The Super Bowl matchup is set. The rest of the NFL’s playoff field is at home (or in Cancun), stewing over why they aren’t headed to Las Vegas instead of the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers. Here are the biggest questions for the league’s other 12 playoff teams to answer if they want to try to make it to New Orleans next February.
Los Angeles Rams
Can the defense improve without defensive coordinator Raheem Morris?
Sean McVay has a huge challenge in replacing defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, who was recently hired as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. For three years, Morris managed to maximize the talent on the Rams defense—whether that was in 2021, when the unit was loaded with stars, or in 2023, when Aaron Donald was the only recognizable name. But that’s not the only change that’s potentially coming to the defense. Three starting defensive backs—cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon and safeties Jordan Fuller and John Johnson III—are on expiring contracts, and Donald, 32, has mulled retirement each of the two previous offseasons (and will eat up roughly 14 percent of the team’s cap in 2024 whether he plays or not). But replacing Morris will be a challenge, given the way he held together a Rams defense that on paper seemed like it had little business competing in 2023.
Can they do better than Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph?
The answer to this one should be simple, but let’s see whether Mike Tomlin agrees.
A new offensive coordinator, whenever Tomlin hires one, should be only the start of the Steelers’ offensive makeover. The Steelers can’t be considered a true contender until they upgrade the entire quarterback room. Pickett, a 2022 first-rounder who started 12 games in 2023, finished the season ranked 27th in dropback efficiency. Rudolph was an improvement over Pickett in the final three regular-season games, but he ultimately flopped in a loss to the Bills in the wild-card round. Team president Art Rooney II said he and the organization “still feel good” about Pickett and he is interested in bringing Rudolph, an impending free agent, back on a new contract. That feels like the wrong answer. Those quarterbacks, with an assist from Mitchell Trubisky, combined for the Steelers’ second-worst season by passing efficiency this millennium, ahead of only 2019, when Rudolph and Duck Hodges started 14 combined games. A 41-year-old retired Ben Roethlisberger might even be a better option than what the Steelers are working with now. But he’s probably not interested, so Tomlin and GM Omar Khan have work to do.
Do they extend Tua Tagovailoa?
This is a tough question to answer. Tagovailoa, who was selected fifth in the 2020 draft, will play next season on the final year of his rookie contract—unless he and the Dolphins reach an agreement on a long-term extension first. Negotiations could be complicated. If his agents are worth their salt, they’ll leverage the fact that Tagovailoa is one of the five most efficient passers in the league over the past two seasons under Mike McDaniel to earn a new blockbuster contract before he plays another snap. On one hand, Tagovailoa is quarterbacking the best offense the Dolphins have had in at least a decade. On the other hand, he consistently crumbles in big moments, and it’s unclear whether he’s elevating a talented roster while playing in McDaniel’s QB-friendly scheme. The Dolphins are already in salary cap hell with star defensive tackle Christian Wilkins and three starters along the offensive line on expiring contracts, and it makes it that much harder to pay Tua the $250 million contract all of the stats suggest he’s likely going to be seeking.
How much of an upgrade are Kellen Moore and Vic Fangio over Brian Johnson and Sean Desai/Matt Patricia?
It isn’t news that the Eagles had a coordinator problem in 2023. Head coach Nick Sirianni demoted Desai and elevated Patricia to defensive play caller in December, and nothing changed. The defense closed out the season ranked 30th in points allowed per drive, and played especially poorly in a wild-card playoff loss to Tampa Bay. The offense, meanwhile, stalled and then bottomed out over the final two months of the season. Sirianni kept his job, but the play callers did not. Enter Moore, the Chargers’ offensive play caller in 2023, and Fangio, Miami’s defensive coordinator. The Eagles certainly have roster questions to address heading into next season, but any real improvement starts with the coaching staff. Both sides of the ball need an injection of identity and innovation in 2024 if they’re going to right the ship in a hurry (and save Sirianni’s job).
Can they win with Deshaun Watson?
So far, the Browns’ trade for Watson has been a disaster for many reasons. He ranks 39th in EPA per dropback in his two seasons with Cleveland, yet no other player in the league is owed more money over the next three years. A 38-year-old Joe Flacco, signed off the street in November, was better for the Browns this season than Watson has been at any point since he arrived. Watson’s lingering shoulder injury and the other season-ending injuries the Browns suffered in 2023 (notably to running back Nick Chubb and offensive linemen Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills) are all fine excuses for Watson’s poor play, but they’re still excuses. Kevin Stefanski and Co. likely can’t afford excuses when their $230 million quarterback—the one who arrived with plenty of off-field concerns—is either playing poorly or not playing at all.
Will Mike McCarthy have a plan for the postseason?
In his statement following the announcement that he was keeping Mike McCarthy as head coach in 2024, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said that McCarthy “has demonstrated postseason success at a high level.” He must have a weird way of measuring success. McCarthy’s career postseason record dropped to 11-11 when the Cowboys gave up 48 points in a blowout loss to the Packers in the wild-card round, despite entering the game as at least 7-point home favorites. Another 11- or 12-win regular season doesn’t matter. Another division title probably doesn’t even matter. Quarterback Dak Prescott is coming off an MVP-caliber season and now entering the final year of his contract. It’s no longer enough for the Cowboys to be regular-season heroes. Dallas has the second-best 2025 Super Bowl odds of any team in the NFC; it’s on McCarthy to make it happen.
Green Bay Packers
How much will replacing coordinator Joe Barry improve the defense?
The offense, led by 25-year-old quarterback Jordan Love and head coach Matt LaFleur, is going to be just fine. It’s a young, exciting unit that improved wildly over the course of the season. Green Bay ranked 19th in offensive EPA per drive in Weeks 1-9; it ranked third in the same stat in Weeks 10-18.
The defense is similarly young, but less exciting and a way bigger question mark heading into 2024. LaFleur’s decision to fire Barry is a start, but it’s probably not enough. The Packers’ next defensive coordinator will need to revitalize a unit that closed out the second half of the season ranked 27th in points allowed per drive. The new play caller may also have to mitigate losses in the secondary, as five Green Bay defensive backs with 500-plus snaps played in 2023 will hit free agency if not re-signed by early March.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Do they re-sign and build around Baker Mayfield?
Mayfield experienced a career revitalization in 2023 under offensive coordinator Dave Canales and led the Buccaneers to an NFC South division title and a postseason win. Also, a one-year sample size of borderline league-average dropback efficiency under a good play caller (who is now the head coach in Carolina) probably isn’t enough to break a bank on a contract to keep him in Tampa. The Bucs must soon decide whether to pay Mayfield, who played last season on a bargain-priced, one-year deal. It’s reasonable to expect Mayfield will garner considerable interest on the free agent market given the dearth of quarterback talent across the league. So what should Tampa Bay do? Kick the financial can down the road and use the franchise tag on Mayfield? Sign him to a Daniel Jones–level extension? The risk of the tag is that Mayfield could ask for even more money next offseason if he takes another leap under a different offensive coordinator. The risk of the extension is, well, ask the Giants.
Where do they spend all of their capital now that they have their franchise quarterback?
The Texans hit the lottery in 2023. They found a 22-year-old franchise quarterback in C.J. Stroud, won the AFC South, and advanced to the divisional round of the playoffs in his rookie season. Their window to compete for a Super Bowl is already open, and they’ll never have more capital to take advantage of it than they will in 2024. The question, as when anyone hits the lottery, is how do you spend it all?
Only four teams have more projected cap space in 2024 than the Texans. None of those teams have a franchise quarterback. None of them made the playoffs, let alone won a playoff game. The 2024 free agent class is a mystery until tag season passes, but the Texans should be ready to spend to bolster the roster. Could they land a star wideout like Cincinnati’s Tee Higgins or the Colts’ Michael Pittman Jr.? Will one of the several edge rushers (Josh Allen, Danielle Hunter, Brian Burns) become available? The right offseason acquisitions will only make things easier for Stroud in his second season.
Is there anything more they can actually do to beat Patrick Mahomes?
It’s fair to wonder whether the Bills’ best chance to get past Mahomes and the Chiefs in the AFC has passed. They beat the Chiefs on the road in the regular season and were home favorites in the divisional round, and they lost. Everything will get more difficult from here. Quarterback Josh Allen’s cap hit balloons from $18.6 million to $47 million in 2024, leaving Buffalo with negative-$51 million in available cap space to upgrade the roster long before any hypothetical rematch with Kansas City. The Bills can hope that the next time they play Kansas City they’ll be far healthier—having players like linebacker Matt Milano and cornerback Tre’Davious White sure would have helped in the divisional round—but it’s not that simple. It’ll be on general manager Brandon Beane to improve the roster cheaply through the draft and for head coach Sean McDermott to develop the young players on the roster (without any absurdist motivational speeches).
Should they pay Jared Goff?
Of all the questions listed here, this is the easiest to answer: No! The Lions shouldn’t pay Goff (yet). Goff’s contract expires after 2024, and it’s not an affordable rookie contract like Tagovailoa’s or a cheap one-year deal like Mayfield’s. Goff is on the books for $31.7 million in 2024, the 17th-biggest cap hit of any player in the NFL. Handing him an extension before he plays out the final year of his contract would be asinine. Let him earn a multiyear extension while making $12 million more than any other player on the roster without Ben Johnson as the offensive play caller (assuming Johnson gets a head-coaching job elsewhere). The last season Goff played without Johnson calling the plays was with the Lions in 2021; he finished that season ranked 22nd in EPA per dropback, and the team won three games. I get that they’re chanting “JAR-ED GOFF” all over Detroit now. If they’re doing it again this time next year, pay the man his money.
How much better do Lamar Jackson and the Ravens need to be to beat Mahomes?
I get it. Lamar Jackson has struggled in the postseason throughout his career. The fourth-quarter interception he threw into triple coverage in the AFC championship game loss to Kansas City didn’t help that narrative, nor does the fact that now he ranks dead last in playoff EPA per dropback among quarterbacks with five postseason games played in the last 10 years. But none of that changes the fact that the sample size of Jackson being stoppable is a whole lot smaller than his sample size of being unstoppable. He’s a soon-to-be two-time league MVP at 27 years old. He’s coming out of only his first year with a new offensive play caller, Todd Monken. And his best receiver, Zay Flowers, just finished his rookie year (and made some rookie mistakes). As good as Jackson and Monken and Flowers all are, there’s still so much meat on the bone for them to improve. We’re letting a small sample size of underwhelming Jackson performances prevent us from tiering the Ravens in the same spot as the Bills. The truth is that both the Ravens and Bills will be legitimate Super Bowl contenders next season; the question is when they’ll actually beat Mahomes.