NFL 2011: Biggest Surprises of the Young Season
The season is only five weeks old, yet there's been enough excitement and surprises for an entire year. Teams people thought were among the worst have been among the best in the league. There's no one out there who could have called the way the season has gone so far, and if there is, he's probably crazy.
Players we thought were bad are having good seasons, and players we thought were good are playing badly. There have been several injuries to key players and some teams have already found themselves out of the playoff run.
Teams like Green Bay, New England, and New Orleans are playing well as expected, and teams like Manning-less Indianapolis, Denver and Miami are bottom-feeders as expected. Beside that, not much has gone as expected.
Prepare yourself for the rest of the season, because things are only going to get crazier.
San Francisco 49ers and Alex Smith
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2010 Record: 6-10
Going into last season, the Niners were optimistic, but went 2-8 outside of their lousy division and finished the year 6-10. Coming into this year people weren't so optimistic, as many experts picked them to finish last or second-to-last in the NFC West. It was widely believed they couldn't win games with Alex Smith as the signal-caller.
In Jim Harbaugh's first game as the Niners' coach they faced the Seahawks, last season's division winner. They came out with confidence and won the game 33-17. Their only loss of the season so far came in overtime to the Dallas Cowboys. They came back from a 20-point deficit against the "Dream Team" Eagles and won the game 24-23.
Last week, they faced the Buccaneers and completely demolished them. Their D shut down LeGarrette Blount, who had been running wild the past few games, and Alex Smith outplayed Josh Freeman.
This weekend's best game might be San Francisco at Detroit. When's the last time that was said? Never.
St. Louis Rams and Sam Bradford
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2010 record: 7-9
The Rams lost the NFC West division title in Week 17 last season, and they came into this year expected to contend again. They started the season losing to the Eagles 31-13, and have been Philadelphia's only victim.
Their rushing game has been bad, their passing game has been bad, their offensive line has been bad, their rush defense has been bad, and their pass defense has been bad. They've been absolutely terrible.
Sam Bradford was the Offensive Rookie of the Year last season, and was expected to step his game up. Usually quarterbacks get better in their second year. Manning was much better in his second season, and so were Montana, Elway and many other quarterbacks. It's just typical. But not for Bradford
Bradford is ranked 30th in QB rating, 30th in touchdowns, 29th in completion percentage, and 29th in passing yards. Last season he was 25th, 18th, 20th and 12th, respectively, in those categories. His offensive line play has been awful, and he's been sacked way to many times, so it may not be entirely his fault.
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Stats: 282.8 YPG, 9 TD, 4 INT, 64.6 percent, 95.9 QB rating
2010 Stats: 214.4 YPG, 12 TD, 17 INT, 59.9 percent, 73.2 QB rating
Hasselbeck has seemed washed up for the past few years, and it was surprising Seattle kept him as long as they did. Tennessee picked him up and he was expected to be a filler until Locker was ready. Most people believed he wouldn't make it through the season. Well, right now it seems those people were mistaken.
If at the beginning of the season you told someone the Titans would be 10th in passing yards and 32nd in rushing yards after five weeks, they would have thought you mixed those two numbers up. Chris Johnson hasn't been able to get anything going this year, yet as a team they're better than last season. The main reason: Matt Hasselbeck.
Hasselbeck has led them to a 3-2 record, and if they can defeat the Texans this weekend they will be in sole possession of first place in the AFC South.
Bob Levey/Getty Images
2010 record: 8-8
Comparing the records from the last two seasons doesn't show just how surprising the Raiders have been. In an offseason where teams were making moves, all the Raiders did was lose their best defensive player.
Oakland played one of the toughest schedules over the first five weeks and came out 3-2. Their two losses have come against the 4-1 Bills and 4-1 Patriots, and if it wasn't for last second heroics they would have defeated the Bills. They've beaten the Jets and the Texans, both games in which they were considered the underdog.
The Raiders' next three games come at home against Cleveland, Kansas City and Denver, so look for them to move to 6-2. Oakland has a real shot at winning that division and making some noise in the playoffs.
Brody Wheeler/Getty Images
2010 Record: 4-12
Not even Bills fans expected a start to the season like this. Buffalo is 4-1, and three of their wins have come against playoff teams from last season. In Week 3 they beat AFC East bully New England for the first time in over eight years. And they did it by picking off Tom Brady four times (he threw four picks all of last season) and coming back from a 21-0 deficit.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Fred Jackson and Steve Johnson have become quite the trio. So far this season Fitz is in the top 10 in touchdowns, QB rating and completion percentage. Fred Jackson is only behind Darren McFadden and Adrian Peterson in rushing yards, and Johnson has over 300 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
Hopefully their offense can keep putting up big numbers, because their defense has been shaky. They are 30th in total defense and give up 24 points per game.
Rob Carr/Getty Images
2010 record: 10-6
They won the NFC East last season, and added several Pro Bowl players in the offseason. They were supposed to be much better than last season—it was Super Bowl or bust in Philly. That hasn't been the case so far. Now their goal should be getting back to .500.
They are third in total offense and have been very good in pass defense, both of which were expected. It's their rush defense that has been terrible. They rank 30th and give up over 140 yards per game. The Eagles' turnover differential directly reflects their record—they are dead last in the league at minus-10.
Vick came into the season as an MVP candidate, but hasn't played like one. He has accounted for eight of the team's turnovers, and threw four picks last week against the Bills.
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Stats: 322 YPG, 7 TD, 6 INT, 58.2 percent, 84.3 QB rating, 160 rush yards, 5 TD
A quarterback has never begun a career like this—not Montana, not Manning, not Brady, not Marino—no one has. He threw for over 400 yards in each of his first two NFL games. Some great quarterbacks never threw for 400 yards in a game.
Newton was drafted No. 1, and many people believed he would be a bust. Whether you thought he would be a bust, a quality player, or a Pro Bowl player, you couldn't have expected a start like this.
The biggest argument against him was that he wasn't a very good passer—that he was run first, pass second, and couldn't think like an NFL QB. He was supposed to be a project that Carolina had to work on. Well, I guess he's a fast learner.
Carolina is 1-4, but unlike last season they have been competitive in every game. Every one of their losses has been by a touchdown or less, and last week they gave the Saints a run for their money.
Barring injury, he is a lock for Rookie of the Year.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
2010 record: 6-10
It's not surprising the Lions are good. They were expected to be much better and contend for a playoff spot this season. However, what is surprising is just how good they have been. They have started 5-0 for the first time in over 50 years, and have been one of the two best teams in the league to this point.
After a series of injuries, Matthew Stafford in back under center in Detroit, and he's been living up to the expectations of being a No. 1 pick. Calvin Johnson, who is one of the most athletic players to ever step on an NFL field, finally has a good quarterback throwing to him. He is on pace to shatter the single-season touchdown reception record.
Stafford and Johnson seem almost unstoppable. This might be the best team Detroit has ever had.
Bold prediction: The Detroit Lions will win the Super Bowl within the next three seasons.