2024 NFL season: 49ers, Ravens, Lions among teams most likely to replace Chiefs as Super Bowl champs

2024-05-22

The Kansas City Chiefs have so dominated the NFL of late that sometimes it's hard to know what it would take to knock them off. They were the third-seeded team in last year's AFC playoffs and still wound up winning a second consecutive championship, beating the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII. That achievement alone tells you how scary the Chiefs have become. Even in a year when Patrick Mahomes and his offensive teammates underachieved, Andy Reid's squad still knew how to capture a crown when the time came.

This fall, Kansas City will pursue history. No team has ever won three straight championships in the Super Bowl era, and the Chiefs have made it known they want to be the first. If they accomplish this feat, they will set themselves apart from other NFL dynasties that had the same opportunity. The problem -- as every other franchise that has been in this position can attest -- is that it's not an easy task for a reason.

Kansas City may have three Super Bowl wins in the last five years, but this isn't college football. There isn't some huge talent gap separating a national champion, like Michigan or Georgia in recent years, from the rest of the competition. The Chiefs won their last two Super Bowls by a total of six points, with last year's win over San Francisco coming in overtime. They ultimately were the best team when it mattered most in the playoffs.

With that in mind, we decided to use this edition of The First Read to consider the teams that have the best chance of keeping Kansas City from achieving its three-peat. In theory, there are a lot of franchises that have a shot. In fact, there are only seven that could realistically dethrone the defending champs. Here they are (ranked from most to least capable) 

Rank
1
San Francisco 49ers
2023 record: 12-5

The Chiefs have won two of their most recent Super Bowls at the expense of the 49ers -- the two teams also met in Super Bowl LIV -- but there should be added motivation for San Francisco to claim a championship this coming season. At publishing, the 49ers have the second-best odds to win the Super Bowl, according to Caesar’s Sportsbook, behind only the Chiefs. They also still have most of their core intact from the team that lost in overtime to K.C. back in February. Quarterback Brock Purdy should be even better after blossoming into an MVP candidate in his second NFL season. A loaded defense will be waiting to see when star linebacker Dre Greenlaw recovers from a torn Achilles in the Super Bowl, but the return of safety Talanoa Hufanga (torn ACL) will help the cause on the back end. There are still lingering questions about the situation at receiver -- where there have been rumors about the possibility of the team trading either Deebo Samuel or Brandon Aiyuk -- so we’ll have to see how that all plays out. 

However, San Francisco still has arguably the league’s most talented roster and a team that has appeared in two Super Bowls and four NFC Championship Games in the last five seasons. What also shouldn’t be overlooked is that the 49ers had fourth-quarter leads in both of those Super Bowl defeats to the Chiefs. San Francisco has been painfully close to claiming a Lombardi Trophy under head coach Kyle Shanahan. With Purdy still playing on his rookie deal, this could be the Niners' last great chance to realize that dream with this current group.

Rank
2
Baltimore Ravens
2023 record: 13-4

The Ravens open the NFL season in Kansas City, so we’ll have an early read on how ready this team is to make another run at supplanting the Chiefs as conference champs. It’s also a safe bet that Baltimore won’t beat itself like it did in last year’s AFC Championship Game loss. It’s still impossible to understand why the Ravens would veer so far from their identity in that contest -- by essentially ignoring their vaunted running attack -- but what’s done is done. Baltimore now must prove that it can create another shot at a championship after being the top seed in last year’s AFC postseason. Lamar Jackson won the league’s Most Valuable Player award by maturing in a diversified offense that is flush with weapons. The arrival of running back Derrick Henry gives the Ravens a monstrous threat in the backfield (even if he is 30 years old), while the eventual return of speedy ball-carrier Keaton Mitchell (who tore his ACL in December) will also make Jackson’s job that much easier. 

There’s an obvious loss on defense with former coordinator Mike Macdonald becoming the head coach in Seattle, but his replacement, Zach Orr, was coaching the team’s inside linebackers prior to his promotion. There shouldn’t be much change in a unit that was the best in the league last season. Really, the only thing keeping the Ravens from overtaking Kansas City is the mental aspect. The Chiefs usually have found ways to overcome Baltimore in the past, which tends to get in the heads of opponents. The Ravens were the better team on paper when the 2023 regular season ended. They need to find a way to prove that on the field when it matters most. 

Rank
3
Detroit Lions
2023 record: 12-5

The Lions have made enormous strides in three years under head coach Dan Campbell. They won three regular-season games in 2021, nine in 2022 and 12 last season, when they also won the NFC North and a playoff game for the first time in three decades. That kind of steady growth indicates that this isn’t a team about to take a step back after losing to San Francisco in January’s NFC Championship Game. Anybody who saw Detroit beat Kansas City in last year’s season-opener could see what makes the Lions so tough: They don’t fear anybody. That will be the case this fall as Detroit returns many of the key players who’ve helped change the culture around a long-downtrodden franchise. The offense will once again rely on a strong O-line that powers both a dynamic running game (led by backs David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs) and gives quarterback Jared Goff time to dissect opposing coverages. The defense finally may have resolved its issues against the pass, as the Lions bolstered the cornerback position with experience (trading for veteran Carlton Davis) and youth (rookies Terrion Arnold and Ennis Rakestraw Jr. were the Detroit’s first two draft picks). 

You also can’t overlook the way Campbell leads this bunch. He’s proven to be a master motivator, but he probably doesn’t need many tricks to inspire this current group. The Lions showed they could handle the relentless hype that lingered over them last season. Their only challenge now is to finish with a couple more wins in the postseason.Rosenthal: Lions have toughest 2024 schedule, not Browns | 'NFL GameDay View'

Rank
4
Cincinnati Bengals
2023 record: 9-8

Don’t make the mistake of underestimating the Bengals based off 2023. Injuries limited quarterback Joe Burrow at the start of the year (a calf strain) and eventually ended his season in mid-November (torn ligaments in his right wrist). He played in all of 10 games and, as a result, the Bengals only won nine by season’s end. Things will look a lot different around this franchise if Burrow can stay healthy this fall, primarily because Cincinnati is the only team in the league that has proven to be a consistent pain in the butt for the Chiefs. The Bengals beat Kansas City in the 2021 AFC Championship Game, and nearly achieved the same feat a season later. Cincinnati also has won three of the four games that Burrow has started against the Chiefs. That breeds a certain level of confidence that won’t deteriorate with a season as frustrating as last year. The Bengals clearly wanted to ensure Burrow’s safety this offseason because they signed Trent Brown to play right tackle while also selecting OT Amarius Mims in the first round of the draft. The defense also should be more reliable after last year’s struggles (the Bengals declined from sixth in points allowed in 2022 to 21st in '23). The return of safety Vonn Bell -- one of the key leaders of that group before he signed a free-agent deal with Carolina last year -- and the free-agent acquisition of former Ravens safety Geno Stone gives defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo more valuable veteran leadership on the back end. 

The more pressing questions around the Bengals actually revolve around chemistry. Both wide receiver Tee Higgins and defensive end Trey Hendrickson have requested trades, and it’s hard to know how their contractual gripes will impact a team that has been known for its cohesiveness. Still, there’s something about Burrow being back on the field that makes everything right in Cincy. The team believes it can overcome anything with him under center. If Burrow's healthy, the Bengals may very well do that.

Rank
5
Philadelphia Eagles
2023 record: 11-6

The Eagles were the most confounding team in the league by end of last season. They were 10-1 at one point and then lost six of their last seven games. So why should there be so much optimism around this team heading into 2024? Well, it has a lot to do with an assortment of smart moves this franchise has made. General manager Howie Roseman gave contract extensions to wide receivers A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, so you know those two are happy. Some critics scoffed at the three-year, $37.75 million deal that free-agent running back Saquon Barkley received, but he could be electric in that offense -- especially with new coordinator Kellen Moore calling the plays -- if he stays healthy. 

The defensive changes have been even more critical. Vic Fangio moves in as defensive coordinator for a unit that surrendered at least 27 points in six of its last eight games. He’ll provide better schemes, but he’ll also work with better talent than what Philadelphia fielded last year. The Eagles should benefit from the return of safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson (who helped the team reach the Super Bowl in 2022 before signing with Detroit), an infusion of youth at cornerback (with rookies Quinyon Mitchell and Cooper DeJean) and a sneaky-good free-agent signing up front (edge rusher Bryce Huff). The Eagles’ pass defense was problematic for most of last season. It should be dramatically improved this year. 

As for the factors that led to last season's meltdown, head coach Nick Sirianni seems like a leader who thrives off proving people wrong. He turned the Eagles into a playoff team in his first season and nearly beat the Chiefs in the Super Bowl in his second. Now we’ll see what he does after a campaign that ended in turmoil. The smart bet is that he gets the Eagles back on track.

Rank
6
Buffalo Bills
2023 record: 11-6

For all the people who think the Bills are about to fall apart because of some veteran offseason departures, please stop. This is a team that has found ways to thrive despite a variety of setbacks in recent years. That’s not going to change just because Buffalo had to bid farewell to some aging stars. Yes, wide receiver Stefon Diggs was a great player with this franchise, but the Bills' offense still thrived in the second half of last season without him lighting it up. Yes, this team will miss the veteran leadership in the secondary from studs like Micah HydeJordan Poyer and Tre’Davious White. Guess what? All those guys have been banged up over the last three years and somehow the Bills pressed on. The reality is that all teams lose key players eventually. The best ones know how to prepare and adjust, which is something the Chiefs proved over the last two seasons. Like Kansas City, Buffalo has a franchise quarterback who can do things most mortals simply can’t. If Josh Allen can continue trusting offensive coordinator Joe Brady as the quarterback did in the second half of last season -- after Bills head coach Sean McDermott fired Ken Dorsey and promoted Brady -- then good things will continue to happen. Buffalo looked to younger players like running back James Cook and tight end Dalton Kincaid to be difference-makers, and they responded. They surely will be asking the same of rookie wide receiver Keon Coleman this fall, as his maturation will determine plenty about what this offense’s ceiling will become.

On defense, the question is: Can the Bills pressure opposing quarterbacks? The gamble of paying big money to an old Von Miller hasn’t paid off, so they’ll have to find somebody to consistently do it. On the other hand, the return of All-Pro linebacker Matt Milano from a fractured leg will help a defense that finished fourth in the league in points allowed last year despite a bevy of injuries. Of course, there will be more questions around the Bills than we’ve seen in previous seasons. But this is also a team that has won four straight AFC East titles and nearly beat the Chiefs in each of their last two playoff encounters (including last year’s 27-24 loss in the Divisional Round). It will likely find a way to return to the postseason again.

Rank
7
Houston Texans
2023 record: 10-7

The Texans shocked the NFL with their rapid turnaround last year. They now stand poised to do even more with everyone clearly aware of what they can accomplish. What makes Houston so scary is the same thing that made Kansas City so frightening when Patrick Mahomes exploded on the scene in 2018: The Texans have a young, stud quarterback with endless potential playing on a rookie deal. C.J. Stroud gave the Texans a swagger and a belief that carried them to the AFC South title and a wild-card playoff win last season. Houston then took the next logical step in its evolution by bolstering the cast around Stroud this offseason to give this team a real shot at a championship run. General manager Nick Caserio acquired Stefon Diggs in that trade with Buffalo, adding him to a talented, young group that already included Nico Collins and Tank Dell. Diggs was essential to helping Josh Allen grow into a superstar in Buffalo. Stroud is already becoming that in Houston, and he’ll also benefit from having a versatile runner in Joe Mixon added to the backfield. 

On defense, the free-agent signing of edge rusher Danielle Hunter gives Texans head coach DeMeco Ryans another disruptive presence to pair with second-year standout Will Anderson Jr., the 2023 Defensive Rookie of the Year. Hunter has battled injuries in the past, but he’s amassed 27 sacks over the past two seasons. It’s going to be hard to deal with him and Anderson on obvious passing downs. Of course, there will be the obvious questions about how the Texans will fare with more scrutiny and a tougher schedule. The reality is those concerns matter more when talent isn’t a part of a team’s success. The Texans reached new heights in 2023 because they were actually that good. They can go even farther this year if Stroud keeps growing like most people anticipate.

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