We’re only halfway through the season and a lot can still happen. Last year, the Jaguars started out 3-7 before winning 6 of their last 7 to take the AFC South. The Dolphins started out 8-3 before Tua got hurt, and they barely made the playoffs. The 49ers started out 3-4 before winning 12 straight on their way to NFC championship game. Still these teams may not have much to surprise us with at the end of the year.
Here are 3 pleasant surprises for their respective fanbases.
1. The Jacksonville Jaguars (+.195 win pct) have continued their momentum from the end of last year despite having almost $0 to spend in free agency and below average draft capital. How did they do it? Some of it was addition by subtraction of overpriced, under-performing veterans. Even more it was the Coach-QB duo of Doug Pederson and Trevor Lawrence having an extra year to mesh. Travis Etienne has broken out, and Calvin Ridley and Christian Kirk have been a nice 1-2 punch with Evan Engram playing a complementary role. The defense has also been above average. Trent Baalke is one of the few GMs in the league right now that can hold a candle to Brett Veach.
2. The LA Rams (+.135 win pct) have ridden the return to health of Matthew Stafford and Aaron Donald as well as the emergence of Puka Nacua to a good start this year. They now have Cooper Kupp back in the fold, and (currently injured) Kyren Williams has emerged as a legitimate threat out of the backfield. The OL is playing much better than last year. With a few breaks the Rams could be a dangerous Wild Card team in the NFC. That is definitely better than the tank-to-rebuild most people expected coming into 2023.
3. The NY Jets are sitting right at .500 with Zach Wilson as their QB. Wait, I thought they traded for Aaron because they couldn’t win with Zach? What’s going on? They are not getting the Super Bowl hype that was being generated with the Aaron Rodgers trade, but well above any doomsday "the season is over" prognostications. Their defense has been quite impressive led by Sauce Gardner and a very good DL. Breece Hall has been explosive coming off injury and Garrett Wilson continues to build on his excellent rookie campaign. Can they make the playoffs this year? Yes. Will they? Probably not. But it looks to be much closer than most expected.
These teams all made the playoffs last year. Only Buffalo would be in as the #7 seed if the playoffs started today.
1. The Minnesota Vikings (-.336 win pct) have come crashing down from their 13-4 season last year. Some of it was to be expected with how many close games they won, but this is beyond that. Even after beating the 49ers last week, they still sit below .500 at 3-4. And while Jordan Addison is emerging, being with Justin Jefferson for a significant chunk of time could make this a lost season in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. This weekend may be the deciding factor in whether Minnesota buys or sells at the trade deadline.
2. The LA Chargers (-.255 win pct) have a coaching problem as Brandon Staley continues to cost his team winnable games. And they’re going to have a salary cap problem next year. They currently have 4 players on the books set to turn 29 or older and count over $30M: Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack, Keenan Allen, and Mike Williams. They also don’t have a long-term deal in place for Austin Ekeler who will become a free agent this offseason. The window is closing on Justin Herbert’s rookie deal, and Tom Telesco still doesn’t have a playoff win to show for all his moves. This roster will be getting worse before it can get better again. In the meantime, Herbert’s going to get older and more expensive.
3. The Cincinnati Bengals (-.250 win pct) looked to be a team on the rise with very few free agent losses, plenty of cap room, and a decent amount of draft capital. They did let their top 2 safeties leave. And they spent a lot of that free agent money on a now-injured Orlando Brown, Jr. Joe Burrow’s injury also contributed to their early-season losses. Do I expect them to bounce back? Sorta. They have a pretty grueling schedule, having to play 5 division winners from last year plus some tough division opponents in PIT, CLE, and BAL. If the playoffs started today, they’d be out. When they do start, Cincinnati has a good shot to be in if they can get hot now and stay that way. A couple more tough losses (of either games or players) could send them spiraling towards at top 10 pick in next year’s draft.
4. The Buffalo Bills (-.242 win pct before winning Thursday) have fallen from Super Bowl favorites last year to last-team-in to make the playoffs this year. They were projected to be worse based on free agent losses, draft capital, and cap space. However, they were getting back Von Miller and Tre’Davious White… until White went down again. It is beginning to look like Kaiir Elam can’t be trusted to contribute to a secondary that needs help. Overall, the defense has been a bit less impressive than last year though they took care of business against the Dolphins. The offense will always be dangerous with Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs. Gabe Davis has his moments. James Cook looks like a legit NFL RB1. Can the Bills make the playoffs? Yes. Can they take over the AFC East? Yes, with some help. Is this their year to win it all? Nope.
Perhaps no one expected these teams to be good, but did anyone expect them to be this bad?
1. The Green Bay Packers (-.138 win pct) were looking like geniuses after a 2-1 start to the Jordan Love era. The wheels have come off a bit since then with some ugly losses. The offense doesn’t have much of an identity. Jaire Alexander can shut down WR1’s like nobody’s business. But the rest of the defense is not quite holding up its end of the bargain. Is it time for a hard reset? Maybe, but I don’t think Brian Gutekunst will be allowed to make that happen. Win now or bye-bye, Brian.
2. The New England Patriots (-.185 win pct) are even more disappointing this year than they were last year when they missed the playoffs. Bill Belichick teams do tend to start slow, but maybe not quite this slow… and this ugly. What’s particularly remarkable is they had a ton of cap space and draft capital to work with. What went wrong? Juju Smith-Schuster has massively underperformed his contract. Jonnu Smith was shipped off. That leaves Kendrick Bourne and Hunter Henry as the top 2 pass-catching options. Mac Jones is having trouble getting the offense clicking. Rhamondre Stevenson is not quite the bell cow everyone hoped for. And the defense has been good but not great up to this point. They did get a very respectable win against the Bills, but they’ve got a lot of work to do before anyone starts talking Super Bowl again, much less dynasty.
3. The Carolina Panthers (-.400 win pct) sold the farm to get their QB of the future. Maybe they’d like to have that farm back. They were 1 win shy of hosting a playoff game last year. They are 1 win shy of 1 win so far this year. Would they draft Caleb Williams with the #1 pick? No, because they traded that pick to the Bears. Adam Thielen and Miles Sanders (when healthy) have both played well. The defense is still formidable with Derrick Brown, Brian Burns, and Frankie Luvu. But Bryce Young is going to have to be difference-maker, and he just hasn’t shown that yet through the first half of his rookie season. Does that mean he can’t? won’t? never will? Not necessarily. But it does mean that an owner not known for his patience is going to have to learn some before he sees a return on his investment.
One team that hasn’t been much of a surprise this year? The Kansas City Chiefs currently sitting atop the AFC at 6-1. While it has been the defense showing off more than the offense so far, Mahomes and MaAuto will get it figured out with the help of Big Red. #buddingdynasty