Every NFL season, a team seems to come out of nowhere and shake our faith in what we think we know about how they will perform. The 2012 season has proved no different. A few teams have already exceeded expectations and find themselves ranked at or near the top of their respective divisions. Here are some of my favorite surprise teams this year:
Before the season began, the Vikings were not even in the discussion when pundits talked about the NFC North. The Green Bay Packers were crowned top dog with the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions nipping at their heels. The Vikings were barely an afterthought. But now through 5 games, they lead the division, tied with the Bears at 4-1.
Keys to success:
- Christian Ponder is emerging as an efficient passer who recognizes coverages and protects the ball. He's averaging a 95.5 passer rating and has only thrown two interceptions, both in Sunday's game against the Titans. In that game, he showed poise and maturity by quickly recovering and completing 11 of 12 passes in the second half.
- Offense -- The Vikings have rolled out a dynamic offense highlighted by wide receiver Percy Harvin and shored up by running back Adrian Peterson and even tight end Kyle Rudolph.
- Defense -- Perhaps the most improved aspect of the Vikings game is the defense. First year defensive coordinator Alan Williams seems to have them back on track and improving every week. Safeties Jamarca Sanford and Harrison Smith look strong in the secondary while defensive end Jared Allen heads up an impressive front four who are among the best at rushing teh passer and stopping the run.
Arizona Cardinals, NFC West
The talk coming out of Arizona before the season started centered around who the quarterback would be. With neither John Skelton nor Kevin Kolb distinguishing themselves during preseason, it's no wonder the announcement naming Skelton the starter came only one week before the regular season began. With instability at the quarterback position, the Cardinals weren't given much chance for success. But then they started the season 4-0 and suddenly looked like a team to be reckoned with in the NFC West.
Keys to success:
- Defense -- The Cardinals defense will be key. They will be tasked with keeping games close like they did their first four games. Even with the great wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals offense will not be a juggernaut. And the running game has taken a hit with Beanie Wells, and now Ryan Williams out for the season with injuries. With players like linebackers Sam Acho and Daryl Washington, the Cardinals defense will need to continue to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. So far, they are 5th in points allowed (15.6) and have only allowed 6 touchdowns through 5 games, the fewest in the league. And with one of the best young cornerbacks in the game in Patrick Peterson, the Cardinals have an opportunity to be legitimate contenders.
Let's face it – in the NFL, as in other sports, there are certain teams that other teams count as an automatic “W.” Rightly or wrongly, consciously or subconsciously, some teams are just not taken as a viable threat. The Rams found themselves as one of 'those' teams last year, finishing 2-14 for the season. Teams should not take them for granted this year, however. Through 5 games, they have already topped last season's record and stand at 3-2. Though a 3-2 record may not be worthy of calling them a true surprise team, they are worthy of keeping an eye on. Head coach Jeff Fisher has brought a new attitude which is evidenced in the Rams' inspired play, especially on defense. Adding Cortland Finnegan at cornerback, along with Janoris Jenkins, adds a feisty, hard-nosed edge to the secondary. Defensive ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long highlight a formidable pass attack no team can take for granted. How the Rams deal with injuries, particularly to the No. 1 receiver Danny Amendola, will determine whether their progress continues upward or not.
Obviously, there is still a lot of football left to play. These teams could actually tank from here on out making their great starts just a distant memory. Each team has their own particular flaws to overcome, but for now, they are at least in the discussion of possible playoff contenders.