Previewing the 2024 NFL Playoffs

Gavin Carlson

In many ways, the 2023-24 NFL regular season was one of the strangest in recent memory.

Sure, the campaign didn’t feature COVID-19 restrictions, replacement referees, or any serious scandals as in years past. But with seven starting quarterbacks suffering season-ending injuries and more than 50 making starts this season with varying success, many contests lacked the offensive excitement that has become synonymous with the modern NFL. Throw in frustrating roughing-the-passer calls and several games decided by controversial officiating decisions, and many fans of the league believe they witnessed a decrease in the product being produced on the field this season.

But despite injuries to stars and controversial officiating, the 2023-24 season produced a majority of broadcasts featured on the top 100 most watched TV broadcasts of 2023, with a whopping 93 coming from NFL games. Offensive superstars like Christian McCaffrey and Lamar Jackson put on entertaining and MVP-caliber campaigns, fantasy football and NFL sports betting both continued to grow in popularity, and yes, there’s the whole Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift scenario. The NFL regular season was still its usual unmitigated success, and the playoffs figure to be no different.

Let’s preview the storylines and Super Bowl contenders in this year’s NFL Playoffs for the 2023-24 season.

The Five True Contenders

San Francisco 49ers

What don’t the 49ers have? Their offense became the first in NFL history to produce 1,000-yard seasons from two wide receivers, a running back, and a tight end. Behind offensive mastermind Kyle Shanahan and All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams, the unit ranked No. 2 in the NFL and tied the Dolphins for a league-high 61 offensive TDs. And their so-called “weakness” is a quarterback that was the betting-favorite to win the MVP heading into Week 16.

The defense, meanwhile, is No. 8 in the league, but ranks No. 2 in the NFL in least touchdowns allowed and boasts star players at every level. Sure, the 49ers got crushed by the Ravens in a potential Super Bowl preview, and San Francisco did go through a strange three-game losing streak that included defeats to the Vikings and Bengals. Despite this, the 49ers are the betting favorites to win the Super Bowl and have an implied probability greater than 55% to win the NFC for a reason: they have the best roster in football. Not to mention their coaching staff is one of the best in the NFL as well. If Brock Purdy excels like he did throughout most of the season, the Lombardi Trophy could very well be headed to the Bay Area.

Baltimore Ravens

This past offseason, the Ravens were hesitant to give quarterback Lamar Jackson the massive contract extension he wanted. They even let the former MVP – who represented himself during contract negotiations – talk to other teams before eventually committing to the dual-threat star with a five-year, $260 million extension with $185 million guaranteed. Since signing the contract that made him the highest-paid player in NFL history on a per-week basis, Jackson has been worth every penny.

Even with former All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews being out since the opening drive of Baltimore’s Week 11 contest, Jackson led the Ravens to six consecutive wins to earn the No. 1 seed in the AFC and likely locked up his second MVP award. In addition to their star QB, Baltimore boasts both the No. 6 offense and defense in the NFL. With the AFC playoffs running through Baltimore, it’s no surprise the Ravens are the betting favorites to make it to the Super Bowl in their conference.

Buffalo Bills

The Bills are one of the most confusing teams to analyze in the entire NFL. On one hand, the team with sky-high expectations lost to the Rodgers-less Jets, the Jaguars and Broncos in Buffalo, and the 4-win Patriots. Josh Allen is prone to give you the occasional bad decision on a throw that leaves you questioning if he’s even an elite quarterback, and the team has been hit with serious injuries all season. Seems like a first-round exit type of playoff team, right?

Wrong. On the other hand, the Bills destroyed the Cowboys and beat the Chiefs in Kansas City. Advanced metrics love Buffalo, the Bills had decent odds to win the entire AFC before they even were set to make the playoffs, and now Miami’s struggles allowed Buffalo to go from wild-card hopeful to No. 2 seed and playoff host. The Bills’ No. 4 overall offense will keep them in any game, and the defense is quietly ranked No. 9 in the league despite injuries throughout the season. Buffalo gets the most favorable matchup in the opening round of the playoffs against a Steelers team quarterbacked by Mason Rudolph and without its undisputed best player in T.J. Watt. If they blowout Pittsburgh as most expect, the Chiefs are likely next. People will naturally recall Buffalo’s Dec 10. win at Kansas City to argue the Bills can do it again at Arrowhead, and if they do, why couldn’t they follow that win with an upset of the Ravens to finally get over the hump? Buffalo at its best is arguably a top-two team in the entire NFL. We’ll see which Bills team shows up this January.

Dallas Cowboys

How bout them Cowboys? Similar to the Bills, after appearing destined to be a wildcard team for almost the entire season, the Eagles’ collapse at the end of the year opened the door for Dallas to steal the NFC East title and the No. 2 seed. However, this development might extend even further than the AFC East’s. It’s no secret that the Cowboys are a much different team in their home stadium. The Cowboys are undefeated in Dallas, and outside of the controversial win in Week 17 against the Lions have destroyed opponents in AT&T Stadium this season. Meanwhile, the Cowboys’ road record includes losses to the Cardinals, Eagles, Dolphins, and drubbings at Buffalo and San Francisco. Stealing home field advantage for a couple rounds is massive for Dallas.

Dak Prescott quietly had one of the three best seasons of any quarterback this year, and elite quarterback play is still what wins games more than anything else in the NFL – just look at the last three Super Bowl matchups at quarterback. But in addition to Dak, the Cowboys roster is as elite as just about anybody’s, including the Ravens and 49ers. Wide receiver CeeDee Lamb has officially reached superstar status and has carried the load for the NFL’s No. 5 offense and No. 3 passing attack. At the same time, the defense ranks No. 5 as well thanks to Micah Parsons and company. The opening-round matchup against Green Bay is interesting given the Packers sudden rise in play. The Cowboys secondary loves to take risks, thus Jordan Love could have opportunities down the field to take advantage of. Nevertheless, things just seem to go right for the Cowboys at home, hence their status as a 7.5-point favorites this weekend and the only NFC team other than the 49ers in the top five for Super Bowl betting odds. Don’t be shocked if two of the most storied franchises in NFL history meet at Levi’s Stadium for a trip to the Super Bowl.

Kansas City Chiefs

The defending champions have not been their normal self for most of the season. Patrick Mahomes is still widely seen as the best player on the planet, but the Chiefs’ pass-catchers are not exactly helping him out. Kansas City dropped a league-high 44 passes this regular season, with miscues from wide receivers Kadarius Toney and Marquez Valdes-Scantling each likely costing the Chiefs wins in Weeks 1 and 11, respectively. All-time great tight end Travis Kelce, meanwhile, failed to reach 1,000 receiving yards for the first time in his Hall of Fame career, and his 121 targets were the lowest of his career too. 

Fortunately for Mahomes and company, Kansas City boasts the No. 2 defense in the entire NFL. The secondary which once was their achilles heel now leads a top-five statistical defense against the pass. Defensive tackle Chris Jones hit double-digit sacks once again and continues to demonstrate himself as one of the most impactful defenders in the league. The days of needing to break 30 points to win are over in Kansas City, and the team still has the quarterback-tight end duo that’s used to doing just that in January. The Chiefs may only hold the fifth-highest odds to win the trophy, but nobody wants to face the defending champs this time of year.

A pair of “disappointments”?

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles are the first team to make the playoffs after losing 5 of their last 6 games since the turn of the century. The defending NFC champions looked primed to return to the Super Bowl early on, starting the season 10-1 with wins over the Bills, Chiefs, Cowboys, and Dolphins. However, since the 49ers dismantled them 42-19 in Philadelphia, the Eagles have looked like one of the worst teams to make it to the playoffs. Forget the 75 combined points given up to the Niners and Cowboys in back-to-back weeks – the defense gave up 62 points over two games against the Cardinals and Giants to close out the regular season. The unit currently ranks No. 26 in the league.

Even with the struggles, the Eagles are still 3-point favorites on the road thanks to a matchup against an average at best Tampa Bay Buccaneers team. Midway through the season, the Eagles would’ve been favored by double-digits against the NFC South champion, but Philadelphia injuries suddenly make the Monday Night Football matchup a tight one. Jalen Hurts dislocated a finger in the season finale and likely won’t be 100%, A.J. Brown suffered an ugly-looking knee injury and will certainly not be at full strength if he plays, and Devonta Smith is still dealing with an ankle sprain. The Eagles could still make it back to the Super Bowl, but they could very easily see their season come to an end this weekend, far earlier than anyone would have expected just over a month ago.

Miami Dolphins

At one point in the season, both Tyreek Hill and Tua Tagavaloia were serious MVP candidates. The WR duo of Hill and Jaylen Waddle, the backfield emergence of Devon Achane next to Raheem Mostert, and the continual growth of Tua under coach Mike McDaniel combined to make an offense potent enough to drop 70 on the Broncos earlier this season. 

Yet despite boasting the No. 1 offense in the NFL, the true hype surrounding Miami has been limited because of its struggles against the league’s elite teams. The Dolphins fell short against the Chiefs and Eagles, got blown out by the Ravens, and went 0-2 against the Bills to go from the No. 2 seed to a wild-card team. The Dolphins showed major red flags in a shocking Monday Night Football loss to the Titans that included a blown 14-point lead in the final three minutes of the game. Now the Dolphins have to travel to Arrowhead against Mahomes and the Chiefs, where they’ll need an upset win to have any chance at jumpstarting a magical Super Bowl run.

The Most-Hyped Wildcard Weekend Game ever?

Los Angeles Rams at Detroit Lions

When Matthew Stafford and the Rams won the Super Bowl a few seasons ago, it was bittersweet for Lions fans. Their franchise quarterback for so many years finally got to accomplish something that seemed impossible to do in Detroit, but he of course had to leave the Lions to do it. Meanwhile, the draft picks, not Jared Goff, were seen as the primary trade pieces that Detroit got in exchange for Stafford when it sent him to Los Angeles. Ironically, after a strong campaign last year, Goff and the Lions entered this season as a dark-horse team to compete in the NFC, not the dying Rams. Goff and the Lions have for the most part delivered, earning their first home playoff game in over 30 years.

But of course, Detroit fans got dealt the one hand they didn’t want to see for the historic return to the postseason: their former star quarterback. Not only is Stafford back in the building he lit up for years, but he leads a Rams team that has shocked a lot of people this season. Prior to the beginning of the season, the Rams were seen by many analysts as a time in need of a rebuild. But not only are they good, they’re borderline elite. When Stafford, Cooper Kupp, Puka Nacua, and Kyren Williams are all on the field, advanced metrics show the Rams offense is one the very best in the entire league. And the defense has continued to overperform under elite defensive coordinator Raheem Morris too.

The matchup is generating ticket prices on the secondary market that are breaking wildcard weekend records, and for good reason. Stafford returning to attempt to spoil Detroit’s breakout season is about as Hollywood as it gets. Outside of the storylines, the Rams are by far the most popular upset pick this weekend. Both teams feel nearly identical in terms of offensive prowess and defensive inconsistency, and it’s really a coin flip as to who wins. Put it all together, and this is the game you can’t miss in the wildcard round.

Just Happy to Be Here

Cleveland Browns

Joe Flacco’s resurgence is a phenomenal story, but a win against the Texans is about as far as he and the Browns could go.

Houston Texans

C.J. Stroud will win the Offensive Rookie of the Year after one of the best rookie quarterback seasons of all time. However, rookie quarterbacks really struggle in the postseason, and the Texans aren’t going far even if they upset the Browns this weekend.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs get to host a playoff game because they won the worst division in football: the NFC South. The Eagles are technically the best wildcard team in the entire playoffs, but their recent downfall gives Tampa Bay a chance to steal a postseason win before they inevitably get crushed in Dallas or Santa Clara.

Green Bay Packers

The Packers took a while to finally reach their expectations for this season, but Jordan Love is starting to look like a quarterback that will be in Green Bay for a while. The Packers will probably lose to the Cowboys home-field advantage, but they should be encouraged by how the season ended regardless.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers are by far the worst team in these playoffs. The roster is not great, the quarterback play is even worse, and now T.J. Watt is hurt. Don’t let the likely double-digit beatdown distract you from the fact that Mike Tomlin is as good as it gets as an NFL head coach, at least when it comes to turning bad teams into average ones.

 

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