Ten. That's how many times over the past ten seasons at least one team has gone from a last place finish in their division one year to a division championship the next. Rather startling if you stop and think about it. Here are the 12 teams to do so in the past 10 years:
2003 - Carolina Panthers rebound from a 7-9 record and a last place finish in the NFC South in 2002 to win the NFC South with a 11-5 record and go on to play in the Superbowl.
2004 - Atlanta Falcons rebound from a 5-11 last place finish in the NFC South in 2003 to win the division with a 11-5 record and advance to the NFC Championship game. San Diego Chargers bounce back from a 4-12 last place finish in the AFC West in 2003 to win the division with a 12-4 record.
2005 - Chicago Bears improve from a 5-11 last place finish in the NFC North in 2004 to win the division with a 11-5 record.
2006 - Philadelphia Eagles bounce back from a 6-10 last place finish in the NFC East in 2005 to win the division by posting a 10-6 record. New Orleans Saints stunningly turn a 3-13 last place NFC South finish in 2005 into a division winning 13-3 record and their first ever appearance in the NFC Championship game.
2007 - Tampa Bay Buccaneers rebound from a horrible 4-12 last place finish in the NFC South in 2006 to claim the division title with a meager 9-7 record.
2008 - In one of the most unexpected turnarounds in NFL history, the Miami Dolphins bounce back from a 1-15 last place finish in 2007 that saw them earn their lone victory in overtime, to finish at 11-5 and edge out the Patriots for the division crown.
2009 - New Orleans Saints improve from a middling 8-8 record and last place finish in the NFC South to go 13-3 to win their division and then go on to win their first Superbowl in franchise history.
2010 - Kansas City Chiefs rebound from a pathetic 4-12 last place finish in the AFC West in 2009 to claim the division title with a 10-6 record.
2011 - Denver Broncos use Tim Tebow and an opportunistic defense to bounce back from a dismal 4-12 record and last place finish in the AFC West in 2010 to claim the division title with a paltry 8-8 record.
2012 - Washington Redskins, energized by the play of RG3, improve on a 5-11 last place finish in the NFC East in 2011 to win the division and save HC Mike Shanahan's job with a 10-6 record.
If you go back a bit farther, you will see that a team has gone from worst to first in their division in all but one season since the Colts finished last in the AFC East in 1998. The Colts went from last in the AFC East in 1998 to first in 1999. The Saints went from last in the NFC West in 1999 to first in 2000. The Bears and Patriots both accomplished the feat, too, going from last place finishes in 2000 to division titles in 2001.
The only season that didn't produce a "worst to first" turnaround in the past 14 years was the 2002 season. Oddly enough, that was the first season with the current 4 division format, which should have been a situation ripe for a "worst to first" finish. It just goes to show how unpredictable the NFL is.
So, who will be this year's "worst to first" team? Will there even be one? The candidates are as follows:
AFC East - New York Jets, 6-10 in 2012
AFC North - Cleveland Browns, 5-11 in 2012
AFC South - Jacksonville Jaguars, 2-14 in 2012
AFC West - Kansas City Chiefs, 2-14 in 2012
NFC East - Philadelphia Eagles, 4-12 in 2012
NFC North - Detroit Lions, 4-12 in 2012
NFC South - Tampa Bay Buccaneers - 7-9 in 2012
NFC West - Arizona Cardinals, 5-11 in 2012