Every year, there are a few teams that surprise everyone with how good -- or how bad -- they are. In 2012, the Philadelphia Eagles were at the bottom of the NFC East, with no answers in sight. In 2013, Nick Foles helped carry them to a 10-6 record and the division crown.
That's the most recent case of "worst to first," though there were other teams that drastically improved without actually making it to the top of the division. The Kansas City Chiefs come to mind, going undefeated for the first half of the season after earning the top overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft the previous year.
Are there any teams with the potential to go from literal worst to first in their division this season? We'll talk about three of them below:
The NFC East has been one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL for some time now, but that doesn't mean it's been particularly strong, as finishing just over .500 has been the bar to potentially snare the grouping.
As noted above, the Eagles were the team to go from worst to first this past season, but we've pegged the Redskins as a team that could do the same in 2014. Philadelphia seems to be on the right track with Foles, but he is relatively inexperienced and will be looking to maintain his performance from last year, if not surpass it. His ability to do so remains a variable in this equation, one which could sway the power in the East.
Washington, meanwhile, has quarterback Robert Griffin III and competent players at multiple positions. More importantly, it has a new head coach in Jay Gruden. He'll come in with a focus on the offensive side of the ball, as well as a new attitude, which will be a welcomed change of pace from the toxic environment under Mike Shanahan.
All four teams in the NFC East appear to be close. Seeing any of the four winning the division would not be surprising, which is why the Redskins, a team with plenty of upside, should have such a good chance.
This would be a nice rebound for the Texans, who were among the best teams in 2012. Something happened with quarterback Matt Schaub, however, and the Texans won just two games last season. They were awful in every sense, but there's plenty of reason to believe that will change going forward.
The one thing that really needs to happen for Houston at this point: find a quarterback. Schaub is gone and the Texans have Case Keenum and T.J. Yates, which is not exactly confidence-inspiring by any stretch of the imagination. But the Texans do hold the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming draft and could look to pull from the highly touted pool of signal callers available.
The Texans aren't going to have all of their issues magically solved by drafting a quarterback, but with an already strong defense, it's the biggest piece of the puzzle. Bill O'Brien has a good reputation with quarterbacks and could undoubtedly groom a prospect appropriately. If the rest of the team can respond well enough, the Texans should be able to contend with the Indianapolis Colts and possibly the Tennessee Titans for the AFC South crown.
This one doesn't seem nearly as likely as the other two, but the NFC North, like the NFC East, is not particularly strong.
The Green Bay Packers are an excellent team, but they finished last season at 8-7-1. Many will blame that on the injury to quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but in reality, it was the result of poor defensive play. Green Bay had one of the worst secondaries in the NFL last season and it doesn't look like much will change next season.
The Vikings have some tough competition to overcome -- namely the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions -- but seeing the Vikings jump to first would not be that shocking. Adrian Peterson is a fantastic running back and the Vikings will be in every game due to his abilities alone. They may have lost Jared Allen on defense, but there's a lot of young talent that could break out. What's most important, once again, is the quarterback position.
Minnesota needs a quarterback because Christian Ponder doesn't look like the answer. The team has a high draft pick and can address the position. All the Vikings need is that one position to work out and the NFC North could potentially be there's for the taking.
Less likely, but still possible
The AFC North is up for grabs again, especially since the incumbent champs, the Bengals, lost defensive end Michael Johnson and have Geno Atkins coming off an ACL tear. Oh, and they have Andy Dalton. Cleveland always feels like a long shot, but this is one of the best Browns rosters we've seen in years.
Swapping out D'Qwell Jackson for Carlos Dansby is a push, when you factor in the contract. Donte Whitner for T.J. Ward at safety is probably a step down, but not a huge one. The biggest hole on defense is a corner to work across the field from Joe Haden. If the Browns can find that person and coach up some of the underachievers, it would give them a defense capable of stealing a few games.
The real issue in Cleveland, besides Jimmy Haslam's terrible start as an owner, is quarterback. Can they make a run for it with Brian Hoyer? Is a rookie like Derek Carr or Johnny Manziel going to help that much in year one? The Browns are closer than they used to be, but maybe still a year or two away.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Yeah, probably not, but bringing in Lovie Smith as a head coach should do wonders for this team. Focus on the defense here. Think about the combination of Michael Johnson and Gerald McCoy up front and a secondary that added Alterraun Verner to an already robust unit. Together, it's a unit that isn't getting enough attention, but that should change as soon as the world gets a look at what they can do against Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton.
And that brings us to the quarterback issue. Are Mike Glennon and Josh McCown a good enough bridge to a future franchise quarterback? Maybe. But nobody's ever confused Smith's teams with offensive powerhouses. A healthy Doug Martin and some upgrades to the big uglies blocking for him will help. The Buccaneers will better this season, but it still feels like this division belongs to the Saints.
This is a better team than its 6-10 finish last season indicates. They've got to replace Jairus Byrd in the secondary, and that won't be an easy task given a thin group of safeties in the draft. At least the ninth pick gives them a chance to get HaHa Clinton Dix or Calvin Pryor, the two best safeties in the draft, but it might be too high of a pick to spend on those two. The offense is much better than advertised, but it's counting on a big leap from E.J. Manuel in his second season.
Buffalo's path from worst to first in their division is still blocked by the Patriots.
Oakland finally got out of salary cap hell this year ... and promptly tripped over themselves with the Jared Veldheer/Rodger Saffold situation. Reggie McKenzie did still manage to hand out a bevy of contracts to the elder statesmen of this year's free agent class. That could make the Raiders a better team, in theory, but they're a long way from catching the Broncos or the Chiefs in the AFC West.
St. Louis Rams
The Rams turned some heads with tough play against their NFC West rivals in 2012, and then tailed off last season thanks to injuries and stunted development from their younger players. A pass rush led by Robert Quinn and Chris Long is as good as any of its peers in a division loaded with defensive linemen. That'll keep the Rams competitive, but they still have to try and score points with an offense that can't seem to move the ball more than four yards at a time.
Like the Raiders in the AFC West, the Rams aren't close to giving the Seahawks or 49ers, and probably even the Cardinals, a run for the NFC West crown.