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Rating the NFL’s 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

Thirty-two games have been played in the 2021 NFL season, and … are we really sure which teams are good and which are bad? There are 18 1-1 teams, including the New Orleans Saints, who looked fantastic in Week 1 and then only scored seven points in a Week 2 loss, and the Green Bay Packers, who got their doors blown off in Week 1 before a Week 2 bounce-back. There are seven 0-2 teams, all of which have shown major flaws so far. That means there are seven 2-0 teams — three in the NFL West alone — including the surprising Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos.

So, what do we really know two weeks into the season? That’s what we asked our 32 NFL reporters to judge. They picked the biggest surprises for the teams they cover, then gave their verdict — real or a mirage? — on whether each surprise will continue for the rest of the season. Their surprises include Tom Brady‘s super-hot start, the Raiders’ defense dominating and a few rough patches from Justin Jefferson, the Chiefs’ defense and the Steelers’ sputtering run game.

Let’s get to the real-or-not ratings, starting with the NFC East:

Jump to a team:
ARI | ATL | BAL | BUF | CAR | CHI | CIN
CLE | DAL | DEN | DET | GB | HOU | IND
JAX | KC | LV | LAC | LAR | MIA | MIN
NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF
SEA | TB | TEN | WSH

Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

NFC EAST

Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: The Cowboys have six takeaways on defense.

The verdict: Real. This could be a mirage, but it’s not just the last two games. Dating back to last season, the Cowboys have forced takeaways in their last nine games, their longest streak since 2018. The Cowboys did not record their sixth takeaway last season until the eighth game. They have had timely turnovers, too, with Damontae Kazee forcing a fumble and picking off a pass with the defense in the red zone. Trevon Diggs became the first Cowboy since Roy Williams in 2006 to open the season with interceptions in each of the first two games. Given some of the defensive limitations, the Cowboys better continue this streak of takeaways. — Todd Archer


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: The Giants’ defense is allowing 413.5 yards per game and 28.5 points per game.

The verdict: Mirage. The Giants were 12th in total defense (349.3 yards) and ninth in points allowed (22.3 PPG) last season. If anything, they’re more talented this year after adding OLB Azeez Ojulari and CB Adoree’ Jackson while getting back OLB Lorenzo Carter. Maybe they maxed out last year, but the law of averages says Patrick Graham’s unit will be a quality group when all is said and done. — Jordan Raanan


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: The Eagles’ defense is off to a strong start.

The verdict: Real. Defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon was a hot commodity this offseason, and we’re starting to see why. His group is tied for second in points allowed (11.5 average) and ranks third in passing yards per game (162.5) through two weeks. Here’s the key stat: The Eagles have allowed just one pass play of 20-plus yards to date, which is tops in the NFL. The loss of defensive end Brandon Graham hurts, and they won’t be this dominant all year, but it’s time to heighten the expectations for this defense. — Tim McManus


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: Washington’s defense has struggled.

The verdict: Mirage. There’s too much talent on defense, especially along the front, for this to be a long-term issue. Right? They have 12 key players, whether reserves or starters, who are 26 or younger, and that has led to discipline issues with assignments. But the talent is there, and as those young players mature, this defense will improve. The list of quarterbacks they face is daunting, so matching last year’s top-four finishes in yards and points allowed won’t happen. But there’s too much talent to be ranked 24th in yards and 16th in points, as they are now. — John Keim

Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

NFC NORTH

Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: OLB Robert Quinn has 1.5 sacks.

The verdict: Real. Quinn seemed particularly miffed by last year’s subpar season. The Bears guaranteed Quinn $30 million to get after the quarterback, and he failed to do so in 2020 — tallying only two sacks. Quinn is off to a much better start this season. He comes across as a very prideful individual, and even though he’s an older player with back issues, my best guess is that Quinn will have a productive year — just as long as he stays healthy. — Jeff Dickerson


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: The Lions are a perfect 5-for-5 in the red zone this season.

The verdict: Mirage. Detroit is 0-2, but tied for first in red zone efficiency through the first two weeks. Although Jared Goff appears poised in those situations, with a dependable target in Pro Bowl TE T.J. Hockenson, it doesn’t seem sustainable for the Lions to keep up this pace, especially without a top receiver emerging and injuries continuing to mount. This is certainly a surprise stat, but also impressive for what the team has on its roster and the level of competition it has faced to open the season. — Eric Woodyard


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: The Packers have struggled to rush the passer.

The verdict: Mirage. It has to get better, right? What could be worse than not a single player having a sack through two games? The Packers’ only sack was a credited team sack after Lions quarterback Jared Goff fumbled without contact. The reason it’s likely a mirage is the pass rush is winning at least sometimes. It ranks 21st in ESPN’s pass rush win rate at (39.6%), which is nearly the same as last season. However, it’s nowhere close to its 2019 rate of 47%, which ranked ninth in the league. — Rob Demovsky

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1:54

Stephen A. Smith breaks down why his concern lies with the Packers’ defense rather than the Aaron Rodgers-led offense.


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: WR Justin Jefferson has two drops so far.

The verdict: Mirage. Jefferson caught everything that went his way as a rookie, so a drop each against Cincinnati and Arizona is rare territory for the star receiver whose plus-9.1% catch rate was above expectation in 2020 (eighth in the NFL among receivers with at least 50 catches) along with his 4.35% drop rate (14th among starting receivers). The 22-year-old wideout caught his first TD pass in Week 2 and is first on the team in targets (19). This suggests there is nothing to be concerned about considering neither of those drops were in make-or-break situations, and he is a main part of the engine that powers this offense. — Courtney Cronin

Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

NFC SOUTH

Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: The Falcons have allowed 80 points.

The verdict: Mirage. First, the number is a little misleading because of two pick-sixes. But while Atlanta’s defense isn’t good, it is showing signs of improvement and has weathered an unfamiliar offense (Philadelphia) and a top-flight one (Tampa). Things should settle down considering the schedule to come, making this a mediocre unit, but better than the one we’ve seen so far. — Michael Rothstein


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: The Panthers’ defense has 10 sacks.

The verdict: Real. I said before the season this unit has a lot of good pieces, it’s just a matter of how fast it comes together. It has come together — fast. The Panthers are at the top of the NFL in most defensive categories: sacks (10), yards per game (190.8), rushing yards per game (46.5) and points per game (10.5). Credit DC Phil Snow for utilizing the strengths of these pieces rather than forcing them into a set scheme. DE Brian Burns is for real. Edge rusher Haason Reddick is for real. DT Derrick Brown is for real. CB Jaycee Horn is for real. The list goes on. This is sustainable. — David Newton


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: The Saints’ offense was all-time bad in Week 2.

The verdict: Mirage. The Saints’ offense gained only 128 yards at Carolina — by far the lowest total of Sean Payton’s tenure. It was especially stunning on the heels of New Orleans’ dominant 38-3 win over Green Bay a week earlier. And it didn’t help that five offensive coaches missed the game under COVID-19 safety protocol. So of course they won’t be this bad all season. But there are some genuine reasons for concern. The Saints’ normally outstanding offensive line struggled mightily with communication with center Erik McCoy sidelined by an injury (and QB Drew Brees now retired). New QB Jameis Winston threw two ugly interceptions once he got into desperation mode for the first time this season. And New Orleans’ WRs have struggled to get open in both games while Michael Thomas is sidelined by an ankle injury. — Mike Triplett


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: Tom Brady has thrown nine touchdown passes.

The verdict: Real. Brady finally feels at home in Bruce Arians’ offense. He has thrown in several of his own new wrinkles, and his rapport with his receivers has gotten better. It’s night and day from where they were at this point last year. The scary thing is, they’re actually still leaving a lot of points on the field by failing to convert on fourth-and-1 and taking sacks in the red zone. They’re also leading the NFL with five turnovers and 22 penalties. Brady continues to say, “We can be better.” And he’s right. — Jenna Laine

Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

NFC WEST

Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: The Cardinals are averaging 36 points per game.

The verdict: Real. This is the offense everyone expected when Kliff Kingsbury was hired back in 2019. But like anything else during a transition, the Cardinals needed time to get to this point. It helps that they now have all the pieces to complement quarterback Kyler Murray, especially wide receivers A.J. Green and Rondale Moore, who are enough of a threat each to take coverage away from DeAndre Hopkins and spread out the field. It also helps immensely that Murray has taken the types of strides he has, from checking in and out of plays, to having a better understanding of what defenses are trying to do. This type of production is what happens when the game slows down for Murray. — Josh Weinfuss


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: Cooper Kupp is among the top three receivers in receiving yards.

The verdict: Real. The Matthew Stafford to Kupp connection has been a dominant force in powering the Rams offense through a 2-0 start. Kupp is the first Rams player with 100 receiving yards in each of the first two games of a season since Hall of Famer Isaac Bruce in 2004. And his three receiving touchdowns in two games have already matched his 2020 season total. This blazing pace might somewhat slow for Kupp as opponents alter their defense to account for him, but he’ll undoubtedly remain a go-to target for Stafford. — Lindsey Thiry


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: WR Brandon Aiyuk has one catch for six yards.

The verdict: Mirage. Much has been made of Aiyuk’s disappearance in the first two weeks, which is understandable given that he looked poised for a big Year 2 jump as recently as the opening weeks of training camp. Coach Kyle Shanahan has said Aiyuk is not in any doghouse, and the lack of opportunities is more related to Aiyuk’s late camp hamstring injury and Trent Sherfield‘s emergence. But there’s also clearly a message here for Aiyuk to pick it up. The reality is that Aiyuk is too talented not to climb his way out of his current situation and become the type of significant contributor he was expected to be. It might not happen immediately, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if it was sooner than later. — Nick Wagoner


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: S Jamal Adams has not registered a sack.

The verdict: Mirage. Actually, it’s somewhere between real and a mirage. Adams has only rushed the passer eight times in two games, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That’s a big drop-off from the 8.25 rushes he averaged last season, when he set the record for most sacks by a defensive back with 9.5 in 12 games. The way he has been used so far doesn’t seem like an accident considering defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.’s comments this summer about how Adams would be more than a blitzer in his second season with Seattle. But Adams had a sack wiped off the board in the opener by a questionable penalty. And the Seahawks didn’t give him a $70 million contract to not take advantage of his best skill — rushing the passer. — Brady Henderson

Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

AFC EAST

Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: The Bills rank 26th in passing offense with 212.5 passing yards per game.

The verdict: Mirage. While Buffalo put up 35 points on Miami in Week 2, quarterback Josh Allen and the passing offense have yet to impress or come close to last year’s heights. Allen is averaging just 5.3 yards per attempt and hasn’t gotten into a rhythm with his receivers. That should change as the season goes on. Coordinator Brian Daboll is in his fourth season with Allen, and the familiarity will help the offense as the year goes on. It would be a surprise if the Bills’ passing offense doesn’t finish in the top 10 of the league. — Alaina Getzenberg


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: The Dolphins’ offense has not shown signs of improvement.

The verdict: Real. While the Dolphins’ weapons have improved, their offensive line was shaky in Week 1 and borderline disastrous in Week 2. They have only scored 17 total points, all of which came in the season-opening win over New England. There should be an uptick in production once William Fuller V returns to the field. Until that unit improves, there is a cap on just how good Miami can be on that side of the ball. — Marcel Louis-Jacques


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: The Patriots’ run defense has struggled.

The verdict: Mirage. The limits on padded practices have had a noticeable trickle-down effect on those who play on the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, essentially making the first month of the season feel like an extended preseason when it comes to technique. The Patriots rank 30th in post-contact yards per rush allowed (2.02), which points to tackling issues. But, they are too talented on the defensive line and at linebacker for this trend to continue. — Mike Reiss


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: The Jets’ young cornerbacks are holding up.

The verdict: Mirage. The Jets have allowed only 232 receiving yards to wide receivers — good for third in the NFL — per ESPN Stats & Information. Bryce Hall, Brandin Echols (rookie), Michael Carter II (rookie) and Javelin Guidry deserve credit for that, but take a closer look. They have yet to face a top-tier quarterback, so they haven’t truly been tested. Still, coach Robert Saleh remains confident. “They’re going to get tested and they’re going to continue to win.” — Rich Cimini

Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

AFC NORTH

Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: The Ravens run game is still the most dominant in the NFL.

The verdict: Real. Who expected the Ravens to lead the NFL in rushing after losing their top two running backs to season-ending injuries? This just shows that Baltimore will be able to run the ball at will as long as Lamar Jackson is in the lineup. Defenses key in on Jackson so much that it has opened up lanes for Ty’Son Williams (a practice squad player a year ago) and Latavius Murray (who was signed four days before the season opener). Jackson remains the Ravens’ most dangerous runner, ranking third in the NFL in rushing. This is why Baltimore has gained 136 more yards rushing than any other team in the league after two games. — Jamison Hensley


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: The Bengals’ defense is much better.

The verdict: Real. The metrics suggest that Lou Anarumo’s defense has made big strides. Cincinnati has made big upgrades to the defensive roster, and that has resulted in a unit that ranks fourth in the NFL in yards allowed per play and seventh in points allowed per drive. The aggressive approach in free agency has paid off for Cincinnati. — Ben Baby


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: The Browns only have three sacks.

The verdict: Mirage. On Sunday, Cleveland failed to record a single sack against the Texans until safety Grant Delpit connected with QB Davis Mills late in the fourth quarter off a safety blitz. So far, the Browns pass rush, headlined by Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney, has yet to produce the sack numbers befitting the talent. But that has more to do with luck and the small sample size. Through two games, the Browns rank sixth in the league in pass rush win rate. The sacks could soon be on the way. — Jake Trotter


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: The Steelers’ run game is still last in the league.

The verdict: Real. The Steelers’ top offseason priority was overhauling the run game from its position as the league’s worst. The team used a first-round pick on running back Najee Harris, but with a struggling offensive line in front of him, Harris hasn’t been able to get going. He’s averaging just 3.2 yards per carry, and the Steelers have a league-worst 113 rushing yards through two games. The Steelers have also run the ball just 35 times compared to 72 pass attempts. Tomlin said he expects Harris to improve each week, but there’s only so much he can do without a line to create holes in front of him. Tomlin doesn’t anticipate making any changes to the offensive line, and unless it drastically improves soon, the run game will continue to under-perform. — Brooke Pryor

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0:45

Keyshawn Johnson outlines why the Steelers need to be concerned about Ben Roethlisberger’s pectoral injury due to his age and their poor offensive line play.

Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

AFC SOUTH

Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: The Texans have five takeaways on defense so far.

The verdict: Real. They have not only already surpassed their 2020 total of passes intercepted with four in their first two games, but they are more than halfway to matching their 2020 total for takeaways as well. Although all teams want takeaways, Texans defensive players say they’ve never seen it emphasised in practice quite as much as defensive coordinator Lovie Smith has. Smith said Tuesday that he is not surprised by the success the team has had with takeaways so far because of the emphasis on it, but he also saw many opportunities on Sunday the defense couldn’t convert. Houston coach David Culley has said repeatedly that for this team to win games, they need to win the turnover battle. It’s just Week 3, but so far the Texans are tied for second in the NFL in that category at plus-4. — Sarah Barshop


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: The Colts’ offensive line has been poor.

The verdict: Mirage. They have given up six sacks and 21 quarterback hits through the first two games. Yes, they’ve faced two good defenses in Seattle and the Rams, but the Colts have had one of the top offensive lines in recent years. One of the biggest reasons behind the struggles has been lack of continuity up front. Guard Quenton Nelson missed three weeks of training camp because of foot surgery, center Ryan Kelly missed a couple of weeks with a left elbow injury, left tackle Eric Fisher just made his debut against the Rams after being out with a torn Achilles. And to make matters even worse, right tackle Braden Smith is out with a foot injury. The unit should get better as the season progresses — Mike Wells


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: The Jaguars are relying too heavily on Trevor Lawrence.

The verdict: Real. The rookie No. 1 overall pick has thrown 84 passes in the first two games, which is far too many. Some of that is due to the fact that the Jaguars trailed by 20 points at halftime of the season opener, but offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell bypassed the run early in that game. The Jaguars trailed Denver by 13 points in Week 2, which is a manageable deficit and no reason to abandon the run, but that’s what the Jaguars did. RB James Robinson, who ran for 1,070 yards as an undrafted rookie last year, has just 16 carries, even though he is averaging 4.5 yards per rush. Meanwhile, Lawrence has five interceptions. He has gotten impatient against zone coverages, and has tried to push the ball down field instead of taking shorter throws. The Jaguars must help the rookie out by running the ball more. — Michael DiRocco


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: WR A.J. Brown has caught less than half of his targets.

The verdict: Mirage. The normally reliable Brown is coming off a rough game against the Seahawks. He had multiple drops leading to only three receptions on nine targets. Titans coach Mike Vrabel called the drops “uncharacteristic” when asked about his normally reliable pass catcher. Only seven of the 17 times that Ryan Tannehill has targeted Brown have resulted in a completion. Brown caught 66% of the passes that were thrown his way last season. Tannehill has the ultimate trust in Brown, so he’ll keep going to him. Expect to see Brown’s catching efficiency improve from the dismal 41% rating after two weeks. — Turron Davenport

Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

AFC WEST

Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: QB Teddy Bridgewater is exactly what this team needs.

The verdict: Real. Bridgewater’s composure and preparation has won over his coaches and teammates. “No play is ever dead until they blow the whistle, especially with Teddy,” is how WR Courtland Sutton put it. Bridgewater has added both a big-play component to the Broncos’ offense and has been a guy who has moved the chains when defenses take away the downfield plays. He has been a quality leader and finds himself sixth in the league in passer rating, 10th in passing yards and has not had a turnover. All of that doesn’t mean he won’t throw an ill-advised ball at some point or have a bad day, but for a team that has been little more than a human turnstile at quarterback since the start of the 2016 season, he is exactly what was needed. Bridgewater is playing on a one-year contract, which means the Denver front office will have a decision to make — eventually. — Jeff Legwold


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: The Chiefs are allowing almost 33 points per game.

The verdict: Real. The Chiefs won’t continue to allow so many points, but their defensive problems are still profound. They’re last in the league in pass rush win rate and run stop win rate. So this looks a lot like the 2018 season for the Chiefs, and they are going to have to outscore a bad defense. — Adam Teicher


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: The Raiders’ defense looks vastly improved.

The verdict: Real. Anything north of competent would have been a massive improvement for the Raiders. And Las Vegas adding a disruptive pass rush — two sacks of Lamar Jackson by DE Maxx Crosby in the opener, two more of Ben Roethlisberger by DT Solomon Thomas — in new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s scheme has been key, and showing success against versatile foes portends for continued success, so long as the injury bug stays away. “Give all the credit to Coach Gus and their staff and our players,” QB Derek Carr said. “They’ve done a great job of keeping us in the games and keeping the leads for us. And it is fun. It’s a lot of fun. Especially watching that D-line. There’s a bunch of adults — there’s no green bananas on that D-line. Those guys are grown men. Fun to watch them play.” — Paul Gutierrez


Rating the NFL's 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

The biggest surprise: QB Justin Herbert has more interceptions than touchdowns.

The verdict: Mirage. After throwing 31 touchdown passes and just 10 interceptions last season, the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year has two TD passes and three picks as the Chargers have started 0-2. Don’t expect this to continue — Herbert has actually improved his completion percentage (70.5%). Herbert said he expects the team to grow from the Cowboys loss, in which he threw two interceptions. That’s important with a road game at the Chiefs on deck. — Shelley Smith

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