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Falcons, Texans lead worst-to-first candidates for 2014 season

At this time last season, the Philadelphia Eagles held unwanted real estate in the NFC East cellar, having limped to a 4-12 finish. The Carolina Panthers, meanwhile, ended up mired in a three-way tie for last in the NFC South at 7-9.

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Now both squads are preparing for the playoffs after rising, in just one season's time, to first place in their respective divisions, completing what seemed like stunning turnarounds.

Not to take anything away from either the Eagles or Panthers, but their worst-to-first journeys were hardly an anomaly. In fact, in each of the past 11 seasons, at least one squad has gone from division chump to division champ.

With that in mind, I thought I'd take a look at the nine teams that finished last in 2013 -- yes, nine, not eight, because the NFC South featured a tie at the bottom between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons. Who's most likely to go from worst to first in 2014? Least likely? Here are my rankings:

1) Atlanta Falcons

Matt Ryan is a very good quarterback who had an off season on the road, where he threw 14 of his 17 picks. With Ryan and a healthy Julio Jones -- who missed most of 2013 with a foot injury -- the Falcons have a chance to take back the NFC South next season. Atlanta, which will pick sixth in May's draft, needs to add a pass rusher and an offensive lineman. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who did a good job with young players in 2013, should help that unit improve.

Of course, the division still figures to be tough, as it contains four teams that are close together, three of which -- the Falcons, Panthers and Saints -- have proven quarterbacks.

2) Houston Texans

The Texans will have some cap space, especially if they part ways with veteran quarterback Matt Schaub. They'll also have top talent returning from injury (Brian Cushing and Arian Foster), plus a new coach in Bill O'Brien and -- of course -- the first overall draft pick in May. Not to mention, Houston will face the NFC East -- which had a combined record of 28-36 this season -- and the Bills, Browns and Raiders.

Still, I doubt the Texans will be able to leapfrog Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South.

3) St. Louis Rams

A very young squad that has drafted well, the Rams have the best personnel of any team with a losing record in 2013. Robert Quinn is a top-notch pass rusher, while Sam Bradford is the kind of quarterback who can lead you to a playoff spot. St. Louis is poised to add even more talent, too, possessing the second and 13th overall picks in the 2014 NFL Draft.

Of course, all that said, the Rams still play in the NFC West -- the only division in the NFL to have three teams with double-digit wins in 2013. St. Louis is definitely good enough to win a division like the NFC East and maybe even the NFC North, but the going will continue to be tough in the West next season.

4) Buffalo Bills

The Bills have a very, very good defensive line -- they were second in the NFL with 57 sacks -- plus a good left tackle in Cordy Glenn and two solid running backs in C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. I also expect quarterback EJ Manuel, who just finished an injury-marred rookie season, to take a step forward.

Buffalo, which has the ninth overall pick in the draft, has a relatively easy road schedule on tap next season. I think the Bills have the potential to win more than they lose. Still, will they be able to elbow aside the New England Patriots in the AFC East? That's doubtful.

5) Cleveland Browns

Quarterback is obviously the big question for the Browns, who sputtered to a 4-12 record with three different players -- Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell -- under center at various points of the season. Cleveland has two first-round picks in the 2014 NFL Draft, including the fourth overall selection, plus extra picks in the third and fourth rounds. There's also a good amount of talent here, what with their five Pro Bowl players, including receiver Josh Gordon, tight end Jordan Cameron and cornerback Joe Haden. What will the Browns -- and whichever coach they hire -- do at the draft in May?

Cleveland's schedule next season includes the NFC South, plus the Indianapolis Colts. I see the Browns winning something like eight or nine games. They should have enough salary-cap space and roster talent to possibly surpass the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North, but I don't think they can get past the Cincinnati Bengals.

6) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers have key pieces, including running back Doug Martin -- who should come back strong after missing much of 2013 with injury -- and Pro Bowl defenders Gerald McCoy and Darrelle Revis. If promising rookie quarterback Mike Glennon continues to progress, I could see Tampa Bay -- which has the seventh pick in the draft -- winning between eight and nine games in 2014.

New coach Lovie Smith will find a fairly easy schedule in front of him next season, with few winning teams on tap. That said, I'm not sure if the Bucs can pass Carolina. Ultimately, I see second place in the NFC South as Tampa Bay's ceiling.

7) Washington Redskins

The Redskins do not have a first-round draft pick, having traded it away as part of the package deal that landed them Robert Griffin III in 2012. They also fielded just one Pro Bowl player this season -- though that one player, Trent Williams, is a crucial piece at left tackle, given how Williams is relied upon to protect RGIII from speed rushers on the backside.

Washington's schedule includes the NFC West and an away game against the Colts, which is obviously not good for their prospects. Of course, how the Redskins fare in 2014 depends largely on how well RGIII plays. Can he shake the down year he had in 2013? I could see Washington finishing anywhere from last to second in the NFC East -- but not first. The Redskins won't be able to pass the Eagles.

8) Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings' sole Pro Bowl representative -- Adrian Peterson -- is obviously a key piece. They also have good offensive linemen and a budding star in rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.

Still, Minnesota gave up 480 points -- the most in the NFL -- and simply lacks the kind of talent at quarterback to produce much in the way of wins. I can't see the Vikings topping eight victories in 2014.

9) Oakland Raiders

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The Raiders will be better in 2014, but just how much better depends on what they can do at quarterback. There's no question that Oakland -- which has the fifth overall pick in the draft and should have a lot of cap space -- can take a huge leap forward if it can somehow land a better signal-caller than Terrelle Pryor or Matt McGloin.

Ultimately, though, the Raiders will still be in the AFC West, which has three teams in the playoffs, and they'll still have to go on the road to face the Patriots and Seahawks. So I don't see Oakland getting very far.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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