National Football League
Ravens, 49ers top title contenders; Eagles, Dolphins, Bills among pretenders
National Football League

Ravens, 49ers top title contenders; Eagles, Dolphins, Bills among pretenders

Published Jan. 4, 2024 3:43 p.m. ET

The playoffs are on the horizon, with teams firmly established as pretenders and contenders heading into the postseason. The elite teams have separated from the pack, displaying consistent production and execution on offense, defense and special teams. Meanwhile, the pretenders may have flashed championship qualities at times, but their fatal flaws will show up when the pressure escalates in the playoffs. 

As we enter the final weekend of the regular season, this is the perfect time to identify the contenders and pretenders in the playoff field.


Baltimore Ravens 


After donkey-kicking some of the top teams in the league, including the San Francisco 49ers, Miami Dolphins, Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars, the Ravens are the biggest bullies on the NFL block. From their revamped offense featuring Lamar Jackson as a unique offensive weapon to pummeling opponents utilizing a deceptive blitz plan featuring every defender as a potential rusher, the Ravens can deliver knockout blows with either unit leading the way. With a dynamic special teams unit led by a clutch kicker (Justin Tucker) and playmaking return specialists (Devin Duvernay and Tylan Wallace), the Ravens can dominate every game phase as a title contender.

San Francisco 49ers 

Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have assembled a roster loaded with position-less players who can play interchangeable roles. On offense, in particular, the challenge of defending a lineup that features Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk tests the speed, athleticism and discipline of defenses also tasked with adjusting to the myriad of pre-snap shifts, motions and quirky formations. With the shell game masking a creative offense that meshes an old-school running game with an explosive play-action passing game that attacks the middle of the field, the 49ers punish linebackers and safeties for misdiagnosing plays.

Defensively, the 49ers' front seven overwhelms opponents with speed, power and explosiveness. Nick Bosa, Chase Young and Arik Armstead wreak havoc at the point of attack, leading to splash play chances for Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw on the second level. As Charvarius Ward blossoms into a high-end CB1, the 49ers have blue-chip playmakers to dominate opponents at every level.

Kansas City Chiefs 

Do not dismiss the defending champ's chances of winning back-to-back titles due to a slumping offense that looks nothing like the high-flying circus that has dominated the league for years. Although the pedestrian unit is a bit of a concern due to an inconsistent collection of pass-catchers, the presence of a two-time MVP at quarterback gives them a chance against any opponent. Patrick Mahomes effectively played "small ball" a season ago in leading the Chiefs to the title, and he could revert to a dink-and-dunk approach to help the offense find its way in the postseason.

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With the defense playing at an elite level behind Chris Jones' dominance at the point of attack, the Chiefs could roll through the playoff field playing complementary football with the defense leading the way. If Andy Reid and Mahomes commit to playing a conservative style that prioritizes the running game and a ball control passing game, the Chiefs could re-emerge as the most dangerous team on the playoff field.

Cleveland Browns 

Lost in the Joe Flacco feel-good story has been the Browns' emergence as legitimate title contenders despite dealing with the loss of key personnel. Kevin Stefanski's squad has knocked out two of the league's heavyweights (wins over the Ravens and 49ers) and tallied 10 wins while playing four different quarterbacks and dealing with the loss of Nick Chubb and a reshuffled offensive line.

The team's resilience, toughness and execution amid the losses suggest the Browns are a hardened group built for the playoff pressure. Moreover, the squad's overall toughness and no-excuses attitude reveal a competitive edge that could make them tough to beat in a single-elimination tournament.

As the defense dominates behind the excellence of Myles Garrett, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome, Martin Emerson and Juan Thornhill, the Browns can force opponents into grind-it-out affairs that are decided in the fourth quarter. Given Flacco's postseason success (10-5 playoff record and 25:10 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 25 playoff starts), the Browns' combination of defense and quarterback play makes them the ultimate wild card in the playoffs.

Dallas Cowboys 

The stars are aligned for the Cowboys to make a deep postseason run with two potential home games on the playoff slate. (As the NFC's No. 2 seed, the Cowboys could play at home during the wild-card and divisional rounds). As the most explosive offense in the NFL on their home field — Cowboys average 37.9 points per game at home — Mike McCarthy's team can potentially put up 40-plus points against opponents forced to venture into Jerry's World for a playoff game.

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With Dak Prescott and CeeDee Lamb flourishing as a dynamic QB-WR combination, the Cowboys can lure opponents into shootouts that play into the hands of Dan Quinn's turnover-obsessed defense. Given Micah Parsons' disruptive potential and Daron Bland's pick-six prowess, the Cowboys' title chances are enhanced by a home-field advantage that could fast-track them into a title game.

Though the Cowboys will eventually need to prove they can win on the road, the combination of a big-play offense and a ball-hawking defense gives them a chance to knock off any opponent no matter where the game is played.

Detroit Lions 

Dan Campbell has quickly transformed the Lions into a title contender, adopting a bully ball mentality that prioritizes physicality and toughness at every turn. Though Ben Johnson's offensive wizardry deservedly captures the headlines, the Lions are a blue-collar outfit led by the best offensive line in football. As Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell control the action on the edges, the Lions are a rare find as a team that can run it or throw it effectively against any opponent.

The offensive balance challenges defensive coordinators tasked with dealing with a punishing running game fueled by David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs and an electric aerial attack sparked by the connection of Jared Goff, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Sam LaPorta on the perimeter. The Lions' diversity and physicality create problems for opponents unable or unwilling to go toe-to-toe with a hard-nosed football against a team that wants to turn every game into a street fight.

Defensively, Aaron Glenn has found a way to slow opponents utilizing "eyes" coverage and a "hustle hard" approach that prioritizes effort and execution. While the unit lacks the pizzazz and sizzle of their offensive counterparts, the timely stops and turnovers give their high-powered offense extra possessions that routinely turn into points.


Philadelphia Eagles 

Despite racing out to a fast start, the Eagles have lost four of their past five games, with the offense and defense seemingly falling apart down the stretch. Jalen Hurts has been maddeningly inconsistent this season as a passer and playmaker, and his turnover woes have hurt the Eagles in critical moments. A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith have put up impressive numbers, but the chemistry between the QB1 and the Eagles' co-WR1s is an issue heading into the playoffs. Although the Eagles could lean on D'Andre Swift to energize the running game, offensive coordinator Brian Johnson has not shown a commitment to the ground attack as a playcaller.

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Defensively, the Eagles' shoddy tackling, poor pursuit angles, and faulty execution have enabled opponents to get into unstoppable rhythms in the second half. Moreover, the Eagles' poor play has resulted in a late-season defensive plyacaller swap (Matt Patricia replaced Sean Desei), leading to more confusion from defenders unable to comprehend or execute the plan. Without a miraculous turnaround between the lines, the Eagles look like a one-and-done playoff participant.

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins routinely crush the cupcakes on their schedule but have struggled against the elite teams in the league. The struggles will likely continue with injuries robbing the Dolphins of their blue-chip defenders (Bradley Chubb, Jaelan Phillips and Xavien Howard) down the stretch. Without a shutdown defense to support an offense with big-play potential, the Dolphins will need to turn every game into a shootout to win in the postseason.

Considering how turnovers directly impact the outcome of games, the high-risk, high-reward style the Dolphins will need to employ could produce disastrous results against a defense intent on pressuring Tua Tagovailoa at every turn. As the Dolphins limp into the playoffs with their blue-chip defenders on the sidelines, Mike McDaniel will need heroic efforts from Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle to advance beyond the Wild Card round.

Buffalo Bills 

Sean McDermott has orchestrated a late-season turnaround that has the Bills poised to win the division crown. Though the momentum has changed the narrative around the squad, the Bills remain a one-man show with Josh Allen expected to play like a superhero for the team to win against elite opponents. Unless James Cook shows out as the Bills' designated workhorse runner, the one-dimensional approach is not enough to help the team knock off title contenders.

On defense, the Bills' creative pass rush ranks near the top of the league in sacks, with a collection of underrated playmakers who make key contributions as pass rushers. Despite their success harassing the quarterback, the undersized unit has struggled against hard-nosed teams committed to a ground-and-pound approach.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

Baker Mayfield has surprisingly guided the Buccaneers back into postseason contention, but a short-lived stay is on the horizon. Despite the presence of a pair of big-bodied pass-catchers with elite skills (Mike Evans and Chris Godwin), the lack of offensive balance will make it hard for the spunky QB1 to find his designated playmakers against an aggressive pass rush that completely ignores any rushing threat.

Though the defense's ultra-aggressive approach can lead to a turnover-fest from opponents ill-equipped to deal with the Buccaneers' blitz-heavy attacks, the unit's suspect secondary could make them vulnerable against a prolific pocket passer. Given the impact of quarterback play on playoff games, the Buccaneers' aggressive approach could backfire in the postseason. 

Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He also breaks down the game for NFL Network and as a cohost of the "Moving the Sticks" podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.


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