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.
Last year, that team was the Cincinnati Bengals. After finishing with an ugly record of 4-11-1 in 2020, the Bengals bounced back and made the Super Bowl in 2021, which should give some hope to every team that finished at the bottom of their division last season.
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 27 teams that have gone from worst to first, which is an average of 1.35 teams per year over that 20-season span.
Basically, NFL history says that at least one team is going to go from worst-to-first this year, and because we love ranking things here, we’re going to rank the eight last place finishers from 2021 to find out who could be this year’s Bengals.
Ranking teams most likely to go from worst-to-first
(All division odds via William Hill Sportsbook)
8. Seattle Seahawks
2021 record: 7-10
Odds to win NFC West: +2500
The Seahawks play in a division where every team got better during the offseason except for them, which isn’t ideal when you were already the worst team in the division. The Seahawks traded away their best offensive player (Russell Wilson), they got rid of their best defensive player (Bobby Wagner) and they play in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL (Not only did the NFC West produce three playoff teams last season, but it also produced both teams in the NFC title game).
Basically, 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 Seattle.
Fun fact: The Seahawks are one of only two teams on this list that have never gone worst-to-first and based on where I have them in the rankings, I obviously don’t see that changing this year.
7. New York Jets
2021 record: 4-13
Odds to win AFC East: +2200
The Jets currently have the NFL’s longest drought without a playoff appearance and although that streak will eventually end at some point, it doesn’t feel like it’s going to happen this year. The Jets have several problems going into the regular season. For one, they don’t even know who their starting QB is going to be in Week 1 (Zach Wilson is dealing with an injury). Not to mention, they’ve already lost a starting offensive lineman to injury (Mekhi Bechton) and they have a receiver who doesn’t even want to play for the team anymore (Denzel Mims). Some teams can overcome obstacles like that, but not the Jets.
After finishing in last place in five of the past six seasons, it’s easy to imagine the Jets getting out of the cellar this year, but first place feels like a long shot, which is probably why their odds are set at 22-to-1. If it’s any consolation though, the Jets did win the unofficial preseason division title in the AFC East by going 3-0. Go Jets!
Fun fact: Over the past 10 years, the Jets have finished in last a total of six times, however, they have failed to go worst-to-first even a single time that span, so I wouldn’t bet on it happening this year. Not only have they not gone worst-to-first over the past decade, but they’ve never done it in franchise history.
6. New York Giants
2021 record: 4-13
Odds to win NFC East: +800
This almost feels like a throw away year in New York and that’s mostly because the Giants new regime is going to have to spend the season cleaning up the mess of the old regime. If the Giants are going to succeed in 2022, they’re going to need Brian Daboll to work a miracle with Daniel Jones. Over the past 10 years, every team in the NFC East has won the division at least once… except for the Giants, and 2022 doesn’t feel like the season where that streak is going to end.
Daboll might get this team to seven or eight wins, but it’s hard to imagine him winning the division title with this roster. If that happens, the Giants should sign him to a lifetime contract on the spot.
Fun fact: The good news for the Giants? They’ve gone worst-to-first twice in franchise history (1997, 2005), so maybe they can make it happen again this year.
5. Detroit Lions
2021 record: 3-13-1
Odds to win NFC North: +900
After watching the Lions for one straight month on “Hard Knocks,” I can’t decide if they’re actually going to be good or if I just got sucked into thinking they might be good due to watching “Hard Knocks.” One thing about the Lions is that they showed last season that they can play competitive football. Over the final six weeks of the season, they went 3-3 and those three wins came over the Packers, Vikings and Cardinals.
The players are clearly buying into Dan Campbell’s philosophy and when your coach’s philosophy is biting kneecaps, that almost automatically gives you a chance for a surprising season. Dan Campbell is also a guy who likes to win at everything he does and if that attitude brushes off on his team, they might end up shocking a few people this year.
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.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
2021 record: 3-14
Odds to win AFC South +650
The Jaguars 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 Trevor Lawrence has a big season. Lawrence definitely struggled in 2021, but it feels like 80% of the problem was Urban Meyer and the Jags fixed that part of the problem by firing Meyer last December.
New coach Doug Pederson is the perfect guy to take over. Not only is he a former Super Bowl winner, but he’s also proven that he knows how to work with young quarterbacks (I mean, the man won his Super Bowl with Carson Wentz and Nick Foles starting games for him).
Another reason to like the Jaguars is because they’re in a winnable division. Although the Colts look tough, there’s no guarantee that the Matt Ryan experiment will work out. On the Titans’ end, they traded away A.J. Brown and it won’t be surprising if Tennessee takes a step back. And when you throw in the fact that the Texans are the Texans, it becomes at least plausible to see the Jags winning the division.
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.
3. Carolina Panthers
2021 record: 5-12
Odds to win NFC South: +1100
It might seem crazy to have the Panthers ranked so high on this list, but when you break things down, it actually kind of makes sense. For one, the Panthers have arguably improved more than any other team in the NFC South this offseason. Not only did they upgrade at QB with Baker Mayfield, but they also added three key starters on the offensive line with Bradley Bozeman (center), Austin Corbett (right guard) and Ikem Ekwonu (left tackle). Not to mention, they’ll also be getting back a healthy Christian McCaffrey, who might actually be able to put up some big numbers this year since Carolina’s line won’t be horrible.
Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that 50% of the division got worse this offseason. The regular season starts next week and the Buccaneers have suffered so many injuries on the offensive line that they still have no idea who’s going to start. They also lost Rob Gronkowski to retirement, Chris Godwin is coming off an ACL injury, Mike Evans has been battling injuries in training camp and their QB decided to skip half of August to take a vacation. On the Falcons’ end, they seem hopeless without Matt Ryan. As for the Saints, the Panthers went 1-1 against them last season and there’s no reason to think they can’t at least do that again.
Basically, the Panthers have everything you’re looking for in a potential dark horse. Also, Baker Mayfield seems like he’s going to be on some sort of revenge tour and I don’t like betting against people on revenge tours.
Fun fact: The Panthers have only existed since 1995, but they’ve already pulled off TWO worst-to-first runs in franchise history. After finishing in last place during their expansion season in 1995, the Panthers roared back with a first place finish during a 1996 season where they made it all the way to the NFC title game. The Panthers also made the Super Bowl in 2003, one year after a 2002 season where they finished in last place.
2. Denver Broncos
2021 record: 7-10
Odds to win AFC West: +275
One big reason the Broncos were so bad last year was because their offense couldn’t score. In games where they surrendered 17 or more points, the Broncos went 0-9, which basically means that every opponent knew that if they could turn the game into a shootout, they were going to win. The Broncos also went 1-5 in one-score games because their offense simply wasn’t clutch enough to pull out late-game victories.
How do you solve both of those problems? By trading for Russell Wilson. The addition of Wilson makes the Broncos an immediate contender in the AFC West and although it’s the toughest division in football, there’s no reason to think they can’t win it this year. Wilson has a long track record of success — he made the playoffs in eight of 10 seasons as Seattle’s starting QB — and he’s shown no signs of slowing down.
If you’re still doubting Denver, I have four words for you: Broncos country, let’s ride.
Fun fact: Believe it or not, the Broncos have gone worst-to-first more often than any other team on this list. Their division titles in 1991, 1996 and 2011 all came after seasons where they finished in last place.
1. Baltimore Ravens
2021 record: 8-9
Odds to win AFC North: +140
In what might be an NFL first: The Ravens are actually FAVORED to win the AFC North one year after their last place finish. That reason alone made it easy to put the Ravens at the top of this list.
The thing about Baltimore is that their 8-9 record in 2021 was arguably impressive when you consider how many players they lost to injury. I could try and list them all here, but I don’t think there’s enough bandwidth on the entire internet to go through every name. Not only did they lose Lamar Jackson for five games, but they also lost key starters like cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey, along with running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards.
Now that everyone’s healthy, the oddsmakers like Baltimore’s chances of making the playoffs and I have to say, I agree with them
Fortunately for the Ravens, the only big injury they’ve suffered so far this year is to their mascot, who had to be carted off the field during Baltimore’s preseason finale.
Prayers up to Poe.
Fun fact: The Ravens have gone worst-to-first exactly once in franchise history. The lone occasion came in 2006 when they won the AFC North one year after a disastrous 2005 season where they went 6-10.
Super Bowl fun fact: Of the 27 teams that have gone worst-to-first since 2002, only four have made them have made the Super Bowl, so although it’s possible, it’s definitely not likely.