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NFL Quarter Pole: The 5 Biggest Surprises

Sam Spiegelman looks at the 5 biggest surprises of the NFL season including the Bengals, Cardinals and the rebound of Eli Manning.

Eli Manning

We’re one quarter of the way into the 2014 NFL season, and thus far we’ve seen our fair share of both surprises and disappointments.

Some Cinderella teams currently sit atop the division standings ahead of preseason favorites, and players we thought were running out of gas have risen back to prominence.

As we reflect back on the first month of the season, here were the five biggest surprises.

Veteran quarterbacks bounce back

Tony Romo and Eli Manning were two quarterbacks I identified after Week 1 that I was ready to write off for the year and expected their teams to move on from them by 2015. Oh, how these two NFC East stalwarts proved me wrong.

Romo has been nearly perfect since the Cowboys’ Week 1 debacle against the 49ers, and owns a 6:1 touchdown to interception ratio since. Because of the emergence of DeMarco Murray and the success of the ground game, Romo has been allowed to make plays when his name is called, but not be the sole playmaker. As a result, he’s cut down on mistakes and has been more careful with the football.

Manning looked like a deer in the headlights in the Monday Night Football opener against Detroit, but has quickly found his stride in the new West Coast offense. He, too, has received better protection and has had a more reliable running attack to rely on. He’s thrown eight touchdown passes compared to three picks from Week 2 on, and has completed better than 71 percent of his passes during that span.

With these two quarterbacks playing this well, it should come as no surprise the Cowboys and G-Men are 3-1 and 2-2, respectively.

The 3-0 Bengals, Cardinals

3-0 may be just a blip on the radar given the early season’s strength of schedule, but I think it’s something to read into when it comes to Cincinnati and Arizona.

The Bengals have been a regular presence in the AFC playoff picture under Andy Dalton, but never a real threat to make it beyond the first round. This year, it seems as if the offense, defense and special teams units are all functioning at a higher level. They’ve knocked off Baltimore, Atlanta and Tennessee in the first month, and have looked like the class of the conference.

We were ready to write the Cardinals off after having lost Darnell Dockett, Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby before Week 1 even rolled around, then Carson Palmer was sidelined by Week 2. Instead, they’ve beaten three potential playoff teams in San Diego, San Francisco and the New York Giants, and have seemingly overcome their personnel losses with stellar execution in all three phases.

The State of Texas

Both the Cowboys and the Texans are both sitting in first place in their respective divisions. That’s nothing any of us could have foreseen back in August.

The Cowboys have put together a team that’s tough in the trenches, one with arguably the best offensive line in football and so far the most dominant rushing attack. As mentioned earlier, Romo is playing like a glorified game-manager, and the defense is making just enough plays to keep the team alive in games.

The Texans are only five months removed from selecting first in the 2014 NFL Draft, and now with Bill O’Brien making Ryan Fitzpatrick his starting quarterback and assembling one of the league’s top defensive front sevens, the Texans are very much in the mix for an AFC South crown.

These two Cinderella teams can compete in their divisions, so long that they can continue to play like they are now. Tough, run-first teams with solid defenses.

Early quarterback changes

It’s been a wild first month of the season when it comes to quarterback injuries and changes. So far, two quarterback changes have been due to benching and five because of injury. My crystal ball tells me two or three more may occur by the midway point in the season.

EJ Manuel was the latest to be benched in favor of the bearded journeyman Kyle Orton. Week 3 Chad Henne was benched at the half, allowing No. 3 overall pick Blake Bortles to take over and usher in a new era of Jaguars football.

Injuries to Josh McCown, Robert Griffin III, Jake Locker and Matt Cassel paved the way for Mike Glennon, Kirk Cousins, Charlie Whitehurst and another rookie, Teddy Bridgewater, to take the reigns of their respective offenses. Last Sunday, Derek Carr was forced from the game, meaning Matt Schaub or Matt McGloin could be the team’s starter Week 6.

Still, more could on the way. If Geno Smith continues to struggle, will Michael Vick get a chance? Ryan Tannehill proved he’s deserving of another start after the Dolphins shellacked Oakland, but his seat is still somewhat warm. And how could we forget about Johnny Manziel in Cleveland?

Steve Smith‘s resurrection in purple

The ageless wonder, Steve Smith has switched uniforms and seemingly resurrected his career with the Baltimore Ravens. He quickly ascended to being Joe Flacco‘s No. 1 wide receiver and has single-handedly revamped the team’s passing attack.

Through four weeks, Smith has hauled in 25 balls for 492 yards and three touchdowns, and is more than halfway toward reaching his statistical totals from last season in Carolina. Not only that, but Smith has been a terrific quote week in and week out, and that’s just well-appreciated.

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