The NFL season always brings surprises, and there are certainly some big ones already through only three weeks of the season. The biggest surprise to me, though, are the five teams who have yet to lose: The Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, and Denver Broncos.
The Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles are the biggest surprise of the young NFL season, but it’s no fluke. Rookie Carson Wentz is playing out of his mind, showing all the intangibles and physical attributes you want to see in a rookie quarterback; Pro Football Focus has him rated as the no. 1 quarterback through three weeks. Wentz has gotten most of the attention, and while it’s certainly warranted, we can’t ignore how good this Eagles defense is playing under their new defensive coordinator, former head coach Jim Schwartz.
The Eagles defense is allowing only 71 rushing yards per game, second best in the NFL behind Green Bay. It’s no fluke, either; the Eagles have played the Steelers, Browns and Bears. The Browns feature Isaiah Crowell, and the Steelers have run DeAngelo Williams to the ground while Le’Veon Bell has served his suspension. Both backs are in the top seven in rushing yards this season; Williams has carried the ball 66 times for 258 yards (7th in league), while Crowell has rushed for an astounding 274 yards (2nd in league) on only 45 carries. It’s no coincidence that both backs struggled mightily against the Eagles’ front seven, posting their lowest rushing totals of the season against them respectively.
Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham have been standouts on the defensive line; they have a combined six sacks and two forced fumbles. But let’s not forget about Vinny Curry, Bennie Logan and Connor Barwin, who combined with Cox and Graham make up one of the best defensive lines in all of football. The Eagles are stacked up front, and studs like Jordan Hicks (MLB) and Malcolm Jenkins (S) help make this defense dominant as a whole. They haven’t allowed a single passing touchdown yet, and that’s impressive considering they played against a healthy Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown last week.
The Eagles starting 3-0 is a big surprise in itself, but doing so with a rookie head coach and quarterback makes it all the more impressive. Their dominant win over a team like Pittsburgh solidifies the fact that this time is indeed for real, and now the clear favorites in the NFC East. They’ve won their first three games by a combined score of 92-27. The Eagles are for real, and we’ll see how far Wentz can take them with help from a top five defense.
The Minnesota Vikings
This may not have been a big surprise if it weren’t for the devastating injury to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, whose career may be in jeopardy after suffering a complete ACL tear (and other damage) to his knee just a week before the season started. Then, the Vikings all-pro running back and reigning rushing champ Adrian Peterson suffered a knee injury that will likely sideline him for the remainder of the regular season. The Vikings had to make a desperation trade for Eagles QB Sam Bradford, giving up valuable draft picks in the future. All odds have been stacked against Minnesota, but head coach Mike Zimmer doesn’t care; his team has racked up three wins to start the season, two of which came against the Packers and Panthers.
So how have they done it? By putting their offense in the best position to succeed by dominating on the other side of the football. The Vikings offense has compiled only 796 total yards in three games, second fewest behind only the Los Angeles Rams. With and without Peterson, the running game has been nonexistent; the Vikings average 51 yards per game on the ground, worst in the NFL. On the other hand, the passing game under Bradford has been… good. Bradford hasn’t turned the ball over since taking over in week 2, and his 107.8 passer rating is the best of his career by far.
The fact of the matter is that Bradford hasn’t had to do much, but he’s done enough to put his team in the best position to succeed. He’s made some truly impressive throws behind a weak offensive line, and the risky but necessary trade to acquire him seems to be paying off for Minnesota. The question will be whether Bradford can take that next step; can he lead the Vikings down the field on long two-minute drive to win a ballgame? Can he stay healthy this season? Time will only tell.
The New England Patriots
The Patriots 3-0 start isn’t that much of a surprise, but what Bill Belichick has been able to do without his two best players (by far) has been impressive to say the least. Tom Brady is suspended until week 5, but the biggest surprise comes from the early absence of Rob Gronkowski; he missed weeks 1 and 2 and barely played against the Texans in week 3. I’m sure the Patriots are being ultra-conservative with the most dominant offensive player in football, and they’ll probably hold Gronk out until Brady is back in two weeks. But the amazing part of it all is that they’ve been able to have success without these two studs, being one of five teams who have yet to lose a game.
So how have they managed to put points on the board without their two best players on offense? LeGarrette Blount is the first name worth mentioning, as he and the Patriots lead the entire league in rushing. Blount leads the league by a fairly large margin with 298 yards on 75 carries, while the Patriots lead the league as a team with 150 rushing yards per game. They’ve not only dominated on the ground, but backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo has also made a name for himself in the two games he’s started. He’s thrown four touchdowns, zero interceptions and owns a spectacular 119 QB Rating. But what’s made the Pats season even more amazing is the fact that Garoppolo went down with an injury in week 2, and third-string, rookie QB Jacoby Brissett was able to step in and contribute in the Patriots one-sided defeat over the Texans 27-0.
Bill Belichick and the Patriots are essentially trolling the league at this point, overcoming any obstacles thrown their way. They will of course last, as Brady will come back next week (and Gronk) and dominate their way into the playoffs.
The Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens are a really good football team, but aren’t flashy by any means. They get it done with hard-nosed, physical football, and coach John Harbaugh should be talked more about than his maniac brother in Michigan.
The Ravens present a strong front seven featuring Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan up front. The duo are destructive by themselves, but Lawrence Guy does a ton of dirty work for this defense. Behind them is CJ Mosley — he was everywhere in the Ravens close win against the Jaguars. He bats passes down at the line of scrimmage, makes tackles all over the field, and even has great ball skills; his interception was a beauty last Sunday. The secondary is playing well, and former Chargers safety Eric Weddle is a big reason why. They’ve allowed only 168 yards per game through the air, third fewest in the NFL.
But despite starting 3-0, the Ravens may be the least respected team of the five teams. Maybe playing the Bills, Browns and Jags has something to do with it; those teams are a combined 1-8, and the Ravens have only beat them by a combined 13 points. But the Ravens shouldn’t be taken lightly. Justin Forsett is old and slow, and the Ravens barely trust Terrance West. When Kenneth Dixon comes back, we can see a way more dangerous offense; the role is certainly there for the taking for the rookie, who is supposed to be back by week 5.
Another note: Joe Flacco has looked sharp, and Steve Smith still looks explosive and violent coming off his serious achilles injury — he’s going to make some big plays this season.
The Ravens biggest test comes Sunday against the Raiders. It will be fun to see them play against a big offense, and we’ll have a better sense of how good this team truly is.
The Denver Broncos
The Broncos are a big surprise, to me at least, because he they are coming off a Super Bowl win and starting 2015 seventh round draft pick Trevor Siemian. The Broncos drafted Paxton Lynch this year, but decided to roll with Siemian to start the year. So far, it’s paid off. They are 3-0 and are coming off an impressive win over Cincinnati on the road.
A big reason why the Broncos are off to a hot start, and to nobody’s surprise, is their defense. They’re only allowing 178 passing yards per game, fourth fewest in the league. Von Miller got his payday, and (again, to no one’s surpise) he has stepped up to the plate; he leads the league with 5 sacks.
Both Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas are developing true chemistry with Siemian, and it’s going to be exciting to watch how the season progresses with the presumed future franchise quarterback (Lynch) on the bench. How short will Siemian’s leash be? Will he play the full season?