What have been the biggest surprises of the season heading into Week 7?

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With one-third of the NFL’s regular season already in the books, some surprising trends have already started to emerge.

In the early going, it can be easy to write off some developments as mere aberrations that are the products of a small sample size. But many preseason expectations have already been shattered, whether that’s the Arizona Cardinals standing alone as the league’s last unbeaten team or Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs making a case for NFL Defensive Player of the Year thanks to his seven interceptions in six games.

With that in mind, we asked USA TODAY Sports’ NFL reporters, columnists and editors:

What is the biggest surprise of the early portion of the season?

Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson (55) celebrates after an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, in Cincinnati.

Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson (55) celebrates after an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, in Cincinnati.

Their answers:

The emergence of Cordarrelle Patterson as an X-factor on offense. Sure, the Falcons (2-3) are in rebuilding mode. Yet as new coach Arthur Smith retools an offense that added phenom rookie tight end Kyle Pitts while subtracting Julio Jones, Patterson has been a dynamic force who leads the team with 5 TDs and 468 yards from scrimmage. Throughout his 9-year NFL career, Patterson, 30, has proven to be one of the most prolific kickoff returners in history. But until now, he’s been a bust as a receiver, which is one reason he’s with his fifth team. Smith, though, has crafted a role – as a running back, receiving back, slot receiver and wideout – that utilizes Patterson’s versatility and explosiveness all across the formations. He’s still a threat as a returner…if teams kick it his way. Yet suddenly he’s a much bigger threat in the red zone than ever, which despite the presence of Pitts and receiver Calvin Ridley, makes him the most exciting Falcon to watch. Who knew?

The AFC West is competitive and the Chiefs are no guarantee. Sorry, Kansas City friends (and my Kansas City-native mom), but the NFL’s penchant for parity is one of its best assets. It’s not that I don’t want the Chiefs to triumph; it’s more that I consider the stakes in this division a positive development. The Chiefs are riding a five-year streak as AFC West champs. If Patrick Mahomes and his weapons sufficiently fix their ball security woes, and the defense sturdies, their rebound will be that much more meaningful. If not? The Chargers are as exciting as they’ve been in recent years, behind stellar quarterback Justin Herbert’s early-career breakout and first-year coach Brandon Staley’s smooth transition. The Raiders are aiming to rally in the wake of head coach Jon Gruden resigning, midseason—a personnel change stemming from off-field concerns. Some divisions, like the NFC East, change hands near-yearly. That’s both reason for hope and disillusionment for fan bases, and great for the league. Whatever happens to the Chiefs the next 11 weeks, the division will be more competitive because of what we’ve seen. Stay tuned.

The adaptability of the Ravens. Baltimore has been one of the more injured teams in football this season with over a half-dozen key players landing on injured reserve. Yet in what is both a testament to the effectiveness of the team’s front office, and the coaching skill of John Harbaugh, the Ravens haven’t wilted, and are 5-1. A key reason why, as former team executive Mike Tannenbaum notes in his writing for the33rdteam.com: “Over the last two seasons, they were 31st in early down pass rate at 44.5%. Only the Titans and Derrick Henry ran the ball more on early downs. Yet, through the first 5 weeks of the 2021 season, Baltimore passed 57.1% of the time on early downs, good for 10th in the NFL.”

It has to the Arizona Cardinals. We knew they made some seemingly nice roster additions, but nobody projected them as the best team in football through a third of the season or had Kyler Murray as an early MVP candidate.

I think because of last year’s start and then drop-off, I’ve remained skeptical. Three of the last four weeks, I’ve thought, “Okay, this is the week the magic runs out.” But each week, they’ve proven me wrong. They’re winning at home, winning on the road, and winning in a variety of ways. Statement wins against the Rams and Browns, the latter without their head coach in attendance because of COVID-19? Crazy.

They legitimately deserve consideration as one of the top teams in the league. An absolute surprise for me.

How often do we see a quarterback change his nature well into his NFL career? That’s exactly the dynamic that’s unfolding with Derek Carr, who seems to have shaken the risk-averse tendencies that defined his first seven seasons as a starter. But in 2021, gone are the constant checkdowns. Instead, Carr has displayed the confidence to consistently attack defenses downfield. with his 9.3 average intended air yards per pass ranking fifth-best among all quarterbacks. Sure, Henry Ruggs III does plenty on his own to regularly get open deep and open things up elsewhere for the Raiders’ passing attack thanks to his rare speed that defenses must account for. But Carr easily could make his living throwing to Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow in the short to intermediate area. Instead, he’s embraced a sea change in his playing style.

Any time a long-suffering fan base sees its team turn things around, it’s worth pointing out. And what the Cincinnati Bengals have done on offense in the second year with Joe Burrow at quarterback has been exceptional — especially when factoring in all the talk about the struggles rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase was having in training camp. All that is great. But so much credit should go to defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo for turning around what was a historically inept defense.

In 2019, Anarumo’s first season with the Bengals, Cincinnati ranked dead last in the league in yards allowed per play (6.09), rushing yards allowed per game (148.9) and passing yards allowed per play (7.85). Last season, those numbers gradually improved and the Bengals ranked 28th, 29th and 22nd in those categories, respectively. Now, cut to this season, when the Bengals rank second in yards allowed per play (5.07), eighth in rushing yards allowed per game (90.5) and fourth in passing yards allowed per play (6.09). More importantly, the defense now ranks fifth in the NFL in scoring, allowing 18.5 points per game, though it is just 0.4 average points off from being second. The offense gets headlines, but the Bengals are shutting teams down.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL Week 7: What have been the biggest surprises of the season so far?



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