'Tis the season for editors to assign all those last-to-first stories that seem to have become a staple of late-season NFL coverage.
And with good reason, too, since the league has had at least one franchise go from last place in its division to first place the following year in every season since 2003, the second year of the current alignment with four clubs per division. There could be three more in 2010, with Jacksonville, Kansas City and St. Louis all going into the final two weekends as possible additions to the last-to-first fraternity.
But what about the teams that have gone the other way — from first to last?
Actually, the numbers indicate the odds are a little tougher for achieving that dubious feat.
Since 2003, there have been 11 last-to-first teams, and seven that went from first to last. Not since '07 has a team claimed its division title one year and finished in the basement the subsequent season. But the drought could end this year, with Cincinnati, Dallas, Minnesota, and Arizona all potential last-place teams.
Turns out the old adage holds true: It really is a quick plummet from the penthouse to the outhouse in the NFL. At least for some clubs.
If all four of the aforementioned teams — of the four, only the Vikings are currently not in last place — finish fourth in their respective divisions, it would represent the most first-to-last clubs since the NFL realigned in 2002. And it might rate as one of the most significant upheavals in recent league history.
Only twice since 2003, two teams in 2005 and three in 2007, has there been more than one first-to-last franchise.
"Once the train gets off the tracks, it's harder than you think to get it back," said one defender from a potential first-to-last team.
League officials probably relish the last-to-first examples, because they support and validate the NFL's claims of parity, and suggest that quick turnarounds are possible for even the most miserable franchises. But those clubs that suffer an opposite fate, that turn good fortune into misfortune from one year to the next, have turnarounds that are every bit as dramatic.
And in some cases, traumatic.
Of the four potential first-to-last teams this season, two have already fired their head coaches. Marvin Lewis, who does not have a contract beyond this season, likely won't be back with the Bengals for 2011. Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt, who has taken the once-moribund Cardinals to two straight division titles and who signed a contract extension last spring, is safe, but there figure to be major changes for the Cardinals in the offseason.
"It's almost like you can't believe it's happening," once recalled quarterback Rex Grossman, who led the Chicago Bears to Super Bowl XLI in 2006, then was forced to split time with Brian Griese as the starter in 2007, as the club slipped to 7-9. "One season, it all seems to go right for you, and then it turns. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong. It starts rolling downhill and just picks up steam."
The Bears are one of two teams since 2003 who advanced to the Super Bowl one year and finished last the next. The 2005 Philadelphia Eagles were last in the NFC East after losing Super Bowl XL to New England in 2004. Philadelphia was 13-3 in 2004, then, 6-10 in '05.
Carolina is the only team that went from last place one season in the current four-team alignment (in 2002) to the Super Bowl the subsequent year.
The 2007 Bears and 2005 Eagles are stark and sobering reminders that, while the last-to-first stories are typically gratifying pieces for the holidays, the reversal of fortune works both ways. And it looks to be at work in 2010.
"The wheels just come off sometimes," said Cincinnati wide receiver Chad Ochocinco of the 3-11 Bengals, who a year ago won the AFC North title with a 10-6 mark. "It isn't supposed to happen, but it does."
Vikings could be among first-to-last teams
Viking Update Top Stories
VIDEO: Zimmer on final preps for EaglesMinnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer discusses some key players for Philadelphia, his defense and if Jake Long could play.
Viking UpdateYesterday at 12:02 PM
Vikings have 3 receivers on injury reportThe Minnesota Vikings could be getting Stefon Diggs back in the lineup, but he is among three receivers on their injury report.
Viking UpdateYesterday at 11:37 AM
Notebook: Walsh ‘past the bad things?’The Minnesota Vikings are preparing to play “quite possibly the best special teams unit across the board that we've faced so far this year.” Plus, the Vikings are doing much better…
Viking UpdateYesterday at 8:49 AM
Hard-core stats: Vikings at EaglesThe Minnesota Vikings will look to exploit some of the weaknesses the Eagles have shown lately, including one strength for the Vikings and one weakness. We go deep into where the…
Viking UpdateYesterday at 5:04 AM
Born to run … with backups?Perhaps no other division came into 2016 more dependent on strong running games to succeed as much as the NFC North. But, in just the seventh week of the season, all four teams…
Viking UpdateThursday at 10:23 PM