NFL 2012: Five Most Surprising Teams After Week 4

Matt BarbatoCorrespondent IOctober 2, 2012

NFL 2012: Five Most Surprising Teams After Week 4

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    The first four weeks of the 2012 NFL season have already provided some thrilling games and story lines. But like every season, things rarely go according to plan. There have been offensive shootouts, defensive struggles and even a game decided by replacement officials (Remember them?).

    This season has shown that there aren't many elite teams out there. Only the Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans and Arizona Cardinals have gotten through the first four games unbeaten.

    But there are always the teams that come out of nowhere. Who have been the 49ers, Lions and Bengals of 2012? Which teams are setting themselves up to be unexpected contenders in January? On the other hand, which teams have stumbled out of the gates? Here are the five teams who are the biggest surprises through Week 4.

5. San Diego Chargers

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    The San Diego Chargers have quietly started the season on top of the AFC West with a 3-1 record. Despite being ranked 24th in the league with an average of 311.8 yards of offense per game, the Chargers have managed to put up a respectable 25 points per game thus far.

    Philip Rivers is having a decent year with 897 yards and six touchdowns. Although Ryan Mathews has only carried the ball 24 times, Jackie Battle has stepped up with 163 yards and three touchdowns.

    Rivers has spread the ball amongst his wide receivers and tight ends but Malcolm Floyd is the leading receiver with 15 grabs, 250 yards and a touchdown. Antonio Gates has started slowly with only 10 catches for 124 yards and appears to be declining quickly.

    San Diego's defense has been the catalyst for its hot start to the season. The Chargers have surrendered an average of 17.8 points per contest, and have allowed only 321 yards on the ground this season. The Chargers have forced nine turnovers, which is tied for first in the AFC. Atari Bigby and Donald Butler are the leading tacklers and Eric Weddle and Antonie Cason have both picked off two passes.

    Every early win against the division is important and San Diego's schedule is somewhat favorable. We will really see what they are made of when they play a four game stretch against Denver, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh.

    Denver will probably be San Diego's toughest competition for the division, but if the defense keeps playing well and Ryan Mathews can get back to form, then San Diego could be looking at a return to the postseason.

4. New Orleans Saints

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    The New Orleans Saints were expected to struggle without head coach Sean Payton for the entire season, but did anyone think they'd be 0-4? With a 28-27 loss to the Packers, the Saints dropped their fourth straight game by single digits and also blew another fourth quarter lead.

    The offense has not been the problem. Drew Brees has kept New Orleans alive in games, but has uncharacteristically thrown five interceptions. The Saints running game is not much of a factor, and Mark Ingram has the team's only rushing touchdown through four games. Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham and Lance Moore have all had solid seasons thus far, but Graham has not dominated games like he did last season.

    Unfortunately, though, it seems like no matter how many points the Saints score, their defense manages to give up more.

    New Orleans has given up the most yardage in the league, which has resulted in a horrifying average of 32.8 points allowed per game. Curtis Lofton has stepped up his game with the absence of Jonathan Vilma and has made 44 tackles this season, but the Saints' D have generated only six turnovers and is the burden of the team.

    The Saints have very little chance of making the playoffs after this 0-4 start. They're the sixth team in league history to start a season 0-4 after winning 13 games the previous season. Only one team, the Titans in 2009, managed to win eight games.

    The Saints offense, although the numbers might not show it, are missing a beat without their offensive genius and the defense is simply pitiful. The NFC is too deep for New Orleans to dig out of their 0-4 hole.  

3. Detroit Lions

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    Last season, the Detroit Lions were one of the biggest surprises in the NFL and made the playoffs. This season, they're a surprise for the opposite reason. The Lions have started the season 1-3 and if not for a comeback against St.Louis in the first week of the season, Detroit would be winless.

    But Detroit's record could be reversed if not for poor coaching.

    Two weeks ago, a mistake between center Dominic Raiola and quarterback Shaun Hill cost Detroit a chance at a game-tying field goal against Tennessee. Last week, Detroit lost 20-13 to Minnesota because of a kickoff returned for a touchdown on the first play of the game and a punt return in the third quarter.

    The Lions offense has arguably the best quarterback and wide receiver combination in the league. Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson have been the core of the offense, which ranks first in the league in passing yards per game. The running game hasn't been as bad as expected and Mikel Leshoure and Kevin Smith have split the carries in Detroit's backfield.

    The Lions defense has a lot of talent but has not played very well. Detroit's defensive line, led by Ndamukong Suh is one of the most fearsome units in the league, but the Lions are in the middle of the pack in average rushing yardage allowed per game at 102. Their biggest problem on defense is that they have only forced three turnovers all season.

    Detroit certainly has the talent to bounce back from this disappointing start, but my problem is with their coaching and attention to detail.

    Jim Schwartz has had issues with this team on and off the field and these last two losses have shown it. Something is wrong in that locker room and I think if Detroit continues to struggle then Schwartz could be on the way out. If the Lions can get their heads on straight, they certainly have enough talent to climb out of the NFC North cellar.

2. Minnesota Vikings

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    I don't think there was any analyst that expected the Minnesota Vikings to be on top of the NFC North after four weeks. But after wins against Jacksonville, Detroit and a stunning upset against San Francisco, the Vikings are at the top of the division with a 3-1 record.

    How is Minnesota in first place in a division with three playoff caliber teams? One of the reasons for their unexpected success is the unexpected progress made by running back Adrian Peterson. Peterson is tenth in the league with 332 yards after tearing his ACL last December. His comeback has been vital to quarterback Christian Ponder. Ponder's stats might not be flashy, but he's the only starting quarterback in the NFL without an interception.

    Minnesota's defense has been the backbone of the team. The defense, led by Jared Allen, has allowed an average of only 18 points per game. Although Minnesota's pass rush has been relatively quiet through the first four games, Chad Greenway has stepped up with 44 tackles. Minnesota may be eighth in the league in total yards allowed per game, but the Vikings have recorded only one interception this season.

    Seems like interceptions are hard to come by on both sides of the ball in Minnesota.

    The Vikings are running the ball well and their defense is playing well enough to win, but I'm not sure they will keep it up. Ponder is being very careful with the ball, but he's only thrown for 824 yards and four touchdowns. Defenses can key on Peterson and will force Ponder and Percy Harvin to beat them. The defense is playing well but they need to pick up their pass rush and generate more turnovers.

    Don't expect Minnesota to stick around much longer especially in the NFC North.

1. Arizona Cardinals

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    The Arizona Cardinals have been the most surprising team in the NFL by far, and they haven't beaten cupcake opponents either. With a road win over New England and a convincing victory at home against Philadelphia, the Cardinals are trying to prove that they are for real.

    The Cardinals were the last team to name a starting quarterback for the upcoming season. When head coach Ken Whisenhunt made his decision, he picked John Skelton to take the snaps in the desert. Skelton got injured and in came Kevin Kolb, who is trying to prove he's worth the money the franchise gave him.

    Although Kolb has played well, the Cardinals' running game is one of the worst in the league. The Cardinals average 68 yards per game on the ground and Beanie Wells' health is always a question mark. Ryan Williams is the second string back and he hasn't done much either.

    Arizona's defense has a lot of great pieces. Although the Cards' are 18th in the league in total yards per game allowed, they have managed to give up only 15.3 points per game. Daryl Washington leads the team with 30 tackles along with three sacks. Arizona's pass rush has been one of the best in the league with 14 sacks. The Cardinals' secondary is led by Patrick Peterson, who is also a big play-maker on special teams.

    I don't think Arizona is even the best team in their division. But if the Cardinals can find some sort of a running game, along with a consistent Kolb, they could make the playoffs. The Cards' defense is pretty good and is getting better. Cardinals have been one of the hottest teams since the second half of last season, and a playoff spot is not out of the question.