The NFL season passed with a familiar team reigning at the top, the Kansas City Chiefs, the first to repeat as Super Bowl champions since the 2003-2004 New England Patriots. With Kansas City once again on top of the NFL world, the league has had many contending teams throughout the season.
The Baltimore Ravens went from a playoff wild-card team to the best record in the NFL. The Houston Texans went from 11 wins over the previous three seasons to 11 wins in 2023 (including playoffs). The Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers survived losses to Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady and won playoff games in their first seasons without them.
Which teams are ready to progress in 2024? These teams could experience a turnaround as division title contenders with the potential for a deep playoff run all the way to the Super Bowl.
Here are five teams to watch next season:
The Texans took the biggest leap forward in 2023 thanks to the emergence of CJ Stroud and a remarkable turnaround led by first-year head coach DeMeco Ryans. Stroud had arguably the best rookie season for a quarterback in NFL history, transforming the Texans offense into a force to be reckoned with in the NFL (the offense rose from 31st in points per possession in the 14th), accompanied by the emergence of Nico Collins and the rookie. Dell tank.
Stroud gets his two best pass catchers back next season, with Dalton Schultz. Defensive Rookie of the Year Will Anderson Jr. now has a full year in the NFL under his belt and rising corner Derek Stingley Jr. will only improve on a defense that has gone from 25th in yards allowed per possession to 13th.
A schedule for first place will be the Texans’ biggest challenge, as they will no longer go unnoticed. Stroud having a full offseason to perfect his craft is dangerous for the rest of the league. Remember, the Texans went to the divisional round the first year with Ryans and Stroud.
The AFC South was certainly the most improved division last season, as Shane Steichen took the Colts to a division title game and a playoff berth – with a backup quarterback for the majority of the season . Who knows how good the Colts would have been if Anthony Richardson could have stayed healthy for most of 2023? Steichen picks up the fourth overall pick as the starting signal-caller for 2024.
Jonathan Taylor’s contract drama is in the past, so the Colts will keep him for a full offseason. They’ll have to re-sign Michael Pittman and add help at tight end, but Steichen improved the Colts’ points per possession from 32nd to 20th in year one. How much better will it be with Richardson?
The defense needs retooling, but that’s the benefit of a quarterback on a rookie contract. Indianapolis should be a playoff team if Richardson develops in year two under Steichen, much like Jalen Hurts with the Philadelphia Eagles. Steichen gets the most out of his quarterbacks, which is huge for the Colts.
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The Packers were arguably the most improved team in the NFC thanks to the emergence of Jordan Love, who threw 23 touchdowns and three interceptions in his final seven games (including the playoffs). Not only did the Packers reach the divisional round of the playoffs (first No. 7 seed to beat a No. 2 seed), but Green Bay was the youngest team to win a playoff game (average age of 25 years, 214 days).
Green Bay had 302 catches for 3,642 yards and 31 touchdowns from first- or second-year players, the most in a season in NFL history. Love has plenty of young pass catchers to grow with, starting with Jayden Reed. The Packers also have Christian Watson, Dontayvion Wicks, Romeo Doubs, Luke Musgrave and Tucker Kraft. This offense went from 15th in points per possession to ninth thanks to Love and Co. – and did so with an offensive line that was down for most of the year.
Green Bay’s defense will need to be revamped under new defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley, but having five top-100 draft picks should help. The Packers have a bright future if Love plays like he has over these last seven games more consistently.
The Rams were one of the league’s surprises last season, re-emerging as a playoff team thanks to Matthew Stafford being healthy for most of the year. Not only did Stafford’s health play a role in their re-emergence, but Puka Nacua setting NFL rookie records in receptions and receiving yards was a major boost for Los Angeles. Kyren Williams also leads the league in rushing yards per game, which has given head coach Sean McVay the running back he’s been craving since Todd Gurley was in his prime.
Los Angeles nailed the 2023 draft with Nacua, alongside Kobie Turner and Byron Young on a revamped defensive line. General manager Les Snead has made the most of his draft picks over the past two seasons, and the Rams own six picks in the first five rounds this year (first round pick for the first time since 2016).
There is still some retooling in the secondary for the Rams and they need to see if Carson Wentz can be picked up in case Stafford goes down. If Stafford stays healthy, the Rams will have a chance to win the NFC West title for the first time in three years.
Sure, the Bengals have been a disappointment in 2023, but they’ve also dealt with Joe Burrow’s injuries across the board, starting with the star quarterback’s calf injury in training camp that affected his performance at the start of the season until the wrist injury in November that ended his season. The Bengals finished last in the AFC North, but finished over .500 with Jake Browning starting seven games.
Cincinnati needs to decide whether to retain Tee Higgins and go younger and deeper on the defensive line. Adding help in the secondary wouldn’t hurt either, but having $59.4 million in salary cap space available is huge. There will be a roster overhaul in Cincinnati, but this franchise wins when Burrow is on the field.
When Burrow plays more than 10 games, the Bengals have reached (at least) the AFC Championship. They will have a last-place schedule in 2024 after finishing in the basement of the loaded AFC North. Cincinnati could be in store for another deep playoff run.