Predicting how a season will go is tough for any sport. It’s especially difficult in the NFL where there’s so much parity, and so much uncertainty week in and week out. Yes, there are teams like the Patriots and Seahawks who are among the best each year, but there are always teams that come out of nowhere to shock everyone (the Chiefs in 2015).
There were a whole bunch of teams that expected to contend for a Super Bowl this year after the Panthers, Cardinals and Broncos emerged as powerhouses last season, but 2016 hasn’t gone as planned for all of those teams.
On the flip side, a couple of teams with mediocre (or worse) expectations have been surprisingly good this year – as have a bunch of breakout stars. Here are 10 things we never saw coming after 10 weeks into the season.
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Melvin Gordon scoring 11 touchdowns after scoring zero as a rookie
There may not have been a more disappointing rookie in 2015 than Melvin Gordon. After rushing for 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns his senior year at Wisconsin, Gordon had just 641 yards and zero touchdowns as a rookie last season. He averaged a measly 3.5 yards per carry and didn’t look like he was a good value as a first-round pick.
This season, he’s already rushed for more yards (838) and touchdowns (9) than he did all of last year. He’s added 346 yards receiving and two touchdown receptions as well, giving him 11 total scores on the season. His turnaround has been incredible to watch and has taken the Chargers offense to another level in the absence of Danny Woodhead and Keenan Allen.
Lorenzo Alexander and Dee Ford posting the most sacks in the NFL
Before the season began, if you were to guess who would lead the NFL in sacks through 10 weeks, who would you pick? J.J. Watt? Von Miller? Khalil Mack? You’d be wrong if you picked any of those three because Lorenzo Alexander and Dee Ford are tied for the top spot with 10 sacks each. Last season, they had a combined four sacks together, to put their production into perspective.
Both players have been forces for their respective teams, particularly Ford with Justin Houston still sidelined. Alexander’s story is far more impressive, though. He came into 2016 with nine career sacks in nine seasons only to more than double that number this year. Both players have emerged as top pass rushers this season, coming out of nowhere to do so.
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The Vikings starting 5-0 (then losing four straight)
The Vikings began the year 5-0 and looked like surefire Super Bowl contenders. That alone was a huge surprise as no one thought they’d go undefeated without Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson. What’s more surprising, however, is their recent fall from grace. They’ve now lost four straight and are no longer locks to even make the postseason. The Vikings have been one of the most inconsistent teams in the league and while injuries have had a huge impact, it’s hard to blame all four of their losses on that after winning five in a row to start the year.
Every NFC East team being above .500
The NFC East was the worst division in football last season with just one team finishing above .500. The four teams won a combined 26 games a year ago compared to 24 through 10 weeks (nine games each). The turnaround has been remarkable as the division has gone from the “NFC Least” to the “NFC Beast.” You could easily make the argument that those four teams make up the best division in football top to bottom, comparing closely to the AFC West (25 wins combined). The race in the East is going to be very different in December than it was in 2015.
Matt Ryan leading the league in touchdown passes, yards
After Week 1, some were saying the Falcons had the worst quarterback in a loaded division. That’s no longer being said. Matt Ryan leads the NFL with 3,247 yards and is tied for the lead with 24 touchdown passes, while throwing just five interceptions in 10 games. He’s been a pleasant surprise for the Falcons and is a reason they’re 6-4.
As it stands right now, Ryan is arguably the MVP of the league. That’ll change in the coming weeks as we inch closer to the end of the season and Tom Brady plays more games, but Ryan has been the best quarterback in the league this season. His passer rating of 115.1 is No. 2 only to Brady, who’s posted a rating of 125.5 in five games.
The Bengals and Steelers both being below .500
The Steelers came into the season with Super Bowl aspirations in what was expected to be a relatively weak AFC outside of New England. The Bengals were close behind with hopes of winning their first playoff game in the Marvin Lewis era. Neither of which appears likely at this point in the season as both teams are below .500. Pittsburgh fell below the mark Sunday after a loss to the Cowboys, dropping its record to 4-5. The Bengals, on the other hand, have been below .500 since Week 3, when they were 1-2.
The division is still completely up for grabs with the Ravens leading at 5-4, but if either of these squads wants to make the postseason, it’ll have to be with an AFC North title. Neither of them will pass the Broncos, Chiefs or Raiders for a wild-card berth. They’re both approaching desperation mode.
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The Panthers starting 3-6, last in the NFC South
After last year’s 15-1 season and berth in the NFC title game, it looked like the Panthers would put together a run of a few years as the conference’s best team. That … didn’t happen. The Panthers are now 3-6 after blowing a 14-point lead to the Chiefs in the fourth quarter, hurting their playoff chances even more. Few teams that reached the Super Bowl have started the following season as poorly as the Panthers have, and it’s largely because of the defense’s severe drop-off. Cam Newton hasn’t even come close to resembling an MVP (or even an All-Pro), and his poor attitude on (and off) the field has become somewhat concerning.
Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ struggles carrying over from 2015
Aaron Rodgers wasn’t himself last season, posting career-lows in passer rating, yards and completion percentage. The Packers’ offense wasn’t as explosive as it normally is, but that was mostly due to Jordy Nelson’s injury. Well, Nelson is back and Rodgers hasn’t gotten much better, nor have the Packers as a team.
Rodgers already has seven interceptions after throwing eight or fewer in each of the past five seasons, and his passer rating (93.9) is just barely better than it was last year (92.7). He’s accounted for every Packers touchdown this season, but it hasn’t translated to wins. They’re 4-5 and third in the NFC North, and the schedule is only getting tougher.
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The Raiders starting the year 7-2
Like the Cowboys, the Raiders got off to a scorching hot start – one that few people could have predicted. They’ve been more aggressive than any other team, going for two to win in Week 1 followed by several fourth-down conversions in the following weeks to lift them to victory. Derek Carr is playing like an MVP and is squarely in the race, while Oakland as a team is tied for the best record in the AFC.
Many expected the Raiders to take a huge step forward this season after improving a year ago, but starting 7-2 the way they have is a huge surprise. Hopefully for Raider Nation they can continue playing as well as they have and keep improving defensively.
The Cowboys going 8-1 without Tony Romo
Nothing has been more surprising this season than the Cowboys’ sheer dominance without Tony Romo. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott have led them to an 8-1 record thanks to eight straight wins. Anyone who says they predicted Dallas to have the best record in the NFL without Romo after 10 weeks is absolutely lying. Either that or they’re a clairvoyant.
There were no indications that the Cowboys would be this good under a fourth-round rookie. Not to mention, they were without Dez Bryant for three-plus games, as well as Tyron Smith for two. No one saw this coming – not even Jerry Jones and Dallas’ front office.