Last place to first? We rank the teams with the best chances to do it

The San Francisco 49ers can bounce back, but our No. 2 pick might surprise some

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In 14 of the past 15 years, a last-place team from the season prior has gone on to win its division the following year. Think about that for a moment. It’s a big reason why the NFL has maintained its foothold as the most popular sport: competitive balance.

It’s tough to see the light at the end of some last-place teams’ tunnels, of course, and the reality is that most still have a lot of work in front of them. But when you start drilling down on some of the 2017 bottom dwellers, it’s also not that hard to see an immediate path to turn things around.

So let’s rank the 2017 last-place teams for the eight divisions — and we are cheating a bit, as the AFC South had a two-way last-place tie — in order for their chances to go from last to first. Again, this is not a straight power ranking but strictly an examination of how easily these teams can find a path to hosting a playoff game:

1. San Francisco 49ers (6-10 last season)

Surprised they’re atop this list? Even if the Jimmy Garoppolo hype has gotten a wee bit out of control for as well as he played down the stretch last season. This is still a team that has some proving to do despite winning five in a row (and six of seven) to close out 2017, and there are some big roadblocks, but an NFC West title isn’t a crazy goal for them to set.

The schedule is daunting out of the gates. They face only one team in the first eight contests that had a losing record last season, and that was the 7-9 Packers, who get Aaron Rodgers back. Three of the first four and four of the first six are away from home, and that Packers Monday night game is followed with a short-week game against the vaunted Rams. That duo also kicks off the stretch from Week 6 to Week 13 in which the 49ers will be in prime time for five of those seven games — we should have an idea how for real they truly are after that span.

Garoppolo should be very good in Kyle Shanahan’s system, and we’re not dismissing what they did to the Jaguars in Week 16 or what this team could be in time. But there’s some finger-crossing that must happen for this 49ers team to ascend summarily — Richard Sherman’s health, Reuben Foster’s availability, the development or more playmakers and the readiness of Mike McGlinchey, among other things.

The Rams won this division last season and loaded up with some serious veteran ammo in the offseason. The Seahawks might be viewed as rebuilding, but Russell Wilson is still there to keep them afloat. The Cardinals might be hard to figure out following somewhat of a cosmetic 8-8 season, but they do get David Johnson back and surely have upgraded at QB.

We like the 49ers, and though winning the West remains a tad pie in the sky in our minds, there appears to be only one team clearly above them right now.

2. New York Giants (3-13)

Oh, the Philadelphia Eagles surely are laughing at the sight of this. And rightfully so in that the Eagles were a machine most of last season, and even the Carson Wentz injury couldn’t derail their run to the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl title. We understand the absurdity of suggesting that the bottom-barrel Giants are somehow on the Eagles’ level yet.

That said, there really wasn’t much separating these two teams when they went head to head last season — two narrow victories, each of which the Giants led in the final five minutes of play. A coaching change in New York certainly could change that dynamic just a bit, but it’s hard to imagine the Giants will be as sad offensively as they were a year ago.

As controversial as the Saquon Barkley pick might have been from a positional value standpoint, it’s not as if he can’t add a very vital element to this unit — as a runner, receiver and returner. Couple that with the return to health of Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard, and you have the makings of a much better group. Eli Manning still must answer his critics, but he has a chance to have a twilight awakening if the offensive line holds up.

Defense is anyone’s guess. Coordinator James Bettcher might be the miracle worker he’s been hailed by some as, and maybe this underachieving secondary turns things around. The talent is there, and the front seven isn’t as bad as some people want to make it. If they can make modest improvements on special teams, too, you’re at least looking at a very solid football team — one that, don’t forget, went 11-5 in 2016.

Topping the Eagles and Cowboys will be tough, no denying that, and the Giants’ brutal early schedule is no joke. But we have a feeling they are going to be a lot more competitive by season’s end than their putrid record in 2017 suggests.

3. tie — Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans (4-12)

Yes, we’re entering cheat mode here — two last-placed teams for the price of one. We like the odds. Especially when we’re talking about teams that featured franchise quarterbacks who both missed more than half the season in 2017.

We’re coming up on 500 days since the last time Andrew Luck took the field for a game, and he’s still not throwing actual footballs, so it’s hard to really know where he stands. Plus, the Colts — despite adding some nice talent in the draft the past two years and being mostly competitive sans Luck last season — are very much mid-reboot. Straight up, winning the AFC South would be a stunning result for first-year head coach Frank Reich.

There’s more optimism in the short term, though, for the Texans. They were perceived contenders entering last season but mishandled Deshaun Watson prior to Week 1 before watching him go down for the season after a brilliant seven-game run. Assuming his knee is back to full strength, Watson rightfully deserves to be mentioned as one of the league’s great stars in bloom.

There weren’t too many teams that suffered more injury-wise than the Texans, who also lost J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus in a short span, and there’s more optimism now on both returning to form. If that happens, the front seven stands as one of the better units in the NFL, and the secondary at least looks improved on paper.

Can the Texans win the South? The emergent-power Jaguars might scoff at that idea after thoroughly dominating them twice last season, but you can’t eliminate the possibility of a heroic Watson pulling out some Year 2 magic and the Houston defense bouncing back enough to give them a shot.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)

Everyone’s chic NFC South pick a year ago went into the dumpster, which then was embalmed with a few gallons of turpentine. They started out 2-1, then dropped four close games in a brutal October stretch and never really got back on track. Still, this was a team that was pretty competitive most Sundays despite being terrible at winning close games (3-7), mostly because it put itself in a lot of early holes — Tampa was outscored 288-193 in the first three quarters of games — and shot itself with turnovers.

Jameis Winston endured an injury-plagued season, DeSean Jackson was a bust after signing a big contract, the running backs provided zero burst to what was an unbalanced offense and the pass rush was virtually nil. That’s what placed head coach Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Smith squarely on the hot seat.

But Winston is healthy again, and signs point to an improved run game with the signing of center Ryan Jensen and the drafting of Ronald Jones II, a big-play machine. The defensive front was almost completely remade with the additions of veteran defensive ends Vinny Curry and Jason Pierre-Paul and interior help alongside Gerald McCoy with first-round space eater Vita Vea and free agents Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein.

Is this team good enough to challenge both the Saints and Falcons, not to mention their fellow playoff participant Panthers? That’s highly debatable. But if you told me that the Bucs were to turn things around and finish above .500, I wouldn’t be shocked a bit.

5. Denver Broncos (5-11)

When the Broncos rolled into their bye last season with a 3-1 record, including a thorough thrashing of the Cowboys and a 2-0 divisional mark, they looked like a team to be reckoned with. But a disastrous October-November freefall left the Broncos in the basement following eight straight losses, with quarterback issues the biggest — but far from the only — shortcoming.

They were a bit more competitive at season’s end, but four of their final five games came against opponents using quarterbacks who were not their teams’ starters entering training camp. Still, that likely saved head coach Vance Joseph’s job, even if he was cajoled into making some major staff changes for this season.

Denver’s offseason felt moderately productive. Case Keenum offers hope of steadiness at quarterback. There were a few other interesting veteran additions, too, including Jared Veldheer, Su’a Cravens and Marquette King. And the draft might provide two Day 1 starters in Bradley Chubb and Royce Freeman, plus a few early contributors, such as Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton, Josey Jewell and Isaac Yiadom.

What also works in their favor is the relative divisional unrest. The Raiders changed head coaches, the Chiefs swapped starting QBs and the Chargers remain in prove-it mode until they show they can win close games. On top of that, most of the Broncos’ toughest games are in Denver.

Division title? Feels like a stretch right now. But a rebound season could be in order.

6. Chicago Bears (5-11)

There’s actually a very strong case to be made for the Bears to be one of the NFL's more improved teams in 2018. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky wasn’t bad in his 12-game baptism, and the offseason has been all about loading up the offense to help him.

There’s a whole new cast of wide receivers, led by Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller and Taylor Gabriel, plus the addition of tight end Trey Burton and whatever Kevin White might offer in what could be his last-gasp season in Chicago. The offensive line also feels a bit more settled, and the new offensive braintrust of Matt Nagy and Mark Helfrich (plus highly respected OL coach Harry Hiestand) should push the pedal more and put Trubisky in better situations.

On top of that, the defense — which ranked in the top 10 in points and yards allowed, plus sacks — and special teams appear to be respectable units. The Bears only scored two fewer touchdowns than their opponents last season and were 2-6 in one-score games. They were undressed in three games, all on the road, and two of those came with Mike Glennon at QB. After Trubisky took over, the Bears were outscored by a mere 13 points over those 12 games.

Still, this is a team that has major divisional obstacles — namely the Packers and Vikings, not to mention the competitive Lions. The first two teams could be considered possible Super Bowl teams, and the Lions can’t be dismissed as playoff contenders. The Bears will have to be far better in division games (0-6 last season, and 4-20 the past four seasons) and home games (9-24 at Soldier Field dating back to the end of the 2013 season) if they want to harbor serious hopes of hosting a playoff game anytime soon.

7. Cleveland Browns (0-16)

There’s genuine and perhaps even legitimate excitement following a major overhaul this offseason. An offense that was dead last in points scored and absolutely miserable in the red zone has added upgrades at QB (Tyrod Taylor, Baker Mayfield and Drew Stanton), running back (Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb), receiver (Jarvis Landry and Antonio Callaway, if he can stay out of trouble), hired Todd Haley to call plays and at least given themselves options to replace Joe Thomas at left tackle.

Can they create turnovers on defense? Make vast improvements on special teams? Big questions for sure. And naturally, there’s some real doubt about how 1-31 Hue Jackson will coach knowing that he needs to really knock it out of the park in Year 3 to keep his gig.

Another big obstacle is the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team they’ve beaten once since 2012, who should be the division favorites again. The Browns would have to go from zero victories to, you have to figure, at least 10 to win the AFC North. Remember, the Ravens are still a competitive club, and they’ve also had Cleveland’s number in recent years (2-18 since 2007).

8. New York Jets (5-11)

The story is that this was a fairly plucky and competitive team last season. They had two truly bad losses (45-20 to the Raiders in Week 2, 23-0 to the Broncos in Week 14) and a lot of close games (3-6 in games decided by eight points or fewer). The Jets were 2-4 in the division, beat three playoff teams and should have beaten the Patriots in Week 6.

However, the reality is that they’re facing overtaking the most dominant team in the past 18 seasons. New England isn’t giving up this division throne easily, not with Tom Brady and a big chunk of offensive firepower back for another run.

Todd Bowles coached extremely well most of last season, especially after the 0-2 start. He saved his job and almost won at New Orleans with Bryce Petty at QB most of the game. But Bowles will be under pressure and could be coaching for his job again. How long does he stick with Josh McCown? Will any of their draft picks — namely Sam Darnold — offer major Year 1 contributions?

The schedule does the Jets few favors, too, with three of the first four on the road and a tricky post-bye slate: both Patriots games, three of the final five on the road, plus home games vs. Deshaun Watson and Aaron Rodgers back to back.

Pro Football Weekly