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Five Teams You Didn’t See Coming in 2017

Chuck Cook, USA Today

Ranking the top five NFL teams who have surpassed our wildest expectations this season.

The 2017 NFL season has been full of surprises - press conferences, protests, and injuries to star players have captured the spotlight in the first eleven weeks. Perhaps most surprising is the current playoff picture, which is filled with teams that many people thought had no business whatsoever being in that conversation to start the season. Scrolling through the current NFL standings requires some double-takes, as several of our preseason projections have been flipped on their heads. Here are the top five teams that have surpassed our loftiest expectations this season.  

5. New York Jets (4-6)

2016 record: 5-11

The team that Colin Cowherd predicted to go 0-16 in 2017 has held their own against tough competition, defeating teams like Jacksonville and Buffalo. You must give the Jets credit for their effort displayed on the field this year, considering that many fans and analysts pointed out the opportunity for the club to tank and run a “Scam for Sam (Darnold)” campaign. Instead, the Jets have refused to waste the season and have been winning games with arguably the worst roster in the league. 

The Jets’ offense ranks 17th in the NFL in yards - not terrific, but significantly improved upon the team’s 26th ranking in that category in 2016. The surprising play of 16th-year quarterback Josh McCown has allowed the Jets to succeed against top defenses this season. McCown has completed 69% of his passes, which ranks third in the league.

Josh McCown Passing StatsComp. Pct.TDInt.Rating
2016 (CLE)55%6672.3
2017 (NYJ)    69%14893.7

After the departure of star wideout Eric Decker, new playmakers have emerged in the passing game for the Jets. The acquisition of Jermaine Kearse from Seattle (415 yards, 4 TD) and a breakout season for Robby Anderson (568 yards, 5 TD) have given the Jets the ability to stay afloat. The Jets offense ranks 16th in points, compared with ranking 30th in 2016. 

The Jets defense leaves some room for improvement overall but has been potent in producing turnovers, ranking seventh in the league in interceptions. All things considered, Head Coach Todd Bowles appears to have his team set to improve upon their 5-11 finish from last season, which few thought possible. 

4. Minnesota Vikings (7-2)

2016 record: 8-8

Minnesota’s defense kept them in close games last season and prevented the team from falling below .500. The defense has stood tough again this year, ranking 5th in the league in both yards per game and points allowed. The real story for Minnesota this season is their offense. After finishing 28th in total offense last season, Minnesota ranks 9th in the category this year - and that’s with starting running back Dalvin Cook out for the season after an ACL tear suffered in week four. 

In a league filled with quarterback catastrophes, there was a point early in this season where I thought that the Minnesota Vikings were the unluckiest team in the NFL at the quarterback position, with long-term injuries faced by Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford. While the quarterback situation may have seemed hopeless in week three, Minnesota may end up with three by healthy, quality quarterbacks by the end of the year. The impressive play of backup quarterback Case Keenum has the Vikings en route to winning the division.

Case Keenum Passing StatsComp. Pct.TDInt.Rating
2016 (LAR)61%91176.4
2017 (MIN)65%11592.6

A change of scenery this season has done Case Keenum good. After posting a ratio of 9 touchdowns to 11 interceptions in 2016, Keenum has thrown for 11 touchdowns and 5 picks for Minnesota, thus far. Even with Bridgewater’s return to the field, Keenum has been tasked with starting against his former team, the L.A. Rams, this week.

At 7-2, the Purple People Eaters hold the spot as kings in the NFC North. With Aaron Rodgers out for the remainder of the regular season, the division is wide open, and the Vikings don’t seem to be taking their foot off of the gas pedal anytime soon. 

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (6-3) 

2016 record: 3-13

The Jaguars have posted a 48-105 record over the last ten seasons, but are poised to make the playoffs this year, as I explained in last week’s article. A 6-3 record and season-ending injuries to Andrew Luck of Indianapolis and Houston’s Deshaun Watson have helped the Jags to the top spot in the AFC South. 

Feeding the rock to rookie running back Leonard Fournette has vaulted the Jaguars rushing attack from 22nd in yards last season to first in 2017. 

OffenseRushing Yards Per Game
1. Jacksonville163.0
2. Dallas143.6
3. New Orleans142.2
4. Philadelphia136.8
5. L.A. Rams128.8

The Jaguars have experienced accelerated improvement on the other side of the ball, as well. The Jacksonville defense ranks first in the league with 14.9 points allowed per game, compared with a 24th ranking in the category last season. Picking up veteran defensive end Calais Campbell has yielded huge results. Campbell has 11 sacks this season, while A.J. Bouye, another offseason signing, has intercepted three passes and defensed 11. 

2. New Orleans Saints (7-2) 

2016 record: 7-9

Coming off of three straight 7-9 seasons, the Saints hold first place in the NFC South, a division featuring back-to-back NFC Champions Carolina and Atlanta. The Saints offense has some serious firepower, ranking fifth in passing yards and third in rushing yards, combining to give them the second-most potent offense in the league.

OffenseTotal Yards
1. New England3,685
2. New Orleans3,622
3. L.A. Rams3,500
4. Philadelphia3,393
5. Carolina3,366

The Saints’ rushing attack has taken a heavy load off of Drew Brees‘ shoulders. Running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara have combined for over 1,000 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns in nine games, this season. 

The Saints post impressive offensive stats year after year under Head Coach Sean Payton and franchise quarterback Drew Brees, and have needed to in order to make up for their below-average defense in recent years. This season, the New Orleans D has stepped up in a major way. The passing defense has been key to the Saints’ improvement from last year, rising from dead last in passing yards allowed in 2016 to sixth in the league this season. 

DefensePassing Yards Allowed
1. Jacksonville1,486
2. Pittsburgh1,636
3. Baltimore1,662
4. Cincinnati 1,777
5. Atlanta1,784
6. New Orleans 1,813

1. Los Angeles Rams (7-2) 

2016 record: 4-12

After an abysmal first season back in Los Angeles in 2016, the Rams currently hold sole ownership of first place in the NFC West. New faces on the offense like Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins, and Andrew Whitworth, combined with the playcalling of first-year head coach Sean McVay, have given the Rams the ability to stretch the field in the passing game, which in turn opens things up for running back Todd Gurley

The Rams offense ranks third in the league in yards and first in points, after finishing dead last in the league in both categories a year ago. This just doesn’t happen. In addition to offseason acquisitions and a revitalized offensive strategy, the elevated play of the offense’s two marquee players, Todd Gurley and Jared Goff, has the Rams rocking. 

After just nine games, Todd Gurley has already surpassed his rushing touchdowns and receiving yards totals from last season and ranks fourth in the NFL in rushing yards.

Todd Gurley II StatsRush Yards/Att.Rush Yards/GameRec. Yards/GameTotal TD

Jared Goff, the #1 overall pick whom many were quick to mock as a bust last season, has posted spectacular numbers in year two. Goff ranks first in the league in yards per attempt (8.49) and ranks seventh in both passing yards and touchdowns. Goff is throwing for over 100 more yards per game than last season and has posted an impressive ratio of 16 touchdowns to 4 interceptions, a stunning turnaround from a year ago.

Jared Goff Passing StatsYards/GameYards/Att.Pct.TDInt.Rating

The Rams’ strong start is important, because upcoming matchups against Minnesota (7-2), New Orleans (7-2), and Philadelphia (8-1) will be crucial in deciding seeding for the NFC playoffs. 


Wins for the teams we didn’t see coming in 2017 come with the price of a proportional amount of losses for teams we expected to be a lot better, including Oakland (4-5), Denver  (3-6), Tampa Bay (3-6), and the New York Giants (1-8). The NFL is known for its parity, and these shifts have allowed teams with long playoff droughts a chance to get in and bring huge wins to starving fan bases. The impact of these shifts will surely be felt in free agency, as well as in coaching and front office changes.

Edited by Brian Kang.

Despite breaking NCAA records for total yards, passing yards, and passing touchdowns, Case Keenum wasn't selected by the Houston Texans until which round of the NFL Draft?
Created 11/16/17
  1. fifth round
  2. sixth round
  3. seventh round
  4. undrafted - free agent

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