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The First Read: Confidence rankings for eight division leaders entering final quarter of 2023 NFL season

In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 15 of the 2023 NFL season, including:

But first, a confidence ranking (from least to most) of the eight division leaders with just four weeks to go ...

We knew Week 14 was going to be a blast. There were simply too many great games -- with so much potential impact on the postseason -- to think we'd be underwhelmed with the action. December always has been the time of year when conjecture vanishes from all conversations about the NFL. This is the hinge point when we truly start learning who's for real, and that's what the league provided this past weekend.

The most important takeaway from Week 14 was that almost every division race remains open. Sure, some teams have a more comfortable lead than others, but that doesn't mean much right now. There are plenty of marquee matchups coming in the next few weeks. A team that once seemed a given to host a home playoff game could easily land on the road to a wild-card spot with one or two key mistakes.

This week's edition of The First Read will focus on that reality. It's all about the division leaders in this installment, so here's our rankings of the squads that sit in the best positions to take a crown and what challenges currently stand in their way ...

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
6-7 · NFC South

Top threat in the division: Atlanta Falcons (6-7)

The Falcons split with the Buccaneers this season, but Tampa Bay just left Atlanta with a 29-25 win. Both teams are 6-7, so every week is critical from here on out. The Saints, also 6-7, can't be ruled out, either, though they've already lost head-to-head matchups with both Tampa and Atlanta. New Orleans will have an opportunity to get even, though, with games against both to close out the campaign.

Most important game remaining: at Green Bay Packers (Week 15)

This one is big just because the Bucs need to reach .500. They haven’t been in that position since late October -- when, ironically, they lost to Atlanta to fall to 3-3 -- and a win at Lambeau surely would give them a major confidence boost coming down the stretch. 

Biggest red flag: Inconsistency.

Tampa Bay is like every other team in the NFC South: You don’t know what you’re going to get from week to week. The Buccaneers have three wins in their last nine games -- after opening the season 3-1 -- and they’re likely heading for a first-round exit in the playoffs. The biggest reason to believe in them is their recent history. They’ve won the division two years in a row, and there are still a number of players left from the squad that won the Super Bowl in the 2020 campaign. It also doesn’t hurt that the NFC South is so weak. Somebody has to win it, and the Bucs currently have the best shot.

Dallas Cowboys
10-3 · NFC East

Biggest threat in the division: Philadelphia Eagles (10-3)

Dallas’ 33-13 home win over Philadelphia proved that there is little separating these teams at this stage. The Cowboys face a tougher road to close out the season (with Buffalo, Miami and Detroit in that mix), but they’re playing their best football at the right time. The bad news is the Eagles take the division if they win out, and their final four games go: at Seahawks, vs. Giants, vs. Cardinals, at Giants (combined record of 17-33 entering Monday night).

Most important game remaining: at Buffalo Bills (Week 15)

The Cowboys can’t worry about the difficulty of their remaining schedule. They can only play the games one at a time, and that journey starts with a road trip to face a Bills team that is already in playoff mode. Dallas has ripped off five straight wins. Six straight would sound a hell of a lot better.

Biggest red flag: Limited wins over good teams.

It’s been a problem all season, but the Cowboys finally earned that defining victory against Philadelphia on Sunday night. They won’t get another shot at San Francisco unless they meet in the postseason, but it’s encouraging to know Dallas can beat up on contenders, as well. It’s one thing to blast lesser teams like the Commanders, Panthers and Giants. Taking out a squad like Philadelphia -- which had the league’s top record coming into the weekend -- was a statement the Cowboys needed to make.

Jacksonville Jaguars
8-5 · AFC South

Top threat in the division: Houston Texans (7-6)

You actually could put Indianapolis in the same conversation, since both the Texans and Colts are 7-6. The difference is that Houston has a budding star in quarterback C.J. Stroud. If he stays healthy -- and he left Sunday’s loss to the Jets with a concussion -- the Texans have a shot at running down the Jaguars.

Most important game remaining: vs. Baltimore Ravens (Week 15)

The Jaguars desperately need a win. They gave up 31 points in a loss to Cleveland on Sunday and another 34 to Cincinnati six days before that. This team was once in contention for the top seed in the AFC. It now needs to fight to stay in the postseason picture altogether. The Ravens are the best opponent left on their schedule, but more importantly, they’re the next one Jacksonville will see.

Biggest red flag: Trevor Lawrence’s high ankle sprain.

Jacksonville’s season took a huge hit when Lawrence sustained that injury in a Monday night loss to Cincinnati a week ago. The Jaguars couldn’t overcome his absence in that game and Lawrence clearly wasn’t himself in a defeat at Cleveland this past weekend. The Jaguars rallied in the second half of that contest, but they fell into a 14-point hole largely because Lawrence was turning the ball over (he finished with three interceptions). Jacksonville is fortunate to have a soft schedule left (with Baltimore being the only winning team the Jags will see). That advantage won’t matter so much if Lawrence can’t play at a level they’re accustomed to seeing.

Kansas City Chiefs
8-5 · AFC West

Top threat in the division: Denver Broncos (7-6)

Don’t look now, but the Broncos are only one game behind the Chiefs in the AFC West. Denver might not have enough juice to keep Kansas City from winning its eighth straight division title, but this is the closest any AFC West team has gotten to the Chiefs at this juncture since Patrick Mahomes was in his first season as a starter.

Most important game remaining: vs. Cincinnati Bengals (Week 17)

This game felt like a layup for Kansas City when the Bengals lost quarterback Joe Burrow to a season-ending injury. Today, it feels like a game that will be crucial to Cincinnati’s playoff hopes and Kansas City’s chances of having any shot at the AFC’s first-round bye. Lose this one, and the Chiefs are most definitely looking at their first road playoff game in the Mahomes era.

Biggest red flag: Defense coming back to earth.

It’s too easy to complain about Kansas City’s offensive issues these days. Their wide receivers are a hot mess and that’s not going to change anytime soon. The problem is the Chiefs’ defense doesn’t look so elite any more. The Bills jumped out to a 14-0 lead on Sunday and eventually won by a score of 20-17. The Packers led 14-3 in the first half of their win over Kansas City, and the Raiders jumped out to a 14-0 lead before the Chiefs rallied in the second half for a victory. You want to know the easiest way to blow a lead in a division race (and ultimately go home early in the playoffs)? Keep falling behind by double digits. The Chiefs are too flawed offensively to continue having those types of problems at the start of games.

Detroit Lions
9-4 · NFC North

Top threat in the division: Minnesota Vikings (7-6)

The Vikings are two games behind the Lions and they’ll play each other in two of the last three weeks of the season. Even with all of Minnesota’s quarterback problems, this team has a chance to hurt the Lions in head-to-head play. 

Most important game remaining: at Dallas Cowboys (Week 17)

The Lions are good enough to beat the Vikings once, if not twice, in the coming weeks. The real question is whether Detroit can go on a playoff run once the postseason begins. The past month has challenged that notion, as Detroit has lost to Green Bay and Chicago (and probably should’ve dropped the Week 11 game to the Bears, too). The Lions need to find that mojo that worked so well for them earlier this year. A win over a surging championship contender like Dallas would help that cause greatly.

Biggest red flag: Defense.

The Lions have their share of problems with quarterback Jared Goff (more on that below), but the defense has been an issue lately, as well. Justin Fields thrived against the Lions in Sunday’s loss, and Packers quarterback Jordan Love did the same when Green Bay beat Detroit on Thanksgiving. Even the offensively challenged Saints found a way to score 28 points when the Lions beat them two weeks ago. Detroit has been searching for an effective pass rush all season. Suddenly, Dan Campbell's looking for a defense that can be more reliable in all aspects of the game.

Miami Dolphins
9-4 · AFC East

Top threat in the division: Buffalo Bills (7-6)

The Bills gave the Dolphins their first loss of the season and the score was 48-20. Miami will see them again in Buffalo in the season finale, after the Dolphins face Dallas and Baltimore in consecutive weeks. The Bills trail Miami by just two games, and it's not hard to imagine that Week 18 matchup could decide the AFC East title -- especially after the way Miami imploded in Monday night's loss to Tennessee.

Most important game remaining: at Baltimore Ravens (Week 17)

You literally could pick any of the last three games on the Dolphins’ schedule. We’ll go with the Ravens bout because these are the two best teams in the AFC at the moment and they’re likely to be in that position on New Year’s Eve.

Biggest red flag: Not winning big games.

It’s the same old story with this team: Miami must find a way to beat the good teams that show up on the schedule. The Dolphins were 8-3 last year and dropped five straight games before a season-ending victory earned them a playoff spot. They have to display more resilience this year, especially because they tend to play their worst against the best teams. The good news is that the defense is trending in the right direction (well, it was, up until the final few minutes on Monday night) and Miami has kept quarterback Tua Tagovailoa healthy all year. Those things must continue for this team to start winning big games.

Baltimore Ravens
10-3 · AFC North

Top threat in the division: Cleveland Browns (8-5)

The Browns are relying on that stout defense and the veteran savvy of recently signed quarterback Joe Flacco, a former Raven, to keep their playoff hopes alive. They’re two games behind Baltimore, but they’ll need plenty of help to catch the Ravens for the AFC North crown.

Most important game remaining: vs. Miami Dolphins (Week 17)

This contest might very well decide the recipient of the first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. The Ravens face their share of tough opponents -- including upcoming road trips to Jacksonville and San Francisco -- but a win over Miami could provide Baltimore with a heck of an advantage in that race for the top postseason spot in the conference.

Biggest red flag: Late-game defensive letdowns.

The Ravens have a well-documented history of falling apart in the fourth quarter of games over the last two seasons. They nearly endured another such setback in Sunday’s 37-31 overtime win over the Rams. That same defense that has been elite all season couldn’t find a way to slow down the Rams offense late in regulation. Baltimore also gave up big days to quarterback Matthew Stafford (294 passing yards, three touchdowns), running back Kyren Williams (114 rushing yards) and wide receiver Cooper Kupp (eight catches for 115 yards and a touchdown). San Francisco and Miami are capable of doing even more damage when they see Baltimore later this month.

San Francisco 49ers
10-3 · NFC West

Top threat in the division: Los Angeles Rams (6-7)

To be honest, the Rams aren’t that much of a threat. San Francisco has a four-game lead in the division and only one winning team left on the schedule. This is a wrap. 

Most important game remaining: vs. Baltimore Ravens (Week 16)

This is critical because the 49ers are very much in play for the top seed in the NFC. The Ravens are fighting for the same advantage in the AFC, so this will be a heavyweight matchup.

Biggest red flag: Staying healthy.

The only real concern the 49ers have is the health of their defense. They had some key starters banged up in Sunday’s win over Seattle (including linebacker Dre Greenlaw and cornerback Charvarius Ward) and defensive tackle Arik Armstead didn’t even suit up. Aside from that, this team is clicking at exactly the right time. The 49ers have won five straight games and they’ve all been double-digit victories. There isn’t a hotter team in the league.


Deebo Samuel
San Francisco 49ers · WR

The 49ers wide receiver has been on fire. Two of his three 100-yard games this season have come in the past two weeks -- and he’s been a big-play machine in those contests. Samuel erupted for 149 yards on seven receptions and scored twice (on a 54-yard catch and a 1-yard run) in Sunday’s 28-16 win over Seattle. He touched the ball seven times (four grabs and three rushing attempts) in a 42-19 blowout of Philadelphia in Week 13, scoring three touchdowns in that contest. Samuel hasn’t looked this dominant since he was terrorizing opponents as a receiver and running back in 2021.  

Jake Browning
Cincinnati Bengals · QB

The Bengals, with Browning filling in for injured superstar Joe Burrow, were supposed to be done by this stage. Instead, they’re starting to look like a serious playoff contender again with this backup leading the charge. Browning threw for 275 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in Sunday’s win over Indianapolis and he’s completed 82 percent of his passes over his team’s last two victories. Cincinnati head coach Zac Taylor said he had plenty of confidence in Browning when Burrow went down. Now we know why. 

Denver Bronco Defensive Coordinator Vance Joseph against the New York Jets of an NFL football game Sunday October 8, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/Bart Young)
Vance Joseph
Denver Broncos · DC

It’s hard to imagine a defensive coordinator in recent memory has had a crazier year than what Joseph has experienced in Denver. His defense couldn’t stop anybody in the first month of the season and allowed 70 points to the Miami Dolphins. That same unit is suddenly the foundation of all the good vibes around the Broncos. Denver has 18 takeaways over its last seven games. Only three teams have reached 20 points during that stretch and nobody has scored more than 22. This team is now one game behind the Chiefs in the AFC West and the playoffs are a very real possibility.


Jared Goff
Detroit Lions · QB

The Lions quarterback is scuffling through the toughest stretch of his time with that franchise. He’s committed eight turnovers in his last four games, including two interceptions in Sunday’s loss to Chicago. The Lions also have two losses in that span and there are suddenly a lot more questions about how serious they are as Super Bowl contenders. Goff was playing so well earlier this season that there were legitimate debates about him being an MVP candidate. The Lions’ main concern today should be finding a way to make him consistent again. 

Jacksonville Jaguars

Jacksonville has gone from being the best team that wasn’t given enough love to creating serious doubts about whether it can make any noise in the postseason. Part of that is a result of Trevor Lawrence playing hurt. A bigger issue is the Jaguars' defense, which has been roasted by backup quarterbacks in consecutive weeks. Cleveland’s Joe Flacco got them for 311 yards and three touchdowns in a loss on Sunday, and that came six days after Cincinnati’s Jake Browning lit them up for 354 yards in another defeat. All told, Jacksonville has surrendered 65 points over those two games.  

Kadarius Toney
Kansas City Chiefs · WR

There should be no more lingering questions about why the New York Giants traded Toney, a first-round pick in the 2021 draft, midway through last season. That’s how bad he’s been for the Chiefs this year. His latest mistake involved lining up offside, erasing what could’ve been the game-winning touchdown that he scored after receiving a lateral from Travis Kelce late in Kansas City’s 20-17 loss to Buffalo. Combine that with his lack of production (164 receiving yards on the season) and propensity for drops, and it’s clear that his future in Kansas City isn’t bright. Aside from a huge punt return in last year’s Super Bowl win, Toney has been a major disappointment.


The Jets' offense shows a pulse in an upset victory over the Texans. A 30-6 win for New York?! Nobody saw this type of game coming from the Jets, who had scored just 45 points total in their previous five games, all of which ended in defeat. But there was quarterback Zach Wilson -- who was benched for two weeks -- producing the best game of his career (27-for-36, 301 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions). We knew the Jets had enough defense to create problems for Houston quarterback C.J. Stroud. For one game, though, they also had enough offense to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive.


  1. Los Angeles Rams at Baltimore Ravens: Tylan Wallace wins it for Baltimore in overtime with a 76-yard punt return.
  2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons: Cade Otton is the hero for Tampa Bay after catching a game-winning touchdown pass from Baker Mayfield.
  3. Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs: Buffalo leaves Kansas City with a critical victory after the Chiefs are doomed by another late-game error from a wide receiver.


Baltimore is fighting for the top seed in the AFC playoffs. Jacksonville's just hoping to start winning again. The Jaguars have lost two straight games since they had the lead in the race for that coveted first-round bye, and quarterback Trevor Lawrence is playing with that painful high ankle sprain. Two weeks ago, this Sunday Night Football showdown appeared pivotal in deciding conference supremacy heading into the postseason. Now the Ravens have the most to gain, while the Jags must prove they can return to championship-contention form.


A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 15 (with Caesars Sportsbook odds as of 9 a.m. ET on Monday, Dec. 11):

Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys · QB
  • Caesars odds: +170
  • Weeks in top five: 5
  • Next game: at Bills | Sunday, Dec.17
Brock Purdy
San Francisco 49ers · QB
  • Caesars odds: +200
  • Weeks in top five: 6
  • Next game: at Cardinals | Sunday, Dec. 17
Jalen Hurts
Philadelphia Eagles · QB
  • Caesars odds: +800
  • Weeks in top five: 3
  • Next game: at Seahawks | Monday, Dec. 18
Lamar Jackson
Baltimore Ravens · QB
  • Caesars odds: +600
  • Weeks in top five: 5
  • Next game: at Jaguars | Sunday, Dec. 17
Josh Allen
Buffalo Bills · QB
  • Caesars odds: +2200
  • Weeks in top five: 5
  • Next game: vs. Cowboys | Sunday, Dec. 17


My slowly evolving Super Bowl LVIII pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: 49ers over Ravens.

Previous picks ...

  • Week 13: 49ers over Ravens
  • Week 12: 49ers over Ravens
  • Week 11: Eagles over Ravens
  • Week 10: Eagles over Bengals
  • Week 9: Ravens over Eagles
  • Week 8: Eagles over Bengals
  • Week 7: 49ers over Dolphins
  • Week 6: 49ers over Dolphins
  • Week 5: 49ers over Dolphins
  • Week 4: 49ers over Bills
  • Week 3: 49ers over Dolphins
  • Week 2: 49ers over Bills
  • Week 1: 49ers over Dolphins

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