The NFL's Biggest Early Season Surprises

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistOctober 17, 2020

The NFL's Biggest Early Season Surprises

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    Surprise might serve as one of the best words to describe the 2020 NFL season. 

    After a preseason-less summer, offenses have still looked explosive, rookies have still impressed and the usual trappings of a new season continue—some expected contenders, for example, have face-planted while supposed rebuilders have surged into the playoff picture. 

    Of course, just passing the quarter-season mark means plenty of football left to unfold and ample time for things to even out. More surprises will undoubtedly emerge, too. 

    Entering Week 6, though, these are the most notable surprises in the NFL. 

The NFC East

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    Justin Berl/Associated Press

    Something is very off in the NFC East. 

    Through five games, the four teams have combined for as many wins, with the 2-3 Dallas Cowboys leading the way. Every team has a negative point differential, with Washington and the New York Giants stretching beyond minus-50. 

    Things were dire in Dallas even before the Dak Prescott injury. The defense has looked lost, spoiling what was supposed to be a new era under head coach Mike McCarthy, and both wins have come via late miracles

    Speaking of new eras, 1-4 Washington has already thrown in the towel on sophomore first-round product Dwayne Haskins Jr. None of the team's losses have been close. Philadelphia is an injury-riddled mess, and Carson Wentz has disappointed during the 1-3-1 start, throwing six touchdowns and a league-leading nine interceptions. That record is inflated, too. The Eagles tied a miserable Cincinnati team and won against the even more injury-riddled San Francisco 49ers. 

    Least surprising is the flopping Giants, an 0-5 wreck now on the verge of potentially dashing the first-round investment in Daniel Jones, owner of two touchdowns and five interceptions over five games. 

    Given how things are going, a team with a losing record making the playoffs almost seems a given, barring a stunning Andy Dalton-led turnaround in Dallas. 

Chicago Bears

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    Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

    A lukewarm, uninteresting quarterback battle between Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles wasn't exactly projected to produce a 4-1 record to start the season. 

    Yet here are the Chicago Bears neck-and-neck with the surging Green Bay Packers in the NFC North despite predictably benching the ho-hum Trubisky for Nick Foles, who hasn't exactly taken the league by storm with his 63.7 completion percentage, five touchdowns and three interceptions. 

    Credit goes to the Bears defense, which ranks first in red-zone touchdown percentage and second in third-down efficiency. And while the Khalil Mack-led unit figured to be strong again, it was considered unlikely to compensate for the offense. 

    Chicago might end up being one of the most interesting teams to watch the rest of the way. On paper, wins over 1-3 Detroit, 0-5 New York, 0-5 Atlanta and 3-2 Tampa Bay don't paint the prettiest outlook. But with momentum and a starter under center established, 2020 might just be the year the Bears keep on surprising. 

Surging Cleveland Browns

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Browns suddenly pulling it all together and scoffing in the face of history and reputation is such a 2020 development. 

    Cleveland is one of three four-win teams from the AFC North, though the two others (Baltimore and Pittsburgh) aren't exactly a surprise. 

    By comparison, the Browns suddenly living up to their on-paper potential certainly are. Baker Mayfield has thrown nine touchdowns against four interceptions, the offense has ran for 5.5 yards per carry, three different targets have 17 or more catches and six different names have caught a touchdown. 

    Granted, one can poke holes in all of this too. Cleveland got whipped 38-6 by Baltimore before beating bad Cincinnati, Washington and Dallas teams, and one could argue 3-2 Indianapolis isn't so hot, either. 

    But the Browns taking care of business in games they're supposed to win is refreshing, hence this being the franchise's first 4-1 start since 1994. Maybe the feel-good vibes don't hold for the duration of the season, but the hot start seems proof new head coach Kevin Stefanski was the right man for the job. 

Rookie and Free-Agent QBs Thriving

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    It was easy to ride with the idea rookie—or even veteran—quarterbacks in new places could struggle mightily to start the new season after an unorthodox training camp and lack of preseason. Rookies have to adapt to pro speed, among many other things, in a normal summer stretch, and veterans at least need to establish timing with new weapons, right? 

    Apparently not. 

    Rookie quarterbacks have seemingly had few problems. Cincinnati Bengals passer Joe Burrow, the first pick this year, has completed 65.2 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and three interceptions and became the first rookie to ever throw for 300 yards in three consecutive games. Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, the sixth pick, wouldn't be denied despite starting the season backing up veteran Tyrod Taylor. Herbert has completed 68.8 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and three interceptions. 

    Now consider free agents in new places. Cam Newton is off to a 2-1 start with the New England Patriots. Tom Brady is 3-2 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and sitting on 12 touchdowns against four interceptions. Teddy Bridgewater with the Carolina Panthers is 3-2 and has a silly 73.4 completion percentage. Even Philip Rivers with the Indianapolis Colts is 3-2. Andy Dalton even just won a game late in Dallas and is just getting started. 

    Clearly, any idea passers in new situations were going to struggle was at least a little unfounded, and the new-faces-in-new-places vibes after a flurry of offseason activity has done nothing but make things even more entertaining this season. 

Contenders Tumble

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    John Froschauer/Associated Press

    It's panic-button time for a few would-be contenders in precarious holes after bad starts. 

    The Minnesota Vikings, a team that was supposed to contend in the NFC North, has started 1-4 with a minus-20 point differential. While the schedule has been brutal with games against Green Bay, Tennessee and Seattle, simply more was expected of a team that has won at least eight games five seasons in a row with three postseason appearances, never mind the massive money invested in Kirk Cousins under center. 

    Then there's Houston, the first team to fire a head coach this season. The Texans started 0-4 and canned Bill O'Brien, whose widely panned general manager moves this offseason included trading away star wideout DeAndre Hopkins. Houston finally got its first win last week, but Deshaun Watson hasn't clicked with the revamped cast of weapons and has been sacked 17 times while the team hasn't looked overly competitive against anyone besides rebuilding Jacksonville. 

    In the case of a slumper like San Francisco, it was a little more expected coming off a Super Bowl loss. Injuries have ravaged the supposed contender, with names like Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas sitting on reserve lists during the 2-3 start, which includes an 0-3 mark at home. Normally, this sort of start wouldn't be too concerning, but the only wins have come against bad New York teams and the NFC West is stacked, with the three other teams sitting on at least three wins apiece, including Seattle at 5-0. 

A New QB MVP Contender Emerges

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    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    The usual suspects sit atop the MVP pecking order, whether simply in general mindshare or in actual odds lists. Russell Wilson. Patrick Mahomes. Lamar Jackson. Aaron Rodgers

    And Josh Allen. 

    The Buffalo Bills quarterback had a strong second-year leap in 2019, throwing for 20 scores with just nine picks, rushing for 510 yards and nine scores and drumming up a 10-6 record. 

    But the Bills acquiring Stefon Diggs, among other moves, has resulted in a shocking third-year leap for Allen, sporting a 69.3 completion percentage with 14 touchdowns against just three interceptions over five games. Feel free to tack on 101 rushing yards and three more scores, plus a Pro Football Focus grade that has jumped from 2019's 64.2 all the way to its current 88.4.

    A turnaround like this is borderline unprecedented, as Allen has gone from a question mark as a potential franchise signal-caller to an MVP contender. It has all just seemed to click for him in the best possible way, so if it keeps up at this astounding pace, the Bills will have a regular in the MVP talk alongside the likes of Wilson and Mahomes for the long haul.