It's been a strange year in the NFL. Teams like Kansas City, Carolina, Arizona and Philly have become legitimate contenders after struggling the last few years. But when teams leave the bottom of the barrel, they usually have to be replaced.
What's really crazy is that those suddenly strong former basement-dwellers have been replaced by two teams that were in the Super Bowl mix only 11 months ago. Everyone has played exactly 11 games now, and if the season ended today, the Houston Texans and Atlanta Falcons would share the worst record in football with Jacksonville. All three are 2-9 with five games to play, which means they're the current leaders in the race to pick in the top three in the 2014 NFL draft.
Both Houston and Atlanta were part of the NFL's elite eight last January, with the Falcons falling just one score short of a Super Bowl appearance. Atlanta led the 49ers in the fourth quarter of the NFC championship game at the Georgia Dome.
But now it looks like they'll both have a chance to either add elite rookies or compile a dangerous amount of draft picks via a trade, because it doesn't look as though either team will turn it around during these final five weeks. Atlanta has lost five straight games by a combined 70 points, while the Texans are stuck in a nine-game losing streak that was lowlighted this past week by an embarrassing 13-6 loss to the historically bad Jaguars. They have to go on the road for three of their last five games, and the only home games they have left are against New England and Denver. They could seriously finish 2-14, which would probably promise them the No. 1 overall pick.
Three of Atlanta's final five are also on the road and against playoff-caliber opponents. If they don't beat Buffalo in Toronto this week or Washington at the Georgia Dome in Week 15, they might not win again.
This is scary because, in both cases, we're looking at very good teams that are just having down years. Atlanta has an elite quarterback in Matt Ryan, but injuries to Roddy White and Julio Jones crushed their chances early, and now they're just playing out the string. They seem to realize this is a lost season, which is actually a good thing.
Houston still has one of the most talented defenses in the game, which features reigning defensive player of the year J.J. Watt. But an early plague of turnovers from quarterback Matt Schaub did them in. With Watt and Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins and a talented offensive line, they're probably only a quality quarterback away from being a Super Bowl contender yet again.
The Texans — more than anything — remind me of the 1996-97 San Antonio Spurs, who had a terrible season only because David Robinson missed virtually the entire year. Robinson came back, but the lottery balls also bounced their way after one dud season, giving them a chance to draft Tim Duncan. The Twin Towers were born, and they'd win four championships over the next 10 years.
Could Houston find its Tim Duncan in this draft? Maybe. This draft class is stacked, and blue-chip quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Mariota and Johnny Manziel all have superstar potential.
The thought of adding a superstar to either one of these teams is crazy, because they're both likely to be a hell of a lot better next year regardless of who they draft.