Millman: Which Teams Could Go Last-to-First in the NFL?

Millman: Which Teams Could Go Last-to-First in the NFL? article feature image
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Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Baker Mayfield

  • The Nationals were in last place in the NL East in late May, but they're about to play for a World Series title.
  • The Blues were at the bottom of the entire NHL in January before going on to win the Stanley Cup.
  • Which NFL teams are worth betting to pull the last-to-first swing in 2019?

Seasons are long, events are random, the ball bounces in funny ways.

Whichever way you want to explain it, what the Washington Nationals have done, and what the St. Louis Blues did before them is the kind of thing that turns coincidences into hope. And maybe some cash.

I’ll explain.

In early January, the St. Louis Blues were in last place in the NHL — 250-1 shots to win the Stanley Cup. By June, they were hoisting the coolest trophy in sports and, as Darren Rovell reported, one lucky fan was taking a private plane to Vegas to cash a $400 futures bet that was worth $100,000.

The Nats are not all that different. On May 23 they were tied for last place with the Marlins in the NL East, with a record of 19-31. For some perspective, on the same date, the Tigers, who finished with a league-worst 114 losses, had only 30 losses (also, shame on me for thinking the Orioles spent the entire year as the worst team in baseball, blame the East Coast bias).

Washington’s odds to win the World Series back then were 60-1 (yes, Rovell is trying to track down anyone who is holding one of those golden tickets).

This got me thinking: We are nearly halfway through the NFL season. And while it’s not exactly a ball-to-ball comparison, is there a team lingering near the bottom of its division or conference right now that could be had for a cheap date and some good times?

While the Pats have a stranglehold on the AFC, the Niners are flirting with being really good, the Saints are proving it every week with a backup and the Packers are a surprising 5-1, there must be some teams bringing up the rear who believe in magic, luck, randomness and Tom Brady aging, right?

And it’s not entirely unprecedented. The 2015 Chiefs lost All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles to a torn ACL in Week 5. They started the season 1-5. And then they won 10 games in a row, eventually losing to the pesky Pats in the divisional round of the playoffs. We’ve gotta believe in something other than that we’re all going to get screwed by officials this year, sports fans.

In fact, that randomness of the refs, that injury luck, and that way an oddly-shaped ball bounces all give credence to the idea that a miracle like this could actually happen in the NFL. I think the only major sport in which longshots have no shot is the NBA.

On Wednesday, World Wide Wob and I were on a road trip together. After lunch at a sketchy Chinese joint in which Wob would only eat the rice, I asked him if he thought there could be an NBA equivalent to the Nats or Blues.

“Tell me,” I said, “it’s December 23rd, which last-place team with the longest title odds goes on an epic run to win it all?”

“First of all, it can’t happen. A series goes seven games and is designed to ensure the best team wins. But, I could see a scenario such as this happening with the Rockets: It’s late December. There are all kinds of issues with Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni. The chemistry between Russell Westbrook and James Harden isn’t there yet, so Russ is frustrated and doing his ball-hog thing, which frustrates Harden. So maybe they’re a couple of games below .500 and in eighth place in the West. Maybe. Then they get it together and go on a monster second-half run. But, to answer your question, the Kings aren’t going to come out of nowhere to win it all.”

Who can do it in the NFL? While we pride ourselves at The Action Network on our ability to analyze complex data and distill it into usable, actionable information that makes you smarter than your friends, but that ain’t my bag. My analysis tends to be more rudimentary, involving a combination of emails to editors, stealing from John Ewing and scraping the most superficial stories on our site. This witch’s brew usually gives me something that has as much chance of being right as anyone banking on Havoc and IsoPPP

First, I looked at the teams in last place (duh). Then I overlaid these things with The Action Network’s projected percentage chance to win it all.

Third, I looked at their current Super Bowl odds, because who doesn’t like a little value. Fourth, I examined each team’s health and whether or not they had top-flight players returning. Lastly, I broke down every team’s remaining schedule.

I settled on these two teams:


Odds as of Wednesday evening and via PointsBet, where Action Network users can access an exclusive promotion to get a 200% deposit match (deposit $50, bet with $150).


Detroit Lions (2-2-1, last in NFC North)

Current Super Bowl odds: 60-1

Call it recency bias if you want. But the truth is I have bet on the Lions the past two weeks they’ve played, against both the Eagles and the Packers. Shame on me for not also betting them as home dogs to the Chiefs.

But, other than a stinker of a quarter against the Cardinals in Week 1, this team has been sneaky competitive.

Their 2-2-1 record means they have just a 0.28% to win at all, which is just where we want them, Matt Patricia! They’re relatively healthy and their sked sets up real nice.

Other than division games against the Vikes, Bears and Packers (at home), their stiffest competition is Dallas in Week 11. That game is at Ford Field where, by the way, the Lions play six of their final 11 games.

Cleveland Browns (2-4, T-3rd in AFC North)

Current Super Bowl odds: 50-1

First, let’s get the Pats game after the Browns’ Week 7 bye out of the way. That’s an L. But that’s good for this concept. Right now they have only a 0.46% chance to win it all. It will be so much worse after the Pats game, right?

Then the Browns will really be out of it. And, their remaining opponents include the Bengals (twice), the Dolphins, the Cardinals and the Broncos.

I’ve bet against the overhyped Browns all year, but I was on them against Seattle in Week 6. And the second half of the season is going to be a Brown-out.

You laugh. But so we’ve seen longer odds.

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