Last season saw a lot of turnover in the NFL. The Philadelphia Eagles, a last-place team in 2016, rebounded to win the NFC East and the Lombardi Trophy. The Jacksonville Jaguars also went from worst-to-first, winning their division for the first time since 1999 and nearly joining the Eagles in the Super Bowl. That's not even counting the Los Angeles Rams and Carolina Panthers winning 10 games combined in 2016 and then 11 games apiece in 2017.
The NFL is a crazy league, and you can almost always count on a handful of teams going from the basement to the penthouse each season. Will anyone pull it off in 2018? Probably, but there are fewer obvious candidates than we have seen in the past. Last season, we gave three teams at least a 20 percent chance to go worst-to-first, with the Eagles slightly below that threshold at 19.5 percent. This year, we only give one team those chances from going worst-to-first: the Texans, who are actually our favorites in what should be a wide-open AFC South.
We've gone through the eight teams that finished in last place in each division last season, ranked by their odds of making the postseason in 2018. These odds are based on the 2018 simulation that we ran for our new book "Football Outsiders Almanac 2018." The system predicts each team's DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average, explained here) on offense, defense and special teams using a number of variables, including performance over the past three years, coaching experience and personnel changes. Then we simulate the season a million times to get a wide range of possibilities that account for every team's best-case and worst-case scenario.
Here are the eight last-place teams from 2017 ranked in order of their chances of winning their respective divisions in 2018:
Chances of winning AFC South: 28.5 percent (1st in division)
Chances of making playoffs: 42.6 percent (9th in NFL)
It's simple enough to explain why Houston should improve in 2018: in theory, they'll have Deshaun Watson starting for 16 games. The Texans went 1-9 in games started by Tom Savage and T.J. Yates last year, but 3-3 in games started by Watson. That record would have been even better if the defense had not blown last-minute leads in Foxboro and Seattle. With better health not only for Watson, but also defensive stars J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, it's easy to see Houston being a better team in 2018.
As for the rest of the division, Jacksonville is unlikely to have the league's best defense two years in a row because defense tends to be less consistent than offense. Tennessee will have to adjust to a new coaching staff, and a small improvement on the field is likely to be cancelled out by a small decline in performance in close games (6-4 last year). Meanwhile, a healthy Andrew Luck automatically makes the Colts dangerous in Indianapolis. Add it all up and we're giving each team at least a 20 percent chance to win the AFC South, the NFL's most competitive division.