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Five biggest surprises of 2022 NFL season thus far: Struggles for Buccaneers, Packers stand out

Entering this week, the NFL's average margin of victory was just 8.9 points. That's the lowest in NFL history, a boon for the competitiveness of a league whose draft and salary cap are designed to engineer evenness and thwart dynasties.

It is not so great for making predictions.

This season has turned preseason prognostication on its head. One reason: So much of the league is clumped right around the midline. When Sunday began, 10 teams were at 3-3, an even .500. And another 13 teams were one different result away from being .500, for better or worse. Teams that were supposed to be dominant have struggled. Some that were supposed to struggle have soared.

That means a whole lot of wrong. With the season still not even half gone, there is plenty of time for course corrections, but we're not too proud to admit that we are surprised by some of what we've seen. Here are the top five preseason takes that don't match reality.

1) PRESEASON EXPECTATION: The Buccaneers and Packers are leading Super Bowl contenders from the NFC.

REALITY: Their offenses look broken.

Scoring is down in the NFL this season and these two offenses are a good reason why. The most stunning result of the season came on Sunday, when the Buccaneers were lifeless in a 21-3 loss to the Panthers. Carolina, led by interim coach Steve Wilks, had only one win entering the game. Coach Todd Bowles called it a "dark day" for the Bucs and it's hard to argue after losses to the Mitch Trubisky-led Steelers and the Panthers, who had third-string quarterback P.J. Walker and didn't have recently traded running back Christian McCaffrey. That's four losses in their last five games. Slow starts are a consistent problem -- the Bucs have not scored a first quarter touchdown this season -- but the Bucs' issues go well beyond that. Their running game is non-existent (they had just 46 yards rushing against the Panthers) and they are among the worst teams in the league on third down (they converted just 2 of 12 third-down opportunities against the Panthers). This is the first time Tom Brady has had a losing record through his first seven games since 2002, his first full season as a starter, which is not how it's supposed to go with a team that is still largely intact from its Super Bowl season. Bowles hinted at tough questions ahead, saying the Bucs have to find out if the older players can still play and if the younger players are good enough to play. Either way, this is certainly not what Brady could have imagined when he came out of retirement.

The Packers are in at least as bad a spot, having dropped their third in a row, 23-21 to the Washington Commanders. The offense is wildly out of whack -- the Packers ran the ball just 12 times, while Aaron Rodgers attempted 35 passes, despite having a sore thumb and being out of sync with his receivers. Incredibly, they had no third down conversions. It's worth questioning the play-calling, but the other looming issue is whether the Packers will acquire another receiver before the Nov. 1 trade deadline.

For the Bucs, there can be some solace in the fact that in the NFC South, they are still tied for first place. No such comfort for the Packers. They are already behind the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North and they have to go to Buffalo next Sunday. Luckily for both, there is only one 6-0 team in the conference (Philadelphia) and two one-loss teams (New York Giants and Minnesota). Everybody else is clumped together, so they will likely remain in the race throughout the season.

2) PRESEASON EXPECTATION: The NFC East is the worst division in football.

REALITY: The NFC South is the worst division in football.

It's not that we thought the NFC South was going to be deep, not with the Atlanta Falcons bidding farewell to Matt Ryan and the New Orleans Saints without Sean Payton. But there was hope for Baker Mayfield in Carolina, and the Bucs were supposed to be battling for home-field advantages, not wins. Instead, after Week 7 losses by the Bucs, Falcons and Saints, everybody is under .500. That means the Panthers, who have already fired Matt Rhule, are only one game behind the Bucs. And the Falcons are tied for first. One of these teams will win the division and any thinking person would say the Bucs have the edge with Brady. But none of these teams, including the Bucs as detailed above, looks capable right now of making a sustained playoff run.

3) PRESEASON EXPECTATION: Every team in the AFC West is playoff-caliber.


The Chiefs ran up 44 points against the league's top-ranked defense on Sunday, so they are still the class of the division and it doesn't look any closer now than it did before everybody went on a free-agency frenzy in an attempt to catch them. The Chargers' propensity for falling behind by double digits in the first quarter, as they've done the last three games, is troubling and it came back to bite them Sunday, in a 37-23 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Still, the presence of Justin Herbert means the Chargers are never entirely out of a game, as the two earlier comebacks proved. This is mostly a Las Vegas and Denver issue. The Raiders' defense is a problem yet again -- they entered the week 28th in scoring defense, and all four of their losses have been by six points or fewer. Mostly, the team lacks consistency -- that 17-0 lead over the Chiefs looked great, allowing the Chiefs to roar back for a 30-29 victory less so -- which is not surprising considering Las Vegas has an entirely new coaching staff. Before the bye, the offense appeared to start clicking, averaging 30.5 points per game in their previous two games, and that continued in a big way Sunday in a 38-20 victory over the Texans. Best of all for the Raiders is that they play the Saints, Jaguars, Colts and Broncos coming up, perhaps giving them a chance to sneak into the fringes of a wild-card race.

The Broncos, though, are the most mystifying team in the NFL this season. Nobody, absolutely nobody, expected Russell Wilson to struggle as he has adapting to Nathaniel Hackett's offense, even before injuries started to affect him and ultimately keep him off the field Sunday against the Jets. Entering the game, the Broncos were 32nd in the league in scoring, and, including the 16-9 loss to the Jets, they have managed just eight offensive touchdowns. There is no quick fix here, other than greater comprehension of the offense and better execution. But the results have been so poor, the clock management so confounding, that Hackett's future is already a hot topic.

4) PRESEASON EXPECTATION: The New York teams are rebuilding.

REALITY: The New York teams are a combined 11-3.

This was only half wrong. The Jets and Giants are still rebuilding, although the Jets, with more young pieces in place, are further along than the Giants. But in the meantime, they are the two biggest surprises of the season, the Jets leaning heavily on their defense, the Giants relying on defense and the running game. Both teams won nail-biters on Sunday, requiring down-to-the-wire defensive stands to preserve their wins. It's hard to say how long their winning streaks are sustainable. The Giants go to Seattle next week and the injuries are piling up -- right tackle Evan Neal left Sunday's game with a knee injury and tight end Daniel Bellinger with an eye injury. The Jets host the Patriots, but running back Breece Hall has a season-ending knee injury, which will place more of the onus on Zach Wilson, who had just 121 passing yards and was under nearly constant duress by the Broncos. But after the two teams tied for the worst record in the NFL over the five seasons from 2017 to 2021, and neither has made the playoffs since 2016 (a wild-card round loss by the Giants), New York is suddenly, unexpectedly, a football town again.

5) PRESEASON EXPECTATION: Pete Carroll can't be serious about going with Geno Smith to replace Russell Wilson.

REALITY: The Seahawks lead the NFC West with Geno Smith running the show.

Smith was last a full-time starter in 2014, but even then, at the start of his career with the Jets, he was never as in command as he looks now for the Seahawks. Entering Sunday's game against the Chargers, he was leading the league with a 73.4 completion percentage, and he has been performing especially well with deep passes and under pressure. In Seattle's Sunday victory, he was 20-of-27 passing for 210 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He got a lot of help from running back Kenneth Walker III (two rushing touchdowns) and a defense that is finally coming together (two takeaways, three sacks). The result is that what appeared to be an awkwardly timed tear-down for Carroll is instead a mid-career renaissance for Smith and a return to the playoff chase for the Seahawks.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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