Two weeks into the NFL season is too small of a sample size to make blanket judgments on teams or players. However, several surprises emerged in the early going. Here are the seven biggest surprises thus far:
7 Biggest Surprises
Three 2022 Playoff Teams’ Poor Starts
The Bengals are the biggest underachievers because they were a popular choice by many (including me) to emerge as AFC champions. Their usually explosive offense is having trouble because star QB Joe Burrow has dealt with a calf injury since early in training camp. Burrow aggravated it in Sunday’s loss to the division-rival Baltimore Ravens (2-0).
Burrow averaged 152 passing yards per game in the first two games, down from 280 yards per game last season. Tee Higgins had no catches in Week 1, and Ja’Marr Chase had only 31 yards receiving in Week 2. Chase, a Pro Bowl receiver in his first two seasons, has 70 yards through two games.
Coming off a 13-win season with a record 11 one-score wins, the magic is not there as of yet for the Vikings, who have lost two games by a total of nine points. They rank last in turnover ratio (minus 6) and rushing yards (a minuscule 34.5 per game). Their defense just gave up 259 rushing yards to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Justin Jefferson continues to play at a superstar level, leading the league with 309 receiving yards. Kirk Cousins ranks second in passer rating (114.2) and passing yards (708), but it’s not enough to offset the other issues. The Vikings just signed a quality free agent guard in Dalton Risner. Risner should help shore up the offensive line that has a struggling second-year guard in Ed Ingram and has missed two injured starters — left tackle Christian Darrisaw and center Garrett Bradbury.
Those injuries hurt the run game and pass protection against the strong defensive fronts of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Eagles. The absence of edge rusher and free agent signee Marcus Davenport (ankle) has hurt a suspect defense.
Coach Brandon Staley’s 18 losses in his two-plus seasons at the Chargers’ helm include 13 by one score. After two losses by a total of five points, Staley is getting testy with the media when the subject of close losses is brought up. Those include Jacksonville’s comeback from a 27-0 deficit to beat the Chargers in their 2022 wild-card playoff game.
Justin Herbert is playing well enough with 533 passing yards, three TDs and no interceptions, but RB Austin Ekeler’s ankle injury kept him out of the Week 2 loss in Tennessee. The pass defense has been gashed for a league-high 712 passing yards, including 466 yards by Tua Tagovailoa of the Miami Dolphins in the opener.
Barring a tie, either the Vikings or Chargers will get their first win when they meet Sunday in Minneapolis. The Bengals will be showcased on Monday night against an early surprise team — the Los Angeles Rams.
Rookie WR Sparks Rams’ Competitiveness
He’s a former Super Bowl-winning coach with the Rams, yet Sean McVay is doing perhaps the best coaching work of his career with a team supposedly in rebuilding mode. They had a convincing upset in Seattle when they outscored the Seahawks 23-0 in the second half, and then they played the talented 49ers tough in a 30-23 loss on Sunday. The game was tied 17-17 at halftime.
Three of the league’s top four reception leaders through Week 2 are the usual suspects: Jefferson, Stefon Diggs and Tyreek Hill. Nacua is the fourth player on this list and the leader with 25 receptions. This is from a player who had 48 catches last season at BYU.
Emerging, Re-emerging Quarterbacks
Who had these three quarterbacks sitting at 2-0? Baker Mayfield, Sam Howell and Desmond Ridder are 2-0 while quarterbacks with Pro Bowls on their resumes in Burrow, Cousins, Herbert and Russell Wilson are 0-2.
Mayfield, Howell and Ridder are in prove-it years before their teams are willing to commit to them long-term. All three rank in the top 15 in passer rating with Mayfield sitting fifth at 104.4. Howell and Ridder each have thrown only one interception while Mayfield has none.
Mayfield entered the league as the first overall pick by Cleveland in 2018, but he’s on his fourth team with the added pressure of replacing Tom Brady. Ridder and Howell are second-year players. Ridder was Atlanta’s third-round pick, and Howell came to Washington as a fifth-rounder.
They are benefitting from good supporting casts on offense and top-10 defenses. Mayfield works with excellent veteran receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Ridder is aided by the fourth-ranked rushing offense led by rookie Bijan Robinson and a strong offensive line. Howell has a coach in Ron Rivera who builds up his confidence, and there are good vibes in Washington under new ownership.
Week 3 offers big tests for these three quarterbacks and their teams. Atlanta travels to Detroit, Washington hosts Buffalo and Tampa Bay has a Monday night meeting at home against Philadelphia.
NFC South: Land of Unbeaten Teams
The Buccaneers won the NFC South in 2022 with an 8-9 record and were trounced by the Dallas Cowboys in the wild-card round in Brady’s final game. Nobody expected three teams from this much-maligned division to be 2-0.
It’s a big turnaround thus far for the Buccaneers, Falcons and New Orleans Saints, who all had coaches who were on the hot seat entering the season in Todd Bowles, Arthur Smith and Dennis Allen, respectively.
They’re doing it with excellent defensive play and basically new quarterbacks. Ridder started the last four games for the Falcons in 2022 while Mayfield and Derek Carr are newcomers to the Buccaneers and Saints.
Atlanta and Tampa Bay face big, prove-it games, while New Orleans also faces a road test at Green Bay. If all three win, then we can truly say the NFC South has gone from the worst division to one of the best, at least in the early season.
Strange Goings On in Gotham City
The New York Jets entered the season with big expectations. However, after Aaron Rodgers tore his Achilles in the opener, it’s a sad state of affairs for the Jets’ quarterback situation. Former second-overall pick Zach Wilson was back to his 2022 poor play with three interceptions in Sunday’s 30-10 blowout loss in Dallas.
The Jets defense is highly touted after ranking fourth last season and playing well with four forced turnovers against Josh Allen in the opening win over the Bills. But in Week 2, the Jets had to defend short fields after Wilson’s picks and a Dalvin Cook lost fumble. They managed to hold Dallas to five field goals and two TD drives, but the Cowboys rushed for 134 yards, and CeeDee Lamb caught 11 passes for 143 yards.
The Jets sit at 1-1, but it’s hard to see them contending for a playoff spot with Wilson at the helm. They host the Patriots on Sunday with the Chiefs and Eagles coming up in the next month.
And how about the Giants coming off a playoff season and then being outscored 60-0 through six quarters? That included a 40-0 loss to the Cowboys in the opener and a 20-0 halftime deficit at Arizona. The Giants then exploded for 31 points in the second half to beat the Arizona Cardinals 31-28 in the biggest Giants’ comeback since 1949.
Daniel Jones rebounded from the Dallas fiasco with 380 combined yards against Arizona. He faces a much tougher task Thursday at San Francisco with Seattle, Miami and Buffalo up next. Pro Bowl back Saquon Barkley is dealing with a sprained ankle that could sideline him for a few weeks.
It looks like tough sledding ahead for both 1-1 New York teams.
Gotta (Mostly) Love This Packer’s Efficiency
It was a rosy start to the Jordan Love era in Green Bay with an opening win in Chicago followed by a 12-point lead entering the fourth quarter at Atlanta. Love threw six TD passes with no interceptions in the two games to that point. Then, Love and the Green Bay Packers offense didn’t pick up a first down on three fourth-quarter drives.
Plus, Love threw six consecutive incompletions to end the game as the Falcons rallied for the 25-24 victory. Love took the blame for not making the right audible call on a failed fourth down quarterback sneak that resulted in a false start and forced a punt, setting up the Falcons for their winning drive.
Love’s overall efficiency is impressive for a first-year starter under pressure as Rodgers’ replacement. He leads the NFL with a 118.8 passer rating. It also must be noted Love and the offense were hindered by having to face the Falcons without RB Aaron Jones, WR Christian Watson and LT David Bakhtiari. The Packers then lost Pro Bowl guard Elgton Jenkins to a sprained knee in the second quarter.
Love and the Packers will try to bounce back against the No. 4-ranked Saints defense at Lambeau Field this Sunday.
Putting the Big ‘D’ in Dallas
We knew the Cowboys had a good defense last season (12th ranked), but they’re the NFL’s No. 1 defense so far. The Cowboys shut out the Giants in Week 1, as they had two interceptions and seven sacks on Jones. This week, they intercepted Zach Wilson three times in Sunday’s blowout win.
Dallas allowed only 193 yards per game so far. QB Dak Prescott and the offense are playing fine with no turnovers, but the defense has fueled the team’s dominating 2-0 start.
Micah Parsons has three sacks already. He leads a defense that should handle Arizona and New England the next two weeks before a much bigger challenge looms in the Week 5 Sunday night game at San Francisco.
Two highly anticipated tests for the Cowboys defense will be in Weeks 10 and 15 against division rival Philadelphia. If the defense can lead the way to a series sweep of the Eagles, that should be a pathway to the NFC East title.
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter at @jeffdiamondnfl.