5. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals have gotten off to a scathing start this season. Andy Dalton, for the most part, has been a better version than the Red Rifle of old. His problems of poorly timed interceptions and inability to move an offense laden with weapons have yet to really rear their ugly heads as he has led his team to a 9-2 record to start the season.
Dalton currently sits at 8th in the league with just under 3,000 passing yards. He is tied for 5th in the league with 23 touchdowns and only six interceptions. They’ve got one of the best receivers in the league in AJ Green, and a young stud at tight end with Tyler Eifert. AJ Green is 11th in the league in receiving yards and has hauled in six touchdowns, but it is Eifert who leads all tight ends and receivers in the league with an incredible 12 touchdowns through 11 games. Their ground game has been effective with Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill leading the way. The Bengals have an offense poised to prove those playoff woes are a thing of the past, but it still remains to be seen how the new and improved Dalton will fare in the playoffs.
The Bengals defense has been playing well this season. They have given up 343.4 yards per game on defense, but have surrendered the fewest points in the league with only 193. That’s good for an average of 17.5 points per game. They are also 3rd in the league with 14 interceptions and tied for 10th in the league with 29 sacks. If their defense continues to get to the quarterback, force turnovers, and keep opponents under 20 points per game, this defense will continue to be a force for the remainder of the season
What scares me about this team is Dalton’s previous history in big games. In prior years, Dalton shrinks come playoff time and the Bengals take an early exit. It wasn’t too long ago people were calling for a QB change in Cincinnati. It hasn’t been an issue this year, aside from the game against the Houston Texans. In their loss against the Texans, the offense only managed to muster up 6 points. Dalton was 22 for 38 for 197 yards, zero touchdowns, and one interception. Performances like this don’t inspire much confidence in the idea that the Bengals will show up and beat the top tier teams. If this Bengals team can continue to hold opposing offenses to a league low in points, their potent offense should do enough to continue winning games, and they should have no issue making a deep playoff run.
4. New England Patriots
I’m going to catch a lot of flak for this:
The New England Patriots are overrated. There. I said it. Do not get me wrong, Tom Brady is arguably the greatest quarterback to ever play this game, and Bill Belichik is arguably the greatest coach to ever coach this game. When you have the two of them, the Patriots won’t be counted out of any game they are playing. There is not an opponent this team cannot beat in any given week. However, this team has been overrated all season.
Looking at their schedule, they have caught a break against what was slated to be their toughest tests, with major players on the opposing team being absent or injured. Week 1 against Pittsburgh, the Steelers were without Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant. Week 2 against Buffalo, LeSean McCoy wasn’t healthy. Week 5 against Dallas, the Cowboys were without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. Week 6 against Indianapolis, Andrew Luck was coming back from injury and was visibly rusty. Week 7 against New York, Jets running back Chris Ivory (who had been one of the best backs in the league to that point when healthy) was receiving treatment on the sideline for an injured hamstring between drives.
I get it, certain things break your way. Fortune smiles on different teams at different times, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. The teams the Patriots have defeated this season are a combined 44-50. Only three teams sit above .500, and those teams are each 6-5. The one team in the “elite conversation” that they have played against, the Denver Broncos, managed to win the game with their back-up QB starting in place of future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning.
You cannot make your opponents better, but beating bad teams does not make you a great team. Good teams beat the teams they are supposed to. They have beaten the slew of bad teams they’ve faced and don’t have a signature win this season. Their most impressive win was against Odell Beckham Jr. and the New York Giants, who are an up-and-down team with a 5-6 record. The Patriots managed to pull victory from the jaws of defeat with a late Gostkowski field goal. I’m not saying the Patriots are not a good team. What I am saying is that this “revenge tour” has been overblown, and I do not think this team is bound for a Super Bowl.
Tom Brady has been the best quarterback in the league this season without a doubt. He leads the league with 3,600 passing yards, and an insane 28 touchdowns to four interceptions. Those three stats are tops in the league for starting quarterbacks. Those stats may be inflated a bit, as he has stayed in the game several times when the game was already decided, but that is neither here nor there.
The Patriots have a potent offense when healthy. The problem is that they are not currently healthy. They lost Deon Lewis for the season, Edelman is out indefinitely, Amendola is recovering from a sprained knee, and Gronkowski just went down with a bruised knee. It remains to be seen how they will do for the remainder of the season until these players get healthy, but it will be interesting to see how well these players come back from injury. Dez Bryant has been noticeably worse since coming back from the same injury Edelman suffered, so it’s possible Edelman won’t be the same player until next year. Amendola has always had an issue with injuries, and teams are going to keep going at Gronkowski’s legs because of how difficult he is to tackle, so it may lead to another injury.
This is also a team that has not looked nearly as impressive in the last three weeks as they had in the beginning of the year. It could be because they have started facing better opponents, or teams that tend to be a thorn in their side. They squeaked by the Giants on a late Gostkowski field goal and got by the Bills for the second time this season by only a touchdown. Last week, against the league’s best defense, they finally dropped their first game of the season to the Denver Broncos. While the New England defense has been solid, they’ve also shown a propensity to give up a fair number of points against teams with good offenses. The Colts, Giants, Broncos, and Bills have scored 27 or more points against New England.
When the playoffs roll around, they are going to be playing against better competition than the Jacksonville Jaguars, Washington Redskins, and Miami Dolphins; teams that they blew away during the regular season. Other good teams play the Patriots close. With Tom Brady, the Patriots won’t be ruled out of anything. It remains to be seen how the players around him will return from their injuries. If they all come back healthy, go back to clicking seamlessly, and their defense can step up and shut down good teams in the playoffs, the Patriots may once again be competing for a Lombardi trophy. On the flip side, if Edelman comes back slowly and Gronkowski doesn’t heal quickly, or worse – if he gets re-injured, the Patriots could be looking at an exit prior to their Super Bowl aspirations.
3. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers sit atop the NFC with the league’s best record at 11-0. They’re the only remaining undefeated team, with Cam Newton doing his best to win the league MVP award, lead his Panthers to the playoffs and eventually the Super Bowl.
Newton is having his best season, even without his young stud WR, Kelvin Benjamin. When Benjamin went down, most people wrote off the Panthers as being too devoid of talent to make any noise and be serious contenders.
Newton’s best receiving option is tight end Greg Olsen; behind him are Devin Funchess and Ted Ginn Jr. Those weapons don’t exactly strike fear into the heart of opposing defenses. Newton is 20th in the league in passing yards and is tied for 9th in the league in passing touchdowns with 20.
Newton has been making exceptional throws at time this season, but his best weapon has always been his legs. Newton has added 427 rushing yards and an additional seven rushing touchdowns so far on the season. He’s doing his best Superman impression on offense to keep the Panthers out of the loss column.
Newton is having a great season but it would be a disservice to this team if we failed to mention the defense. The Carolina defense is the real reason this team is undefeated heading into Week 13.
Kurt Coleman is tied for second in the league with five interceptions, and Josh Norman has been having a phenomenal season at cornerback, which has put his name among the elite in this league. Luke Kuechly is one of the best young linebackers in the league and has been anchoring this defense in the middle. The Carolina Panthers defense has held offenses to an average total of 312.5 yards per game, good for second in the league. They have allowed an average of 223.8 passing yards per game (fifth in the league) and only 88.7 rushing yards per game (second in the league), and they’re one of only two teams to be top-5 in both categories. They have allowed the third fewest points in the league at 205, which is 18.6 points per game. Their defense is playing great football, and they’re undefeated because of it.
The Panthers have had a fairly easy schedule, but they’ve also got a few signature wins on their resume. They did enough to overcome a strong Seattle defense and get a win against the Seahawks in Seattle, and they also held on to beat the Green Bay Packers. The Panthers have been rolling since that game against Green Bay, pummeling opponents by a combined score of 104-40.
The strong defense of Carolina and the will to win by Cam Newton has this team undefeated, but even an undefeated record doesn’t make you the best team in the NFL. Even though their record is unblemished, I don’t think the Carolina Panthers have enough on offense to put them above the rest of the NFL as the favorite to hoist a Lombardi trophy.
2. Denver Broncos
Peyton Manning has been putrid this season. He has a terrible nine touchdowns to 17 interceptions. He is 25th in the league in passing yardage. That is a difficult task to achieve when you are throwing the ball to Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. The Denver Broncos are 9-2 despite his horrible play.
The Denver Broncos have the best defense in the NFL through 12 weeks, and they have been the primary reason the Broncos are doing as well as they are. They lead the league in total yards per game allowed with only 285.8, have held opposing passers to 197.1 yards per game and have held opposing rushers to 88.7 yards per game. They are No. 1 in overall defense, No. 1 in passing defense, and tied for No. 2 in rushing defense. They have 10 interceptions and 15 forced fumbles, with 10 being recovered. They are also No. 4 in the league in points allowed with 207.
We hear time and again it is a passing league, and the Denver Broncos are the best at defending it in the NFL. They are also great at stopping the run. They are 9-2 this season, with losses to the Chiefs and the Colts. They have notched victories against the Vikings, Packers, and Patriots, who are a combined 26-8, giving the Broncos wins against some of the best teams in the league.
At times, this team has won in spite of Peyton Manning, and rarely because of him. Manning has missed the last two games due to injury and Brock Osweiler has taken over the reins in the interim. The way he has been playing lately, he may steal the job for the remainder of the season. In his two starts, he has led the Broncos to two victories – the first against Chicago, and the second against New England. In his two starts, he has managed 520 yards passing yards, three touchdowns and, most importantly, only one interception.
Osweiler has the luxury of having solid running backs in the stable and a strong group of receivers. Sanders and Thomas have combined for 124 catches, 1663 yards, and six touchdowns on the season. Additionally, Hillman has proven capable this season while CJ Anderson could not get it together. If last week’s game against New England was any indication however, Anderson may have found his form again as he showed glimpses of the running back who set the league ablaze down the stretch last season. If Osweiler can keep the ball in the offense’s hands and prevent turnovers, there is nowhere for this offense to go but up.
With the weapons at his disposal and with the best defense in the NFL at his back, Osweiler need only be a strong game manager to lead this team deep into the playoffs. As we have seen in the past, as long as you prevent turnovers, lean on the running game, and do not put your defense in difficult situations, you have as good of a chance as anyone to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. If you need any proof of this, see Seattle’s Super Bowl victory just two years ago.
If Osweiler can keep it together, that Denver defense will likely have the Broncos representing the AFC in the Super Bowl. That is a big “if”, and one of the main reasons the Broncos are not the No. 1 team in the league at this point.
1. Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals are the best team in the league at this point. They are the most complete team in the NFL with an elite WR, a QB playing at an elite level, a running game that is among the top in the league, and one of the league’s best defenses.
Chris Johson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Carson Palmer have turned back the hands of time this season. Granted, Chris Johnson just went down with an injury and isn’t expected to be back until the Super Bowl. However, at age 30, he was 4th in the league in rushing yards with 814 to go along with three rushing touchdowns. At age 32, Larry Fitzgerald is 3rd in the league in receptions with 83, 5th in the league in receiving yardage with 992, and is tied for 8th in the league with seven receiving touchdowns. At age 35, Carson Palmer is 3rd in the league with 3,337 passing yards to go along with 27 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. These three are putting up some of the best numbers of their careers during the twilight of it.
It has not just been those three getting it done on the offensive side of the ball. John Brown has 45 catches, 704 yards, and four touchdowns. Michael Floyd has 28 catches, 446 yards, and five touchdowns of his own. David Johnson and Andre Ellington have sprinkled in an additional 386 rushing yards, seven rushing touchdowns, 377 receiving yards, and three receiving touchdowns to bolster the offense. Tight ends Darren Fells and Jermaine Gresham have combined for 27 catches, 352 yards, and four touchdowns. The role players aren’t lighting up the stat sheet necessarily, but it’s the timeliness of the touchdowns that have mattered.
The team is No. 1 in total yardage per game on offense at 410 YPG, ranking 4th in the league with 294.8 passing yard per game. They are the only team with a top five at quarterback, wide receiver and running back in the league.
The Cardinals defense has been exceptional this season as well. Led by the young stud, Patrick Peterson, the Arizona defense has held opponents to a 5th best 326.4 yards per game. They are top-10 in points allowed with 229, giving up an average of 20.8 per game. They have held opposing passers to 235 passing yards per game, a 59% completion percentage, and have the second most interceptions in the league with 15. Additionally, their run defense has held opposing rushers to a mere 91.1 yards per game, which is good for 4th in the league. An opportunistic, suffocating defense will lead to more opportunities for their potent offense to put up points.
The Cardinals most notable wins came recently against Cincinnati and Seattle. The Cardinals hung 39 points on the vaunted “Legion of Boom” and held on to beat the Seahawks on the road. Winning in Seattle is hard enough, but dropping 39 points on that defense is incredible. A week later, the Cardinals hosted the Bengals and fended off a furious comeback attempt to win 34-31. As was mentioned earlier, the Bengals have given up the fewest points in the league. Putting up 34 on the Bengals is no easy task, yet our No. 1 team managed to do it.
With Carson Palmer playing at an elite level and leading the Cardinals to the No. 1 ranked offense in the league, and the Cardinals defense playing as a top-5 unit, it is going to be very difficult to topple the Cardinals this season.
As the only team in the NFL ranked top-5 in both offense and defense, the Cardinals are the most complete team in the NFL. They have a slew of weapons on offense led by a quarterback and wide receiver who have turned back the hands of time, and an opportunistic defense that gives them more opportunities led by one of the best cornerbacks in the league. For these reasons, the Arizona Cardinals are the best team in the NFL, and, as of now, are the team I predict will hoist the Lombardi trophy come February.