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Saints top list of sub-.500 teams with playoff shot

Can you smell it?

That's hope, wafting through the spring air of NFL Nation. Your team stunk last year? Doesn't matter. Everybody is tied for first place at 0-0.

("Even the Jacksonville Jaguars?" asks a wistful young boy in the crowd. Yes son, even the Jaguars.)

So which also-rans from 2012 have the best chance of playing January football in 2014? To provide a pecking order, let's go back to the tier formatting that caused so much trouble on our Top 30 Running Backs list.

We won't address any teams that were 8-8 or better. Like most things in life, we prefer to focus on the gutter.

The favorite

If we're all relieved the bounty scandal is no longer a daily talking point, imagine how the New Orleans Saints feel. With that calamitous distraction in the rear view, and head coach Sean Payton once again entrenched, the Saints are in good position. It all comes down to that woebegone defense that received a much-needed face lift this offseason.

Out is Steve Spagnuolo and the 4-3, in comes Rob Ryan and the 3-4. The personnel changes mostly were subtle, though first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro provides a much-needed impact player in the secondary. Don't be surprised when the Saints jump to 10 or 11 wins.

From the NFL Media research team: The Saints held a lead in 14 of 16 games last season. They averaged 28.8 points per game, the most by a team to finish with a losing record since the 2004 Kansas City Chiefs, who went 10-6 the following season.

Everything seems to be in line

The Dolphins re-tooled their offense in free agency, then traded up in the first round to land a potential franchise cornerstone in defensive end Dion Jordan. If quarterback Ryan Tannehill improves -- and we have reason to think he will -- Miami should be an AFC player.

With the additions of coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith, the Chiefs upgraded on two vital fronts. The secondary is better, and the offensive line has been fortified with No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher. Tavon Austin makes the Rams even more intriguing (and they were pretty damn intriguing before). Being trapped in the loaded NFC West is their biggest hurdle.

From the NFL Media research team: The 2012 Chiefs had six players selected to the Pro Bowl (S Eric Berry, RB Jamaal Charles, P Dustin Colquitt, LB Tamba Hali, LB Justin Houston and LB Derrick Johnson). This is tied for the most Pro Bowl selections for a team with the No. 1 pick the following season in the common draft era.

Mystery teams

Here are two teams that -- from a talent standpoint -- had no business losing 75 percent of their games last year. For the Lions, the failure meant bringing in a new backfield option (Reggie Bush) and using the draft to re-stock a top-heavy defense. These were wise moves.

The Eagles made a bigger splash, dumping Andy Reid after 14 years and installing campus hero Chip Kelly. Will Kelly's innovative approach to offense make the Eagles a new model for success? Or will he flame out in Saban-esque fashion? Stay tuned.

From the NFL Media research team: The Lions went 3-9 in the 12 games decided by eight points or less -- the worst winning percentage in the NFL. The Lions were hurt by a NFL-high 10 miscellaneous touchdowns -- four interception returns, four kick returns and two on fumble recoveries.

Need a QB leap

The Bucs are this close to being legit. Their weakest link last season -- pass defense -- was addressed in a thunderous way with the additions of cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson. But it's all about quarterback Josh Freeman, and whether he can leave behind the inconsistency that's held him back.

The Browns quietly have built a very strong roster with few weak areas. It comes down to if you believe Brandon Weeden can be more than a middling talent. The Titans wisely fortified their offensive line through free agency and the draft. That should help Chris Johnson, but can Jake Locker be accurate enough at this level?

From the NFL Media research team: The Buccaneers were the heartbreak kids in 2012, with seven of their nine losses coming by eight points or less. They had the lead in the fourth quarter in four of those games.

In Cam We Trust(?)

Fun fact: In the Cam Newton era, the Panthers are 9-3 after Week 12. Their record before Week 12? 4-16. This is why the Panthers get their own category. They're a bizarro team led by a bizarro QB. Newton has been an NFL enigma, and it's difficult to get a grasp on which way this franchise is heading because of it.

We'd stick Carolina in the tier above, but Newton already has gone stretches where he's looked like the most dynamic player in football. Year three will be a fascinating one.

From the NFL Media research team: Four teams finished with an offense and defense ranked in the Top 12 -- the Broncos, Texans, 49ers ... and Carolina Panthers. Go figure.

It's OK to dream

The Cardinals addressed their troublesome offensive line and added some stability at the quarterback position with Carson Palmer. Bruce Arians is a sound offensive mind and Arizona's defense already is built for success. Like the Rams, the rugged NFC West is a formiddable hurdle.

Looking for a reason to be hopeful, Chargers fans? Well, Norv is gone. Also, your defense was ranked ninth in the NFL last season. Assuming Philip Rivers isn't in a state of sharp decline, a bounce-back season isn't hard to fathom.

From the NFL Media research team: Of the 10 teams with the best first-half scoring differential, eight of them made the postseason. The Chargers and Giants were the only two that missed out. San Diego was outscored by 46 points in the fourth quarter of games. Only the Bills, Jaguars and Eagles fared worse.

Glass Joe-level underdogs

It's not personal, guys. Brighter days lay ahead ... probably.

Follow Dan Hanzus on Twitter @DanHanzus.

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