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Where Do the NFL’s Most Improved Teams Go From Here?

After lackluster starts for the Packers, Broncos, Texans, and more, these teams still have hopes for the playoffs. Will they make it? Or return to relative obscurity over the season’s last few weeks?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

There’s no other way to put it: The 2023 NFL season has been downright sloppy so far. Offenses aren’t scoring like we’re used to, a bunch of the good quarterbacks are hurt, and most of the field is just battling to stay close to .500. But while the product hasn’t been great, this is the type of season the NFL has been chasing since parity became a priority. Heading into Week 15, only two teams have been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. That means 30 teams still theoretically have a chance to win it all with three games to play, which is an NFL record, breaking last year’s mark of 29.

This is all by design. When the league expanded to a 17-game schedule, commissioner Roger Goodell said the main aim was to “bring even more drama [and] more opportunities for teams to make it to the postseason.” Well … mission accomplished, Rog. The longer season has given teams the opportunity to turn things around after a slow start. And, now, it feels like we see a handful of those comeback stories per season—especially in 2023.

A number of teams that were written off a month into the season are back in the playoff chase. Some of them will carry this momentum into January, while some will fade back into league obscurity. So we’re here to look at five late-blooming teams and ask one simple question: Are they going to keep this up?

Green Bay Packers

Started: 2-5
Now: 6-7

Not even a 24-22 loss to the Tommy DeVito–led Giants was enough to completely derail Green Bay’s momentum. It was certainly a setback, but the Packers are currently holding on to the final spot in the NFC playoff field, thanks to losses by the Rams, Seahawks, and Falcons this week. And with Green Bay boasting one of the league’s easier schedules down the final stretch, there’s a good chance we’ll see the Packers playing on wild-card weekend. The New York Times playoff model gives them a 50/50 shot at making it, but that doesn’t account for the fact that their main competition, the 7-6 Vikings, are about to start Nick Mullens at quarterback. The Week 17 matchup between these teams will likely determine which of them will still be playing when the postseason kicks off in a month, and the Packers will be favored by more than a few points in that one.

But I’m burying the lede here. This season for Green Bay won’t really be judged by where the team ends up in the standings. Rather, it will be judged on the performance of quarterback Jordan Love. The latest results have been promising—the disappointing loss in New York notwithstanding. Over the past month, we’ve seen Love beat Justin Herbert, outclass Jared Goff, and match Patrick Mahomes throw for throw on Sunday Night Football. The numbers have been great—he’s third in total expected points added since Week 11, and he has been right around league average in the passing metrics that are most stable year-to-year. He’s been slightly above average on straight dropbacks (without play-action) and on throws past the first-down marker, while he’s been below average in a clean pocket. But the most telling Love stat, to me, is his sack avoidance. Despite facing a fair amount of pressure, Love has been sacked on just over 5 percent of his dropbacks. When under pressure, he’s been sacked on just over 17 percent of his dropbacks, which ranks 11th in the NFL—though many of those sacks are coming on third down, when taking a sack isn’t nearly as damaging as it is on early downs.

Love’s main selling point is his ability to throw a football from just about any platform. He’s got a strong arm with a fluid throwing motion that allows him to get the ball over and around defenders, and to test windows most quarterbacks don’t have the imagination to even consider. That rare skill combined with his ability to avoid negative plays, while still remaining aggressive, is a formula that usually works out in the long run. Love’s transformation over the course of this season feels real.

If it is, the Packers should have no problem earning a spot in the playoffs. They get the Bucs at home, followed by road games against Bryce Young’s Panthers and Mullens’s Vikings, and then finally the Bears in Lambeau Field. Those are four winnable games in which the Packers will have a significant advantage at the QB position.

Minnesota Vikings

Started: 1-4
Now: 7-6

While the mess at quarterback following Kirk Cousins’s season-ending Achilles tear has garnered most of the attention in Minnesota lately, the defense has quietly kept the team’s playoff hopes alive. That unit, led by first-year coordinator Brian Flores, ranks seventh in defensive EPA and seventh in success rate. It just pitched its first shutout of the season in a not-so-thrilling 3-0 victory over the Raiders on Sunday. The win moved Minnesota up to the sixth seed in the NFC and pushed the team’s playoff odds up to 62 percent, per the New York Times playoff model.

That number feels a bit too high, though, and not just because Mullens is now the team’s starting quarterback after Kevin O’Connell benched Josh Dobbs on Sunday. While the current defensive approach Flores is employing is fun as hell, it’s also destined to experience some volatility. Flores has sparked this turnaround by blitzing at a league-high rate (45.8 percent of snaps) that not even the famously blitz-happy Wink Martindale, who coordinates the Giants defense, has kept up with. Minnesota leads the league in that blitz rate by four percentage points, according to TruMedia.

The Vikings have a tough schedule over the next month. After a trip to Cincinnati this weekend, they’ll play two games against the Lions with a game against the Packers in between. Fortunately, the QBs in those games are a young Jake Browning, Jared Goff (who’s been personally tormented by Flores throughout his career), and finally Love, who is coming off an ugly performance against the aforementioned Martindale. So while a blitzing defense is prone to volatility, this might be the ideal group of quarterbacks to be going up against with such a style. There are no quick-thinking vets who can exploit aggressive schemes left on the schedule. Having to navigate this stretch with Mullens (or even Dobbs) at quarterback will make things difficult, but the Vikings have the perfect defensive coordinator for the job—provided those blitzes keep getting home.


Los Angeles Rams

Started: 3-6
Now: 6-7

Sean McVay is happy again. At least that’s how it appears from the outside looking in. Following a brutal 2022 season that had the Rams coach contemplating retirement, this season seems to have rejuvenated the 37-year-old. It’s also rejuvenated the offense, thanks in large part to Matthew Stafford’s return to the lineup. The veteran quarterback, who suffered elbow and back injuries last year, is playing the best football of his career, and that includes the team’s Super Bowl run in 2021. In Year 3 of the McVay-Stafford partnership, the offense has finally transformed into something completely different from what we were used to seeing when Goff was under center in L.A.

Rams Play-Calling Comparison, 2020 Vs. 2023

Season Shotgun % Play-action % Bootleg % Deep throw % RPO %
Season Shotgun % Play-action % Bootleg % Deep throw % RPO %
2023 62.3% 19.8% 6.7% 12.7% 2.2%
2020 41.7% 33.1% 14.8% 8.8% 0.4%

That was already kind of true in 2021. The Rams started calling more dropback passes, more RPOs that took advantage of Stafford’s slick throwing ability, and more shotgun formations. The offense was just … more interesting. And it was definitely more challenging for the quarterback. This season, with Stafford playing at such a high level, McVay has been able to raise the bar for his quarterback once again. Sunday’s losing effort in Baltimore—which was impressive no matter the 37-31 score—was a dazzling display of arm talent and sharp offensive design.

It was the first time we’ve seen the Ravens’ elite defense struggle like in the clip above, but I’m not sure there was anything they could have done better—not with Stafford and McVay operating at that level. Getting thoroughly dominant performances out of Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua also helped L.A.

There are still plenty of question marks about this Rams team. The offensive line is improving, but it can still be bullied in pass protection. The defense is young and showing positive signs, but it’s been a bottom-10 unit all season. This team will go only as far as Stafford and McVay can take it. But given how things have been going, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Denver Broncos

Started: 1-5
Now: 7-6

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to induct Sean Payton into the Hall of Fame as soon as this season ends. He’s been everything the Broncos hoped he would be: the adult in the room after the Nathaniel Hackett disaster; a QB whisperer who could salvage what’s left of Russell Wilson’s career; and a resilient coach who was never going to let a 1-5 start (or giving up 70 points in a single game) derail the season.

But, for as good a job as Payton has done over the past few months, he is not the primary catalyst for Denver’s rapid turnaround. That credit goes to defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who has completely rebounded from the 70-point embarrassment in Miami. Since that Week 3 game, the Broncos have won seven of 10 and rank in the top 10 in total EPA allowed, EPA allowed per snap, and EPA allowed per pass. An increase in turnovers has helped spark the turnaround, which is always a concern in terms of consistency. But we’ve seen more sustainable growth in other areas. The pass rush has steadily improved its pressure rate as the season has gone on.

Broncos’ Pressure Rate by Month

Split Pressure rate Rank
Split Pressure rate Rank
Wk 1-4 34.5% 22nd
Wk 5-9 34.0% 19th
Wk 10-14 39.6% 10th
Total 36.4% 14th
NFL Next Gen Stats

And that pressure has helped to create a lot of the turnovers. That wasn’t the case over the first few weeks of the season, and Tua Tagovailoa’s long touchdown against the Broncos was a good illustration of Denver’s issues early on. The initial coverage is sound, but Tagovailoa just holds the ball until the structure of the coverage inevitably crumbles and Tyreek Hill gets open deep:

That’s not happening anymore. The pass rush has made the coverage unit’s job easier, and the coverage unit hasn’t let that effort go to waste. Joseph made a change to the secondary in Week 4, swapping out nickel corner Essang Bassey, who’s been one of the worst coverage defenders in the slot this season, and bringing in Ja’Quan McMillian, who’s been one of the best. McMillian picked off Mahomes in the win over the Chiefs in Week 8 that turned the season around, and he’s coming off one of his better games of the season in a 24-7 win over the Chargers.

I never thought I’d say this back in September, but my biggest concern with the Broncos isn’t Joseph’s defense; it’s the offense, which has been functional and explosive at times but hasn’t been nearly as efficient as Payton’s old teams—even the late Saints teams that had Drew Brees in and out of the lineup. The veteran play-caller has done an excellent job of building around Wilson’s chaotic nature, but the offense has taken on the personality of its quarterback. This isn’t a playoff-caliber unit just yet. But at least the defense is ahead of schedule.

Houston Texans

Started: 3-5
Now: 7-6

With C.J. Stroud exiting Sunday’s loss to the Jets with a concussion, and his status for this weekend’s game against the Titans still in doubt, Houston’s playoff chase doesn’t feel so important all of a sudden. Stroud ending this historic rookie season healthy should now be the main priority.

And it seems like coach DeMeco Ryans’s young staff is taking that seriously. Stroud is unlikely to play against Tennessee at present, and while we’ll have to wait and see how things play out this week before fully crediting the Texans with protecting their young QB, this is a test we’ve seen other celebrated coaches fail. Mike McDaniel’s handling of Tagovailoa’s concussions last season was a black mark on an otherwise successful debut campaign. And while Kyle Shanahan should be the favorite for 2023 coach of the year, allowing Brock Purdy to play through a head injury that eventually landed him in the league’s concussion protocol was a bad look for the 49ers coach. This is Ryans’s chance to do what his former colleagues in San Francisco didn’t: put the health of his young quarterback before the success of the team.

Holding Stroud out against the struggling Titans feels like an easy decision. But it gets more complicated from there. Following the trip to Tennessee, the Texans take on the Browns and their terrifying pass rush. Houston has already lost rookie receiver Tank Dell to a season-ending injury, and Nico Collins didn’t practice on Wednesday after leaving the Jets game with a calf injury. When/if Stroud returns, it won’t be to the cushy support system he enjoyed throughout the first few months of the season. Houston’s run game won’t offer much aid, and the offensive line has regressed over the past month. Without receivers who can reliably get open, Stroud will be under siege as he attempts to carry the offense to the playoffs. As we’ve seen going back to his Ohio State days, Stroud is a gamer who will take some extra hits if it helps the team win. That’s a commendable way to play, but it’s not what’s best for Houston’s long-term goals—which should be more ambitious than a trip to the wild-card round this season.