1-32 poll, plus the biggest surprise for every team

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6:45 AM ET

  • NFL NationESPN

While we’re not at the one-quarter mark of the season yet (thanks to the new 17-game schedule), the NFL Power Rankings thought this week was the perfect time to discuss each team’s biggest surprises in the early going.

Some of these surprises are quite good, such as Cooper Kupp being one of the NFL’s top receivers for the Los Angeles Rams, Lamar Jackson showing increased passing chops for the Baltimore Ravens or the Arizona Cardinals becoming the it team in the league’s hottest division. Others aren’t good at all, like the Washington Football Team regressing on defense, the Indianapolis Colts not being able to keep their main players healthy and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers running out of cornerbacks. But good or bad, we asked the reporters of all 32 teams to identify the one thing about the teams they cover that has startled them most through 23.52% of the season (we did the math).

How we rank in our Power Rankings: Our power panel — a group of more than 80 writers, editors and TV personalities — evaluates how teams stack up throughout the season.

Previous rankings: 4 | 3 | 2 | Preseason

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NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF

Previous ranking: 3

Biggest surprise: Defensive dominance

Why it’s a surprise: The fact that the Bills’ defense is playing well is not surprising, but it’s the numbers that the unit has put up that couldn’t have been expected. Buffalo has forced three or more turnovers in each of the past three games and has held two opponents scoreless in four games — including a 40-0 win against Houston on Sunday. No matter the opposing offenses — the team has faced three backup quarterbacks — that’s a big accomplishment in the NFL. That success has led to a plus-90 scoring margin. The Bills are the fifth team to be plus-80 or better through four games in the past 20 years. — Alaina Getzenberg

Previous ranking: 8

Biggest surprise: Success is happening so quickly

Why it’s a surprise: It’s not that the Cardinals being good is surprising, it’s that everything is clicking so early in the season. The offense added some important pieces this season and it was expected that they would all jell, but for all of it to come together and to be undefeated, lead the NFC West, have one of the best offenses in the league and an early MVP candidate at quarterback — well, that is what’s surprising. The early meshing of everything is as good of a scenario as it gets for the Cardinals. Even though Arizona started hot last year and then went into a tailspin, this start feels different. — Josh Weinfuss

Previous ranking: 1

Biggest surprise: WR Cooper Kupp

Why it’s a surprise: In his fifth NFL season, Cooper Kupp has established himself as quarterback Matthew Stafford’s favorite target and has exploded to become one of the top receivers in the league. Entering Monday night, Kupp leads the NFL with five receiving touchdowns and ranks third with 431 receiving yards. Kupp has also been targeted a league-high 46 times, catching 30 passes. Kupp was expected to be a top performer in the Rams’ offense, but few could have predicted that he would be among the most productive receivers in the league. — Lindsey Thiry

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Previous ranking: 2

Biggest surprise: The large number of injuries

Why it’s a surprise: After making it all the way to the Super Bowl and winning, the Buccaneers had a terrific training camp in terms of injuries. That luck has changed quickly, with all three starting cornerbacks potentially out now after Carlton Davis left their Week 4 win against the Patriots with a quad injury. In addition, Jason Pierre-Paul has missed multiple games with rib fractures, and Antoine Winfield Jr. has entered the concussion protocol. The once-strong defense has taken a big hit four weeks in. — Jenna Laine

Previous ranking: 4

Biggest surprise: The offensive line holding up

Why it’s a surprise: Life without All-Pro LT David Bakhtiari (recovering from ACL surgery) and Pro Bowl G Elgton Jenkins (missed the past two games with an ankle injury) hasn’t been the death knell to the offense that it could have been. The Packers have held their own with one experienced lineman (Billy Turner), two rookies at center and right guard (Josh Myers, Royce Newman) and second-year pros at left tackle and left guard (Yosh Nijman, Jon Runyan).

Aaron Rodgers said it best Sunday after facing a second straight team with a dominant defensive front, first the 49ers and then the Steelers. “If you would’ve told me early in the season we’d be without arguably two of our best linemen for a couple of games and play those two fronts, I would’ve been ecstatic with two wins.” — Rob Demovsky

Previous ranking: 6

Biggest surprise: How quickly the defense has come together

Why it’s a surprise: After finishing 19th in defensive efficiency last year, the Browns overhauled their defense in the offseason, bringing in or drafting eight new starters. The talent upgrade across the board was evident. But how quickly this defense has jelled in four weeks is still surprising. Already led by the league’s No. 1 pass rush win rate, the Browns own a defense that has the look of a championship-caliber unit. — Jake Trotter

Trevon Diggs, Lamar Jackson & Cooper Kupp ESPN

Previous ranking: 7

Biggest surprise: Lamar Jackson ranking in the top half of the NFL in passing yards

Why it’s a surprise: It was expected that Jackson would take a step forward as a passer, especially after the Ravens lost their two top backs (J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards) before the start of the regular season. But this has been a big step forward. Baltimore ranked last in the NFL in passing last season, and Jackson finished 22nd in passing yards in each of the past two years. This season, Jackson has really stretched the field. His 19 completions of 20-plus yards rank third in the NFL, trailing only Tom Brady (23) and Derek Carr (21). — Jamison Hensley



Stephen A. Smith wants to see the Dallas Cowboys’ defense go up against more experienced QBs before he can get behind their success.

Previous ranking: 14

Biggest surprise: Defensive takeaways

Why it’s a surprise: The Cowboys have 10 takeaways in four games, which is second in the league and the best in the NFC. How did this happen? They did not record their 10th takeaway a year ago until the 11th game of the season. It helps that Trevon Diggs is having a breakout season with five interceptions in the first four games. The last Cowboy cornerback to have five interceptions in a season was Terence Newman in 2010. The defense still has some faults, but if it can continue to get takeaways, that will give an offense that is rolling more possessions. Right now, the Cowboys have a perfect feel for complementary football. — Todd Archer

Previous ranking: 9

Biggest surprise: CB Asante Samuel Jr.

Why it’s a surprise: Nobody knew exactly what they were getting when Samuel was drafted with the 47th pick. He’s not his dad, but he has surprised just about everyone with interceptions in consecutive games (the first off of Dak Prescott in Week 2, the second off of Patrick Mahomes in the red zone in Week 3). Samuel has four passes defensed and was named Defensive Rookie of the Month but says “I’ve still got to grind.” He’s already made a name for himself in the Class of 2021. — Shelley Smith

Previous ranking: 5

Biggest surprise: The Raiders’ defense

Why it’s a surprise: A season ago, late collapses against the Chiefs, Chargers and Dolphins were the difference between an 11-5 playoff season and the middling 8-8 the Raiders finished with. Yeah, four weeks is a small sample size, but defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s re-imagined scheme is getting off the field and, yes, making plays. The best benefit for Las Vegas — the improved play on the defensive side of the ball is helping quarterback Derek Carr, too. — Paul Gutierrez

Previous ranking: 10

Biggest surprise: Red zone defense

Why it’s a surprise: The Chiefs have put much emphasis and many hours on the practice field to improve their defense inside the 20-yard line — which was worst in the league last season — but things have only gotten worse. The Chiefs have allowed a touchdown in the red zone 79% of the time, which is fifth worst and two percentage points worse than last season. It’s the biggest reason the Chiefs are 31st in points allowed. — Adam Teicher

Everything you need this week:
• Full schedule » | Standings »
• Depth charts for every team »
• Transactions » | Injuries »
• Football Power Index rankings »
More NFL coverage »

Previous ranking: 12

Biggest surprise: QB Sam Darnold

Why it’s a surprise: If anyone said they predicted before the season that Darnold would lead the NFL in rushing touchdowns (five) through four weeks, they would have been lying. Darnold had only five rushing touchdowns in three seasons with the Jets. He wasn’t considered a running threat. But teams are leaving lanes open, and Darnold is taking advantage. These aren’t quarterback sneaks. These are read-options or QB draw-type plays (credit OC Joe Brady) that Carolina was used to seeing Cam Newton run. — David Newton

Previous ranking: 17

Biggest surprise: Jamal Adams doesn’t have a sack

Why it’s a surprise: The Seahawks aren’t giving Adams as many opportunities to rush the passer as they did last season, when he set an NFL record for sacks by a defensive back with 9.5 in only 12 games. Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. suggested over the summer that Adams might not blitz as much this season. Still, it is surprising that he isn’t blitzing more given how up and down Seattle’s pass rush has been — generating nine sacks in four games. Without taking advantage of Adams’ best strength, the Seahawks aren’t getting the most out of their $17.5 million per year safety. Adams has rushed the passer 13 times through four games after averaging 8.25 rushes per game last year, per ESPN Stats & Information research. — Brady Henderson

Previous ranking: 13

Biggest surprise: Special teams’ woes

Why it’s a surprise: On one hand it shouldn’t be a surprise, as it’s been quite some time since the Broncos special teams’ units and consistency were paired together. But with the investment made in adding more speed to the roster in the offseason, the Broncos have surrendered a 38-yard kickoff return in the season opener and a 102-yard kickoff return for a TD in Week 2, have been called for a taunting penalty after downing a punt and surrendered a 42-yard punt return in Week 4. In a 3-1 start, none of those plays have cost them. But if this team really wants to be in the playoff conversation, repairs need to be made or those kinds of plays will cost them. — Jeff Legwold



Field Yates and Matthew Berry discuss whether Deebo Samuel’s fantasy production is worth keeping him on rosters.

Previous ranking: 11

Biggest surprise: WR Deebo Samuel

Why it’s a surprise: Samuel showed up to training camp leaner, healthier and a more well-rounded receiver. He looked poised for a big season, but even the biggest Samuel believers probably didn’t see this coming. Four games in, Samuel is first in the NFL in receiving yards (490) and yards after catch (266) and fifth in yards per reception (17.5). His 490 receiving yards through four games is the second-most by a Niner behind only Jerry Rice’s 522 in 1995. — Nick Wagoner

Previous ranking: 18

Biggest surprise: The Bengals’ strong defense

Why it’s a surprise: The Bengals have struggled to field a quality defense in coordinator Lou Anarumo’s first two seasons. However, this year the Bengals are among the best in the NFL through the first four games. Cincinnati ranks fifth in yards per play allowed and seventh in points per drive allowed. Granted, the opposing offenses haven’t been great, but the improvement in Anarumo’s unit has been very notable. Defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who signed a $60 million deal with the team in the offseason, is second in the NFL in pass rush first pressures, according to ESPN Stats & Information. — Ben Baby

• Rich Gannon breaks down Raiders’ Carr
• Chargers’ Murray plays with heavy heart
• Cowboys not satisfied even as expectations grow
• Defense gashed as Cardinals expose Rams
• Week 4 takeaways, big questions

Previous ranking: 15

Biggest surprise: The 31st-ranked passing offense

Why it’s a surprise: The Saints are averaging just 144 passing yards per game, while Alvin Kamara has set career highs with 24 and 26 carries, respectively, over the past two weeks. That kind of run-pass disparity worked when the Saints were running out the clock in big wins over Green Bay and New England but has been called into question now after they allowed the Giants to rally for a stunning comeback win Sunday. At some point, Sean Payton may need to rely more heavily on Jameis Winston and the passing offense. It will certainly help if WR Michael Thomas returns from his ankle injury when eligible after the Week 6 bye. — Mike Triplett

Previous ranking: 16

Biggest surprise: The struggles on offense

Why it’s a surprise: The Titans’ offense averaged 30 points per game last year. Tennessee was expected to maintain its high-scoring ways after adding Julio Jones to the mix. Through four games, Tennessee is averaging 23.8 points per game. Jones has yet to post a touchdown, while A.J. Brown only has one. Neither receiver was available to the Titans last week, but they still scored 24 points. The problem is they should have scored more. The Titans are not as efficient in the red zone anymore either. They’ve gone from 75% touchdowns in the red zone last season to only 50% this year. — Turron Davenport

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Previous ranking: 22

Biggest surprise: Defensive struggles

Why it’s a surprise: Washington ranked second in yards and fourth in points last season. It boasted a top young line, the defensive rookie of the year (Chase Young) and added parts in the offseason through free agency (corner William Jackson III) and the draft (linebacker Jamin Davis, corner Benjamin St-Juste). But after four games, they rank 29th in yards allowed and 30th in points. It’s not just about having a harder schedule, it’s about playing — and coaching — poorly. There has been a big blown coverage assignment every week and they’re not applying enough pressure (sacks on 4% of dropbacks compared to 7.8% last season). Quarterback Taylor Heinicke — another surprise — has bailed out the defense. When he became the starter, the belief would have been for the opposite scenario. — John Keim



Ryan Clark and Rex Ryan praise Bill Belichick’s game plan vs. Tom Brady and the Buccaneers’ offense on Sunday night.

Previous ranking: 19

Biggest surprise: Struggling offensive line

Why it’s a surprise: The group of Isaiah Wynn (LT), Mike Onwenu (LG), David Andrews (C), Shaq Mason (RG) and Trent Brown (RT) was supposed to be a strength of the Patriots’ offense, but rookie QB Mac Jones has taken 34 hits through four games. Also, the running game has been inconsistent, as evidenced by gaining minus-1 yard on eight carries Sunday night against the Buccaneers. Brown’s right calf injury, which has knocked him out of action for everything but the first series of the season, has been a factor in the performance, but is far from the only reason for the struggle. — Mike Reiss

Previous ranking: 26

Biggest surprise: The number of injuries to key players

Why it’s a surprise: Carson Wentz has no idea what it’s like to play behind the projected starting offensive line because the group has dealt with injuries. Right tackle Braden Smith continues to be out with a foot injury, left guard Quenton Nelson is on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain and left tackle Eric Fisher missed the first game of the season while continuing his recovery from an Achilles injury. And that’s just the start. Receiver T.Y. Hilton is on the IR with a disc injury. Starting safety Khari Willis, pass-rusher Kwity Paye and cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Rock Ya-Sin have all missed games with injuries, too. Injuries are part of the game, but the Colts have been ravaged with them through the first four weeks. — Mike Wells

Previous ranking: 20

Biggest surprise: CB Bashaud Breeland

Why it’s a surprise: Minnesota signed Breeland to shore up the secondary and put a player with experience and good coverage skills (ranked 18th by Pro Football Focus in 2020) opposite Patrick Peterson at outside corner. Through four games, Breeland’s play has been a disaster. He has been targeted 23 times and allowed 20 receptions for 281 yards (14.1 yards per reception), has given up four touchdowns and is allowing a near-perfect passer rating (157.2). Against Cleveland, Breeland left the game after six plays with an “illness” and didn’t play again after being the closest defender on a 21-yard pass that converted a third-and-long for the Browns. — Courtney Cronin

Previous ranking: 27

Biggest surprise: LB Robert Quinn

Why it’s a surprise: After an uninspiring 2020 season, Quinn has been all over the field for the Bears defense through four games. The veteran pass-rusher leads the team with 4.5 sacks and has recorded multiple tackles for loss. Quinn said he is in a better place mentally and spiritually this season — and it’s showing on the field. When Quinn is paired with Khalil Mack, the Bears have one of the most formidable edge rusher duos in the NFC North. — Jeff Dickerson



Dan Orlovsky argues with Rex Ryan and Ryan Clark about why Mike Tomlin should consider moving on from Ben Roethlisberger now.

Previous ranking: 21

Biggest surprise: Pass rush struggles

Why it’s a surprise: The Steelers got plenty of pressure out of the four-man rush in Week 1, but haven’t been able to replicate the same results the past two weeks. Without T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, the Steelers didn’t record a single sack against the Bengals, and against the Packers, they only had two — including one that appeared to just be a trip by Watt. Watt, who sustained a groin injury against the Raiders, said he felt healthy enough to play against the Packers, but he — and the rest of the Steelers’ front — haven’t performed to the same level they did in Week 1. The Steelers have shown an ability to play championship-level defense, but the lack of replication is surprising. — Brooke Pryor

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Previous ranking: 24

Biggest surprise: RB Miles Sanders’ usage

Why it’s a surprise: Sanders is the Eagles’ lead back, yet only has 37 carries through four games — which is tied for 33rd in the NFL with the Cowboys’ No. 2 running back Tony Pollard and Jets rookie Michael Carter. He has nine rushes total in the past two weeks. Meanwhile, rookie Kenneth Gainwell (89 total yards and a TD vs. Chiefs) is heating up. Sanders and QB Jalen Hurts were expected to be a dynamic 1-2 punch out of the backfield, but it’s been slow going for Sanders to start. — Tim McManus

Previous ranking: 23

Biggest surprise: Poor offensive play

Why it’s a surprise: Name the offensive category and the Dolphins are either near or at the bottom of the NFL’s rankings. Entering Monday night, Miami was 31st in scoring, 31st in total yards, 30th in first downs, 30th in passing yards, 26th in rushing yards — need I go on? Tua Tagovailoa’s current stint on injured reserve has not helped, but even he can’t single-handedly solve Miami’s offensive woes. The Dolphins’ offensive line also ranks 29th in pass block win rate and has given up the fourth most sacks — despite seeing the eighth fewest blitzes in the league. It has been a surprisingly horrendous start to the season for a team that had playoff aspirations in 2021. — Marcel Louis-Jacques



Matthew Berry argues that Cordarelle Patterson has more value staying on fantasy rosters than as a trade piece.

Previous ranking: 25

Biggest surprise: RB Cordarrelle Patterson

Why it’s a surprise: Patterson has been a revelation in an otherwise struggling offense in Atlanta, as he is on pace for the best rushing season of his career (he already has 27 carries for 119 yards) and his best receiving season (already having 18 catches for 235 yards). Arthur Smith has been able to find a way to create opportunities for him, which led to him scoring three touchdowns against Washington — as many receiving touchdowns as he had in the past four seasons. Patterson has been a pleasant surprise for Atlanta in every way. — Michael Rothstein

Previous ranking: 29

Biggest surprise: Defensive struggles

Why it’s a surprise: The defense was supposed to be the strength of this Giants’ team. It isn’t. It is ranked 22nd in the NFL allowing 382 yards per game. And it’s probably not going to get much better. The Giants still haven’t found answers at edge rusher and are without starting middle linebacker Blake Martinez for the remainder of the season. It’s hard to be a top defense like what was expected with a pedestrian pass rush. — Jordan Raanan

Previous ranking: 32

Biggest surprise: Defense has overachieved

Why it’s a surprise: The defense ranks in the top half of the league in points and yards allowed despite some tough circumstances. Top pass-rusher Carl Lawson was lost to a season-ending injury in the preseason, linebacker Jarrad Davis (ankle) still hasn’t played, free safety Lamarcus Joyner suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1 and three rookies are starting. Talk about adversity. Thanks to good coaching, plus terrific starts by LB C.J. Mosley and DT Quinnen Williams, the Jets’ defense has managed to hold it together. — Rich Cimini

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Previous ranking: 28

Biggest surprise: Lack of production from RB Phillip Lindsay

Why it’s a surprise: Entering training camp, the Texans expected Lindsay to emerge as their lead back. Instead, Lindsay trails veteran running backs Mark Ingram II and David Johnson for carries and has just 31 yards and a touchdown on 24 attempts. Since Week 1, Houston has not run the ball well at all and ranks 31st in Football Outsiders’ rushing DVOA. It might get a little easier for the Texans in Week 5, as the New England Patriots’ defense ranks 28th in rushing DVOA and allowed Tampa Bay to run for 119 yards on Sunday night. — Sarah Barshop

Previous ranking: 30

Biggest surprise: Starting 0-4

Why it’s a surprise: Nobody expected the Lions to be a playoff team, but starting 0-4 isn’t ideal — even for the Lions. Against Chicago, they failed to score on four different red zone drives, which tied for the most by any team in a game since 2000 — and Detroit’s most in a single game. Quarterback Jared Goff has now lost six consecutive regular-season starts, which is the longest active streak among QBs. It hasn’t been all his fault, with injuries and costly miscues haunting this team, but the Lions have to improve at limiting mistakes in scoring situations if they want to win a game. — Eric Woodyard

Previous ranking: 31

Biggest surprise: Josh Lambo’s struggles

Why it’s a surprise: There hasn’t been much the Jaguars have been able to count on over the past several seasons other than Lambo. Lambo earned the “Lambomatic” nickname because he had made 95% of his field-goal attempts with the Jaguars (76-of-80) from the time he joined the team in October 2017 through the 2020 season. But he’s 0 for 3 this season, didn’t play last week because of personal reasons and head coach Urban Meyer said Lambo will have to compete with Matthew Wright for the kicking job this week. An offense averaging just 18.5 points per game needs a reliable kicker and if Lambo doesn’t rebound this week his time in Jacksonville is likely done. — Mike DiRocco