NFL News & Analysis

Ranking the eight last-place NFL teams by their chances to go from worst to first in 2023

Landover, Maryland, USA; Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell (14) reacts after scoring a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys during the second half at FedExField. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

• The Commanders can do damage in the NFC East: While the Commanders seem like a long shot on paper to win the division, they could surprise with a new quarterback at the helm in 2023.

• The Falcons have a shot in the NFL's worst division: While Atlanta is a young and inexperienced team with a question mark at the quarterback position, relying on the running game like the Falcons did in 2022 could push them to a first-place finish in 2023 in a division where a negative record might be enough.

• Will the Broncos continue to disappoint?: Denver faced high expectations in 2022 amid Russell Wilson's arrival, but they fell well short of those. Their chances to win the AFC West in 2023 seem similarly slim.

Estimated Reading Time: 6 mins

The NFL’s structure of helping to create parity in the league (scheduling, draft, etc.) has contributed in most years to a team that finished last in its division winning it the next season. The most recent examples of this are the 2021 Cincinnati Bengals and the 2022 Jacksonville Jaguars. It is more likely than not that a team will follow in their footsteps in 2023 and win its division despite finishing fourth in 2022.

Here, we rank the eight last-place teams by the likelihood of it happening in 2023.

1. Washington Commanders

The Commanders seem like a long shot on paper considering they play in the NFL's strongest division right now. The NFC East was the only division to have three teams in the playoffs. However, Washington still had a 2-3-1 record against division opponents in 2022 and ended the year with an 8-8-1 record, suggesting that they were probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL.

In addition, the top two teams in the division both experienced coordinator changes, which might lead to minor setbacks in 2023. The Commanders could contend for the division win if, and that is admittedly a huge if, they find a quarterback in the offseason. Washington might be in a similar position to where the Buccaneers were after the 2019 season, when they had a solid defense and an underrated offensive core that needed a top-tier quarterback to reach its potential.

2. Atlanta Falcons

While the Commanders rank high on this list because of their own strength, the Falcons are a prime candidate to go from worst to first mainly because of their division. The NFC South was the weakest division in the NFL in 2022, and that was before Tom Brady retired.

The Falcons finished last in their division despite having the same record as the Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints, so it is not a big stretch to call them the second-best team in the NFC South last year. While it is a young and inexperienced squad with a question mark at the quarterback position, relying on the running game like they did in 2022 could push them to a first-place finish in 2023 in a division where a negative record might be enough.

3. Chicago Bears

Drafting a quarterback with the first overall pick has led to a “worst to first” move in the past when the Indianapolis Colts selected Andrew Luck in the 2012 NFL Draft. While we don't know what the Bears will do with the first overall pick, that is definitely on the table. However, the state of the division might allow them to be in this race even with Justin Fields under center.

At this point, it seems more likely than not that the Green Bay Packers will enter the season with a new quarterback and that the Minnesota Vikings‘ defense will undergo major changes in the offseason. Furthermore, the Vikings might experience some regression in close games considering their success in such contests during the 2022 season. The Bears' roster does not seem too strong at first look, but an improvement at the quarterback position — be that from Fields or from drafting a quarterback — could put them right in the mix to win the division.

4. New York Jets

The Jets were in contention for a playoff spot late in the 2022 season despite some below-average performances at the quarterback position. That is a big question mark going into the offseason, but the rest of the team looks strong despite finishing last in the division. Garrett Wilson and Sauce Gardner both winning the award for rookie of the year on their respective sides of the ball. However, looking at the other teams in the division might temper expectations for the Jets. The Bills have been one of the best teams in the league for years now, the Dolphins took a huge step forward in Mike McDaniel’s first season while you cannot count out the Patriots as long as Bill Belichick is the head coach in Foxboro.

5. Cleveland Browns

The Browns have arguably the best starting quarterback among the eight teams that finished last in 2022. However, Deshaun Watson’s first couple of games in Cleveland were not that impressive, and he would need to regain his old form for the Browns to have a chance to win the AFC North in 2023. In addition, the team around Watson did not have a particularly great season, with a couple of exceptions.

One of the biggest storylines of Cleveland's offseason will be whether new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz can help the unit reach its potential in 2023. However, even with improvement from Watson and the defense, Cleveland cannot be considered the favorite to win the division considering how well the Cincinnati Bengals have played in the past two seasons, especially in the second half of 2022. And while it is currently uncertain who the Baltimore Ravens‘ starting quarterback will be in 2023, they can win the AFC North any year when they have Lamar Jackson.

6. Houston Texans

The Texans might have the weakest roster in the entire NFL, with question marks at most positions, especially quarterback. But new leadership in the form of head coach DeMeco Ryans and offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik can lead to big improvements for a team that struggled in recent seasons. Just consider what the appointment of Doug Pederson meant to the divisional rival Jacksonville Jaguars in 2022.

Plus, the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts essentially going entering rebuilds could help the Texans leapfrog two of their divisional foes. However, considering the trajectory that Jacksonville and Trevor Lawrence are on, it seems unlikely that the Texans can finish ahead of Jaguars if Lawrence stays healthy.

7. Denver Broncos

While expectations were, in hindsight, too big for the Broncos in 2022, it might just be the opposite of that in 2023 as people write them down. Despite the fact that Denver has a new coaching staff, the biggest question mark still remains whether quarterback Russell Wilson can bounce back from a disappointing 2022 campaign and save his career. There were reasons beyond Wilson’s arrival to expect big things from the Broncos in 2022, and there is still a lot of talent on that team on both sides of the ball, which could lead to better results with a proven head coach like Sean Payton.

However, being in the same division as the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and playoff participant Los Angeles Chargers makes it hard to imagine the Broncos beating out both for the division championship as long as Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert remain healthy.

8. Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals seem to be in a rebuild in almost all aspects of the game. Arizona will have a new coaching staff and a new general manager for the 2023 season, and that's after losing star edge defender J.J. Watt and being likely to lose star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. And, according to reports, it is unlikely that quarterback Kyler Murray will be back from his injury by the time the regular season starts. Even if he is, he will have had limited time to train with the new coaching staff.

All this combined with the fact that the Cardinals are in the same division as the San Francisco 49ers, the Seattle Seahawks and a Los Angeles Rams team that is expected to get back its key players puts Arizona's chances of winning the division to minimal at best.


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