If there's one thing that makes the NFL exciting every year, it's the fact that it's arguably the most unpredictable sports league on the planet.
Even a team that finished the prior season in last place can have high hopes for the following season and that's because one of the craziest things about the NFL is its ability to produce at least one team every season that goes from worst to first. Basically, thanks to parity, nearly every NFL fan can go into a season feeling like their favorite team has a legitimate chance to make the playoffs.
In 13 of the past 15 years, there has been at least one team that has gone from last place in one season to first place the following season. Since 2006, we've seen a worst-to-first situation happen a total of 18 times with Washington being the most recent team to pull it off (The Football Team won the NFC East in 2020 after finishing in last in 2019). If you're scoring at home, that means there's been an average of 1.20 teams per season to go from worst to first over the past 15 years.
That average has actually held pretty firm over the years: Since the NFL realigned its divisions in 2002, there have been 26 teams that have gone from worst to first, which is an average of 1.34 teams per year over that 19-season span.
Basically, NFL history says that at least one team is going to go from last place in 2020 to first place in 2021, 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 chance of walking away with a division title in 2021.
Ranking teams most likely to go from worst to first
(All division odds via Caesars Sportsbook)
2020 record: 5-11
Odds to win NFC North: +2500
The Lions have a new coach, a new quarterback and a new attitude that includes biting off knee caps, but that's probably not going to be enough to propel them to an NFC North title. The Lions got outscored by 142 points last year, which was the most in the NFC and the third-worst in the NFL. The Lions were bad last season and they haven't made too many moves this year that would suggest they'll be much better. This team has finished in last place for three straight seasons and it will be mildly shocking if they're able to move up to just third place in 2021, let alone first place.
Jared Goff might be the only person on the planet who thinks the Lions can win the NFC North this year.
Fun fact: The Lions have pulled off a worst-to-first turnaround just one time in franchise history. That lone instance came in 1993 when they won the NFC Central.
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2020 record: 2-14
Odds to win AFC East: +2200
If you're looking for a dark-horse last-place team to make a division winning bet on this year, here's some advice: Don't pick the Jets. Zach Wilson could eventually turn into a franchise quarterback, but it's unlikely we're going to see that happen in his first year on the job. Also, the combination of a rookie quarterback and a first-year head coach isn't exactly a winning formula for getting to the playoffs. No team on this list finished farther out of of last place in 2020 than the Jets -- who finished 11 games out -- and it's hard to see them making up that gap in just one season (The Jaguars had a worse record last season, but they "only" finished 10 games out of first place).
Fun fact: The Jets are the only last-place team from 2020 that has never gone worst to first at any point in franchise history.
2020 record: 4-11-1
Odds to win AFC North: +2500
On one hand, the Bengals seem like a team that might have a chance to go from worst to first in 2021. Not only have they made some major upgrades to their defensive and offensive lines -- two big trouble spots last year -- but they also have a lot of offensive firepower that should be able to keep them in most games. On the other hand, the reason the Bengals aren't ranked higher is because they play in a division of death. Of all the last-place teams from 2020, the Bengals are the only ones that played in a division where the other three teams went to the playoffs. The Bengals might surprise some people and move up one or two spots in the AFC North this year, but it's hard to see them overtaking the Steelers, Ravens and Browns.
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).
2020 record: 4-12
Odds to win NFC South: +900
For the past three years, the Falcons have been a team that always feels like a dark horse for a possible playoff berth, but then they end up falling off their horse before they even get to midseason. In 2018, they started 1-4 on their way to 7-9. In 2019, they opened up 1-7 before once again going 7-9. Last season, they fell flat on their face coming out of the gate, starting 0-5. If new coach Arthur Smith wants to get this team back in the playoffs for the first time since 2017, he's going to have to figure out how to avoid a slow start, which should be possible since they open the season with four of their first five games against teams that finished below .500 last year. That being said, even with a fast start, the Falcons defense still has a few too many holes, which is going to make it difficult to compete for a division title against teams like the Buccaneers and Saints.
Fun fact: The last time the Falcons went worst to first, they ended up making a run all the way to the NFC title game before losing to the Eagles. That 2004 NFC Championship Game appearance came one year after their last-place finish in 2003.
2020 record: 5-11
Odds to win AFC West: +600
If the Broncos had one big problem last year, it was their offense, which struggled, and that's mostly because their quarterback struggled. The Broncos only averaged 20.2 points per game in 2020, which was the fifth-lowest total in the league. With Teddy Bridgewater taking over the starting job, the Broncos offense should be better. Their defense is a good enough to win a division title, but the big question is whether or not Bridgewater and the offense can keep up with teams like the Chiefs and Chargers. They couldn't do that last year, which is a big reason why they went 1-5 in the division. The Broncos almost certainly will improve upon that division record, but the reason they're not higher on this list is because they're stuck in a division with the best team in the AFC.
Fun fact: Going from worst to first isn't a foreign concept to Broncos fans and that's because they've already seen their team do it somewhat recently. After finishing in last place in 2010, the Broncos rebounded with a first-place finish in 2011 that was led by none other than Tim Tebow.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
2020 record: 1-15
Odds to win AFC South: +800
The reason the Jaguars are ranked so high here has more to do with the AFC South than the Jaguars. Sure, it kind of seems like Urban Meyer is making things up as he goes along and yes, they have a rookie quarterback, but the good news for the Jags is that every other team in the AFC South is also dealing with some drama.
The Texans might be the worst team in the NFL and the Colts can't get out of their own way. If you've been paying attention to that team over the past few weeks, it seems like someone either gets injured or placed on the COVID list every single day. As for the Titans, they're definitely the favorite in the division, but they also had nine players on the COVID list as recently as last weekend and if they get hit with an outbreak like that during the season, it could lead to a forfeit this year, which could leave the Jaguars as the last team standing.
Also, let's not rule out that possibility of Trevor Lawrence having a surprisingly good season, which could propel Jacksonville to a division title. 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.
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.
2. Philadelphia Eagles
2020 record: 4-11-1
Odds to win NFC East: +500
If these rankings were based on how talented your roster is, the Eagles definitely wouldn't be in the second spot here, 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 2021 and the good news for the Eagles is that they play in the worst division in football. As bad as the Eagles were last year, they were only a HALF game out of first place through 12 weeks. Basically, even if the Eagles struggle in 2021, they could still find themselves in contention for a division title just like they did last season.
Fun fact: The last four times the Eagles have finished in last place (2005, 2007, 2012, 2016), they've followed it up with a playoff berth the following season. This includes 2017 when they not only went from worst to first, but they also ended up winning the Super Bowl.
2020 record: 6-10
Odds to win NFC West: +200
The 49ers actually finished the 2020 season with the best record (6-10) of any last-place team, and although that doesn't make you a contender, they probably feel pretty good about themselves heading into 2021. The fact that the 49ers were able to win even six games was a minor miracle and that's because it seemed like everyone on the roster got injured at one point or another last season.
With a healthy roster, there's no reason the 49ers can't emulate what they did in 2019 when they won the division on their way to the Super Bowl. Although the NFC West is arguably the toughest division in football, that might not end up being a big issue for the 49ers, who have gone 8-4 in the division over the past two years.
I'm not exactly sure what Kyle Shanahan has planned at the quarterback position this year -- start Jimmy? start Trey? Go two-platoon like he did in the preseason? -- but whatever it is, it's not just going to keep me guessing, it's also going to keep his opponents guessing, which should work out in San Francisco's favor.
Fun fact: If the 49ers make a worst-to-first turnaround, it will mark the first time in 50 years that they've been able to pull off that feat. After a 4-8-2 last-place finish in 1969, the 49ers would end up winning the NFC West in 1970 and advancing all the way to the NFC title game.
Super Bowl fun fact: Of the 26 teams that have 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. The only team that came close to finishing 7-9 last season was the 49ers, who went 6-10.