2023 NFC grades for eliminated playoff teams: who passed and who failed.
The NFC outperformed expectations, despite many believing that the AFC would be the superior conference due to quarterback star power.
With the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers rebuilding quickly to become two of the most surprising playoff teams, a few excellent NFC clubs missed out on the postseason.
The star-studded Seattle Seahawks were viewed as a potential challenger to the San Francisco 49ers. Instead, Seattle missed the playoffs due to tiebreakers, while San Francisco won the top spot.
The Derek Carr-led New Orleans Saints were similarly unsuccessful, losing the NFC South to the Baker Mayfield-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints were two of nine NFC clubs that did not make the playoffs. Here’s how the nine clubs performed in 2023 and what you can anticipate from them in 2024.
DK Metcalf, wide receiver, is the team MVP. Many top players disappointed the Seahawks this season, including Metcalf, who failed to live up to his lofty expectations. But he rescued the Seahawks a few times, and it was clear that they played better when Geno Smith brought him in. Metcalf, a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, has 66 receptions for 1,114 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 16.9 yards per catch.
Best moment: In Week 15, backup Drew Lock delivered a game-winning touchdown to rookie wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Najiba, allowing the Seahawks to overcome the Philadelphia Eagles 20-17 on Monday Night Football. Overall, it was an ugly game, but it ended the Seahawks’ four-game losing streak and gave them a few more chances to make the playoffs. They fell short due to their Week 17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Worst moment: A four-game losing streak to the Rams, 49ers (twice), and Dallas Cowboys. That period demonstrated that the Seahawks were more of a fringe playoff team than a Super Bowl contender with an all-star roster. Many will blame Smith, who underperformed following a breakout 2022 season. However, the Seahawks’ defense never got on the same page, allowing 117 points over the dreadful four-game losing run.
Offseason outlook: The Seahawks must decide whether to waive Smith or keep him for another season, which would incur a $31.2 million cap hit in 2024. That is still lower than the average starting quarterback in the NFL. Unless they stumble upon Washington Huskies’ Michael Penix Jr. in the draft, the Seahawks should emphasize defense. They need to figure out what went wrong with a roster that included Bobby Wagner, Leonard Williams, Riq Woolen, Devon Witherspoon, and Dre’Mont Jones. Some seasoned defenders are unlikely to return to Seattle next season. Derek Carr, quarterback, is the team MVP. He was inconsistent throughout the season, but it wasn’t completely his fault that the Saints missed the playoffs. Carr provided them one final postseason push by performing well in the final four games of the regular season (998 yards, 12 touchdowns, and one interception). Carr took longer than expected to build a downfield offense with wide receivers Chris Olave and Rashid Shaheed. Carr completed his first season in New Orleans with 3,878 passing yards, 25 touchdowns, and eight interceptions.
Best moment: The Saints won a thrilling battle against the Indianapolis Colts 38-27 on the road in Week 8 to improve to 4-4. Carr & Co. gained 511 total yards and had a few playmakers contribute to the thrilling victory. Alvin Kamara had 110 total yards and two touchdowns, while Taysom Hill, a versatile player, had 63 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
Worst moment: Many Saints fans turned on Carr after he threw a pick-six to Jessie Bates III in a 24-15 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 12. Despite totaling 444 yards, the Saints only reached the red zone a few times and did not score a touchdown. Blake Grupe, the Saints’ kicker, scored all of their points. New Orleans did get their retribution, defeating Atlanta 48-17 in the regular season finale.
Offseason Outlook: The Saints will most likely try to make it work another season with coach Dennis Allen and Carr, who is owed $30 million guaranteed in 2024. But New Orleans needs to start getting younger, particularly on defense. And the Saints should probably consider drafting a quarterback. To stay under the salary ceiling, New Orleans will likely part with a few renowned veterans. The Saints are now $72.3 million over the cap for 2024.
Kirk Cousins, quarterback, is the team MVP. He missed the final nine games of the regular season due to a torn Achilles, but few quarterbacks performed as well as he did in the first two months. He performed so well that there are currently suggestions that he and the organization may agree on another contract extension. Cousins helped the Vikings overcome a 0-3 start, winning four of their last five games prior to his injury. He finished the season with 2,331 yards passing, 18 touchdowns, and five interceptions.
Best moment: The Vikings rallied from a 0-3 start, but it appeared the season was gone after Cousins was injured. That was not the case, as Joshua Dobbs’ arrival from Arizona revitalized the Vikings, beginning with his remarkable debut in the Week 9 victory over the Falcons. Dobbs finished with 224 total yards, three touchdowns, and a game-winning drive in Atlanta five days after being moved for the second time in two months.
Worst moment: Cousins’ season-ending Achilles injury ultimately hampered the club since Dobbs failed to reduce turnovers, as did Nick Mullens. Kevin O’Connell, the Vikings’ coach, was so irritated with his turnover-prone quarterbacks that he turned to rookie fifth-round pick Jaren Hall before the team’s New Year’s Eve game against the Packers. However, the Packers easily defeated the Vikings, 33-10.
Offseason outlook: If Cousins is on schedule to start the 2024 season, he and the Vikings could agree on a short-term contract extension. They might also consider drafting a quarterback in the middle of the first round, but this club could benefit from another offensive lineman and additional defensive help. The defense recovered quickly under defensive coordinator Brian Flores, who may receive a few interviews for head coaching positions. Also, the Vikings will need to prioritize Justin Jefferson’s looming contract extension, as the star wideout heads into his fifth and final year on his rookie contract.
DJ Moore, wide receiver, is the team MVP. During his debut year with the Bears, the sixth-year veteran had a breakout season. Moore, who was overlooked for the Pro Bowl, had career highs in receptions (96), receiving yards (1,364), and receiving touchdowns (eight). More significantly, he established a strong downfield connection with Justin Fields. Moore’s production makes the Carolina Panthers’ deal with Chicago much worse. The Bears hold the Panthers’ No. 1 pick in the 2024 draft, as well as their former standout wideout, who will most certainly play in Chicago for several years.
Best moment: The Bears’ 28-13 victory over the Detroit Lions in Week 14 marked a turning point. The defense delivered a comprehensive performance, limiting the Lions’ dynamic attack to 267 yards and forcing three turnovers. Fields made many plays with his arms and legs, passing for 223 yards and running for 58. The victory made up for the Lions’ fourth-quarter meltdown during their first meeting in Week 11.
Worst moment: If Fields had been healthy throughout the 2023 season, the Bears might have earned a wild-card spot. Fields missed four games due to a thumb injury, resulting in a 2-2 record with undrafted rookie Tyson Bagent as the starting quarterback. Who knows if the Bears would have defeated the Chargers and/or the Saints over that four-game run, but Fields returned to play some of his greatest football in his career.
Offseason Outlook: The Bears’ decision on Fields will have a significant impact on the draft. With the first pick from Carolina, Chicago may choose between Caleb Williams of the USC Trojans and Drake Maye of the North Carolina Tar Heels. However, Fields’ improved passing ability and connection with Moore may prompt the club to trade the No. 1 pick for a plethora of picks in order to continue expanding the squad. Coach Matt Eberflus has likely earned a third season owing to progress on both sides of the ball. He transformed the Bears’ rushing defense, with cornerback Jaylon Johnson, linebacker T.J. Edwards, and edge rusher Montez Sweat all having breakout seasons. However, the Bears will need to re-sign Johnson and recruit additional talented defensive backs to strengthen their shaky pass defense.
Team MVP: Jessie Bates III, S. During his debut season with the Falcons, the former Bengals player made an immediate impression. Bates’ career season featured six interceptions, 132 total tackles, and his first Pro Bowl selection. Bates, who had a stunning 92-yard pick-six against the Saints, was also acknowledged by Pro Football Focus, who rated him the second-best safety in 2023, with a defensive grade of 90.6.
Best moment: The Falcons rallied from a 12-point hole in the fourth quarter of their Week 2 win over the Packers. It was a promising all-around effort from a team full of playmakers. Bijan Robinson carried for 124 yards, and Drake London had six receptions for 67 yards and one touchdown. Unfortunately for coach Arthur Smith, his offense had few effective outings following the home triumph over the Packers, thanks in part to the back-and-forth between struggling quarterbacks Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke.
Worst moment: The Falcons were one of the most inconsistent teams all season, but they eventually realized they still had a long way to go before becoming a playoff club. That became obvious in Week 15, when they were defeated 9-7 by the Panthers, who had two wins. Smith’s offense had a season-low 12 first downs, 204 total yards, and five punts. It was just one of many reminders that Smith failed to place his talented players in positions to succeed.
Offseason outlook: Smith was fired shortly after the Falcons lost 48-17 to the Saints in the regular-season finale. Atlanta will most likely hire one of the top coaches available this offseason in the aim of transforming their excellent roster into a playoff team.
Dexter Lawrence, defensive tackle, is the team MVP. Lawrence proved that his breakout 2022 season was no fluke, and he deserved every bit of the four-year, $90 million contract deal he signed in May. Lawrence once again caused havoc as a run stopper and pass rusher. In ’23, he might have been the greatest interior defensive lineman in the league, with a defensive grade of 93.0 from Pro Football Focus, the highest at his position.
Best moment: Tommy DeVito’s ascent to prominence provided the Giants with a nice storyline during an otherwise difficult season. The New Jersey native led the Giants on an eight-play, 57-yard game-winning drive against the Packers in a historic Monday Night Football contest in Week 14. The Giants’ come-from-behind triumph extended their winning streak to three games, all with DeVito at quarterback.
Worst moment: The Giants’ season-opening 40-0 loss to the Cowboys foreshadowed a disastrous 2023. Daniel Jones had two interceptions, including the season’s first pick-six for cornerback DaRon Bland. New York also gave up a 58-yard scoop-and-score touchdown following a blocked field goal attempt. The Giants were blown out for the second time by the Cowboys, this time by 49-17 in Week 10.
Offseason outlook: With the sixth choice in the draft, the Giants may select a quarterback like LSU’s Jayden Daniels or Penix. However, if that situation occurs, the Giants must determine whether to keep or release Jones, who is guaranteed a $36 million contract in ’24. (The franchise can opt out of Jones’ four-year, $160 million deal extension following the 2024 season.) After failing to reach an agreement on a long-term contract deal, the New York Giants are expected to let running back Saquon Barkley test the market. The Giants have a few intriguing defensive players, but they need to add more playmakers and depth to a club that has seen ups and downs. GM Joe Schoen and coach Brian Daboll may have a hectic offseason as changes loom for the core group of the current roster.