Back in the summertime, when training camps were getting started, I was talking with a player on the Chicago Bears and asked him how the team was looking. "Great!" he said. "This year's Jaguars!"
I chuckled a bit, and I think he did, too, which is why I won't tell you who he was. I reminded him of that conversation Monday, and he didn't remember it, but man... he might have been right.
Last week in this space, we highlighted the league's three most disappointing teams so far this year. But I don't like to be so negative all the time, so this week we'll look at three of the league's more pleasant surprises, starting with those aforementioned Monsters of the Midway.
"Statement game" is kind of an overused term, and the Bears would tell you it doesn't apply to what they did to the Vikings on Sunday night because they weren't trying to make a statement; they were trying to pad their division lead.
But you can do both, and the Bears did. With Khalil Mack's ankle back at something close to full strength, the Bears defensive Death Star is fully operational. The visiting Vikings, a preseason Super Bowl favorite, were unfortunate to be in its sights.
The Bears' defense believed even before the early-September trade for Mack that it would be one of the best in the league, but the impact of Mack's arrival has been elevating that confidence to unforeseen levels. When I covered Chicago's Week 4 victory over Tampa Bay -- the game in which second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky threw six touchdown passes -- Bears defensive back Prince Amukamara told me of Mack, "When you see greatness like that, it just makes everybody want to be great that much more."
What they didn't know they had back in August was a dynamic offense. They were hoping, but these things take time to come together. And Trubisky entered this season as a still-unknown quantity. What we see when we watch the Bears is an offense that's still a work in progress to some extent but has dynamic elements and is built to make life as enjoyable as possible for Trubisky. First-year coach Matt Nagy isn't afraid to mix and match his receivers, tight ends and backs, who have differing skill sets Nagy can adapt to situations and opponents. Trubisky's natural talents fit a wide-open 2018 NFL in which offenses are more creative and taking more chances. You can see the thing growing, and you can see where it will continue to grow. But in the meantime, the Bears are a real contender, and their division victory Sunday proved it.
The Bears felt like they let one get away in Week 1 when Aaron Rodgers did his second-half magic trick on them, but they've obviously recovered. Only the Saints, Rams and Chiefs have more wins and a better point differential than the Bears do, and after Sunday's throttling of the Vikings, they hold a game-and-a-half lead in the NFC North. They don't dazzle the TV ratings books like the Saints and Rams do, but if they get to the playoffs with a fully healthy Mack and confidence on the upswing, there's every reason to believe they'll be dangerous.
If you knew Andrew Luck was going to come back healthy with his shoulder at full strength, sure, you'd have predicted an improvement for the Colts over last year's 4-12 finish. But (A) nobody really knew that in September, and (B) you'd still have allowed that the Colts' roster around Luck needed a ton more work before it could be a contender.
If you spoke to Colts officials in the offseason, you knew they believed the defense would be a work in progress as it underwent a scheme change under new coordinator Matt Eberflus, and the offensive line was an area of concern because it had been such a weakness for so long. And that doesn't even mention the fact that the Colts began their offseason with Josh McDaniels bailing out weeks after agreeing on a deal to be their head coach, leaving them to hire Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich at the last minute.
They seem to have lucked out (no pun intended) on that last point, as it's hard to imagine anyone doing a better job than Reich did of shepherding Luck through the offseason and building an offense that catered to him while he was working his way back into game shape. Luck is humming now. He has thrown at least three touchdown passes in each of his past seven games -- the third-longest such streak in NFL history behind Tom Brady's 10 in 2007 and Peyton Manning's eight in 2004.
Part of the reason is the offensive line has come together in a way that exceeds any reasonable expectations they could have had for it. The Colts got three second-round picks from the Jets to move down three spots in the first round and still might have found the draft's best player in Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson, who could be the offensive rookie of the year if an offensive lineman can win such an award. Obviously, the line is a five-man unit, but one Colts official to whom I spoke in recent weeks said you could "absolutely" credit the addition of Nelson for the line's resurgence. The team believes he plays with a level of toughness and meanness that rubs off on his linemates, and that he has unlocked a level of performance in those around him that might not have shown up without him. Fellow rookie Braden Smith, taken with one of the second-rounders the Colts got from the Jets, has settled in as a starter at right tackle.
On the flip side is that defense and Eberflus, who was one of the coaches who signed a contract when the Colts thought McDaniels was coming and stuck around even after McDaniels flaked. General manager Chris Ballard was a huge fan of Eberflus and was thrilled to have him even without McDaniels, and the performance of his defense so far is likely to land Eberflus some head-coaching interviews in January. Second-rounder Darius Leonard has played like a candidate for defensive rookie of the year at linebacker, and while the defense does have a ways to go, it's 10th best in the league in yards allowed per game and fourth best in points allowed per game over the past five weeks -- during which time the Colts are 4-0. That four-game winning streak has Luck & Co. back at .500 and in contention for a playoff spot -- at least a year ahead of schedule.
The team the Colts are chasing in the AFC South has won seven games in a row after Sunday's victory in Washington, making it the hottest team this side of New Orleans. Now, it hasn't been easy. Its past two wins required missed field goals (albeit long ones) by opponents at the buzzer, and the first two wins in its streak came when the Colts went for it on fourth down in their own territory in overtime and the Cowboys didn't go for it in overtime a week later.
But seven wins in a row is seven wins in a row, and the 7-3 Texans are in first place in the division and thinking about the possibility of a playoff bye.
"Obviously, having some close games and being battle-tested, that's great for us as a team," Texans defensive back Kareem Jackson said. "Because when games get close, we don't get tight. Playing in those tough games has brought us closer together as a team. Now we're paying attention to the details in a way maybe we weren't earlier in the season."
Jackson's story is a neat one. He changes positions week to week, moving between safety, cornerback and nickel depending on the opponent and the Texans' injury issues. Sometimes, coaches don't tell him which position he's playing Sunday until they get to Thursday's or Friday's practice. Jackson said he and safety Tyrann Mathieu are both guys who can shift around and play different positions and that it's energizing him.
"It's kind of a unique thing to have guys that can move around, talking about me and Tyrann," Jackson said. "Got to play that shuffle game. It's all about just getting my mind set. I pride myself on being able to play multiple spots."
As for the offense, the Texans' coaches have worked with second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson on ball security, and it's paying dividends. After having seven interceptions and seven fumbles in the first six games of the season, Watson went three games in a row without any of either before slipping back into old habits Sunday with two picks and one fumble.
"I just think he's more aware, when he's in the pocket, of keeping two hands on the ball at all times, and then keeping the ball within the framework of his body instead of holding it out there in one hand while he's running," Texans quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan said. "You walk a fine line with a guy like that, because one of his greatest strengths and assets is his instinct for the big play. But I think he's figuring out, 'This is a time to take a shot, and this is a time not to.'"
You might say the Texans don't qualify as a surprise, since some people picked them to win the division before the season began. But after they lost their first three games of the year, it didn't look as if any of this would be possible. The emergence of rookie wideout Keke Coutee and the trade-deadline acquisition of Demaryius Thomas following a season-ending injury to Will Fuller show that the Texans are eager and able to build a win-now offense around Watson as he develops.