Worst-to-first chances: Watch out for Broncos, Texans

There's nothing worse than last place.

You can't sugarcoat or rationalize it. There is no, "Yeah, but ... ." The standings are permanent and absolute, laughing at you -- and the people you care about -- for eternity. All there's left to do is process your shortcomings and deduce how to avoid such indignity in the future. Assuming you still have a future, of course. Bosses don't like last place. They kind of hate it, honestly. They look at the standings and say things like, "Wait, so they achieved literally the exact opposite of what I asked?" Related: Heads roll in last place.

But look on the bright side: Last place in the NFL is hardly a life sentence. Just ask the Eagles, who went from 7-9 doormat in the NFC East in 2016 to champions in 2017. The Jaguars also made the climb from fourth to first. Come to think of it, if not for a Jags collapse in the final 10 minutes of the AFC title game, we would've seen a Worst-To-First Super Bowl. Imagine how much mileage the media would've drawn out of that narrative!

Here's a fun fact from the all-knowing NFL Media Research Team: At least one team has won its division the season after finishing in or tied for last place in 14 of the past 15 seasons. History is instructive, and it's telling us there's a very good chance at least one of last year's basement-dwellers -- a group that includes the Jets, Browns, Texans, Broncos, Giants, Bears, Buccaneers and 49ers -- will be hosting a home playoff game next January. Seems crazy, right? It's not!

With this looping historical reminder in hand, let's see who's likely to pull off the feat in 2018 ... and who's not.


Reserved for teams with virtually no chance of winning their divisions for reasons both inside and outside of their control.

Cleveland Browns

I get it, I get it. It's Hope Season in Cleveland. HBO likes the Browns! It's not a popular move to throw cold water on all the optimism suddenly bubbling out of Berea. But before we get the next over-the-top prediction about the Browns' rise from the ashes, let's remember you have to crawl before you can walk, and you have to walk before you run. Honestly, we don't even know if the Browns have legs yet.

The Browns went 0-16 last season. They went 1-15 the year before that. They've gone an outrageous 4-44 in the past three seasons, which puts them nine games clear of the 49ers, who have the next worst record since 2015. That puts the Browns in, like, Super Last Place. Point being, the Browns have so much work to do just to get back to respectability. An 8-8 finish would be an enormous achievement. Ultimately, the AFC North remains the Steelers' division to lose, and the Browns aren't ready to challenge ... not yet anyway.

New York Jets

Like the Browns, the Jets and their tortured fanbase have reason for optimism this spring. The team has improved itself through free agency, and the draft class was headlined by a potentially franchise-shifting talent at quarterback. That's Sam Darnold, of course, but it remains to be seen how quickly Gang Green chooses to bring along a prospect who can't even legally drink a beer until next month. The Jets remain in the process of a rebuild, and there are question marks on both sides of the ball. Example: Gang Green's projected starting tight end this season? Ladies and gentlemen, let's give it up for Chris Herndon!

Like the Browns, a jump to the .500 mark would constitute success in 2018. Unfortunately, eight wins probably won't be enough to unseat those pesky Patriots, who have won the division 487 years in a row. (This is an accurate figure from the NFL Media Research Team.)

Never say never ... but probably not

Reserved for teams with considerable optimism and legitimate upside, but may not be ready to make the big move just yet.

Chicago Bears

It's been a long time since there was an offseason that featured so much positive buzz around the Bears. You have to go all the way back to the summer of 2009, when Jay Cutler came to town and an entire city believed this to be a good and positive thing. (The aughts were a more innocent time, weren't they? Actually, not really.) Success was fleeting in the Cutler years, but the hope in Chicago is that the pairing of second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and new head coach Matt Nagy will signal an eventual changing of the guard in the NFC North. We like the Bears and their future prospects ... the only problem is, we like the Packers and the Vikings a lot more in 2018.

High-ceiling/low-floor clubs

Reserved for teams set up either for instant, enviable success or staggering, heart-wrenching sadness. This ain't 8-8 territory.

New York Giants

Give Dave Gettleman this: He's not a man who is swayed by outside opinions. He was that way in Carolina, and he's been equally headstrong during his brief run in New York. If he wasn't, Sam Darnold would probably be flicking spirals for Big Blue instead of Gang Green in OTAs this week. The Giants general manager famously said he was looking for a player he thought could slip on a gold jacket in 15 years, and that's why he took Penn State running back Saquon Barkley at No. 2 overall. If Barkley hits the ground, um, running, the Giants become a very interesting team in the NFC. Barkley, Eli Manning, Odell Beckham, Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram -- it's hard to find a more impressive offensive core of playmakers.

Of course, almost all of this depends on whether the 37-year-old Manning can still play. Then there's the equally pressing question of whether the Giants have the grunts up front to efficiently protect their forever QB. Then there's the matter of the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles, who actually look better on paper as they prepare to defend their crown. There are no pushovers in the division, and New York's schedule is unforgiving. This could go very well or very badly, and it's hard to see a middle ground.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

If you're like me (I'm sorry), you were actually offended by the 2017 Bucs. Over the course of five "Hard Knocks" episodes, we fell for a young and personable Tampa Bay team that looked like an emerging NFC superpower. Then the season started, and it was all exposed as camera magic. Jameis Winston hurt his shoulder and the Bucs kept losing ... and losing ... and losing, ending an ugly season at 5-11. Head coach Dirk Koetter somehow survived the wreckage, and now Tampa Bay gets to hit the reset button. The good news? GM Jason Licht appears to have had a really solid offseason, building up the front seven through free agency and trades (hello, Jason Pierre-Paul). He also addressed a major issue on offense in the draft with the selection of USC running back Ronald Jones. If Jones hits and the line can protect Winston, the Bucs are going to score a lot of points this season. But ... can we trust them? Hell hath no fury like a "Hard Knocks" fan scorned.

Definitely in the realm of possibility

Listen, we wouldn't put the mortgage on it (You have a mortgage? Good for you!), but don't be stunned if this team makes the proverbial leap.

San Francisco 49ers

The reason behind the excitement around the Niners makes sense. This was a franchise floating in the unfamiliar waters of irrelevance for a few years, until GM John Lynch pulled off what may be remembered as the trade of the decade. Enter Jimmy Garoppolo at the modest cost of a second-round pick, and -- once given the opportunity -- Jimmy G. and the revitalized Niners ripped off five straight wins to close the season. The offseason brought big additions like running back Jerick McKinnon, center Weston Richburg (don't sleep on the importance of centers!) and cornerback Richard Sherman. The Rams will enter the season as a heavy favorite in the West, but San Francisco has the feel of a team on the rise that could arrive one year ahead of schedule.

The favorites

Reserved for teams who have a legitimate chance to take control of their division right now.

Denver Broncos

Case Keenum might not have been John Elway's first choice behind center this offseason (no matter what Elway says), but he represents a solid addition who will serve as a huge upgrade over the pu pu platter Denver rolled with last season. First-round pick Bradley Chubb is a fascinating piece of the puzzle, a guy hyped up with LT-like game-changing abilities ... and now he joins a front seven that already has Von Miller on it? Denver's D -- while not a perfect beast -- has the potential to blow up opposing game plans this autumn.

Also working in the Broncos' favor is the division they play in. The defending AFC West champion Chiefs traded away their top cornerback (Marcus Peters) and their rock-steady quarterback (Alex Smith). Turning the reins over to second-year man Patrick Mahomes at QB could absolutely end up making Kansas City better (I'll never doubt Andy Reid in this realm), but it's equally possible that growing pains are on the way. If the Chiefs do indeed take a step back, can you really say the Chargers or Raiders should be seen as overwhelming favorites over the Broncos? This division feels wide open.

Houston Texans

Like the Broncos, here's a situation where an improved team meets a wide-open division. For the Texans, just getting healthy could be enough to punch a ticket back to January. This is a defense that -- health willing -- will include J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and Tyrann Mathieu. There are durability concerns with all those stars, but the upside is undeniable. The same can be said about an offense led by quarterback Deshaun Watson (a legit phenom as a rookie before hurting his knee). Houston's offense isn't perfect: The offensive line is a question mark and the hope is that D'Onta Foreman pushes the underwhelming Lamar Miller in the backfield. But I like the stars here, and I really like the head coach, Bill O'Brien, who consistently gets the most out of his teams.

As for the rest of the AFC South? I'll spare you the obligatory Blake Bortles misgivings, but let's just say nothing should be assumed with the Jaguars. The Colts have their Andrew Luckthing going on. If this division is indeed heading for a shake-up, don't be surprised if it's the Texans and Titans fighting for the top spot come late December.

Follow Dan Hanzus on Twitter @danhanzus. Submit questions for his next mailbag, which will run next week.

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