National Football League
Super Bowl or bust? Cowboys, 49ers among 5 teams that need to win big in 2024
National Football League

Super Bowl or bust? Cowboys, 49ers among 5 teams that need to win big in 2024

Updated Jun. 11, 2024 3:32 p.m. ET

It's a year-to-year league, and we'd do well to remember it.

Part of the incredible popularity of the NFL is that seemingly every team has genuine cause for optimism, every year. Even organizations with bleak outlooks can reverse their fortunes in a heartbeat. Just ask the Houston Texans, who is one of this year's most exciting teams, 12 months after the city was considered an NFL wasteland.

Still, even in this parity-driven league, there's levels to this. Some NFL clubs are starting the climb to contention, while others are hoping to break through.

That's the aim of this article — to identify teams with the most on the line in 2024. While every team is harboring hope of a championship this season, these five are facing the most pressure to perform before their current window closes.


1. New York Jets

Let's get the easy answer out of the way first.

No team embodies the phrase "now or never" as well as the 2024 New York Jets, who are gearing up for another go-around with Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers is at the epicenter of the conversation for obvious reasons. The 40-year-old tore his Achilles just four snaps into his Jets debut, grounding the Jets' 2023 season before it even got off the runway. It's not just that this may be Rodgers' last chance to play at a high level, but it also represents a big moment for the brain trust that brought him here. The Jets haven't had a winning season during Joe Douglas' six years in charge. Their defense has often been phenomenal during Robert Saleh's three years as head coach, but the record sits at just 18-33. If Rodgers can't fix it, it'd be the type of high-profile failure that prompts a regime change.

Judging from Rodgers' recent comments to the New York media, he's well aware of all that's on the line this year.

"Well, I think if I don't do what I'm capable of doing, then we're all probably gonna be out of here," he said. "I like that kind of pressure, though."

The roster reflects this approach. Haason Reddick, Tyron Smith, Morgan Moses and Mike Williams were all brought in on one-year deals to try to get this thing over the hump. If all this talent stays healthy, the Jets have the look of a real-deal contender.

If it doesn't, and the Jets have another embarrassing season, then Rodgers is right in that New York will likely reset.

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2. Dallas Cowboys

It can feel like a bit of a stretch to call the Cowboys true contenders based on their inactivity this offseason.

Last year's team fell a full three wins short of the Super Bowl, going one-and-done in the playoffs. They've followed that up in impressive fashion. Two Pro Bowl offensive linemen are being replaced by unproven players, the running back room is one of the worst in the NFL, the pass-rush depth departed in free agency, and the best cornerback on the roster is recovering from an ACL tear. 

It'd be fair to expect the Cowboys to take a step back from 12-5, NFC East champions and the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs — except that doesn't seem to be the thought process in Dallas.

Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones didn't fire head coach Mike McCarthy after that playoff disappointment, but he also didn't extend him. That means McCarthy and his coaching staff are in the final year of their deals, fighting for their NFL futures. Even new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer only signed on for one year.

Obviously, the same goes for the quarterback. Dak Prescott enjoyed a career year in 2023, but it was punctuated by one of his biggest failings to date in that playoff loss to Green Bay. He is also in the final year of his contract, and if he doesn't get a new one by August it's a good bet he'll hit free agency when the market opens in March.

The implications seem pretty clear: It had better be a good season, or else wholesale changes could be on deck. The only question is what qualifies as a good season? Do McCarthy and Prescott have to guide the Cowboys to their first Super Bowl appearance since the 1995 season to keep their jobs? Do they have to make a deep playoff run? 

We'll have our answer soon.

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3. San Francisco 49ers

At some point the 49ers have to run out of wiggle room, right?

We are continuing to see the benefits of striking gold with a seventh-round draft pick at quarterback. Even with a laundry list of expensive All-Pros on the roster, San Francisco just managed to extend Christian McCaffrey at the top of the market. They held on to key contributors from last year's team like Kyle Juszczyk, Jauan Jennings and Colton McKivitz, and they were even able to sign intriguing newcomers in Leonard Floyd and Maliek Collins.

Brock Purdy's minuscule price tag is doing wonders to help San Francisco preserve its roster of aging superstars. But that flexibility will run out eventually.

It's well-documented that Brandon Aiyuk is angling for a pricey new contract — to the point of skipping the team's mandatory minicamp. Trent Williams might want his deal re-worked, too. And for that matter, Trent Williams turns 36 this summer and has missed at least two games in each of his four seasons in San Francisco. Hopefully, he can play as long as he wants to, and at full health — but each passing year is a dicier proposition. The same can be said for other aging stars like George Kittle and Deebo Samuel. Have I mentioned that Charvarius Ward and Dre Greenlaw will be free agents in 2025?

And all of that comes with a possible extension looming for Purdy, who is eligible to sign an extension after this season.

This article isn't for determining whether Purdy is worth paying, or what that number would look like. But the conversation will need to be had soon, and that's with half a dozen other problems for head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch to worry about.

This incredible core of players has come so painfully close on so many occasions. The 2024 season won't necessarily mark the end of this ride, but it might be the 49ers' best remaining chance.

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4. Cleveland Browns

It's not as if things are changing structurally in Cleveland.

General manager Andrew Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski just signed simultaneous contract extensions, guaranteeing some organizational stability.

And of course, it doesn't seem logical to expect Deshaun Watson to go anywhere, as the Browns' franchise quarterback signed a fully guaranteed contract that makes him virtually impossible to cut or trade.

It's not that there's a crazy amount of turnover coming, though that Watson contract means Berry is going to earn his salary by balancing this team's finances.

Impressively, Cleveland has put together a contending roster without touching Watson's money this year. His current cap hit of $63.7 million is easily the biggest in the NFL, and it didn't stop the Browns from trading for Jerry Jeudy, extending him, re-signing Za'Darius Smith or adding Jameis Winston as an insurance policy for Watson.

The issue is that this isn't going to get easier. Watson's cap hit will actually get slightly bigger in 2025, accounting for almost 25% of the Browns' salary cap. That's a big reason why Cleveland is currently projected to be about $43 million over the 2025 salary cap — the second-worst estimate in the NFL.

Naturally, Berry will be able to fix some of those problems by sending a few emails. He could decide to restructure Watson next year, and he can find cap savings by restructuring Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward. The Browns shouldn't struggle to get cap compliant.

The issue is how much better they can make the team with those kinds of constraints? Amari Cooper is headed for free agency in 2025, as is fellow receiver Elijah Moore. Left tackle Jedrick Wills' deal is about to be up, and an extension is needed for young star linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Sadly, this might also be the last go-around for franchise stalwart Nick Chubb, depending on how he rebounds from injury.

The Browns can probably keep some of those guys — but all of them? And will it be enough to keep pace in the loaded AFC North?

It's doable, but it'll be tough. It might not look any more favorable for Cleveland than it does right here in 2024.

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5. Cincinnati Bengals

This feels like the last go-around for the version of the Bengals that is still benefitting from Joe Burrow playing on a cheap contract.

Yes, Burrow signed a massive $275 million extension just last year, but he's still playing on a $10.7 million salary in 2024. His cap hit this year is a manageable $29.7 million — just 11.6% of the Bengals' cap. That all changes in 2025, when his cap hit jumps up to nearly 17%, and the challenge of surrounding him with a strong roster gets tougher.

You're beginning to see the effects already. Tee Higgins remains unsigned after being franchise tagged, and he has stayed away from the offseason program in protest of that fact. Ja'Marr Chase, who still has two years remaining on his rookie deal, has also refrained from practicing while he seeks a new contract.

The odds that both guys return in 2025 seem slim. Smart money says Higgins will move on next March, while Chase signs a bank-breaking contract that — again — will eat into the funds available to spend on the rest of the roster. Again, we are already seeing the effects of this. Star pass-rusher Trey Hendrickson requested a trade during draft season in an effort to secure a better contract. And while Hendrickson has already said he'll play this season, it's worth wondering how long that situation remains tenable. 

To be clear, none of this means 2024 is the Bengals' only opportunity. Burrow and Chase should keep this team competitive long after their cap hits balloon. But this 2024 roster might be their most complete group for the foreseeable future, and there should be pressure to take advantage of that fact.

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David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports and hosts the NFL on FOX podcast. He previously spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team's official website. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing "Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion" about the quarterback's time at Mississippi State. Follow him on Twitter at @davidhelman_.

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