Prior to the start of the NFL season, we spent some time discussing and predicting which NFL team had the best chance of going worst to first.
In case you missed it (or forgot), at least one NFL team has gotten last in their division in one season and returned the next year as the division winner in the 13 consecutive seasons. As we said then, that level of parity is part of what makes the NFL so compelling.
Now that we’ve reached the halfway point of the season, I thought I would revisit my predictions and revise as necessary. After all, we have actual data to go by now! And since we have a good idea of what most teams are capable of in 2014, we can take a look at each team’s current standing in their division, their distance from first place, and their remaining opponents on the schedule to make a reasonable guess at who, if anyone, can pull off the worst to first.
So, let’s get to it!
Where we were right: Sammy Watkins’ has been explosive; defense has been strong; no faith in E.J. Manuel; New England had some issues, but remains the class of the division.
Where we were wrong: C.J. Spiller has not been all that explosive.
Since benching Manuel in favor of the football zombie, Kyle Orton, after Week 4’s loss to Houston, Buffalo is 3-1 with a win over 6-2 Detroit. That’s the good news. The bad news is they trail New England, who is on fire, by a game and that one loss with Orton as the starter was a 37-22 drubbing at the hands of Brady and Co.
Prognosis: With games left against the Jets, Browns, and Raiders and sitting just a game behind New England, Buffalo has a real shot here. Even better news, New England’s next five games are Denver, at Indianapolis, Detroit, at Green Bay, and at San Diego. Now for the sobering facts, Buffalo’s running back situation is ugly with C.J. Spiller out until Week 16 and Fred Jackson out for a month. They still have Kansas City, at Denver, and Green Bay left on the schedule. And most importantly, they finish their season with a date in Foxboro.
So, let’s be generous and say Buffalo wins the three games above that they should, wins a tossup game at Miami, and steals one of the three games they probably shouldn’t win. That puts them at 10-5 heading into the final week of the season. Continuing the generous hypothetical, let’s say New England goes 2-3 in their next five and goes 1-1 in their remaining divisional games (Dolphins at home, at Jets). That would put the at Patriots 9-6 heading into the final weekend. Already holding a head-to-head advantage over Buffalo, all New England would need to do is win over Buffalo in Week 17 and they would take the divisional crown.
Do you really think that New England, owning the AFC East as they do, would let that game slip away from them?
So even in that very-generous-to-Buffalo’s-chances scenario, Buffalo still needs to exercise the Belichick demon. Which means they need to have clinched the division before Week 17 by gaining three games on the Patriots over their next seven. How often do you think New England loses 3 of 7 games? (Hint: Not often). I still like Buffalo’s chances more than most 2013 Worsts, though.
Where we were right: Pittsburgh has been better than in 2013; Baltimore has been better than in 2013; no mention of the former Texas A&M quarterback.
Where we were wrong: At 4-2-1, Cincinnati is slightly worse than in 2013 ( 5-2 at this point last year); Josh Gordon is only suspended for most of the season.
The Browns are certainly better than expected, but injuries on the offensive line are likely to stagger what would have been a staggering worst to first. After blowing out Pittsburgh 31-10 in Week 6, Cleveland turned in an embarrassing 24-6 loss to Jacksonville and followed that up with an underwhelming 23-13 win over Oakland.
Prognosis: The best news is that they are just a half game behind Cincinnati for the lead in the division and they have yet to play the Bengals. Meaning, Cleveland controls its own destiny.
That’s all the good news I have for you.
The remaining schedule gets ugly after this week’s supposed laugher vs. Tampa Bay. Cincinnati twice, Houston, Indianapolis, and Baltimore. Sure, the Bengals have been streaky lately, but their remaining schedule has several more perceived wins on it (Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, Cleveland twice). Ditto for Baltimore with Tennessee, Miami, and Jacksonville still on the docket. Also true for Pittsburgh with New York Jets, Tennessee, and Atlanta all remaining. So this one is less about Cleveland not being good enough (though with injuries on the o-line, they are in fact not good enough) and more about the three teams they’re chasing having easier roads to the finish line. Still, at a half game behind the division leader, let’s not count these guys out.
Where we were right: Bill O’Brian has a very good chance to be successful in the NFL; the defense is plenty good enough with J.J. Watt; Arian Foster has been healthy and successful; Game Manager of the Year candidate: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Where we were wrong: We really had the Texans number in August. Really. Check for yourself .
Houston is what we thought they were. They are what we thought they were and this joke is old and tired. And so is that joke.
Prior to this week, what I thought that they were was a nice team with some very good skill position players that wouldn’t quite be enough to overcome Indianapolis’s excellence for first place. But after Indy’s laugher at Pittsburgh Sunday, I think Houston is a nice team with some very good skill position players that might be enough to overcome Indianapolis’s almost excellence for first place. So what else can we do but look at the schedule?
Prognosis: Houston gets Jacksonville twice, Tennessee once more, Cincinnati at home (Bengals are awful on the road) and Cleveland in the Return of Josh Gordon Game in Week 11. That should be good for five wins, with the other three games (Philadelphia, Baltimore, at Indy) all winnable, as well. Clearly that game vs. Indy will carry a lot of weight, as a win by the Colts would give them ownership of the tiebreaker.
Now for the better news, Reggie Wayne is out for a bit, and Captain Neckbeard and Crew have games remaining at New York Giants, home vs. New England, and at Dallas. The latter two will probably have the Colts as underdogs. So really, the schedules are pretty similar, which means this one will probably come down to the head-to-head matchup between Houston and Indy in Week 15. I trust Luck at home more than Fitz anywhere, so I’m not high on their chances. But if Indy can give up 522 yards to Big Ben, anything is possible (except giving up 522 yards to Ryan Fitzpatrick).
Where we were right: Overpaid for talent past its prime; not crawling out of the basement of a division that sent three teams to the playoffs in 2013
Where we were wrong: Having a better chance than St. Louis to go worst to first
I’m not wasting my time or yours here. The Raiders are awful. They’re six games behind the Denver All-Stars, they’re winless, and they have five games left against Denver, Kansas City, and San Diego.
Derek Carr is probably the answer to their perennial quarterback problem, and they appear to have finally had a successful draft year. Beyond that, apparently John Gruden might would actually consider leaving the greatest gig in television, outside of hosting The Price is Right, to coach this mess of a team. So there’s that, at least.
Prognosis: The Raiders trade the first pick in the 2015 NFL Draft to a QB needy team and actually draft well again. Or they draft Jameis Winston and trade Derek Carr to the CFL for Chad Johnson. One of the two. Either way, they will appear in the 2015 version of this article, where they will be predicted to appear in the 2016 version.
Where we were right: Jeremy Maclin, Darren Sproles, and Jordan Matthews would fill the void left by Desean Jackson in Philadelphia; Philly’s defense and special teams would be improved; Giants would be better and shouldn’t be slept on (Seriously, what if you were sleeping on a giant and it rolled over on you? You would suffocate).
Where we were wrong: Liking their chances to go worst to first; offense would be improved by getting healthy at QB, adding Desean Jackson, and getting rid of Mike Shanahan; Big D being short for Big Definition of Mediocre and will finish 8-8.
If you notice, we were right about two teams in the division and wrong about the other two. Not bad, really. And after Monday’s mysterious Washington victory, we may still end up correct of Big D. But for now, I’m taking the Cowboys over the Eagles in this division. Of course, that’s subject to change if they continue to let DeMarco Murray run the ball down to the redzone, and then put the ball in the trusty hands of Brandon Weeden like they did in the third quarter Monday (result was a 21-yard field goal). But I guess I should talk about the Washington franchise.
Prognosis: I know they won last night, but if you trust Colt McCoy at QB, well, you have more faith in people than I do. And if you think RG3 will return and be awesome, you have more faith in people than you should. But the schedule is manageable with Minnesota, Tampa Bay, St. Louis, and three division games still on the schedule. Compare that to Philly’s Houston, Green Bay, Seattle, and Dallas twice or Big D’s Arizona, Indy, and Philly twice and the Skins have a chance. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that the Giants are floating around at 3-4, but with games against Seattle, San Francisco, Dallas, Philly, and Indy left, I don’t like their chances. This division looks like a two horse race and I like Big D (now short for Big DeMarco) to win it, but Washington technically could pull it off.
Where we were right: Liking every other NFC North QB better than Bridgewater (yes, including Cutler); not drinking the Bridgewater
Where we were wrong: Minnesota has the best running back of the last 15 years; Cordarrelle Patterson breaking out this year.
Minnesota’s three wins were against the league’s bottom feeders, and it’s no secret that this year is a rebuild. This isn’t the place to address the Adrian Peterson issue. Suffice it to say that they miss his talent. Teddy Bridgewater has played okay in spells, but he’s not going to overcome the current most talented QB in the league (Maybe we’ll address why that’s Rodgers and not Peyton another time).
Prognosis: This division is another two horse race, so there isn’t a lot to say here. Detroit’s remaining schedule is pillow soft, and while Green Bay has a tougher road ahead, one of those two will win the division before Minnesota does. The best news I can offer is that Chicago is trying hard to replace Minnesota at the bottom of the division for this season. And by “Chicago is trying hard,” I mean, “Chicago is trusting Jay Cutler.”
Where we were right: Liking Tampa to finish squarely on the bottom of the division
Where we were wrong: Atlanta hasn’t been healthier; New Orleans hasn’t been better; Carolina’s great defense has regressed
This division is ridiculous. In five other divisions, Tampa would be 5 games back and effectively out of contention. In the other two divisions not named the NFC South, they would be 3.5-4 games back and still effectively out of contention. But in this ridiculous division, the Lords of the Worst to First, they are two games from first place. And if the ball had bounced their way in an overtime game at New Orleans, they would be 2-5, in second place, and just a half game behind Carolina for first.
Let’s say this again. They would be 2-5 and in SECOND place.
The Bucs, who are not very good, are a few plays away from being at the top of their division. No wonder the NFC South has had six worst to firsts in 13 years. What a mess.
Prognosis: Clearly, anything is possible in this garbage fest. It could conceivably send a sub-.500 team to the playoffs, but I like how New Orleans has played out of their bye. They took a good Detroit team the distance on the road (no small feat for the travel-weary Saints), got a good win against Green Bay on Sunday, and still have five home games on the schedule. Tampa Bay’s schedule is manageable down the stretch, but there is nothing outside of that game at New Orleans they’ve done that suggests to me they’re ready to make a playoff run. Good news: There will be a good QB available when they’re picking high in the first round next May.
Where we were right: Rams not being good enough at QB; Rams shaky receiving corps; young defense not being good enough; being unsure of Seattle’s chance to win their own division despite returning almost everyone from their Super Bowl team
Where we were wrong: We hit a homerun here.
Look, it’s not easy to lose your starting QB. It’s worse to have your second-stringer mysteriously get “hurt” in the opener and never sniff the field again. I get it. I do. That’s not a situation you want. But with THAT defense (31st against the run) in THAT division, I’m not sure it would have mattered. St. Louis has been not very good. Austin Davis has been marginally better than not very good. Sure, that win against Seattle was fun and all, but trick plays aren’t sustainable. They won’t last, and neither will the Rams.
Prognosis: Four games out of first place is an insurmountable position with the Rams’ remaining schedule and lack of talent. Not with Arizona defying logic and continually winning. Not with San Francisco slowly getting defensive starters back. Not with Seattle still toting the Legion of Boom. Sure, every team in this division has a rough latter half of the season (they all play each other), but St. Louis won’t be favored in more than 1-2 more games this season. It’s just not in the cards.
Aaaaand…scene. Now to rerank each team’s chances and compare to the preseason list.
Reranking Their Chances (Click here for our initial Pre-season Rankings)
5) Tampa Bay
T-8) St. Louis*
* Denotes unofficial elimination from contention
So how did we do back in August? Not bad, really. We had the bottom half pretty well pegged. Cleveland surprised us a little, and obviously Washington hasn’t achieved quite what we thought, but as preseason predictions go, we did pretty well.