We're down to two teams left standing in the 2023 NFL playoffs, and they'll kick off in Super Bowl LVII in a matter of hours. It's the Chiefs and the Eagles in a Super Bowl LVII showdown, after Kansas City edged the Bengals at Arrowhead Stadium and Philly routed the 49ers at Lincoln Financial Field. But what about the 12 title hopefuls who fell short of the promised land this year? Which ones are destined to be back in the race a year from now, and which ones have quite a bit of work to do?
Here's our early ranking of the 12 non-Super Bowl playoff teams, and which ones are best suited for a run at the next championship, come January-February 2024:
They were far more explosive than expected with Geno Smith under center, and they've got both early draft picks and extra money to spend this offseason. But Smith, 32, may be due to regress, and even if a high-profile rookie succeeds him at quarterback, this team will be in transition on defense, where they've been mostly overmatched for years.
Every year, we give them the on-paper hype they're due, and every year, they remind us of their big-stage failings. And now they're entering an offseason in which they won't have excess cash for clear needs, like a true No. 2 receiver. Dak Prescott remains a good QB, but with an aging line and play-calling uncertainty -- Mike McCarthy is set to take over in the wake of Kellen Moore's departure -- his setup suddenly feels like it's a year past its championship expiration date.
The defense should get a boost with Vic Fangio set to join the fold, but that unit is still a work in progress. More importantly, how can they be projected for sustained success when the health of QB Tua Tagovailoa is such a major question? If they're truly committed to Tua, they'd better also invest in a premium fallback, which is easier said than done. Mike McDaniel is a smart coach, but in a tough AFC East, they hardly feel a lock to be back in the postseason.
They're a tough one to sort mainly because Tom Brady's future is up in the air, and no matter what happens -- a Brady return, retirement or relocation -- they aren't overly promising as an aging group with an overly predictable head coach in Todd Bowles. Still, if somehow Brady laces 'em up with renewed motivation, plus new play-calling juice post-Byron Leftwich, they've got enough weaponry out wide and on "D" to surprise.
As long as Justin Herbert is slinging it, they should generally be in the mix. Their lineup is also due for some positive injury regression after big names like Mike Williams and Joey Bosa missed major chunks of time. And yet, with Brandon Staley sticking at head coach, there's always a fear of them overthinking critical moments or making things harder than they have to be.
Brian Daboll proved that he's capable of maximizing their talent, and more should be on the way now that general manager Joe Schoen has plenty of money to spend. But the real question is what they do with that money: if Daniel Jones is back under center after a big step forward, what is his ceiling as a passer? And who's blocking or making plays for him? The pendulum is swinging in the right direction here; there are just too many variables to assess how far they're headed.
Kyle Shanahan sure knows how to taste an NFC title: with or without healthy QBs, he's now guided his team to three conference championship appearances in the last four years. Even if DeMeco Ryans departs, the defense should remain quite formidable at every level. And Brock Purdy showed lots of poise as a rookie gunslinger. But it's anyone's guess as to how he'd fare as an Opening Day starter behind a line that wilted a bit this postseason, or what Trey Lance might offer as his competition. Maybe they go wild and add a QB from the outside, but then you're dealing with an entirely different unknown.
This is mostly predicated on Lamar Jackson returning, of course, and that may well not be a given depending on how contract talks unfold ahead of free agency. Even then, there are concerns: Jackson has not stayed healthy for two straight seasons, and he's yet to prove himself as a steady passer under the playoff lights. But his sheer electricity, coupled with John Harbaugh's experience up top and the returning punch of a Roquan Smith-led "D," suggests they can be a force if they're at full speed.
Maybe this is giving a franchise synonymous with big-game heartbreak too much credit, but Kevin O'Connell gave the team a true injection of life in his first year on the job. The "D" was an absolute sieve, but the plus side is, post-Ed Donatell, that unit almost literally can't be worse. More importantly, Kirk Cousins actually exercised more resilience in a year full of close games, and Justin Jefferson is the type of MVP-level threat that always gives them a chance. In an NFC North undergoing transition, with the Packers a wild card and the Bears still rebuilding, they've got a path back to contention.
Yes, we're serious. They may have scraped their way to an ugly AFC South title, but Doug Pederson and Trevor Lawrence exceeded expectations of their pairing by season's end, most notably with the 27-point comeback against the Chargers in their playoff debut. Lawrence is just now emerging as a potential top-10 gunslinger. Pederson has proven to be a culture-builder in multiple places. Their young defensive front showed out early in the postseason. And here's the kicker: more reinforcements should be on the way, including former All-Pro wideout Calvin Ridley. In that division, why can't they make a deeper run?
They may have flopped on their own snowy turf in the divisional round this year, and Josh Allen certainly deserves more flak than he gets for his penchant for turnovers. But if they can find a way to merely fix the run game -- or at least commit more consistently to it -- the Allen-Stefon Diggs pairing alone is enough to carry them through shootouts with the best of them. Money isn't abundant thanks to their moves of offseasons past, and the "D" has its own questions on the back end, but with a battle-tested Sean McDermott at the helm, they remain one of the more well-rounded contenders in the game.
They're the boring pick since they've now been to two straight AFC title games, but it's hard not to trust Joe Burrow and Co. to return to the big stage at some point. Put it this way: even another wave of offensive-line issues didn't severely damage No. 9's chances of vying for a trophy, so if they can finally assemble a sturdier front, and presumably have Ja'Marr Chase healthier for the course of a full season, they should remain in control atop the AFC North. With Lou Anarumo poised to stay in charge of the "D," there's also no reason to believe Cincy will face a drastic drop-off there, even with inevitable personnel changes.