Over the last ten seasons in the NFL, ten teams have gone from last place in their division to first place just one year later. The only years that it hasn’t happened were 2014 and 2019. Last year, the Cincinnati Bengals went from the last-place team in the AFC North to representing the AFC in the Super Bowl. This article will take a look at each of the eight worst-to-first candidates and their likelihood of winning their division next season.
*Odds courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook
#1: AFC North – Baltimore Ravens
Odds to Win the Division: +170
With the Browns likely out of the conversation due to the pending Deshaun Watson suspension, this division will probably come down to the Bengals, last year’s winners (and worst-to-first team), and the Ravens. Baltimore isn’t a typical worst-to-first team as they were one of the most injured teams in football last year and have significantly improved their roster this offseason. Lamar Jackson should also be back to playing as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL after recovering from his injuries last year. The Ravens’ odds will likely decrease once we hear the verdict on the Deshaun Watson situation in the coming weeks. If you like their chances of winning the division, it’s time to bet before the odds worsen.
#2: AFC West – Denver Broncos
Odds to Win the Division: +250
The Broncos are likely the most-improved team in the NFL, with a new quarterback in Russell Wilson and a new head coach in Nathaniel Hackett, not to mention a new owner in Rob Walton, who’s now the wealthiest owner in the NFL. The Broncos are behind the Chiefs (+175) and Chargers (+225) in odds to win the AFC West, but all three teams have their projected win totals sitting at 10 or 10.5 games. Denver’s roster is ready to compete, and Wilson should elevate the rest of the offense. The defense also allowed the third-fewest points in the NFL last year. The AFC West might be the best division in modern football history, so every team has an uphill battle, but the Broncos are a solid bet to return value at +250 odds.
#3: AFC South – Jacksonville Jaguars
Odds to Win the Division: +700
The Jaguars carry some intrigue in a seemingly wide-open AFC South. The Colts have raved about Matt Ryan early in his time in Indianapolis, but at 37 years old, it’s unclear if they’re getting a top-level quarterback. The Titans were already a regression candidate after being the number one seed last year, and the loss of A.J. Brown looms large for their offense. Trevor Lawrence’s play should be immensely better this season after a disastrous rookie year, especially with the addition of new head coach Doug Pederson. Even after a free agency period where the Jaguars spent big money on improvements on both sides of the ball, their roster may not quite stack up with the Colts and Titans. Still, at +700 value, I’m intrigued by Lawrence’s ability to elevate the rest of his teammates.
#4: NFC North – Detroit Lions
Odds to Win the Division: +1000
Perhaps my favorite longshot team in this category, the Lions are looking like one of the most improved teams in the NFL. Along with a stout offensive line that I ranked at #8 in the league, the Lions have impressive young offensive talent in D’Andre Swift, T.J. Hockenson, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and now Jameson Williams. The defense should also be significantly better than it was last season. The Lions have the same odds to win the NFC North as the Bears despite having a considerably better roster and a much more experienced head coach. Jared Goff isn’t a top-level quarterback, but he’s previously led winning teams. While the Packers and Vikings are the rightful top teams in odds, Detroit carries some sneaky value.
#5: NFC South – Carolina Panthers
Odds to Win the Division: +1200
The Panthers could still swing a trade for Baker Mayfield or Jimmy Garoppolo, which would immediately make them far more interesting at these odds. However, as things currently stand, it’s impossible to sell yourself on betting on a team with Sam Darnold, P.J. Walker, and Matt Corral at quarterback to knock off a team with Tom Brady on top of the NFC South. Carolina’s head coach Matt Rhule and general manager Scott Fitterer are clearly on the hot seat, so I might sprinkle on these odds as a way to bet on the team trading for that quarterback upgrade, but it likely still won’t be enough to compete with the Bucs or the Saints.
#6: NFC East – New York Giants
Odds to Win the Division: +900
The Cowboys are currently favored to win the NFC East, but the division hasn’t had a repeat winner since 2004. Could the Giants be a sleeper pick to win for the first time since 2011? New York has had just one winning season since winning the Super Bowl following the 2011 season. The Joe Judge era was short-lived, and the Giants will be hopeful Brian Daboll can change their fortunes. Predicting the Giants win this division is a big bet on Daniel Jones having a career year, but the team has solid skill talent if Saquon Barkley can stay healthy, and Daboll might be able to coax a higher level of production out of Jones this year. Still, this is a rebuilding team that likely doesn’t have real playoff ambitions.
#7: AFC East – New York Jets
Odds to Win the Division: +2200
The Bills are heavy favorites to win this division, currently listed at -225 on DraftKings. The Jets have a projected win total of 5.5 games while the Bills sit at 11.5 games – that’s a massive gap for them to overcome. While Zach Wilson should improve in Year Two, and the offense should be better with the addition of rookie Garrett Wilson, it won’t reach the levels of Josh Allen’s offense. In all likelihood, the Jets winning this division would require an injury to Allen. Even then, the Dolphins and Patriots would be in line ahead of the Jets with more established rosters ready to pounce. The Jets are headed in the right direction, but there isn’t any value here.
#8: NFC West – Seattle Seahawks
Odds to Win the Division: +1600
The Seahawks finished in last place in this division last year, with Russell Wilson playing the majority of the season, and now their quarterbacks are Drew Lock and Geno Smith. Like the Panthers, I can be swayed to sprinkle a small amount on these longshot odds with the hope that the Seahawks trade for Baker Mayfield or Jimmy Garoppolo. Still, it’s more likely that this team is entering a multi-year rebuilding period. Even if they secure a quarterback upgrade, this roster has been eroded in recent years and isn’t close to playoff-caliber in most areas. With two rookies possibly starting at offensive tackle, it will likely be a long year for whoever is under center.