The 1972 Miami Dolphins better already have the champagne on ice. The way this season is going there may not be much time to prepare for the celebration of the last remaining unbeaten team losing its first game — thus ensuring the 17–0 Super Bowl VII champion’s place as the only undefeated team in NFL history.
Three weeks into the year, only three teams have a perfect 3–0 record — the Philadelphia Eagles, Cincinnati Bengals and Arizona Cardinals. And while all three share the same record, the routes taken have been decidedly different.
The Eagles have scratched out wins over the Jaguars (34–17), Colts (30–27) and Redskins (37–34), not because of their fast starts but because of their strong finishes. Philadelphia has been outscored by a combined score of 54–27 in the first half of games. But those same Eagles have flipped the switch to outscore opponents 40–14 in the fourth quarter.
“I believe we’re the freshest team in the fourth quarter,” said second-year coach Chip Kelly. “The way our whole team played in the fourth quarter obviously shows what type of conditioning we have.”
Kelly has been an outspoken proponent of various new-age sports science — tailoring specific diets to individual players, placing an emphasis on hydration and encouraging players to get as much sleep as possible on a nightly basis. He also has instituted practice policies that include less contact but more running, which at least one player (see below: Cary Williams, Outside the Huddle) has taken issue with.
But the evidence is on Kelly’s side. Last season, Kelly’s club suffered fewer preventable soft-tissue injuries and muscle strains than almost every other team en route to a 10–6 record and NFC East division title. The Eagles led the league with 14 players who started every game last season.
“We train in a great way,” said defensive coordinator Bill Davis. “The sports science we have, the way we analyze it, there’s no concern. I actually think we’re the strongest team in the fourth quarter, and it shows. We keep finishing games. Where others don’t have it in the tank, we have it in the tank. It shows. … I’ve been with 10 different organizations, and it’s not even close.”
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has a 33–18 regular season record, with 82 TDs and 50 INTs over 51 career starts. But all anyone wants to talk about is his 0–3 record in the playoffs, where he has thrown one TD and six INTs.
“Whatever you do during the regular season doesn’t matter once you get to the playoffs,” Dalton said after a 27–10 home loss to San Diego in last year’s Wild Card game. “It’s disappointing.”
Regardless of criticism, Dalton is the only quarterback in Bengals history to make three straight playoff appearances. As a result, he inked a team-friendly six-year that could be worth as much as $115 million but also gives the franchise several outs should it want to move in a different direction.
This year, Dalton has been his usual regular-season self, with a 95.4 passer rating and as many receiving TDs as INTs thrown — with one each. In fact, Dalton’s first INT of the season was Cincinnati’s first turnover of the year.
But Dalton knows, maybe better than any other QB around, he’ll never be “the guy” in Cincy until he wins a playoff game.
No desert mirage
In the NFL, the rule of thumb is “10 wins and you’re in” the playoffs. Last season, Arizona’s 10–6 record wasn’t good enough in an NFC West that included Seattle and San Francisco. This year, the Cards hope to overtake the Hawks and Niners. Judging by coach Bruce Arians track record, that is a realistic goal.
Arians was named 2012 NFL Coach of the Year after going 9–3 as interim coach of the Indianapolis Colts. The following season, Arians took over in Arizona and has gone 13–6 — giving him a career mark of 22–9.
Dive deeper and Arians’ record is even more impressive. The Cardinals have won nine of their last 10 games and have outscored their opponents 30–0 in the fourth quarter in close-call wins over the Chargers (18–17), Giants (25–14) and 49ers (23–14). That is exactly where Arizona wants to be heading into its Week 4 bye.
“For us to go undefeated in September is a huge step forward with all the things that have gone on the past two weeks,” said Arians. “I love the resiliency of our football team, the focus that they bring every single day to work.”