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Everyone is shocked by the Los Angeles Rams’ success, but they significantly upgraded at head coach and have a second-year quarterback who was drafted first overall. There were reasons to believe a big improvement was coming.
The Philadelphia Eagles are a surprise, but you could see the seeds of a good team last season, and if people were paying attention it was clear Carson Wentz had some special qualities.
Nobody figured the New Orleans Saints would be 7-2 at this point either, but the two most important things to have in the NFL are a franchise quarterback and a top coach, and the Saints had both.
When you look at all the surprise stories in the NFL this season, the one you’d have the hardest time explaining is the Minnesota Vikings. They’re the biggest surprise in the NFL this season because given the adversity they have been through, they have no business being 7-2.
We’ve seen teams crater after losing their starting quarterback. Sam Bradford hasn’t played since Week 1, and if you want to count Teddy Bridgewater, he hasn’t played in a season-and-a-half. That means the Vikings are actually on their third option at quarterback.
The Vikings’ top pick was second-round running back Dalvin Cook, and he became the focal point of their offense right away. He tore his ACL. The Vikings didn’t have a first-round pick due to the Bradford trade last year. The Vikings haven’t gotten a ton out of their draft class except for four games from Cook and doing well to find starting center Pat Elflein in the third round (which is no small thing). The Vikings have also gotten practically nothing out of 2016 first-round pick Laquon Treadwell either.
And if being without their top two quarterbacks and impact rookie running back wasn’t enough, dynamic receiver Stefon Diggs missed two games this season too. Some teams fall apart without their quarterback, starting tailback or top receiver. The Vikings have spent time without all of them and it hasn’t mattered.
If the Vikings keep this up, Mike Zimmer will get some consideration as coach of the year. Sean McVay of the Rams has had a bigger impact, but he hasn’t dealt with the adversity Zimmer has this season. That the Vikings turned journeyman Case Keenum into an above-average starter might be the coaching staff’s most impressive feat. Among regular starting quarterbacks (not counting those on injured reserve), Keenum’s 92.6 passer rating ranks 12th.
The Vikings are proof that there are paths to being a good team if you don’t have a great quarterback. The defense is full of stars and is ranked fifth in points and yards allowed. Minnesota has built a good cast around the quarterback position. Receiver Adam Thielen was an undrafted gem that helps make up for Treadwell being a disappointment. Kyle Rudolph is a reliable tight end. The offensive line was upgraded in the offseason. Jerick McKinnon has done his best Cook impression, and Murray is a good hammer as his complement. Keenum has played well, and he has had a lot of help. This isn’t your typical NFL success story, but it’s a pretty good one.
There’s no reason to believe the Vikings will fade, though it’s understandable if Minnesota fans are worried about it. The Vikings were 5-0 last season, and then lost eight of their last 11. Last year’s team couldn’t block and was horrendous running the ball, which really hurt the Vikings down the stretch. They have turned those two weaknesses into relative strengths this season. Last year’s team was also run down by the Green Bay Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers isn’t in the picture this season because Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr broke his collarbone a few weeks ago.
The Vikings are clearly the best team in the NFC North, and should win the division. There are four very surprising first-place teams in the NFC, but the Vikings might be the best story of them all.
Here are the power rankings following Week 10 of the NFL season:
32. Cleveland Browns (0-9, Last week: 32)
Lions safety Glover Quin said the Browns “probably” have more athletes than 25 of the 32 teams in the NFL, according to MLive.com. It seems he meant it as a compliment to their roster and not a shot at Hue Jackson, but it ends up reflecting poorly on Jackson. So does the debacle at the end of the first half Sunday, which is more evidence the Browns are a sloppy, poorly-coached team. Even if Quin is way off on his assessment and the Browns don’t have that much talent, this coaching staff obviously is not getting the most out of what talent it does have. The problem is if the Browns fire Jackson, who is going to want that job?
31. New York Giants (1-8, LW: 30)
The Giants said Ben McAdoo will last the season, which they probably said because the Giants embrace their reputation of being a solid, patient organization and firing a coach midseason goes against that. But ask yourself this: What positive will the Giants get from playing out the string with McAdoo and getting their teeth kicked in with a locker room full of players that clearly doesn’t want to play for its coach anymore? That has a better chance of doing long-term damage than firing a coach before the end of the season.
30. San Francisco 49ers (1-9, LW: 31)
Again, there’s no bigger difference in the NFL than between zero wins and one win. The pressure is off now. The 49ers could go 1-15 and nobody will ever remember. That means if the 49ers want to sit out Jimmy Garoppolo, perhaps in an attempt to flip him in the offseason as some have speculated, they could without worrying about 0-16 infamy.
29. Houston Texans (3-6, LW: 28)
Receiver Will Fuller has cracked ribs and it looks like he’ll miss the Texans’ next game, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. If I set the over/under at 0.5 Texans wins for the rest of the season, would you take the over?
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-6, LW: 29)
I guess all the Bucs needed to do was remove Jameis Winston and Mike Evans from the lineup. Have you noticed we’re getting Bad Doug Martin this season? He has a 3.3-yard average per carry and hasn’t cracked 4 yards per carry since his first game back off suspension. The last two games he has 58 yards on 28 carries. When we look back on his career, it’ll be really hard to explain those two enormous seasons in 2011 and 2015.
27. Indianapolis Colts (3-7, LW: 27)
I’m not sure what to make of the report from ESPN’s Mike Wells that Andrew Luck is going to Europe to get treatment on his shoulder, but it’s safe to say he doesn’t do that if he’s confident in how his recovery is going. Until he’s back on the field and looking like his old self, this is a scary situation for Colts fans.
26. Chicago Bears (3-6, LW: 26)
It will be interesting to see how the Bears rebuild their receiving corps next offseason. It’s very tough to find a true No. 1 receiver in free agency, and drafting one is never a sure thing (Kevin White anyone?). But improving at receiver has to be priority A, B and C in the offseason. I’m not sure we’d see a Carson Wentz-type explosion in year two even with a major upgrade in Trubisky’s supporting cast, but I do think he can be very good. He needs help though.
25. Miami Dolphins (4-5, LW: 24)
Are we sure Adam Gase is a good coach? I know Jay Cutler was taken off the scrap heap, though Gase seemed to stand on the table for him. But you watch this awful Dolphins offense — if you were anywhere near Twitter in August you heard an NFL reporter or 50 call it The Best Team Cutler Had Ever Played On — it’s hard to be impressed with Gase’s play-calling.
24. Cincinnati Bengals (3-6, LW: 23)
When Marcus Mariota threw a short pass to DeMarco Murray on third-and-goal from the 7-yard line in the final minute Sunday, the Bengals could have used a dynamic linebacker to stop him. But Vontaze Burfict had already gotten himself ejected. Murray scored and the Titans won. This is what happens when you rely on players you can never trust to stay out of trouble.
23. Denver Broncos (3-6, LW: 22)
Let’s play a game: What is the record that would force the sloppy Broncos to fire Vance Joseph after one season? Keep in mind that the Broncos have a tough schedule and a general manager in John Elway who fired John Fox after four straight AFC West titles. Would 5-11 be good enough to guarantee Joseph gets a second season? Do the Broncos move on if it’s 4-12? How about if they lose out and go 3-13?
22. Arizona Cardinals (4-5, LW: 21)
I get why David Johnson would want to come back and play this season. But someone in charge needs to tell Johnson to just get ready for next season. This one is done for Arizona and there’s no need to put extra miles on his legs, especially since it appears he’ll be at less than 100 percent off a dislocated wrist.
21. New York Jets (4-6, LW: 20)
It’s kind of strange, given the context of two months ago, to think that a Jets loss at the Buccaneers would be so disappointing. But it was a weird no-show. Maybe it’s a sign of the Jets falling back to earth a little bit (after they’ve already won too many games to get a top-five draft pick next spring).
20. Green Bay Packers (5-4, LW: 25)
Three of the Packers’ next four games are vs. Baltimore, vs. Tampa Bay and at Cleveland. Those three are all winnable. If they win those three, they’d be 8-5 at worst with three to go. For as bad as the Packers have looked at times with Brett Hundley, there are still signs of life.
19. Los Angeles Chargers (3-6, LW: 17)
The last time someone other than Philip Rivers started at quarterback for the Chargers was Drew Brees on Dec. 31, 2005 (the last quarterback other than Brees or Rivers to start for the Chargers? Doug Flutie in 2004). Rivers is in the concussion protocol, and we might get a Kellen Clemens start on Sunday if Rivers isn’t cleared by then.
18. Baltimore Ravens (4-5, LW: 19)
The Ravens are averaging just 7.6 yards per completion. There are nine teams averaging at least 7.6 yards per attempt this season. So when Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco says the offense needs to get more aggressive, he’s probably right. The problem is the Ravens don’t have the personnel to pull it off.
17. Oakland Raiders (4-5, LW: 18)
How much do the Packers regret letting Jared Cook go? They signed Martellus Bennett, and we all know how that turned out. Cook, meanwhile, has 39 catches for 499 yards and has been a great addition to the Raiders offense. He has mostly been a disappointment through his career but that’s not the case this season.
16. Buffalo Bills (5-4, LW: 14)
Uh oh. Even good teams can have awful days, but a 47-10 home loss to the Saints was really troubling. Part of the Bills’ great start was due to an unsustainable turnover margin, but they aren’t that bad. One issue on Sunday was Tyrod Taylor, who had only 56 passing yards. He needs to be better, but the same can be said for all the Bills.
15. Tennessee Titans (6-3, LW: 16)
The last four games for the Titans …
Beat the Colts at home after trailing in the fourth quarter.
Won in overtime at a winless Browns team.
Beat a punchless Ravens team at home by a field goal.
Rallied to beat the Bengals in the final minute at home after Cincinnati took a lead.
I want to believe in the Titans, but their record would be flipped, at best, if they hadn’t been playing such a soft schedule.
14. Washington Redskins (4-5, LW: 12)
The Vikings played well, but it was shocking how unprepared Washington was. The Redskins also lost running back Rob Kelley to knee and ankle injuries, and they need rookie Samaje Perine to step up. Perine has been a pretty big disappointment to this point.
13. Detroit Lions (5-4, LW: 15)
The Lions got left tackle Taylor Decker back on Sunday. He had been out with a shoulder injury. That is a huge upgrade to Detroit’s line, and a big boost for the Lions in the second half.
12. Jacksonville Jaguars (6-3, LW: 13)
How many times has an NFL team been able to claim they have two of the league’s best five cornerbacks? The Jaguars might be in that group. Jalen Ramsey is clearly in the top five. A.J. Bouye has a good argument for it too, and his interception Sunday helped save the Jaguars from what would have been a rough loss.
11. Dallas Cowboys (5-4, LW: 8)
The Cowboys are reportedly worried linebacker Sean Lee could miss three games due to an injury. That’s a major, major blow, especially with the Eagles coming to town next week.
10. Atlanta Falcons (5-4, LW: 11)
Tevin Coleman has been a big part of this Falcons team for a while, but he has only three starts in his career. With Devonta Freeman expected to miss some time with a concussion, it’s a huge spot for Coleman to show his 4.6-yard career average can carry over to a bigger role.
9. Carolina Panthers (7-3, LW: 10)
Jonathan Stewart turned back the clock on Monday night. He was averaging fewer than 3 yards per carry on the season, but had more than 100 yards against the Dolphins. Part of that was a Dolphins defense that didn’t seem too interested in tackling, but it was still a positive sign for Stewart.
8. Minnesota Vikings (7-2, LW: 9)
Another week of quarterback speculation for the Vikings. It’s absolutely the right move for any team to make a change, even if it’s on a winning streak, if it makes the team better. You don’t avoid improvement just because you don’t want to mess with momentum or whatever other nonsense that keeps teams from making their lineup better. The issue here is we have no idea if Teddy Bridgewater is better than Case Keenum right now. There’s no way to tell if Bridgewater is the same player post-injury, and figuring it out as you chase a division title and maybe even a first-round bye seems like a big risk. This should be Keenum’s job until further notice.
7. Seattle Seahawks (6-3, LW: 7)
The Seahawks signed Byron Maxwell, which is a nice reunion story I guess, but Seattle is in some trouble without Richard Sherman. The Seahawks weren’t especially deep at cornerback before Sherman’s injury. I like the Seahawks at their peak but the injury issues could be a problem.
6. Kansas City Chiefs (6-3, LW: 6)
It’s not an issue right now, but the Chiefs are going to have a very interesting offseason at quarterback. You don’t draft Patrick Mahomes 10th overall with the intention of sitting him two or more seasons. The Chiefs would save a whopping $17 million in cap space by cutting Smith next offseason. But you can’t cut Smith after an MVP-caliber season, right?
5. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-2, LW: 3)
The beauty of the NFL is there are no pseudo bye weeks. Every team is capable. And yet, that Steelers performance at Indianapolis was not pretty. I’m still not sure how good this team is. The offense hasn’t scored 30 points in a game this season and has reached more than 26 points only once. The defense ranks second in the NFL in yards and points allowed, and the offense is just 18th and 10th in those respective categories. If the offense ever shows up then the Steelers could get on a roll, but we’re nine games in and it hasn’t happened yet.
4. Los Angeles Rams (7-2, LW: 5)
The Rams’ offense is getting a lot of attention, and for obvious reasons. But did you know the Rams defense hasn’t given up more than 17 points since Oct. 1? Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was always a good bet to have a good first season with the Rams, it just took a little longer than expected.
3. New Orleans Saints (7-2, LW: 4)
One reason the Saints’ defense is playing well: New Orleans’ offense is sustaining drives. The Saints are fourth in the league in time of possession. It was clear that the Saints were targeting a more run-heavy approach this season, which would help the defense and Drew Brees too (but you already knew that if you read our preview this summer).
2. New England Patriots (7-2, LW: 2)
The Patriots have won five in a row, not allowing more than 17 points in any of those games while averaging 25.6 points and a little less than 400 yards on offense. If you forget about the first four weeks, what we’ve seen from the Patriots the past five games is pretty much what we expected back when people were wondering if 19-0 was possible.
1. Philadelphia Eagles (8-1, LW: 1)
Something to keep in mind: Carson Wentz has thrown a touchdown on 7.9 percent of his passes this season. Only 46 quarterbacks in NFL history (and only five this century) have finished a season with a better percentage than that. That basically means it’s dangerous to project Wentz’s current pace for the rest of the season, because some regression is coming. All that said, he’ll be just fine and should be in the MVP race right until the end.
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