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Ranking Every Last Place Team's Chance of Going Worst-to-First in 2013

Russell S. BaxterContributor IMarch 27, 2013

Ranking Every Last Place Team's Chance of Going Worst-to-First in 2013

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    With the current alignment in the National Football League, we get to see eight teams crowned division champions each season.

    Of course, there are also eight teams that finish dead last in those same divisions. But as we all know, it hasn’t been that unusual over the years to see a team do a 180 and go from the basement to the penthouse in one season.

    Last season, we saw the Washington Redskins turn the trick, they really did it the hard way. After finishing in last place in the NFC East four straight years, the team ran the table after a 3-6 start and won its first division title since 1999.

    So here’s a look at how we rank the chances of each of 2012’s last-place teams to rise up and win a division crown, from most unlikely to extremely possible. It figures to be a real challenge if last season is any indication. While the aforementioned Redskins did manage the trick, six of the eight teams that won their divisions in 2011 repeated last season.

    Also keep in mind that six of the eight teams mentioned will (not surprisingly) have new head coaches on the sidelines.

    Good luck to all.

8. Jacksonville Jaguars (AFC South)

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    First things first…

    The last time the Jacksonville Jaguars won a division title was 1999.

    It was the six-team AFC Central, which included the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns (back in the league after a three-year hiatus), Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans (formerly the Houston Oilers).

    And speaking of Houston, the Texans were three years away from taking the field.

    Back to the present as the Jaguars were a 2-14 in 2012, the worst record in the brief history of the franchise. Only two teams in the league scored fewer points, and a once-promising defensive unit was an enormous disappointment.

    Enter new head coach Gus Bradley, the former defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks. He’s hoping that a few new faces on defense (defensive tackle Roy Miller, linebacker Geno Hayes and cornerback Alan Ball) and the return of a healthy Maurice Jones-Drew in the backfield will make a difference.

    As for the other teams in the division, the Jaguars did manage wins over the Indianapolis Colts and Titans last season. But the franchise has now dropped its last five encounters with the two-time AFC South champion Houston Texans.

    While the Jaguars could win a few more games, reality says that Bradley’s club will struggle to avoid another last-place finish in 2013.

7. Arizona Cardinals (NFC West)

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    At 4-0 last season and with wins over the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots on their resume, the Arizona Cardinals were the talk of the NFL.

    But the chatter really increased from there on in as Ken Whisenhunt’s club won just one game the remainder of 2012 and finished 5-11.

    While the Cardinals fielded a very respectable defense and were amongst the more physical teams in the league, the offense was a downright disaster. Arizona started four different quarterbacks, ranked last in the league in both total and rushing yards, scored an NFC-low 250 points and gave up a NFL-high 58 sacks.

    Now Bruce Arians (the 2012 NFL Coach of the Year with the Colts) arrives in the desert and journeyman quarterback Drew Stanton will take his turn as the starting quarterback. Arians had the one-time Detroit Lions’ signal-caller in Indianapolis last season. And to help the league’s worst ground attack, the Cards added running back Rashard Mendenhall, another player Arians worked with in the past during their days with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    New defensive coordinator Todd Bowles inherits a defense with plenty of talent and new faces such as linebacker Jasper Brinkley and strong safety Yeremiah Bell hope to help.

    As for getting out of the NFC West basement, the Cardinals were the only team in the group to have a losing record (1-5) within the division and enter 2013 with a five-game losing streak to their NFC West rivals. And it’s safe to say the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams have all added some significant pieces.

    A tall order indeed…

6. Buffalo Bills (AFC East)

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    With apologies to Prince, the artist known as the Buffalo Bills certainly wouldn’t mind partying like it was 1999. That’s the last season the franchise appeared in the playoffs (currently the longest such drought by a team in the league).

    The club also wouldn’t mind waltzing back to 1995. That’s not only the last time the Bills won a postseason game, but it was also the year they last claimed a division title.

    These days, you can circle Buffalo in last place in the AFC East, a spot it's held now for five straight seasons. Of course, usually at the top of the division you can find the New England Patriots, winners of the division four straight years and 10 of the last 12 seasons dating back to 2001.

    There indeed is a huge problem and something new head coach Doug Marrone will have to overcome sooner than later. Last season, the Pats were a perfect 6-0 vs. the Bills, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets.

    Since 2008, Buffalo owns a 6-24 record within the AFC East.

    And to make matters worse, beating New England has been a monumental task for more than a decade now. Dating back to the teams’ second meeting in 2000, the Bills are a stunning 2-23 in their last 25 meetings with the Patriots.

    As for this season, we’re not 100 percent sure who Buffalo’s quarterback will be following the recent release of Ryan Fitzpatrick. For now, it is veteran Tarvaris Jackson, who recently started 14 games for the Seattle Seahawks in 2011.

    Last season, Buffalo closed the year with a win over the Jets and did defeat the Dolphins earlier in 2012. But any talk of toppling the Patriots in the division has to start with some steady wins over the league’s power team.

5. Detroit Lions (NFC North)

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    You know you’ve had a bad season in the NFL when you not only total only four wins but finish six games…out of third place.

    Such was the case for the Detroit Lions last year. Technically, they also finished one game out of second as well as both the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears were 10-6. But the Purple Gang would win the tiebreaker and go onto make the playoffs.

    But back to the Lions, who dropped their final eight games last season following a 4-4 start. To make matters worse, Jim Schwartz’s club was a combined 0-6 vs. the division champion Green Bay Packers, Vikings and Bears in 2012.

    However, the Lions did add a few players that could aid their cause this season. Running back Reggie Bush (Miami Dolphins) will team with Mikel Leshoure to give the offense a nice one-two punch. And the addition of free safety Glover Quin (Houston Texans) helps a secondary that struggled with injuries a year ago.

    Obviously, the key will be how the Lions perform within the division. Remember, this was a 10-6 club in 2011, and it has plenty of solid pieces, including quarterback Matthew Stafford, All-Pro wideout Calvin Johnson and revived Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, to name a few.

    When you consider that the Packers have some questions to answer on defense, the Bears have a new head coach and the Vikings hope to prove that last year’s turnaround wasn’t a one-hit wonder, tt’s hardly unlikely that the Lions can jump right back into the NFC North divisional title fray.

    Of course, a win or three or four against their longtime “Black and Blue” brethren would certainly help.

4. Cleveland Browns (AFC North)

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    Now this could be an intriguing club.

    Granted the recent history of the Cleveland Browns has been something to get excited about.

    Never mind that the franchise has had only two winning seasons and made just one playoff appearance (2002) since returning to the NFL in 1999.

    Even more specifically the Browns have lost at least 11 games each of the last five seasons. Since finishing 10-6 in 2007, the franchise is a combined 23-57.

    Still, there is reason to get excited if you consider the new staff. Rob Chudzinski comes over from his stint as offensive coordinator with quarterback Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. As an offensive coordinator, Norv Turner has always done great work with quarterbacks and the running game. And new defensive coordinator Ray Horton did a great job with a hard-hitting Arizona Cardinals.

    Also, consider that this could be a year of flux for the division. The defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens have taken their share of roster hits and the Pittsburgh Steelers are going through a bit of a transformation themselves. Right now, the steadiest team in the division could be the Cincinnati Bengals, fresh off back-to-back playoff appearances.

    We’re not saying that the division is down. But it certainly will be a little different this season when you consider that the likes of Ray Lewis, James Harrison (at least for now) and Ed Reed won’t be around to torment the Browns in 2013.

    If Turner does for quarterback Brandon Weeden and running back Trent Richardson what he’s done for the position in the past, look out. And Horton’s 3-4 defense now includes former Baltimore standout and outside linebacker Paul Kruger.

    For a change, the AFC North could be seeing a Cleveland team not headed south.

3. Philadelphia Eagles (NFC East)

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    OK, technically it’s not the Philadelphia Eagles' turn to win the NFC East, but you can always make an exception.

    In seriousness, it’s worth pointing out that each of the four teams in this always competitive division has taken a turn winning it the last four seasons.

    The Dallas Cowboys were NFC East champions in 2009, followed by the Eagles (2010), New York Giants (2011) and the Washington Redskins of a season ago.

    For the first time since 1998, the head coach in Philadelphia won’t be Andy Reid. That distinction now belongs to former University of Oregon Chip Kelly, who has traded in his Ducks for these Eagles and a different shade of green.

    There’s plenty of work to be done for a team that started 3-1 a year ago and dropped 11 of its final 12 contests. Start with the defense, which will now make the switch to a 3-4 alignment under coordinator Billy Davis and will feature at least six new starters via free agency.

    The new kids on the Philly block include nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga (San Francisco 49ers) and outside linebacker Connor Barwin (Houston Texans), as well as four new faces in the starting secondary.

    On offense, it will be interesting to see how much of Kelly’s Oregon attack will be a part of the team this season. Veteran quarterback Michael Vick returns and the team also signed Dennis Dixon, a familiar face for Kelly. And with performers such as running back LeSean McCoy, wideouts Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson and tight end Brent Celek, the Birds don’t lack for firepower.

    What the team has lacked has been the football. A year after finishing next to last in the NFL with 38 turnovers, the Eagles tied for the league lead by coughing up the pigskin 37 times. That’s a mind-boggling 75 turnovers in a 32-game span.

    Still, we are talking the NFC East, where 10 wins or less has been enough the last three seasons to secure the top spot. And given the unpredictability of the Redskins, Giants and Cowboys, you have to give Kelly and company a puncher’s chance of rising from the ashes to claiming the divisional top spot. 

2. Kansas City Chiefs (AFC West)

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    So how exactly did a team just two years removed from an AFC West title wind up tied with the worst record in the NFL in 2012?

    In 2010, the Kansas City Chiefs were 10-6 and division champions. The team fell to 7-9 a year later and by season’s end, Todd Haley was out and Romeo Crennel was in as head coach.

    Now following a 2-14 disaster, Andy Reid takes over in Kansas City. And when you look at the talented he inherited as well as the new faces the organization brought in, challenging and unseating the Denver Broncos in the AFC West is far from out of the question.

    Ironically, Reid’s Eagles were tied with the Chiefs (and New York Jets) last season in the turnover department (37). And like Philadelphia, Kansas City also managed a league-low 13 takeaways.

    To rectify the former, the Chiefs traded for quarterback Alex Smith (San Francisco 49ers), who has played his best football the last two seasons. He’s also been extremely careful with the football, something former Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn were unable to grasp (literally) in 2012.

    Reid and general manager John Dorsey also supplemented their roster with the free-agent additions of tight end Anthony Fasano (Miami Dolphins) and wideout Donnie Avery (Indianapolis Colts). On defense, cornerbacks Sean Smith (Miami Dolphins) and Dunta Robinson (Atlanta Falcons) join Pro Bowlers Tamba Hali, Derrick Johnson and Eric Berry.

    Making up 11 games in one year is a tall task indeed as the Chiefs take aim at the Broncos, who finished 13-3 last season. But stranger things have happened in this league, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see Reid’s club take a huge step forwards.

    Now all it needs to do is convince Denver to take a few steps backwards.

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (NFC South)

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    Surprised? But keep this little factoid in mind.

    Since realignment in 2002, the NFC South is the only one of the eight divisions that has never had a team win back-to-back titles.

    Last season, tiebreakers saw the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finish last in the South. But their 7-9 record was the equal of the Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints.

    Greg Schiano’s team opened a surprising 6-4 a year ago before five straight losses ended its playoff hopes. Still, the Bucs finished the season with a win over the division champion Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome.

    Ah, the Falcons. Co-owners of the best record (13-3) in the NFL in 2012, the Bucs, Panthers and Saints all finished six games out of the top spot of the division. So Schiano and Co. certainly have their work cut out for them.

    But what was extremely intriguing about the NFC South last season that all four clubs finished with exact 3-3 records when playing each other. While Tampa failed to beat the Saints in 2012, it did sweep the Panthers and did come away with a win at Atlanta.

    And who’s to say that the Falcons will duplicate or exceed last season’s victory total? The team did add veteran running back Steve Jackson to the fold but also parted ways with defensive end John Abraham, running back Michael Turner and cornerback Dunta Robinson. Add in the fact that center Todd McClure has retired and Mike Smith’s club has taken some hits.

    Likewise the Buccaneers, who are now minus defensive end Michael Bennett (Seattle Seahawks) and defensive tackle Roy Miller (Jacksonville Jaguars), as well as cornerback E.J. Biggers (Washington Redskins). But they did add Pro Bowl free safety Dashon Goldson (San Francisco 49ers) in the hopes that he can make a mark on last season’s bottom-ranked pass defense.

    Despite a late slump, quarterback Josh Freeman took advantage of a potent array of skill position performers in wideouts Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, as well as 2012 rookie standout and running back Doug Martin. And if the Bucs draft as well as they did last season, the improvement will continue in Tampa.

    Can Schiano and Co. escape the basement and unseat the Falcons in the NFC South. Don’t be shocked if the Bucs pull it off.

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