The 2011 NFL season has been stocked full of surprises, some good and some bad. There's been aggressive handshakes, the "Suh Stomp" and records being broken left and right. For one of the most anticipated seasons in recent history thanks to the lockout, it has definitely not disappointed. The best part of it is that we've still got two weeks left.
For now though, let's take a look back at the 10 biggest surprises the 2011 season has offered us.
People had their doubts when Cam Newton was selected No. 1 overall in this year's draft by the Panthers, but boy has he proved them wrong. He jumped out of the gates by throwing for 422 yards in his NFL debut and followed that up by tossing for a mere 432 the next week against the defending Super Bowl champs. Not too shabby.
He's lead Carolina to a 5-9 record thus far—not exactly a complete turnaround but nothing to hang your head about. He may have not completely resurrected this franchise, but he has definitely given this fanbase something to believe in again.
The self-proclaimed "Dream Team" probably wishes they could wake up right about now. For a team whose goal was Super Bowl or bust, they busted around Week 5 after a four-game losing streak.
To make things worse, Michael Vick, who was supposed to continue his league takeover, has been nothing short of disappointing. He's had a good season, but it just hasn't been anywhere near what anyone expected—especially since they signed him to a six-year, $40 million contract before the season.
He has been injured often, which brought in Vince Young, but that led to nothing good either. The D that was supposed to be an immovable object has been middle of the pack at best.
All this has led to a 6-8 record through Week 15, which has them sitting in third in the division. That's only a game up on the Redskins! They're not technically out at this point, but the stars would have to align perfectly for them to make the improbable push to the playoffs. We'll just have to see how the rest of the season plays off for this team.
Either way, I don't think anyone saw this coming.
Gronkowski and Graham have been two of the most fun players to watch this year. The best part is they're tight ends.
If you would have told me at the beginning of the season that either one of these guys would be in the top 10 in receiving yards or touchdowns, I would have laughed in your face. That is exactly what has happened though.
Through this week, Gronkowski is leading the league with 15 receiving touchdowns with Graham tied for 10th with eight. In the receptions category, Graham has the advantage with 80, which puts him in third overall. Gronkowski places seventh with 71.
Coincidentally, these two both play for two of the best teams in their respective leagues. If we're lucky, we could see these two top-tier tight ends face off in the Super Bowl to settle the discussion on which one is truly greater.
The 49ers, a team that won only six games all of last season, were the first team to clinch their division this year and guarantee themselves a spot in the playoffs. They haven't stopped there, either.
These next three games, including the MNF matchup against Pittsburgh, they will be fighting to keep their home-field advantage. Their three losses is tied for the second best in all of football and I think it is safe to say that no one saw this coming.
A team who has struggled with quarterback problems since they named Alex Smith the starter in 2005 was supposed to continue struggling this season. Something has come over Smith this year and he has seemingly turned his career around. That something could be new head coach Jim Harbaugh.
His fire and intensity have seemed to be the missing piece this team has needed for so long. We all knew their defense was a force to be reckoned with and they haven't let us down this year. All they needed was for their offense to get things in sync, and under Harbaugh they've done just that.
They'll be heading to the playoffs for the first time since '02—could they perhaps shock the world and become the biggest surprise of all?
Heisman Trophy winner, first overall selection in the 2010 draft, highest rookie contract ever, Rookie of the Year: all things any sane person would love to have awarded to their quarterback. The Rams were lucky enough to have all those things in one: Sam Bradford.
After leading an 0-16 team to a 7-9 record in his rookie year while breaking numerous rookie passing records, Bradford was supposed to take the league by storm this year and lead them into the playoffs. He has done everything short of that.
With him starting this season the Rams are 1-9 (2-12 overall). He's been injured and has arguably the worst supporting cast in all of the NFL, but he has got to be better than six touchdowns and six interceptions.
Rumor has it that they are shutting him down for the rest of the season due to his latest injury. If that's the case, let's just label this a "sophomore slump" and move on to hopefully a long and outstanding career in St. Louis.
An 8-6 record doesn't jump off the page at you, but this is a team that was questioned on whether or not they would even win one game this season. Not only do they have eight wins, but they are competing with teams that are supposed to be way out of their league. This has been in large part due to how awesomely their defense has been playing.
The Bengals D is one of the most under-appreciated defenses in the NFL, if not the most. They are 11th in opposing passing yards and eighth in opposing rushing yards as well. With the D keeping them in games, it has allowed rookie QB Andy Dalton to air it out, and air it out he has.
In his first year in the NFL, Dalton has thrown for 2,833 yards and 18 touchdowns. A large part of his success has been fellow rookie A.J. Green. In his rookie campaign, Green has hauled in 55 passes along with eight touchdowns. The sky is the limit for this young duo and as they get older and more mature, we could be talking about one of the best tandems in history.
With that, this team's success will continue to get better as well. They are in the hunt for a playoff spot as it is, so just imagine what this team will do when they really get in a rhythm a few years down the road.
Should we really be surprised that Hillis is having a down year after his breakout season in 2010? Yes and no. Yes, because you figure that a guy who rushes for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first year as a starter will have continued success for years to come. On the other hand no, because he is just the latest victim of the "Madden Curse."
Hillis is the cover boy of Madden 12, and if you're a fan of the game you are familiar with the ongoing curse that has hit each player the year that they appear on the front of the game. It's dated back to 2001, the first year a player was ever on the cover. The unfortunate recipient of the inaugural curse was Titans running back Eddie George. Since then, it's plagued greats that include the likes of Marshall Faulk, Michael Vick and Brett Favre.
So take it easy on Hillis if you've thought bad about him due to his down season. I'm sure, just like the rest, that he'll bounce back accordingly.
Who would have thought that the NFL single-season sack record would come in serious jeopardy this year? Better yet, who would have thought that the guy closest to breaking that record is Eagles defensive end Jason Babin?
With two games left Babin trails the record of 22.5 by 4.5 sacks. That means in his next eight quarters, he needs only five sacks to call the feat his own. He racked up three during their blowout of the Jets to put him half a sack over Jared Allen with 18. If he can have two more games like this, he'll be writing his name in history.
The task at hand will be a tough one for Babin, but going against the Cowboys and Redskins O-lines to round out the season, anything is possible.
After being named the team of the decade, the Colts were poised for yet another playoff run in the 2011 season. Then the bad news came in: Peyton Manning was possibly going to miss the first couple of games while he recovered from offseason neck surgery.
No big deal, right? Lose two to three games and then pick it up and make your move. Then, the even-worse news came: Peyton was possibly out for the season. Even with that you figure OK, we've been a perennial playoff team—we'll still be alright.
Well, that couldn't have been more wrong. The once-dominant Colts started the season 0-13 before picking up their first win against the Titans. It was the first time since '98 that the Colts have won a game with someone besides Manning under center. I think a bigger surprise than the team doing so terribly overall was the fact that it was Dan Orvlosky who picked up that win for them.
With as big as a surprise as this dismal season has been, I think we could be in for an even bigger surprise come draft day. Will the Colts get Luck-y or will they stick with Peyton and see how the rest of his career unfolds? Only time will tell.
Fortunately for Indy, they'll have a lot more time in the offseason than usual to mull things over.
This isn't about whether or not he's a great quarterback or how long his NFL career will last; this is about how successful this man has been in his first chance as a starting QB. Stats aside (which aren't as bad as people make them out to be), this guy keeps winning football games. I don't care who they've played; it's not like he makes the schedule. He just goes out, competes and brings home the W.
For Tim Tebow, this season has been full of surprises. To start off the year, he was named the starter of team. Next thing you know, he was supposedly demoted to fourth string before the season even started. After a 1-4 start under Orton however, it was finally Tebow time.
You know the story since then—7-2 with countless late come-from-behind wins. His two losses have come against two of the best teams in the league, the Lions and Patriots. Also, his D allowed 40-plus points in both games; not much you can do against that. The most important thing is that his team is now in sole possession of first place in the AFC West and should easily make the playoffs from here on out—yet another surprise.
For a team and a player whose season has been full of adversity and surprises, who knows what the playoffs could have in store for them? I know one thing though: Myself and the rest of the world will be tuned in to see if Tebow can continue to do his thing.
All stats are from ESPN.com