Super Bowl Sunday was a great day for the Kansas City Chiefs and absolutely depressing for the rest of the NFL.
Seeing the Chiefs win their third Super Bowl in the Patrick Mahomes era, on their fourth trip in five years, led to an uncomfortable reality: If the rest of the league couldn't beat the Chiefs this past season, why would it happen next year, or the year after that?
This was the worst season the Chiefs have had in their six with Mahomes at quarterback. They were not the best team in the AFC during the season. That was the Baltimore Ravens, who were excellent. They probably weren’t second-best either. The Buffalo Bills were probably better too. It’s a stretch, but you can argue the Miami Dolphins even had a better regular season. Over in the NFC, the 49ers were better during the season.
And none of it mattered. The Chiefs beat them all when it mattered in the playoffs. And thinking ahead to next season, the 2024 Chiefs are unlikely to be as up and down as the 2023 Chiefs. And it’s far from a guarantee there will be another team next season as good as the 2023 Ravens or 2023 49ers.
So what will change? It’s not like having an elite quarterback to match Mahomes helped the Bills or Ravens. Having the better overall roster didn’t help the 49ers. If there’s a blueprint to beat the Chiefs, nobody has figured it out yet.
The Chiefs start the offseason as the No. 1 team in the way-too-early power rankings. There’s no other reasonable way to pick anyone else. They have a great shot to complete the first Super Bowl three-peat in history.
Maybe the Buffalo Bills finally put it together or Lamar Jackson gets over his postseason struggles. Perhaps a team like the Los Angeles Chargers takes off with Jim Harbaugh or the Houston Texans, with their own incredible quarterback story in C.J. Stroud, prove to be a worthy rival. Maybe the Cincinnati Bengals get back on track with Joe Burrow healthy or the Cleveland Browns' defense maintains its excellence next season and Deshaun Watson becomes elite again.
But it’s not like there haven’t been well-built teams, great quarterbacks and top-tier coaches in the AFC already. Andy Reid and Mahomes just find a way to beat them all. That’s why fans are starting to tire of this run. It seems hopeless at times for everyone else. We went right from the New England Patriots making the rest of the NFL feel that way to the Chiefs pulling the same routine.
Teams will take their shots. There will be an offseason of acquiring high-end free agents and drafting new stars, all with the hope of taking a big jump and winning a Super Bowl. But the truth is, until proven otherwise the rest of the NFL is chasing the Chiefs. And the race doesn’t seem particularly close anymore.
Here are the NFL power rankings as we enter the offseason. Consider it a snapshot of where your team stands before the madness of free agency, trades and the draft goes down and changes everything (with each team's 2023 season record in parentheses):
32. Carolina Panthers (2-15)
New head coach Dave Canales' background as a quarterbacks coach, passing game coordinator and offensive coordinator the past few years should be a positive. Canales' No. 1 job is to develop Bryce Young. The Panthers don't have their first-round pick, which they traded to the Bears to move up and get Young, and that makes it tougher to stockpile talent around their quarterback. The Panthers are in a tough spot until we see Young take a step forward.
31. New England Patriots (4-13)
Jerod Mayo could be a wonderful coach but this is a really hard first gig. First, he's taking over for a legend in Bill Belichick. Also, the Patriots are as talent poor as any team in the NFL. Getting a new quarterback with the third pick would presumably help, but the Patriots are probably getting the third-best QB in the draft. It's a difficult spot for a rookie head coach.
30. Tennessee Titans (6-11)
The NFL is mostly about the coach/quarterback combination. Maybe Brian Callahan and Will Levis are a championship combination. But there's a long way to go to prove that. Callahan might be the biggest unknown of all the new head coaching hires. That's not a bad thing, but it's hard to project him. The Titans do currently have the second-most cap space ($73.9 million) and that will help to add talent.
29. New York Giants (6-11)
Daniel Jones' ACL tear is a big talking point for the Giants' offseason. Will they draft a quarterback? It would signal a lot of immediate buyer's remorse one year into Jones' four-year, $160 million deal, but his knee injury does add another layer to the decision.
28. Denver Broncos (8-9)
The Broncos are in trouble. No matter how you try to talk around it, the Broncos have to account for $85 million in dead cap space either over the next year or two when they inevitably cut Russell Wilson. And the 12th overall pick doesn't guarantee the Broncos a shot at the type of quarterback savior that could make that mess go away.
27. Arizona Cardinals (4-13)
The rise of Jayden Daniels up the draft is a help to the Cardinals. They have the fourth pick and should be quite pleased if their late-season wins don't cost them Marvin Harrison Jr. They have enough cap space to make a couple of important additions in free agency too.
26. New Orleans Saints (9-8)
Surprise, surprise, the Saints have no cap room. In what has become an annual tradition, the Saints are well over the cap (an unbelievable $82.8 million, according to Spotrac) and will make cuts and restructures to get just enough cap space to sign more back-loaded deals and the cycle will continue. Saints fans probably believe the cap is a myth, but clearing $82.8 million is still going to take some creativity.
25. Washington Commanders (4-13)
The Commanders currently have the most cap space in the NFL (a projected $83 million, according to Spotrac) and the No. 2 pick of the draft. Assuming that pick is a new quarterback to build around, it's not a terrible place for new coach Dan Quinn to start. Washington's situation could turn around quickly.
24. Minnesota Vikings (7-10)
Will the Vikings really just run it back with Kirk Cousins, going into his age-36 season off an Achilles injury? Maybe, but that seems like swinging for a single. The problem is, who will the quarterback be if not Cousins? It's not easy to find one, and that's the Vikings' biggest question this offseason.
23. Las Vegas Raiders (8-9)
Las Vegas made the right call in seeing what Antonio Pierce can do with the permanent head coaching job. Players responded to him. They might have also dodged a bullet when Kliff Kingsbury backed out of the offensive coordinator job and went to Washington. Kingsbury's reputation is much better than his results. The key question for the Raiders, like many other teams: What's the plan at quarterback?
22. Atlanta Falcons (7-10)
Hiring Raheem Morris is the first piece of a big offseason for the Falcons. He was due for another shot at being a head coach. The second part is figuring out quarterback. If Atlanta can do that (Justin Fields?) then the rest of the roster is pretty interesting.
21. Indianapolis Colts (9-8)
The Colts have enough cap space to bring back receiver Michael Pittman Jr., maybe cornerback Kenny Moore II and perhaps make an addition or two. But the key is making sure quarterback Anthony Richardson is healthy and devising a way to keep him healthy going forward.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-7)
The Steelers can't feel good about the possibility of Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph competing for the starting quarterback spot. The problem is, with the Steelers currently projected to be $14.7 million over the salary cap, according to Spotrac, it will be hard to clear enough space to chase a veteran upgrade.
19. New York Jets (7-10)
Aaron Rodgers presumably will be back, but it's not like that doesn't come with some questions. Don't let the ridiculous idea that he could have come back late last season from an Achilles injury fool you: As Rodgers enters a season in which he'll turn 41 years old, he has an uphill climb to be his old self. It's an injury that has had lingering effects for plenty of players much younger than Rodgers.
18. Los Angeles Chargers (5-12)
If there's skepticism about Jim Harbaugh it should be that he hasn't been in the NFL since 2014. That's a long, long time to be away, in NFL years. The league moves fast. But the other side of it is Harbaugh has won at every stop. At very least, he makes the Chargers interesting.
17. Chicago Bears (7-10)
The debate over what the Bears should do with the first overall pick will last a while. But they're facing two good options: Trade the first pick for a record haul, or use the first pick on a top quarterback prospect and get a valuable pick for Justin Fields. The Bears also have the eighth-most projected cap space at a little more than $49 million, according to Spotrac. One big situation to watch is what happens to cornerback Jaylon Johnson, who became a star this past season and can hit free agency.
16. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-8)
Presumably, Baker Mayfield will be back. It makes sense after he had a career revival. But also, he just lost offensive coordinator Dave Canales to the Carolina head coaching job. That isn't great. The Bucs also have to worry about what will happen with receiver Mike Evans and safety Antoine Winfield Jr., two key players about to hit free agency.
15. Jacksonville Jaguars (9-8)
The Jaguars don't want to lose impending free agent pass rusher Josh Allen, but they also aren't swimming in cap space (18th most in the NFL at the moment) and Trevor Lawrence needs to be signed to an extension soon. Receiver Calvin Ridley is also a free agent. It will be a challenging offseason in Jacksonville.
14. Seattle Seahawks (9-8)
Mike Macdonald seems to be a good hire. He did great work as the Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator the past two seasons. He is highly respected. He also takes over a Seahawks roster that has a lot of talent. If Macdonald has a DeMeco Ryans-type of impact as a rookie head coach, Seattle could be very good right away.
13. Los Angeles Rams (10-7)
The Rams might have proved that as long as Sean McVay is their head coach, they'll never slip too far. McVay did a great job with a roster that probably shouldn't have come close to a playoff spot. And the Rams have their first-round pick for the first time since 2016, though don't rule out a trade down. A playoff berth this past season doesn't mean the roster is fixed, but it was clearly a positive season for the Rams.
12. Miami Dolphins (11-6)
The Tua Tagovailoa extension will be a topic all offseason. It's complicated by Miami's cap situation. They're currently a projected $51.2 million over the cap, third-worst in the NFL, according to Spotrac. It won't be easy to retain free agent defensive tackle Christian Wilkins or guard Robert Hunt, two key players. There's a lot of work to be done for a team that had a huge disappointment in blowing the AFC East title this past season.
11. Cincinnati Bengals (9-8)
The Bengals have a conundrum with Tee Higgins and his upcoming free agency. Having the Higgins/Ja'Marr Chase combination is part of what made the Bengals elite, but how can Cincinnati pay Higgins? It seems hard with Chase in line for a big deal soon too. Potentially losing Higgins is another reason that a lost season due to Joe Burrow's wrist injury stings so much.
10. Green Bay Packers (9-8)
Jordan Love's late-season surge changes the entire outlook for the Packers going forward. All of a sudden their passing game, filled with talented young pass catchers, looks like it's set for a long time to come. That means the front office can focus on improving other areas. The move to replace Joe Barry at defensive coordinator with Jeff Hafley will probably be a plus. Don't give Detroit the 2024 NFC North title yet.
9. Houston Texans (10-7)
The Texans head into the offseason with $65.6 million in cap space. That helps. They don't have their first-round pick, but they're quite happy with 2023 first-round picks C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson Jr., who won Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year. This is a good young team that took a huge step forward and due to Stroud and DeMeco Ryans, they might be able to fight off a regression back to the mean.
8. Cleveland Browns (11-6)
The Browns are in a weird spot. They get their quarterback back from injury, which is almost always a positive. But are they sure yet what they have in Deshaun Watson? Maybe Nick Chubb will help, but it's hard to project him coming off a devastating knee injury. The Browns had a good playoff season with a lot to like on the returning roster, but so much of the future depends on what version of Watson shows up.
7. Philadelphia Eagles (11-6)
Nick Sirianni has had a strange run. He went from almost winning a Super Bowl to practically having most of his power taken from him in a staff shakeup. He gave up control of the offense, which will be run by new coordinator Kellen Moore. Vic Fangio was brought in to run the defense. The talent on the roster is still obvious, but it will take some time for the Eagles to shake off the stink of how last season ended.
6. Baltimore Ravens (13-4)
The Ravens have some key players about to hit free agency, including many from the defense, such as tackle Justin Madubuike, edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney, linebacker Patrick Queen and safety Geno Stone. It's almost impossible to retain all or even most of them. The Ravens often just reload after losing free agents but it's always a little scary to lose top talent. That includes losing elite defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, who is Seattle's new head coach. Baltimore had a great shot to win a Super Bowl this season, and getting back to that place in a competitive AFC North will be difficult.
5. Buffalo Bills (11-6)
The Bills' window isn't closed but it's going to get harder. They're a projected $51.8 million over the salary cap going into the offseason and while they'll obviously make moves to get under that, it's not like they can spend a lot to get impact defensive playmakers or offensive help for Josh Allen. This will probably be mostly the same roster, a year older, looking for a better result.
4. Dallas Cowboys (12-5)
The big question might be if the Cowboys can tune out the negativity. The first time anything goes wrong next season, Mike McCarthy and Dak Prescott will hear all about it. The Cowboys have a fantastic roster, but what has that gotten them? There won't be much salary-cap space for big moves. It's going to be mostly the same team, which isn't the worst thing after a strong regular season. But there's a lot more pressure, even by Cowboys standards.
3. Detroit Lions (12-5)
The Lions are set up very well. They've drafted as well as any team lately, especially a stellar 2023 class. They have the seventh-most projected salary-cap space at $50.2 million. Their bounty of draft picks from the Matthew Stafford trade has run out but they still have four top 100 picks, including their own first-rounder. It's always dangerous to assume a team's next step will be forward because often it isn't, but the Lions should feel confident about where they're at.
2. San Francisco 49ers (12-5)
This might surprise you, but the 49ers are the favorite at BetMGM to win next season's Super Bowl over the Chiefs. That's because they're set up very well already for next season. The 49ers have a lot of salary-cap space tied up in stars, but having Brock Purdy on a dirt-cheap rookie deal is a big help. The 49ers don't have a lot of key free agents about to hit the market, so they can practically return most of the same roster. They also have 11 draft picks, with extras in the third, fourth, fifth and seventh rounds. The 49ers can get right back to a Super Bowl.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (11-6)
Free-agent defensive lineman Chris Jones is the first priority, but it will be hard for the Chiefs to pay him. If it was easy, there wouldn't have been a holdout that went to Week 2. Re-signing cornerback L'Jarius Sneed should be a priority too. Overall the Chiefs are in a fine spot because they have Patrick Mahomes. Sometimes it's that easy.