Rating the NFL’s 32 biggest surprises so far: Which will continue, and which are a mirage?

While an NFL season isn’t determined in two games, a couple of games is an appropriate sample to start picking up on some trends. Some are expected and others are a bit of a surprise, and it’s the latter category that we’re tackling below, as our NFL Nation writers are picking out which surprise trends have real staying power and which are a mirage, a blip on the 17-game NFL radar.

Some of the trends listed below have fans feeling pretty good, like the Detroit Lions racking up bushels of touchdowns, Jalen Hurts playing at a potential MVP clip for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Buffalo Bills being awesome at pretty much everything. Others elicit a bit more concern, from the Cincinnati Bengals’ lack of first-half touchdowns and the Los Angeles Rams frustrating fantasy owners with their usage of running backs Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson Jr.

Let’s get to the real-or-mirage assessments, starting with the NFC East:

NFC EAST

Dallas Cowboys

The early surprise: Only two touchdowns allowed in two games

The verdict: Real. OK, the Cowboys will allow more than 17 touchdowns this season, but the second-year jump of the defense under Dan Quinn is real and what they expected. They have slowed down offenses quarterbacked by Tom Brady and Joe Burrow in the first two games. While those teams have other issues, the accomplishment can’t be taken lightly. For the Cowboys to succeed, even if Dak Prescott were healthy, the defense has to carry the day, and with three of the next four games against NFC East foes with varying levels of QB play, things are setting up decently for Dallas. — Todd Archer

New York Giants

The early surprise: Richie James is the leading receiver

The verdict: Mirage. James leads the Giants with 10 catches and 110 yards. It’s quite the revelation considering he seemed to be on the roster bubble throughout the summer. But James has quickly become a favorite of quarterback Daniel Jones. It’s just hard to imagine this continuing throughout the season. Kadarius Toney played a bigger role in Week 2, and rookie Wan’Dale Robinson (knee) should be back within the next couple of weeks. Robinson’s return should cut into James’ opportunities, even if it won’t completely cut him out of the rotation. — Jordan Raanan

Philadelphia Eagles

The early surprise: QB Jalen Hurts’ standout play

The verdict: Real. The big question entering the season was whether Hurts could elevate his game and turn the Eagles into legitimate contenders. Through two games, he has been their best player. The oddsmakers agree. Hurts’ MVP odds moved from 14-1 to 8-1 at Caesars Sportsbook during Monday night’s rout of the Vikings. He is now the third favorite behind Josh Allen (+325) and Patrick Mahomes (+450). While he might not stay at that level all season, his improved passing has made him more of a complete package, and difficult to defend. — Tim McManus

Washington Football Team

The early surprise: The significant impact of WR Curtis Samuel

The verdict: Real. After two games, Samuel and Terry McLaurin are tied for the team lead with 133 receiving yards. Samuel obviously was a productive player before coming to Washington last year, but thanks to soft tissue injuries last season he never looked like himself. But Samuel has looked sharp since the summer — his quickness underneath is apparent with his 85 yards after the catch. Samuel’s presence reduces the pressure on McLaurin and also helps free up rookie Jahan Dotson, who now has a team-high three touchdown catches. — John Keim

NFC NORTH

Chicago Bears

The early surprise: The run defense is a concern

The verdict: Real. The Bears were a bottom-11 team defending the run last season. Through two games in 2022 with an overhauled defense, the Bears have allowed 379 yards on the ground. They caught a break once San Francisco running back Elijah Mitchell exited Week 1 because of an injury but were annihilated by the Aaron Jones-AJ Dillon tandem in Green Bay, allowing 5.3 yards per carry and 203 rushing yards in Week 2. Missed tackles are to blame for much of what went wrong in Week 2, but the fact that the Bears face a handful of decent (Dameon Pierce) to really good (Saquon Barkley, Dalvin Cook) running backs their next three games is concerning. — Courtney Cronin

Detroit Lions

The early surprise: The Lions have scored at least 35 points in three straight games dating to last season

The verdict: Real. With offensive coordinator Ben Johnson calling plays, this Lions offense is explosive and creative. Quarterback Jared Goff has plenty of big-play options in running back D’Andre Swift, wide receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown and DJ Chark and tight end T.J. Hockenson. Detroit led 22-0 in the second quarter of its 36-27 win over Washington this past Sunday and put up 35 points in the season opener against Philadelphia. Along with last year’s 37-point finale, the Lions have scored at least 35 points in three straight games for the first time since a four-game stretch in 1952 and ’53. There’s no reason the Lions can’t keep scoring points if their top guys stay healthy. — Eric Woodyard

Green Bay Packers

The early surprise: The special teams haven’t been awful

The verdict: Real. So far, so good under new coordinator Rich Bisaccia. There haven’t been any miscues — no blocked kicks, no touchdown returns against them. New punter Pat O’Donnell ranks sixth in the NFL in net average, and although Amari Rodgers muffed one punt return, he recovered it and no damage was done. He also already has a 20-yard punt return — 3 yards shy of the Packers’ longest punt return last season. — Rob Demovsky

Minnesota Vikings

The early surprise: WR Adam Thielen’s targets have diminished

The verdict: Mirage. Through the first six quarters of the season, Thielen — the Vikings’ No. 2 receiver — had a total of four targets. On the fifth, quarterback Kirk Cousins forced a pass that was intercepted. Thielen did get six more targets in the second half Monday as the Vikings tried to catch up to the Eagles, and it seems highly unlikely that they will proceed with him playing such a secondary role. As long as he stays healthy, the Vikings will find ways to get him the ball. — Kevin Seifert

NFC SOUTH

Atlanta Falcons

The early surprise: The impact of rookie WR Drake London

The verdict: Real. The Falcons had a clear plan for their No. 8 pick as a tall receiver who could be a red zone threat and line up both in the slot and outside. So far, he has done all of that, catching 13 of 19 targets for 160 yards and a touchdown. London is helped by tight end Kyle Pitts drawing so much attention from defenses, but his emergence as an impact player for the Falcons is here to stay and could lead to Pitts getting more looks as teams figure out what to do with London. — Michael Rothstein

Carolina Panthers

The early surprise: The Panthers are struggling to convert third downs

The verdict: Real. The Panthers, who finished 29th in the NFL in third-down conversion rate in 2021, rank near the bottom of the league with a 26% conversion rate (6-of-23) this season. They’ve averaged only 55.2 offensive snaps thus far and have kept their defense, ranked ninth in the league, on the field way too long. That’s a big reason they have started 0-2 to extend their losing streak to nine straight dating to last season, the longest in the league. — David Newton

New Orleans Saints

The early surprise: Lack of defensive sacks

The verdict: Mirage. The Saints have only one sack through two games, which is tied for 29th, compared to four at this time last year. The Saints eventually finished eighth last season with 46 sacks, and this group is largely the same personnel-wise. While it’s a concerning statistic, Saints coach Dennis Allen isn’t worried, saying they were still able to contain well even though the Buccaneers were focused on getting the ball out quickly. “The sacks will come,” Allen said. — Katherine Terrell

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The early surprise: The defense has been lights out

The verdict: Real. In the first two games, the Bucs have surrendered just 6.5 points per game on defense. Through the first two games last year, it was 27 points. A point of emphasis has been more takeaways, and they already have six this season. Todd Bowles is showing why he deserved to be a head coach again. Of course, they’ll be battle tested over the next two weeks with Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes coming to town. — Jenna Laine

NFC WEST

Arizona Cardinals

The early surprise: The Cardinals have the second-worst pass defense

The verdict: Real. As long as the Cardinals keep their secondary the way it is — namely their cornerbacks — quarterbacks are going to salivate when they take the field against them. Besides Byron Murphy Jr., who’ll be making a push for a Pro Bowl this year and ended the Cardinals’ comeback win over the Raiders with a walk-off fumble return for a touchdown, Arizona’s cornerbacks are going to be liabilities until either they mature or reinforcements are brought in. — Josh Weinfuss

Los Angeles Rams

The early surprise: The running back usage isn’t consistent

The verdict: Real. Sorry to those who drafted a Rams running back this year in fantasy football, but through two weeks, it seems hard to predict how Sean McVay will use his backs. In Week 1, Cam Akers had only three carries in a blowout loss and Darrell Henderson Jr. led the way with 47 yards on 13 carries. But against the Falcons, it was Akers who led the team in carries and was involved in the passing game, although Henderson still scored a touchdown and had 47 yards on 10 carries. Expect the split to continue at the position with no one running away with the RB1 role. — Sarah Barshop

San Francisco 49ers

The early surprise: The 49ers’ defense is a top-five unit

The verdict: Real. The Niners’ defense allowed just 216 yards against Seattle in Week 2 and has yielded an average of 210 yards (best in the NFL) and 4.08 yards per play (second) through two games. Yes, the quality of opposing offenses is going to increase dramatically in the near future, but the Niners’ defense also has a chance to be even better once free safety Jimmie Ward returns from a hamstring injury. Don’t be surprised if coordinator DeMeco Ryans’ group, if healthy, is among the best in the league when it’s all said and done. — Nick Wagoner

Seattle Seahawks

The early surprise: Seattle’s offense has been blanked for six straight quarters

The verdict: Mirage. The Seahawks’ only points in Sunday’s loss to the 49ers came via a blocked field goal that they returned for a touchdown, which means their offense has been shut out since the second quarter of their opener. Sure, no one thought they’d be the Greatest Show on Turf with Geno Smith replacing Russell Wilson at quarterback. But even with his limitations, Smith is capable and has strong players around him. Seattle’s brilliant first half against Denver isn’t going to be the norm, but they’ve got enough to be much better than what they’ve shown since then. — Brady Henderson

AFC EAST

Buffalo Bills

The early surprise: Winning games in dominating, blowout fashion

The verdict: Real. What was unexpected is just how decisive the Bills’ victories have been, with a combined point differential of 55 (72-17). The defense is tied for the league lead in turnovers (seven), and quarterback Josh Allen is playing some of his best football to date — he has four consecutive games with at least an 85 total QBR, including playoffs. And there is plenty to improve on. Can they keep it up? Realistically, not quite to this extreme over the course of a season, but the fact they are in winning in this way with improvements to be made shows how good this team can be. — Alaina Getzenberg

Miami Dolphins

The arly surprise: The Dolphins have the league-leading passing attack

The verdict: Real. Tua Tagovailoa might not finish this season as the NFL’s leading passer, but the Dolphins’ ability to move the ball through the air is legitimate. Receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle will each finish the year with more than 1,000 yards receiving if they stay healthy and Tagovailoa proved in Week 2 he can command this Mike McDaniel-led offense. It’s a new day in South Florida. — Marcel Louis-Jacques

New England Patriots

The early surprise: Limited production from tight ends Jonnu Smith (three catches) and Hunter Henry (two)

The verdict: Mirage. They’ll get more involved than they’ve been, as the Week 2 win over the Steelers was played in mostly three-receiver packages — a specific game-plan wrinkle. The Patriots have designed plays to get the ball into Smith’s hands, as they showed in the season opener, and it’s just a matter of when they dial them up. Henry had 50 receptions last season, so his production is bound to pick up, too. — Mike Reiss

New York Jets

The early surprise: The Jets are averaging 303 passing yards per game

The verdict: Mirage. The Jets are not morphing into The Greatest Show on Turf. Joe Flacco has 606 passing yards in two games, the most by a Jets QB since Chad Pennington opened with 625 yards in the first two games of the 2006 season, but this isn’t who they are. They want to be a balanced offense, and they will get back to that philosophy when Zach Wilson (knee) returns in a game or two. It wouldn’t be wise to expose him to that many dropbacks, considering his injury history. Flacco has provided some fun, especially in Sunday’s epic comeback, but they can’t live that way over the long haul. — Rich Cimini

AFC NORTH

Baltimore Ravens

The early surprise: The Ravens have the NFL’s worst pass defense

The verdict: Mirage. The Ravens have allowed a league-worst 758 yards passing this season after finishing last in pass defense last year. So there is a troubling trend. But Baltimore hasn’t played a full game with its top two cornerbacks on the field because of injuries. There have been a lot of growing pains with rookie defensive backs Kyle Hamilton, Jalyn Armour-Davis and Damarion Williams. If Marlon Humphrey (groin) and Marcus Peters (knee) get healthier, the Ravens will cause problems for quarterbacks. But two big tests lie ahead in October: Josh Allen and Joe Burrow. — Jamison Hensley

Cincinnati Bengals

The early surprise: The Bengals have scored zero first-half touchdowns

The verdict: Real. This is a troubling trend for the Bengals because it isn’t limited to 2022. In the final three postseason games of last season, including Super Bowl LVI, Cincinnati scored just two first-half touchdowns. The Bengals were able to overcome that offensive outage for a brief duration and almost won a title despite that fact. But over the course of a 17-game season, it’s almost impossible to win having that issue. Cincinnati knows this is a big problem and if it isn’t solved soon, the Bengals could put themselves out of the playoff chase by November. — Ben Baby

Cleveland Browns

The early surprise: Fourth-quarter defensive collapses

The verdict: Real. Headlined by Pro Bowlers Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward, the Browns have the talent to boast an elite defense. Instead, the defense has been a disaster late in games, giving up a total of 34 points in just two fourth quarters. Defensive busts in what was supposed to be an imposing secondary have been the primary culprit, but the defense has been gashed across the board. Considering Cleveland got lit up in these fourth quarters by the QB (Baker Mayfield) it discarded this offseason and a 37-year-old backup (Joe Flacco), it’s difficult to call this troubling trend a mirage. — Jake Trotter

Pittsburgh Steelers

The early surprise: The run game has been quiet

The verdict: Real. Through two games the Steelers are averaging 3.8 yards per carry — exactly where they left off in 2021. While the revamped offensive line is playing decently in pass protection, it isn’t always in sync with the run game. Slowed by a foot injury, Najee Harris is averaging just 2.9 yards per carry with 72 yards through two games. For the Steelers to get the run game going, the offense needs to open up the passing game, and Harris and the offensive line need to get on the same page. — Brooke Pryor

AFC SOUTH

Houston Texans

The early surprise: The defense has played well

The verdict: Real. The Texans’ defense is holding opposing offenses to 18 points per game after facing two standout quarterbacks in the Colts’ Matt Ryan and the Broncos’ Russell Wilson. It should continue because the Texans’ defense is strong in the pivotal aspects. Their pass defense has held QBs to a 56% completion percentage, the fifth best in the NFL, and a passer rating of 76.7, good for seventh best. Offenses are converting only 33% of third downs against the Texans’ defense, which is eighth best, and they have the fourth-best red zone defense, allowing touchdowns only 28% of the time. — DJ Bien-Aime

Indianapolis Colts

The early surprise: Lack of takeaways

The verdict: Real. Turnovers were emphasized above all else in Matt Eberflus’ defensive scheme. Now that Eberflus is coaching the Bears, the Colts have not seemed as prone to taking the ball away and have produced one turnover through two games. The absence of linebacker Shaquille Leonard, a turnover-causing machine, through the first two weeks is a huge factor. And the Colts’ disappointing pass rush isn’t creating enough rushed decisions from quarterbacks. But deemphasizing turnovers could come at a cost. — Stephen Holder

Jacksonville Jaguars

The early surprise: The Jaguars are forcing a lot of turnovers

The verdict: Real. The Jaguars have forced six in two games (one shy of the NFL lead of seven by the Rams), including three interceptions of Colts QB Matt Ryan. They’ve already picked off a league-high five passes after having only seven interceptions and forcing nine total turnovers all of last season. The biggest difference from last season is increased pressure on the quarterback, especially from edge players Josh Allen (two sacks, FF) and Travon Walker (one sack, INT). All five of the Jaguars’ interceptions were the result of pressure. — Michael DiRocco

Tennessee Titans

The early surprise: Porous run defense

The verdict: Mirage. The Titans allowed 238 rushing yards in the season opener against the Giants before giving up 101 to the Bills. Tennessee is normally stout against the run, as shown by its No. 2 ranking in total rushing yards allowed (1,438 yards) last year. The loss of outside linebacker Harold Landry will hurt the Titans, but they have depth at the position. Bud Dupree, Ola Adeniyi and Rashad Weaver have to be better than their Week 1 performance and should be. Their philosophy of “setting the edge, creating a wall and swarming to the football” should be able to keep opposing rushing attacks from gouging them like the Giants did in the opener. — Turron Davenport

AFC WEST

Denver Broncos

The early surprise: A (historic) pile of penalties

The verdict: Real. Look, this problem is “real” until the Broncos show it’s not. They have 25 accepted penalties in two games for 206 yards, including four delay-of-game penalties (two on field goal attempts and one on their opponent’s 6-yard line) and six false start penalties. It’s just a two-game sample, but the Broncos have looked disorganized and disoriented and most of their errors haven’t been hustle plays or the kind in which a lineman is simply trying to save the quarterback from getting hit. And if they don’t find some on-field discipline soon, the AFC’s heavyweights are going to make them pay in the form of touchdowns. — Jeff Legwold

Kansas City Chiefs

The early surprise: The run defense has been better

The verdict: Real. The Chiefs are allowing 3.9 yards per rushing attempt, this after allowing almost a yard more per carry last season. But Nick Bolton and Willie Gay are giving the Chiefs better play from their full-time linebackers than they have been getting in years. They are also faster as a complete unit, allowing them to chase down plays that might have been out of their range before. — Adam Teicher

Las Vegas Raiders

The early surprise: The lack of sacks

The verdict: Mirage. The Mirage is not merely a mega resort on the famed Las Vegas Strip, it also represents the Raiders’ high-salary bookend edge rushers getting only one sack through two games. Surely Chandler Jones ($52.5 million, three-year free-agent contract) and Maxx Crosby ($99 million extension) will get untracked. Their respective histories suggest as much, as Jones has 107.5 career sacks and Crosby has averaged almost 8.5 sacks in each of his first three seasons. Like the dormant volcano at the Mirage, the Raiders’ pass rush will soon erupt because, as everyone knows, sacks come in bunches. Right? — Paul Gutierrez

Los Angeles Chargers

The early surprise: Allowing 23 points per game

The verdict: Mirage. The Chargers invested in their defense over the offseason, adding pass-rusher Khalil Mack, cornerback J.C. Jackson and defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day. Those standouts join edge rusher Joey Bosa and star safety Derwin James Jr. The defense has kept the pressure on opponents by intercepting three passes, forcing three fumbles and tallying seven quarterback sacks. Expect that points-allowed-per-game average to drop from its current mark, which is tied for 21st in the NFL, and establish the Chargers among the best defenses in the league. — Lindsey Thiry

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