Rarely does the NFL regular season ever follow preseason predictions. At its midway point, this season is no different. Through its first nine weeks, the NFL has been full of surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. Here is a rundown of some of the biggest storylines that almost no one saw coming in September.
Cardinals Taking Flight
Despite making few moves in the offseason, the Arizona Cardinals sit at 7-1 in their best eight-game start to a season since 1974. In addition to journeyman Carson Palmer at quarterback, eight-time Pro Bowler Larry Fitzgerald and other wide receivers have powered the Cardinals offense. Led on the ground by second-year running back Andre Ellington, the Cardinals find themselves in sole possession of the best record in the NFC. Backed by a top-five scoring defense, the Cardinals have managed to stymie their competition on the way to potentially securing their first trip to the NFL playoffs since 2009.
Browns Bite Back
Few ever thought they would see the day that the Cleveland Browns returned to relevance. That day, however, has finally arrived. At 5-3, the Browns are locked in a tight race for the AFC North title with Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati. Quarterback Brian Hoyer has performed admirably in spite of the presence of heralded rookie Johnny Manziel. The team has remained competitive despite the absence of last year’s leading receiver Josh Gordon, who is currently serving a 10-game suspension for league drug policy violations. Powered by Ben Tate at running back and Andrew Hawkins at wide receiver, the return of Gordon to the Browns’ receiving corps could spell trouble for the rest of the division.
Last February, the Seattle Seahawks bulldozed their way to the franchise’s first Super Bowl title with a 43-8 thrashing of the Denver Broncos. Seattle seemed poised to become the next NFL dynasty with its league-leading defense and exciting, young quarterback Russell Wilson. This season has been a different story. Seattle’s defense has proved inconsistent through eight games, with only the 10th-best defense in the league in terms of points per game. Meanwhile, the team’s offense has done it no favors thanks to a mysterious lack of carries from four-time Pro Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch and the trading of the talented but often-injured wide receiver Percy Harvin, who also caused locker room strife. Although far from being disregarded, Seattle’s 5-3 record is underwhelming for the defending champions of football.
The Saints Aren’t Marching In
With the level of talent on the New Orleans Saints’ roster, there is no reason for them to be 4-4 through their first eight games. While injuries to running back Mark Ingram have proved detrimental, the passing attack of quarterback Drew Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham and wide receiver Marques Colston seems more than enough to overwhelm opposing defenses. The Saints have sported an unimpressive defense, however, and have only managed to climb back to .500 after beating the Green Bay Packers and the Carolina Panthers. Despite New Orleans’ struggles, no one has moved to secure control of the NFC South, with all but lowly Tampa Bay still in the hunt for the division title.
A version of this article appeared in the Nov 4 print edition. Email Charles Surette at [email protected]