As part of their memorable and magical run to the franchise's only Super Bowl title, the Philadelphia Eagles last season very quietly accomplished a feat that's a true rarity in the NFL, becoming the league's first champion to have had a losing record the year before since the 2001 Patriots turned the same trick, 16 years earlier.
How rare? In the NFL's entire 52-year Super Bowl era, a mere four teams have managed that maneuver, with the 2017 Eagles and 2001 Patriots joined by two other storied teams, the 1999 Rams of Kurt Warner and 1981 49ers of Joe Montana. Philadelphia went 7-9 and finished in last place in the NFC East in 2016. New England was 5-11 and in last place in the AFC East in 2000. The then-St. Louis Rams were 4-12 in 1998, good for last place in the NFC West, and 1980 49ers were 6-10, third in the NFC West.
That's it, and it's pretty small, exclusive club when it comes to that particular sort of losing-to-winning-it-all overnight rise. After the 2001 Patriots of Tom Brady's ascension accomplished it, the next 15 Super Bowl champs preceding the 2017 Eagles won an average of 11-plus games per season before their titles, with 12 of those (80 percent) making the playoffs the year before their triumph. The other three teams all finished .500 or better, but just missed out on the postseason (the 10-6 Giants of 2010, the 8-8 Saints of 2008, and the 9-7 Patriots of 2002).
Now let's fast forward to the looming 2018 season, remembering that 20 NFL teams miss the playoffs every season. In 2017, 14 of those 20 teams had losing records, meaning they're at least in position theoretically to follow the act of the sub.500-to-first Eagles.
In no particular order, the entire list of candidates this season are the Dolphins, Jets, Raiders, Broncos, Bengals, Browns, Colts and Texans in the AFC, and the Giants, 49ers, Packers, Bears, Bucs and Washington in the NFC.
Which clubs have at least a chance to rise from the ashes and finish the 2018 season in a blaze of glory (and confetti)? We're here to submit to you the five most likely possibilities, realizing they're all long shots of varying degrees, given how seldom history has unfolded this way in the league's most recent five-plus decades. As always, your results may vary.
1. Green Bay Packers
Of course the Packers lead this list. How could they not? They have a healthy Aaron Rodgers whole again at quarterback (knock wood), a roster that still has playoff-level talent and the experience of having made the postseason a tied-for-leauge-best eight years in a row before last season's hiccup. Shoot, they even went to the trouble to go 7-9 a year ago, which was a pretty good launching pad for Philadelphia.
Even though every NFC North team seemed to improve, no one would be surprised if Green Bay was in line for a big bounce-back season, with the pressure clearly on the Packers in terms of maximizing Rodgers' Super Bowl window of opportunity. But I love the hiring of Mike Pettine as the team's new defensive coordinator, the ascension of new general Brian Gutekunst has been a breath of fresh air, and headline offseason acquisitions such as Jimmy Graham, Muhammad Wilkerson, and rookie cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson all had solid logic behind them.
The Packers face a challenging schedule, but it feels like Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy both have something to prove, and that spells a return to postseason football in Titletown.
2. San Francisco 49ers
This just in: The 49ers finished strong last year, winning six of their final seven games and their last five in a row, after starting the year a disastrous 0-9. In a related development, they also landed their messiah at quarterback, ex-Patriots backup Jimmy Garoppolo. Perhaps you heard something about it. It was in all the papers.
Too easy, right? The 49ers are the poster children for chic playoff picks, and everybody and their fantasy-football-playing brother is going to be telling you why San Francisco is ready right now to make some noise in a ridiculously deep NFC playoff race. But here's the thing: I think the hype is mostly right. I'm buying Garoppolo is really good and ready to keep rolling, and I'm convinced second-year head coach Kyle Shanahan is the real deal, too. This is a team still on the rise and I'll be shocked if it regresses after last season's red-hot finish.
A brutal road schedule is the reality the 49ers face, and here's hoping the defense doesn't need veteran cornerback Richard Sherman to be the Richard Sherman of 2012-2014 to succeed. But the offensive line is much improved with Weston Richburg and Mike McGlinchey, Jerick McKinnon will be a chains-moving weapon at running back, and San Francisco will battle it out with Los Angeles for NFC West supremacy, winning in double digits.
3. Houston Texans
Here's my strongest possible case for the Texans' inclusion on this hopeful list: Deshaun Watson. Is. Back. In seven eye-opening games last season, Houston's dual-threat rookie quarterback produced a remarkable 21 touchdowns (19 passing, two rushing) and transformed Houston into one of the most electrifying and potent offenses in the NFL. His early November ACL injury put an end to one of the stories of the year in the league and resulted in a 4-12 last-place nose-dive for the two-time defending AFC South champions, but when he's on the field the Texans are a completely different team and very, very dangerous.
On defense, Houston has every right to believe it'll be much better too, with the return of game-wrecking defensive lineman J.J. Watt, who's played just eight games in two years, as well as the recovery of both defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and linebacker Whitney Mercilus. But it comes back to Watson and star receiver DeAndre Hopkins, and the magic they should be able to make in the passing game. The AFC South is tougher than it ever has been, with both Jacksonville and Tennessee making the playoffs and winning at least once in January, but Watson's rare gifts make all things seem possible.
4. Denver Broncos
The Broncos were an absolute 5-11 mess last season, and it was a well-deserved last-place showing in the Rockies. Clearly no one, from rookie head coach Vance Joseph on down, had the time of their life amidst all that losing. Especially not John Elway, who is not known for his sense of patience and stand-pat approach.
But then a funny thing happened this offseason. Denver not only got better, it might have gotten considerably better, falling into stud pass-rusher Bradley Chubb in the first round's top five, signing the useful Case Keenum away from Minnesota to offer some stability and production at quarterback, and picking up potentially impactful offensive pieces like receiver Courtland Sutton and running back Royce Freeman in the draft.
I still don't love these Broncos and I have my doubts about Joseph's long-term growth potential in the coaching job. But there's undeniable talent on hand and I think it unwise to dismiss their playoff chances. After all, Von Miller remains on defense, and he and Chubb could be a handful for opposing quarterbacks. With some early success out of Keenum, Denver could ride the wave back into playoff contention this season. If nothing else, there is a renewed and rare sense of urgency, with the Broncos having not posted consecutive losing seasons since way back in the dark ages of 1971-72.
5. New York Giants
The Giants? They of the 3-13 train wreck a year ago? How'd they get on this list? Where's Tampa Bay or Washington? Maybe even Oakland now that Chucky's back in the Silver and Black. What reasons for pie-eyed optimism exist in Gotham, after New York posted its worst season since Bill Parcells was taking over the reins from Ray Perkins in 1983 and looking overmatched on the way to a 3-12-1 finish?
Quite a few actually, at least as I count them. For starters, the Giants were never as bad as their record indicated last season (and yes, I know it was Parcells who famously decreed that you are what your record says you are). As a team they allowed the Ben McAdoo coaching melodrama suck the will out of them, then suffered some key injuries and pretty much let things snowball from there.
This season in New York features a new competent head coach in Pat Shurmur, a proven general manager in Dave Gettleman, the return to health of the game's premier play-maker in Odell Beckham Jr., and quite possibly the slam-dunk NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in the multi-talented Saquon Barkley at running back. If Eli Manning can conjure up a little blast of his glory days, the rebuilt offensive line holds up thanks to Nate Solder and Will Hernandez, and new defensive coordinator James Bettcher can help a truly dreadful unit improve just a little bit, the G-Men might really throw a scare into opponents this season.
After all, no NFC East team has repeated as champion since the Eagles of 2001-2004, and Philadelphia, Dallas and Washington have all won the division twice since New York's most recent title in 2011. Who knows, maybe it's just the Giants' turn.