The 2016 NFL season is officially five weeks in; it is time to take a look at the five biggest takeaways from the season, thus far, and examine them. Several learning points existed throughout the first five weeks, but the following five presented the most eye-opening reactions from fans around the country.
#1. The Minnesota Vikings are a legitimate playoff contender.
The Vikings were expected, by many, to be competitive once again this season and have a chance to capture the NFC North championship for the second consecutive year. Even the most optimistic fans could not have expected such a hot start from a team missing their starting quarterback and All-Pro running back. Minnesota currently sits atop of the National Football League as the last remaining undefeated team following their 31-13 victory over the Houston Texans. Quarterback Sam Bradford continues to turn heads around the league with his impressive performances on the field, the running game is developing continual cohesion without Adrian Peterson and the defense ranks among the three best in football with their ability to generate pressure on opposing offenses.
Head Coach Mike Zimmer has his team believing they are the best in the entire NFC; he just might be right. The Minnesota Vikings are a legitimate playoff contender, division contender and possible Superbowl contender. As surprising as it is, they cannot be ignored any longer.
#2. The Atlanta Falcons’ offense is explosive and dangerous.
Atlanta is off to another flying start; the second consecutive season doing so. The Falcons display the top offense in the National Football League, at the moment, with their ability to stretch the field horizontally and vertically in the passing game. Quarterback Matt Ryan is on pace to breaking personal career records while currently leading the race for 2016 NFL MVP honors. Wide Receiver Julio Jones is one of the most unstoppable possession/speed receivers in the league; Jones recently had a game where he posted 300 total yards on 12 receptions against a defense which was ranked fourth best one season ago. The Falcons are getting contributions from other receivers as well, making this passing attack one of the deepest, most talented and dangerous units in football.
What is really striking about the Atlanta offense is the apparent two-headed monster forming within the running game. Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman not only provide balance to the unit with their ability to run downhill, they also pose as a threat in the backfield with screen passes. This duo is leaving their mark as a one to not take lightly; making the Falcons’ offense even tougher to deal with.
#3. The Carolina Panthers appear to be done, but don’t jump to conclusions just yet.
The Panthers are off to one of the league’s worst starts in 2016. Quarterback Cam Newton is dealing with concussion issues, the running game is stagnant, the wide receivers are not getting open, the offensive line cannot provide enough protection for the receivers to get open and the defense took several steps back in pass rush abilities and secondary coverage. Most fans believe Carolina is done, and it certainly looks that way, but don’t jump to immediate conclusions right away.
Remember what division the Panthers play in: the NFC South. This is not a good division, despite Atlanta getting off to a high-flying start. The Falcons need to prove they can maintain consistency throughout the season’s entirety, the New Orleans Saints’ defense will keep them from contending and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are dealing with problems of their own on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Newton will be healthy soon, the defense will get better because they are still very talented in the front seven [the secondary is very bad though] and Head Coach Ron Rivera has been in this position before. Does anyone remember the 2014 season? The Panthers did begin the season 2-0 before going 1-8-1 in the next 10 games. Similar problems existed that year, but Carolina still won the division. It will be tougher this time around, because the Falcons are a better team than they were two years ago, but the Panthers still have a shot to take the south for the fourth consecutive season.
#4. The Pittsburgh Steelers are AFC Championship contenders…at the very least.
The Steelers were the pick of many football fans, prior to the season, to reach Superbowl LI as the AFC representative. Pittsburgh’s chances look very good, if not the best, following their 4-1 start to the season. The high-powered offense hit a massive speed bump against the Philadelphia Eagles in week three, but rebounded with two dominant performances against the Kansas City Chiefs and New York Jets. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger reinserted himself in the NFL MVP discussion following his last two outings against two solid AFC defenses. Running back LeVeon Bell’s return provided immediate impact, making the Steelers’ offense tougher to deal with because of his ability to run the ball effectively and catch short route passes. The wide receiver core continues to make plays both in short routes and explosive deep routes and the offensive line is holding their own rather nicely.
The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, mostly the Patriots, pose as the only real threat to the Pittsburgh Steelers at the moment. The Atlanta Falcons proved this week that the Broncos’ acclaimed defense can be beaten and New England’s defense has yet to show up, despite a dominant performance against the Houston Texans. The Steelers are not the Texans; they are much better. Barring any bad injuries to the starters, similar to last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers are AFC Championship contenders…at the very least.
#5. The Dallas Cowboys are a much better team than expected.
The Cowboys are making their case to being the best team in the NFC East, following their 28-14 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals this past weekend. An opening week loss to the New York Giants, 20-19, is a distant memory as Dallas rattled off four consecutive wins for the first time since the 2014 season. Quarterback Dak Prescott is making his case for 2016 National Football League Rookie of the Year with his very solid production at the position, rookie running back Ezekiel Elliot is right behind him in the race as he continues to dramatically improve his performance on the ground and the wide receivers are able to get open due to the offensive line’s ability to take over the trenches. Despite Dez Bryant not being much of a factor, thus far, the Dallas offense looks to be the most explosive unit within the division.
Dallas’ defense, surprisingly, continues to get better and better as the weeks continue. The Bengals display a solid offensive unit, with the ability to put points on the board and move the ball down the field. The Cowboys’ defense dominated them for three quarters. The continuously improving defense, along with the strong offensive production, makes the Dallas Cowboys possibly the favorites to win the NFC East in 2016. Here is the million dollar question: will the Cowboys find a way to shoot themselves in the foot once again?
Bring on the next five weeks.
The 2016 NFL season already displayed several twists and turns for fans to talk about. The next five weeks will provide an indication of which teams are legitimate contenders and which team only got off to good starts but will taper off toward the end.