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The Schein Nine

Matthew Stafford's rise, Falcons' fall top biggest NFL surprises

There's been only one predictable element to the 2013 NFL season: It's been unpredictable.

Plenty of moments in this campaign have colored me stunned, but here are the nine biggest surprises at the midway point, Schein Nine style.

1) Matthew Stafford has been elite

Last season was rough for the underachieving Detroit Lions, who finished 4-12, and Stafford didn't help matters with his 20-to-17 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

This season, Stafford has been flawless, showing off arguably the game's strongest arm, plus pinpoint control and a knack for clutch play. Did you see the lasers Stafford threw Sunday during the game-winning drive against the Cowboys? My goodness, that was impressive.

The presence of a Reggie Bush-led run game predictably has helped the 5-3 Lions, but I'm blown away by Stafford's 16 touchdowns against just six picks. And he even wore his hat forward after the comeback win over Dallas.

Stafford has been clutch, dominant and a true leader this season. He's a top-five quarterback and an MVP candidate.

2) The Falcons are a mess

They are injured. They lack confidence. They are nearly impossible to watch. This clearly isn't what I or anyone else expected from a team that was universally considered a Super Bowl contender (I picked the Falconsto win it all.)

Roddy White hasn't been healthy all year. Julio Jones is injured and done for the season. I believed Steven Jackson would be the free-agent pickup that paid the most dividends, but he can't stay on the field. Atlanta can't run or play consistent defense.

Entering the season, a wild-card berth would've been considered a disappointment for the Falcons. A 2-5 record is unfathomable and a gigantic letdown.

3) The Saints' defense is dominant under Rob Ryan

I have the utmost respect for Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis, but I found Ryan's appointment as New Orleans' defensive coordinator to be a curious one, based on the Saints' personnel and his work in Dallas. And you figured the unit would be compromised after injuries to Victor Butler and Will Smith.

Well, the Saints have only one loss and are true Super Bowl contenders partly because of Ryan's game-changing defense, which ranks 12th in the NFL. It's the perfect complement to Drew Brees and the Saints' well-known offensive attack. Ryan is an aggressive mirror image of Payton calling plays, so it's turned out to be a great marriage.

4) The Panthers are above .500 -- and tough

I wrote Carolina's epitaph before the season. When the Panthers were 1-3, I looked like a prophet. Now that they're 4-3? Not so much.

Cam Newton has played the best ball of his career, and while I don't believe Ron Rivera and Co. are out of the woods yet, they have drubbed teams they're supposed to beat. That's the sign of a good squad. And they have punched adversity in the face. It's been impressive to watch.

5) Case Keenum over Matt Schaub in Houston

When I wrote in the preseason that Schaub was the player most singularly tied to his team's fortunes, I didn't expect him to be the captain of the Titanic.

I picked the Texans to reach the Super Bowl. They've been a major failure, and as I pointed out a few weeks ago, it starts with Gary Kubiak, who hasn't been able to fix Schaub and could be running out of time as Houston's coach.

What if I told you in the preseason that Case Keenum would be the Texans' quarterback on "Sunday Night Football" against the Indianapolis Colts? It's the most stunning fall from grace, combined with the elevation of a third-string quarterback to starter, that I've ever seen.

6) Chip Kelly's poor decision-making

I picked the Philadelphia Eaglesto win the NFC East by default. I wrote in the preseason that the division would be historically bad. That was spot on.

I also believed Kelly would make a rather easy transition from college to the pros. That hasn't happened.

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The Eagles' offense hasn't lived up to the hype after its impressive first half in the season opener, and Michael Vick and Nick Foles have been injured. But Kelly's bad in-game calls have been truly stunning.

Take Sunday's loss to the New York Giants. Why not run LeSean McCoy on first-and-goal at the 2? Matt Barkley was sacked and fumbled, which was predictable because he's been a turnover machine. Why punt in the fourth quarter on fourth-and-4 from midfield? Why call an onside kick in a one-score game with 4:11 remaining?

Kelly also mismanaged the clock and the game at the end of a Week 2 loss to the San Diego Chargers. Now the Eagles are 3-5.

7) Terrelle Pryor's rise in Oakland

I wrote in the preseason that I thought Pryor would play, but I never imagined he'd be the Raiders' Energizer Bunny.

Pryor is a tremendous worker, leader and athlete, and he's a much better thrower than I originally thought, completing 63.1 percent of his passes. He inspires the Silver and Black, which might not be in the quarterback business in next year's draft -- potentially a stunning turn of events.

8) The Ravens don't have an identity

Nobody is debating whether or not Joe Flacco is elite. He isn't even relevant right now. Ray Rice has been a non-factor, with just 242 rushing yards. Baltimore's defense, which I believed would be better than the version that won the Super Bowl, doesn't intimidate and sits in the middle of the pack in league rankings.

The biggest question is, who are the Ravens? Are they a run-first team? The offensive line has had issues. Are they Flacco's team? They lack weapons, and Flacco hasn't played well. They've blown leads, been blown out and rarely looked anything but mediocre. That's surprising from the defending Super Bowl champions.

9) An NFL team called about Brett Favre

Really? How does this happen? I like Les Snead and Jeff Fisher running the St. Louis Rams. But did they really think Favre coming off his tractor would be a good idea? He's been retired for three years and was miserable in his final year in Minnesota.

Memo to NFL teams: Lose Favre's number.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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