With the playoffs about to start, this is the perfect time to examine the potential of the eight last-place finishers to flip the script in 2017.
Who's going to make such a leap in 2017? Below are the last-place finishers from each division, ranked according to their chances to vault to the top of the heap by next January.
1) Philadelphia Eagles (NFC East)
I don't think the Cowboys will win 13 games again in 2017. Dallas was 3-3 within the NFC East, with the Eagles playing them to overtime in Week 8 (and winning the meaningless regular-season finale). Going back to 2011, only four teams have gone from worst to first -- and all four came from the NFC East. So why buck the trend? The Eagles have a good, young quarterback in Carson Wentz, who bounced back nicely from a mid-season valley, and a promising coach in Andy Reid-disciple Doug Pederson, while Fletcher Cox, Jordan Hicks and Brandon Graham anchor a strong defense. The top-notch front office, headed by Howie Roseman, has eight draft picks coming up, including one in the top 20. Give them more speed at running back and receiver and look out.
2) Jacksonville Jaguars (AFC South)
Jacksonville has young talent, especially on its sixth-ranked defense, and the fourth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. The Jags are also in the eminently winnable AFC South. Will they hire a coach who can pull the right strings with Blake Bortles? I feel optimistic about the young quarterback heading into next season, despite his struggles in 2016, because of my knowledge of him personally. While he obviously has to cut down on picks, he's a guy who works and has ability, arm strength and smarts. The Jaguars would be well-served to bring back offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett in some capacity.
3) Carolina Panthers (NFC South)
The Panthers scored less, gave up more points and posted a much worse turnover differential (from plus-20 to minus-2) than they did in 2015 -- but they still have many of the same talented players who pushed them to 15 wins and the Super Bowl last season. Carolina just has too many skilled players to finish with two consecutive losing records, and the organization is very healthy and good at what it does. The Panthers can address the need for offensive line help via the draft or free agency, while 2015 MVP Cam Newton, who will be just 28 when next season starts, should be able to rebound from a disappointing year. Still, the Falcons and Buccaneers loom.
4) Chicago Bears (NFC North)
With the Jay Cutler era all but over and backup Matt Barkley's audition marred by too many picks, the Bears need to find a quarterback. They do have a good start on constructing a power running team, with back Jordan Howard clearing 1,300 yards as a rookie. Coach John Fox has a history of defensive success, though Chicago was hurt this season by a distinct lack of takeaways (finishing with 11, least in the NFL). There are some good, young pieces to work with, including linebackers Leonard Floyd and Nick Kwiatkoski on defense and center Cody Whitehair, receiver Cameron Meredith and Howard on offense. The Bears have the third overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. The NFC North, meanwhile, is relatively open at the top, given that it does not currently house a clear-cut bully, the Packers' recent hot streak aside.
5) San Diego Chargers (AFC West)
The 5-11 Chargers were better than their record. A whopping 20 players landed on injured reserve by season's end, including key pieces like Keenan Allen, Danny Woodhead and Jason Verrett. Joey Bosa proved he could be a factor, generating 10.5 sacks -- but he was late to the party, missing four games after holding out. The distraction of a potential relocation has been -- and might continue to be -- an issue. Philip Rivers did not have his best year, but if he can cut down on the picks and the Chargers can stay healthy (or, at least, healthier), they should be able to make a more competitive push in 2017.
6) Cleveland Browns (AFC North)
The Browns are coming off a one-win season in which they ranked 30th on offense and 31st on defense. There is, frankly, no way they're topping the Steelers, Bengals or probably even the Ravens next season. But they aren't at the bottom of this list because they finally have organizational stability, plus the No. 1 overall pick and a raft of other selections in the 2017 NFL Draft. Upper management (including Sashi Brown) has done a good job, while Hue Jackson is a great head coach with a solid staff in place. There are some pieces on the roster who have something going for them, including receiver Corey Coleman, who I think is going to be a really good player. There are questions -- Can Jamie Collins or breakout receiver Terrelle Pryor be re-signed? What happens at quarterback? -- but after whiffing on so many draft picks, the Browns finally seem to be trending in the right direction.
7) New York Jets (AFC East)
When you allow almost 100 more points than you did the previous season (from 314 to 409), you're going to have trouble. It seemed like everyone but Leonard Williams was going through the motions on the defense, which dropped from fourth in 2015 to 11th this season. Though the jury is still out on Christian Hackenberg, I don't think the Jets currently have a quarterback on the roster they can win with. Still, beating the Bills in the regular-season finale was a good omen, and New York does have the sixth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft to look forward to, plus a pretty good coach on the job in Todd Bowles.
8) San Francisco 49ers (NFC West)
Over the past two seasons, the 49ers have scored 547 points -- just seven points more than the Atlanta Falcons scored this season alone. San Francisco's fall from the penthouse to the outhouse was stunningly quick, fueled mainly by organizational instability and poor drafting. The team is now looking for a new general manager and its third new coach since 2015. There's no viable quarterback on the roster or, for that matter, very many players who look like they belong on a winning team. The Niners have to basically tear everything down and start over.