2023 NFL season: Ranking the most vulnerable division winners, from the shaky Buccaneers to the rugged Chiefs

2023 NFL season: Ranking the most vulnerable division winners, from the shaky Buccaneers to the rugged Chiefs

Every year, the NFL rankings are a parity exercise. Our first instinct, when evaluating teams on paper, is to crown recent contenders and ignore bottom dwellers, when in fact history tells us that at least a handful of playoff berths will change hands. The same can be said of the league’s eight divisions; in 2022, for example, half of them had different champions from the previous year.

With that in mind, who is most likely to retain their division title in 2023? Who is most likely to lose it? Here’s our rundown of the most vulnerable defending champions, from frailest to most solid:

Record 2022: 8-9 | Division Title Series: 2 seasons

The talent isn’t great on either side of the ball, but that’s what happens when Tom Brady comes out in favor of Baker Mayfield under centre. Yes, Brady was slow in his final season, but if they could barely control the NFC South with his quarterback vision, it’s hard to feel good with his remaining staff – still led by conservative Todd Bowles. – fending off the Falcons, Panthers and Saints, all younger and/or improved, and especially with an O-line also in transition.

2. Vikings (NFC North)

Record 2022: 13-4 | Division Title Series: 1 season

The Vikings’ penchant for close-game wins has masked their porous defense and negative point differential in 2022. Spirited leadership from Kevin O’Connell and explosiveness from Justin Jefferson mean they should stay competitive. But the Lions were already poised to rise and are now poised to make a legitimate playoff run, with Dan Campbell’s side enjoying a well-rounded offense and a more spirited “D.” The Packers are a wildcard but could easily stay in the wildcard hunt if Jordan Love’s debut as Aaron Rodgers’ successor goes well. And the Bears should at least be a few games better now that Justin Fields has a supporting cast.

3. Bengals (AFC North)

Record 2022: 12-4 | Division Title Series: 2 seasons

Betting against Joe Burrow at the top of the North seems a little crazy, but the fact is, this split should be tough from top to bottom. The second-placed Ravens picked up 10 wins even with Lamar Jackson sidelined, and now Jackson should be motivated — and slightly better suited, with a deeper receiving body — to live up to his new contract. The Browns are also set to stream more, with Deshaun Watson under pressure to deliver after a lackluster start in Cleveland. And the Steelers might be the most dashing of them all, pairing Mike Tomlin’s perpetually tough “D” with an improved setup for Kenny Pickett.

4. Eagles (NFC East)

Record 2022: 14-3 | Division Title Series: 1 season

Two things may be true: 1.) The Eagles remain arguably the most talented roster in the NFL after a Super Bowl shootout with the Chiefs, and 2.) Their road to a second straight division title is daunting. With the toughest schedule by opponents’ winning percentage in 2022, including a brutal end of year period against the contenders, they might need another MVP-level campaign from Jalen Hurts to keep pace with the Cowboys and Giants, who have each made offensive improvements to playoff-caliber rosters.

5. Invoices (AFC East)

Record 2022: 13-3 | Division Title Series: 3 seasons

Like the Eagles, they are clearly part of their conference class. But the intra-division competition promises to be stiff to come with a busy schedule. Even if Josh Allen and Co. light up the scoreboard, they have at least two legitimate rivals to worry about: the Jets plug a motivated Aaron Rodgers into a balanced playoff-caliber roster, and the Dolphins both have offensive speed of elite and a better defensive leader in Vic Fangio; if QB Tua Tagovailoa can stay up, they should be in the mix.

6. 49ers (NFC West)

Record 2022: 13-4 | Division Title Series: 1 season

QB uncertainty is a big X-factor here: is it Brock Purdy, Trey Lance or Sam Darnold in Week 1? And from there? Not one of these guys is guaranteed to match the 2022 production of Purdy and/or Jimmy Garoppolo, due to varying circumstances. Still, Kyle Shanahan still has plenty of weapons on both sides of the ball, his system has proven relatively resilient to QBs before, and crucially, only the Seahawks register as a true rival to be reckoned with. The Rams still have Sean McVay to guide Matthew Stafford, but they’re admittedly retooling; the cardinals, meanwhile, are even more in rebuilding mode.

7. Jaguars (AFC South)

Record 2022: 9-8 | Division Title Series: 1 season

Is a team that barely eclipsed .500 really one of the safest bets to repeat as a division champion? It’s certainly an endorsement from Trevor Lawrence-Doug Pederson couple, who endured streaks of gunfire to soar (and now add Calvin Ridley to the fold). It’s also an indictment from the South, where the Colts and Texans pressed the coach and QB reset button. Mike Vrabel’s Titans are still more spirited than expected, but under new management, with aging fan favorites like Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry seemingly on their last legs in Nashville, they don’t have the personnel to match Jacksonville.

8. Chiefs (AFC West)

Record 2022: 14-3 | Division Title Series: 7 seasons

No matter what else happens in the West – the Broncos have a fiercer leader in Sean Payton and should return to the run-based concepts that benefited Russell Wilson earlier in his career, the Chargers have a face armed with Justin Herbert’s franchise laser and the Raiders made lateral trades to import Josh McDaniels’ former Patriots friends. Ultimately, as long as Patrick Mahomes plays QB for Andy Reid and Travis Kelce is his primary target, the Chiefs can’t be bet against.

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