So many things have to go right in order for teams to make the leap. A franchise has to add enough talent to improve the roster in a short period of time and the coaching staff has to either adapt or be replaced with one that can get results quickly. A little luck doesn’t hurt, either.
To determine which of the eight teams that finished in last place in their division last season is most likely to be this year’s stunner, we will simulate the season a 1,000 times using the weekly preseason point spreads released by BetOnline, which are then used to determine each team’s projected win-loss records and chances of winning the division. For example, a team favored by three points has won games 61 percent of the time over the last three years.
Here are the teams ranked by their chances to go from worst to first in the upcoming 2020 NFL season.
1. Los Angeles Chargers
Projected record in 2020: 8-8, chances of winning the AFC West: 10 percent
The Chargers won only five games last year but they weren’t as bad as they looked. Based on their points scored and allowed, we would have expected them to win almost eight games, which would have been the second-most in the division behind the Kansas City Chiefs.
Plus, for the first time since 2005, Philip Rivers won’t be the team’s starting quarterback. Tyrod Taylor is currently penciled in as the starter for the team this season and performs better than he’s given credit for. During his three-year stint as starting quarterback for the Bills form 2015 to 2017 he ranked 8th, 9th and 14th in ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating. Rookie Justin Herbert, the sixth pick in the 2020 draft, will compete for the starting job and could perhaps make this position into a strength for the coming year.
2. Arizona Cardinals
Projected record in 2020: 7-9, chances of winning the NFC West: 7 percent
There is a lot of optimism in Arizona following the acquisition of DeAndre Hopkins as the Cardinals’ new No. 1 wide receiver. He, along with quarterback Kyler Murray, the Offensive Rookie of the Year, and running back Kenyan Drake give second-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury the offensive weapons to keep pace with any team in the NFL.
They could also get some momentum early. After facing the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1 they are favored in the next two games against the Washington Redskins (minus-7) and Detroit Lions (minus-3) plus a pick 'em on the road against the Carolina Panthers in Week 4. Since 2002, NFL teams that start 3-1 have averaged 10 wins by the end of the season.
3. Detroit Lions
Projected record in 2020: 7-9, chances of winning the NFC North: 5 percent
Before Matthew Stafford’s season-ending injury in Week 8 of last year the Lions offense was producing almost three more points per game than expected (11th most) after taking into account the down, distance and field position of each throw. That plummeted to over four points per game fewer than expected (26th) for the rest of the season.
Looked at another way, Stafford was the 10th best passer of 2019 per the game charters at Pro Football Focus during the first half of the season. His replacements, Jeff Driskel and David Blough were the seventh and eighth-worst, respectively, during the second half of the season. Luckily for Detroit, Stafford appears to be ready for the upcoming campaign.
“Matthew is doing great,” Lions general manager Bob Quinn said during a pre-draft conference call. “He calls me probably once a week to check in. I know he’s working out. I know he’s feeling good, so health-wise he’s good to go. As I said at the end of the season, if we were starting our offseason program next week, he’d be there as a full participant. He’s cleared medically from that standpoint.”
4. Miami Dolphins
Projected record in 2020: 6-10, chances of winning the AFC East: 2 percent
Miami’s chances of winning the AFC East have improved mostly because the Patriots aren’t likely to win it anymore. Tom Brady has left Foxborough for Tompa Bay (yes, the spelling is intentional), giving the Dolphins, the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets hope they haven’t had since 2001. The Bills are the favorite but not a lock to win their first division title since 1995.
The Dolphins have improved, too, bringing in cornerback Byron Jones, linebacker Kyle Van Noy, defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Emmanuel Ogbah, plus left guard Ereck Flowers in free agency. They also drafted Tua Tagovailoa to be their next franchise quarterback after Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick, surprisingly, was the eighth-most valuable passer of 2019 per ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating and could be the division’s highest rated passer of 2020. Think that’s a stretch for the 15-year veteran? Buffalo’s Josh Allen, New England’s Jarret Stidham and New York’s Sam Darnold are all unproven with no more than two years of NFL experience under their belts.
5. Carolina Panthers
Projected record in 2020: 5-11, chances of winning the NFC South: less than 1 percent
The franchise is hoping the hirings of head coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady can offset the losses of quarterback Cam Newton, cut by the team in March, and linebacker Luke Kuechly, who retired after eight seasons, but it won’t be easy. Newton is a three-time Pro Bowl quarterback who was also named the league MVP in 2015. Kuechly was a seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker who was named the league’s defensive player of the year as a rookie and then defensive player of the year for the league in his second season.
The good news? Carolina’s passing can’t get any worse. It was the lowest-rated passing unit of 2019 per Pro Football Focus and the team’s quarterbacks combined to produce a league-low 74.7 passer rating. The league average passer rating was 90.4.
6. Cincinnati Bengals
Projected record in 2020: 5-11, chances of winning the AFC North: less than 1 percent
Cincinnati drafted LSU Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow with the No. 1 overall pick in 2020, giving the franchise the heir apparent at the position after releasing Andy Dalton earlier this year.
The Bengals should improve off of that alone. Since 2002, top overall picks who are quarterbacks have gone 87-106-1 under center as rookies, which would equate to a seven-win season, five more than the team won in 2019. Plus, the Bengals should have won four games last year based on their points scored and allowed, further increasing optimism.
Obviously the team needs a big let down from the reigning AFC North winner, the Baltimore Ravens, to catch up, but we’ve seen implosions before for a number of reasons, any of which could ground the Ravens in 2020. Still, the odds are less than 1 percent for a reason.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars
Projected record in 2020: 5-11, chances of winning the AFC South: less than 1 percent
The AFC South overall is expected to be weak with its occupants projected to combine for 30 wins this season, the lowest after the AFC and NFC East divisions (29 each). The Indianapolis Colts (9-7) or Tennessee Titans (9-7) are expected to wrangle the division title from the Houston Texans (7-9), who have the most-difficult start to the season, with the Jags falling last again with five wins. However, it’s still possible the Titans finish under .500 (30 percent), too, with the Jaguars reaching nine or more wins (2 percent chance), giving Jacksonville hope after a six-win season in 2019.
8. Washington Redskins
Projected record in 2020: 4-12, chances of winning the NFC East: less than 1 percent
New head coach Ron Rivera has his work cut out for him. Not only did the Redskins get one of the toughest starts of the season from the league’s schedule makers, he also has to develop second-year quarterback Dwayne Haskins, keep the chemistry between him and receiver Terry McLaurin and figure out who is going to protect Haskins’s blind side after left tackle Trent Williams was sent to the 49ers. There are also questions at tight end and tough decisions to make among the running backs.
It’s a tough spot for a new coach, even one as seasoned as Rivera. In fact, it is three times more likely the team goes 0-16 (0.6 percent) than win the division (0.2 percent).
NFL teams since 2002 that made the leap from worst to first
2003 Carolina Panthers
2003 Kansas City Chiefs
2004 Atlanta Falcons
2004 San Diego Chargers
2005 Chicago Bears
2005 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2006 New Orleans Saints
2006 Philadelphia Eagles
2007 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2008 Miami Dolphins
2009 New Orleans Saints
2010 Kansas City Chiefs
2011 Denver Broncos
2012 Washington Redskins
2013 Philadelphia Eagles
2015 Washington Redskins
2016 Dallas Cowboys
2017 Jacksonville Jaguars
2017 Philadelphia Eagles
2018 Chicago Bears
2018 Houston Texans