With each passing week, the 1972 Dolphins can breathe a little easier. Heading into Week 5, there are only two remaining undefeated teams in the NFL, the Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals. We take a look at both, and see which, if any, can hope to make it to 4-0.
Both remaining undefeated teams—the Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals—were inactive on their bye weeks during Week 4, when the Philadelphia Eagles were handed their first defeat of the season. At the moment, no team in the NFL has made it to the quarter mark of the season unbeaten, but both teams will hope to do so this week. A 4-0 start—while no guarantee, as the 2012 Cardinals know all too well—gives teams a nearly 85% chance of making the playoffs, and would keep the pressure on their rivals, as both teams find themselves in some of the tougher divisions in football.
The Bengals travel to New England to face a Patriots team with a lot to prove, while the Cardinals travel to Denver to face the Broncos, themselves coming off a bye week. Neither game is an easy win for either team, but both teams have the potential to extend their unbeaten streak if they play to their potential.
Arizona Cardinals @ Denver Broncos
The Cardinals offensive line—dramatically improved from recent years—will face its first big challenge from a fierce Broncos pass rush, and will need to work doubly hard to keep backup QB Drew Stanton upright, and the Cardinals strong defence will face a real challenge stopping Peyton Manning. For the Cardinals, the keys to victory are simple—stop the run to make the Broncos one-dimensional, limit chunk plays down the field, and keep themselves from becoming one-dimensional by leaning on Andre Ellington and the running game, to open up the field for long passes of their own.
Fortunately for the Cardinals, this plays into their hands. They are currently 4th overall in run defence, allowing just around 72 yards per game, and the Broncos running game is among the worst in the league, with just over 75 yards per game on average. Clearly it will be a long day for Montee Ball against the Cardinals front 7. The Cardinals blitz happy defence somewhat plays into Mannings hands—he is the master of getting the ball out quickly—but the exotic and esoteric nature of the Cardinals blitz packages will undoubtedly create numerous turnover opportunities for the team.
Interestingly, the Cardinals CBs, in spite of taking some flack for giving up catches, and allowing teams a relatively high number of yards have done their job when it comes to big plays. Patrick Peterson is giving up less than 9 yards per completion, and allowing completions on just over 50% of balls thrown his way, and has not allowed a catch for more than 17 yards, and Cromartie has allowed completions just 40% of the time the ball is thrown his way, for 7.5 yards on average with a longest gain of 11 yards. Those numbers hold up very well against Manning, who has regularly been forced into second- and third-and-long situations due to the lack of a running game, and even with their difficulties over the middle—rookie Deone Bucannon has allowed 100% of completions thrown his way—but this too should improve as Tyrann Mathieu continues to recover, and takes a bigger role in the defense each week.
Mathieu is expected to see around 30 snaps against the Broncos—around two and a half times more than he has averaged since returning to the field, and his big play potential should significantly limit Manning’s options whenever he takes the field.
The Cardinals are giving up, on average, just 15 points per game, the second fewest in the league, and have yet to give up a single point at all in the 4th quarter, outscoring their opponents 30-0 during the final 15. Manning, however, was slow to start against the Seahawks tough defence, and it was only an inspired third and fourth quarter that kept Denver even within touching distance of Seattle. If the Cardinals defence can emulate the Seahawks early performance, and play their usual football late in the game, Manning could be held in check.
Adding to that is the fact that both Bruce Arians and offensive assistant Tom Moore were both pivotal in the development of Peyton Manning, and know the superstar much better than most, and that may just be enough to give the Cardinals the edge.
Make no mistake, any game against Manning and the Broncos is a tough game, and if the Cardinals hope to win, they are going to need to play the best football they have played all season, but coming off a bye week, with extra time to prepare, plan, rest up and acclimatise to the altitude and temperature in Denver, their best football may very well be what we see.
We expect a close, and surprisingly low scoring game, and ultimately, while it is difficult not to give the edge to a good Denver team at home, if the Cardinals can get out to an early lead, the Cardinals may just be able to hold on.
Cincinnati Bengals @ New England Patriots
We’ve said it before, the Bengals may well be the most complete team in the NFL right now. Andy Dalton is the real deal, his targets—AJ Green, Mohamed Sanu and RB Giovani Bernard out of the back field—can easily cause problems for even the best secondary in the league, and speaking of Bernard, he’s more than competent running the ball as well.
What makes this team really potent, however, is its defense. It is definitely an underrated unit, with relatively few elite, superstars, but it is currently one of the best units in the NFL.
The Bengals are allowing the fewest points per game in the league at the moment, and, through 3 games have trailed for a total of less than 1 minute.
In their 3-0 start, they have outscored opponents 80-33, by far the biggest margin of difference of any team in the league, and have never looked like they have needed to play at 100% to do so. Some will question whether scoring only around 27 points per game is enough in the new offensively oriented NFL, but if you are allowing, on average just 11 points per game, it’s a great position to be in. The Bengals look like they have plenty left in the tank should any of the games ever become a shootout, but controlling the games has been their M.O. thus far, and there is no reason to believe that the Patriots game will be any different.
Through their first 4 games, the Patriots in general, and Tom Brady in particular, have looked very average—worse perhaps even than their 2-2 record would suggest.
In almost every key offensive metric, the Patriots have looked sub-par. Averaging just 20 points per game and 97 yards per game rushing, the Pats are 24th and 23rd overall in the league by both of these metrics. And unfortunately, these are their best stats. They rank 29th in total yards, and 30th in passing yards.
Only an impressive passing defence has kept them in most games, but considering they have played the Minnesota Vikings (29th in passing yards), Kansas City Chiefs (27th) Oakland Raiders (26th) and Miami Dolphins (23rd) during that run, it’s hard to hang too much on that particular achievement.
For the Bengals, the road to victory is clear. They need to keep the pressure on Tom Brady—disrupt his rhythm and get in the way of his throwing lanes. If they can do this, it forces the Patriots to fall back on their sub-par running game, and gives the Bengals every chance to walk away from Foxboro undefeated.
On offense, they just need to trust what has worked for them thus far—keep pounding the ball with Bernard and Jeremy Hill, taking shots down the field to Green, and trusting he can burn the Patriots secondary, and using their safety valves when they feel pressure.
They need to continue to avoid making silly mistakes, but if they do, then there is every reason to believe they should come out of this game undefeated.
Of course, Tom Brady has more than enough experience to torch anyone if you make the smallest mistake, and it would always be a mistake to count out Bill Belichick from making the necessary tweaks to make his swiss cheese O-Line and sub-standard WRs look like superstars, as he has so often done. Belichick remains one of the premier head coaches in the league, and has all of the tools he needs to keep the Patriots in contention throughout the remainder of the season, even in spite of their well documented struggles.
Ultimately, we give the Bengals the edge, if they can continue to play the efficient, error free football which got them to 3-0, and until someone can prove they can beat the Bengals in the Red Zone, it is nearly impossible to count this team out.