The Shield: Ranking the Unbeatens

“The Shield” took a break last week, and the spreadsheet that tallied the weekly rankings may or may not have been accidentally deleted.  (Whoops!)  Apologies for those of you who were ardent followers of the rankings, but all is not lost!  This week we will do a mini-ranking of the remaining undefeated teams around the NFL, and take a look at which ones are most likely to continue their winning ways and which are due for regression.

6. Denver Broncos 

Von Miller sacks Alex Smith (Gif Courtesy of Bleacher Report/highlighthub.com)
Von Miller sacks Alex Smith (Gif Courtesy of Bleacher Report/highlighthub.com)

The “Orange Crush” might be the best defense in football, but any conversation about the Broncos begins and ends with Peyton Manning.  Peyton is clearly nearing the end of the line, and just doesn’t have the same arm strength and ability that he did even a year ago.  He is still one of the smartest players in the league, and his ability to manage games, and get his offense into the best possible plays and situations is a plus.

C.J. Anderson is looking like the latest Broncos flameout at running back, at least from a fantasy football standpoint, but Ronnie Hillman has come on strong and those two as a platoon should provide a serviceable running game.  Despite early injuries, the piecemealing the Broncos did to the offensive line heading into the season has worked reasonably well.  This isn’t one of the best units in the game right now, but they are probably still performing in the upper-half of the league’s offensive lines, which is commendable.

A great defense should get even better this week with Derek Wolfe’s return from a four-game suspension.  It’s scary to think that this pass rush has inflicted this much pain and suffering on opposing quarterbacks has been doing it without a key piece.  DeMarcus Ware has been an animal so far, with 4.5 sacks already.  He hasn’t been alone either.  Von Miller, Malik Jackson and T.J. Ward all have two sacks apiece, and rookie Shane Ray recorded his first sack of the season on Sunday.  Look for this pass rush to continue to cause problems.

Here’s why the Broncos come in at sixth, and last, among the undefeated teams.  It’s still fair to believe that the offense will only go as far as Peyton Manning takes them, and it’s still unclear just how far that is anymore.  As the season wears on, Manning’s body will have a progressively harder time to recover each week and if the offense has a slip alongside Manning, then excellent defensive play might not be enough to get this team through a tough playoff game.  That could also become even more pronounced if the running game doesn’t continue getting better.  Denver ran the ball much better last week, but if that turns out to have been a blip rather than a trend then the whole offense may start trending in the wrong direction at the wrong time.

5. Atlanta Falcons

Julio Jones (Photo Courtesy of Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports)
Julio Jones (Photo Courtesy of Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports)

Even though I have the Falcons ranked second in their division for now, if I were picking today I’d take them to win the NFC South.  Dan Quinn is an unquantifiably large upgrade over Mike Smith at head coach.  He has this team clicking in ways Smith never could.  Julio Jones is a menace to defensive coordinators and backs everywhere.  Defensively and in the trenches the Falcons are better than they have been in ages.

Matt Ryan is one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the NFL by the “masses”.  Many people look at the receivers and running backs that have surrounded him and the inconsistent success levels in Atlanta in his tenure and tend to suggest that he is good, but not great.  That’s pretty unfair.  He suffered through a horrific line, a wet paper towel defense, and a head coach with atrocious in-game decision-making and still went to three straight playoffs and a conference championship game.

Devonta Freeman has been sensational the last few weeks and a clutch fantasy flex play.  With Tevin Coleman expected to return in the next few weeks, Freeman’s individual numbers may go down, but the running game as a whole should improve with two dangerous options in the backfield.

The defense isn’t all the way there yet, although they are much better than they have been recently.  Vic Beasley has looked like a good choice at 8th overall, and Desmond Trufant is the most unheralded young, stud corner in the league.  However, they have allowed twenty or more points in every game so far this season.  It would be nice to know that Atlanta could fall back on its defense on those few nights when the offense isn’t clicking, and that’s a big reason why the Falcons have to stay here for now.

4. Carolina Panthers

Cam Newton (Photo Courtesy of Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Cam Newton (Photo Courtesy of Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Carolina enters their bye undefeated and tied with Atlanta for the division lead.  Not trying to be a “hater”, but it is fair to point out that the Panthers have played one of the easiest schedules in football to date.  Cam Newton has also played really well, and is showing signs of coming into his own as both a high-level NFL quarterback and a leader in the locker room.  He will need to continue that trend if Carolina is to make the playoffs and/or make any kind of run in the playoffs.

Trying to put any kind of gauge on the Panthers’ defense right now seems a little premature, but they have undoubtedly been good to date.  Carolina is giving up just under 18 points per game so far, but that includes games against the Jaguars, Houston, the Saints with no Drew Brees, and the Tampa Bay Turnover Factory.  It’s fair to applaud the Panthers for how well they have performed since losing the most ferocious Hogwarts alumnus since Lord Voldemort, but full judgment should also be reserved until they face stiffer competition.

It’s pretty obvious a quarter of the way through the season that the NFC South will come down to Carolina or Atlanta, but we still have a long way to go to figure out who will be the division winner.  As I said earlier, my money is on Atlanta.  They seem to have more talent at their disposal spread around.  Jonathan Stewart has, yet again, failed to have a breakout year.  The Panthers receiving corps is still a league-wide punchline outside of Greg Olsen, and the defense has been good but has yet to see their first real test.  Time will tell on these guys, but starting 4-0 has never hurt anybody.

3. Cincinnati Bengals

Andy Dalton hands the ball off to Jeremy Hill (Photo Courtesy of Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports)
Andy Dalton hands the ball off to Jeremy Hill (Photo Courtesy of Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports)

Atlanta and Cincinnati are probably the most surprising teams to still be undefeated through four weeks.  New England, Green Bay and Denver aren’t surprising, and it would have been perfectly reasonable to pick Carolina to be undefeated if you looked at their schedule.  The Bengals, on the other hand, have already had to knock off pre-season division favorite Baltimore on the road, and had to beat the Chiefs at home, a team that many felt was either a wild card or division contender.

Andy Dalton has been a huge reason for the Bengals early season success.  This could be considered a surprise of its own.  Dalton has been a punchline by many media members, especially Colin Cowherd.  “The Beige Water Pistol” has been anything but boring, or a hack, so far this season though with nine touchdown passes to only one interception.  Jeremy Hill has been mildly disappointing, but the combination of him and Gio Bernard is a solid one.  A.J. Green is also back to doing A.J. Green things, and Tyler Eifert is finally healthy and looks like an emerging premier receiving tight end.

Cincy epitomized the “bend, but don’t break” defensive philosophy on Sunday giving up 21 points on seven field goals.  For those who don’t like math, that means they didn’t give up any touchdowns.  Dre Kirkpatrick has finally been healthy and started to play cornerback at a starting-caliber level, and Adam Jones has been fine when he hasn’t been trying to slam other player’s heads into their own helmets.  Pac-man did leave Sunday’s game early with an elbow injury though, and is listed as questionable for next week’s game.  Darqueze Dennard filled in for him for the remainder of the game.

Keeping this up is doable, and the play of Andy Dalton will be the determining factor in whether or not this team continues to play like an AFC contender or another 9-7 first round disappointment.  Hill proved last season that he has all of the tools to be an NFL back, and Bernard is a threat catching the ball out of the backfield and in the traditional running back role.  This team might just have what it takes to make a Super Bowl run if they stay healthy and the Dalton continues defying his “haters”.

2. Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers is unreal (Gif courtesy of SB Nation)
Aaron Rodgers is unreal (Gif courtesy of SB Nation)

One and two were the easiest two pieces of this ranking puzzle.  Green Bay and New England have, far and away, been the best two teams in the NFL this season.  Aaron Rodgers is a smug guy, and he has earned the right to be smug.  Although we never did any preseason picks here, Green Bay would have been my preseason NFC and Super Bowl pick, and so far there is nothing to dissuade me from sticking with that.

Rodgers continues to do Rodgers things, and for a guy in Alabama it’s fortunate that the Packers get so many primetime games because he is the most entertaining player in the game to watch.  He is an artist with the ball in his hands.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he has a good line, a bulldozer running back who catches the ball out of the backfield, and a solid group of receivers even without Jordy Nelson.  Losing Nelson hurt, but Cobb and others have filled in admirably.

The biggest area of concern for this team right now should be the run defense.  The Pack are strong against the pass, but to date have the second worst DVOA against the run.  That will have to change if they want to be serious contenders for a Super Bowl.  Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers are menaces, but the inside linebacking tandem of Nate Palmer and Sam Barrington need to improve.  Green Bay did show up last Sunday though holding San Fran to a mere three points, granted there are some good intramural defenses who could do that right about now so that might not be the best performance by which to judge the Packers’ defense.

1. New England Patriots

Tom with the classic point celebration (Gif Courtesy of https://img.4plebs.org/boards/sp/image/1355/86/1355861997828.gif)
Tom with the classic point celebration (Gif Courtesy of https://img.4plebs.org/boards/sp/image/1355/86/1355861997828.gif)

The F-Bomb Tom revenge tour is going splendidly.  Brady is just annihilating everything in his path, and if “The Kraken” doesn’t watch out with his Gisele comments he will be next.  Brady looks like an ageless wonder right now, and even though he’s only a year younger than Peyton, he looks about ten years younger.  It also doesn’t hurt that Gronk seems hellbent on spiking a football in every endzone he gets near this season.  Dion Lewis has emerged as a viable running threat and LeGarrette Blount has three rushing touchdowns in the only game he’s played in so far this season.

On defense, the Pats have been similar to the Packers, stingy against the pass and not great against the run.  They game up 32 points to the Bills in week two, which was their worst performance of the season by far.  In typical Belichick fashion, the decision to let Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner walk in the offseason hasn’t had much of a negative impact.  The Patriots are currently eighth in pass defense DVOA.  For reference, New England finished last season 12th in pass defense DVOA.  Part of that has been the emergence of Malcolm Butler, excuse me Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler.  One thing to be wary of though is the depth in the secondary.  Revis and Browner’s loss may not be showing any ill effect yet, but the margin for losses due to injury is slimmer than it was last season.

Well that’s going to do it for this week.  Feel free to leave a comment on what you agree and disagree with in the rankings for this week.  Stay tuned next week for a new topic, and tune in on Friday for Ross and Sam’s NFL Podcast where we will pick the week’s games.

 

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