We might be approaching one of the most unlikely NFL playoff brackets in recent memory. As of right now, eight of the 12 teams that made it to the 2016 postseason won't be making a return trip to the playoffs this season. The Patriots, Steelers, Chiefs and Falcons are currently penciled in for meaningful football after New Year's Eve, and Atlanta is one loss away from being in a four-way tie for the sixth seed in the NFC. So we might even see nine fresh faces this January.
Interestingly enough, three of those teams are in line to go from worst to first in their divisions. The Eagles already have clinched the NFC East at 12-2. The Jaguars took a huge step toward winning the AFC South on Sunday, when they routed the Texans and the Titans lost in San Francisco. The Jaguars' magic number with two games to go is one, and ESPN's Football Power Index gives Jacksonville a 95.3 percent chance of winning its division.
Likewise, the Los Angeles Rams all but clinched the NFC West on Sunday with one of the most dominating performances of this or any season. They simply annihilated the Seahawks from start to finish, scoring 34 first-half points en route to a 42-7 victory in Seattle. While brutally avenging their Week 5 defeat at the hands of Russell Wilson & Co., the Rams essentially confirmed that they'll host the first playoff game in Los Angeles since 1993. They have a 98.0 percent chance of winning the West.
All three of these teams deserve to be commended for their 2017 seasons, but the Rams stand out. Virtually nobody saw this coming. I didn't think the Jaguars were likely to win their division, but as I wrote this summer, underlying metrics suggested they were the team most likely to improve in 2017. The Eagles weren't far behind on the same list. There wasn't the same sort of underlying quantitative basis for the Rams, who were also missing a first-round pick after what looked to be a disastrous Jared Goff trade.
Vegas also concurs here. When the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook posted each team's odds of winning their respective divisions in May, the Eagles were listed at 7-2 (22.2 percent) and the Jaguars were at 5-1 (16.7 percent). The Rams were at 25-1 (3.9 percent). By July, their odds had improved, but they were still given only a 15-1 shot (6.3 percent) of winning their division. FPI gave them a 3.0 percent shot of winning the West before the season, and the Rams weren't even FPI favorites to win their first NFC West title in 14 seasons until Week 10.
There are still two weeks left to go, but let's put this Rams season in context with a few questions. Here's what we could learn from the stunning turnaround in Los Angeles:
Is this the biggest improvement in league history?
Depends on how you define improvement, but at the very least, it's certainly in the discussion. The 2016 Rams were a bad 4-12 team by anyone's definition, with those four wins all coming by six points or fewer. Their Pythagorean expectation actually suggests the Rams were lucky; they had the point differential of a 3.3-win team. Los Angeles finished the season 30th in DVOA, coming in just ahead of the Browns and Jets on the strength of their third-ranked special teams.
The 2017 Rams, of course, are much better. Let's start with raw wins. They're currently 10-4, and FPI projects them to finish with 11.3 wins. They'll obviously finish with a round number, but for the moment, let's suggest they'll win those 11.3 games and improve by 8.0 wins on their 3.3-win mark from a year ago.
We just saw an eight-win improvement last season when the Cowboys jumped from 5-11 to 13-3, but they are relatively rare. Since 1970, if we prorate every team's schedule to 16 games, there have been a total of 13 teams to improve by eight or more wins from season to season. The Rams will need to finish with at least one win in their final two games to hit 11 wins. If they sweep the Titans and 49ers, Sean McVay's team would be one of nine teams since the merger to improve by nine or more (prorated) wins.
The two teams to improve by 10 wins are notable for what they should tell us. The 2008 Dolphins are the unlikeliest divisional winner in league history. Consider that they were coming off of a 1-15 season and had signed oft-injured quarterback Chad Pennington in mid-August when the Jets moved on from Pennington (after his own 1-7 season) to acquire Brett Favre. Miami was in a division with a Patriots team that was coming off of a 16-0 regular season. It was comical to suggest that the Dolphins belonged in the same league, but Tom Brady got hurt in the season opener, Pennington stayed healthy and the Dolphins livened up the league with the Wildcat offense en route to an 11-5 mark. Their win over the Patriots in Week 3 was just enough to give the Dolphins a miraculous division title on a tiebreaker.
The other team is the one that might reasonably remind you of these Rams: the 1999 Colts, who improved from 3-13 to 13-3. Those Colts didn't change coaches, but they did take a huge leap forward in the second season from their first overall pick, with Peyton Manning improving dramatically after a 28-interception rookie campaign. They lost in the divisional round to the Titans, who made it to the Super Bowl after an 8-8 season and eventually fell to ... the St. Louis Rams, who were in the Super Bowl after jumping from 4-12 to 13-3 with Kurt Warner at the helm.
Pythagorean expectation is a better measure of a team's underlying level of performance, though, since it predicts a team's future win-loss record better than its actual win-loss record. As I mentioned earlier, the 2016 Rams had the point differential of a 3.3-win team. After the blowout win over the Seahawks, these Rams are outscoring their opponents by nearly 12 points per game. Their Pythagorean win percentage is .756; over 16 games, that's roughly the mark of a 12.1-win team.
Pythagorean expectation suggests these Rams have improved by 8.8 wins from season to season. There are still two games to go, but that would be the single largest year-to-year leap in Pythagorean wins since the merger. Goff & Co. would be one of just four teams since 1970 to top a seven-win improvement, as they would be joined by the 2001 Bears (who improved by 8.6 wins), the 2013 Chiefs (who were a likely candidate to improve before that season and jumped by 8.5 wins), and those 1999 Rams, who soared up by 8.4 wins.
Do teams like this often win the Super Bowl?
It's a small sample, and the 1999 Rams can certainly give this version of the franchise some hope, but these teams have struggled mightily in the playoffs. Of those 13 teams that dramatically improved by eight or more raw wins from the previous season, 11 made the playoffs. The aforementioned '99 Rams went 3-0 en route to the Super Bowl title. The other eight teams went a combined 1-10 in the postseason, with the 15-1 Steelers from Ben Roethlisberger's debut season in 2004 representing the sole other victory from this group of rapid improvers.
I wouldn't hold that past against McVay's team, but it's going to be difficult for any team to feel like favorites in an NFC race that is packed flatter than Swedish furniture. The Rams have just a 3.1 percent shot at picking up a first-round bye and seem likeliest to end up as the third seed, where FPI believes they have a 59.4 percent shot of landing. Their most plausible opponent in Round 1 will be the Falcons, who have won four of their past five games and face a Bucs team without several defensive starters Monday night.
Win in L.A. and the Rams would likely fly East to Minnesota, where the Vikings beat them by 17 points last month, or to Philadelphia to face an Eagles team that beat them in a 43-35 thriller with Carson Wentz on the field for most of the game. The Eagles struggled a bit with the Giants on Sunday, but it had more to do with their secondary than with replacement Nick Foles, who threw four touchdown passes and posted a passer rating of 115.8 in his first start replacing Wentz. Win again and the Rams would probably be facing the other team from this duo on the road in the NFC Championship Game. It's a big ask for the Rams.
What happens next to teams that make a massive leap?
They almost always decline the following year in what Bill James referred to in baseball as the Plexiglas Principle. Organizations that make a massive leap in a given season almost always give back some of their gains the following year. Just about everything has to go right for a team to make that sort of leap in a single season, and it's tough to keep that up for two years running.
Take the 2016-2017 Cowboys. Dallas' defense has dropped off by virtue of losing virtually its entire secondary in free agency, as it has fallen from 18th to 26th in defensive DVOA. The 2016 Cowboys also got a rare full season from Sean Lee, who sat out only their meaningless Week 17 game. The vaunted Dallas offensive line lost two starters this season and hasn't gotten its usual dominant play from an injured Tyron Smith, while Ezekiel Elliott was suspended for six games. Dan Bailey also has been unavailable and less effective than his usual self. Throw all of this in a blender and a team with the same core is projected to fall from 13 wins a year ago to 8.8 wins this season.
I don't mean to bring down Rams fans, but this is often true of these teams we've been discussing. Of those 13 teams, 11 declined the following year. Using FPI's projection for the Cowboys, the average team from this group gave back 2.7 wins from their mark during the previous campaign. As usual, one of the key culprits was record in close games. Our breakout teams went a combined 68-23 (.747) in games decided by seven points or fewer during their stunning season; the following year, they went a wholly mediocre 42-43 (.494) in those same contests.
The 2018 Rams should still be good, but they'll probably finish with a record similar to that of the 2000 Rams, who dropped off from 13-3 to 10-6. Warner got hurt and missed five games, with Trent Green going 2-3 in those contests. Marshall Faulk missed two games, and a defense that had its 11 starters miss a combined eight games in 1999 fell from third in DVOA to 27th.
What sort of team could copy the Rams next year?
It's a little risky to try to find teams that were identical to the 2016 Rams and peg them to be playoff contenders, if only because last year's Rams were a truly bad team, and really awful teams don't often take sudden leaps forward. The Rams organization had been delivering mediocre-or-worse performances for a decade despite showing glimpses of hope. They got just about everything right this offseason, but I suspect Rams fans (and even know-nothing pundits like me) would have been very fond of some of their previous offseasons during this dry stretch, only to find that they failed to deliver on expectations.
With that grain of salt, then, let's try to look through the last-place teams and see if one might resemble the story this year's Rams have told and see if one stands out from the pack. First, here's what we can say about the Rams' transformation:
Their problems were mostly on one side of the ball. The Rams have improved across the board this season, but they've had great special teams under John Fassel for a number of years now. Their defense also had looked good even before Wade Phillips arrived, ranking in the top 10 of DVOA in both 2014 and 2015 before falling to a still-respectable 15th last season as they rebuilt their secondary. They were up to fourth before the Seahawks game and will continue to rise after a suffocating performance against Russell Wilson's offense.
The Rams' offense, though, was an absolute disaster. Not only was coordinator Rob Boras' offense last in the league in DVOA, it was last by a staggering margin. The Rams posted a minus-37.8 percent mark, with the 31st-ranked Jets as close to the Cardinals in 21st as they were to the Rams one spot behind them. The Rams were dead last in both passing and rushing DVOA, last in points per drive, last in yards per drive and last in three-and-out percentage. They were as bad as an offense can get.
Obviously, they're much better in 2017. The Rams were fifth in DVOA heading into the Seahawks win and should climb higher after this week is processed. Their improvement on offense has been the biggest factor in their dramatic rise to the top of the division. If we're going to find a team similar to the Rams, we want one that can hold its own in most facets of the game but can't stand up in one key component.
They changed their coaching staff. The Rams badly needed fresh blood after years of staleness under Jeff Fisher, and while they kept Fassel on to coach special teams, they hit a pair of home runs with their coaching decisions. As much flak as the Browns have gotten for passing on Wentz and Deshaun Watson in the draft, don't the teams that have made mistakes with their head-coaching choices deserve similar amounts of blame for overlooking Sean McVay? And shouldn't the Broncos be taking criticism for turning down Phillips' request for a lucrative extension after Super Bowl 50?
McVay and Phillips are about as good as it gets in terms of candidates, at least with some level of hindsight for the former. Teams will be looking for the new McVay this offseason, but the closest comparable is Josh McDaniels, and McDaniels probably isn't leaving New England for anything short of a dream opportunity. The closest defensive coordinator candidate on the market to Phillips is likely to be either John Fox or Vic Fangio, assuming the Bears clean house after this season.
They had some semblance of a top-level talent core, especially at quarterback. While Goff looked terrible in seven starts as a rookie, he had been a promising enough prospect to justify a trade up to No. 1 before the 2016 draft. The Rams had seven first-round picks on their roster, each of whom were either always great (like Aaron Donald), occasionally great (Todd Gurley, Robert Quinn), or still young enough to improve (Goff).
There was one team in their way in the division. The Seahawks were the prohibitive favorites to win the West in 2017, with the Westgate assigning them an 80 percent shot of claiming another divisional crown. The Cardinals were a threat if everything broke right, but they were fielding one of the oldest offenses in the league and had to rebuild their defense on the fly after losing a half-dozen regulars in free agency. They were unlucky to lose David Johnson, but it's a surprise when Carson Palmer stays healthy for an entire season. The 49ers were rebuilding, although their season might look different if they had traded for Jimmy Garoppolo in May, given that he has led them to three consecutive wins as their starter.
Basically, while it's going to be difficult for a team to topple a perennial playoff contender to win the division title, they're probably better off having to hope things go haywire for one team than for three in a more competitive division.
Which teams are most likely to go from worst to first next year?
There are actually some really interesting candidates, but let's start with the teams that are unlikely to pull it off. The Jets are in a primarily one-team division, but they got a 95th percentile season from Josh McCown in terms of performance and health this season and have no path to a replacement quarterback. They're unlikely to make the drastic changes needed for an exponential leap forward. The Browns appear set to keep Hue Jackson, who has done little to inspire any confidence. They'll upgrade at quarterback with the first overall pick, but they only enter into this discussion if Roethlisberger retires.
One tier above them would be the Giants, who are going to change their coaching staff and might draft a quarterback to replace Eli Manning, but the East is loaded with the Cowboys and Eagles and New York's defense has collapsed all the way to 29th in DVOA. I'd also throw the Broncos in here, who have a legitimately great defense but are last on offense and special teams and have to contend with three other talented teams in the AFC West. They're also unlikely to make a coaching change with Vance Joseph's team going on a late-season winning streak.
The other four teams seem like better worst-to-first candidates to me. I don't think there's much between them, but I'll rank them anyway:
4. San Francisco is already a step ahead of these teams, having made the switch to Garoppolo and finding immediate success on offense. Garoppolo's play would be a bigger story if the offense hadn't been comically bad in the red zone, which has led to 15 field goals for Robbie Gould over the past three weeks. The red zone performance will improve from sheer variance, and everyone has heard the stories about how Kyle Shanahan's offense tends to take a leap in his second year at the helm.
I'm excited about the young core of talent San Francisco has on defense, and John Lynch is going to have plenty of money to spend this offseason, but the big concern here is the division. The Rams are going to be good next year. The Seahawks are in a transition period, but they're still likely to be a playoff contender. If Garoppolo is an MVP candidate, the 49ers will be in business, but it's more likely that the 49ers sniff .500 for the first time since Jim Harbaugh left town.
3. Indianapolis has done this before. The Colts jumped from 2-14 to 11-5 in Andrew Luck's first season, with the combination of Chuck Pagano and Bruce Arians revitalizing a team that looked moribund and old under Jim Caldwell. If Luck is healthy in 2018, the Colts get one of the best quarterbacks in the game to build around. Their defense has been ravaged by injuries, but Malik Hooker looked like a possible franchise safety before tearing up his knee. There's no McVay available, but if anyone's going to hire the most out-of-the-box candidate in this marketplace, it's Colts GM Chris Ballard, who came from the Chiefs and has been perpetually linked to Kansas City special-teams coordinator Dave Toub as the next head coach in Indy.
The South also will be difficult to navigate next year, although the Titans are as likely to decline as any team in football. The Jaguars look like a genuinely great team, even if their defense isn't as healthy. The Texans are getting back Watson and J.J. Watt. I'd also worry about Indy's top-level talent beyond the likes of Hooker and T.Y. Hilton. They might be a year away.
2. Tampa Bay has been mired in the same rut of mediocrity the Rams were in before this season. The Bucs have shown similar flashes of promise. They have a core of truly top-level young players in Mike Evans, Lavonte David, Gerald McCoy and Ali Marpet. Jameis Winston has flashed franchise quarterback play, although he has struggled through an injured and ineffective 2017. The Bucs are likely to make a coaching change this offseason and move on from Dirk Koetter, and their problems are heavily weighted toward one side of the ball, given that they rank 31st in defensive DVOA.
If the Bucs hire a defense-minded coach who can turn things around quickly (Jim Schwartz?) and find the right offensive coordinator for Winston (Norv Turner?), Tampa could rise quickly. Again, though, the problem is the division. The Falcons, Panthers and Saints could very easily be in the playoff picture again next season.
1. Chicago is as close as we can get to last year's Rams. The Bears have an underrated defense led by an interior disruptor in Akiem Hicks, with Fangio's unit ranking 14th in DVOA before Saturday's 20-10 loss to the Lions. The Bears traded up to grab their quarterback of the future in the 2017 draft, but Mitchell Trubisky hasn't been very good; the second overall pick is last in the league in Total QBR (26.6), with a scarcely believable 3.4 QBR when under pressure. The Bears have a franchise running back but lack weapons for Trubisky at receiver, a position they'll surely address this offseason.
They're also probably about to fire their coaching staff and hire an offense-minded coach to help develop Trubisky. Of course, finding the right coach is key. They'll have to consider a pair of NFC North offensive coordinators, Jim Bob Cooter and Pat Shurmur, each of whom has done excellent work with their quarterbacks this season. They could consider Bill O'Brien if the Texans fire him. Jon Gruden is still out there. The Bears won't go too far out of the box after the Marc Trestman experiment failed, but they almost assuredly have to lean on a quarterback developer.
There is infrastructure here. Hire the right coach, sign a No. 1 wide receiver in an interesting free-agent class, and get lucky. Maybe Chicago gets a full season out of Kevin White, or Adam Shaheen takes a sophomore leap. Kyle Fuller, who was written off as a disappointment for years, suddenly looks like a starting cornerback. Maybe the Bears re-sign him and draft another cornerback in the first round and their defense sneaks into the top 10.
The quantitative case isn't bad, either. The Bears are 2-5 in one-score games this season. They were a drop away from beating the Falcons in Week 1. They were starting a drive with a chance to win a tied game in Trubisky's debut start, only for an interception to set up the game-winning field goal. Connor Barth missed a 46-yard field goal that would have beaten the Lions. They've played what Football Outsiders pegs to be the second-toughest schedule in football so far.
As with many other candidates, the divisional strength stands in their way. The NFC North probably would be your pick right now as the league's best division heading into 2018, given that the Vikings are going to have a first-round bye with Case Keenum at quarterback, the Packers have Aaron Rodgers, and the Lions still have an outside shot at their second consecutive playoff berth with two games to go. Then again, we also thought the AFC West was unquestionably the league's best division heading into 2017, and it has turned out to be a desperate race toward nine wins. The Bears might very well settle in at 6-10 next year, but their best-case scenario is markedly similar to the Rams'.
One year ago this week, the Rams were losing 24-3 in Seattle for what would be their ninth loss in 10 games. They had been comfortably dispatched by the Patriots and Falcons over the two previous weeks. Goff could muster only 135 yards on 25 pass attempts before suffering a possible concussion in the fourth quarter and giving way to Keenum. Gurley racked up 36 yards from scrimmage. It was their first game after firing Fisher. The Seahawks clinched the NFC West, and the biggest story after the game was Richard Sherman yelling about the Seahawks throwing the ball near the goal line.
It would have been impossible to look at that Rams team in that moment and predict it would be atop the NFC West 12 months later. It's a testament to the work that has been done over that time frame and just how dramatically things can change with major improvements at the right spots. Every team in the doldrums is going to look enviously at what the Rams, Eagles and Jaguars did and spend their offseason trying to emulate it. Chances are that one of those last-place teams is going to succeed at its mission in 2018.