The 2023 NFL playoff picture is officially set. After the Lions upset the Packers in dramatic fashion on Sunday night, knocking Green Bay out of postseason contention and elevating the Seahawks into the final wild card spot, the schedule for Super Wild Card Weekend is complete. Now, the real games can begin. The postseason is a fresh slate for 14 contenders, and only time will tell which ones are ready to make a run at the Lombardi. In the meantime, here’s how we’d rank them going in:
Mike McDaniel deserves credit for guiding Miami to this point, and for unlocking quarterback Tua Tagovailoa earlier this year. Tyreek Hill is also always liable to shake up a game with his speed. But Tagovailoa is a total unknown from a medical standpoint recovering from his latest concussion, and even if his health wasn’t at risk, neither he nor No. 2 Teddy Bridgewater possesses the consistent deep-area accuracy to play shootout, which may well be required thanks to their vulnerable pass defense.
13. Seahawks (9-8)
Gifted a ticket to the postseason via the Lions’ heroics, Seattle has the benefit of experience on the sidelines, where Pete Carroll has now led 10 different playoff runs in 13 years. Rookie Kenneth Walker III offers some pop as the old-school bell cow. And the once-porous defense has tightened up lately. Unfortunately, things have gone the wrong direction through the air, where a resurgent Geno Smith has elite targets in DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett but now has 10 turnovers in his last eight games.
Doug Pederson probably deserves Coach of the Year consideration for the way he’s helped restore Trevor Lawrence as an ascending star under center, and his guys have played a scrappy brand of football during their five-game winning streak to close the year; Pederson’s teams, dating to Philadelphia, have always gone out with a fight. But they’re a young group whose defensive holes have likely been masked a bit by going up against the Jets, Texans and Titans down the stretch.
Winning meaningful games in the year 2023 usually means winning consistently through the air, which isn’t necessarily something they’ve been able to do with a makeshift receiving corps for Daniel Jones, who’s otherwise enjoyed quiet but remarkable growth under Brian Daboll. Their ceiling, then, feels quite low in contrast to more explosive teams. But as an early-round spoiler, they’re built to make noise thanks to the smart physicality that Daboll’s rubbed off onto Saquon Barkley and Co.
Welcome to the three-team region of fun, talented teams who simply cannot be trusted. Los Angeles has all the building blocks of a title contender, from the laser-armed Justin Herbert to the ultra-shifty Austin Ekeler to the QB-wrecking Joey Bosa. And yet coach Brandon Staley, whose “D” has folded against inferior opponents, too often seems to get in his own way on key decisions. No matter how many splashy names they have on either side of the ball, their games find a way to go down to the wire.
Speaking of splashy names, Dallas is the king when it comes to a glitzy on-paper product failing to show up when it matters. When they’re firing on all cylinders, with CeeDee Lamb raking in catches and Micah Parsons terrorizing QBs off the edge, they are a powerhouse. But their ground game has been flat lately, and more concerningly, for all of the high-level distribution Dak Prescott is capable of under center, the QB has been especially risky forcing throws since his return from injury, leading the NFL with 15 picks in just 12 games. On top of that, seven years in, he’s still in search of a defining big-game victory.
Kevin O’Connell has this program headed in the right direction, somehow enabling Kirk Cousins to produce some of the gutsiest, most resilient work of his career in an otherwise inefficient year by the QB’s standards, and somehow winning 13 of 17 games with a sieve of a pass defense. The culture is on the upswing, and Justin Jefferson’s smooth playmaking out wide makes it all the more promising. The issue is, the few times the going’s gotten tough for them, well, it gets ugly; Cousins, Dalvin Cook and the entire operation seems to go haywire if Jefferson isn’t feasting downfield. And then there’s that infamous point differential; despite all those wins, we’ve yet to see Minnesota cleanly and handily take care of business.
Everything says Tampa Bay should be one-and-done in the playoffs. Everything except, well, the man under center. Todd Bowles’ first go as Bruce Arians’ successor has been sloppy, sluggish and uninspiring, with conservative tendencies mixing poorly with injury-riddled lineups. But Tom Brady is still airing it out at 45, and still saving some of his best stuff for crunch time. Bowles’ “D” is generally fast and physical enough to stay in any game, so on the off chance Brady’s setup doesn’t leave him out to dry, allowing him time to thread strikes to Mike Evans down the sideline, they could easily play spoiler.
Where is Lamar Jackson right now? Physically? Mentally? The star QB hasn’t taken a practice field, let alone started a game, in a month. And his availability, as well as his athletic limitations (or lack thereof) coming off a knee injury, could determine whether they’re even capable of reaching the end zone on the big stage. Baltimore’s offense was already rather one-dimensional, with Jackson and JK Dobbins charged with running the show on the ground. Fortunately, John Harbaugh is battle-tested on the sidelines, and their “D,” headlined by Roquan Smith, averages more than a takeaway per game.
Not so dissimilar to their title-winning predecessors of five years ago, they’re not exactly strutting with heads held high into the tournament, despite at one point looking like the clear-cut total package. The X factor may well be Jonathan Gannon’s defense, which leads the NFL in sacks but has been prone to death by a thousand papercuts. But the bye should help QB Jalen Hurts further return to form as their steely dual-threat catalyst, and his wideout duo of AJ Brown and DeVonta Smith is reliably lethal. Their trenches have traditionally been sturdy, too, helping them win very different kinds of games.
Although they’ve got an MVP candidate under center in Joe Burrow, they’ve not been a juggernaut down the stretch, topping 30 points just once in their last six games. What they have been, however, is reliable in the clutch, and Burrow’s pretty accurate throws are the biggest reason. Ja’Marr Chase’s electricity out wide certainly helps, as does an opportunistic “D.” You worry a bit about Burrow’s protection, and their health in general, but as long as Burrow is out there, it’s tough to count them out.
There was a time when injuries could sap Kyle Shanahan’s highly esteemed system of results, as 2018 and 2020 proved. That time now appears past, as Shanahan’s run-first attack is thriving with his third starting QB of the year, with rookie Brock Purdy somehow bringing even more poise and passing touch than Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance before him. The weapons are elite, with Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel as utility men and George Kittle working the middle, and DeMeco Ryans’ defense is nasty, with Nick Bosa off the edge and ball magnets at the next levels. They’re just so well-rounded. The only major question mark is whether Purdy, 23, will look different under the brightest lights.
If destiny lies with any contender, it may be them. Galvanized by the hospitalization and recovery of Damar Hamlin, Buffalo was already the best equipped to rival the Chiefs, their playoff nemesis, thanks mostly to the fireworks tandem of Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs. Allen, of course, is so much of a gunslinger he’s prone to giving up the ball, but so much else works in the Bills’ favor to cancel out the occasional miscue: their ground game is underrated featuring rookie James Cook, the defense is littered with experienced playmakers even sans Von Miller, and coach Sean McDermott is as even-keeled a leader as anyone.
1. Chiefs (14-3)
They’ve advanced to the AFC Championship in each of the four seasons Andy Reid had Patrick Mahomes as his starting QB, and the two times they didn’t make the Super Bowl, they went to overtime for the conference title. Put simply, there is no safer bet to deliver when it matters most. History isn’t the only thing on their side, either. Despite a vulnerable defense, Reid is unlocking the shifty Kadarius Toney at the right time, Travis Kelce remains an uncoverable safety valve, and Mahomes — ever the clutch trick-play artist — is still making MVP plays look casual. Like the Patriots of old, when the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick pairing alone demanded trust, they are today’s steadiest NFL standard.