After Week 9, the 1972 Dolphins can start popping champagne, because every undefeated team in the NFL will suffer a loss by then, writes Andrew Perloff.
One of the emerging storylines of the 2015 NFL season is the sudden death of parity. Through six weeks, five teams—Patriots, Bengals, Broncos, Packers and Panthers—still remain undefeated, which is the most since the merger in 1970, and only 10 teams have winning records (the second fewest since 2002). But keep in mind: two teams in the last 73 years have gone undefeated through the regular season. Just because more teams that got off to a hot start, that doesn’t mean one of them is built to run the table.
But that's all about to change. The undefeated teams will start falling like dominoes, and in three weeks, the 1972 Dolphins will be popping champagne (despite how tired some people are getting of that annual cliché). Granted, the Packers and the Broncos, both of which are on bye this week, square off on Sunday Night Football in Week 8, so there's a guaranteed win and loss, but the rest are due for a letdown sooner rather than later.
There’s no underlying reason as to why the competitive balance of the NFL has clearly changed. The salary cap is still in place. Maybe the bad teams are putting young quarterbacks on the field too early, but that’s been going on for a decade. And even the doormats of the league are capable of putting up a fight on a week-to-week basis. Through six weeks last season, 50 games were decided by 10 points or more; this season, there have been 42.
If your team is still undefeated, enjoy it while you can, because each team's upcoming schedule is loaded with challenges.
The Patriots are the only bona fide threat to go 16–0, but they seem a little less unbeatable every week. The offensive line is banged up and they face tougher defenses in the coming weeks. The first challenge is the New York Jets’ defensive front and quality cornerbacks in Week 7. The Jets can run and have big receivers that could cause problems for New England’s secondary. It’s a league of matchups, and New York is suited well to take on the Patriots.
If New England survives that matchup, it faces the reeling but potentially improved Dolphins, who have won two of their last three against the Patriots. Up next after Washington? Road games against the Giants and Broncos in Weeks 10 and 12.
Green Bay Packers (Bye, @ Denver Broncos, @ Carolina Panthers)
Remember how we were amazed that the Packers offense kept rolling without WR Jordy Nelson, who tore his ACL in the preseason. In their last three games, the offense has slowed down—is QB Aaron Rodgers missing his security blanket? The offense will be tested in trips to Denver and Carolina, whose defenses rank No. 2 and No. 7 respectively. Let's not forget that in 2011, the Packers started 13–0, with a more complete team, and fell at Kansas City.
Cincinnati Bengals (Bye, @ Pittsburgh Steelers, @ Cleveland Browns)
Andy Dalton and the Bengals are about to run into their Kryptonite: the Steelers and primetime games. Dalton is 2–6 against Pittsburgh and the Bengals have dropped four of their last five at Heinz Field. And to top it off, Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger should return from a knee injury suffered in Week 3 in time to face a defense he torched twice last season.
Meanwhile, Dalton is 3–6 in regular-season primetime games, and they head to Cleveland for a Thursday showdown after the presumably tough game against Pittsburgh. The Browns beat Cincinnati 24–3 on Thursday of Week 10 last season and typically elevate their game for their in-state rival.
This is a healthy, more confident Bengals team than we’ve seen in the past. But the schedule has helped—San Diego and Seattle had to travel East and play at 1 p.m. ET, and a tough trip to Buffalo was made a lot easier because of the Bills’ injuries. The Bengals and Panther are tied with the third-easiest strength of schedule so far this season.
Carolina Panthers (vs. Philadelphia Eagles, vs. Indianapolis Colts, vs. Green Bay Packers)
The teams the Panthers have beaten are a combined 10–20 this season, and Carolina hasn't exactly been running away with the games. The Panthers' schedule stiffens up in the coming weeks. The Eagles sacked Cam Newton nine times last season in a 45–21 blowout. If the Panthers survive Philly, Indy and Green Bay are next. Eventually Newton’s lack of offensive weapons will cost them against a quality opponent.
Denver Broncos (Bye, vs. Green Bay Packers, @ Indianapolis Colts)
The question about benching Peyton Manning seems less outrageous every week, but keep in mind, the 1972 Dolphins went undefeated with Earl Morral filling in for their Hall of Fame QB Bob Griese, who was sidelined most of the season. But the Broncos' offense is ranked No. 29, and they've won only one game by more than seven points (their 24–12 victory over Detroit). The Broncos started out 6–0 in 2009, had a bye and lost eight of their next 10 games. With that defense, they don’t risk that kind of fall, but 16–0 isn’t a possibility the way they’re playing now.