How the NFL divisional and wild card races shape up in 2023:
49ers. Imagine being good enough to be a prohibitive division favorite with any of the quarterbacks on the roster. Either Brock Purdy or Sam Darnold could — and will — win with this team.
Detroit Lions. OK, I’m on board with Detroit after its 8-2 finish last season. We’ll find out right away as they drew the Thursday night opener. Oh, and quarterback Jared Goff may be better than Matthew Stafford, the man who replaced him with the Rams. Imagine that.
Carolina Panthers. The Panthers are the strongest of the weakest in a division where 9-8 ought to be enough to finish first. No. 1 pick Bryce Young, the former Heisman Trophy winner out of Alabama, is in a good position with Frank Reich as his head coach and a roster that had a strong finish in 2022.
Philadelphia Eagles. The NFC’s best team a year ago, no matter what the 49ers say. There could be a bit of a drop-off from 14-3 a year ago, but an elite pass rush and do-everything QB Jalen Hurts should be enough to repeat in the division.
Dallas Cowboys, Seattle Seahawks, Minnesota Vikings. The Cowboys have too much talent to avoid double-digit wins, although QB Dak Prescott is being watched closely. The Seahawks upgraded their overall talent and need to prove QB Geno Smith was not a mirage. The Vikings might reach the postseason, but expect another early playoff exit from Kirk Cousins and Co.
On the outside looking in
New Orleans Saints. Longtime Raiders QB Derek Carr seldom hits the ground running (or passing) with a new coordinator. Will Jon Gruden get an in-season emergency phone call if the Saints don’t make a move in the NFC South?
Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs are showing no signs of relinquishing division dominance. Patrick Mahomes has had constant reshuffling of his receiving corps other than Travis Kelce, and even that doesn’t seem to matter. He’s that good. And so is coach Andy Reid.
Cincinnati Bengals. Quarterback Joe Burrow’s presence should enable the Bengals to hold off the Steelers and the Ravens provided rookie edge rusher Myles Murphy and cornerback DJ Turner contribute right away.
Jacksonville Jaguars. Riding the wave of overcoming a 27-0 deficit to the Chargers in the playoffs, the Jaguars’ talent base and another step forward from third-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence should be enough to prevail in a weak division.
Buffalo Bills. QB Josh Allen needs to make fewer turnovers and the Bills need to show the ability to grind it out when the weather gets cold. You’d think a team based in Buffalo would prepare for that, but they were outrushed 172-64 by Cincinnati in the division playoffs last season. The defense is fine.
New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens. If you got tired of Aaron Rodgers’ act in Green Bay, wait until he takes a New York-based team to the playoffs. Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season in Pittsburgh, and he’s got a team capable of 10-plus wins in 2023. The Ravens have retooled their offense under Todd Monken for a healthy Lamar Jackson.
On the outside looking in
Denver Broncos. Can Sean Payton rebuild Russell Wilson? The former Seattle Seahawks star will be better in Year 2 with the Broncos, but not good enough to get Denver into the playoffs.