What we learned at NFL’s midseason point: Biggest surprises, letdowns

Approximately halfway through the regular season, some clarity has emerged throughout the NFL.

The league seemingly has reached a healthier point with points and television ratings on the rise. The contenders are starting to emerge while some early upstart teams have started to cool.

Here's a look at what we’ve learned so far this season, as well as some of the biggest surprises and disappointments.

What we’ve learned

Don't sweat the slow starts: Some of the NFL’s premier teams sparked concern by stumbling early. The Saints' defense got embarrassed in a 48-40 Week 1 loss to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneers. The Patriots appeared wobbly at 1-2 after losses to the Jaguars and Lions. The Steelers went 1-2-1.

But each of these squads has rounded back into the forms we all expected. The Saints have won six straight, while the Patriots claimed their last five and the Steelers their last three.

The Saints are coming off two victories over formidable foes (the Ravens and Vikings), with their defense posting one of the unit's most impressive showings against an explosive Minnesota attack.

Meanwhile, a Patriots offense that lacked firepower early has benefited from Julian Edelman's return from suspension and the trade for Josh Gordon.

In Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger looked dreadful as he committed five turnovers in the season-opening tie with Cleveland. But he and Antonio Brown have rediscovered their connection, and James Conner has emerged at running back amid all-pro Le'Veon Bell's continued absence.

The Texans also slipped up early with an 0-3 start but now lead the AFC South thanks to quarterback Deshaun Watson powering a five-game winning streak.

Defense still matters to some: Rule changes and new points of emphasis forced a dramatic shift for defensive players, as offenses have scored at a record pace and quarterbacks have been prolific. But the Redskins have become one of the league's outliers and biggest surprises by leaning on their defense. Washington's offense ranks just 27th overall and 25th in scoring (20.9 points per game), but the 5-2 leaders of the NFC East boast a punishing defense that ranks second overall and fifth in points allowed (19.1). A fierce front seven led by first-round Alabama linemen Jonathan Allen (2017) and Daron Payne (2018) hasn't allowed an opposing running back to gain more than 61 yards in any game this season. The pressure up front has also played a role in safety D.J. Swearinger snagging a league-high four interceptions.

The Rams are for real: It wasn’t just beginner's luck in 2017 for then-rookie coach Sean McVay. Standing as the lone unbeaten at 8-0, his team is even better this year. The Rams have often won in blowout fashion, but they survived their toughest test yet last week by topping the Packers 29-27. Their success has come while integrating new pieces and while dealing with key injuries. Jared Goff has taken a significant step in his command of the offense and ranks third in passing yards (2,425) while throwing for 17 touchdowns and just five interceptions.

Biggest surprises

Patrick Mahomes: Andy Reid moved on from Alex Smith despite the veteran quarterback's five consecutive winning seasons and four playoff appearances. But the Chiefs coach's 2017 first-round pick was ready to shine. Mahomes leads the league both in passing yards (2,526) and touchdowns (26) for 7-1 Kansas City.

Adam Thielen: Undrafted out of Minnesota State-Mankato, Thielen has made a steady climb and exploded this season with a record-tying eight consecutive 100-yard games. 

James Conner: The Steelers’ offense looked poised to take a significant step back without Bell. But Conner, a third-round pick in 2017, has stepped in nicely, averaging 4.7 yards per carry while amassing 599 rushing yards and nine touchdowns (both second-most in the league).

Biggest disappointments

Giants: New York expected to get back on track right away by plugging in new coach Pat Shurmur and No. 2 pick Saquon Barkley. Instead, the Giants are 1-7. Eli Manning has struggled mightily behind an awful offensive line and faces questions if he should remain the starter. Odell Beckham Jr. has expressed discontentment with the franchise that just gave him a record $90 million contract and has called out everyone from Manning to his coaches.

Jon Gruden’s Raiders: He left the broadcast booth for a 10-year, $100-million contract and had many expecting a quick turnaround. But Gruden has instead angered the fan base and frustrated some of his own players by trading Khalil Mack to the Bears just before the season and sending wide receiver Amari Cooper to the Cowboys last week. Those moves freed up cap space and brought in a total of three first-round draft picks, but that return is little solace for a team that has floundered this season.

Browns: Cleveland entered the season with a lot of buzz, but not even general manager John Dorsey and No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield could save the franchise from dysfunction. Three straight losses and division among the coaching ranks led to this week’s firing of head coach Hue Jackson (3-36-1 at the helm) and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. The 2-5-1 Browns (now led by interim Gregg Williams) have a rough road ahead down the stretch of the season.

Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

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