"For the first time since the merger ..." is a statement that you do not see very often.
The AFL and the NFL merged in 1970. So after 45 years of professional football, fans have seen just about anything and everything at this point. But this NFL season reminds fans that one of the things that makes football so entertaining is its capacity to surprise.
There are five undefeated teams in the NFL for first time since the merger this late in the season. Two of the unbeaten, the Denver Broncos and the Green Bay Packers, meet on Sunday Night Football (8:30 p.m. ET) to try and remain that way.
What does it mean to have so many undefeated teams at this point in the season? More losers, for one. With the five teams (including the New England Patriots, Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals) monopolizing wins, there are only six other teams (out of the 32 in the league) with winnings records.
The most precarious of the undefeated teams is the Denver Broncos, who have won every game but one by only one score, and have relied on their defense to bail out the offense in almost every game. Hall of Fame bound QB Peyton Manning is having a nightmarish season, and his offense is last in terms of efficiency, performing 28.4 percent worse than the mean, and more than 10.5 percent worse than the second-to-last 49ers.
Just how bad has Manning been? His 254 yards per game would be his fewest since 2008 and his 10 interceptions through 8 games approach his average per season (14) and his average per season with Denver (12). He has averaged a 79.76 QBR with Denver, and had the best QBR in the league in both 2012 and 2013, however this season his 46.36 QBR is good for 25th best in the league. Just to add insult to injury, Manning has 10 touchdowns this season, but three have been to the other team.
Peyton and the Broncos are undefeated nonetheless, and they have their defense to thank for that. The unit leads the NFL in overall defensive efficiency, and it is by virtue of their stifling pass defense. The team allows only 192.2 yards per game, best in the league, and have allowed a 69.6 Quarterback Rating for opposition quarterbacks. They are 42.6 percent better than the mean, with the Carolina Panthers boasting a 24.0 percent efficiency rate, a faraway second place.
Green Bay's QB Aaron Rodgers will have his hands full, but if anyone can pick apart a stellar secondary, it is Rodgers.
The Packers' quarterback is off to another exceptional start, throwing for 1,491 yards and 15 touchdowns. He ranks third in the league in touchdowns, and his 80.83 QBR is good for second best. A big factor in his success has been the reemergence of wide out James Jones, who left the team for a season only to return as a free agent and reassume his role as a touchdown scoring monster. His six touchdowns and nine plays totaling 20 yards or more have been indispensable to the Packers, who lost wide receiver Jordy Nelson to injury in the preseason.
Asked about his role, Jones showed his opportunistic attitude to the game. "When I came here, I didn't know what my role was going to be," Jones told reporters at ESPN. "I didn't know what I was going to do. But like I told myself since I was a rookie and every time you guys have interviewed me, when I get a chance to make a play, make a play. That's my same motto in year nine."
The tipping point for this matchup could be the turnover battle. Both the Broncos and Packers sit third in the league with a plus-one average turnover differential per game. The stat within the stat here is how that differential is achieved. The Packers limit their turnovers to less than one per game and turnover the opposition at an average rate, while the Broncos turn the ball over on offense quite a bit, but counteract it with the most takeaways per game in the league, 2.8.
The Broncos will have trouble turning Rodgers over on Sunday Night, and Manning will have his share of turnovers, giving the Packers the edge and likely deciding the game in their favor.