In the NFL's ideal world, its best teams would be spread evenly throughout both conferences. We do not live in that world.
Just in case you haven't noticed, the AFC projects to be the proverbial bowling ball of butcher knives this season. All 32 teams want to believe they have a shot at making it into the postseason, but the AFC is full of squads with great defenses, veteran quarterbacks, head coaches with track records of success and a few lucky teams that can call on all three. Realistically, there are 14 teams treating 2023 as a year in which anything short of a postseason berth would be a massive disappointment. Unfortunately for them, they have to fit into seven playoff spots.
You can't say the same thing about the NFC, where whole divisions appear to be treating this season as a rebuilding or retooling campaign. Several of last season's playoff teams had less-than-impressive résumés on closer review, and there also doesn't appear to be many teams on the rise that project to take them down. If the AFC is likely to be an 18-round slugfest, the NFC might be a light sparring session before the few dominant franchises get together in the postseason.
Of course, we often get too confident and underestimate how much change will happen from season to season in the NFL. Who would have predicted that the Bengals would jump from 4-11-1 in 2020 to make the Super Bowl the following season? Or that the team that beat them, the Rams, would miss the playoffs and win just five games in 2022? What feels settled in August sometimes seems silly by January.
Let's evaluate the 2022 playoff teams and rank their chances of making it back to the playoffs. I'm not going to pick teams to take their place, but I will consider their underlying level of play from last season, what elements of that performance typically travel well from year to year, the changes they've made this offseason and what their competition projects to look like in 2023.
Naturally, because we expect the AFC to be better than the NFC on the whole, I believe it's going to be harder for teams from the AFC to make it back into the playoffs. Even with that in mind, though, it's easy to start with the AFC team I expect to return to the postseason for yet another deep run: