The biggest surprises of the first half of the NFL season

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No one should be surprised that the Chiefs and Eagles are leading their conferences again. Nor that the Lions and Jaguars have become formidable, that the Panthers and Cardinals are struggling, or that Tyreek Hill and Christian McCaffrey have been unstoppable.
The NFL season is halfway complete — nine weeks down, nine to go — and it has unfolded mostly according to plan.
▪ C.J. Stroud is a baller. Remember all that pre-draft talk that Stroud didn’t thrive in big moments at Ohio State, and how he supposedly bombed the S2 cognition test? The Panthers clearly bought into it, as they drafted Bryce Young No. 1 overall ahead of Stroud, who went No. 2. But Stroud has been spectacular in his first eight NFL starts and is the front-runner for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Stroud ranks fourth in the NFL in passer rating (102.9), third in yards per attempt (8.14), leads the league in completions of 25-plus yards (24), and has a 14:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Most importantly, the Texans are a surprising 4-4 and looking dangerous in the AFC playoff race.
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▪ Zach Wilson is actually 4-4. Technically, he’s 3-4 as a starter since he didn’t play the first snap in Week 1, but Wilson has played 494 of 498 snaps for the surprisingly competitive Jets. They’re winning with defense, of course, and Wilson has been mostly terrible — he has completed just 59.9 percent of passes, ranks 30th out of 32 quarterbacks in passer rating (75.4), and the Jets are last in the league on third down (22 percent) and in the red zone (24 percent). But Wilson has cut his interceptions from 2.9 percent of throws to 1.9 percent, and he has led three fourth-quarter comebacks. The Jets just need him to squeak out a couple more wins to give Aaron Rodgers a chance to come back for a playoff push.
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▪ Josh Dobbs. A seven-year journeyman with two career starts entering this year, Dobbs has suddenly found himself in the spotlight. He went 1-7 as the Cardinals’ starting quarterback after being acquired in a trade two weeks before the season. And he became a folk hero in Minnesota last week in leading the Vikings to a dramatic comeback win over the Falcons, just five days after being acquired in another trade. Dobbs could probably run for mayor of Minneapolis right now.
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▪ The Saints lead the NFL in interceptions. Last year, they ranked 30th in the league with seven interceptions in 17 games, including only one by a cornerback (Marshon Lattimore). This year, under new coordinator Joe Woods, the Saints already have 12 picks, and third-year cornerback Paulson Adebo is second in the NFL with four. The 5-4 Saints lead the NFC South, and will need their No. 7-ranked scoring defense to keep carrying them.
▪ Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense are struggling. They’re 7-2 and the No. 1 seed in the AFC, but the Chiefs are mostly winning with defense. Currently 12th in points per game (23.1), the Chiefs have never ranked outside the top six under Mahomes, and haven’t been ranked this low since they were 13th in scoring in 2016 with Alex Smith at quarterback. Mahomes’s completion percentage has never been higher (68.6), but he’s putting up career lows in yards per attempt (7.3), yards per game (271), passer rating (96.7), and is on pace to shatter his career high of 13 interceptions (on pace for 18). The Chiefs need to develop another weapon to take the pressure off Travis Kelce.
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▪ The Giants are a disaster. A regression could have been expected after they overachieved last year, finishing 9-7-1 and making the playoffs in coach Brian Daboll’s first season. But no one should have expected this — a 2-7 record, the worst scoring offense in the NFL (11.2 points per game), the worst passing attack in the NFL, horrific offensive line play, and injuries to quarterbacks Daniel Jones and Tyrod Taylor. The Giants created bad karma in the locker room last offseason with their hardball handling of Saquon Barkley’s contract, and it has spilled into the regular season.
▪ Russell Wilson is actually putting up decent numbers. It may be fool’s gold, with the Broncos at 3-5 and suffering a 70-20 humiliation at the hands of the Dolphins. But Wilson is bouncing back from a horrendous 2022. Under Sean Payton’s tutelage, Wilson’s completion percentage is up 5.5 points to 66.1, he has thrown 16 touchdowns passes against just four interceptions, and his 101.7 passer rating ranks fifth in the NFL. The Broncos have won two straight against the Packers and Chiefs, and they may be turning a corner.
▪ Lamar Jackson is thriving as a passer. The Ravens are 7-2 with the best point differential in the NFL, and Jackson is arguably the leading MVP candidate with the help of new offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Jackson completed 58.2 percent of passes as a rookie and just 62.3 percent last year, but this year he leads the NFL at 71.5 percent. Jackson is on pace for a career-low six interceptions, his 7.7 yards per attempt are up nearly a full yard from last year, and his 100.8 passer rating is the second-best of his career.
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▪ The best rookie receiver is a fifth-rounder from BYU. The Rams’ Puka Nacua was the 20th receiver taken in April’s draft, 177th overall, but he’s lapping the field. Nacua has 64 catches for 827 yards, with Jordan Addison next in yards (534) and Zay Flowers next in catches (45). Nacua is another example of how scheme fit and coaching are more important for a player’s production than pure talent.
▪ Nick Bosa has three sacks in eight games. It is unclear whether Bosa’s contract holdout, which kept him away from the 49ers until early September, affected his preparation. What is clear is that Bosa is not having the same impact as last year, when he had 18.5 sacks and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. In addition to just three sacks, Bosa doesn’t have a forced fumble or recovery. The 49ers have the No. 4 scoring defense, but their 18 sacks are tied for 24th.
▪ Tua Tagovailoa is really good. He entered the season with two major questions: Was last year a flash in the pan, and can he stay healthy? Tagovailoa has answered resoundingly. He has started all nine games, the Dolphins have the No. 1 scoring offense (31.7 per game), and Tagovailoa leads the NFL in passing yards (2,609), touchdowns passes (19), and passer rating (106.4). Only four quarterbacks since the merger have finished a season leading the league in those three stats — Tom Brady (2007), Kurt Warner (2001), Dan Marino (1984), and John Brodie (1970).
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▪ The Falcons aren’t using Bijan Robinson in the red zone. When a team drafts a running back with the No. 8 overall pick, it’s usually to use him as a workhorse, particularly near the goal line. But that hasn’t been the case for Robinson, who has 517 rushing yards on a healthy 5.0 average, but just one touchdown. Robinson has just nine carries in the red zone, tied for 45th in the NFL, while teammate Tyler Allgeier is tied for sixth with 25 carries and three touchdowns. Now-benched quarterback Desmond Ridder also has nine carries and three TDs in the red zone.
▪ The Patriots are 2-7. No one expected the Patriots to be a contender, but no one expected them to be the worst team in the AFC, either. Bill Belichick went 2-7 just one other time — in 2000, his first season with the Patriots. Tough bookends to a Hall of Fame tenure.
More questions than answers in Patriots locker room Share WATCH: Patriots reporters Ben Volin and Nicole Yang analyze Bill Belichick’s job security in New England and break down the benching of J.C. Jackson.
HOMEGROWN
Giants’ DeVito
gets dream job
When Tommy DeVito gets home from Sunday’s game, he’ll head back to his parents’ house and probably break down his performance with his mother and father, like he did in Pop Warner and high school.
Except this game is different. DeVito lives with his parents in Cedar Grove, N.J., but now he’s the starting quarterback for his hometown Giants, and he’s facing the Cowboys in Dallas.
Daniel Jones is out for the season with a torn ACL, and Tyrod Taylor out indefinitely with a rib injury. DeVito, 25, will be first rookie free agent quarterback to start for the Giants since the common draft was created in 1967.
Undrafted in April out of Illinois (by way of Syracuse), DeVito signed afterward with the Giants and impressed enough in training camp to earn a spot on the practice squad. Since practice squad players make just $12,000 per week, with no guarantees, DeVito decided to move back home, a 12-mile drive from the Giants’ training facility.
DeVito got his first NFL snaps as a backup in losses to the Jets and Raiders the last two weeks, and will make his first start on Sunday in Dallas on national television.
DeVito’s performance has been rough — 17-of-27 passing for 174 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions — but he has become the pride of his hometown.
“Went to get pizza [on Tuesday], bunch of people stopped me to say congrats and good luck,” DeVito told reporters.
Tommy DeVito, 25, will be first rookie free agent quarterback to start for the Giants since the common draft was created in 1967. Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
ETC.
League problem
with ‘tush push’?
Officially, the NFL doesn’t have a problem with the Eagles’ “tush push” short-yardage play that is catching on with the rest of the league. But Packers guard Jon Runyan Jr. thinks the league may be trying to eliminate the play via ticky-tack penalties.
Runyan was called for “offensive offside” twice in last week’s win over the Rams, both times for supposedly lining up in the neutral zone on fourth and 1. He was not happy about it.
“I guess it was a point of emphasis with the officials,” Runyan said. “I wish I would’ve been told that for the first one. It’s something that’s got to be communicated better. That’s the NFL trying to phase that play out slowly.”
Runyan sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. His father, Jon Runyan, is the NFL’s vice president of the policy and rules administration. He’s an appeals officer for on-field fines, and “works closely with groups across the league, including the competition committee, player safety advisory panel, head coaches and team equipment managers,” per the NFL.
Offensive offside was a little-called penalty before this year — twice in 2022, once in 2021, six times in 2020, and none between 2017-19, per NFLPenalties.com. Only one of those flags came on third or fourth down in short yardage.
But offensive offside already has been called nine times this year, with eight of the nine coming within the last three weeks. Eight of the nine have also come on third or fourth down with 1 yard to go.
“I think they have a point of emphasis every week,” Runyan Jr. said of the officials. “Apparently, that was in the weekly video, but I had no idea. I didn’t even know they sent out a weekly video on points of emphasis. That was on it [last] week, and you can tell they were definitely looking for it, because they called it twice on us.”
Who’s calling the shots?
One of the top rules for coaches looking for career advancement has always been, “You don’t want to be the guy who replaces a legend.” This year, we’re seeing a new rule take effect: “You don’t want to be the guy who replaces a popular interim coach.”
Josh McDaniels got fired from the Raiders two weeks ago because the players didn’t like him, and never wanted him. They wanted Rich Bisaccia, who went 7-5 and led the Raiders to the playoffs in 2021 when he took over midseason from Jon Gruden. But Raiders owner Mark Davis misread the room and hired McDaniels.
The Raiders are already rallying around interim coach Antonio Pierce, who won his debut last week. If Davis is smart, and the players continue to respond to Pierce, he’ll hire Pierce full-time this offseason.
The Panthers probably made a similar mistake this year in hiring Frank Reich instead of Steve Wilks, who went 6-6 last year as the interim coach. Players thought they were fighting to save Wilks’s job, only for owner Dave Tepper to hire Reich, whose mild-mannered approach hasn’t galvanized the locker room. The Panthers are 1-8 and Reich is looking like he will soon meet the same fate as McDaniels.
Extra points
It was hard not to be impressed last week by Commanders second-year quarterback Sam Howell, who threw for 325 yards, a touchdown, and a pick in a win over the Patriots. Howell, a fifth-round pick out of Wake Forest last year, took 40 sacks in his first seven games, but just four in his last two. He outdueled Russell Wilson in September, twice went toe to toe with Jalen Hurts, and outperformed 2021 first-round pick Mac Jones. Howell has 11 touchdowns passes and four interceptions since the calendar turned to October. “I’ve tried to improve every single week as far as just getting the ball out of my hands and trying to get down to the checkdowns faster,” Howell said . . . The Patriots were one of the first teams to mine talent out of Germany, drafting Sebastian Vollmer, signing Markus Kuhn in free agency, and developing fullback Jakob Johnson in recent years. But Sunday’s opponent also has strong German/central European ties. Colts starting left tackle Bernhard Raimann is a native of Steinbrunn, Austria, who started playing at age 14 for the Vienna Vikings. And they have practice squad cornerback Marcel Dabo, a native of Reutlingen, Germany, who played for the Stuttgart Scorpions and was discovered at the NFL’s International Combine in 2022 . . . It’s about time that the NFL and college all-star games — the Senior Bowl, Shrine Bowl, and HBCU Legacy Bowl — began allowing juniors to participate. The purpose of these games is for talent evaluators to scout all of the top prospects in one fell swoop. Excluding juniors, many of whom are the top players in the draft, never made much sense . . . The Jets’ 22.1 percent success rate on third down is the second lowest in history through nine weeks, ahead of only the 1998 Giants (21.1 percent). The Jets are 9-plus percentage points behind the 31st-ranked team, the Browns (31.7). League average is 39.2 percent . . . The Bears are 2-0 on Thursdays and 1-7 on Sundays . . . Teams have won five straight games in their throwback uniforms. The Steelers will wear theirs against the Packers on Sunday . . . The Packers haven’t won in Pittsburgh since 1970, five straight losses . . . Former Raiders and Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin was elected a county commissioner in his hometown of Scranton, Pa., on Tuesday. A Democrat, McGloin will take place on a three-person board that oversees Lackawanna County’s policy, economic development, and finances (but not their paper companies).
Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.

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