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Redskins, Falcons, Lions and Eagles Among NFL's Biggest Surprises

by Josh Kipnis

The rules to trash talking are simple-if you are up, let ‘em have it; if you are down, shut your mouth.  But either way, beware, because the tides turn quickly.

A quarter of the way through the 2011 NFL season, we can already distinguish between the teams that have a right to rant, and the teams that are biting their tongues.

Right to Rant:Washington Redskins

Last year, the Redskins finished last in the NFC East with a 6-10 record.  Everyone expected Washington to repeat that subpar performance this year, everyone except Rex Grossman.

During a preseason interview, Grossman told a reporter “We’re fine being the sleepers right now…Nobody’s talking about us, it’s right where we wanna be.  You look at us from top to bottom out here, there’s a bunch of great players.  And we don’t need people saying we’re the best right now.  But when it’s all said and done, I really feel like this team’s gonna win the [NFC] East.”

More people thought Rex Grossman was going to be checked into an insane asylum before the Redskins would end up atop the East.  Funny how quickly those tides turn, isn’t it?  Sure enough, the ‘Skins are 1st in the NFC East with a 3-1 record.

On both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, the Redskins are proving Grossman was exactly right.  The trio of Tim Hightower, Ryan Torain, and Roy Helu have stomped their way towards success, ranking Washington 6th in the league in the running game.  As for their defense, with NFL rankings of 6th and 8th in the running and passing games, respectfully, they are one of four NFL teams to rank in the top ten in both categories.

Bite Your Tongue:  Philadelphia Eagles

Quite the opposite of the Redskins, the Philadelphia Eagles were expected to run away with the division.  The Eagles had an impressive off-season, signing star players like CB Nnamdi Asomugha, DT Cullen Jenkins, and CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.  But, like we learned with the Miami Heat in last year's NBA Finals, money doesn’t buy happiness (or championships).  In each of their past three games, the Eagles have blown a 4th quarter lead.  This past week was the most detrimental, a whopping 20 point deficit that was overcome by the San Francisco 49ers, the team with the worst offense in the NFL.

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“The biggest thing that we’re missing here is attitude,” said Jenkins.  “You look around, you look how people are when things are going bad, you’re seeing there’s not that fire, that attitude, that mental toughness that you’re going to make it happen.”

So the question remains, when will they make it happen?  The Eagles are 1-3 this year and are dead last in the NFC East.  Even more troubling, Philadelphia’s next two games are on the road against the Buffalo Bills (3-1) and Washington Redskins (3-1).  The Eagles rank 30th defensively against the run, making a 1-5 record look unavoidable considering that Buffalo’s rushing attack ranks 5th in the NFL, with Washington right behind them at 6th.

Right to Rant: Detroit Lions

The Lions sit alongside last year’s Super Bowl champions, the Green Bay Packers, as one of two remaining undefeated teams. 

Detroit went 2-14 two years ago and 6-10 last season.  So how on earth are the Lions this successful?  Much like Steven Spielberg’s movie, they have found an answer in their “Transformer” known as “Megatron.”  Calvin Johnson’s nickname is right on target.  If you have seen #81 go up for a ball in the end zone, you know that Johnson is part machine.  He has caught two touchdown passes in each of the first four games of the season, tying Cris Carter’s previous record of most consecutive games with multiple receiving touchdowns.

Obviously, however, one player cannot be the reason for four straight wins—which made me wonder; are there any other “Transformers” to be found?  This past week, Detroit became the first team in NFL history to win back-to-back games after trailing by 20 points or more.  Two weeks ago, after falling behind by 20, they stormed back and beat the Vikings.  Last Sunday, they beat the Cowboys despite a deficit of 24 points.  With one of the best passing games and a solid defense, the Lions will be put to the test this week, when they host the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football.

Bite Your Tongue: Atlanta Falcons

Ever since Michael Turner escaped the shadow of LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego, he has proved to be a dominant presence on the football field.  Last year, he was vital to the Falcons’ success, but now it seems the coaching staff has been less reliant on the running game.  In 2010, Atlanta had the fifth most rushing attempts in the NFL.  In 2011, they are ranked 25th. 

A balanced offense is essential in keeping the defense guessing every play.  When you become too one-sided, linebackers are able to play further off the line of scrimmage and defensive linemen can pass rush more easily.  The other downside to less rushing attempts is that your time of possession goes way down.  This is even more of a problem for the Falcons when you consider how weak their pass defense has been this year.

Atlanta is 24th in the league in pass defense, and teams have taken notice.  Tarvaris Jackson, one of the most inefficient quarterbacks in the NFL, threw for 319 yards and 3 TDs last week against the Falcons.  If they give up that much yardage against a struggling Seattle Seahawks team, Lord knows what Aaron Rodgers is going to do to them in Week 5.