Every year in the NFL, teams rise from the cellar and become contenders overnight. In a league rife with parity and widespread injury, it's easy for a team to move from worst to first. In the 2013 campaign, the Eagles achieved the feat, Kansas City would have if not for the misfortune of sharing a division with Peyton Manning and Detroit was within a kitty whisker of the NFC North title despite a late season collapse. In reverse order, the teams that are most likely to pull off the reversal of fortunes this season.
8. St. Louis Rams
This ranking is not an indictment on the Rams organization. This simply speaks to how hard it would be for them to leapfrog both the San Francisco 49ers and the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. In addition, the Arizona Cardinals were a strong team, winning 10 games last season and only missing the playoffs due to playing in a tougher conference. The Rams are building a potential contender, and with another bushel of draft picks on the way from the RG3 deal, the future is bright. If only they would cut the Sam Bradford cord, projections would be even more optimistic.
7. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders simply don't seem to have an accurate viewpoint on where they are as a franchise. Playing in a division with Peyton Manning still in his prime, a Chiefs team that should continue to be a tough out, and the San Diego Chargers consistently posting winning seasons should have motivated the Raiders to tear it down and build from the ground up. This way, a youth movement could peak after Manning retires and the current editions of the Chargers and Chiefs have petered out. Instead, the Raiders have behaved as if they are a few players away, adding past their prime talents like Matt Schaub, LaMarr Woodley, Justin Tuck, and Maurice Jones-Drew. This would be great if it was 2010. Alas, it is not, and the Raiders could rue the day they gave away Terrelle Pryor. Pryor is a player with faults, but also with untapped potential, a quality sorely lacking on the Raiders' roster.
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs also suffer from the St. Louis issue of playing in a stacked division. Even if Carolina takes a likely step back, New Orleans has greatly improved on defense, and Atlanta figures to rebound from an injury plagued season. This leaves little room for the Bucs to make that leap. I rank them over Oakland and St. Louis because if you squint, you can see a future where new coach Lovie Smith teaches his young, talented defense the opportunistic ways he once bestowed on the Bears defense, Mike Glennon or Josh McCown has a quality season and Doug Martin rediscovers the form of his rookie season. More likely, Smith brings in a rookie QB, there are growing pains and the Bucs improve by a win or two.
5. Buffalo Bills
The Bills have less impediment than most teams on this list and could be a pleasant surprise with another quality draft. However, their schedule is brutal, especially down the stretch, and the New England Patriots are close to a sure bet to remain at the top of the division with the addition of Darrelle Revis. Maybe Tom Brady suffers an untimely injury? That is the most likely route for the Bills to claim an AFC East title. The Jets also have taken steps to improve their roster and are candidates to be in the playoff hunt, depending on the outcome of their QB battle. If EJ Manuel can build on his up and down rookie season, perhaps the Bills can surprise.
4. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings rank this high due to the high probability that they select a rookie signal caller and finally move on from the Christian Ponder dumpster fire. With Adrian Peterson in tow, this is a team that can never be truly counted out. Their division is weak, having been won with an 8-8 record last year by the Packers. While it's not wise to bet against Aaron Rodgers, the Packers have struggled to keep him upright, and the Bears have had similar struggles with the health of Jay Cutler. The Lions remain the Lions and can't be trusted. With a new coach and the addition of Golden Tate to slot opposite Calvin Johnson, they will be a sexy pick to claim the division. We all know what happens to the sexy picks each year. If the Vikings get it right and find the right QB, it could be a quick trip back to the playoffs.
3. Cleveland Browns
The Browns are quietly assembling a talented team. Josh Gordon is arguably the top receiver in the league that isn't nicknamed Megatron, Jordan Cameron is blossoming into one of the league's top TEs, Ben Tate will provide punch to the ground game, and the defense is stocked with young talents like Joe Haden and Barkevious Mingo (I love typing that name). The Browns could also select a young QB talent in the draft or opt to see what Brian Hoyer can do. I'm on record as saying they should allow Hoyer the chance to prove himself over a full season. The Bengals will provide stiff competition, but it's not altogether crazy to think the Browns are a dark horse candidate to shock some people next season.
2. Houston Texans
I waffled between them and my eventual #1 choice, only opting against the Texans because I believe the Colts are going to continue to be one of the powers of the AFC. The Texans will be squarely in the mix for a wild card berth, as I envision Bill O'Brien coaching up a young QB to be a game manager and not ruin games for what should be a stout defense. I think the Texans will take Clowney #1 and allow him and JJ Watt to wreak absolute havoc on opposing backfields. With Arian Foster healthy and a 1-2 punch of Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins at WR, a QB will not have to be a world beater, just not actively sabotage the team. Ryan Fitzpatrick or Case Keenum could also get the call, and Keenum showed signs of maturing into a solid option last season. More likely, O'Brien will tab a player like Jimmy Garoppolo, Derek Carr, or in the dream scenario, Teddy Bridgewater with the Texans' 2nd round pick.
1. Washington Redskins
The 'Skins are the easy choice here. as they have the most in place. I still don't entirely trust their defense, as the secondary is still a huge question mark. But with RG3 fully healed and looking better as the season went on, the sky is the limit for Washington. With newly acquired DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, and Alfred Morris in tow, Griffin will have no shortage of weapons. The Eagles are bound to regress a tad, and Nick Foles is far from a proven commodity at QB. Chip Kelly's hubris in believing his team did not need Jackson could end up being his downfall, as he was instantly snapped up by a division rival hungry for his play making ability. If nothing else, Redskins-Eagles games will be must see TV and will probably go a long way towards deciding the NFC East.