Schedules and improved quarterback play often dictate which NFL teams surprise from year to year.
This season, the Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals are 4-1. Few saw the St. Louis Rams starting 3-2. I might be reaching here, but two teams that might be knocking on the door are the Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts.
The question facing all of these teams is whether they can keep surprising their opponents. In Josh McDaniels' first year in Denver (2009), the Broncos jumped to a 6-0 start. Then teams figured them out and Denver ended up 8-8. McDaniels was fired late in his second season.
Of this year's group of surprises, the Vikings might have the best chance because of the improved quarterback play of Christian Ponder. But they are also a classic case of a team that could get figured out. So much of their success is Ponder throwing bubble screens to Percy Harvin. They've been successful on 22 such throws at the line of scrimmage or behind it.
Defenders will focus on better pursuit to stop those completions. If that is successful, Ponder might be forced to throw more passes downfield. The Vikings' formula of having Adrian Peterson getting the yards inside the tackle and Harvin getting yards after the catch outside the tackle is working, but defensive coordinators will find ways to slow down that success.
Having running backs Beanie Wells AND Ryan Williams on the injured reserve list should slow down the Cardinals. Teams without a running threat usually face zone coverage to take the big play out of their offense. That means double coverage on Larry Fitzgerald and fewer downfield throws, which might be tough because Kevin Kolb hasn't been throwing much downfield anyway.
The Rams don't have the depth to handle injuries. They lost receiver Danny Amendola for around six weeks with a shoulder separation. After Sunday's game against the Dolphins, St. Louis faces Green Bay, New England and San Francisco, a trio that could jolt the Rams back to reality.
I bring up Miami and Indianapolis for a scheduling reason. At the moment, there are about only seven legitimate playoff-caliber teams in the AFC -- Houston, New England, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, San Diego and Denver. The eighth-best team in the AFC will get enough games against the bad AFC teams to maybe get to seven or eight wins and finish in the top half of the conference.
Ryan Tannehill's recent play may put the Dolphins in that position. They have a five-game stretch coming up against St. Louis, the Jets, Indianapolis, Tennessee and Buffalo. Now that the Colts and Andrew Luck have beaten the Packers at home, they have a favorable home schedule. If they pick up some road wins, they have a chance.
I thought the Bills were going to be that eighth team, but a horrid defense has sent Buffalo back into the AFC abyss.
From the inbox
Q: I love J.J. Watt. Watching him against the Jets Monday night, I was in awe. I was imagining how he developed the skill to deflect passes. Houston plays my Packers this week. What do you think of my idea of coaching the O-linemen to chop at Watt's arms, specifically on all quick passes? Anticipate his arms rising and impede those things from raising above his head.
Skippy in Los Angeles
A: That may slow down one thing Watt does well, but it may also leave the blocker vulnerable to his low, quick moves. The Packers' offensive linemen would also have to watch the grab of the arm. If they do it the wrong way, officials will call holding. Watt isn't just a one-trick lineman. He has plenty of moves and poses plenty of problems for blockers. Plenty of comparisons are being made between Watt and Howie Long. Watt is that good.
Q: Dating back to last season, the Packers have lost five out of their past nine games. They have a rash of offensive and defensive injuries. How worried should they be?
Cal in Los Angeles
A: They should be concerned, not worried. Coach Mike McCarthy has to get this team more in sync. The defense was going to take some time to develop. The Packers drafted a group of six defenders to try to incorporate into the packages. That will take some time, but it should work in time. The fundamental decision is which direction to go without a running attack. The lack of a running game has taken big plays out of the offense. Aaron Rodgers' yards-per-attempt average has dropped from 9.2 last year to 6.9 this year. Without the running threat, defenses can drop back in zone and challenge Rodgers to force throws to make big plays. The O-line problems are pronounced. McCarthy has been slow in giving extra protection to the tackles with either an extra tight end or a running back who can try to chip a rushing defender. I don't buy the idea teams have figured out the Packers and they are now an average team. Although they are 2-3, they should be 3-2 because of the Seattle game that was lost by a bad officiating.
Q: Looking at the Colts' schedule, how many games do you see them winning? The only games I don't think they can win are against Patriots and the two against Houston. Other than that, their schedule is really easy, unless the Lions turn it around. I am not saying they are a great team yet, but with the schedule, is it crazy to think they could be fighting for a wild-card spot with the Chargers, Bengals and Steelers at the end of the year?
Jay in Huntington, Ind.
A: As I mentioned above, it's not crazy to dream, but I figured them to be a five- to six-win team before the season based on the schedule. If they are indeed the eighth-best team in the AFC, they might have a chance for an 8-8 wild card. My thought going into the season was they would win five home games. Though they lost to Jacksonville, they kept that possibility open by beating Green Bay in Week 5. The question is how they will do on the road. Because they are so young, I wasn't sure if they would win more than two road games. If they can win in Jacksonville, Tennessee and Kansas City, the Colts might have a chance to sneak into the playoffs.
Q: I just don't get the Baltimore offense. The Ravens have one of the best running backs in football, yet they pass, pass, pass.
Dan in Atlanta
A: The plan in Baltimore is to use more shotgun and try more passes. Here's where I saw a problem in Week 5. The Ravens used WR Jacoby Jones for only 17 plays. For years, the Ravens had problems beating man coverage because they had slow, older receivers. This offseason they added speed, but they need to get those speedsters on the field more. When they use two tight ends, Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, a great corner such as Brandon Flowers can handle Smith, who is one of the best young receivers in the league. The rest of the Chiefs' secondary prevented the other Baltimore pass-catchers from getting separation. One of the great parts of the no-huddle is tiring out a defense. But sometimes, a no-huddle doesn't substitute as much as it should, minimizing its effectiveness. The Ravens just need to rotate in more speed receivers to get separation from the defensive backs.
Q: I'm a Chiefs fan stuck in Texas. It's apparent Romeo Crennel isn't the answer for the Chiefs. We have too much talent to look as bad as we do on both sides of the ball. Will GM Scott Pioli survive if we finish with a losing record?
Eric in League City, Texas
A: Clark Hunt likes Pioli, so he may get another chance. But if fans stop showing up late in the second half of the season, major changes might be ahead. Crennel looked to be the answer in the final three games last year. Players improved their play, and the Chiefs had the look of a playoff contender in those three games. But there has been no positive carryover. I saw the opening loss to the Falcons. I sensed then they would have a slow start. Three starters were coming off major knee surgeries. The line looked shaky. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe was just settling in after a long contract holdout. No coach can overcome a turnover differential of minus-3 per game. Matt Cassel's days in Kansas City are numbered. In a quarterback-driven league, the Chiefs are back to square one in finding a quarterback.
Q: What do you think of the kneel down? If a team is trailing by a touchdown or less and has no timeouts, clearly its only chance to win is to force a turnover. The team leading and snapping the ball goes to a kneel down not because of sportsmanship, but because it is the lowest-risk play, and therefore increases its chances of winning the game.
Scott in Medford, Ore.
A: I still can't believe folks are rallying to Greg Schiano's idea of blowing up a kneel down. How many fractions of a second does it take for a quarterback to take a snap from center and then put his knee on the ground to end the game? In the loss to the Giants, the Bucs didn't sack Eli Manning once and hit him only two times. The Schiano supporters are telling us they can make a play on a kneel down when they couldn't do it in a five-step drop for three hours. Come on, man.
Q: How come the media aren't making a case for Ben Roethlisberger to be the MVP this season? He's playing very well and he doesn't have a running game. Even Joe Flacco gets credit in the only season he's playing consistent football. I think is time for you to start giving him some recognition.
Alejandro in Mexico
A: It's too early in the season for that discussion. From his start, Big Ben will be in the discussion. He's one of the five top quarterbacks in the league. Any top-five quarterback will be in the debate. Roethlisberger, though, has said for years that the Steelers aren't a big stats team and that usually holds him down from annual trips to the Pro Bowl and MVPs. Big Ben cares more about the wins than the accolades.