The Kansas City Chiefs have been the NFL's dominant team over the past four years, playing in three Super Bowls and winning two in that span. One more championship would turn them into a dynasty -- but we also know how difficult it is for any team to win consecutive Lombardi Trophies. It hasn't happened since the New England Patriots achieved the feat in the 2003 and '04 seasons. The Chiefs failed to run it back three years ago themselves, when Tampa Bay ruined those high hopes in Super Bowl LV.
No matter how strong the case is for Kansas City to win it all again in Super Bowl LVIII after emerging victorious in Super Bowl LVII, the field always looks better in these situations. The more critical question to be asking is this: If not the Chiefs, then who is the most sensible choice to wear the crown?
The AFC already has strengthened itself even more than it had at this point last year, as Aaron Rodgers now plays for the Jets, Sean Payton is coaching the Broncos and former Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore is calling the plays for Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. On the NFC side, there's still plenty to like about last year's conference champions, the Eagles, and the team they beat in the NFC title game, the 49ers.
Of course, this doesn't mean the Chiefs are going to be disappointing. They were supposed to take a step back last season after trading star wide receiver Tyreek Hill, but -- while relying on an assortment of free agents and rookies in key roles -- they ultimately won the biggest prize in football. It just means the competition will be even more intense as we move deeper into the 2023 season.
In fact, here are the seven teams most likely to supplant the Chiefs as Super Bowl champs next February:
The best argument for the Bengals is their overall record against the Chiefs over the past two seasons. The two teams have played four games in that span (including the playoffs), and the Bengals only have lost once. We all know how that last encounter ended in the AFC Championship Game, with Bengals defensive end Joseph Ossai drawing a personal foul for a late hit on Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes that set up the game-winning field goal by Harrison Butker. That 23-20 defeat must haunt the Bengals to this day, especially because they were able to upset Kansas City in the previous season's AFC title tilt.
Cincinnati lost some key pieces in free agency, most notably running back Samaje Perine and safeties Von Bell and Jessie Bates III, but the bulk of the roster is still in place to do some serious damage. The Bengals boast the league's best collection of offensive skill talent, a group that includes quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receivers Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. The bigger questions are:
- Can the offensive line, which now boasts ex-Chief Orlando Brown at left tackle, avoid all the injuries that plagued that unit late in the 2022 season?
- How well can crafty defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo game-plan without Bell and Bates patrolling the secondary?
The Bengals were so close to repeating as AFC champs last season. They're going to be a beast again, one that will be even hungrier to secure that Lombardi Trophy.
The Eagles still look like the class of the NFC after an offseason that was far more encouraging than perhaps most expected. Following their loss to the Chiefs in Super Bowl LVII, several critical personnel decisions awaited. Philadelphia took its hits in free agency (including the loss of valuable contributors like defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, running back Miles Sanders and safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson) but also held onto other key veterans (center Jason Kelce, defensive end Brandon Graham and cornerbacks Darius Slay and James Bradberry). The draft was good to the Eagles, who found defensive tackle Jalen Carter and edge rusher Nolan Smith in the first round and traded for Lions running back D'Andre Swift on Day 3.
As much as those moves helped, this team also would've been pretty good with most of the returning players from last season. Quarterback Jalen Hurts turned himself into an All-Pro quarterback and MVP runner-up, earning a massive contract extension. He's still operating behind one of the best offensive lines in football, and his supporting cast -- especially the receiving tandem of DeVonta Smith and A.J. Brown -- remains scary. The only reason the Eagles aren't ranked higher is the departure of offensive coordinator Shane Steichen and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon for head-coaching jobs with the Colts and Cardinals, respectively. Head coach Nick Sirianni will have this group prepared, but there will be some transition here.
The Bills might be sitting in a more favorable position than many realize. After they were the sexiest pick to win Super Bowl LVII, their season ended with a blowout loss to Cincinnati, at home, in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. That has prompted some observers to wonder if Buffalo missed its championship window. Yes, quarterback Josh Allen will continue to take up cap space as he gets deeper into the extension he signed in 2021. But news flash: The Bills haven't stopped being good. The issue with this team is, how much production can be mined out of the people around Allen? Wide receiver Gabe Davis failed to become a consistently dangerous option in the passing game, so now the Bills are hoping the addition of first-round pick Dalton Kincaid can give them a potent 1-2 punch at tight end with Dawson Knox. The offensive line became less dependable as the season wore on, and Buffalo responded by adding guard Connor McGovern in free agency and using a second-round pick on guard O'Cyrus Torrence. On defense, the success will come down to how well edge rusher Von Miller performs after last year's ACL reconstruction and what safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer can do now that they're in their early 30s. Not to mention, how head coach Sean McDermott performs as the defensive play-caller in the wake of former DC Leslie Frazier stepping away.
The Bills went through a lot last season, from bearing the weight of those heavy expectations to witnessing the frightening near-death experience of safety Damar Hamlin. They could find it much easier to play when there are more doubters circling above, just waiting for the chance to count them out.
There's no denying that anything short of a Super Bowl would be viewed by some as a major failure for this franchise. The Jets didn't trade for Aaron Rodgers simply to make a deep run in the playoffs. This deal is supposed to send them leap-frogging over the rest of the competition in the AFC, and it clearly looks great on paper. The Jets have everything a team could hope to offer a future Hall of Fame quarterback who turns 40 in December. That includes a dominant defense (including All-Pros like defensive tackle Quinnen Williams and cornerback Sauce Gardner, also the 2022 Defensive Rookie of the Year), an assortment of young weapons (Offensive Rookie of the Year Garrett Wilson) and some familiar faces from Rodgers' time in Green Bay (offensive tackle Billy Turner and wide receivers Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb). Rodgers also gives the Jets something this franchise has coveted since the days of Joe Namath: a legitimate playmaker under center who can make the necessary plays at the critical moments that lead to championships.
The important thing to remember is that transitions aren't always simple. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were sitting at 7-5 through Week 12 of the 2020 season, Tom Brady's first with that team. They wound up winning it all, but they had enough ugly moments early on that some wondered if they'd even make the postseason that year (they wound up with a wild-card berth). The same thing could happen in New York as Rodgers settles into a new home, especially if injuries plague the offensive line, as they did last year. Still, this feels like a team that can and should get hot down the stretch. The last time Rodgers thought the doubters were forecasting his impending demise, he won the league MVP award, in 2020 and 2021. He's talking with that same sense of urgency already, which means the Jets will get the best version of him.
The 49ers might have been ranked higher on this list if their quarterback situation hadn't imploded due to injuries over the course of last season. They wound up using four players at that position in 2022, with the health woes ultimately costing them a shot at the Super Bowl. The 49ers come into this year liking what they have in second-year signal-caller Brock Purdy, the seventh-round pick who led the team to seven straight wins before sustaining an injury in the NFC Championship Game loss to Philadelphia. This team was supposed to belong to 2021 first-round pick Trey Lance by this point, but Purdy proved he had the moxie and talent to lead a championship-caliber group when his opportunity arrived. He just needs to show that his surgically repaired right elbow won’t be an issue once he’s back on the field.
After that, it’s hard to find faults with this team. There is a ton of talent around Purdy, including running back Christian McCaffrey, tight end George Kittle and wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. The defense already had plenty of star power (with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa, All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner and All-Pro safety Talanoa Hufanga), but the signing of defensive tackle Javon Hargrave makes that unit even scarier. Let’s be honest: That NFC title game would’ve been far more competitive had the 49ers been at full strength. That should be enough motivation to push them through this season and give them a shot at a much happier ending than they received in 2022.
The Cowboys have made three significant personnel moves this season that should give their fans optimism about this team's championship hopes. The first was releasing running back Ezekiel Elliott, a sign of acceptance that this offense will function better with Tony Pollard as the lead ball-carrier (even if Elliott might still end up returning to Dallas). The second critical decision was trading for cornerback Stephon Gilmore. He turns 33 years old in September, but he's proven to be an effective player in each of his last two stops (with Carolina in 2021 and Indianapolis last season). That means he's likely to be a great counterpart to star cornerback Trevon Diggs on a defense that once again figures to make life hell for opposing passers. The third big move was another trade, for wide receiver Brandin Cooks, a player with the kind of top-end speed that should ease the burden on fellow wideout CeeDee Lamb and quarterback Dak Prescott.
All these moves indicate that the Cowboys are taking serious stock of their flaws -- the first-round pick used on Michigan defensive tackle Mazi Smith also should improve a shaky run defense -- and not simply believing their talent will eventually win the day in the chase for a championship. Last year's team would look like a Super Bowl squad in one game, then morph into a confounding mess in others. Now it feels like they're putting more playmakers around Prescott, which allows him to be at his best and avoid the costly turnovers that plagued him too often last year. Head coach Mike McCarthy has talked about a more conservative approach to play-calling and a desire to play to his defense. It just feels like this is a year where everyone in that franchise has a greater sense of urgency. That tends to happen when you watch your divisional rival go to the Super Bowl and keep finding more ways to improve.
This spot easily could've gone to the Detroit Lions. The Chargers get it for two reasons:
- They actually made the playoffs last year.
- Kellen Moore was one of the best hires of the offseason.
Anybody who's watched the Chargers over the past two seasons understands how talented Justin Herbert is. He now will be coached by an offensive coordinator who is as aggressive as anybody handling that job in the league. Moore helped Dak Prescott play some of his best football in Dallas, largely by making the most of all the resources available to him in that franchise. The Chargers have a similar supply of assets on their roster, including a strong offensive line, veteran wide receivers, athletic tight ends and a versatile running back in Austin Ekeler. Moore's presence and creativity should give Herbert more opportunities to unleash his full potential as a quarterback.
That's job one. The rest of this team's hopes come down to an ability to stay healthy and make clutch plays. The Chargers couldn't do either consistently last year, and they paid a heavy price for that. It's safe to say no team in the league lost more stars to injuries than Los Angeles, with left tackle Rashawn Slater, edge rusher Joey Bosa, cornerback J.C. Jackson and receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams all missing time in 2022. The only thing more frustrating than those health problems was watching this team blow a 27-0 lead in a 31-30 loss to Jacksonville in the Wild Card Round. That game showed both how dominant and dysfunctional the Chargers can be; this coming season must be about more of what they displayed in the first half. The Bolts have been good enough to win once against Kansas City over the last two seasons and lose the other three meetings by a mere combined 12 points. The question now is whether they can become consistent enough to surpass the Chiefs in the AFC West.