Don't look now, but the Minnesota Vikings have emerged as one of the top teams in the NFL.
The Vikings are 7-2 and have a commanding two-game lead in the NFC North. They sport one of the NFL's top defenses and only five teams have a better overall point differential.
One reason for the improvement has been the offensive line, which crippled this franchise a season ago. It's certainly not one of the top units in the league this year, but it's been far better, and has allowed Minnesota's skill players to shine.
But there's also been hardship on the offensive side of the ball in 2017.
Quarterback Sam Bradford was terrific to start the season against the Saints, but is now on injured reserve. The offense has since been backup Case Keenum's show, although Teddy Bridgewater is now available to play.
The Vikings also lost phenomenal rookie running back Dalvin Cook after just four games. Cook quickly proved to be a difference-maker, and there's been a clear drop-off to Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray.
Meanwhile, Minnesota has only gotten seven games from its presumed No. 1 wide receiver, Stefon Diggs, who's battled injuries this season. He's put up some big numbers when healthy, but has also produced some lackluster performances.
So, with all the moving parts on the Vikings' offense, what's been the constant? Clearly Keenum is exceeding expectations. He's been poised and productive under pressure, is throwing the ball well, has shown the athletic ability to extend plays, rarely takes sacks, and values the football.
But maybe most importantly, Keenum is getting the ball to the one true constant, and a huge reason why the Vikings sit at 7-2: Adam Thielen.
Certainly, this 27-year-old wideout has taken a very unconventional path to stardom - signed in 2014 as an undrafted free agent out of Minnesota State - but he's produced like a player with elite pedigree.
In the first game of the season, Thielen torched New Orleans for 157 yards on nine catches. On Sunday, he did the same to Washington with 166 yards on eight grabs. In between, he's been steady and reliable, but has also been a big-play guy whom defenses must honor down the field.
Thielen's almost always exactly where he's supposed to be on each play, and routinely displays excellent timing with Keenum.
In doing so, he's racked up 793 receiving yards through nine games - third in the NFL - and is the only player with at least five receptions in every game. He's been targeted 33 more times than any other Vikings receiver and has 19 more receptions than Kyle Rudolph, who's second in both categories and is having a consistent season in his own right.
Thielen is tough, along with being a sharp, crisp route runner with outstanding hands. He has very good body control, better speed and quickness than he's given credit for, and displays excellent footwork overall. His consistency is impeccable, not just on a week-to-week basis, but also on a route-to-route. When he catches the ball, it usually results in a first down.
You can easily see why Keenum - or any quarterback for that matter - would trust him in any down-and-distance situation. Keenum knows exactly where Thielen will be, and that he'll come through for him. Few receivers in the NFL offer such a level of comfort to their quarterback.
But Keenum can keep the Vikings on track as the starter, and a massive reason why is his fantastic on-field chemistry with Thielen, Minnesota’s best player thus far in 2017.
Matt Williamson is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and spent 10 years at ESPN as a scout and co-host of "The Football Today Podcast." Find him on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)
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