Every year, 14 of the NFL's 32 teams make the playoffs. And on average, only about half of them return the following year. The other half are replaced, with something like six new contenders on an annual basis. It's a true testament to the league's parity, and perhaps the greatest argument for the existing salary cap, which requires all franchises to restock and rebuild.
As we look ahead to the 2023 season, which teams are primed to return to the dance after missing the postseason a year ago? Here's our early rundown of the six best candidates:
2022 finish: 5-12 (fourth in AFC West)
Picking a team other than the Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs or Justin Herbert-led Chargers to make the playoffs out of the AFC West may qualify as a stretch. But Los Angeles is still trying to escape its own rut of self-inflicted wounds, and Kellen Moore as Herbert's new offensive coordinator is a wild card. The Raiders, meanwhile, are banking on Jimmy Garoppolo -- or a rookie successor -- staying healthy behind an iffy line. In Denver, Russell Wilson simply can't be much worse than he was in 2022, and new coach Sean Payton seems to be signaling a return to run-heavier scripts after a spendy offseason prioritizing the trenches. The defense still has shutdown potential, but it's Payton's no-nonsense leadership that should catapult them into a wild card.
2022 finish: 7-10 (fourth in AFC North)
The Browns embraced controversy and criticism with their blockbuster Deshaun Watson trade last offseason, only to suffer through the most disappointing season of Kevin Stefanski's three-year tenure as coach. While Watson was rusty and erratic coming off suspension, he'll enter 2023 with a full offseason of prep in Stefanski's system, not to mention an improved receiving corps featuring Elijah Moore opposite Amari Cooper. The "D" should also be better with Dalvin Tomlinson and Ogbo Okoronkwo joining the front four, and Juan Thornhill replacing John Johnson on the back end. Their division is also fairly open: besides the title-contending Bengals, the Steelers have major offensive questions, and the Ravens may or may not have Lamar Jackson.
2022 finish: 7-10 (fourth in AFC East)
Aaron Rodgers. Need we say more? Assuming the Jets and Packers finalize the trade they've publicly forecast, New York truly should have deep-playoff aspirations. Look, Rodgers may not have another MVP run in him going on 40, but his move to the Jets isn't entirely dissimilar to the Tom Brady-Buccaneers team-up of 2020. Many wondered if Brady still had it when he left New England, and he proceeded to relish the new scenery. Put it this way: if the Jets could go 7-10, sniffing a wild card while deploying Zach Wilson, Mike White and Joe Flacco under center in 2022, they should be the clear front-runners to challenge Buffalo in the AFC East with Rodgers leaning on Breece Hall, Garrett Wilson and a young, ascending defense.
2022 finish: 9-8 (second in NFC North)
You'd think the Lions were fresh off an actual playoff run, the way they've drawn league-wide respect this offseason. Remember, they weren't far from earning just that, with their Week 18 upset of the Rodgers-led Packers. Jared Goff still has his limitations, but Dan Campbell and Co. have truly built a well-rounded lineup here, surrounding the veteran QB with reliable, workmanlike starters up front and at the skill spots. Best of all, the much-derided secondary now looks completely different, with Cameron Sutton and C.J. Gardner-Johnson bringing added physicality to their "D." Are we positive the Vikings, who went 13-4 in 2022, are presently a class above them in the NFC North?
2022 finish: 8-9 (third in NFC North)
Green Bay is not without some major question marks, chief among them: how will Jordan Love handle the full-time QB1 role once Rodgers packs his bags for the Jets? Better yet, does the young gunslinger have adequate help out wide, where the Packers once again could stand to pursue several upgrades? Still, they went 8-9 and nearly went to the playoffs in 2022 despite Rodgers' lack of chemistry with a makeshift supporting cast, and Love's arm has underrated juice. They'll likely have an extra draft pick or two from the inevitable Rodgers deal, which could net a starter. And their top young play-makers -- Aaron Jones, Christian Watson, Jaire Alexander -- are some of the most explosive at their respective positions.
2022 finish: 7-10 (second in NFC South)
It's not often you can project the team with the No. 1 draft pick to also make an immediate playoff run, but the Panthers entered this offseason with a roster in relatively good shape. Truthfully, they were only missing one vital ingredient: QB, which should be solved atop the draft with either Ohio State's C.J. Stroud or Alabama's Bryce Young. Both prospects will inevitably have growing pains, but they're built with NFL-ready pocket poise. New coach Frank Reich is the perfect even-keeled leader for a rookie under center, and their veteran additions -- Miles Sanders, Adam Thielen, Hayden Hurst -- are reliable plug-and-play outlets. Couple that with a feisty young "D," and a wide-open NFC South, and it's not hard to envision Reich overseeing a quick turnaround.