Ranking the NFL’s 2023 Worst-to-First Candidates: Bet the Falcons & Texans
It feels like it happens nearly every year.
An NFL team has the year from hell, finishes at the bottom of its division, and earns a top draft pick. Pundits spend all offseason writing them off, and everyone avoids their guys in fantasy football. The new season dawns without much hope — and then, four months later, they somehow win their division and host a playoff game.
Sound familiar? It certainly should.
In 18 of the past 20 seasons (90%), at least one division cellar dweller flipped the script and won its division the following season. In 2016 the Cowboys drafted Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott and jumped from 4-12 to 13-3. The next year, the Eagles went from 7-9 to Super Bowl champions. The Bears and Texans did it in 2018, and Washington in 2019.
The bottom feeders whiffed in 2020 before the Bengals went from the outhouse to the Super Bowl in 2021. And right here in this column one year ago, we correctly picked the Jaguars at a wild +800 to go worst-to-first and win their division too.
Since the NFL adopted its current division format in 2002, 28 last-place teams have won the division the following year, an average of 1.3 per year. It just keeps happening, and history says it'll happen again.
Let's rank last season's bottom feeders from least to most likely to claim division titles, with not one but two best bets for 2023.
Tier IV: Wrong Place, Wrong Time
8. Washington Commanders +1800 (Caesars)
When you're looking for a worst-to-first sleeper, consider the division first. This is a head-to-head bet against three other teams, which can be good news or bad news. For Washington, that's very bad news.
By any measure, Philadelphia and Dallas are two of the top three teams in the NFC. The Eagles won 14 games and made the Super Bowl, and the Cowboys have won 12 twice in a row. Two great opponents is even worse; even if the bottom falls out for one, there's still another double-digit winner waiting.
The vibes are immaculate for Washington after finally moving on from Dan Snyder and winning their preseason Super Bowl against the long-unbeaten Ravens, but vibes don't win games.
The Commanders enter the season ranked bottom four for me in both quarterback and offensive line, which leaves them 30th in the Offense rankings. There are already murmurs of issues with new OC Eric Bieniemy, and their best player on offense, Terry McLaurin, is already hurt.
Washington's defense is talented enough up front to make a push, but the team already overachieved its underlying metrics a year ago just getting to 8-8-1. That was a third straight season at or below .500 for Ron Rivera, his ninth in 12 seasons as a head coach.
Vibes are great, but this feels like a transition year in Washington.
Verdict: No thanks, but congrats on that Ravens victory.
7. Denver Broncos +650 (BetMGM)
The Broncos are an obvious positive regression candidate.
They lost the most games to injury of any NFL team per Football Outsiders, and they went 4-9 in one-score games, which typically prove random over time. They also got an historically terrible coaching debut from Nathaniel Hackett.
That leaves plenty of low-hanging fruit for Sean Payton to turn this team around.
The biggest improvement should come on the offensive line. That's where Denver had its most injuries, and it's an area the Broncos addressed in a major way in free agency. Hopefully that buys time and margin for error for The Russell Wilson Reclamation Project, Payton's newest favorite band.
Payton has never won fewer than seven games as head coach, and Wilson had never won fewer than nine until he went 6-8 and 4-11 the last two disastrous years. Can Payton redeem Wilson and at least make him passable? He did get noodle-armed late-career Drew Brees to the playoffs.
The problem is that even if Denver gets better, the Broncos are still in the same division as the Chargers and the mighty Chiefs. That gives them a huge QB deficit even with an improved Wilson and it means they likely need at least 11 or 12 wins to contend.
Denver should be better, but not that much better.
Verdict: Hard pass, especially at a relatively short number.
Tier III: At Least the Division Might Be Winnable?
6. Arizona Cardinals +3000 (BetMGM)
If you think the Cardinals should be in the previous tier playing in a tough division, I get it.
But those four teams that the cellar dwellers are chasing are all led by top-10 QBs. Arizona could luck into a winnable division since we still don't really know whether Brock Purdy or Geno Smith are definitely good after last fall's breakout. Regression at QB could leave this division surprisingly open, and Arizona could wind up with the best quarterback in the division if Kyler Murray returns healthy.
But even if it's open, is there any chance the Cardinals get there? Unlikely.
My roster rankings matrix colors positions green for good and red for bad, dark if it's especially strong. Arizona is red at eight of 10 positions and dark red at six including the four most important positional groups: offensive line, cornerback, edge rushers, and of course quarterback.
The Cardinals rank dead last on both offense and defense.
They have an incredibly green coaching staff and a journeyman Opening Day QB in Colt McCoy. By all accounts, the Cardinals don't even want to compete. They appear to be tanking, and Week 3 through 5 games against Dallas, San Francisco, and Cincinnati should bury them early.
I'm down on the 49ers, and +3000 is a wild number in a sport with so much volatility. I don't mind if you sprinkle, but the Cardinals are my pick to draft No. 1 next spring.
Verdict: Don't mind if you sprinkle the +3000, but it's probably DOA.
5. Chicago Bears +450 (BetMGM)
The NFC North is far more winnable, with the favored Lions' win total at just 9.5 wins.
The Bears should certainly be improved. They went 1-6 in one-score games with a super young roster, then entered the offseason with the most cap room and spent big on LBs Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards, edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue, and a go-to receiver with the trade for D.J. Moore.
That's quite an influx of talent, but the Bears have a long way to go. Chicago ranked dead last in Defensive DVOA and didn't add enough to change that with a defense severely lacking in talent after losing Roquan Smith, Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, and Akiem Hicks the last two years. The Moore trade also means the league's worst team did not add a No. 1 pick talent.
Any Bears upside is built around Justin Fields, but I'm not buying the hype.
Fields is an exciting runner, but the passing numbers are terrible. I ranked Fields 20th among Opening Day QBs and that was kind considering how bad he's looked as a passer. There's talk about the Bears finally building the right team around Fields, but I'm not buying that either. The line is improved at run blocking but still one of the league's worst against the pass, and D.J. Moore can only do so much.
A bet on Chicago is a bet on Fields leaping into the top 10 QBs, but even that might not be enough. There's just not enough talent around Fields, and the defense looks bad.
Verdict: Don't buy the Fields hype, and bet MVP not division if you do.
Tier II: Talented Enough But Brutal Divisions
4. New York Jets +270 (DraftKings)
Everyone's excited about the J-E-T-S after a trade for Aaron Rodgers and a season on Hard Knocks.
But Rodgers has dropped off in a big way and turns 40 in December, and it's starting to feel like he has a little too much say in the pieces around him.
New OC Nathaniel Hackett leaves much to be desired, and Rodgers pushed the team to sign RB Dalvin Cook, spending on an aging RB instead of getting help on the line. Rodgers also brought Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb with him, and now that Corey Davis retired and Elijah Moore was traded, the receivers look quite thin after Garrett Wilson.
That offensive line looks seriously problematic. New York still has no idea who will even play at either tackle position, and Rodgers has typically had great blocking in Green Bay.
Even the defense may not be great news. An outstanding Jets defense was built around two elite corners, leaving them prone to regression. Even if New York is terrific again, the division is brutal. I have the Jets 6th in my Defense rankings, but that still puts them last in the division.
The Bills are a Super Bowl favorite, and the healthy Dolphins are dangerous. Even the Patriots should be improved offensively and finished the year No. 1 in Weighted Defensive DVOA.
New York has a brutal opening schedule against the Bills, Cowboys, Patriots, Chiefs, Broncos, and Eagles. There's a chance the Jets start 2-4 or worse, so even if you want that Jets division ticket, you have to wait for a better price. You simply cannot bet the Jets at +270, an implied 27%.
Verdict: No way at this number, especially before that brutal opening schedule.
3. Cleveland Browns +400 (FanDuel)
The Browns are another team set for positive regression. They went 2-5 in one-score games and won seven but deserved 9.4 by Estimated Wins at Football Outsiders, and that was with a backup QB for much of the season in Jacoby Brissett.
Cleveland has one of the league's best offensive lines and should see great improvement on the defensive line with three new starters and DC Jim Schwartz joining DPOY contender Myles Garrett. Add in terrific corners and a great run game behind Nick Chubb, and there's plenty to like.
But a bet on Cleveland is a bet on Deshaun Watson looking like the elite QB he was when he last played full time in 2020, and there's no guarantee that quarterback is still in there.
Even if you believe, the Browns have yet to finish in the top half of the division in three seasons under Kevin Stefanski. Cincinnati and Baltimore are threats to win double digits, and the Steelers still have never finished below .500 with Mike Tomlin.
Cleveland could get some schedule luck. The Browns play at home Week 1 against the Bengals, who might be without Joe Burrow, and a December stretch against the Rams, Jaguars, Bears, and Texans helps too.
I actually like these Browns, but division doesn't feel like the right play.
Every team in the AFC North has a high ceiling so even 11 or 12 wins might not be enough. If you're betting on a high-end Cleveland outcome, that's dependent on Watson playing like a top-five QB. If he really plays like that, a division play might not be aggressive enough.
Verdict: If you believe in Watson, skip the division and play the Browns to win the AFC instead at +2000 (Caesar's).
Tier I: Two Best Bets
2. Atlanta Falcons +210 (FanDuel)
We've come to the most winnable division in the NFL, the NFC South. The Saints look solid at least with Derek Carr and a usually tough defense, but the Panthers are resetting with a new coaching staff and No. 1 pick QB Bryce Young, and the Bucs appear to be in full rebuild mode, especially on offense.
The Falcons tied the Saints and Panthers for last but lost the tiebreaker — but Atlanta also finished only one game out of this moribund division.
I'm very bullish on Atlanta's offense.
The Falcons have three elite young weapons in Bijan Robinson, Drake London, and Kyle Pitts, and they have a top-10 offensive line. Desmond Ridder is an unknown at QB, but Arthur Smith squeezed top-13 offenses out of Ryan Tannehill and Marcus Mariota in three of the last four years, and he's never had this much talent to work with.
The defense should be drastically better too. A unit that finished 30th in DVOA adds veterans Calais Campbell, David Onyemata, Jessie Bates, and Bud Dupree to significantly raise their floor, and new DC Ryan Nielsen brings hope too.
The Falcons could get off to an amazing start at home against the Panthers and Packers — both with new QBs — followed by the Lions, Jaguars, Texans, Commanders, and Bucs. That's seven super winnable games to start the year and only one game all season against a team I project at double-digit wins, and that's the Jets in December.
I love the Falcons, and they're my division favorite. Unfortunately, the books sniffed this one out, leaving Atlanta at +210, or 32% implied. I put them around 35-to-40%, so we're not getting a huge edge.
I'll bet the division, but in a wide-open NFC, that could make the Falcons the 2- or 3-seed, which means at least one home playoff game and puts a +3000 NFC ticket (BetMGM) in play.
Verdict: Bet Atlanta +210 to win the NFC South, and consider escalator plays too.
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1. Houston Texans +1000 (FanDuel)
And so we've come to my favorite bet on the board — yes, it's the Houston Texans.
The AFC South is not good.
The Colts are rebuilding around a rookie head coach and QB and might trade their best offensive player in Jonathan Taylor. The Titans seem stuck between trying and rebuilding and are one injury to Derrick Henry or Ryan Tannehill away from collapsing. I don't see either of them getting past six or seven wins.
The Jaguars are clear favorites at -155, but Jacksonville started 2-6 and has a ton of holes. I rank the offensive line bottom five in the NFL, and I put this young defense in that same range. Remember my roster matrix? The Jaguars are green for good at only one position — quarterback.
They're favored solely on the basis of Trevor Lawrence, but he has shockingly little help around him. If you ignore QB, I have the Jaguars as the 26th-ranked roster in football. Jacksonville is beatable.
Could the long-shot Texans do it?
Houston has the best defense in the division, maybe by a wide margin. Derek Stingley Jr. looks like a shut-down corner, and Will Anderson was the best defender in the draft. Houston also added Jimmie Ward and Sheldon Rankins, along with defensive mastermind DeMeco Ryans to a defense that already ranked 10th in DVOA the back half of last season, including 2nd against the pass.
The offense will take more coaxing, but a young, improving offensive line looks above average, and new OC Bobby Slowik comes from the Shanahan tree and should improve a dismal run game. That could make life easier on rookie QB C.J. Stroud, who I rated best in his class and most NFL-ready.
Don't underestimate how much a good coaching staff and great defense could help a young offense. Houston also smartly retained special teams coach Frank Ross, who's consistently led top-10 ST units over the years and had Houston at No. 2 by DVOA last fall.
Houston has the best offensive line, the best defense, and the best special teams in the division. It's my 17th best non-QB roster in football. The Texans could be way better than anyone expects.
The schedule is soft too. Houston plays eight games against quarterbacks I rank 21st or lower, and that's not even counting Bryce Young or Russell Wilson. That's 10 games against subpar QBs, and if Stroud is solid, it might even mean Houston has an advantage in many of them.
Houston also has no need to tank — the Texans don't even own their first-round pick. They already traded it for Anderson, my pick for Defensive Rookie of the Year (+500 Caesar's).
It probably sounds crazy, but it probably sounded crazy last year when I told you to bet Jaguars +800 in this same division. We're going back to the well and I'm rolling over some of our Jacksonville profits to bet against them this time.
At +1000, the Texans are an implied 9% to win the division. They're my outright favorite at over 30%.
This is a multi-unit bet and the one worst-to-first division bet you simply must make in 2023.
Verdict: All-in on Texans +1000. They're the best worst-to-first bet in 2023.