The 1972 Miami Dolphins will forever be immortalized. The team’s cast of characters — featuring the likes of Bob Griese, Larry Csonka, Mercury Morris, and Paul Warfield — rolled through a 14-0 regular season, before outlasting Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Washington in the postseason to win Super Bowl VII. For the ’72 Dolphins, the perfect season remains a great feat that not even the 1979 Steelers, the 1989 49ers, or even the 1985 Bears could adequately match. In the end, Miami still lays claim to the “greatest team of all time” title.
In 2007, the high-octane New England Patriots blew the doors off all comers, before losing the Lombardi Trophy to the New York Giants and one miraculous helmet catch. Last year, the New England Patriots , Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons, and Carolina Panthers all raced out to 6-0 records before serious talk of going undefeated began in earnest. Of this group, Carolina survived until 14-0, before somehow coming out flat in Atlanta and taking their first loss.
The gregarious Morris, for his part, has popped champagne and toasted his Miami teammates for 43 years running. For 2016–17, three organizations have a realistic shot at making history. These potentially undefeated NFL teams will benefit from talent, execution, and a relatively weak schedule; they will likely dominate the first leg of the regular season. From here, it will be luck above all else that carries an elite roster beyond hostile crowds, injuries, and untimely turnovers in this game of inches. The pressure will mount with every passing week.
3. New England Patriots
The long-running Patriots Dynasty has taken six trips to the Super Bowl in 15 years, winning four titles (2001, 2003, 2004, and 2014). In 2001, a 24-year-old Tom Brady head-butted teammates in the tunnel, before leading them on a game-winning, fourth-quarter drive against the St. Louis Rams. In 2007, Robert Kraft and the Patriots reloaded by spending big bucks to acquire Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Donte Stallworth. Brady, with his new weapons, shattered long-standing records for touchdowns and points scored. The term “18-1,” however, will go down in infamy because this team failed to close the deal beneath the bright lights of Super Bowl XLII.
By 2014, Brady had come full circle and was the elder statesman holding off the young Russell Wilson from Super Bowl XLIX. Brady, like his arch-rival Peyton Manning, will have one last deep postseason run left before he hangs his cleats up for good. Last season, the Patriots were one failed two-point conversion at Mile High away from punching another ticket to the Super Bowl. For added drama, the Patriots will lack Brady to start the season, while he serves out his four-game Deflategate suspension. New England will open on the road against Arizona — a legitimate Super Bowl contender in its own right. To weather the storm, expect defensive mastermind Bill Belichick to throw the kitchen sink at opposing offenses, while Jimmy Garoppolo manages the game.
With Brady back, New England must slog through a brutal midseason stretch, with Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, division rival Buffalo, and Seattle all slated for the October and November schedule. Expect Brady to round into form by relying upon Rob Gronkowski as the ultimate security blanket. Gronk is a matchup nightmare in the red zone, where he is too quick of a cover for linebackers, yet too physical for tiny defensive backs to corral. The 2016–17 Patriots will be on the march towards 16-0, if they can withstand this front-loaded first half of the regular season.
2. Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks may find themselves reigning over a top-heavy NFC West Division this season. While the San Francisco 49ers smoked the L.A. Rams 28-0 at home in Week One, both of these teams figure to be two of the worst in the NFL. Meanwhile, an Arizona club that went 13-3 last season will be one year older, with Chris Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Carson Palmer all now playing on the wrong side of 30 at positions where production suddenly collapses. The Cards are coming off a Week One loss at home to a Patriots team that was without both Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski.
Russell Wilson made the leap last year, after throwing a late pick and subsequently taking all of the blame for the Super Bowl XLIX loss against the Patriots. For 2015, Wilson came back to complete 68% of his passes for 4,024 yards and 34 touchdowns against only eight interceptions. As a last resort, Wilson would take off and run, to pick up an additional 553 yards on the ground through 2015. The Seahawks are now Russell Wilson’s team, especially with Skittles Man Marshawn Lynch hanging up his cleats this summer.
Calls for the softening and eventual demise of the vaunted Seattle defense have been very much exaggerated. The Seahawks did finish first in scoring defense last season, before shutting down the Miami Dolphins for only 10 points to open up 2016-2017. As a group, the defense came up with four sacks, with the Legion of Boom closing out on routes and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner roaming free from sideline to sideline for six tackles of his own.
A Week Ten showdown between the Seahawks and Patriots at Foxboro will put the league on notice. The survivor of this prime-time game may come out undefeated and headed into the stretch run for making history. Including the Super Bowl, the last three meetings between these two perennial contenders have come down to be decided by a total of only ten points.
1. Green Bay Packers
Last year, the Green Bay Packers opened up the season at 6-0, heading into a bye week. After the bye week, the wheels somehow fell off, and the 2015 Pack dropped four of their next five. These Packers did earn a playoff berth at 10-6 and win one wild-card game on the road in Washington, before losing an overtime thriller in Arizona. For the year, Aaron Rodgers completed 61% of his passes for 3,821 yards and 31 touchdowns, against only eight interceptions. On paper, these were the worst numbers of Rodgers’ career as the full-time starter in Green Bay. Still, Aaron Rodgers was clearly one of the better pure passers in the NFL, even in a down year. No lead is safe with Rodgers in full command of the offense.
Like Carolina, Green Bay will get back a crucial player, Jordy Nelson, from a season-ending injury. In 2014, Nelson racked up 98 receptions for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns. The 2016–17 Packers will be even more dangerous with Nelson clearing out Cover-2 safeties, while Randall Cobb works over mismatches in the slot. For added measure, Eddie Lacy has dropped the weight and recovered much of the burst that had him piling on 3,001 yards and 24 touchdowns of total offense through his first two years in the league.
Green Bay will start the 2016 season at full strength — at the same time that the injury bug has shattered the hopes of arch-rival Minnesota. Last week, Teddy Bridgewater blew out his knee on a non-contact practice drill. In a panic, the Vikings dealt their 2017 first-round pick and a 2018 fourth-round pick to Philadelphia in exchange for Sam Bradford, who has battled injury issues in his own right throughout his career. For now, Shaun Hill and Bradford are one and two on the depth chart, for a one-dimensional offense that figures to offer up heavy doses of Adrian Peterson.
Expect the Packers to roll to the NFC North title, without ever being seriously challenged. After taking care of business against the likes of the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, and Detroit Lions, Green Bay will host Seattle on December 11. The Pack will have the inside track to home-field advantage and the Holy Grail of an undefeated season — if they can survive this showdown on the Frozen Tundra.