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Six teams are still strolling down the NFL’s unbeaten path

LeGarrette Blount

New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount runs through Jacksonville Jaguars defenders on Sept. 27.

(Stew Milne / AP)

One quarter of the way into the NFL season, and six teams still have unblemished records.

Cincinnati, Green Bay, Atlanta, Denver and Carolina are 4-0. New England, which had last weekend off, is 3-0.

Compare that to last season, when nobody reached 4-0. Arizona and Cincinnati were 3-0 after the first month, but both lost their next games.

It might not surprise people the Packers, Broncos and Patriots are unbeaten. But it raises eyebrows the Falcons and Panthers — fixtures in the mediocre NFC South — would be pristine at this point.

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A look at the NFL’s Spotless Six:

Cincinnati

In his fifth season, quarterback Andy Dalton is off to a scorching start, and he’s training the spotlight on a different offensive teammate each week — tight end Tyler Eifert, running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, receiver A.J. Green ...

Through four games, Dalton’s pre-snap reads have been on par with those of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, so the challenge will be staying on that track.

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Defensively, the team that ranked last in sacks in 2014 is now tied for sixth with 11 — and all have come from the front four. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins is back to the elite level he was before his knee injury. Because the Bengals seldom have to blitz, seven can drop back and clog the passing lanes.

The biggest challenges ahead are Sunday’s home game against Seattle, and an AFC North showdown against the Steelers on Nov. 1. The Bengals almost always struggle at Pittsburgh, and that game could mark the return of Ben Roethlisberger.

Green Bay

Rodgers has been so sharp, he has made games look like seven-on-seven passing drills. He has perfected the free play by drawing defensive linemen offsides with his cadence, then hitting James Jones on nothing-to-lose deep balls. He is the (green and) gold standard at the quarterback position.

Eddie Lacy has not put up big numbers, but he’s an effective runner who keeps defenses honest, and the interior offensive linemen are off to an excellent start.

Although Chicago’s Matt Forte tore through Green Bay’s defense in the opener, the Packers have shored up the holes against the run and are getting particularly good play from a slightly slimmed-down B.J. Raji. Linebacker Clay Matthews has primarily moved inside, as he did in the second half of last season, and that has helped the defense dramatically.

The Packers have beaten Seattle and San Francisco — two NFC West tormentors in recent years — and have tough games remaining against St. Louis on Sunday and Arizona on Dec. 20. The Nov. 1 game at Denver should be interesting, considering the Broncos’ pass rush and talented corners. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo probably will be back when the Packers play host to Dallas on Dec. 13.

Carolina

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The Panthers are the most surprising 4-0 team, and they haven’t been overly impressive in any of their four victories, which came against teams that are all 1-3 now. Still, a win is a win, and Carolina has won eight consecutive regular-season games, a run that started last December after the Panthers staggered to a 3-8-1 start.

Coach Ron Rivera said Cam Newton’s game is the most complete it has been in the quarterback’s five NFL seasons, and that’s without star receiver Kelvin Benjamin, out for the season with a knee injury. The offensive line is doing a good job of protecting Newton, and 6-foot-5 tight end Greg Olsen is off to a tremendous start. The run game isn’t flashy, but it’s effective.

The Panthers have been without their best defensive player, linebacker Luke Kuechley, for 14 of their 16 quarters. He sustained a concussion in the opener against Jacksonville, and might be available when the team returns after its bye this weekend. Cornerback Josh Norman leads the NFL with four interceptions — two of which he returned for touchdowns — and impeccable timing, seeing as he’s in a contract year.

The next four games will put Carolina’s unblemished record to the test. The Panthers play at Seattle, then have home games against Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Green Bay.

Denver

The once-pass-happy Broncos have flipped the script and they’re winning with their top-ranked defense and a dash of Peyton Manning. They have won their four games by an average of a touchdown, the narrowest points differential of the six undefeated teams.

These aren’t Manning’s 2013 Broncos, who scored points at will and routinely put up 400 yards passing and four touchdowns. The league’s only five-time most valuable player is approaching 40, and is finding new ways to make par in Gary Kubiak’s run-based offense. Manning has proved he can do what he needs to win in crunch time.

The most dangerous aspect of Denver’s defense is the pass rushing of DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, but that disruptive tandem isn’t alone. Denver has a pair of Pro Bowl cornerbacks in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, and an all-around performer in Brandon Marshall, ranked No. 1 among inside linebackers by ProFootballFocus. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is using safety T.J. Ward the way former Pittsburgh coordinator Dick LeBeau used the now-retired Troy Polamalu, moving him all over the field to wreak havoc.

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In a season when kickers are struggling, Brandon McManus has been a reliable weapon, making all nine field goal attempts, several from 50-plus yards.

The Broncos open and close November with tough home games — Green Bay and New England — but they catch a break in between with road games against Indianapolis and Chicago (and former Denver coach John Fox), both of whom were expected to be better.

Atlanta

Three games into the schedule and the Falcons had already made NFL history. They are the first to open a season with three victories after overcoming fourth-quarter deficits. That teaches a team mental toughness and resiliency. They followed that with a blowout of Houston last Sunday, which had to be cathartic.

Matt Ryan is looking increasingly elite at quarterback and has an NFC-leading 1,202 yards passing. Having Julio Jones doesn’t hurt. He’s among the best receivers of his generation, and has a league-leading 38 catches — 65.8% of them for first downs.

Running back Devonta Freeman scored three touchdowns in each of his first two starts — an NFL record — and forces defenses to respect Atlanta’s ground game, thereby picking their poison. The Falcons are so loaded with offensive weapons that accomplished receiver Roddy White has become an afterthought, and reports are swirling that he’s disgruntled, although he has denied that.

The Falcons have the third-ranked pass defense, and are fifth in yards allowed. That might change when they play a powerhouse team, but there aren’t many of those on their schedule. They don’t play a team that currently has a winning record until they travel to Carolina in Week 14. It’s entirely possible that Atlanta could be 9-0 by the time it heads into its week off.

New England

The Patriots haven’t lost, but they aren’t in the 4-0 club … yet. Their game Sunday at Dallas was supposed to be a possible Super Bowl preview, but the Cowboys are missing Romo and Dez Bryant, and they’re underdogs by more than a touchdown at home.

Although New England took several games to warm up offensively last season, they have had nary a hiccup in that department this fall, picking right up where they left off in their Super Bowl victory over Seattle. Typically, Tom Brady is seeing the field better than anyone this side of Rodgers, and tight end Rob Gronkowski is seemingly impossible to cover.

Often, the Patriots use a committee of running backs. But Dion Lewis has been so unexpectedly productive, he’s playing about three-quarters of the snaps.

We’re still learning about New England’s defense, which will be tested by more accomplished quarterbacks than the last two — Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles and Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor — and could be vulnerable at cornerback. The Patriots have an improved front seven, including pass rushers Jabaal Sheard and Chandler Jones, and soon-to-be-household-name linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower.

It’s absurdly early to say this Patriots team could run the table, as the 2007 version did in finishing the regular season 16-0. But the way they’re playing now, they’ll be favored in every game.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesfarmer


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