So far this NFL season, three NFC teams are off to 3-0 starts – and two of them were not even playoff teams a season ago.
After a dismal week one performance, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have won two straight games to put talk of his uncomfortable relationship with the franchise on the back burner for the moment. The return of a healthy Dak Prescott has the Dallas Cowboys looking like a team that could dominate the NFC East this season. The AFC West has emerged as perhaps the best division in football. There are eyebrow-raising performances in virtually every division. But here are the four biggest surprises in the 2021 NFL season right now.
The Denver Broncos are dominant
Competent quarterback play combined with a surprising return to health by star linebacker Von Miller has the Broncos not only looking like a playoff threat, but a Super Bowl contender.
Miller has been hampered by injuries of late, but at one time, he was the anchor of a historically good Denver defense that won a Super Bowl. This season, he’s looked like his old self and the Denver defense has easily been the stingiest in the league. They’ve given up just 26 points in three games.
With a defense that is elite, all the team needs is steady and competent offense, especially at quarterback. That has been problematic in recent seasons, but Teddy Bridgewater, acquired in an offseason trade, has changed that. He’s completing an astounding 77 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and no interceptions in four games.
Veteran running back Melvin Gordon has also shaken off recent injury problems and looked like his old All-Pro self, averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
Several teams, including the Broncos themselves, have proven throughout history that the formual for a championship is defense, a strong running game, and a quarterback who protects the ball. They have all of those things, so if they can keep everyone healthy, they’re a real championship threat.
They have some competition in the AFC West, though
The Kansas City Chiefs, one of the most offensively dominant teams in league history the past three seasons, have played in two straight Super Bowls (winning one) and three straight AFC title games. Currently, they’re in last place in the division.
The Las Vegas Raiders have also jumped out to a 3-0 start and the Los Angeles Chargers are 2-1, with reigning Rookie of the Year quarterback Justin Herbert looking like a breakout star.
The Chargers lost more close games than any team in the league last season, so a big turnaround from the won’t be a huge surprise. The Raiders have been competitive lately and the Broncos have always had a talented defense when healthy, so their success isn’t a huge surprise either.
The biggest surprise of the division is how poorly the Chiefs have played, particularly on defense. Their offense has put up the second-most points in the AFC, but their defense has given up more points than any AFC team. No matter how explosive their offense is, if they can’t get stops, the Chiefs might not get a chance to chase another Super Bowl appearance if the rest of the division passes them by.
The Carolina Panthers might be for real
In a division that features the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team led by the greatest quarterback in NFL history in Tom Brady and one that returns all 22 starters from its championship team, another team has jumped out to the division lead.
The Carolina Panthers seemed to be in the midst of a rebuild, but after a 3-0 start and competent play from new quarterback Sam Darnold, the Panthers could be a playoff threat. Darnold is completing a career-best 68 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and one interception.
The Panthers could have a problem as star running back Christian McCaffery went down with an injury and could miss several weeks. If Chuba Howard and Royce Freeman can’t pick up some of the slack, Carolina could fall back to Earth. But for now, they’re definitely the biggest surprise in the NFC and maybe in all of football.
The MVP will come from the NFC West
It’s not clear yet who will win it, but there is a good chance that either Matthew Stafford of the Los Angeles Rams or Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals wins the MVP award.
Both quarterbacks have led their teams to 3-0 starts. Stafford, in his first season with the Rams, has added new dimensions to their offense. The Rams have played in a Super Bowl recently and have been a consistent playoff threat, but their lack of playmaking at quarterback has been a hindrance. Stafford has dramatically changed that.
He’s completing 70 percent of his passes for 942 yards, 9 touchdowns, and just one interception in three games so far. He’s won the NFC Player of the Week award twice in three weeks. Paired with the Rams’ dominant defense, Stafford has Los Angeles fans excited about another potential Super Bowl run.
Murray brings more dimensions to his game than Stafford as he’s a threat through the air or on the ground. He’s thrown for over 1,000 yards and rushed for 70 with 10 combined touchdowns this season. Murray has thrown four interceptions to Stafford’s one, but both have had explosive seasons that have positioned their teams for contention.
The Rams and Cardinals still face each other twice this season, so who gets the better of those matchups could go a long way in predicting the MVP race.
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