NFL 2013: Biggest Surprises from Each Division After 3 Weeks

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistSeptember 25, 2013

NFL 2013: Biggest Surprises from Each Division After 3 Weeks

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    Believe it or not, we're already approaching the quarter mark of the 2013 NFL season.

    After three weeks of play, divisional races are beginning to heat up, and the contenders are starting to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

    Like every year, this season has already seen its fair share of surprises. 

    Of the 12 teams to make the playoffs a season ago, five currently hold losing records and two (the Redskins and Vikings) have gone winless. 

    Meanwhile, upstart teams like the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins are among the league's undefeated, proving once again that any team truly can have a chance in any given year.

    While there is still a lot of football left to play, this season is already shaping up to be one of the most exciting—and unpredictable—in recent memory.

    What follows is a division-by-division look at some of the most unexpected storylines to come out of the first three weeks of the 2013 NFL season.

AFC East

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    In a division that features the always-interesting New York Jets, it's hard to find anything truly shocking.

    However, the AFC East has seen a few surprises already this season (no, an injured Danny Amendola isn't one of them) and is sure to see many more as the season unfolds.

    Dolphins Keeping Pace with Patriots

    After witnessing the team spend big in free agency during the offseason, the fact that Miami is an improved team isn't altogether too surprising.

    However, the fact that the Dolphins are currently 3-0 and tied with the mighty New England Patriots for the division lead is a development that few expected, especially after a pair of marquee matchups with teams who made the 2012 playoffs.

    The Dolphins are scoring 24.7 points per game (11th in the league), allowing just 17.7 (ranked ninth), and managed to knock off the Colts and Falcons in successive weeks.

    Miami is looking like a playoff team and a legitimate threat to the Patriots for the division crown.

    Geno Smith Playing Winning Football

    Heading into the season, many expected the New York Jets to be little more than comic relief in the AFC East. 

    Head coach Rex Ryan appeared to be on the hot seat, and the quarterback "competition" between Mark Sanchez and rookie Geno Smith was anything but inspired.

    However, Smith has managed to take the reins and lead the Jets to a 2-1 record, with the team's only loss a hotly contested battle with the Patriots that could have easily resulted in a win.

    Smith has been far from perfect (he has completed just 53.9 percent of his passes with six interceptions and three touchdowns), but he has risen to the occasion when called upon in two of the Jets' games, bringing the team to within striking distance of the division lead.

    Patriots Winning with Defense

    The Patriots have long been known as an offensive juggernaut, regularly putting up 30-plus points per game and beating opponents with firepower.

    However, New England has struggled to remain dominant on offense after losing the majority of their receiving corps during the offseason.

    Fortunately, the Patriots have managed to compensate with stout defense, allowing just 11.3 points per game (second in the NFL) and forcing eight turnovers on the season.

    Quarterback Tom Brady and his young group of receivers are sure to get things into gear at some point this season. In the meantime, it is interesting to see exactly how New England has found a different way to win.

NFC East

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    Last season, the NFC East was one of the most unpredictable divisions in all of football.

    It remains as such early in the 2013 season, but for entirely different reasons. 

    2012 saw a three-team divisional race that came down to the closing weeks of the season, with the Washington Redskins emerging as the lone playoff entrant.

    Through three weeks, those three teams have struggled mightily with only the Dallas Cowboys appearing worthy of a postseason berth.

    RGIII Is Not the Same

    Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III declared himself ready to return from injury during the preseason. As it turns out, he probably wasn't ready to begin the regular season.

    Griffin appears to be a shadow of his awe-inspiring 2012 self and has been a major factor in Washington's 0-3 start.

    While he has managed to pass for 975 yards and five touchdowns, Griffin has seemingly lost the ability or the confidence to test defenses with his legs, which has allowed opponents to utilize a more conventional game plan against the Redskins.

    Washington's Defense Is Even Worse

    The Redskins defense hasn't helped Griffin at all through the first three weeks of the season. In fact, it has been bad, historically bad.

    According to JP Finlay of Comcast SportsNet Washington, the 1,464 yards the Redskins have surrendered so far this season are the most for any three-game stretch in NFL history.

    In addition to surrendering 488 yards per game, the Redskins have only managed to snag one interception on the year.

    The New York Giants Are Beyond Bad

    As disappointing as the Redskins have been thus far in 2013, the New York Giants have been even worse.

    While Washington is ranked last in yards per game allowed defensively, New York is ranked last with an unbelievable 38.3 points per game surrendered.

    Eli Manning and his league-leading eight interceptions haven't helped.

    Not everyone expected the Giants to rebound from last year's 9-7 non-playoff campaign, but to see them outscored 115-54 through three weeks is downright surprising, no matter how you look at it.

AFC South

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    Last season, the AFC South sent two teams, the Colts and the Texans, to the playoffs. While both teams have shown some flaws, they appear to still be among the league's best.

    Meanwhile, the Jacksonville Jaguars seem to be the league's absolute worst, and it isn't even close.

    Then there are the Tennessee Titans, who have quietly matched the 2-1 record shared by the Texans and Colts, and who may be on the verge of putting together their own surprising playoff run.

    The Colts Defense Is Better Than We Thought

    During the Colts' shocking playoff push in 2012, virtually all of the attention was given to then-rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis offense.

    After all, the Colts defense (ranked 26th, allowing 374.2 yards per game) was far from a dominant unit.

    However, Indianapolis has shown dramatic improvement early this season, ranking 15th in defensive yardage (341.3 yards per game) and seventh in scoring (16 points per game).

    The defense was a major force in the Week 3 win over the 49ers, limiting San Francisco to just 14 first downs and a mere seven points.

    The Jaguars Are Not

    No one had exceptionally high expectations for the 2013 Jacksonville Jaguars, but this team has been painful to watch.

    Not only does the team rank dead last in offensive yardage (230.3 yards per game) and scoring (9.3 points per game), but it also ranks near the bottom in scoring defense (30th at 30.7 points per game allowed).

    The quarterback situation surrounding Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne is a complete mess (with one touchdown and five interceptions to show for it), and the rushing attack (52 yards per game) isn't much better.

    Jake Locker Is Coming into His Own

    The 2-1 Titans have been one of the most underrated surprises of the early 2013 season.

    The play of third-year quarterback Jake Locker has been another one.

    Locker's first two seasons were anything but impressive, and the pressure is firmly on for him to prove something this year or be passed over for a quarterback in next year's draft.

    Fortunately, Locker has responded to the challenge, providing two wins and taking the division-rival Texans into overtime in the team's lone loss.

    Locker's numbers haven't been overwhelming (572 yards passing, 81 yards rushing and four total touchdowns), but he is winning games and has yet to turn over the football.

    If Locker can continue to progress and keep his team in contention, the Titans may finally decide he can be their quarterback of the future, which was far from a sure thing heading into the season. 

NFC South

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    The NFC South is the one division that is guaranteed to bring new surprises with each new season.

    Simply consider the fact that no team has even won back-to-back division titles during the South's 11-year existence and you'll quickly understand what we mean.

    This year appears to be no different, as last year's champion Falcons currently sit with a 1-2 record, while the Saints, who won just seven games a season ago, are undefeated with a 3-0 record.

    Meanwhile, the winless Buccaneers are beginning to look like a lost cause.

    The Fall of Josh Freeman

    Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman was once seen as one of the most promising young signal-callers in the entire NFL.

    Now he has been stripped of his team captaincy, has seemingly lost the support of his head coach and is leading the 0-3 Buccaneers into position to draft a new quarterback next offseason.

    Freeman isn't entirely to blame for the Buccaneers' slow start, but the former Kansas State standout had completed a career-low 45.7 percent of his passes for 571 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.

    Oh, and he also missed the memo about showing up for the team photo.

    Mark Ingram Is Still a Non-Factor

    If Freeman has become a disappointment for the Buccaneers, former first-round pick Mark Ingram has remained one for the New Orleans Saints.

    Ingram failed to live up to expectations during his first two years in the league and has set the bar so low for himself that simply making it onto the field would seem like a small victory at this point.

    Ingram was given a chance to see an increased role in the Saints offense when the team shipped Chris Ivory to the Jets during the offseason. However, he has failed to capitalize, averaging just 1.8 yards per carry on 17 attempts.

    In fact, Ingram has been so surprisingly disappointing that he wasn't even allowed to suit up for the Saints' Week 3 matchup with the Arizona Cardinals.

    But the Saints Defense Matters

    Do you remember just how bad the New Orleans Saints defense was in 2012? Here's a hint: The 7,042 yards allowed set a new all-time NFL record.

    However, new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has totally transformed the Saints defensive unit into one the team can be proud of, and one that has the potential to win games on its own.

    Through three weeks, the Saints are allowing just 12.7 points (fifth in the league) and 295.7 yards (fourth) per game.

    The New Orleans defense has also registered six turnovers and eight sacks and has the Saints looking like a legitimate Super Bowl contender. 

AFC West

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    The AFC West has gone from being one of the most overlooked divisions in football to one of the most intriguing.

    A lot of this has to do with the continued development of the Peyton Manning-led Broncos offense, but the West as a whole appears to have dramatically improved since last season.

    The Chiefs look like world-beaters after three weeks, the Raiders have an exciting young quarterback to follow, and the Chargers have the appearance of a potential playoff team, if only San Diego could find a way to hold a late-game lead.

    Broncos Even Better Than Advertised?

    Entering the season, we all knew the Denver Broncos would field one of the top offenses in the entire NFL.

    What we couldn't have predicted, however, is that Denver may have one of the top offenses in league history.

    The addition of wideout Wes Welker and the emergence of tight end Julius Thomas have certainly helped, but quarterback Peyton Manning looks to be playing the best football of his 16-year career.

    Through three weeks, the Broncos have outscored opponents 127-71, and Manning's 12 touchdowns are the most ever for an NFL quarterback during any three-game stretch.

    Kansas City Is for Real

    We also knew the additions of head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith were sure to improve a Chiefs team that won just two games a season ago.

    Kansas City has now won one more game than all of last year and is tied with the Broncos for first place within the division.

    The defense, allowing just 11.3 points per game, is as good as expected, and the offense behind Smith is playing at a high enough level to close out games. Right now, the Chiefs look like a legitimate playoff contender, which is a statement that might have gotten you laughed at at any point in 2012. 

    Terrelle Pryor Looks Like an NFL Quarterback

    When the Oakland Raiders handed the starting quarterback job to Pryor instead of offseason acquisition Matt Flynn, most believed the team simply wanted to see what they had in the former Ohio State star before turning to next year's draft.

    Well, if Pryor continues to develop under center, Oakland may be looking at other positions with their turn on the clock next spring.

    Pryor hasn't been perfect, but he has played well enough to keep the Raiders in games, and his ability to scramble has added a new dynamic to the Raiders offense.

    Through three games, Pryor has thrown for 624 yards and two touchdowns with two picks and has run for an additional 198 yards.

    Even more impressive is the fact that his passer rating of 86.7 is better than longtime stars like Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and even Tom Brady.

NFC West

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    At the end of last season, the NFC West appeared to be one of the toughest divisions in all of football. 

    Now? Not so much.

    While the Seattle Seahawks have the look of a future Super Bowl champion, the Rams, Cardinals and even the heavily hyped 49ers sit at 1-2 and are struggling to find consistency.

    What Is Wrong with Colin Kaepernick?

    The star of San Francisco's 2012 Super Bowl run looked like an even better quarterback in the season opener, throwing for 412 yards and three touchdowns against the Packers.

    Since then, however, he has looked more like a rattled rookie than the man many believed would lead the 49ers to a championship this season.

    Through two embarrassing losses to the Seahawks and Colts, Kaepernick has passed for just 277 yards with no touchdowns and four interceptions.

    To be fair, the 49ers as a whole have been playing awful football over the past two weeks, but right now, Kaepernick does not appear capable of leading this team to the postseason, let alone back to the Super Bowl.

    Rams Defense Faltering

    The promise of a competitive defense was part of the reason St. Louis brought in head coach Jeff Fisher prior to the 2012 season.

    Last season, the Rams defense wasn't spectacular (21.8 points per game allowed), but it played well enough to keep St. Louis within striking distance of the postseason for much of the year and to produce a respectable 4-1-1 divisional record.

    This season, however, the unit has taken a step back, allowing 28.7 points per game (ranked 27th) and allowing opponents to score 31 points in each of the past two games.

    This should be seen as a pivotal year for fourth-year quarterback Sam Bradford, but if the defense cannot find a way to keep games close, it probably won't be a successful one.

    Carson Palmer Isn't Providing the Upgrade the Cardinals Had Hoped for

    Arizona brought in former Raiders and Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, hoping that the seasoned veteran could finally provide some stability at the position.

    Unfortunately, after three weeks, it doesn't appear the team's signal-caller is going to provide enough of a boost to make this team a playoff contender.

    Palmer has managed to pass for a respectable 762 yards thus far, but he has tossed just three touchdowns, while committing four turnovers on the season.

    His inability to move and avoid pressure has also led to nine sacks, which is an area where the Cardinals had hoped to show dramatic improvement. 

AFC North

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    The AFC North produced a Super Bowl champion last season in the Baltimore Ravens as well as another playoff team in the Cincinnati Bengals.

    So far this year, both the Ravens and Bengals appear to be playoff-caliber teams once again, which is no huge surprise. 

    However, that does not mean the North hasn't seen a number of surprising turns, both on and off the field already in 2013.

    Who Took Down the Steel Curtain?

    For more than a decade, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been one of the most consistent franchises in the entire league. The Steelers have made eight playoff appearances over the past 12 years and have won two Super Bowls.

    Things have certainly changed.

    Pittsburgh is 0-3 for the first time since 2000 and is already looking like a team that will contend for last place in the division this season.

    The once-mighty defense is surrendering 25.3 points per game (21st in the league), while the offense is averaging just 14 points (30th) per contest.

    A lack of a reliable running back has certainly hurt the Steelers, but the problems extend throughout the team, and it is currently unclear what it will take to right the ship.

    Browns Trade the Face of the Franchise

    Last week's deal that sent running back Trent Richardson to Indianapolis was one of the biggest surprises of this, or any season.

    The fact that the Browns were willing to trade last year's No. 3 overall draft pick away just two weeks into the season sent shockwaves across the league and seemed to indicate the Browns were ready to give up on 2013 altogether.

    However, Cleveland managed to pull off a 31-27 victory over the Vikings in Week 3 without the help of Richardson and will have en extra first-round draft pick next spring, so perhaps the trade wasn't quite the death knell everyone initially believed.

    Ray Rice Struggling

    Since being drafted in the second round out of Rutgers back in 2008, Ravens running back Ray Rice has developed into one of the most dynamic running backs in the National Football League.

    His 1,621 combined yards rushing and receiving last season were a major factor in the 10-6 campaign that sent Baltimore to the playoffs and eventually the Super Bowl.

    However, Rice has looked like a shadow of his former self so far this season and is currently on pace to rush for just 384 yards and five touchdowns this season.

    Of course, those numbers reflect the fact that Rice totaled just 72 yards in Weeks 1 and 2 and missed last week with a hip injury, so there is likely no way his season-long production is quite so low. 

    However, Rice is averaging just 2.9 yards per carry and may be nearing the end of his time at the Ravens' feature back.

NFC North

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    Last season, the NFC North sent two teams—the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings—to the postseason.

    This year, neither team appears to be a true playoff contender, while the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions seem poised to take control of the division.

    The fact that the division has been flipped on its head is surprising, but it is not the only unexpected development to come out of the NFC North this season.

    Trouble in Minnesota

    The Vikings were a surprise playoff team in 2012, and many seemed to feel the organization was destined to take a minor step back this season.

    However, few expected the team to go winless through the first three weeks and all but fall out of playoff contention before the first month of the season was even in the books.

    The defense is currently surrendering 32 points per game (30th in the league), quarterback Christian Ponder has tossed five interceptions, and the Vikings have fallen a full three games behind the division-leading Bears.

    Another stellar year from star running back Adrian Peterson could still save Minnesota's season. However, he is averaging just 4.1 yards per carry (the worst average of his career) and probably won't be enough to put the Vikings back into the postseason.

    Green Bay Struggling

    The Packers were widely expected to be one of the top contenders in the NFC this season, largely due to the strength of their offense.

    Well, the Green Bay offense (second in the league with 32 points per game) has been as good as advertised, but unfortunately, the team itself has not.

    The Packers dropped a heartbreaker to a good Bengals team this past week, dominated a disappointing Redskins team the week before and failed to come away with a win in the season opener over a 49ers team that no one can seem to figure out.

    At 1-2, the Packers are far from out of the postseason picture but have only really looked like a playoff team once this season, against a historically bad Washington defense.

    Joique Bell Emerging for the Detroit Lions

    The Lions running offense has received a shot in the arm this season, and it hasn't all come from offseason acquisition Reggie Bush.

    Third-year back Joique Bell has held his own in the Detroit backfield, rushing for 119 yards and three touchdowns on 34 carries through three games.

    With Bush sidelined against the Redskins in Week 3, Bell managed to produce 63 yards and a score on the ground, while adding 69 receiving yards and helping to lead the Lions to a much-needed victory.

    While the addition of Bush garnered most of the offseason attention for Detroit, it appears Bell's presence will be just as vital to any potential playoff run.