Ranking NFL division winners from least to most likely to suffer first-to-worst fall

Ranking NFL division winners from least to most likely to suffer first-to-worst fall

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The NFL is deliberately designed to foster parity – mechanisms like the draft, scheduling formula, free agency and/or salary cap allowing bad teams to quickly improve yet challenging good ones to maintain long-term success.

Summer is also the time when optimism tends to run at its collective apex among all 32 fan bases – the downtrodden among them willingly embracing the fact that since the league realigned to eight divisions in 2002, at least one club that finished last or tied for last place finished first the next year in 19 of the past 21 seasons.

However there’s a pucker factor on the flip side of that coin. And while it’s not exactly a Newtonian or zero-sum principle, it must be noted that over those same 21 seasons, at least one division winner has gone first to worst in the subsequent campaign 15 times. More recently, it’s happened in 11 seasons since 2010 – and one year when didn’t, 2022, the Los Angeles Rams cratered to 5-12 for the worst Super Bowl defense in league history. All told, 19 divisions champions since 2010 have taken the express elevator from penthouse to outhouse – the Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings joining those ranks in 2023.

Coming off his franchise’s first-ever NFC North title, Lions coach Dan Campbell knows his players need to be even sharper in 2024 as they morph from divisional underdogs to top dogs.

“I think we all know what we are capable of here,” Campbell said last month. “There is a belief, but I think the belief comes from the work that you put in and doing all the little things right and starting back from the ground up and surpassing where you were at. Build from the ground up and now we have to get even further, we’ve got to think a little bit different here. There’s got to be a different level of focus and detail to what we do. That can never be lost.

“You’ve got to go earn everything again. I mentioned this last year, and I’ll say it again: It’s going to take a lot more than it did last year to get to where we were. That’s just the nature of how it goes.”

Yet even for apparent front-runners like Detroit, the possibility of a calamitous setback is even more pronounced given the way transcendent quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes have skewed the percentages while shielding their perennial powerhouse clubs from such catastrophe over extended stretches of the 21st century.

So who’s currently at most risk of such a precipitous plunge? Let’s rank last season’s eight division winners based on their exposure (least to most) to a derailment that drops them to the bottom of the standings in 2024:

A team chasing the first-ever Super Bowl three-peat is also riding a stretch that includes eight consecutive AFC West crowns … and may have markedly improved its roster coming off an 11-6 regular season in 2023 that was below par relative to the organization’s recent success. Then factor in that no division rival reached the playoffs last season, the Las Vegas Raiders (Antonio Pierce) and Los Angeles Chargers (Jim Harbaugh) are breaking in new coaches, and the Denver Broncos appear to be in a full-fledged rebuild. Barring an injury to Mahomes, K.C. looks especially safe – and potentially a speed-infused juggernaut if the offense, now boasting quick-strike WRs Hollywood Brown and rookie Xavier Worthy, returns to its explosive form of the Tyreek Hill years.

Per BetMGM, the Niners and Chiefs – last year’s Super Bowl participants – retain the shortest odds to reach Super Sunday this season. After the narrowest of misses in Super Bowl 58, San Francisco’s lineup remains largely intact – and All-Pro S Talanoa Hufanga is set to return from a torn ACL, and first-round WR Ricky Pearsall could bring a boost of his own. The 49ers seem likely to facer stiffer divisional tests than Kansas City, but – on paper – they remain a cut above the rest of the NFC West.

Though they’ve captured the AFC East throne four years running, the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins are coming to usurp it – and the Bills appear vulnerable after an offseason of roster adjustments necessitated by their bloated salary cap … and the seemingly unrelated decision to purge WR1 Stefon Diggs. Still, they charged back to first place late last season after installing Joe Brady as offensive coordinator in November and using a more balanced approach that de-emphasized Diggs anyway. Even if Buffalo is eclipsed by the NYJ and/or Fins, hard to see the Bills dropping below the rebooting New England Patriots save the most severe of circumstances.

This could be the year Campbell and Co. vault this long woebegone organization to its first Super Bowl. The Lions seem to have talent and cultural buy-in in spades coming off a near miss in the 2023 NFC title game. But, like the Bills, they seem to have legit pursuers in the Green Bay Packers and apparently resuscitated Chicago Bears. Yet if things get really sideways, Detroit could be in jeopardy of also being bypassed by Minnesota given the talent – young as some of it is – that remains on that roster, to say nothing of a very capable coaching staff.

They pulled off a stunning worst-to-first ascent in 2023 thanks to the arrival of HC DeMeco Ryans and Rookies of the Year C.J. Stroud (offense) and Will Anderson Jr. (defense). Yet history serves a warning, the Texans tumbling from first to last twice since 2013 and nearly again in 2020 – saved only by a horrid 1-15 Jaguars outfit. But Jacksonville and the Indianapolis Colts appear far more formidable now, while the Tennessee Titans – AFC South titlists twice in the past four years – could enjoy a revival under new HC Brian Callahan and an aggressive haul of free agents. And while sophomore slumps for Stroud and/or Anderson don’t seem likely, it’s hardly uncommon to see a young squad that experiences unexpected success struggle to manage it the next time around.

Recent history tells you no team has successfully defended its NFC East belt in two decades. Recent months tell you that “America’s Team,” which has suffered excruciating playoff ousters the past three years, has done very little of note with its roster this offseason … aside from losing DC Dan Quinn, several key starters and a good chunk of depth during free agency. And with HC Mike McCarthy, QB Dak Prescott and WR CeeDee Lamb entering the final years of their contracts, sufficient warning signs – on and off the field – that a team that could be largely reliant on a one-dimensional offense could go completely off the rails … even if the overall talent quotient ought to surpass the division rival Washington Commanders and New York Giants, though both clubs have probably closed the gap.

Beware a crew that hasn’t missed the playoffs since 2019 nor finished out of first place in the NFC South since taking the wild-card route to the Lombardi Trophy in 2020. Tom Brady’s swan song in 2022 disappointed while successor Baker Mayfield’s opening act in 2023 was a pleasant surprise – even if the Bucs were the only division winners in 2023 who didn’t reach double-digit wins in the regular season (they’re 18-19 since 2022, playoffs included). They re-signed Mayfield, WR Mike Evans and several other core players this spring, but that doesn’t mean increased margin for error against the Atlanta Falcons or New Orleans Saints, who have nipped at Tampa’s heels. The question is whether the Carolina Panthers, now led by erstwhile Buccaneers OC (and quarterback whisperer) Dave Canales can leverage a weak schedule into a significant enough rebound behind second-year passer Bryce Young to overtake the Bucs if they’re sunk.

They’re coming off the best campaign of the Lamar Jackson era, the two-time league MVP guiding the AFC’s No. 1 postseason seed of 2023 to the first conference championship game ever staged at M&T Bank Stadium. However approaching (or exceeding) that level of success will be quite a challenge for a team planted in the only division of the Super Bowl era (since 1966) to see all of its members finish with a winning record. Both the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers also qualified for the playoffs last season, while the Bengals – kings of the AFC North in 2021 and 2022 – should be rejuvenated by the healthy return of QB Joe Burrow. And, despite the signing of formidable RB Derrick Henry, the Ravens will have ample internal challenges after their cap forced notable roster churn, particularly on the offensive line and at every level of the defense. And that blocking turnover could be a red flag for Jackson, who’s never played a full regular season since entering the NFL in 2018.

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Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on X, formerly Twitter, @ByNateDavis.

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