The National Football League realigned in 2002 by placing four teams in four divisions in both the AFC and NFC. The shift created great balance and gave hope to each of the 32 NFL clubs. In all but that first season of realignment, the NFL has featured a team that has improved from a last place in a division one season to a division title the next year.
Seventeen times a team has gone from worst to first since 2003. Prior to realignment there were only a total of 23 occurrences of that feat.
The first team to go from worst to first was the 1967 Houston Oilers (pictured above). The team finished tied with a league worst 3-11-0 record in ’66. The turnaround came on the defensive side of the ball as the entire unit was overhauled. The ’67 squad featured only one defensive player in the same starting position than the previous team. The revamped Oilers defense set AFL records for fewest TDs and fewest points in a season. The offense was led by fullback Hoyle Granger who carried the ball 236 times for 1,194 yards and 6 TDs and caught 30 passes for 300 yards and three TDs.
The Cincinnati Bengals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers hold the distinction of going from worst to first the most. Both teams climbed from the basement to a division title four times. Cincinnati did so in 1970, 1981, 1988, and 1990 while the Buccaneers did it in 1979, 1981, 2005, and 2007. Three teams (the 1999 Rams, 2001 Patriots, and the 2009 Saints) rose from the ashes to win the Super Bowl.
Only nine of the 32 current NFL teams have never enjoyed rising from last to first. They include the Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets, Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Seattle Seahawks.
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