Ranking 14 NFL playoff teams by chances of return in 2023

In the NFL's ideal world, its best teams would be spread evenly throughout both conferences. We do not live in that world.

Just in case you haven't noticed, the AFC projects to be the proverbial bowling ball of butcher knives this season. All 32 teams want to believe they have a shot at making it into the postseason, but the AFC is full of squads with great defenses, veteran quarterbacks, head coaches with track records of success and a few lucky teams that can call on all three. Realistically, there are 14 teams treating 2023 as a year in which anything short of a postseason berth would be a massive disappointment. Unfortunately for them, they have to fit into seven playoff spots.

You can't say the same thing about the NFC, where whole divisions appear to be treating this season as a rebuilding or retooling campaign. Several of last season's playoff teams had less-than-impressive résumés on closer review, and there also doesn't appear to be many teams on the rise that project to take them down. If the AFC is likely to be an 18-round slugfest, the NFC might be a light sparring session before the few dominant franchises get together in the postseason.

Of course, we often get too confident and underestimate how much change will happen from season to season in the NFL. Who would have predicted that the Bengals would jump from 4-11-1 in 2020 to make the Super Bowl the following season? Or that the team that beat them, the Rams, would miss the playoffs and win just five games in 2022? What feels settled in August sometimes seems silly by January.

Let's evaluate the 2022 playoff teams and rank their chances of making it back to the playoffs. I'm not going to pick teams to take their place, but I will consider their underlying level of play from last season, what elements of that performance typically travel well from year to year, the changes they've made this offseason and what their competition projects to look like in 2023.

Naturally, because we expect the AFC to be better than the NFC on the whole, I believe it's going to be harder for teams from the AFC to make it back into the playoffs. Even with that in mind, though, it's easy to start with the AFC team I expect to return to the postseason for yet another deep run:

Jump to a team:
49ers | Bengals | Bills
Bucs | Chargers | Chiefs
Cowboys | Dolphins | Eagles | Giants
Jaguars | Ravens | Seahawks | Vikings

1. Kansas City Chiefs

Why they're No. 1: They're the Chiefs.

If any team is as close to a lock to make the postseason as possible on an annual basis in the modern NFL, it's the Chiefs. Andy Reid's team has won the AFC West seven consecutive times, including victories in each of Patrick Mahomes' five seasons as the starting quarterback. Mahomes hasn't played a single playoff game on the road, as the Chiefs have played 10 games at Arrowhead and three neutral-site Super Bowls.

It's plausible to imagine Kansas City having serious competition for the top seed this season. The Bengals were on track to be the 1-seed before the Damar Hamlin game was abandoned and canceled in early January. The Bills would have finished as the 1-seed if they had topped the Bengals that week, given that they held the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Chiefs. Expecting a team to be the No. 1 seed, year after year, is an impossibly high bar.

It's even reasonable to consider a scenario in which the Chiefs would have serious competition for the AFC West. The Chargers will get back stars Joey Bosa, Rashawn Slater and J.C. Jackson and added top-tier offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. The Broncos had a great defense before they gassed out late last season, and if Sean Payton is to be believed, they were dealing with dismal coaching. Kansas City wasn't even the favorite to win the AFC West for stretches last season before it eventually took home yet another division title.

A scenario in which the Chiefs miss the playoffs entirely, though? It seems like that would happen only in the case of a serious injury to Mahomes. Even then, I wouldn't bet against Reid coaxing magic out of Blaine Gabbert or whomever else the Chiefs bring in to take Mahomes' place and eventually landing a wild-card spot. Unless the unthinkable happens, though, the Chiefs will be back in the postseason for the 11th time in 12 tries with Reid as their coach.

2. Philadelphia Eagles

Why they're No. 2: It's a long way from the top.

The Eagles went 14-1 with Jalen Hurts as their starting quarterback last season, then added two blowout wins in the postseason before narrowly losing a shootout in the Super Bowl. ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) pegged them as the league's best team heading into their title matchup with the Chiefs, although that was in part because of how they blew out the 49ers; I'm not sure the algorithm knows what it's like to drop to fourth-string quarterback Josh Johnson.

There are reasons to think the Eagles will take a step backward. They lost five defensive starters, including both linebackers and safeties. Their coordinators left for head-coaching jobs. They were the third-healthiest team in football, including an offensive line that missed just three starts all season. Philly also went 6-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer, a stretch of fortuitous close-game performance that ran out on the biggest stage possible.

Even if the Eagles decline by three wins, which seems entirely reasonable given those circumstances, they would still be an 11-win team and well in contention to compete for a division title. Given how uncompetitive and crowded the NFC expects to be, teams with a significant ceiling seem like solid bets to advance into January.

3. Dallas Cowboys

Why they're No. 3: They have a high floor.

FPI actually rated the Cowboys as the league's best team before their ugly Week 18 loss to the Commanders. Dallas then produced one of the most impressive performances of the year in stomping the Buccaneers before losing (in particularly Cowboys fashion) to the 49ers in the divisional round.

Dallas had the fifth-best point differential in the league, which speaks to its floor on both sides of the football. Dak Prescott's interception rate is likely to regress back toward his career mean, which was the only real blemish on the offense for most of last season. Dan Quinn's defense ranks fourth in the NFL in points per possession allowed over the past two seasons. Even acknowledging that Mike McCarthy is unlikely to improve the offense, the Cowboys are well positioned to be a top-10 unit on both sides of the ball in 2023.

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If anything, there might be a case that the Cowboys should be neck and neck with or even ahead of the Eagles as we head into the season. While the Jalen Hurts extension forced Philadelphia to make cutbacks on the defensive side of the ball, Dallas went through its own messy cap situation a year ago and was able to invest more this offseason. It moved on from Ezekiel Elliott and let Dalton Schultz leave in free agency, but it added impact veterans Stephon Gilmore and Brandin Cooks. In a conference with so many teams that have an obvious flaw on one side of the ball, the Cowboys' solidity on offense and defense makes them appealing.

4. Buffalo Bills

Why they're No. 4: They might have been the league's best team last season.

The Bills finished the regular season No. 1 in FPI. They ranked No. 1 in the DVOA rankings. They beat their opposition by an average of 10.6 points per game, the best mark in all of football. Their three losses were by a combined eight points and required them to fumble inside their own 1-yard line as they were trying to kneel the game away.

And yet, there are three things most people will remember about the 2022 Bills. One is Josh Allen's elbow injury in Week 9, which drove a decline in the star quarterback's performance by more than 15 points of passer rating. The second was Damar Hamlin's collapse and the heroic work done to save his life by medical personnel. The third was what happened in the postseason, as a Buffalo team that looked worn down and emotionally spent struggled to beat the Dolphins and third-string passer Skylar Thompson before getting blown out at home in the snow by the Bengals.

That stuff matters, of course, but Allen and the secondary are healthy again. The playoff struggles count, but so do the 16 games the Bills played in the regular season, when they beat the Chiefs and full-strength versions of the Ravens and Rams. Buffalo lost a home game and practice time to a snowstorm and still managed to sweep the Browns and Lions in four days during a quasi-homestand in Detroit. Buffalo has the second-best win percentage (.723) and best point differential (plus-8.4 points per game) of any team over the past four seasons.

The biggest obstacle in front of the Bills is an AFC East that hasn't been this stacked during the Allen era. The Jets, who upset the Bills with Zach Wilson at quarterback last season, are likely to field their best team in years. The Dolphins just lost Jalen Ramsey to a knee injury, but Vic Fangio should still be a significant upgrade at defensive coordinator. Miami also beat Buffalo once last season. The Patriots have a defense every bit as good as Buffalo's, and while they don't have the offense to compete with the Bills, they made their own major upgrade at coordinator with Bill O'Brien.

The last-placed team in this division could win nine games. If Allen wears down as the season goes along or an aging defensive core falls apart, the Bills don't have a huge margin for error.

5. San Francisco 49ers

Why they're No. 5: They also might have been the league's best team (for most of) last season.

Football Outsiders pegged the 49ers as the second-best team by full-season DVOA, but their weighted DVOA metric (which focuses on more recent performance) had San Francisco as the No. 1 team in football.

From Week 8 on, after Christian McCaffrey learned the playbook, the 49ers went 10-0, outscored opponents by 16 points per game and ranked in the top two in both offensive and defensive expected points added (EPA) per snap despite being forced to turn to rookie seventh-round pick Brock Purdy at quarterback. The only thing that eventually slowed down San Francisco was Purdy's elbow injury, forcing it to turn to journeyman Josh Johnson on the fly in what became an ugly NFC Championship Game loss.

The popular perception after Purdy's success is that Kyle Shanahan can coach a team with you, me or anybody who isn't named Josh Johnson into a playoff run. Maybe he can, but it's worth remembering that the 49ers went 6-17 with Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard across the 2018 and 2020 seasons, when Jimmy Garoppolo was injured. Trey Lance and Sam Darnold might be better than those guys -- and Purdy might be healthy enough to start Week 1 -- but the Niners haven't had the sort of floor the Chiefs have had with Mahomes or the Bills have had with Allen.

There are injury risks up and down the offense, too: Essential contributors, such as McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Trent Williams, have significant track records of missing time. The defense added Javon Hargrave in free agency, but it also lost defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, while the offense will be without passing game coordinator Bobby Slowik. I still think the 49ers have 1-seed upside in a division in which the Rams and Cardinals might not be competitive, but they're a higher-variance team than it might seem at first glance.

6. Cincinnati Bengals

Why they're No. 6: The AFC North is hotter than it seems.

This ranking might have been more shocking before last week, when Joe Burrow was sidelined early in camp by what thankfully wasn't an Achilles injury. The quarterback reportedly is dealing with a calf issue, which will sideline him for a few weeks. It remains to be seen whether he will be ready for Week 1, but the Bengals appear to have avoided a longer-term absence for their star.

Bengals fans might rightfully note that Burrow's presence over the past two seasons has amounted to a significant floor, as the team has gone 22-11 and won two consecutive AFC North titles. I would expect that to continue, but it's also worth remembering that Cincinnati was behind Baltimore in the division in both 2021 and 2022 before Lamar Jackson went down each season with injuries. There's nothing wrong with peaking late in the season -- and the Bengals have gone 13-4 from Dec. 1 on with Burrow on the field since 2021 -- but they've also benefited from injuries to one of the most important players in the division over that stretch.

This is also a transitional year in the Bengals' secondary. Eli Apple, Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell, each of whom started for Zac Taylor's team throughout their two playoff runs, are no longer on the roster. Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, who was playing at an All-Pro level to start last season, is recovering from a torn ACL. Cincinnati imported Rams safety Nick Scott and has three young first- and second-round picks ready to step into larger roles, but the secondary is going to need time to play as well as that unit has over the past two seasons.

If Burrow is injured or limited once the season begins, that could lead to a tough early stretch. Inconsistency wouldn't be new to the Bengals -- they started 5-4 in 2021 and 4-4 in 2022 before getting hot -- but they can't always count on Jackson being injured in December to fuel their runs to the top of the division. They should be able to get back into the playoffs, but they'll face intradivision competition every bit as tough as what the Bills will see in the East.

7. Jacksonville Jaguars

Why they're No. 7: It's probably a two-team race in the AFC South.

As I mentioned in the intro, the AFC will be an absolute battle. With every team in the AFC East, North and West actively trying to compete for a playoff berth this season, there are 12 teams attempting to claim no more than six playoff spots.

The AFC South, on the other hand? It's probably two for one. The Colts and Texans could surprise in 2023, but with new head coaches and rookie quarterbacks, they're not on track to compete immediately. They're the only two teams with starting quarterbacks who don't have at least two years of experience. Next season seems like a more realistic window for those two franchises.

That leaves the Jaguars and Titans to battle for the AFC South. What looked like a rebuild for the Titans earlier in the offseason became a retooling as the summer wore on, given that Tennessee signed DeAndre Hopkins and held on to Derrick Henry and Kevin Byard. The Titans had been perennial contenders and thorns in the sides of analytical nerds like me before falling apart amid injuries in the second half of 2022. They don't project to be a great team, but that has never stopped Mike Vrabel from coaching his crew to a division title.

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The Jaguars, on the other hand, look like contenders. They finished the season 13th in DVOA. Trevor Lawrence went nuclear during the second half of 2022, completing nearly 70% of his passes while throwing 15 touchdowns against two picks. The Jags also brought back nearly every key member of their roster and imported would-be No. 1 receiver Calvin Ridley.

There's no guarantee the Jags will live up to expectations, with 2018 a painful reminder of how quickly things can go south. With a true superstar quarterback in Lawrence and a schedule buoyed by six games in the division, though, Jacksonville is better insulated against the brutality of the conference than the other first-place teams.

8. Seattle Seahawks

Why they're No. 8: Have you seen the NFC?

The 2022 Seahawks were a lesson in expectations. During the Russell Wilson era, a 9-8 season would generally have been considered a disappointment. Finishing as the seventh-best team in the conference for most of that stretch would have kept Seattle out of the postseason picture, too.

Instead, a 9-8 season from the Geno Smith-era Seahawks felt like a victory. They needed wins over Jets and Rams teams that had nothing to play for in January to make it over .500, but when they did, an upset victory by the Lions helped push Seattle into the postseason. The 49ers stomped Pete Carroll's team once they got there, but nine wins and a playoff berth was a lot more than just about anybody expected from the Seahawks heading into the season.

With four of the top 52 picks in April's draft joining one of last year's best classes, the Seahawks should have plenty of young talent. They also get back Jamal Adams after the star safety missed virtually all of 2023 because of a quadriceps tendon injury in Week 1. Carroll & Co. will have to hope Smith's star turn wasn't a one-year fluke, but if they can get competent play out of their quarterback, they should have enough to be in the nine-win range again.

Does that seem unexciting? Well, look at the NFC! We underestimate how much the league changes from year to year, but the Seahawks are in a division with a team that might be tanking (the Cardinals) and a team that is starting one of the least experienced defenses in recent memory (the Rams). The NFC South doesn't have anybody better on paper. The NFC North is up for grabs. The Cowboys and Eagles are the class of the NFC East, but there are still several NFC teams below the Seahawks on this list. They're vulnerable because we don't know whether Smith can continue to play at last season's level, but I'd rather pick them to make the postseason over the vast majority of teams in their conference.

9. Los Angeles Chargers

Why they're No. 9: They're returning to health.

It's a dangerous game to ever assume the Chargers will have all of their players healthy and accounted for in a given season, but even by this organization's standards, last year was brutal. Here's a quick reminder:

I'm not even including multiweek absences for Derwin James and Corey Linsley. Every team deals with injuries, but that's six Pro Bowl candidates who missed significant time and a star quarterback who was clearly limited for weeks after his injury.

L.A. was a good-to-average team by the FPI (10th), point differential (11th) and DVOA (18th), but that was with many of its stars missing or compromised. Even amid stiff competition in the AFC, the hope has to be that a healthier Chargers team lives up to perennially lofty expectations.

10. Baltimore Ravens

Why they're No. 10: Change breeds uncertainty.

The Ravens could have stuck with what was working. As much as Baltimore fans had grown frustrated by the Greg Roman offense and the perception that it would come up short in the postseason, it sure did win a lot of regular-season games with Lamar Jackson at quarterback. Jackson was 45-16 as a starter since taking over in 2018, producing a winning percentage that trailed only Mahomes among active quarterbacks over that timespan.

That offense stalled out in the playoffs in 2019 and 2020, though, and it wasn't much when Jackson was sidelined. The Ravens were in first place in the AFC North in 2021 (8-4) and 2022 (7-4) when Jackson went down with injuries in each of the past two Decembers. They went 0-5 and missed the postseason in 2021, then limped in at 3-3 in 2022 before losing to the Bengals in a game in which the margin of victory amounted to a 12-point swing on a Tyler Huntley fumble at the goal line.

Now, there's change. The Ravens added offensive coordinator Todd Monken, drafted Zay Flowers in Round 1 and signed Odell Beckham Jr. in free agency. The passing offense will be more complex. With the Ravens signing Jackson to a long-term extension, you can understand why they wanted to try to expand their passing upside and build a more versatile offense for January and February.

If it works, the Ravens could challenge for the top seed in the AFC. If not, well, good luck! The AFC North could field four teams with winning records this season. The conference is loaded. And while Baltimore routinely is great on defense, this has to be one of the thinnest pass rushes it has fielded in the John Harbaugh era, with the unit dependent on young players David Ojabo and Odafe Oweh to morph into difference-makers on the edge. I'd bet on it happening given this organization's track record, but it would sure be nice to fall back on an edge rusher such as Myles Garrett, T.J. Watt or Trey Hendrickson.

11. Miami Dolphins

Why they're No. 11: Questions about their health.

On paper, the Dolphins might be one of the five most talented teams in football. They were outscored by two points last season, but there's a huge split there; they outscored opposing teams by 30 points in the games started by Tua Tagovailoa and were outscored by 28 points in the games the quarterback missed. Miami finished eighth in DVOA, which includes the moments Tagovailoa was sidelined.

The Dolphins added Bradley Chubb to the roster in midseason a year ago, then traded for Jalen Ramsey and hired Vic Fangio as their defensive coordinator this offseason. Their defense looked devastating on paper ... until Ramsey tore the meniscus in his left knee for the second time last week. He underwent knee surgery and is expected to be sidelined until December, costing Miami one of the league's best cornerbacks. It still has an excellent pair of starters in Xavien Howard and Kader Kohou, but Fangio was counting on having Ramsey in a key role.

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Courtney Cronin explains why the Dolphins could be the most dangerous team in the NFL if Tua Tagovailoa stays healthy.

The injury risk also extends to Tagovailoa, who suffered multiple concussions last season. He has a serious hip injury in his past. He was playing like an MVP candidate when healthy last season, but it's tough to project him to play all 17 games in 2023.

If you take Ramsey off the roster until December and try to account for the uncertainty surrounding Tagovailoa, the Dolphins look like a much less appealing playoff contender. There are just too many competitive teams in the AFC East, let alone the broader AFC. I would be shocked if they got 17 healthy games out of Tagovailoa and didn't make it to the postseason, but the Ramsey injury puts them behind the eight ball before the first preseason game.

12. Minnesota Vikings

Why they're No. 12: They weren't a very good team in 2022.

Yes, the Vikings went 13-4. By every other measure, they were average or worse. They were outscored by three points. The FPI ranked them as the 16th-best team. Football Outsiders was even more dramatically out on Kevin O'Connell's team, ranking it as the 27th-best team. Disasters teams, such as the Broncos and Raiders, rated ahead of the Vikings by Football Outsiders' play-by-play metrics, but they were wildly more successful in the win-loss column.

You already know why by now: The Vikings went an unprecedented 11-0 in one-score games, while the Broncos and Raiders were a combined 7-18 in those games. A team synonymous with kicking disasters in the fourth quarter went 10-for-10 on field goals in the final stanza. Going back through ESPN's win probability data, which begins in 2009, Minnesota produced a staggering 7.7 wins in the fourth quarter, the most of any team over that span. The same team generated minus-1.6 wins over the first three quarters of their games, meaning the Vikings played like the 2022 Rams and Broncos in the first 45 minutes before turning into the best team in NFL history over the final 15 minutes.

That's not happening again, unfortunately. The Vikings have tried to retool on both sides of the ball this offseason, shedding the significant salaries of veterans Za'Darius Smith, Adam Thielen, Dalvin Cook and Eric Kendricks. Investments in younger players Byron Murphy and Marcus Davenport will need to pay off, while the young talent drafted by general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah over the past two years will shoulder more responsibility. It would be truly stunning if Minnesota won 13 games again.

The good news for the Vikings is that they won't need those 13 wins to make it to the postseason. They are in the weaker conference and line up in a wide-open NFC North, where the Packers are moving on to Jordan Love, the Bears are in the middle of a rebuild and the Lions won't be able to sustain their turnover margin from the second half of 2022. Thirteen wins aren't coming, but nine wins would be a lot more plausible. In a seven-team playoff, nine wins probably gets Minnesota in.

13. New York Giants

Why they're No. 13: Their formula isn't sustainable.

The Giants won nine games last season. Two of those came against playoff teams: a 4-point victory over the Ravens and a 6-point win over the Jaguars in consecutive weeks. Both required fourth-quarter comebacks, something that was a constant in New York's games. Like the Vikings, the Giants thrived in the fourth quarter; they were below-average by win expectancy in quarters one through three and the second-best team in football by the same metric in the fourth quarter.

On offense, the Giants survived by protecting the football. They posted the league's best turnover rate, a metric that almost always regresses toward the mean the following season, taking their team's record down toward .500 in the process. Coach Brian Daboll got full seasons of Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley, neither of whom had played a complete campaign during their three prior seasons together. Daboll got the best out of his new charges, but we've seen plenty of offensive wizards fizzle in their second seasons as coaches after surprising marches to the playoffs in Year 1, with Adam Gase and Matt Nagy as notably disappointing examples.

Unlike the Vikings, the Giants are stuck in a division in which two teams clearly project to be better. The Cowboys and Eagles beat them five times last season, by a combined score of 159-81. Both project to be far ahead of New York this season. The Giants were able to thrive last season in key moments, like in the red zone and on third down, to sustain their defense and played keepaway on offense. It's tough to see that formula continuing.

14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Why they're No. 14: They're starting Baker Mayfield or Kyle Trask at quarterback.

From 2020 to 2022, the Buccaneers used their cap space and draft picks to build the best possible team around Tom Brady while the future Hall of Famer was playing in Tampa Bay. It worked! They won three division titles and a Super Bowl. It was inevitable they would regress after Brady's departure, given the more than $70 million in dead money on their 2023 cap, but that was worth the risk.

While general manager Jason Licht has been able to retain defenders Lavonte David, Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis in free agency over the past two seasons, the offense had to take a step backward. Tampa has moved on from multiple starting linemen and tight ends and cut lead back Leonard Fournette. Second-year players Cade Otton, Rachaad White and Luke Goedeke are inheriting starting roles by default.

Licht hoped to land his post-Brady quarterback when the Bucs drafted Trask in the second round of the 2021 draft. Trask has thrown nine regular-season pass attempts, and reports on him from behind the scenes have been mixed at best. He will be competing with Mayfield, whose 24.6 QBR last season was comfortably the worst in football.

An 8-9 team that has shed talent and is dealing with one of the least exciting quarterback situations should be last on this list without any questions. The only reason there was any doubt is because the NFC South is open for business. The Saints were the league's oldest team last season and have had to rebuild their defensive line because of cap concerns. The Falcons are starting second-year quarterback Desmond Ridder. The Panthers are rebuilding after trading up for No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young. Eight wins won this division last season, and it might do so again in 2023. Even by that low bar, it's tough to see the Bucs being the most likely team of these four to get there.