No one is going undefeated this season in the NFL. Not going to happen. Not even the Patriots.
The season is just too much of a grind. There is still so much football to play. No matter how dominating any team might seem through the first three weeks of the season, this remains a week-to-week league, and while New England has largely been an exception to that rule, and still is, running off upwards of 20 straight wins is an impossible standard, even for them.
I'd posit that there is actually a better chance some team goes 0-16 this season (there is no shortage of candidates!) than there is that one goes 19-0. As much as I love what the Patriots have built, again, this season, there are certainly reasons for pause when it comes to winning every game. Especially when it comes to injuries.
It's a game of attrition, even for the Pats, and while I anticipate them running away with the AFC East, again, and putting together the best record in football, again, the undefeated thing is a bridge too far for me. They have already lost their center for the season, and are already on their third left tackle since the Super Bowl, with Trent Brown departing via free agency and Isaiah Wynn out injured.
Rob Gronkowski's retirement left the team thin at tight end. Now they have lost Pro Bowl fullback James Develin for the season – a huge factor for the power-running team they have evolved into – and are suddenly short at wide receiver, with Antonio Brown released, Julian Edelman nursing a rib injury and first-round pick N'Keal Harry not eligible to come off injured reserve until the second half of the season.
They are all about shape-shifting from week to week and exploiting different weaknesses in the opposing defense by emphasizing different personnel groups ... but that becomes hard with the group of receivers and tight ends they are left with right now. It makes it difficult to be that multidimensional. Shed no tears for them, as they will plow through opponents nearly every week, but with two games looming against that tough Bills defense (with the first this Sunday) and a showdown with the Ravens ahead in November. Then they have to face the Eagles and Cowboys back-to-back, and the Chiefs in December, I'm going to go out on a limb and say they drop at least one game along the way.
This isn't Patriots bashing -- I'm about to point out all of their genius and brilliance in the ensuing paragraph -- it's just keeping it real. As we head into the quarter pole of the season, here is my ranking of the 3-0 teams in the NFL (sorry, 2-0-1 Lions, you don't qualify), and how I believe they'll stack up in the end:
1. New England Patriots
Despite all of those injuries and challenges I mentioned, they are the best team in football and it might not be all that close. The defense has been nothing short of suffocating dating back to the postseason (wouldn't be surprised if they went through Week 4 still not yielding a passing or rushing touchdown) and that's not going to change much. Tom Brady remains ageless and you know Bill Belichick will swing a trade or two before the deadline to bolster his roster. They get to play four against arguably the two worst teams in football (Dolphins and Jets) and still, somehow, have a chip on their shoulder.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
They are going to put up at least 30-something points every week that Patrick Mahomes is under center, and are going to get Tyreek Hill back in a few weeks, too. Even the truly elite defenses will be pushed to the limit. However, the run defense still scares the heck out of me (allowing 6.16 yards per carry!), their left tackle is going to be out a while, and they need another corner, too. Still, Mahomes looks even better than last year, which will result in a top-two seed in the AFC.
I figured them for a wild-card team, but stepping back some this season after rattling off so many wins a year ago. I might have shorted them, some. I still believe quarterback Jared Goff has limitations and it seems clear to me Todd Gurley's role won't be what it once was. But Cooper Kupp's return from an ACL tear has been beyond any expectations and the defense seems as stout as ever (though I wonder how some of the older guys hold up over a long season) and Aaron Donald remains the greatest game-wrecking force on defense in the game.
4. Dallas Cowboys
I was a Cowboys skeptic in the offseason, but Kellen Moore's immediate impact on the entire scope of the offense has me believing they are at least a playoff team. And if the Eagles keep getting wiped out by injuries, the division could open up. They have the potential to be among the most balanced teams in the NFL. However, let's see how the defense holds up once it is tested. And that's coming. The have the Saints, Packers and Eagles coming up before a midseason bye, and the Pats and Rams on the other side of it, along with another meeting with the Eagles. Can they handle success and expectations? It has been a problem in the past.
5. Buffalo Bills
This is an era of offensive explosion with rules favoring that side of the ball and pinball football with spread formations the norm. Very few teams have the sort of smothering defense -- at all three levels -- to counter that and force even the very best attacks in the NFL to alter what they want to do and dictate to them. The Bills are one of those teams, fundamentally sound and very well coached. I definitely worry about the accuracy and decision-making of young QB Josh Allen, but his physicality and mentality are a perfect fit for this cold-weather team. They can afford to KISS (keep it simple stupid) on offense most weeks and still come away with the W. After this week's showdown with the Pats, the Bills play five of their next seven against the dregs of the NFL (Titans, Dolphins -- twice -- Broncos and Skins). Smells like a wild card to me.
6. Green Bay Packers
All of the money and draft assets sunk into the defense appear very well spent. Major upgrades to that unit. But the offense has been suspect, despite getting a plus-8 in turnover margin, and despite all the short fields and early leads they have been gifted. And they won't get to face the likes of Kirk Cousins, Mitchell Trubisky and Joe Flacco every week. The schedule ramps up, big time, and the offense must evolve. The Packers are 28th in yards per play, and 22nd in offensive points scored, and an unsustainable 48 percent of those points have come off turnovers. They average just 5.9 yards per play in the second half -- when adjustments are key and the play-calling script has expired, and they are going three-and-out 30 percent of the time. They are going to better than last season, but how much better? We'll find out soon.
They are going to be a winning football team, which I expected, and they have made major gains on both sides of the ball. And Kyle Shanahan is a whiz when it comes to play calling ... but the Seahawks and Rams are also in this division, and the Niners lost their left tackle already and have suffered losses at running back, too, and their depth could be an issue. They will be playing meaningful games in December for the first time in a long time, but I'm not convinced they'll be one of the six best teams in the NFC come January. The schedule takes a serious turn from Thanksgiving on.
None of this, of course, means that there aren't several teams that are 2-1, or even 1-2, that I wouldn't put ahead of these seven clubs if I was forced into doing a god-awful power ranking. Because I would. These are not the seven best teams in football in my estimation, but it is a ranking of the seven 3-0 teams.