FOX Sports South chronicles the 10 greatest surprise occurrences of the 2014 season to date -- a countdown that lauds the NFL's best individual or group performers at the quarter-pole mark. (Photos: Mark Zerof/Matthew Emmons/Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports)
Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray
REASONS TO BE HAPPY: 1) In Year 4, Murray (602 total yards, five TDs) has quickly transformed from from a top-20 tailback to an elite-level rusher. 2) As such, Murray (career-high 1,121 rushing yards in 2013) is on pace for a 2,000-yard rushing campaign. 3) The Cowboys back has rushed for 100 yards in every game this season. 4) Dallas (3-1, tied for 1st in NFC East) has a top-flight offensive line -- the result of Jerry Jones making prudent, non-sexy picks at the top of recent drafts (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, etc.).
Baltimore's Ballyhooed Balance
REASONS TO BE HAPPY: 1) Of their last three games -- all victories -- the Ravens (3-1) have been highly effective in the passing and rushing games. Joe Flacco (right) needlessly attempted 62 passes in Week 1. 2) As part of that, Baltimore has notched a consistent range of 23-26 first downs in every outing. 3) Steve Smith (middle -- 25 catches, 429 yards, three TDs -- three games of double-digit targets) has arguably been the NFL's best wideout this year. 4) Running backs Justin Forsett (left -- 318 total yards, two TDs), Lorenzo Taliaferro (149 total yards, two TDs) and Bernard Pierce (120 total yards) have all flourished when called upon for substantial touches. (Photos: Evan Habeeb/Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports)
Panthers WR Kelvin Benjamin
REASONS TO BE HAPPY: 1) Through four games, the Panthers rookie has already tallied 21 catches, 329 yards and three TDs. 2) Regardless of the Carolina QB (Cam Newton, Derek Anderson), Benjamin has collected eight or more targets in every outing. 3) At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, Benajmin bears a strong physical resemblance to Lions superstar Calvin Johnson. 4) After parting ways with Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn during the offseason, Carolina's rebuilt receiving corps needs an anchor piece like Benjamin (eight catches, 115 yards, one TD in Week 3). 5) Rookie receivers often struggle in Year 1 -- it's human nature. But Benjamin has stayed above the proverbial rookie wall.
The Bengals Make Everything Look Easy
REASONS TO BE HAPPY: 1) The 3-0 Bengals, the AFC's lone unbeaten club, have toppled their opposition by an average margin of 15.7 points. 2) Of equal importance, Cincy has accomplished the above feat without its offensive stars running at peak efficiency. QB Andy Dalton (above), for example, has only eclipsed 300 yards passing once; and to date, he has yet to throw for multiple TDs in a game. 3) Tailback Gio Bernard (333 total yards, one TD) has flourished as a full-time contributor. 4) Cincy's defense has allowed more than 330 total yards just once this season.
Getty ImagesAndy Lyons
Great News Comes In Threes
REASON TO BE HAPPY: Let's keep this one short and sweet: Tight ends Larry Donnell (left -- Giants), Julius Thomas (middle -- Broncos) and Antonio Gates (right -- Chargers) are the only pass-catchers to amass three receiving touchdowns in a single game. (Photos: Brad Mills/Chris Humphreys/Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports)
J.J. Watt's Scoring Acumen
REASON TO BE HAPPY: Here's another quick factoid: Counting his absurd pick-six from Sunday, the sackmaster Watt has more seasonal touchdowns (two -- one receiving, one on defense) than offensive stars Matt Forte (Bears), Andre Ellington (Cardinals), T.Y. Hilton (Chargers), Michael Floyd (Cardinals), Anquan Boldin (49ers) and Texans teammate Andre Johnson -- combined.
Cleveland Rocks The Rookies
REASONS TO BE HAPPY: 1) Tailbacks Terrance West (left -- 231 total yards, two TDs) and Isaiah Crowell (right -- 144 total yards, three TDs) have been a terrific 1-2 punch with the Browns, in place of an ailing Ben Tate (hamstring injury). 2) Within this ground-game stability, Cleveland's two losses had a total deficit of five points. 3) When Tate returns (likely Week 5), the Browns might have the league's best rushing trio. 4) Crowell and West have the physical upside to be 1,000-yard rushers -- sooner than later. 5) It's refreshing to talk Browns rookies and not be obligated to mention you-know-who. (Photos: Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports)
The Cardinals Owning The NFC West Lead
REASONS TO BE HAPPY: 1) The Cardinals defense, even without key pieces from last year -- Tyrann Mathieu, Darnell Dockett, for starters -- hasn't allowed more than 17 points in a game this season. 2) Arizona (led by all-world cornerback Patrick Peterson -- above) has rocketed to a 3-0 record with backup Drew Stanton logging two starts at quarterback. Carson Palmer is likely to return this week against the Broncos. 3) The Cards are the NFC's lone unbeaten club. 4) The Cardinals offense has hardly been a juggernaut, averaging only 336 total yards per game. Digging deeper, neither Michael Floyd nor Larry Fitzgerald has yet to find the end zone in 2014.
Mark J. Rebilas
Another Detroit Turnaround
REASONS TO BE HAPPY: 1) The Lions defense has come a long way since their 0-16 freefall in 2008. Heading into Week 4, Detroit stood as the only NFL team with top-3 rankings for per-game rushing yards allowed (2nd -- 64 yards) and per-outing passing yards allowed (3rd -- 181 yards). 2) Through four games, opposing teams are averaging only 15.5 points against Detroit's stingy defense. 3) On the other side of the ball, QB Matthew Stafford (1,176 yards passing -- 4th best in NFL) has, for the most part, toned down his 'gunslinger' reputation this season, exercising patience when Calvin Johnson isn't open. 4) With in-their-prime stars like Stafford, Johnson, Reggie Bush, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, the 3-1 Lions (1st place in the NFC North) are set up for a playoff berth and possible extended run in the postseason.
Philip Rivers' MVP Candidacy
REASONS TO BE HAPPY: 1) During the August fantasy drafts, Rivers was universally hailed as a Round 7-9 pick -- an eminently disrespectful ranking for a guy with three seasons of 30-plus touchdowns and five years of 4,000 yards passing. 2) In his last three games -- all Chargers victories -- Rivers (1,155 yards passing, nine TDs, one INT for the season) has completed 70-plus percent of his passes. 3) Even a depleted rushing corps (injuries to Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead), the 3-1 Chargers are still averaging 25.5 points per game.