Eight NFL teams qualify as major or at least notable disappointments so far.
All figured to be strong postseason contenders. And while none has been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, they face a difficult challenge -- some more than others -- to keep their hopes alive.
As we move deeper into the second half of the season, the questions begging for answers are these: Are there any truly good teams in the bunch that will actually begin to play that way on a consistent basis? Are some, or all, of these clubs as mediocre or bad as their record says they are?
Let's dissect the disappointments:
» Baltimore: The Ravens' record suggests they are hovering around mediocrity, but their three-game losing streak suggests something worse. Their defense -- which ranks fifth overall, second against the run, and 12th against the pass -- offers some hope that they could become more competitive. However, their lack of a decent starting quarterback is a serious problem that won't resolve itself by the end of the season. Steve McNair continues to look older and slower and nearing the end of the line. Kyle Boller doesn't look like he will ever be effective enough to provide the lift this team desperately needs. The Ravens, who have been outscored 59-14 in their last two games, will likely watch as the Steelers run away with the AFC North and the surprising Cleveland Browns battle for a wild-card playoff spot.
» Carolina: The Panthers' story is similar to that of the Ravens. Their record reflects mediocrity, yet in the NFC South, it puts them only a game behind first-place Tampa Bay. Still, the Panthers, like the Ravens, have lost three in a row. They also have a bad quarterback situation. Since losing Jake Delhomme to a season-ending elbow injury, the pickings have been slim for a replacement. Vinny Testaverde, 44, is struggling to move on a sore Achilles tendon. David Carr missed the Panthers' Week 10 loss against Atlanta because of a concussion. But even when he's healthy, he is a sack-fest waiting to happen. Rookie free agent Matt Moore is not ready to be a starter. The defense, which was supposed to carry this team, hasn't been anything special. Julius Peppers, once regarded as a dominant pass rusher, has produced only a sack and a half. Could the Panthers win their division? Anything's possible in the wide-open NFC South. Could they get a wild-card berth? Anything's possible in the wide-open NFC.
» Chicago: The Bears' Super Bowl runner-up season of 2006 seems almost as distant a memory as their Super Bowl-winning campaign of 1985. This is another team with quarterback problems. Rex Grossman did come off the bench to deliver a pretty, 59-yard pass to Bernard Berrian for the go-ahead points in the Bears' Week 10 victory over Oakland. However, that was his only appearance since his September benching for throwing six interceptions and only one touchdown pass through the first three games. Grossman has a long way to go to demonstrate he can be consistently effective. Brian Griese, who had taken his place, hadn't been much of an improvement before leaving the Oakland game with a shoulder injury. The Bears' other issues are the sluggish running of Cedric Benson and a defense that ranks 26th in the league against the run. They will likely watch as the Packers run away with the NFC North. Could they land a wild-card playoff spot? As I said, anything's possible in the wide-open NFC.
» Cincinnati: The Bengals' next-to-last ranking in the NFL in total defense pretty much sums up their dreadful season. Although they did beat Baltimore, 21-7, in Week 10, they hardly proved much by shutting down the offensively challenged Ravens. The biggest surprise in that game -- and cause for considerable discouragement for Cincinnati -- was the Bengals' inability to score a touchdown. Shayne Graham provided all of their points with seven field goals. If nothing else, the Bengals should be able to count on Carson Palmer connecting for big plays through the air to his talented group of receivers. But even that is no longer a given with this team. The Bengals will likely join the Ravens in watching the Steelers run away with the AFC North and the Browns fight for a wild-card berth.
» Denver: Defense, especially when it comes to stopping the run, has been the Broncos' biggest problem. It did rise to the occasion in Denver's 27-11 victory over Kansas City in Week 10. But the Chiefs have all kinds of offensive woes, including the lack of an effective quarterback and an injury that kept running back Larry Johnson out of the lineup against the Broncos. Even with starter Travis Henry out with a sore knee and facing a possible one-year suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, the Broncos still managed to find a way to run the ball well. They plugged undrafted rookie Selvin Young into their zone-blocking scheme, and he ran for 109 yards, including a 20-yard scoring dash. Jay Cutler, who is playing through a sore leg, is solid enough at quarterback. As wide open as the AFC West is, the Broncos actually have a shot at winning the division and, at the very least, could be in the hunt for a wild-card spot.
» New Orleans: The Saints are tough to figure out. Having been left for dead after a 0-4 start, they ran off four consecutive victories. Drew Brees and the rest of their offense seemed to recapture the prolific form that carried them to the NFC title game in 2006. Then, the Saints go and lose to the previously winless Rams in Week 10. What gives? Brees was flustered by a Rams defense that, with a Week 9 bye, took full advantage of extra time to prepare. He found himself in deep trouble after St. Louis blew open a 34-7 lead. But the good news for the Saints was the way Brees was able to work the two-minute drill well enough to generate 22 points in the fourth quarter. The Saints picked a terrible time to stumble, but the loss doesn't kill their hopes of salvaging their season. They still have a legitimate shot at winning the NFC South and, at the very least, securing a wild-card berth.
» N.Y. Jets: This team is as bad as its record indicates. Poor offense. Worse defense. Time to focus on what it will take to improve in 2008.
» Philadelphia: On the brink of collapse, the Eagles managed to breathe at least a tiny bit of life into their season with their Week 10 victory over mistake-prone Washington. Their 20-point fourth quarter was impressive, as was the performance of Brian Westbrook, who ran for a touchdown and was on the receiving end of two others. Westbrook is capable of carrying as good a portion of the offensive load the rest of the way. However, the Eagles will continue to need the kind of game they got from Donovan McNabb, who at least temporarily quieted speculation he could be headed for the bench after throwing for 251 yards and four scores against the Redskins. The Eagles' defense is solid enough to allow this team to stay competitive and possibly land a wild-card spot as the Cowboys run away with the NFC East.
Monday night takes
» The amazing part about the Seahawks' impressive pass-happy attack was that they didn't go to it earlier in the season. Wasn't it clear several weeks ago that Seattle couldn't run effectively behind a struggling and mistake-prone offensive line? Granted, the 49ers' defense didn't offer much resistance, but the Seahawks' passing game is good enough to have that sort of success on a consistent basis. Matt Hasselbeck is a superb and underrated quarterback. He won't be in many conversations that include Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Brett Favre. But he should be discussed as a top-five passer, along with Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo.
» The Seahawks are a strange team. They seem to have all of the necessary ingredients to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Yet, until Week 10, they were a .500 team sitting in first place in the NFC West mostly because the rest of the division is so bad. It doesn't make any sense. Their defense, which ranks 11th in the NFL, hasn't allowed a touchdown in four of Seattle's five victories. Their offense is capable of being explosive. But their inconsistency is capable of making the shutout of San Francisco on a national stage seem as if it never happened. And the Seahawks players know it. "The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it's got to end," linebacker Lofa Tatupu told reporters after the game. "I'd love to say, 'It's over now.' But we've got to prove that."
» It was difficult watching the many ESPN sideline close-ups of Niners coach Mike Nolan, whose father, former NFL coach Dick Nolan, passed away the day before the game. Mike did his best to remain focused on the game, but one could only imagine what was going through his mind. His team's poor performance certainly didn't make things any easier.
» What happened to Alex Smith? His regression since last season is mind-boggling. He shows no accuracy on his throws. He offers no sense of command or true leadership. He seems hopelessly lost. It's hard to imagine Smith can turn himself around before the end of the season. There is so much wrong with the way he plays that his game could very well be beyond repair.
» The buzz around the Giants is how Tom Coughlin has lost that warm, fuzzy persona that he was showing during the team's six-game winning streak. All it took was the Week 10 loss to the Cowboys, and Coughlin was back to wearing a scowl and offering curt answers in his postgame news conference. Face it ... warm and fuzzy doesn't work for Coughlin. And as hard as he tried to carry off a friendlier demeanor, everyone knew it was only a matter of time before he would revert to the guy he has been for the vast majority of his coaching career. After two losses to the Cowboys and a loss to the Packers, Coughlin also came to the harsh realization that his team doesn't belong with the NFC elite.
» This might be the biggest reason why the Dolphins are 0-9: While clinging to the slimmest of leads in their Week 10 game against Buffalo, some of their players were actually gloating and telling Bills players that they were on their way to becoming Miami's first victim of the season. How silly can you get? For one thing, when you haven't won a single game, you don't have the right to gloat about anything. For another, it wasn't as if the Dolphins were up by two or three touchdowns. They led 3-0, then 3-2, then 10-2 before the Bills -- who were playing poorly enough to lose -- rallied for a 13-10 victory.
» You can't blame Steelers players for believing they have the best quarterback in the league. I'm not sure I agree with them, but I think there's a case to be made that Ben Roethlisberger has qualities that separate him from Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. There is actually a lot of Brett Favre, circa 1990s, in Roethlisberger. Besides throwing the ball exceptionally well, he has a knack for making something out of nothing, both with his arm and his legs. Roethlisberger's 30-yard scramble for a touchdown was the decisive blow in the Steelers' second-half rally to a 31-28 triumph over Cleveland. "All I ever hear is about Brady and Peyton, but this guy we have here is very special," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. "He makes plays those guys don't make, and that's what makes him so special. He can get out of the pocket, he can create, he's a beast, and we're glad he wears black and gold."
» I don't often recommend novels, but here's one for your football reading list: The Cut, by Wil Mara. It's a compelling and entertaining story about the holdout of an NFL star and the issues that it causes within the team, from the locker room to the front office. Mara's vivid description and painstaking attention to detail has the effect of a video camera and microphone following every step of every person in the high-stakes world of professional football -- players, coaches, general managers, and agents. Yes, it is fiction, but it does have a "real" feel. I often had the sense that I was hearing many of the conversations that go on between the sound bites. The depth of Mara's knowledge about the game, on and off the field, comes through loud and clear on every page.