Top 3 contenders for the NFL playoffs this season

Let’s take a look at the teams that made it to the 2022 playoffs and rank their chances of making it back to the playoffs. We’ll take a look at their core level of play from last season, the elements of that game that typically persist from year to year, the changes they’ve made this off-season, and what their competition looks like for 2023.

Naturally, since we expect the American Football Conference (AFC) to be stronger overall than the National Football Conference (NFC), it seems to me that it will be more difficult for teams from the AFC to return to the playoffs.

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Kansas City Chiefs

Why they’re in the first place: They’re the Chiefs.

If any team comes close to consistently making the playoffs in the modern NFL, it’s the Chiefs. Andy Reid’s team has won the AFC West seven consecutive times, including wins in each of Patrick Mahoms’ five seasons as starting quarterback. Mahoms did not play a single playoff away game as the Chiefs played 10 games at Arrowhead and three games at neutral Super Bowls.

It’s likely that Kansas City will have some serious competition for the top spot this season. The Bengals were on their way to first place before Damar Hamlin’s game was canceled in early January. The Bills would have been first if they had beaten the Bengals that week, as they had the head-to-head advantage over the Chiefs. Expect the team to be first in the conference, year after year…

A scenario where the Chiefs don’t make the playoffs at all? It seems that this can only happen if Mahoms is severely injured. Even then, I wouldn’t bet against Reid that he’ll pull the magic out of Blaine Gabbert or whoever the Chiefs bring in to replace Mahoms and end up as the wild card. Barring the unthinkable, the Chiefs will return to the playoffs for the 11th time in 12 attempts under Reid as head coach.

Philadelphia Eagles

Why they’re in second place: Long way to the top.

The Eagles finished last season 14-1 with Jalen Hearts as the starting quarterback, then added two playoff crushes before losing the Super Bowl. The ESPN Football Index (FPI) named them the best team in the league ahead of the Chiefs’ title game, though this was partly due to the way they thrashed the 49ers; I’m not sure if the algorithm knows what it’s like to play fourth quarterback Josh Johnson.

There are reasons to believe that the Eagles will take a step back. They lost five starting guards, including both linebackers and free guards. Their coordinators left for the posts of head coaches. They were the third healthiest team in football, including an attacking line that only missed three starts all season. Philadelphia also won 6 of 7 games decided by seven points or less, a streak of solid close-game performances that ended on the biggest stage.

Even if the Eagles fall three wins, which seems reasonable in light of the circumstances, they will still be an 11-win team with a good chance of contending for the division title. Given how uncompetitive and crowded the NFC is expected to be, teams with significant potential seem like safe bets to advance into January.

Dallas Cowboys

Why they are in third place: They have high potential.

The FPI even named the Cowboys the best team in the league ahead of their Week 18 loss to the Commanders. Dallas then had one of the most impressive performances of the year, destroying the Buckeners before losing (in the Cowboys’ spirit) the 49ers in the quarterfinals.

Dallas was the fifth-best point margin in the league, which speaks to its potential on both sides of the field. Dak Prescott’s interception rate is likely to return to his career average, which was the only real offensive vulnerability for much of last season. Dan Quinn’s defense ranks fourth in the NFL in points per possession over the past two seasons. Even with Mike McCarthy unlikely to improve offense, the Cowboys are well-positioned to be a top 10 team on both sides of the field in 2023.

Perhaps there is an argument that the Cowboys should be close or even ahead of the Eagles as the season approaches. While the Jalen Hearts extension forced Philadelphia to cut defensive spending, Dallas faced its own difficult financial situation a year ago and was able to invest more this offseason. The team parted ways with Itzekiel Elliott and allowed Dalton Schultz to go free-market, but added important veterans Stephon Gilmour and Brandin Cooks. In a conference where so many teams have an obvious disadvantage on one side of the field, the Cowboys’ offensive and defensive reliability makes them attractive.

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