The NFL succeeds, in part, because every team has hope in Week 1. The worst team in football one season can start the next year 8-0.
The flipside: No sport crushes those hopes faster. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went from sleeper team to meltdown mode in three weeks. The Jacksonville Jaguars felt irrelevant before October started. We haven't hit Halloween, yet some teams are looking to next year.
The "Around the League Podcast" has a running segment in which we stick a fork into a team for the season. It's a variation of a series we did on the website last year, and we do not puncture lightly. The fork only is applied when our entire staff unanimously votes that a team's realistic playoff hopes are over. They aren't coming back. We're burying them.
If we're wrong and the team makes the playoffs, we'll donate $100-per-team to charity. But we won't be wrong. (Not again, anyhow.)
After eight weeks, we're ready to stick a fork in five teams.
It's dangerous to give up on a team with a top-shelf quarterback, but Matt Ryan can't fix what ails the Falcons. They have one of the worst five defenses in football. Their offensive line can't protect or open holes in the running game. Julio Jones, Kroy Biermann and Sean Weatherspoon are not coming back. The Falcons are 2-5, and the schedule is unforgiving.
Sunday's beatdown in Arizona was telling; the Falcons could not apply any pressure to the worst offensive line in football. Atlanta's depleted offense was overwhelmed by an elite defense, and they have to face a ton down the stretch. They have road games in Green Bay, Carolina and San Francisco. The Falcons also host the Seahawks and Panthers. It would be a minor miracle if the Falcons could bounce back to 8-8.
Seventy percent of NFL matchups this season have been a one possession game at some point in the fourth quarter. The Jaguars have been involved in 0 percent. In a league built on "Any Given Sunday," the Jaguars haven't been competitive one time.
This is the most irrelevant team in memory. The 0-16 Detroit Lions kept games close and had the Millen factor to keep everyone interested. (Not to mention Megatron.) Coach Gus Bradley and general manager David Caldwell seem like the right guys to turn this organization around, but they couldn't have imagined this season would be so brutal. They are losing by an average of 19.9 points per week. That's more than double any other team.
The Jaguars will start over with another rookie quarterback again next season after Blaine Gabbert's continued flameout. Their beleaguered fan base now are put in the awkward spot of hoping the team doesn't blow the No. 1 overall pick by winning a few games.
St. Louis Rams
It's harsh to stick a fork in a five-loss team, but that's what happens when Kellen Clemens is your starting quarterback for the rest of the year. St. Louis was not competitive in three of their losses. The offense has remained sub-ordinary despite adding talent and scheme continuity for Sam Bradford. Jeff Fisher's defense has been a massive disappointment.
There is a lot of worthwhile talent on the roster and plenty of draft picks on the way, but this has the feeling of a lost season because of Bradford's torn ACL. It was supposed to be a "make or break" year for Bradford, but we don't feel any closer to knowing if he'll ever be a difference-maker. The Rams are stuck in NFL purgatory. The bright side: They could have two high picks next year because they also have Washington's first-rounder.
All the quarterback drama has distracted everyone from coach Leslie Frazier's uncomfortable truth: The Minnesota defense is a disaster. Frazier's unit is 30th in points allowed, giving up an average of 32 points per game. The Vikings still have the best running back in football, and have no idea what to do with him.
Owner Zygi Wilf fired Brad Childress less than a season after a playoff appearance in 2010. The same scenario could happen again if the Vikings don't finish out the year with four or five wins. Wilf has to look hard at his roster and consider: What do we do well? What is the plan?
The Vikings refused to bring in real competition for Christian Ponder in the offseason, and touted him as their true franchise quarterback. Bringing Josh Freeman in four weeks later smacked of a desperate move. Freeman still has a chance to save Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This was a team that had the look of surprise playoff contender. Instead, they slowly unraveled from the top down. Josh Freeman's departure and the MRSA outbreak were both huge distractions. The high-priced, talented defense played great for a month, but they've given up 31 points in each of the last three weeks.
The Bucs' defense has difference-makers at every level. The skill positions on offense don't look bad. They are a candidate for a Chiefs-like resurgence in 2014, but it's hard to imagine coach Greg Schiano surviving this year. General manager Mark Dominik also could be in trouble. As Michael Ray Richardson once said, "The ship be sinking."