With a new season comes a fresh sense of optimism around the league. At this stage, everybody believes they have a chance — regardless of where they finished during the previous season. The defending champion Philadelphia Eagles finished fourth in the NFC East in 2016. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers both enjoyed double-digit win seasons after last-place finishes the previous year.The NFC South famously went through a five-year stretch in which the team that finished last the previous season went on to win the division the following year. Every season it seems like a team comes out of nowhere to improve on their win total dramatically.
We ranked the teams with the best chance to go from worst to first in their division this season:
1. Houston Texans (4-12) — AFC South
The AFC South crown is seemingly always up for grabs. Andrew Luck’s injury history shifted the power from Indianapolis, as both Jacksonville and Tennessee represented the South in last year’s playoff. However, even with the emergence of the Jaguars, the development of the Titans, and the expected return of Luck, the Texans make a strong claim for being the strongest team in the division.
Up until QB DeShaun Watson was injured, Houston featured one of the hottest offenses in all of football. The rookie signal-caller tossed 19 touchdowns in just seven appearances. The Watson-Miller-Hopkins trio forms the most dynamic offensive group in franchise history. Houston’s defense is seemingly always stacked, and they will add Tyrann Mathieu and a healthy J.J. Watt in 2018.
With talent across all positions, and a potential star under center, the Texans aren’t just contenders for the AFC South title — they are legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
2. Denver Broncos (5-11) — AFC West
Among the teams featured on this list, the Broncos made the single biggest addition to their roster this past offseason. Subbing out the likes of Trevor Siemian and Brock Osweiler for Case Keenum could propel Denver back into the playoff hunt.
The Vikings still probably win 13 games last year if you swap Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen for Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Denver’s two top receivers might not invoke the same fear in secondaries as they did during Peyton Manning’s tenure, but both Thomas and Sanders are immensely talented players that are better than anybody Keenum had before reaching Minnesota.
After beginning his career 0-8 as a starter, Keenum has won 20 out of his last 30 regular season games. He’s efficient, confident, and still just 29 years old. With a resurgence from their once vaunted defense, the Broncos could make some noise in a crowded AFC West.
3. San Francisco 49ers (6-10) — NFC West
The Jimmy Garoppolo hype train is running as rampant as ever. New England’s former backup quarterback dominated headlines to close the 2018 season. After taking over the starting role in Week 13, Garoppolo led the 49ers to five consecutive wins to finish the year. In doing so, Garoppolo extended his undefeated streak as a starter to seven games, and has instilled some hope into a San Francisco franchise that appeared directionless.
While Garoppolo’s potential is clearly evident, the 49ers look like a team that’s a year away. The NFC West will be a bloodbath — the Rams expect a double-digit win season, the Seahawks got younger and faster, and the Cardinals will get David Johnson back. On offense, San Francisco doesn’t have a single skill player that has a chance to crack an All-Pro team. Garoppolo’s two most established targets — Pierre Garcon and former Viking Jerick McKinnon — combined for just 1,400 yards from scrimmage last season (Todd Gurley had 2,100 YFS in 2017 by himself).
The 49ers will compete every week, but it will be a tall task to topple Los Angeles and Seattle.
4. New York Giants (3-13) — NFC East
The Giants were widely-regarded as the league’s biggest disappointment a year ago. With immense talent on both sides of the ball, it was jarring to see New York stumble to an 0-5 record to begin the year. They dug themselves into too deep of a hole early on, and the eventual benching of two-time Super Bowl winner Eli Manning signaled the end to the Giants’ season.
Lowered expectations might play in New York’s benefit heading into this year. Manning has always relished the underdog role, and the addition of rookie rusher Saquon Barkley will help ease some pressure off of the QB. Odell Beckham Jr. appears healthy, and sophomore tight end Evan Engram already appears to be a stud as a vertical threat. Defensively, it would be tough for them to replicate the troubles from last season. Landon Collins found a way to make the Pro Bowl in a down year. Defensive linemen Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison are two of the best players at their position. Former Ram Alec Ogletree will help the linebacker corp.
Dallas is always a wildcard, Washington exists purely to disappoint their fan base, and Philadelphia are candidates for a Super Bowl hangover.
5. New York Jets (5-11) — AFC East
The AFC East is New England’s division to lose. You get that kind of respect when you’ve won 14 of the last 15 division titles (with the only loss being the year Tom Brady missed all but one game).
New York has seen an uptick in overall talent over the past few years. They’ve done well drafting early, with Leonard Williams and Jamal Adams appearing to be star players. Robbie Anderson came out of nowhere to be a productive receiver, and Jermaine Kearse is a steady contributor. The energy they played with last year should carry-over, as they vastly outperformed expectations en route to a 5-win season.
One little tweak to Tom Brady could drastically change this division race. The Bills and Dolphins don’t scare anybody, opening up the Jets to make a run if New England suffers a hit to their QB.
6. Cleveland Browns (0-16) — AFC North
What’s there to say that hasn’t already been said about the lowly Browns? The last time they won a game was with Robert Griffin under center. From 2012-2016, Cleveland made eight first round selections — none of the players selected are still with the team. It’s been a rough stretch for the franchise, though there’s a sense of optimism entering 2018.
The AFC North isn’t overly stacked from top-to-bottom. Two of the three teams are led by Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton. Pittsburgh is a perennial AFC favorite, but Ben Roethlisberger’s age and Le’Veon Bell’s contract disputes may ultimately cloud their season. There isn’t any team that Cleveland shouldn’t feel confident going up against on a weekly basis — especially with Tyrod Taylor or Baker Mayfield at quarterback.
The Steelers will likely take the divisional crown, but the Browns are far improved and could certainly give the other three teams a run.
7. Chicago Bears (5-11) — NFC North
The Bears are trending upwards, but the NFC North will be tough sledding in 2018. The other three teams got significantly better, while the Bears feature the division’s youngest quarterback and least accomplished coach.
After signing Kirk Cousins to the richest contract in football, missing the playoffs would be catastrophic for the Vikings. A healthy Aaron Rodgers all but guarantees your team double-digit victories. Matthew Stafford and the Lions are no pushover either, and should receive a defensive boost with new head coach Matt Patricia in tow.
Chicago is a couple of years away from seriously contending, and will be more than happy with the gradual development of Mitch Trubisky and the rest of their gifted youngsters.
8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11) — NFC South
Tampa Bay will be firmly in the running for the worst record in all of football. With the other three teams in their division looking to make consecutive postseason appearances, the Bucs appear to be the odd team out.
The Bucs’ schedule does them no favors. They begin the year against three playoff teams from 2017 (@ New Orleans, vs. Philadelphia, vs. Pittsburgh), and will be without Jameis Winston for all three games. It doesn’t get much easier being in the NFC South, as Tampa Bay is probably the most likely team in the league to go 0-6 in divisional games. The Winston mess will cloud most of the season, and it’s only a matter of time before Gerald McCoy’s production dips and Mike Evans requests a trade.
Sources: Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY Sports