There are many ways that an NFL team can surprise. Some do it by playing way above their head early, making their record now look a lot better than it is. Some do it by playing below expectations and are forced to dig themselves out of a hole.
Not all 32 teams are surprises. Not all teams are playing above or below where they were supposed to. It sounds boring, but they are right where the world would have told you they'd be after eight or nine games, depending on the team.
As Week 10 of the NFL season approaches, here is a look at the most recent edition of our Power Rankings, with a special emphasis on a few teams who have played well above or below expectations.
1. Atlanta Falcons (8-0)
While the Falcons have been a playoff team in each of the last two seasons, this is the best team they have had since advancing to the Super Bowl in 1998. Whether they can repeat that feat remains to be seen.
They certainly seem better equipped to make a run in the postseason with Matt Ryan playing at an MVP level, and Julio Jones and Roddy White on the outside. The defense plays a bend-but-don't-break style.
Plus, with everyone else in the division at .500 or worse, the Falcons could clinch the NFC South before the end of the month. Quite an impressive feat for a team that struggled to get to 10 wins last year.
2. Chicago Bears (7-1)
The Bears made the necessary adjustments in the offseason to be one of the best teams in the NFC. So far, the results back up that thinking.
3. Houston Texans (7-1)
If last year was the coming-out party for the Texans, 2012 is the year where they put it all together and establish themselves as one of the dominant franchises in the NFL. No surprise to see them at 7-1 right now.
4. San Francisco 49ers (6-2)
While there have been a couple of games where the 49ers have looked vulnerable on both sides of the ball, if you would have told them they would be sitting at 6-2 coming out of their bye week, I am sure they would be happy.
5. Green Bay Packers (6-3)
It took a few weeks for everything to start clicking, but the Packers are firing on all cylinders right now. They have scored 127 points in their last four games, even though three of those games were against St. Louis, Jacksonville and Arizona.
The big question: Will the defense be able to get a stop in a close game?
6. New York Giants (6-3)
The Giants are going to lose games they shouldn't and win games against really good teams in dominating fashion. There is a delicate balancing act that this team always walks and manages to make it work.
7. Denver Broncos (5-3)
After a brutal schedule to start the season made them appear worse than they are, the Broncos have finally hit their stride. They look like the most dangerous team in the AFC right now.
8. New England Patriots (5-3)
This is the first time I have found myself questioning how good the Patriots really are. Look at the teams they have beaten: Tennessee, Buffalo, Denver, New York Jets and St. Louis. They built a huge advantage against the Broncos and had to hold on at the end.
Their losses have come against Arizona, Baltimore and Seattle. At some point you have to prove you can beat playoff teams to be a Super Bowl contender.
In some ways, you could classify the Patriots as a surprise disappointment based on their current resume.
9. Baltimore Ravens (6-2)
Joe Flacco's inconsistencies aside, the Ravens have the second-best record in the AFC halfway through the season.
Given the Ravens' pedestrian stats on both sides of the ball (19th in total offense, 26th in total defense), they appear to be in for a rude awakening down the stretch.
10. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3)
An early bye week might have been the worst thing for the Steelers, who need to get stars like Troy Polamalu and Rashard Mendenhall back, but they have won three straight and seem poised to catch the Ravens in the AFC North.
11. Seattle Seahawks (5-4)
Pete Carroll has never been given the credit he deserves for being an NFL head coach. All that is changing with his current stint in Seattle, as he has helped build one of the best young defenses in the league.
As long as Russell Wilson continues to progress, this team could emerge as one of the best in the NFC next season. They are still in playoff contention right now, though 2013 appears to be their big breakthrough year.
12. Detroit Lions (4-4)
Given their defensive limitations—or inconsistencies, if you prefer—the Lions probably weren't going to improve upon their 10-win campaign from last year. They are right where they belong, based on their talent level and style of play.
13. Indianapolis Colts (5-3)
Raise your hand if you had the Colts winning five games all season. (Waits for the hands that never come). If you tried to put your hand up, you're a liar.
It is nice to see a team that had virtually no expectations at all succeeding, though you do have to take some things into consideration when looking at the Colts right now. Four of their wins have come against Minnesota, Cleveland, Tennessee and Miami.
Still, you can only beat the teams on the schedule, and the Colts have taken care of their business.
14. New Orleans Saints (3-5)
A horrid start has all but ended the Saints' postseason hopes, though this offense is capable of doing a lot of damage in a short amount of time.
The Saints were supposed to be a Super Bowl contender, so to see them wallowing under the .500 mark right now is a big surprise. When you have a defense that can't stop anyone, it is hard to win a lot of games.
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15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-4)
The Buccaneers don't have a lot to be happy about, even as they sit at 4-4. But Doug Martin makes them far more entertaining than they have been in a long time.
16. Minnesota Vikings (5-4)
Perhaps the Vikings' five wins already are a surprise, though three losses in their last four games have taken a lot of the shine off this team. Don't expect more than seven wins, especially when you realize they have four games against Green Bay and Chicago, as well as a showdown with Houston.
17. Miami Dolphins (4-4)
The Dolphins are an easy punching bag, even though they have more talent than people realize. It's not going to happen this season, but they could challenge for a playoff spot in the not-too-distant future.
18. Dallas Cowboys (3-5)
The Cowboys continue to be the greatest enigma in the NFL. They have talent up and down the field. It just rarely materializes in a 60-minute game, hence the 3-5 record.
19. San Diego Chargers (4-4)
The Chargers are basically the Cowboys of the AFC. It makes it easier to analyze them, but incredibly frustrating to watch.
20. Philadelphia Eagles (3-5)
Should we really be surprised that the Eagles are 3-5? Their skill position players have always been far better than those in the trenches who do the grunt work. If you don't build a team that can protect the quarterback, you are going to give up a lot of sacks and turn the ball over.
Like a great coach once said, the Eagles are exactly what their record says they are. A team under .500.
21. Washington Redskins (3-6)
Robert Griffin III has been a pleasant surprise. Ditto, Alfred Morris. Everyone else, particularly on defense, has left a lot to be desired. It's going to take a few years to get this team back into playoff contention.
22. Cincinnati Bengals (3-5)
The Bengals overachieved last season. They didn't make that one big splash in free agency, so should we really have expected more this season?
23. Arizona Cardinals (4-5)
A five-game losing streak and dreadful quarterback play is much closer to who these Cardinals were supposed to be than the team that started out 4-0.
24. New York Jets (3-5)
When the talk about your backup quarterback trumps anything else happening with your team, you know things aren't going well. Even if that backup is the most famous football player in the world.
25. Oakland Raiders (3-5)
Do the Raiders ever have expectations anymore? That sounds harsh, but it's also a testament to the way this team has been run for the last decade. You can't be a surprise, good or bad, if there are no expectations.
26. St. Louis Rams (3-5)
While the Rams have had a few games where they looked like they were putting something together, it just hasn't materialized long enough to sustain anything.
27. Buffalo Bills (3-5)
When you spend big money on one of the best defensive players in the NFL, you expect to see results. For all the cash thrown at Mario Williams, the Bills have gotten 23 tackles and 4.5 sacks.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is too up and down to depend on as a starting quarterback in the NFL, yet the Bills locked him up with a nice extension last season.
The suffering continues for the Bills.
28. Carolina Panthers (2-6)
I admit that I thought the Panthers would challenge for a playoff spot this year. Cam Newton answered all the questions I had about him with a stellar rookie campaign. There was a good offensive nucleus around him to put up big numbers and bail out a still-developing defense.
Instead, Newton is asking for suggestions from reporters and appears to be in over his head. Where is the real Cam Newton?
29. Tennessee Titans (3-6)
Even though owner Bud Adams isn't happy with his team right now, the Titans were never going to be competing for much of anything.
30. Cleveland Browns (2-7)
At least the Browns show signs of life in games that they lose. It's not much, but it's a start for an organization going through an ownership overhaul.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-7)
The Jaguars were expected to be the worst team in football this season. They have done nothing to change that prognostication.
32. Kansas City Chiefs (1-7)
The Chiefs need to run the ball and play shutdown defense to win games. They have the rushing attack. The defense is 30th in points allowed. Oh yeah, Brady Quinn had to play quarterback for a game when Matt Cassel suffered a concussion.
Romeo Crennel's return to head coaching has not been a smooth one, and there isn't much help on the horizon.