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Cowboys, Chargers lead 2016's worst-to-first candidates

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Last year at this time, the Washington Redskins were coming off a 4-12 season that ended with a 44-17 blowout loss at home to the Dallas Cowboys, placing them firmly at the bottom of the NFC East. This year, the Redskins are preparing for a wild-card matchup with the Green Bay Packers after winning six of their last eight and capturing the division at 9-7.

Worst-to-first swings aren't uncommon in the NFL, of course. The trick is figuring out which divisional cellar-dweller will climb to the top of the tower in a year's time.

So before we turn our attention to the upcoming playoffs, I thought I'd take one more look back and comb the losers of the 2015 season to find those capable of winning in 2016. Below, I've ranked all eight of this season's last-place teams according to who I think has the best chance to finish in first in their respective divisions next season:

1) Dallas Cowboys

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The Cowboys sit atop this list largely for one reason: They still have Tony Romo. Dallas had its issues in 2015, but if Romo -- who missed all but four games after injuring his collarbone twice -- had been healthy, this would have been a playoff team. Darren McFadden (1,089 yards, 4.6 yards per carry) proved the run game can be effective without DeMarco Murray, which was a big question coming into the year. Dez Bryant has to come back strong after foot and ankle surgery, and the defense, as always, could use a talent boost (developing a consistent pass rusher is key). But Dallas does have the No. 4 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. The offensive line still includes three Pro Bowlers (Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick). And next season's schedule will feature plenty of potentially winnable matchups (against the Bears, Lions, Bucs, Ravens, 49ers and Browns).

Provided Romo stays on the field, I expect him to play at a high level and lead the Cowboys to a winning season in 2016 -- which could make them near-favorites in that division.

2) San Diego Chargers

Keeping coach Mike McCoy (18-14 in 2013 and 2014, plus a 1-1 playoff record) was a good move. This team was decimated by injuries, particularly on offense, with O-linemen D.J. Fluker, Orlando Franklin and King Dunlap all missing time, and receiver Keenan Allen, running back Branden Oliver and offensive linemen Johnnie Troutman and Chris Watt ending up on injured reserve. The Philip Rivers-led passing offense still produced at a high level (286.9 passing yards per game, fourth-most in the NFL), but the 31st-ranked ground game was a black hole. First-round pick Melvin Gordon (who also landed on injured reserve in late December) was a disappointment, to say the least (641 yards, zero touchdowns in 14 games), but I think he can turn it around. Replacing the fired Frank Reich with an offensive coordinator who can help right the ship would be a boon.

The uncertainty stemming from the Chargers' relocation drama can't have helped, but that will presumably be settled eventually. If the Bolts can find a rushing attack, they can definitely compete with the Broncos, Chiefs and Raiders in the AFC West, because Rivers -- who racked up 4,792 yards and 29 touchdown passes despite working with a lesser receiving corps -- is a very good passer still in his prime.

3) Miami Dolphins

They have a young quarterback in Ryan Tannehill who had a decent 2015, including 350 yards and two scores in a Week 17 win over the Patriots. He hasn't quite put it all together, but he's shown he can be the quarterback Miami needs to compete in the AFC East. The key now will be hiring a coach who can get more out of Tannehill and the rest of the roster, including big-money acquisition Ndamukong Suh. It's also important to re-sign running back Lamar Miller.

Their division is tough -- consider that the Dolphins were the only team in it with a losing record -- especially with New England perennially at the top. And Miami's 2016 schedule, which will feature the Steelers, Bengals, Seahawks, Cardinals and Rams, is no cakewalk. But the Patriots have to fall someday; Tom Brady can't play forever. The Dolphins did, after all, just beat a New England team that was trying to win. It might not be extremely likely, but the Dolphins have a decent shot to emerge as 2016's AFC East champions.

4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

I was shocked by Lovie Smith's firing Wednesday, because I thought he did a pretty good job in his two seasons. After going 2-14 in 2014, Tampa Bay improved to 6-10 in 2015. More importantly, the Bucs made major jumps on offense (30th in 2014 to fifth in 2015) and defense (25th in 2014 to 10th in 2015). They're losing a good football coach. The obvious question now is, who replaces him? General manager Jason Licht knows what he's doing, and I have faith that the team knows what it's doing, too. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has succeeded at nearly every NFL stop, and he's excelled working with Jameis Winston at Tampa Bay, so I could see the Bucs eventually hiring him for the position and justifying the surprising move. Of course, given the loss of Smith's defensive expertise, the Bucs will have to make sure to have a good defensive coordinator in place if they go with Koetter or another offensive coach.

The bottom line is, I still feel good about this team. The Bucs have a promising young quarterback in Winston, solid, ascendant talent around him -- including left tackle Donovan Smith and receiver Mike Evans -- and a strong ground game, especially if they re-sign Doug Martin. The NFC South has been won three straight years by the Panthers, who finished with just one loss this season. But don't be fooled by that fact, or by Carolina's 38-10 blowout win over the Bucs in Week 17. Tampa Bay is definitely capable of competing in the division in 2016.

5) Chicago Bears

I liked Jay Cutler's performance this year. His numbers weren't off the charts, but I thought he played under control, played within himself, and looked pretty good. Two key pieces are likely on their way out the door: offensive coordinator Adam Gase and running back Matt Forte. While losing Gase, a prominent candidate for head-coaching jobs elsewhere, would be cause for concern, he could be ably replaced by quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains, who helped do such a good job with Cutler. Rookie Jeremy Langford, meanwhile, will be there to step up in the absence of Forte, who will hit free agency after eight seasons in Chicago. And the Bears should get receiver Kevin White, 2015's first-round draft pick who spent the season on the PUP list while dealing with a shin injury, back healthy.

John Fox does a heckuva coaching job. There are still three teams with good quarterbacks to contend with in the NFC North, but Chicago was close to 8-8 this year, and I think the Bears will win at least eight in 2016.

6) Tennessee Titans

The Titans have had four consecutive losing seasons. They've won a total of five games over the past two years. They've been outscored by 308 points over the past 32 games. They need help at almost every position on offense and defense. They need to hire a coach and just parted ways with their GM. So why are they even this high?

Two words: Marcus Mariota.

Mariota has a flair for making big plays on the ground and through the air. He has Russell Wilson-like talent, and when a team has a quarterback like that, anything is possible.

Tennessee should hire a veteran coach, a Mike Shanahan type who could help the youngsters on the roster mature. Between Mariota and a defense that improved under Dick LeBeau (ranking 12th in 2015 after ranking 27th in 2014), the Titans should have a healthy chance of competing with the Colts, Texans and Jaguars in the AFC South.

7) San Francisco 49ers

How did ex-coach Jim Tomsula get five wins out of a Niners team with a talent-poor roster that ranked 31st on offense and 29th on defense? The big question for whoever replaces him will be this: Who's the quarterback, Colin Kaepernick or Blaine Gabbert? The latter played pretty well down the stretch, at least as far as the numbers -- 63.1 percent completion rate, 2,031 passing yards, 10 TDs, seven INTs, 86.2 passer rating from Week 9 through Week 17 -- are concerned.

San Francisco's fall from Super Bowl contention to the NFC West cellar in the span of two seasons has been incredible. I wonder if the team would've been in better shape if it had used all the extra draft picks it had accumulated in recent years on sure things rather than risky propositions, like Marcus Lattimore and Tank Carradine. Either way, the Niners will find the going tough in their division. Whoever they hire, the people upstairs need to stay away and let the coach be.

8) Cleveland Browns

I thought Cleveland had turned a corner in 2014, with the Browns winning seven games and posting a positive turnover differential. Then the wheels fell off, and now there will be a new everything in Cleveland: a new head coach, a new GM and a new front-office structure. The team should be applauded for trying something creative in promoting Sashi Brown and hiring baseball man Paul DePodesta, but we'll see if the strategy pans out. Regardless, the Browns have not drafted well over the past three years, so there's plenty of work to do.

How much can they depend on Johnny Manziel after this season? He can be a difference-maker if he keeps his head on straight. But how many times do you allow yourself to be let down by a player? Is it realistic to expect much? It might be best to cut ties with the quarterback. It would definitely be wise to draft another one, even if Manziel remains on the roster, though, of course, who to take with the second overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft remains a looming question.

It's possible to turn things around quickly in this league, so as dire and grim as things seem in Cleveland, there's always hope. I'd like to see the Browns hire a young, offensive-minded coach, someone like Gase, and -- crucially -- offer him the keys to the offense for the next five years. They need to promise the next coach guaranteed job security and make it known that, no matter what happens over the next five years -- even if they go 0-16 -- he won't be fired. The Browns must finally establish some sort of stability and consistency, but that won't come if the players think the coach could get the boot at any time.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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