Through ten weeks, the surprise of the year is that not one but two teams hold undefeated records. The two teams that faced off in Super Bowl XXXVIII, the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers, are on track for a rematch in Super Bowl 50 in February. Through Week 11, the Patriots and Panthers have nine wins and have leads of two games over the next-best team. With expected title contenders such as the Packers and Broncos struggling and the Ravens, Lions, and Saints out of contention, the path for these two teams may seem to definitely end in the Super Bowl. Though the records speak to the strength of these two teams, the competition in both conferences will be tremendous and the assumption that Carolina or New England will surely be a Super Bowl team is a misconception.
After winning Super Bowl XLIX, the Patriots have avoided the hangover and become an even better team. With quarterback Tom Brady exempt from punishment with the DeflateGate appeal, the Patriots’ offense hasn’t missed a beat. Brady is having an MVP-worthy year with 3,043 yards, 24 touchdowns, and 111.1 passer rating, each of those marks being the best in the NFL. Young defenders Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones (10.5 sacks, best in NFL) are in Pro Bowl consideration with strong starts and though Darrelle Revis is gone, Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler is a rising star and proved to be a worthy opponent to Odell Beckham, Jr. in that matchup.
In the first quarter of the season, the Patriots looked unbeatable. Recently, they’ve barely escaped with the W. Against two NFC East teams, the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants, New England only won by a point and the latter opponent gave the Pats a real scare. The Giants held a wide lead in the first half and should’ve closed out the game and won, but a missed interception and fourth down conversion set the Patriots up for the game-winning field goal. In that game, the team’s best wide receiver, Julian Edelman, went down with a foot injury, and he will join breakout star Dion Lewis on the bench. The Patriots have been exposed. The question is whether a team will be able to close out against them in the playoffs, where New England is at its best.
The trademark of the Cam Newton-Ron Rivera era in Carolina is the ability to get hot and go on win streaks. In 2013, it was a franchise-record 8 game win streak that carried the Panthers to a first-round bye. Last year, Carolina rattled off five straight wins after starting 3-8-1 and reached the divisional round of the playoffs. The momentum has carried into this year, as the Panthers have extended their regular season win streak to 13 games with an undefeated start this year. Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly are the leaders of the fearsome defense, but two young talents in defensive tackle Kawann Short and corner Josh Norman solidify the defensive line and secondary. Newton, the franchise quarterback, is literally carrying the offense, igniting the fourth-best rushing offense with six touchdowns and 366 yards. The Panthers were underrated for much of the season, but gritty wins over the Seahawks and Packers established Carolina as a legitimate force.
On paper, the Panthers don’t stack up with the Patriots, Seahawks, Packers, and Broncos. Yet they are still at the top of the NFL and will continue to be because of their playing style. Carolina is the toughest, grittiest team in the league and when it goes their way, games they play in are low-scoring slugfests. That style, along with recent playoff experience, a proven and improving quarterback, stingy defense, and solid offensive line, sets Carolina up for playoff success. But if the Panthers ever get into a shootout, the lack of a passing game could spell their doom.
The Patriots and Panthers may be at the top of the NFL now, but a number of teams are ready and poised to knock them off the throne in January. Denver, if it can sort out its quarterback problem, is a serious challenger to the Patriots with its stingy defense and the Bengals, the only other team to win its first eight games, will be in the AFC mix. In the NFC, the Cardinals are an equal matchup to the Panthers and will be the favorite in the conference if quarterback Carson Palmer stays healthy. The two teams from last year’s NFC Championship, the Packers and Seahawks are sputtering but have the tools to reach the Big Game. Wild cards such as the Raiders, Steelers, Giants, Vikings, Cowboys, and Bills can’t be counted out.
The matchup that would cause no shock would be if the Panthers and Patriots faced off. The shock would be if either team was still undefeated going into that game. Only the 1972 Miami Dolphins completed the perfect season and few teams have come close. One, the 2007 New England Patriots, looked unbeatable until the clock hit zero. Neither Carolina nor New England will ultimately finish with undefeated because the NFL isn’t a league that can have an undefeated team run the table; it is just too difficult. These two teams are hoping that the losses come sooner rather than later.