Parity. What a beautiful word! It's the lifeblood of this league.
One of the main reasons why the NFL is king of today's American sports spectrum is the simple fact that every team has a chance. With the competitive balance driven by the salary cap, among other factors, your squad enters every new year with the opportunity to make the playoffs. Don't believe me? Consider this nugget: Since divisional realignment in 2002, we've only experienced two seasons in which at least one team didn't go from worst to first (2014 and '19). It's a routine occurrence. With the right management, coaching staff and quarterback -- as well as some breaks here and there -- every bottom-dweller can rise. The challenge is identifying which bottom-dweller will rise.
So, which team is most likely to go from worst to first in 2020? Let's rank the eight candidates!
The NFC North is the most flawed division in football. Thus, all four teams can win it. Yes, even the Lions, who haven't won a division title since back in 1993, when they were playing in the NFC Central.
I still give Green Bay the edge over the rest of the field, but the Packers' counterproductive and inexplicable offseason gives them a 10-win ceiling. While Green Bay did play in the NFC title game just five months ago, I don't think the Pack are on the level of NFC adversaries in San Francisco, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Dallas or Philadelphia. Heck, right now, the Cardinals, Seahawks, Falcons and Rams look better, too. But someone has to win the North. Minnesota is trying to win while retooling -- and now Dalvin Cook's apparently pondering a holdout. I see the Vikings winning eight or nine games. The Bears have a great defense ... and the least inspiring quarterback room in the league. Smells like 8-8.
Which leads me back to Detroit. I'm saying there's a chance. A real one.
Matthew Stafford is a star, as he displayed in Darrell Bevell's offense last year. Stafford's 2019 campaign, of course, was limited to eight games by a back injury, but in that half-season, he stacked up some sparkling figures: 19:5 TD-to-INT ratio, 312.5 passing yards per game, 106.0 passer rating. Now it's Year 2 in Bevell's attack -- no more learning curve! As I wrote last month, I can see the 32-year-old signal-caller leading the league in passing yards. Especially with Detroit's receiving corps, which I love. Kenny Golladay broke out last season, snagging a league-high 11 touchdown catches and a Pro Bowl bid. Marvin Jones is a perfect No. 2, while Danny Amendola is a strong No. 3 in the slot. And I remain a big believer in tight end T.J. Hockenson. With better health and an NFL season under his belt, the 2019 first-rounder can become a stud. Meanwhile, in the 2020 NFL Draft, GM Bob Quinn stole D'Andre Swift in Round 2. I expect him to be in the mix for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Matt Patricia's defense is beefed up, even after Darius Slay's departure via trade. I will never believe Jeff Okudah was the third-best player in this year's draft class, but I believe in him as a legit NFL corner. Danny Shelton, Jaimie Collins and Desmond Trufant were strong veteran pickups addressing needs on all three levels.
And check the schedule. Detroit can start 4-4. And then they play Washington and Carolina before hosting Houston on Thanksgiving. Thus, the Lions could hit December sitting pretty at 7-4.
As I alluded to above with my unenthusiastic Packers endorsement, I'm not ready to pull the trigger on Detroit winning its first NFC North title just yet. But it is very, very realistic. And you Lions fans need to start embracing it.
The biggest obstacle, of course, is Kansas City. The Chiefs are the defending champs -- not just of the division, but the NFL. Patrick Mahomes is the best player in sports. K.C. is freakin' loaded, especially on offense.
The other obstacle, of course, is the rest of the division. The Raiders are on the rise. The Broncos smartly built around second-year QB Drew Lock, who should explode this season. You could make a real case for every team in the AFC West making the playoffs this year, with the postseason field's expansion to three wild cards per conference.
So, what's to like about the Chargers? Well, it starts on the defensive side of the ball, where the Bolts should be superb. I absolutely adore Derwin James. The Swiss Army Knife's 2019 campaign was mostly lost to a foot injury, but don't forget about his transcendent rookie season -- you know, when he earned first-team All-Pro honors. He's special. He's the best safety in the game today, as we'll see again in 2020. And when you combine Los Angeles' loaded secondary, which now includes versatile cover man Chris Harris Jr., with a pass-rushing duo of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, well ... Good luck, opposing passers.
On offense, I love this quarterback room. Always been a big Tyrod Taylor fan. The reliable veteran's the perfect bridge to No. 6 overall pick Justin Herbert, a prospect I'm very high on. I'm not exactly sure when that transition will take place, but I trust Anthony Lynn, who got my AP vote for Coach of the Year in 2018. Whoever's under center will benefit from L.A.'s stellar group of pass catchers. Keenan Allen and Mike Williams comprise an awesome 1-2 punch at wideout, while talented tight end Hunter Henry could be on the verge of a true breakout season. Not to mention, RB Austin Ekeler is a nightmare for defenses in the passing game.
All that said, K.C. remains the overwhelming favorite out West. Still, I have the Chargers bouncing back and making the playoffs via the wild card and winning 10 games.
Arizona is my Cinderella team in 2020. You know that by now. And with each passing day, I grow more and more fond of these Cardinals. In fact, at this moment, I can envision them winning 10 games and making the playoffs -- as a wild card.
Don't get it twisted: I think Arizona is a better team than Detroit, the team that tops this list. But while the Lions are competing against a trio of flawed divisional foes, the Cards have to deal with the defending NFC champion 49ers, who are stacked, 1 to 53. And while I currently have Arizona above the Seahawks and Rams, I respect both of those teams' legit potential to make the postseason field.
Still, this Cardinals team is going to be fun. Kyler Murray to DeAndre Hopkins will be special. Larry Fitzgerald is still producing. Christian Kirk has great promise. Kliff Kingsbury will make the offense sing. Meanwhile, with Patrick Peterson, Chandler Jones and rookie Isaiah Simmons, the Cardinals have three difference-makers on defense. Playoffs? Yes. NFC West champs? No.
Brian Flores is an absolute gem of a coach who maximizes the talent at his disposal. And that talent was just upgraded!
Miami did a fine job in free agency. Byron Jones was the crown jewel. He joins Xavien Howard to give the Dolphins a tremendous tandem at CB. LB Kyle Van Noy, another March addition, can play and lead and he knows Flores from their time together in New England. In the draft, they did indeed end up getting Tua Tagovailoa after all. And if the No. 5 overall pick is 100 percent recovered from hip surgery, he should play. Fact is, there will always be health concerns with Tua. He went under the knife numerous times in college. Dolphins fans will be holding their breath for his entire career. So, if he's given a clean bill of health, let him roll and immediately develop chemistry with DeVante Parker and the rest of Miami's weapons.
It wouldn't shock me to see the Dolphins finish in second place in the AFC East behind Buffalo (... albeit as a seven/eight-win team and four games out of first).
The Redskins lived somewhere between inept and dysfunctional during the Bruce Allen era. (Or better phrased, the Bruce Allen error.) But it's a new day in The DMV! Ron Rivera brings major credibility to a franchise that sorely needed it. The two-time Coach of the Year will have this team ready to play every week. And he made a fine coordinator hire in Jack Del Rio, a savvy defensive mind who must be champing at the bit to work with this front. No. 2 overall pick Chase Young is a freak of nature. What happens when you toss him on a D-line alongside three recent first-round picks (Montez Sweat, Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen), four-time Pro Bowler Ryan Kerrigan and the underrated Matt Ioannidis? DESTRUCTION!
Washington has a lot more questions on offense. While I am a believer in second-year QB Dwayne Haskins, he doesn't remotely compare to divisional adversaries Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott. I think the 'Skins can finish ahead of the Giants, but that's about it.
Matt Rhule was a perfect coaching hire. He was outstanding at Temple and Baylor. What he did to make those programs relevant -- and in Baylor's case, dominant -- was beyond impressive. I'm very excited to see Teddy Bridgewater getting another chance to direct an offense. And the Robby Anderson signing gives Teddy three playmaking studs at wideout (along with D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel). Christian McCaffrey is the best running back in the game today. And I bet new offensive coordinator Joe Brady, who helped lift LSU's offense to historic heights, puts Run CMC in the slot -- a terrifying thought for opposing defensive coordinators. Not to mention, Brady worked with Bridgewater in New Orleans.
All that said, there's a reason why the Panthers just spent all seven draft picks on defense. That cupboard was bare. And in the NFC South, the competition is intense. Tampa Bay and New Orleans are rightly thinking Super Bowl. Atlanta's offense is going to hum.
I love where the Panthers are heading, but it's going to take time.
Joe Burrow has it. And with the Heisman Trophy winner at the helm, I think the Bengals are going to win some games you don't expect them to. Burrow's flanked by an enticing collection of skill players: wide receivers A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd and rookie Tee Higgins, as well as running back Joe Mixon. And Cincy finally spent some money in free agency, boosting the defense with DT D.J. Reader, CB Trae Waynes and S Vonn Bell.
But this roster still has issues, starting with the offensive line. (Not ideal, with a rookie quarterback under center.) Six or seven wins is very possible. First place is not.
Nobody expects much of anything from the Jaguars in 2020, but I remain a big fan of Doug Marrone. I recently asked him on SiriusXM Radio about how he'll keep any "Tanking for Trevor" talk away from the locker room. His response: By using all of the negative media clips to engender an "Us vs. The World" mentality. Well, I'm happy to help, coach!
The Jags had a fabulous draft -- highlighted by the first three picks of C.J. Henderson, K'Lavon Chaisson and Laviska Shenault Jr. -- which portends well for the future. But they are another offseason away from competing in this AFC South. Jacksonville can't leap a bulldozing Titans team, a well-rounded Colts outfit and Deshaun Watson in a single bound.
Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.