SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — The idea a year ago that the San Francisco 49ers would win the NFC West following a three-year stretch of winning just 12 games combined seemed far-fetched.
Maybe it shouldn’t have considering how often teams go from also-rans to division champs in the span of a year in the modern NFL.
The Niners surpassed their win total from 2016-18 by winning 13 games in the regular season and going all the way to the Super Bowl, where they lost to Kansas City. The team they beat in the NFC title game also rebounded after missing the playoffs in 2018, with Green Bay also winning 13 games last season.
That marked the 16th time in the past 17 seasons that two division winners missed the playoffs entirely the previous season.
In 15 of those seasons, a team went from last to first in the division in the span of a year — a feat no one pulled off in 2019. In all, 25 teams have done that since 2003, including Super Bowl champions New Orleans in 2009 and Philadelphia in 2017.
The contenders trying to pull off that feat this season are Miami, Cincinnati, Jacksonville, the Chargers, Washington, Detroit, Carolina and Arizona.
In all, five teams made the playoffs in 2019 after missing it the previous season, marking the 30th straight season at least four teams have done that. It should be even easier this season with an extra playoff spot in each conference.
OPENING THOUGHTS: No franchise can match the Cleveland Browns when it comes to starting off the season on the wrong note. The Browns are 0-14-1 in their past 15 openers since beating Baltimore 20-3 in 2004 with Jeff Garcia at quarterback. It’s been so long that only five players who suited up that week are still are on active rosters: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Larry Fitzgerald, Jason Witten and Andy Lee.
While 332 different players have played in Week 1 for the Browns in that span, Fitzgerald has stayed in Arizona the entire time. This week’s opener would be his 17th with the Cardinals, tied for the fourth most for a non-specialist with one franchise since the merger. Only Washington’s Darrell Green (20), the Rams’ Jackie Slater (18) and Bruce Matthews (18) of the Houston-Tennessee franchise have more.
WEEK 1 LEADERBOARDS: Fitzgerald also can move into sole possession of first place in Week 1 catches since the merger. He enters this season tied with Jerry Rice with 92 receptions in season openers. With a TD, Fitzgerald will join Tim Brown and Irving Fryar (11 each), and Randy Moss and Andre Reed (10 each) as the only players with at least 10 TD catches in Week 1.
Detroit’s Adrian Peterson needs 1 yard rushing to join Emmitt Smith (1,247), Walter Payton (1,067) and Edgerrin James (1,062) as the only players with at least 1,000.
Drew Brees is already the Week 1 leader with 5,406 yards passing and 39 TDs.
HOME SWEET HOME?: Playing at home was rarely less of an advantage than it was last season in the NFL. The .524 winning percentage for home teams was the worst across the league since teams had a .508 winning percentage in 1972. Even teams that typically have massive home-field advantage like Seattle, struggled. The Seahawks went 4-4, marking just the third time in 18 seasons at their current stadium when they were better on the road.
Even the Patriots lost twice at home after losing only eight regular-season games at Gillette Stadium with Tom Brady at quarterback in the previous 12 seasons.
GO FOR 2: Teams converted 54 2-point conversions last season, the third most since the NFL adopted the rule in 1994. After having 59 successful tries the first season of the rule, the league didn’t get back to the 50 mark again until 2016. In fact, the league averaged just 26.9 per season from 2005-14 before a sudden uptick. Four of the top seven marks have come in the past five season, including a record 66 in 2018.
YOUNG GUNS: Led by the two most recent MVPs in Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, the NFL set a record last season with 287 games started by quarterbacks under the age of 27. Those quarterbacks combined for a record 144 wins.
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