Very few people predicted that the Rams, Chiefs and Jaguars would be fighting for first place entering the final weeks of the season, or that the Buccaneers would be in the thick of the wild-card race, but a closer look at history shows that we should have seen at least one of them coming. Since NFL divisional realignment in 2002, the league has produced at least one team every year that has gone from fourth place one year to division champion the next, with the 2010 Chiefs continuing the trend.
The trend is most popular in the NFC South. That division has produced six worst-to-first teams since '02.
Here are the 12 worst-to-first teams in that time span, in chronological order.
1. Chiefs / 2002-03 — The '02 team wasn't bad; it topped the NFL in scoring and finished 8-8. But a tough AFC West resulted in a last-place finish. K.C. improved to 13-3 the next season, led by Priest Holmes' 27 rushing touchdowns.
2. Panthers / 2002-03 — An eight-game losing streak in the middle of the season doomed the '02 season. Things changed the next year, with Jake Delhomme leading the Panthers to an 11-5 record and a Super Bowl appearance, which ended in a narrow loss to the Patriots.
3. Falcons / 2003-04 — What a difference a healthy Michael Vick can make. Vick fractured his fibula in a 2003 preseason game, limiting him to only four starts late in the regular season. He was completely healthy the next season, teaming up with RBs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett on a squad that rushed for 167 yards per game.
4. Chargers / 2003-04 — The development of QB Drew Brees led to the massive turnaround, from 4-12 in '03 to 12-4 in '04. Brees tossed 27 TD passes and only seven picks in the division-winning season, and LaDainian Tomlinson added 17 rushing TDs.
5. Bears / 2004-05 — Four different quarterbacks started three or more games for the '04 Bears, and not surprisingly, none of them was too successful in a 5-11 campaign. A year later a different QB, rookie Kyle Orton, did much of the work, along with a defense anchored by PFW Defensive Player of the Year Brian Urlacher, for the 11-5 NFC North champs.
6. Buccaneers / 2004-05 — The triumvirate of Brad Johnson, Brian Griese and Chris Simms at quarterback didn't translate to many wins in '04. But behind Griese, Simms and 1,178 rushing yards from Cadillac Williams, the '05 Bucs won the division with an 11-5 record.
7. Eagles / 2005-06 — Following their Super Bowl appearance, the Eagles started '05 3-2, but Donovan McNabb landed on I.R. after Week 10 and they went 2-5 the rest of the way. McNabb had his '06 season end early as well, but the Eagles had a more capable backup, as Jeff Garcia went 5-1 as a starter, leading the Eagles to the top of the NFC East.
8. Saints / 2005-06 — The 2005 Saints did not play a single game in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. They went 3-13 in '05, and QB Aaron Brooks tossed 17 interceptions. The Saints as we know them now began in '06 with new head coach Sean Payton and QB Drew Brees, who had a 26-11 TD-to-interception ratio, leading New Orleans into first place.
9. Buccaneers / 2006-07 — It was hard to get wins with Bruce Gradkowski at QB in '06 as the Bucs went just 4-12. The defense fell to 17th, but it returned to glory in '07 with the league's second-best "D." Jeff Garcia led a team from worst to first for the second season in a row.
10. Dolphins / 2007-08 — The 2007 season was one to forget in Miami as the Dolphins had a franchise-worst 1-15 record behind the QB trifecta of Trent Green, Cleo Lemon and John Beck. In '08, Tony Sparano took over as head coach, and Chad Pennington, having been cast off by the Jets, led Miami to an astonishing 10-game improvement.
11. Saints / 2008-09 — The best offense in the league in '08 translated to a fourth-place finish in the stacked NFC South. In '09, the Saints' and their league-best offense won the Super Bowl. With an even more prolific offense and an opportunistic defense that forced 39 turnovers, the '09 Saints went 13-3 and are the only worst-to-first team since the trend began in '02 to go from cellar dwellers to Super Bowl champs.
12. Chiefs / 2009-10 — With a woeful defense, the Chiefs were 4-12 in '09. New coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel and a solid draft class get credit for the turnaround from bottom of the division to this year's AFC West champs.
PFW associate editor Eli Kaberon contributed to this article.