Which 2023 Last-Place Team Has the Best Chance To Win a Division Title in 2024?

At least one team has gone from last place to winning a division title in 21 of the last 23 seasons. Let's rank the eight teams' chances in 2024.

Going from last place to winning a division title the following year doesn’t happen a lot in the NFL. But it does happen frequently.

Confused?

The number of teams who pull it off isn’t high. Out of 168 last-place teams since the NFL went to its current divisional alignment in 2002, only 38 (22.4%) have rebounded to win a division title the following season.

But at least one team has pulled it off in 19 of the previous 21 seasons, which is something that should give the New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals, Tennessee Titans, Los Angeles Chargers, Washington Commanders, Chicago Bears, Carolina Panthers, and Arizona Cardinals some hope heading into 2024.

Ranking the 2023 Last Place Teams’ Optimism for 2024

The draft order, salary cap, and schedule setup all are designed to give bad teams a chance to get better quickly.

In addition to simply winning their division, four teams have gone from last place to the Super Bowl. The 2017 Philadelphia Eagles and 2009 New Orleans Saints won it all in a season after finishing last. The 2003 Panthers and 2021 Bengals were Super Bowl runners-up.

The teams that have gone from last to first usually have one or more of the following traits in common:

A new head coach who injects life into the franchise, a solid base in which the team finished in the top 10 in offensive or defensive DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), or a minimal playoff drought, meaning the last-place finish could have been an outlier due to injuries or other bad luck rather than a prolonged struggle to be relevant.

Let’s take a look at the 2023 last-place teams and rank them in order of likelihood of winning a division title in 2024 based on the above criteria and other intangibles:

Cincinnati Bengals

Coach: Zac Taylor, sixth season

DVOA O: 11

DVOA D: 23

Drought: One season

Draft capital: Nine picks (first, second, third, fourth, two fifths, sixth, two sevenths)

They won back-to-back AFC North titles in 2021-22, went to a Super Bowl and two AFC Championship Games, and this year became the only last-place team to have a winning record in 88 years.

Joe Burrow is expected to be fully healthy by OTAs, and he should have his top two weapons returning with the Bengals planning on tagging Tee Higgins.

For the first time in Taylor’s tenure, he will have a new coordinator after Brian Callahan became the head coach of the Tennessee Titans. But Dan Pitcher seamlessly slides into the role after serving as quarterbacks coach since 2020.

It’s also worth noting the Bengals have five worst-to-first rebounds in their franchise history, which is the most of any team on this list. And the most recent came just three seasons ago when Burrow returned to health after a season-ending injury.

Los Angeles Chargers

Coach: Jim Harbaugh, first season

DVOA O: 16

DVOA D: 26

Drought: One season

Draft capital: Eight picks (first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, two sevenths)

Harbaugh has won everywhere he’s been — and quickly. And he has a great starting point with Justin Herbert at quarterback and a pair of former All-Pros on defense in Derwin James and Khalil Mack, plus four-time Pro Bowl edge rusher Joey Bosa.

The Chiefs have won eight consecutive AFC West titles in addition to back-to-back Super Bowls, and they’ve gone 13-3 against the Chargers in that span. Dethroning them will be a challenge, but the Chargers do not feel that far off from breaking through.

The Chargers haven’t won a division title since 2009, which is exactly the kind of situation where Harbaugh thrives.

Washington Commanders

Coach: Dan Quinn, first season

DVOA O: 26

DVOA D: 31

Drought: Three seasons

Draft capital: Nine picks (first, two seconds, two thirds, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh)

Washington has a new owner and a new head coach, although Quinn is not a first-time head coach. The Commanders also have the No. 2 overall pick, three of the top 40, and five of the top 101.

The competition in the NFC East is strong, but the Dallas Cowboys are far from a juggernaut, and the Philadelphia Eagles ended the season on an ugly skid that could have ramifications into 2024.

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Washington may not get its first choice of quarterback to pair with new offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury with the Bears expected to draft Caleb Williams with the first pick. But Kingsbury will get a talented arm to mold, and the Commanders have $83 million in cap space to work with in free agency. That’s a recipe for a quick turnaround.

The Commanders have three worst-to-first rounds, and all three have come since 2013.

Chicago Bears

Coach: Matt Eberflus, third season

DVOA O: 22

DVOA D: 17

Drought: Three seasons

Draft capital: Six picks (two firsts, third, two fourths, fifth)

The Bears have the No. 1 overall pick, three of the first 75, and five of the first 123. The Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers are on the rise in the NFC North, but Chicago won five of its final eight to build a little momentum heading into the offseason.

Eberflus gutted his offensive staff, including coordinator Luke Getsy, and he hired a new defensive coordinator in Eric Washington to replace Alan Williams, who resigned in September.

The staff will have a fresh look and so should the roster with the Bears having $70 million to spend in free agency.

The Bears have three worst-to-first rebounds, and all three have come in the last 20 years.

Tennessee Titans

Coach: Brian Callahan, first season

DVOA O: 25

DVOA D: 18

Drought: Two seasons

Draft capital: Seven picks (first, second, fourth, fifth, sixth, two sevenths)

The AFC South is competitive, but none of the teams have won a playoff game since 2019, and other than the Titans, no team has won the division in back-to-back years since the Texans in 2015-16.

The division has seen last-to-first rebounds in each of the last two seasons, with the Texans doing it in 2023 and the Jaguars in 2022. Could the Titans keep the train rolling? A lot of that will depend on whether Will Levis is the answer at quarterback and if Callahan gets the best out of him the way he did with Joe Burrow and Jake Browning in Cincinnati.

The Titans are second to the Commanders in available cap space at $74 million.

Arizona Cardinals

Coach: Jonathan Gannon, second season

DVOA O: 21

DVOA D: 32

Drought: Two seasons

Draft capital: 13 picks (two firsts, second, three thirds, fourth, two fifths, sixth, three sevenths)

Rarely is a 4-13 season met with appreciation, but there were questions about whether the Cardinals would win a game with a first-year head coach and no Kyler Murray to start the season. But three of their four wins were against playoff teams, and most of their losses were competitive through the fourth quarter.

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Arizona’s 13 draft picks are the most in the league, and six of them will be in the first 90 selections.

The Cardinals also have the ninth most cap space to use in free agency with $45 million, but they play in the NFC West against the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams, two teams that have represented the conference in three of the last five Super Bowls.

Carolina Panthers

Coach: Dave Canales, first season

DVOA O: 31

DVOA D: 25

Drought: Six seasons

Draft capital: Six picks (second, third, fourth, two fifths, sixth)

There’s a reason Carolina has the longest playoff drought on this list, and it’s the man calling the shots — owner David Tepper. He struggles to get things right and is quick to make changes when his decisions fizzle early.

The Panthers have a rookie head coach, a second-year quarterback who struggled as a rookie, and no first-round pick. They’re also in the middle of the pack in cap space available to use in free agency.

The NFC South has been the worst division in football for a couple of years, but the Panthers still feel like they’re a long way off from competing.

New England Patriots

Coach: Jerod Mayo, first season

DVOA O: 29

DVOA D: 9

Drought: Two seasons

Draft capital: Seven picks (first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh)

It’s crazy to see the Patriots on this list, let alone at the bottom. Before 2023, they hadn’t finished in last place since Bill Belichick’s first season in 2000.

New England has to get a quarterback if it has any hope of erasing the dismal offensive performances of the last few years.

MORE: 2024 NFL Free Agent Rankings: The Top 100 Players Hitting the Open Market

The Patriots are in a good spot defensively, with their No. 9 DVOA ranking being the highest of any team on this list. However, the AFC East is a steep climb with the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins established as playoff contenders and the New York Jets being an Aaron Rodgers return away from joining them.

New England is fourth in cap space available with $70 million, but there isn’t a lot else to offer optimism the Patriots can go from last to first, something the franchise has never done in its 63-season history.

Miss football? The 2024 NFL Draft is almost here, boss. Pro Football Network has you covered with everything from team draft needs to the Top 100 prospects available. Plus, fire up PFN’s Mock Draft Simulator to put yourself in the general manager’s seat and make all the calls!

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