The A.F.C. North and South look like prime candidates for a shake-up.
By Victor Mather
How often does a team finish first one season, then sink to last the next? And how often does the opposite happen, with a last-place team improving to top the table?
In the N.F.L., it happens all the time.
In each of the last four seasons, and in eight of the last nine, at least one team that topped its division (or tied for first) the previous season slipped to last place the next. And at least one team that finished last wound up first.
Last season, the Jacksonville Jaguars ended at 5-11, completing a single-season reversal after finishing 10-6 — and four points short of a Super Bowl berth — in 2017. By contrast, the Houston Texans (11-5) and Chicago Bears (12-4) each went from last place to topping their respective divisions, both improving by seven wins.
That was a quiet year compared to the tumult of 2010, when four first-place teams — the Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals — collapsed to last and two — the Texans and Denver Broncos — climbed to first.
But knowing that some teams are going to improve or decline dramatically isn’t all that helpful, unless you can guess which ones. As training camps open, which are the teams most likely to take that big leap in one direction or the other?
First to Worst?
Most likely: Ravens.
Baltimore was one of the most exciting stories of last season. After a slow start behind veteran quarterback Joe Flacco, the Ravens found their footing when rookie Lamar Jackson stepped in, and finished the regular season on a 6-1 run.
Now Flacco is gone, and the Ravens are going all-in on Jackson. As a running quarterback — he led the league in QB rushing yards, with 695 — Jackson could expose himself to injury. And it was a worrying sign when he had a poor playoff game against the Los Angeles Chargers, perhaps an indication the league was beginning to figure him out.
The Ravens also lost several key defensive players to free agency, including linebacker Terrell Suggs.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were only a half-game behind the Ravens last year, and the Cleveland Browns are looking to be the league’s most improved team, so it would hardly be shocking to see the Ravens wind up third. That leaves the Bengals, who weren’t great, but weren’t awful, at 6-10.
To be clear, the Ravens are not definitely going to finish last. But of last year’s first-place teams, they seem to be the one most in danger of doing so.
Also possible: Texans.
The Texans had a huge turnaround last season, and that often doesn’t bode well in the N.F.L. or any other league. Typically, sports’s inherent gravity is more likely to pull such a team back down than to let it rise farther.
The Texans have their share of big names like Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, but their depth isn’t as impressive. They also have a challenging schedule. The Indianapolis Colts (10-6) and Tennessee Titans (9-7) were right behind the Texans (11-5) last season. While the Jaguars were a bust, they could be better this year behind newly acquired quarterback Nick Foles. It’s not impossible to see the Texans finishing last.
Maybe: Chargers, Bears, Cowboys.
Probably not: Chiefs, Saints, Rams.
Are you kidding?: Patriots.
New England has won 10 division titles in a row. Is losing Rob Gronkowski to retirement going to send the Pats all the way to the basement? No way.
Worst to First?
Most likely: Jaguars.
First-to-worst to worst-to-first? The Jaguars have been a roller-coaster team, winning three games in 2016, then 10 in 2017, then five last season. The pendulum may swing back this year with the addition of Super Bowl-M.V.P. quarterback Foles, an obvious upgrade over Blake Bortles. The receiving corps, not a strength, was bolstered by the addition of Chris Conley from the Kansas City Chiefs. The defense — led by cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who is angling for a new contract next off-season — was already good, second in the league against the pass last season.
To top the division, the Jaguars will have to beat out both the Titans (hardly unlikely) and the Texans (as we’ve seen, possibly due for a fall). The Colts are the main obstacle, but an off season or an injury for quarterback Andrew Luck could open the door.
Also possible: Jets.
Eight years without a playoff appearance and consecutive five-, five- and four-win seasons don’t seem to bode well for a turnaround. But the New York Jets have had a pretty good off-season and could surprise.
Optimism is especially high thanks to the signing of running back Le’Veon Bell, a workhorse for the Steelers for five seasons who may be fresher than ever after completing a yearlong holdout. Sam Darnold should be a good candidate for the typical sophomore improvement for N.F.L. quarterbacks. Defensive tackle Quinnen Williams of Alabama looks like a good catch at the No. 3 spot in the draft.
An out-of-the-blue year like 2015, when the Jets went 10-6, is not impossible. And it would help if the Patriots slip from all-conquering to just very good.
Maybe: Lions, Raiders, Giants.
Probably not: Buccaneers, Cardinals.
Are you kidding?: Bengals.
A team in Ohio has an exciting young quarterback, acquired a superstar receiver and seems poised for a breakthrough season. Unfortunately for Cincinnati fans, that team is the Browns. It’s not impossible that the Bengals, with Andy Dalton returning for his ninth season as quarterback, could improve a little. But seeing them soar over the Steelers, Browns and Ravens seems like a stretch.
Victor Mather covers every sport, no matter how small.
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