As we have entered Week 14 in the NFL, there have been many pleasant and not so pleasant surprises this year that have made an impact on the league this year.
So that we get these sob stories out of the way, let’s first take a look at teams who have not lived up to expectation this year.
Carolina Panthers: (4-8)
The Carolina Panthers had major expectations coming off a 15-1 2015 regular season and a trip to Super Bowl 50.
This was the season that reigning MVP Cam Newton looked to solidify his MVP run last year and establish himself, and his team, as among the best in the NFL for years to come. Despite these lofty expectations, the Panthers have dreadfully faltered this year on both sides of the football and have become known more for their off the field issues than those on the field which are very glaring.
After a 2015 campaign in which they were the league’s top ranked defense, this season has been a major drop off. They currently rank 24th in total defense, 28th in points allowed per game (26.8), 23rd in yards given up (369.6), and 30th in passing yards allowed (276.8). Their only guiding light that remained from last season is their rushing defense which ranks 8th in the NFL, but it still a drop off from last year’s rush defense. With the injury to Luke Keuchly, the team’s best defender and defensive captain, some drop off would be expected as you’re losing a perennial Pro Bowler and All Pro linebacker. You also have to take into consideration the loss to cornerback Josh Norman to free agency which created a deep void in the secondary that is clearly showing it’s face. Even with these facts in mind, the defense has been poor to say the least this season and has left it up to the offense to carry the load, which presents their next problem.
On the offensive side of the football, Carolina broke out last year, even with the loss of their biggest and best target Kelvin Benjamin to a torn ACL. Players like Philly Brown, Tedd Ginn, Jr and Greg Olsen stepped up in the passing game as a complement to the rugged rushing attack led by Jonathan Stewart and Newton who is dangerous with his feet.
This season, much like the defense, the offense has gone in reverse. Even with Benjamin returning, the offense has regressed in every way as they rank only 14th in the NFL in points per game (23.6), 18th in total yards (346.0), 20th in passing yards (238.2) and 13th in rushing (107.8). Not only have they under-performed offensively, but this has triggered off the field issues to become so vagrant that they outshine the mess that they have made on the field. Just last week, Cam Newton didn’t start the first series of their Sunday night game versus the Seahawks due to a violation of team dress code that requires everyone to wear a tie which apparently didn’t go with the outfit that Cam had on that day. These kind of seemingly unnecessary situations come to the forefront due to the expectations that were heaped upon this team and their epic failure of living up to them.
Oakland Raiders: 10-3
The Raiders are clearly the NFL’s biggest and most pleasant surprise this season.
A team that in recent history has been dismal at best, have finally found a roster and a foundation that can work for years to come after years of bad draft picks, bad coaching hires and a bad product on the field.
This foundation came in the 2014 NFL Draft when in the first two rounds they drafted Khalil Mack and Derek Carr, both of whom are the faces of the franchise on each side of the football and bonafide pro bowlers and MVP candidates this year. They piggy-backed this draft in 2015 with their first round selection of receiver Amari Cooper who is coming into his own in only his second year this season. Couple that with the free agency signing of receiver Michael Crabtree in that same off season and you know how have major talent on both sides of the football that are finally coming to together as a team. All of this has resulted in the Raiders first guaranteed winning season since 2002.
This season, and over the past couple seasons, the Raiders have shown that they can get the job done in the biggest moments with 10 comeback victories. On the road, the Raiders had been undefeated this year before their Thursday night loss to the Kansas City Chiefs this week. For a young team to be able to not only have the ability to come back, but also have the ability to win in hostile environments, is a huge sign of why they have been successful this season.
Their flare for the dramatic has been in large part due to the balanced offensive attack that they have displayed with Derek Carr, two legitimate receiving threats and one of the best backs in the league in Latavius Murray. They rank 5th in the NFL in points per game (27.5), 7th in yards (380.3), 8th in passing yards (264.2) and 7th in rushing (116.2).
Possible problems have and can continue to occur on the defensive side of the football which was supposed to be their strong suit coming into this season. They rank 21st in points allowed per game (24.6), 30th in yards given up (384.5), 23rd in passing yards allowed (264.3), and 27th in rushing yards allowed (120.2). Although Khalil Mack has been coming on this season, especially as of late, the defense is still giving up too many points and yards for the offense to continue to bear the burden of coming back in almost every game.
It will be interesting to see how this discrepancy will play out as they have all but solidified their spot in the playoffs, really only needing one more win. This team has the opportunity to do some damage in the postseason, but in order to do so, the defense needs to be a lot better.
In spite of it all, they have been the biggest surprise this season and have formulated a great story to follow and root for all season long.
Who do you think the biggest surprises have been this year in the NFL? Let’s talk about it here or find me on Twitter @Phenombc3.