NFL Power Rankings: Surprising Trends That Have Defined Each Team's Season

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured ColumnistOctober 7, 2012

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 30:  Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons looks to the officials for a call against the Carolina Panthers at Georgia Dome on September 30, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

If there is one thing that is certain in the NFL from week to week, it is uncertainty. Shocking upsets happen regularly, key players fail to meet expectations and game plans amaze or astound.

As in any season, this year has had its number of surprising trends. Some teams are far better than we've expected; one talented team in particular has yet to muster a win. 

With that in mind, let's focus this week's power rankings on those surprising trends that have largely influenced each team's season. To the rankings!

1. Houston Texans (4-0)

The only surprise about the Texans is that they haven't shown any weaknesses yet this season. They run the ball exceptionally well, Matt Schaub is capable of beating teams through the air and the defense is as good as it gets in the NFL. After a quarter of the season, this is the most complete team in football.

2. Atlanta Falcons (4-0)

Be honest—did you expect Matt Ryan to be this good? After four games, Ryan has thrown for 1,162 yards, 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions. His quarterback rating is a gaudy 112.1, and he has the Falcons looking like the NFL's most dangerous offense thus far this season.

3. San Francisco 49ers (3-1)

The only surprising thing about the 49ers was the loss to the Vikings. Other than that, they are pretty much who I expected them to be this season.

4. Baltimore Ravens (3-1)

I still can't wrap my head around why this team is so anxious to rely on Joe Flacco's arm more than Ray Rice's legs. Flacco has had 39 or more passing attempts in three of the team's four games, while Rice has had 20 carries just once this season and 25 or more touches just twice.

For my money, it simply isn't a recipe for sustaining success. The Ravens are better when they build their attack around Rice. Flacco is a good quarterback—and he has looked excellent at times this year—but let's put the elite talk to bed for now. 

Besides, this isn't the same defense it once was. Relying on Rice and winning time of possession should be a consideration. When it is, the Ravens generally win. When it isn't, their odds of success change.

5. Green Bay Packers (2-2)

When exactly will the vaunted Packers' passing attack heat up? I know Greg Jennings has been beat up, but did you really expect Green Bay to have the 16th ranked passing attack after four games? 

Because I didn't. (And yes, they are No. 5 on this list because, in my opinion, they are a 3-1 team this season.)

6. Chicago Bears (3-1)

It's pretty surprising that the Bears are winning in spite of Jay Cutler and the offensive line. Oh wait, no its not. What will be surprising is if they can continue to win if Cutler throws more interceptions than touchdowns and spends entire games on his backside due to a porous O-line.

7. Philadelphia Eagles (3-1)

For all of the talk of turnovers and close margins of victory, the Eagles are 3-1 behind solid defense, a very good running game (when Andy Reid relies on it) and three game-winning drives in the fourth quarter led by Michael Vick.

What is surprising about this team isn't the lack of discipline, inability to protect Vick or poor turnover ratio. This team is probably always going to live a bit on the edge. What is surprising is that, unlike last year, they are winning in spite of those facts. They are no longer losing the tight games.

With a slew of offensive weapons and a rejuvenated defense, the Eagles have to be considered the frontrunners to win the NFC East after the first four games of the season.

8. New England Patriots (2-2)

Limiting Welker's snaps early in the season was a surprise. How well they've run the ball at times this season has been a surprise. Losing to Arizona was a shocker. 

But the second half against the Bills, when they at one point scored 35 unanswered points and outscored the Bills, 45-14? That was what we expected all along.

9. Cincinnati Bengals (3-1)

Last year, the Bengals used a solid rushing attack and strong defensive play to make the playoffs. This year, it looks as though Andy Dalton and A.J. Green plan to replicate the feat by beating teams through the air. 

10. Arizona Cardinals (4-1)

Wins over the Patriots and Eagles were surprising. A 4-0 start to the season was surprising. The fact that this team plays excellent defense and is dreadful on offense isn't. Nor was a 17-3 loss to the St. Louis Rams.

11. Denver Broncos (2-2)

Coming out 2-2 in a stretch of games against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Falcons, Texans and Oakland Raiders is hardly surprising. The Broncos are quietly one of the more balanced teams in the NFL, and while they might not beat the Patriots in Week 5, I would be shocked if they didn't win the AFC West this season. 

12. New York Giants (2-2)

Where has the pass rush been? The Giants have just eight sacks on the season, tied for 18th in the NFL. Oh, and will the elite Eli Manning please stand up?

13. Minnesota Vikings (3-1)

The Vikings are one of the NFL's biggest surprises, period. Christian Ponder has been a revelation, Adrian Peterson has recovered from a torn ACL at an otherworldly rate and the secondary hasn't been terrible this year.

Whether this success is sustainable remains to be seen, of course.

14. San Diego Chargers (3-1)

We'll talk again when the Chargers beat a team better than the Kansas City Chiefs, Tennessee Titans or Raiders. Give them credit where credit is due, however—they are winning the games they are supposed to win. That's more than we could say for them last year.

15. St. Louis Rams (3-2)

If the defense had been able to hold the Detroit Lions at the end of the game in Week 1, the Rams would be sitting at 4-1 right now. And they're doing it despite Steven Jackson having a mediocre season.

With 15 sacks on the season, however, the Rams do get after the quarterback with ferocity. They are going to make some noise in the NFC West this season.

16. Dallas Cowboys (2-2)

The Cowboys went from having one of the worst secondaries and pass defenses last year to being the top-rated pass defense in NFL over the first quarter of this season. Other than that, the usual trends—the offensive line struggling, Tony Romo being scrutinized, Dez Bryant underperforming—have played out.

17. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2)

The Steelers have the 30th ranked rushing offense in the NFL this season. I know Ben Roethlisberger has been fantastic this year, but a Steelers team this poor at running the football is truly shocking. Perhaps the return of Rashard Mendenhall will help.

18. Washington Redskins (2-2)

Without question, the performance of Robert Griffin III thus far has been the biggest shock. I thought he would be good, but not this good. Oh, and the emergence of Alfred Morris has been a shocker as well. 

19. Buffalo Bills (2-2)

I thought Buffalo would be better than this early on, namely on the defensive side of the ball. Four games in, that dominating defensive line the Bills were supposed to have after signing Mario Williams hasn't exactly materialized.

20. Seattle Seahawks (2-2)

They're 0-2 in the AFC West, they didn't actually beat the Packers and they have the 32nd ranked pass offense in the NFL. Oh, but they run the ball exceptionally well and play excellent defense. This team has 8-8 written all over it.

21. New Orleans Saints (0-4)

Did anyone expect the Saints to start the season 0-4? Anyone? Then again, with a defense that couldn't stop a runny nose with a handkerchief, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised.

22. Detroit Lions (1-3)

The Lions lack of discipline and pass-heavy offense hasn't been surprising. The fact that teams have generally kept Calvin Johnson from being a bigger factor and Matthew Stafford's paltry three touchdown passes (and four interceptions) after four games has been.

23. Carolina Panthers (1-3)

I thought teams had figured out Cam Newton a bit. But I honestly thought he would play better than he has thus far.

24. New York Jets (2-2)

I'm not surprised we've already heard rumblings about starting Tim Tebow. I am surprised this Jets team honestly thought they could have success with such a dearth of offensive weapons.

25. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-3)

If anyone finds the 2010 version of Josh Freeman, instruct him to report to Tampa Bay immediately.

26. Kansas City Chiefs (1-3)

This team was my sleeper pick to make the playoffs this year. Of course, that was back when I thought they could actually play defense. My mistake.

27. Indianapolis Colts (1-2)

While I generally haven't been surprised by where the Colts are as a football team or where Andrew Luck is as a quarterback, I am impressed that they boast the 12th best passing attack and Luck has been a legitimate fantasy option for owners this year. He hasn't made the splash that RG3 has, but he's going to be so, so good.

28. Tennessee Titans (1-3)

Let's see, where to begin? Should we go with the fact that it took Chris Johnson four games to finally rush for over 50 yards on the season? Or that when he did finally bust out last week, rushing for 141 yards, he did so against the Houston Texans?

29. Miami Dolphins (1-3)

Raise your hand if you expected Brian Hartline to lead the NFL in receiving yards after four games? If your hand is raised, you are the worst liar ever.

30. Oakland Raiders (1-3)

A year after finishing with the seventh best rushing attack in the NFL, the Raiders currently sit at 32nd in the NFL this year. There are a lot of things I expected the Raiders to struggle with, but running the ball wasn't one of them.

31. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-3)

The Jaguars may not be very good, but Maurice Jones-Drew has hardly looked rusty after ending his holdout. He won't get paid, but I expected more struggles from him early in the season.

32. Cleveland Browns (0-4)

I'm a little surprised the Browns don't really do any one thing well. Trent Richardson has been good to fantasy owners, but the Browns aren't a good running team. Brandon Weeden has shown flashes of ability, but the receiving corps is dreadful. The defense isn't underrated but hasn't exactly won the team any games either. Cleveland's fans deserve better than this. 

Hit me up on Twitter—unlike Florida State, my tweets never take a week off.

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