The 2015-16 NFL season has been a bit crazy, and we’ve been fortunate to watch five great teams rise through the ranks while maintaining undefeated records. But we’re only roughly halfway through the season, and the other shoe has to drop eventually. Some of the undefeated NFL teams of 2015 are going to have to play each other before the season ends, and the result is that only two or three teams at most can stay undefeated by the time we enter the postseason. And the chances of even that happening are pretty unlikely. Frankly, the fact that we have five undefeated teams this late in the season is already pretty spectacular.
With that said, we’re going to take a look at the five undefeated NFL teams of 2015 and see which ones have the best chance of maintaining their record through the season. Note that our estimations and predictions have not informed the order in which these teams appear on our list. For the sake of ease, we are simply going to address these teams alphabetically.
Out of the other four undefeated NFL teams of 2015, the only one that Carolina needs to worry about is Green Bay. The Panthers will be squaring off against the Packers on Sunday, November 8, and we’d by lying if we said we loved their chances. Carolina currently has a point differential of 52, whereas Green Bay’s is a bit higher at 63. Even if Carolina survives Green Bay, they’re going against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, November 26. Dallas hasn’t been much of an opponent lately, but they should have Tony Romo back by then. The tide could turn against Carolina pretty soon.
To be fair, however, the Panthers are performing pretty well. They have a streak of ten regular season wins so far, the best streak in the past couple of years. Of the other undefeated NFL teams of 2015, the only one with a better streak in recent memory is the Denver Broncos, whose streak of seventeen games came to an end nearly halfway through 2013. Given that their streak started toward the end of a rather lackluster 2014-15 season, it’s kind of amazing that they’ve managed to turn things around. Of course, it also casts some reasonable doubt on whether or not they’ll be able to keep it up.
One of the big critiques aimed at the Panthers is that Cam Newton doesn’t have a wide array of talented receivers at his disposal. The counter-argument to this is that Carolina’s been using a well-balanced offense in order to hit the receivers where they’re most needed. With Newton averaging 7.04 yards per attempt—one of those numbers that isn’t bad but could still be better—we’re not sure we completely buy into this. Of Carolina’s six wins thus far, three of them were one-possession games (although their 24-17 win against Houston was close, since the Texans would only have won in a single possession if they’d successfully gone for two). So we’re inclined to credit those wins to the defense.
We also have to credit the defense for those wins on the basis that Carolina’s only managed more than 30 points in one game, with a current average of 27 points per game. Their defense has to maintain against its current strength against some much better teams in upcoming games if they’re to remain undefeated. And to be fair, with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly as their star defensive player, they’ve got some impressive defensive weaponry on their side. But after Kuechly was put out for a few weeks for a concussion, the Panthers were only able to hold back the Seahawks by 4 points. They did much better against Philadelphia the following week, but we have some concerns that their luck with Kuechly may run out. Combine that with a shaky offense, and things don’t look good for them.
Our forecast – We didn’t have much faith in Carolina when we made our 2016 Super Bowl predictions, and we still don’t. While we’re impressed that they’ve stayed undefeated this long, we still don’t see them in Super Bowl 50 and we still don’t see them finishing the regular season as one of the undefeated NFL teams of 2015.
The only one of the other four undefeated NFL teams of 2015 that the Bengals have to worry about is Denver, who they’ll be facing on Monday, December 28. The closest they really have to a challenging game in the nearer future is their upcoming game against the Steelers on Sunday, November 1. This is a bit of a divisive game. It’s an away game against a 4-3 team that’s only lost once at home, and the Bengals have been doing pretty well on the road. But Pittsburgh has been driven. And if you’re a believer in patterns, the fact that Pittsburgh has a clear one at the moment (L-W-W-L-W-W-L) spells doom for Cincinnati. We think the Bengals can make it through this one, but there’s a strong possibility that their time as one of the undefeated NFL teams of 2015 has come to an end.
One of our favorite things about the Bengals this year is their offense, which has striven for unpredictability. It’s such a simple idea that really doesn’t get utilized often enough. Aside from that, the best thing their offense has going for them is the surprisingly awesome performance of a previously unimpressive quarterback. Andy Dalton has more yards per attempt than Cam Newton at 9.12, which doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but it really is. In fact, it’s the second-highest in the league. And it sounds even better when you look at his other numbers. Those other numbers—293.5 passing yards per game, 14-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 67.4 completion percentage—were enough for him to nab AFC Offensive Player of the Month for October. His completion percentage is especially impressive when you consider that, in just six games, he’s thrown 19 pass attempts of 25 yards or more.
Cincy’s offense may be unpredictable this year, but the same can be said of their defense. But in this case, that’s not so much of a good thing. Much like Carolina, Cincinnati has had three single-possession wins this season. Unlike Carolina, none of those gave them enough of a lead to have potentially forced their opponent into going for two. Of those three wins, the biggest was their 24-19 win against the Chargers. In other words, San Diego could’ve scored one more touchdown, totally shanked the PAT, and still walked away with a win. We’re not saying their defense is worthless. They certainly have some bigger wins than Carolina, which wouldn’t be the case if they hadn’t done a fine enough job of keeping their opponents behind the goal line on most occasions. Heck, they wouldn’t be on our list of undefeated NFL teams of 2015 if they weren’t getting results. After their first four games, SB Nation’s Cincy Jungle gave their defense a B grade for overall performance. But much like our previously mentioned defense of Carolina’s passing game, their argument was simply that Cincinnati’s defense has been just good enough for the Bengals to stay undefeated.
The lower grades given by Cincy Jungle went to the Bengals’ secondary, specifically their cornerbacks. They specifi cally noted that corners like Dre Kirkpatrick have given up some big yardage. Kirkpatrick attributes it to a lack of communication, but the reason is almost irrelevant. They shouldn’t be waiting until about halfway through the season to start focusing on basic necessities like teamwork. They might turn things around, but right now? Right now, they better hope the offensive team starts gaining better leads to cover for their performance. If they do pull it together, they could go all the way to Super Bowl 50, upsetting our initial Super Bowl predictions more than the Titans’ recent losing streak. (Okay, that one was kind of our bad for putting so much faith in Mariota after a single game. Sorry about that.)
Our forecast – Cincy’s offense is obliterating opponents while their defense is mostly treading water. Put them against a team with a better defense and even a slightly better offense, and their undefeated season will come to an end. They have an easier season than some of the other teams on this list, so it might not happen. If it does, it’ll probably be in either their upcoming game against the Steelers or their December game against Denver. We’d actually like to see them go undefeated, but it’s easy to see one of those two teams causing an upset.
We didn’t go into much detail on the Broncos-Bengals game above, and we had good reason for that. Namely, we aren’t sure that Denver will still be undefeated by then. First of all, out of all five undefeated NFL teams of 2015, they have the lowest point differential at 37. To put that in perspective, the Bengals have 60, and that’s with the terrible defense we mentioned. Second, Denver faces Pittsburgh on Sunday, December 20. So if Ben Roethlisberger continues to deliver for the Steelers, the Broncs might be defeated the week before they face Cincy (giving Big Ben a neat chance to crash two undefeated seasons this year). Finally, Denver has to play two other teams on this list before they even get to December. Their first is this Sunday, November 1, against the Green Bay Packers. If they survive that, they still have to face the New England Patriots on Sunday, November 29. In other words, the Broncos can’t stay undefeated unless they beat three other as-of-yet undefeated teams.
We like Peyton Manning, but that’s a tall order for a 39-year-old quarterback who seems to spend as much time shooting commercials as he does on the field. And as much as we like to joke about his ad revenues, we actually need to talk seriously about his age. Everyone’s saying that his arm is getting weak, and it’s getting harder and harder to ignore that probability. It was easier to ignore it earlier in the season, when there was a strong likelihood that people were overreacting to a couple of hitches in his giddy-up that we saw in the first few games. After all, people tend to make wild predictions based on only one or two performances. We sometimes do it ourselves (re: Mariota), but we’re starting to wonder if we’re ever going to see the Peyton Manning of yesteryear again. As much as we’d love to see a great quarterback pull off an undefeated season while pushing 40, we have to concede to the point made by 1998 league MVP Terrell Davis: “This might be the new normal for him.”
Don’t get us wrong, it might not be. Manning has stated that he wants to play better every week. But six games in, Denver has an average of 22.7 points, with an average of 6.2 points over their opponents in each game. That fits in pretty well with the low point differential we quoted earlier, but it more importantly calls into question how they’ve even managed to go undefeated for this long. Their opponents have a collective average of 17 points for each of Denver’s games, so we’re thinking that this is a similar case to that of Carolina in the sense that their defense is at the heart of their winning streak. It doesn’t seem to be Manning, whose passer rating of 72.5 is the second-lowest in the league. On the other hand, his longest pass so far was for 75 yards, which is the fifth-highest between all other quarterbacks at this point in the season. So his arm isn’t exactly dead, but we’re not sure how often we can count on him to show hints of the Manning he used to be.
So there are questions concerning Denver’s offense, but their defense could be their saving grace. They have 26 sacks, the most in the league thus far. That’s not the only stat they’re leading in, either. They’ve also got 17 takeaways and only 192.2 passing yards allowed on average. Oh, and those 17 points allowed per game that we mentioned earlier? Yeah, the only team to beat them in that statistic is Green Bay. And at 16.8, the Packers’ defense isn’t leading Denver by much. As far as those takeaways are concerned, you can give a lot of that credit to corners Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, Jr. The duo have caught 5 of the team’s 9 interceptions, with significantly better interception returns than anyone else on the defensive team. Their average return yards are about the same (47 for Harris and 41 for Talib), with Talib having gotten the most total return yards (123 to Harris’ 94) and Harris having made the longest return at 74 yards. These two have been a great boon to the Broncos, and are among the many reasons that Denver might actually have a slim chance at finishing out the season while retaining their status as one of the undefeated NFL teams of 2015.
Our forecast – Even one poor performance by their defense is enough to sink this one. And with so many games against other undefeated teams, it’s hard to see them coming out of this one with their undefeated status intact. Manning will always have a special place in our hearts, but Denver’s offense just isn’t strong enough for them to hold their own against any team who manages to break through their defense.
Green Bay Packers
We mentioned Green Bay’s upcoming game against Denver above. But of the current undefeated NFL teams of 2015, the Broncos aren’t the only threat to the Packers’ winning streak. As we also mentioned earlier, Green Bay is heading to Carolina next week to face the Panthers. While Green Bay could upset both of these teams, it’s still going to be rough facing two undefeated teams in a row. They should also see something of a threat in the Minnesota Vikings, who they’re facing on Sunday, November 22. The Vikings are only 4-2 as of now, which is just slightly north of average, but most teams have a tendency to step it up for rivalry games. There’s a chance that Green Bay will upset two undefeated NFL teams of 2015, just to experience their own upset two weeks later.
The Packers definitely have a lot going for them right now. Of the current undefeated NFL teams of 2015, they have the second-highest point differential at 63 (three points higher than the Bengals). They also have a quarterback who’s won league MVP twice, most recently just last season. Five-time MVP Peyton Manning won it the year before that, but we’ve already covered the reasons that Denver is in trouble right now. Rodgers doesn’t have that problem, since he’s eight years younger than Manning and currently has the second-highest passer rating in the league at 115.9 (he’s beaten by Andy Dalton, whose rating of 116.1 is only slightly higher). Some fans got a little concerned after a string of bad plays in their single-possession win against the Chargers last week, but Green Bay seems to deliver just fine. Rodgers currently has 15 passing touchdowns, one of the best totals in the league.
Rodgers is good, but he doesn’t do it alone. And that’s been the big source of concern for them as they attempt to maintain their status as one of the undefeated NFL teams of 2015, because they’ve lost some of their better offensive players due to injury. Rodgers is usually safe tossing the ball to Randall Cobb, but he’d be a lot safer with Jordy Nelson on the other side of the field for when Cobb is covered. Still, that issue could improve a bit since Davante Adams might be back this week. And even if he isn’t, it won’t be long before he is. Things are a bit rough right now, but there are a few reasons to suspect that Green Bay might actually be able to hold onto their streak for a bit longer.
Back when we made our Super Bowl 50 predictions, the one issue we noted with Green Bay was some issues they had with run defense in their season opener. They seem to be pulling it together—to an extent. As we mentioned, they’re leading the league in defense in points allowed per game with a 16.8 average. But that’s not to say they aren’t still allowing quite a few yards. They’re actually 22nd in the league for rushing yards allowed per game, with a 118.5 average. And their 236.5 passing yards allowed per game only put them twelfth in the league on that stat. In fact, Denver’s beating them in both, with 89.2 rushing yards per game (fourth in the league) and 192.2 passing yards per game (first in the league). Defensive end Mike Daniels is probably Green Bay’s best pass rusher at the moment, in a defense that’s trying to test the value of speed over power. And Clay Matthews has been making a difference on run defense at inside linebacker, but it’s only taken them so far. Their defense is good, but we’ve definitely got some questions regarding whether or not it’s solid enough to make a difference.
Our forecast – Of all the teams on this list, Green Bay has one of the better chances of keeping their status as one of the undefeated NFL teams of 2015. But as much as we don’t have a great deal of faith in Denver, they could still win this one. And with the Vikings looming over the horizon, there is still a decent chance for the Packers to experience an upset. They can make it to Super Bowl 50 if they keep up their current momentum, but they might not be 16-0 when they get there.
New England Patriots
The Patriots are looking like one of the best overall teams of this list, with possibly the most solid chance of finishing as one of the undefeated NFL teams of 2015. If they really play their cards right, and if the other teams are as shaky as we’ve predicted, then New England could actually wind up as the only undefeated team of the season. This would make them prime candidates for Super Bowl 50, a prediction that a lot of people have certainly made. They have the highest point differential of all five teams on this list at 87, and they’ve had a lot of big wins. Their narrowest win was against the Jets last week, which was the Pats’ only single-possession win of the season so far. With the Jets having made some improvements this year (they’re currently sitting 4-2), we’re excited to see the two play each other again on Sunday, December 27. The fact that the Jets now have former New England cornerback Darrelle Revis on their roster only serves to enhance our anticipation.
Of course, the Pats’ success is largely attributed to Tom Brady. And while we prefer Peyton Manning to Brady for some pretty obvious character-based reasons, it’s hard to overlook Brady’s success as a quarterback this season. As many suspected, he can still handle a football pretty well even when he’s not cheating. At this point in the season, Brady has 20 passing touchdowns, having thrown only one interception so far. He’s thrown 2,410 yards with an average of 8.34 per attempt and a 68.9 completion percentage. That percentage is even more impressive when you consider he’s thrown 289 attempts. And just so you know, he’s one of the top five quarterbacks in the NFL for each of those stats. So you might believe he cheated, and his smirky little face might annoy you to your core because of it, but you can’t deny the consistency of his results.
As if those stats weren’t enough, the Pats have more going for them than just Brady. In fact, they owe a lot of their success to their overall offensive strategy. Much like the Bengals, the Pats are unpredictable. They retool their strategy every week to expose opposing teams’ flaws. So while many may know Brady for his stellar passing game, they might have a week where Rob Gronkowski is the team’s primary weapon of choice. But just one week before or after the Gronk claims another set of victims, LeGarrette Blount might be New England’s running back of choice. Quite often, the Pats won’t be content to simply switch their playing style from one week to another, opting instead to switch their strategy wildly between possessions or even between plays. Between brains and brawn, the New England offense is a force to be reckoned with.
What about defense, you ask? As their most recent 36-7 win against the Miami Dolphins helped showcase, the defensive side of their game has been pretty strong. Malcolm Butler is doing his job at corner, and is in fact on track to become a much stronger player than he was when he joined the team last year. Much like Green Bay, speed is becoming the defining factor of the Patriots’ defense. We said earlier that Denver had the most sacks in the league at 26. Well, would you like to venture a guess as to which team tied that number in their win against Miami? Nearly a third of those were courtesy of defensive end Chandler Jones, quickly establishing himself as one of the fastest players on New England’s defensive team. The Pats kept Miami to only 15 rushing yards the other night with a total of 13 carries. Between their solid pass rushing and their improving run defense, it’s hard to imagine too many teams getting the drop on New England right now.
Our forecast – Maybe the Pats won’t make it through the season undefeated. Maybe no one will. But of the current undefeated NFL teams of 2015, New England has got the greatest chance of holding on to their streak. And while some of us may have been in denial about it toward the beginning of the season, they’ve got a really solid chance of defending their current status as champions if they can make it to the 2016 Super Bowl.