6 after New York steamed into Lincoln Financial Field with a three-game winning streak and visions of exposing the Eagles as pretenders. Instead, it was Tom Coughlin’s players who looked like the frauds.
Ever the non-traditionalist thinker, Philly coach Chip Kelly responded to that impressive showing by giving his team its entire bye week off, and perhaps their fresh legs will result in the Eagles playing their best ball of the season at the most critical time over the course of the schedule’s final 10 weeks. They’re going to need it, too, because their road back to the playoffs isn’t easy. In its next six games, Philadelphia is on the road four times, including challenging trips to three likely NFC playoff qualifiers: Arizona this week, Green Bay in Week 11, and Dallas for the short-week Thanksgiving Day game in Week 13.
The NFC East championship could be on the line in the rematch at home with the Cowboys in Week 15, and those two glamor games are sandwiched around a Week 14 visit from still-dangerous Seattle. If the Eagles make it through all those land mines, there’s still two division road games to face in Weeks 16-17, at Washington and New York. But if the Eagles continue to get healthy along the offensive line, LeSean McCoy builds on his bounce-back performance last week against the Giants and third-year quarterback Nick Foles starts to even out his up-and-down showings, Philadelphia has every reason to believe the franchise’s first trip to the Super Bowl in 10 years could unfold.
• Denver Broncos -- It’s pretty well known that three of the past five Super Bowl champions haven’t even reached the playoffs the following year, and Seattle is showing early signs of perhaps making it four out of six. But that kind of failure to follow up doesn’t really apply to the Super Bowl loser. The NFL’s past five runners-up have gone right back to the postseason the following year, and the last to miss out were the 2008 Tom Brady-less Patriots, who somehow managed to miss the playoffs at 11-5.
The Broncos are almost certainly going to be there in January; it’s just a matter of how deep a playoff run they can produce. And at the moment, whose chances could you like more than Denver’s to come out of the AFC? New England, Baltimore, Indianapolis and San Diego all look capable of doing damage at 5-2, but the Broncos have the machine-like Peyton Manning rolling again and the much-improved defense they sought this offseason when they went all-in on moves for veterans DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward.
And it’s that defense that’s going to make the difference for the Broncos, who are fresh off a 42-17 demolition of San Francisco on Sunday night. Manning’s record-breaking 509th career touchdown pass was the story of the game, but Denver did a number on a 49ers offense that had started re-establishing its identity over the course of a recent three-game winning streak. The Broncos’ pass rush is on full boil right now, sacking Colin Kaepernick six times, with Ware accounting for half of those and linebacker Von Miller registering at least one sack for the fifth consecutive game. Talib contributed with an interception, and the run defense stuffed Frank Gore for just 20 yards on nine carries.
Denver doesn’t have to score 35 points per game to win anymore and has allowed just 17 points in three of its six games, while topping the 31-point barrier on offense only twice. That’s a formula that should bode well for the playoffs, with the Broncos’ 121 points allowed this season the fifth-fewest in the league. Denver has only to think back to February to remind itself that defense wins championships and puts you on the happy side of 35-point Super Bowl blowouts.
The Broncos are in good position through seven weeks, but their next two opponents -- at home against San Diego on Thursday night and at New England in Week 9 -- will provide great measuring sticks of Denver’s new defensive strength. How the Broncos weather Philip Rivers and Tom Brady back-to-back might tell us whether this Denver team has the balance and the drive to make it all the way back to Super Bowl Sunday.