One thing that makes the NFL so entertaining every year is the fact that it’s one of the most unpredictable sports on the planet, and nothing proves that more than the league’s uncanny ability to produce at least one team every season that goes from worst-to-first.
Over the past five years, there have been a total of six teams that have followed up a last place finish in one season with a division-winning run the following season, and for those of you who aren’t good at math, that’s an average of more than one team per year. That average has actually held pretty firm over the years: Since the NFL realigned its divisions in 2002, there have been 25 teams that have gone from worst to first, which is an average of 1.4 teams per year over that 18-season span.
Basically, NFL history says that at least one team is going to go from last place in 2019 to first place in 2020, and because we love ranking things here, we’re going to rank the eight last place finishers from last year to determine which team has the best chances of walking away with a division title in 2020.
Ranking teams most likely to go from worst-to-first
(All division odds via William Hill Sportsbook)
2019 record: 5-11
Odds to win AFC West: +1000
If these rankings were based on how talented your roster is, the Chargers definitely wouldn’t be in the last spot, but these rankings aren’t based on that at all, they’re based on whether or not a team has any chance of winning its division in 2020 and it doesn’t feel like the Chargers really have a shot. The problem for the Chargers is that they’re in the same division as the Chiefs and it’s hard to picture any scenario where Los Angeles is able to overtake Kansas City to win the division, especially when you consider that the Chargers are just 1-11 against the Chiefs since 2014. Also, to win the AFC West, the Chargers will ostensibly need to win a few divisional games, which isn’t something they were able to do last year (They went 0-6 against AFC West teams in 2019).
Fun fact: The Chargers have only gone worst-to-first once in franchise history and that came all the way back in 1992. After going 4-12 in 1991, the Chargers followed that up with a 11-5 first-place finish in 1992.
2019 record: 5-11
Odds to win NFC South: +1800
If you’re looking for a long shot last place team to make a division winning bet on this offseason, here’s some advice: Don’t pick the Panthers. Although Matt Rhule might end up being a fantastic coach, the odds will definitely be stacked against him during his first year in Carolina. For one, due to the pandemic, he’s only going to have roughly four weeks of practice before the season starts, which seems like a recipe for disaster when you consider that the Panthers are the only team in the NFL that will be trying to break in a new head coach, two new coordinators and a new starting quarterback this year. The Panthers are also in a division with two Super Bowl contenders (Saints, Buccaneers) and a Falcons team that has beaten Carolina five straight times.
Fun fact: Since 2002, only three of the 25 worst-to-first teams made it to the Super Bowl and Carolina was one of those teams. The Panthers followed up a last place season in 2002 with a Super Bowl appearance in 2003.
2019 record: 2-14
Odds to win AFC North: +3000
The Bengals finished with the worst record in the NFL last year, so it might seem a little crazy to be talking about them as a potential division winner, but it’s something that could absolutely happen if Joe Burrow has a big season. Although rookie quarterbacks tend to struggle during their first year on the job, there have been a few cases where the QB comes in and totally revitalizes the franchise. For instance, after the Colts went 2-14 in 2011, Andrew Luck came in as a rookie and led them to an 11-5 record in 2012. The Bengals definitely have some huge question marks going into the season (their offensive line, their entire defense), but this is also a team that held a lead in 12 of the 16 games they played last year, which means they might be better than they were given credit for.
Fun fact: The idea of betting on the Bengals to get to the Super Bowl might seem crazy, but they’ve done it before following a last place season. Actually, they’ve done it twice: Both Super Bowl appearances in franchise history (1981, 1988) came after a season where the Bengals finished in last place (1980, 1987)
5. Washington Football Team
2019 record: 3-13
Odds to win NFC East: +1500
Ron Rivera is definitely going to have his work cut out for him during his first season in Washington. Not only did the team trade its best defensive back (Quinton Dunbar) and best offensive tackle (Trent Williams) this offseason, but it’s not even clear who the starting quarterback is going to be, which isn’t an ideal situation to be in with less than four weeks to go until the start of the season. Washington does have one of the scariest defensive lines in the league with Chase Young, Ryan Kerrigan and Montez Sweat, but that’s about the only thing that’s scary about this team right now. As things currently stand, the NFC East seems like it’s a two-horse race between the Cowboys and Eagles.
Fun fact: Washington is one of just two teams in the NFL that went worst-to-first a total of two times over the past decade (2010 thru 2019). Washington did it in 2012 and 2015 while Houston did it in 2011 and 2018.
2019 record: 5-10-1
Odds to win NFC West: +700
With the addition of DeAndre Hopkins, the Cardinals now have one of the most loaded offenses in the NFL, which might have you wondering why they’re ranked so low on this list. The answer there is that a loaded offense might not help them much in 2020 and that’s because they play in the NFL’s toughest division. In 2019, the NFC West was the only division in the NFL that produced three teams that finished above .500. The Cardinals seem like a team destined to top their win total from last year, but they’re probably going to need 11 or 12 wins to take home the division crown, and that seems like it might be asking too much. Although the Cardinals are only ranked fourth on this list, they have the best Vegas odds to win the division out of all the 2019 last place teams.
Fun fact: Arizona is the only team on this year’s list that has never gone from worst-to-first.
2019 record: 6-10
Odds to win AFC South: +1200
The Jaguars actually finished the 2019 season with the best record of any last place team, and although that doesn’t make you a contender, they probably feel pretty good about themselves after finishing just four games out of first place last year (Every other last place team finished at least six games out of first place).
Sure, the Jaguars traded away two of their best defensive players this offseason (Calais Campbell and cornerback A.J. Bouye), one defensive starter wants nothing to do with the team (Yannick Ngakoue) and their quarterback is going into his first full year as a starter, but the good news for the Jags is that every other team in the AFC South is also dealing with some drama.
In Indianapolis, the Colts are handing their offense over to Philip Rivers. The reason that’s risky is because Rivers looked like a 38-year-old washed up quarterback at times last season and there’s no guarantee he won’t look like a 38-year-old washed up quarterback at times in 2020. In Houston, Bill O’Brien gutted his own offense by trading away DeAndre Hopkins, and in Tennessee, Mike Vrabel has yet to prove that he can lead the Titans to a record that’s not 9-7. The AFC South is a winnable division for the Jags, which is why they’re ranked so high.
Fun fact: Of all the teams on this list, the Jaguars are the ones that have most recently gone worst-to-first. The Jags won the AFC South in 2017, just one year after finishing in last place with a 3-13 record.
2019 record: 3-12-1
Odds to win NFC North: +850
For the first eight weeks of the 2019 season, the Lions looked like a potential dark horse team to make the playoffs, but then Matthew Stafford got hurt and the wheels fell off the wagon. Before Stafford’s injury, he was playing like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Not only was he averaging 312.4 passing yards per game, but he had a 106.0 QB rating and a 19-to-5 TD-to-INT ratio, and he did all that even though he was still learning the system of Lions first-year offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. If Stafford can stay healthy, the Lions should be able to compete for the division title in a wide open NFC North.
Fun fact: The Lions only have one worst-to-first turnaround in franchise history, and fans in Detroit might actually remember when it happened. After finishing in last place in 1992, the Lions won the NFC Central with a 10-6 record in 1993, which is notable, because that also happens to be the last time Detroit won a division title.
2019 record: 5-11
Odds to win AFC East: +750
Last year, Dolphins coach Brian Flores squeezed five wins out of a team that was supposed to be tanking, and it won’t be surprising at all if Miami manages to double that win total in 2020. Before being hired by the Dolphins, Flores was the de facto defensive coordinator in New England, so it wasn’t surprising that one of the first things he did this offseason was beef up his defense. Over the past few months, the Dolphins have added multiple defensive starters with guys like Byron Jones, Kyle Van Noy and Shaq Lawson. The reason that’s notable is because having a solid defense might be enough to win the AFC East this year, especially when you consider that the quarterbacks in the division are a guy who’s seeing ghosts (Sam Darnold), a guy who has a worse career completion percentage than Blake Bortles (Josh Allen) and whomever New England trots out at quarterback.
If Ryan Fitzpatrick can keep the offense afloat, the Dolphins might be able to shock their way to the AFC East title in 2020.
Fun fact: Over the past 17 years, only one team not named New England has won an AFC East title, and that was the Dolphins in 2008. Of course, we’re noting that here, because it involved a worst-to-first situation. After going 1-15 in 2007, the Dolphins ran wild over everyone in 2008 by implementing a Wildcat offense that they ended up riding to a 11-5 record and a division title.
Super Bowl fun fact: Of the 25 teams that gone worst-to-first since 2002, only three have made the Super Bowl and all three of those teams finished at least 7-9 during their last place season. Unfortunately for the last place teams on this year’s list, none of you meet that criteria, so although one of these teams might win their division, you probably shouldn’t pick them to win the Super Bowl.