Three teams have emerged unscathed from the NFL’s first three weeks. Let’s examine which of those squads will remain unbeaten longest:
The Bengals — yes the Bengals — may be the NFL’s strongest team after three weeks. They’ve outscored opponents by a league-best margin of 80-33 and picked up impressive wins over the Ravens and Falcons along the way.
They have the NFL’s seventh-ranked offense and top-rated scoring defense. No team comes close to the mere 11 points per game they’re surrendering. And quarterback Andy Dalton has been especially poised; he is without a sack or an interception.
But these are the Bengals, who have been to the playoffs each of the last three seasons only to be swept out in the first round. (In fact, the Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season.)
The Bengals are guaranteed to be in the undefeated conversation next week, since they have a bye this week. Then they start a grueling stretch against three returning playoff teams. They visit New England, go home to play the Panthers, and then visit the Colts.
So it’s a good bet the Bengals won’t make it through their next three games undefeated. (But if they do, they will have announced themselves as a serious Super Bowl threat.)
Coach Marvin Lewis (whose last 3-0 start in 2006 ended in a loss to the Patriots) said he’s not allowing his team to get overconfident. But he knows the team’s performance has earned the Bengals respect from places they may not have had it before.
“Going to Foxborough, we’ll have their attention,” he said.
Projected first loss: Oct. 5 at New England. The Bengals proved they can win on the road in their Week 1 rally at Baltimore. But this is a night game with the glare of a national TV audience focused on them. Dalton tends to play his worst in such situations. He’s just 2-7 (playoffs included) in nationally televised games. So a reality check for the Bengals wouldn’t be a surprise.
The Cardinals’ surprising 3-0 start has been fueled by three second-half rallies. And like the Bengals, they won’t lose this week (bye week). But next week they will have one of their biggest challenges when they visit Peyton Manning’s Broncos.
The Cardinals have been very resilient, overcoming losses to injuries/suspensions that started in the offseason and continued right into the regular season.
They’ve played the past two weeks without starting quarterback Carson Palmer (shoulder). But backup Drew Stanton has ably led them to wins, including an impressive one against NFC West rival San Francisco last weekend.
They’ve lost several key players for the year, including linebacker Daryl Washington (suspension) and defensive linemen John Abraham and Darnell Dockett.
But that hasn’t stopped the Cardinals defense from becoming one of the best in the NFL. They’re tied for second with just 15 points per game allowed.
Coach Bruce Arians has changed the culture since arriving last year. They Cardinals have won 10 of their last 12 games, but Arians — whose schedule also includes two dates with the Seahawks, a home game against the Eagles, and trips to Atlanta and San Francisco — won’t allow his team to get cocky.
“It’s easy to start looking and talking playoffs and all that crap,” Arians said. But he doesn’t want his team to “get caught up in looking ahead or counting wins.”
Projected first loss: Oct. 5 at Denver. Palmer intends to be back after the bye week. But do the Cardinals want to consider giving him an extra week’s rest? Palmer has never beaten Manning in six career starts with the Bengals and Raiders. It would be a major upset for the Cardinals to win at Denver, where the Broncos have lost just twice since Manning arrived in 2012.
The Eagles’ path to 3-0 has been unlike any other in NFL history. All three weeks, they’ve rallied from a deficit of at least 10 points.
That’s a pace that coach Chip Kelly acknowledges cannot be sustained. He’s right, but it’s made the comeback-minded Eagles, averaging 33.7 points per game, a very fun team to watch.
The Eagles’ sixth-ranked offense is impressive. But their 26th-ranked defense — which is surrendering 26 points per game — is clearly in need of tweaks.
There’s some concern that the Eagles may be running themselves ragged. Cornerback Cary Williams said he’s worried the frenetic pace of the team’s practices is sapping energy needed on game day.
Defensive coordinator Bill Davis said he had “zero concern” about that, though. In fact, he thinks the intense practices have helped the Eagles late in games.
“We keep finishing the games,” Davis said. “Where others don’t have it in the tank, we have it in the tank, and it shows.”
Philadelphia is outscoring opponents, 74-24, in the second half.
The Eagles will make the cross-country trek to San Francisco this week to meet a 49ers team smarting from two straight losses. If they get past the 49ers, the path to 6-0 is very realistic with home games against the Rams and Giants up next.
And they historically have found success in San Francisco. They’ve won four straight there, with their last loss coming in 2001.
Projected first loss: Oct. 26 at Arizona. The Eagles will find the gas they need to beat the 49ers and roll into their bye week at 6-0. They’ll be the last remaining undefeated team, which will put a bigger bull's-eye on their backs when they head to the desert. The Cardinals, with an offense that can be crafty as Kelly’s, look like a team that can end that run.
Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter @leahysean