It’s been a tumultuous NFL season so far. The greats have been great — teams like the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs, and New England Patriots have not disappointed, thanks to mastermind coaches, veteran quarterbacks, or both. Yet heading into Week 9, our impressions of many franchises have changed vastly since the start of the season. Some teams have exceeded expectations while others have taken a large step back. Here are the biggest disappointments, surprises, and sleepers.
Atlanta Falcons - The Atlanta Falcons still can’t seem to figure out how they gave up a 28-3 lead in a Super Bowl…and that happened nearly 3 years ago. Since then, the loss of Kyle Shanahan, a proven offensive intellect, has severely compromised the schematics of the Falcons’ attack. Moreover, Dan Quinn, who received all the credit for the legion of boom during his days in Seattle, has been unable to galvanize the talent on defense. Right now, the Falcons are 1-7, sulking at the bottom of the NFC South with the same record as the pitiful Washington Redskins. Many thought that Atlanta would compete for a division title this year, given the insane amount of talent in the receiving core of Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Calvin Ridley. But the Falcons just traded away Sanu, and Matt Schaub was named the starting quarterback for Week 10 in place of the injured Matt Ryan. Good luck with that, Atlanta.
Los Angeles Chargers - The Los Angeles Chargers were deemed a potential Super Bowl contender before the season. Could Philip Rivers finally get out of the AFC? Could the Chargers defense take another step forward after its dominance last year? The answer, unequivocally, is NO. The Chargers should consider themselves lucky to have a 3-5 record, given that it took Chicago Bears’ kicker Eddy Pineiro missing a 41-yard field goal last Sunday to get them even there. Other than that win against the Bears and a Week 1 victory against the Colts, the Chargers have only beaten the Miami Dolphins. On the other hand, they’ve lost to Denver, Tennessee, and Pittsburgh (who started Devlin Hodges at QB). This team has clearly underperformed, and it seems as though Philip Rivers will never get a Super Bowl like fellow 2004 draft picks Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger.
Cleveland Browns - So much for all the hype about the Cleveland Browns being the most talented team in football. They’re simply the latest example of a team that looks good on paper but doesn’t win games. The offensive line can’t protect Baker Mayfield to save its life, and with the exception of one game against the Jets, Odell Beckham has been a non-factor in the Browns’ offense. Doubts still linger about whether Baker Mayfield and Freddie Kitchens are up to their job requirements, and Browns fans continue to be disappointed by a dismal franchise that has not enjoyed a winning season since 2007.
San Francisco 49ers - Perhaps the biggest surprise of the season — this 49ers team is legit. The defensive front four is arguably the best in the NFL, and Nick Bosa should win Defensive Rookie of the Year. Combine a Super Bowl defense with one of the most creative run-heavy offenses in NFL history (thanks to Kyle Shanahan), and you’re one game-managing QB away from being a top-tier team. Jimmy Garoppolo has, in fact, made the necessary throws to win games, and the San Francisco 49ers are a whopping 8-0, the class of the NFC West. Don’t be surprised if you see this team look even more dominant come January.
Minnesota Vikings - The Vikings were a huge disappointment last year. Kirk Cousins, an average quarterback, was supposed to put Minnesota over the hump after that tough NFC Championship loss to the Philadelphia Eagles two years back. However, the Vikings are currently 6-2 this season, only one game back of the Green Bay Packers and in real contention for the NFC North title. The driving force behind the team’s success has been running back Dalvin Cook. With an unstoppable run game and a potent defense, the Vikings are a force to be reckoned with (given that Cousins gets the ball to wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen).
Buffalo Bills - Nobody expected the Buffalo Bills to have a winning record, much less be 5-2 halfway through the season. The Bills rank 3rd in total defense, just behind the 49ers and the New England Patriots. Josh Allen has yet to prove himself as a talented passer of the football, but he is one of the top running QBs in the league, and the defense is that good. It kept the Bills competitive with the Patriots, even after Allen got injured. Buffalo won’t win the division, but the Bills are a serious wild card threat in the AFC.
Indianapolis Colts - The Indianapolis Colts have been one of the most resilient franchises in the NFL this year. Once quarterback Andrew Luck retired, many wrote this team off, arguing that Jacoby Brissett would not be able to elevate the Colts the way Luck did last year. Nevertheless, Indianapolis still has one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, solid players at every skill position, and a defense that has held opponents to just 16 points per game over its last three contests. Moreover, just last week, we saw Brissett spin out of a potential game-ending safety to make a spectacular sideline throw to wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and set up kicker Adam Vinatieri for the game-winning field goal against the Broncos. It seems as though the Colts have found their franchise QB in Brissett and are as potent as ever, making a strong case to win the AFC South.
Detroit Lions - How could the pitiful Detroit Lions be a sleeper team in the competitive NFC, you ask? Well, Matthew Stafford is having one of the best seasons of his career, statistically speaking, and he’s actually getting some help from the rest of the offense. Now the Lions are 3-3-1, but one of their losses was a fluke in Green Bay and another required some Pat Mahomes Magic on a Kansas City game-winning drive. The Lions control their own destiny, with games remaining against all their division opponents and a relatively favorable schedule the second half of the season. They will face the Washington Redskins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Denver Broncos. So don’t be surprised if Detroit sneaks into the NFC Playoff Picture as a wild card at the end of the year.
Pittsburgh Steelers - Mike Tomlin remains one of the best coaches in the NFL year in and year out. Without Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, or Antonio Brown, the Pittsburgh Steelers have
managed to piece together some quality wins via consistent defense and efficient offense, something we didn’t see at all during the first few weeks of the season. Mason Rudolph is developing week after week, and the team has embraced an underdog mentality without Roethlisberger. Tomlin has never had a losing season in his career as a head coach, and with the AFC North looking surprisingly weak, he may not end up with one this year either.