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2024 NFL season: Buccaneers, Cowboys among most vulnerable reigning division champions

Each season, parity takes the NFL out for a spin, sending division champions spiraling out of the playoff mix and generating an annual Cinderella story. At least one team has won its division after finishing last or tied for last the previous season in 19 of the last 21 seasons. Last season was no different. There were two new division champions in the AFC (Baltimore and Houston, with the Texans going from worst to first in the AFC South) and two in the NFC (Dallas and Detroit).

Any Given Sunday is a fine tenet on which to build a league, and it almost always holds true. Still, there are some teams that feel more vulnerable to losing their spot atop the division hierarchy than, say, the Kansas City Chiefs, whose grip on the AFC West is about as tight as the New England Patriots' was on the AFC East for nearly two full decades.

With the most significant parts of roster construction complete, here is an offseason ranking of the 2023 division champions who are at greatest risk of slipping from their perch in 2024, with the closest the NFL gets to a sure thing residing comfortably -- invulnerably -- at the bottom.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC South · 2023 record: 9-8

This ranking should not be read as concern about the Bucs' offseason, during which they locked up quarterback Baker Mayfield (who led a surprisingly smooth and successful first season of the post-Tom Brady era), receiver Mike Evans and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. Rather, it's a reflection of the NFC South, which the Bucs won in 2023 with a 9-8 record, edging out the Saints, who had the same record. The biggest difference from the offseason should come in Atlanta, where the Falcons signed Kirk Cousins, then drafted Michael Penix. The Falcons finished just two games behind the Bucs and Saints last season, and you have to assume that Cousins is good for at least two wins more than Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke were.

Dallas Cowboys
NFC East · 2023 record: 12-5

This ranking should definitely be read as concern about the Cowboys' offseason, which has been ... quiet? Underwhelming? Setting aside the odd approach to Dak Prescott's contract, the offensive line and running game have changed significantly (goodbye, Tyron Smith; welcome back, Ezekiel Elliott), and likely not for the better. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles gave their offense an injection with the addition of Saquon Barkley and used their first two draft picks to rebuild the secondary, adding Quinyon Mitchell and Cooper DeJean. The Eagles' confounding second-half collapse last season opened the door for Dallas to finish with one more win and, thus, the NFC East title. Barring a repeat of that faceplant, the Cowboys figure to face a far more difficult path to repeating as the division champions.

Buffalo Bills
AFC East · 2023 record: 11-6

2024 feels like a bit of a reset for the Bills, who bid farewell to veterans like Jordan Poyer, Mitch Morse, Tre'Davious White, Gabe Davis and -- the biggest name -- Stefon Diggs. Buffalo is also tied for sixth in schedule difficulty. Last season, the Bills were inconsistent early on, losing at the Jets and Patriots before rallying to edge the Miami Dolphins, their only real competition, for the division title. Another slow start might be more problematic, because the Jets should be markedly improved, as long as Aaron Rodgers remains upright. Josh Allen gives the Bills a chance to win the division and the Super Bowl every year. He and the offense flourished when Joe Brady took over as coordinator last season -- and things should be even better following an offseason of work and the addition of Keon Coleman. But there is enough competition in the AFC East again that the Bills' post-Tom Brady stranglehold on the division could be in jeopardy. 

Baltimore Ravens
AFC North · 2023 record: 13-4

The Ravens led the league in point differential last year (+203), had the NFL's best record and added Derrick Henry this offseason. But the caliber of competition in the AFC North means nothing is a given, even for an excellent team. (It also means the Ravens play 10 games against 2023 playoff teams, the most in the NFL.) In the cases of the Bengals and the Steelers, the quarterback play is likely to be vastly better than it was last season. If Joe Burrow is healthy, the Bengals are an annual Super Bowl contender, especially because they continue to bolster their offensive line, and because Tee Higgins will likely still be on the team in the fall, despite the franchise-tagged receiver's trade request. The Steelers were a playoff team last season and now have two starting-caliber quarterbacks (Russell Wilson and Justin Fields). They also swiped linebacker Patrick Queen from the Ravens and are coming off a boffo draft in which they bolstered the offensive line. The Cleveland Browns, meanwhile, went to the playoffs using a revolving door of backup quarterbacks (Joe Flacco most prominently and successfully) after Deshaun Watson was hurt early last season. And they added receiver Jerry Jeudy to the receiving corps. If Watson can finally look consistently like the quarterback the Browns thought they were trading for, this division will be a dogfight from beginning to end. 

Houston Texans
AFC South · 2023 record: 10-7

The surprise team of 2023 won't catch anyone off guard anymore, but the Texans should benefit from another year of maturation for a young, talented roster that includes a budding superstar quarterback, C.J. Stroud. That should set them up for sustained success for years to come. So why are they vulnerable to losing their division crown? Because this is a tightly contested division, and the Jaguars and Colts finished just a game behind Houston in 2023, despite the Jaguars' Trevor Lawrence struggling through his most injury-riddled season and the Colts needing Gardner Minshew to play QB when Anthony Richardson got hurt. The Jaguars could push the Texans this year, especially with rookie receiver Brian Thomas Jr. stretching the field. That said, with young quarterbacks on every team, the AFC South could be an annual free-for-all. If that's the case, the Texans will have to navigate a wearying stretch in December -- after their Week 14 bye, they host the Dolphins, visit the Chiefs on a short week (Saturday) and then host the Ravens on another short week (Christmas Day) before finishing the regular season at Tennessee

Detroit Lions
NFC North · 2023 record: 12-5

Whether to put the Lions or Texans in this spot came down to a coin flip. The Lions are slightly less vulnerable simply because of their division and because of how far they went last season. The Bears and Vikings could both start rookie quarterbacks this season. The Packers looked ascendant with Jordan Love last season and will present the biggest threat to the Lions' supremacy. But the Lions have a Super Bowl-caliber offense -- with coordinator Ben Johnson returning -- and made big improvements to the defense, adding D.J. Reader to the defensive line during free agency and revamping their cornerback situation. The way they lost to the 49ers stung, but it was not a fluke that they held a 17-point lead in the NFC Championship Game. The Lions are that talented, and in terms of their push to repeat, they face fewer roadblocks within their division than the Texans do. 

San Francisco 49ers
NFC West · 2023 record: 12-5

The 49ers have a wildly talented roster, even with trade rumors swirling around Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, and even following the departure of defensive stalwart Arik Armstead. They remain thisclose to winning a Super Bowl, have a young, still-ascending quarterback (Brock Purdy), the defending Offensive Player of the Year (Christian McCaffrey), name-brand stars at many other positions and an offensive mastermind at head coach (Kyle Shanahan). Plus, San Francisco just drafted Ricky Pearsall, so that they will have a young wide receiver to be paired with Purdy for years to come. The greatest threat, as always, is likely to come from the Rams, who exceeded expectations in what was supposed to be a reset season last year and put together a strong draft class with an emphasis on trying to replace the disruptiveness of the retired Aaron Donald. The first meeting between the teams comes in Week 3 (in Los Angeles), so we'll get an early indicator of how much the 49ers might be pressed. But if they stay healthy and John Lynch manages to keep the roster intact, they shouldn't slip much. 

Kansas City Chiefs
AFC West · 2023 record: 11-6

The Chiefs have won the AFC West for eight straight seasons. Patrick Mahomes is still in his 20s. Travis Kelce just signed a contract extension. Andy Reid is the best coach in the game. They drafted Xavier Worthy, the fastest player in the history of the NFL Scouting Combine. Chris Jones is staying put. And they are coming off a Super Bowl season fashioned largely on the back of their superb defense, whose coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, also received a contract extension. New Chargers coach Jim Harbaugh is a turnaround specialist, and he has the second best quarterback in the division (Justin Herbert). Kansas City has a tough start to the year, hosting the Ravens and Bengals in the first two weeks; plus, the team must deal with the scheduling quirk of playing games on nearly every day of the week. Whatever. The Chiefs are chasing an unprecedented third straight Lombardi Trophy for good reason, and it's unclear if there is anything the NFL could throw at them that could derail that pursuit. Until further notice, they will be the league's least vulnerable division champion -- and perhaps they will be much more. 

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