The New York Giants made the playoffs for the first time in four years last season under the guidance of coach Ben McAdoo, setting high expectations for the 2017 campaign. They pushed those expectations even higher with the addition in free agency of Brandon Marshall, a 6-foot-4 wide receiver who stood to benefit from easier assignments with star wideout Odell Beckham Jr. on the other side of the field.
Then the season started and things went off the rails.
After an 0-5 start, Beckham and Marshall both suffered broken ankles during a 27-22 loss to the San Diego Chargers in Week 5 and were ruled out for the season. Dwayne Harris fractured his fifth metatarsal in his foot during the same game, and is on injured reserve. Their top receiver, Sterling Shepard, missed Sunday's game with migraines and his status against Washington in Week 12 is undecided.
Injuries are only part of the collapse. The defense is now allowing 2.1 points per drive while forcing a three-and-out 25.6 percent of the time after posting rates of 1.4 and 34 percent, respectively, in 2016. According to the game charters at Pro Football Focus, the Giants have the 26th best defense in 2017 compared to the No. 7 defense just a year earlier.
Before the 2017 season started, we used the preseason point spreads and Pro Football Reference's Simple Rating System, to extrapolate how the NFL's teams were expected to perform. At that time, the Giants were expected to finish the season with a 10-6 record, making them contenders in the NFC East. Now they are on pace for a three-win season, making them the biggest underachievers of the year. But they're not alone. Here's a look at the most disappointing and most pleasantly surprising teams of the NFL season.
Denver Broncos (3-7): 4 wins fewer than expected
Preseason projection: 11-5
The season started off full of promise for the Broncos. They won three of their first four games with quarterback Trevor Siemian running the offense better than expected. Then the bye week hit and the team started losing games in spectacular fashion. It got so bad the team benched Siemian in Week 8 in favor of Brock Osweiler, one of the worst passers in 2016 per ESPN's Total Quarterback Rating (49.3, 22 out of 30 qualified quarterbacks). Three losses later, after the team's sixth consecutive L, general manager John Elway fired offensive coordinator Mike McCoy.
Now, quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave must find a way to improve an offense scoring 1.4 points per drive (25th) with the league's fourth-worst red-zone offense.
A byproduct of the inept offense is Denver's defense — which has dropped from No. 1 to No. 12 in one season per Football Outsiders — has to contend with opponents starting at their own 34-yard line, the best field position allowed this season. In 2016 opponents started at their own 29-yard line. The shift has spiked Denver's points allowed per drive from 1.4 to 1.9 year over year.
Los Angeles Rams: 4 wins more than expected
Preseason projection: 3-13
The Rams are coming off a 24-7 road loss to the NFC North-leading Minnesota Vikings, but Sean McVay is defying expectations in his first year as an NFL head coach. Los Angeles is scoring 2.4 points per drive in 2017, the fourth most this season and a franchise high since 2002, the year the league expanded to 32 teams.
The key has been the emergence of quarterback Jared Goff. Goff was ranked 30 out of 36 passers by Pro Football Focus last season but has risen to No. 19 overall in 2017, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes for a 108.5 passer rating with a clean pocket. That drops to 77.6 under pressure, higher than the league average and No. 8 overall this season. In fact, his overall passer rating under pressure this year is higher than his passer rating in 2016 with a clean pocket.
Philadelphia Eagles (9-1): On pace for 5 wins more than expected
Preseason projection: 7-9
Fly, Eagles, fly. Few saw Philadelphia's domination coming, but it's in large part thanks to its young quarterback, Carson Wentz, playing at an MVP level.
Wentz has completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,430 yards and a league-leading 25 touchdowns, making him the fourth-most valuable passer per QBR. Pro Football Focus is only slightly less impressed, placing Wentz fifth among 31 qualified passers.
What makes Wentz so dangerous is his ability to make big-game plays few quarterbacks can make. Look no further than his third-quarter performance against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night. The second-year pro was 7-for-18 for 80 yards in the first half before turning it around in the second half, completing 7 of 9 passes for 88 yards and two touchdowns. Many of his dropbacks that game, 13 of 28, were under pressure, yet he still managed to complete 6 of 12 with a touchdown while being sacked once.
The NFC East crown is already a foregone conclusion — the Eagles have a 99 percent chance of winning the division per our simulations — but they could have a first-round bye (74 percent) in the playoffs for the first time since 2004, their last Super Bowl appearance.
Jacksonville Jaguars (7-3): On pace for 4 wins more than expected
Preseason projection: 5-11
If defense does win championships, the Jaguars are in for a successful season. Jacksonville is allowing a league-low 1.0 points per drive in 2017, the third fewest points allowed per drive since 2002. One of the teams ahead of them, the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0.89), ended the season as Super Bowl champs. The other, the 2005 Chicago Bears, made the playoffs but lost in the divisional round to the Carolina Panthers.
The Jaguars boast a fearsome defensive line that is the league's third-best pass-rushing unit per Pro Football Focus, with defensive end Calais Campbell credited with 111/2 sacks on the season, tying him for the league lead with Dallas's Demarcus Lawrence. They also have the NFL's best secondary, a ball-hawking crew that is limiting opposing quarterbacks to a league-low 64.5 passer rating against.