Four Verts: Which NFL teams can break up the reign of Chiefs in AFC and 49ers in NFC?

Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs are again Super Bowl champions, winning three of the past five Super Bowls and participating in four of the past five. The San Francisco 49ers have not had quite that level of success under Kyle Shanahan, but they’ve been consistent players in the postseason since he took over as the head coach in 2017, with two Super Bowl appearances and four NFC championship game berths in the past five years.

This begs the question: Who can knock these teams off?

They’re clearly the cream of the crop in the NFL, but there are four teams out there who had the pieces in place to give them a run for their money next season.

Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones said he thought the Ravens were the best team in the NFL this past season, and he’s probably right. They just didn’t make the plays needed to beat the Chiefs in the AFC championship game that wound up ending their season. Still, they have a two-time MVP at quarterback, one of the best defenses in football and a rock solid front-office capable of restocking the talent that’s on the roster. They still have the best bet in the AFC of being able to knock off the Chiefs, but it will be harder than this past season.

The Ravens have been poached to a degree, losing several coaches and front-office members to other teams who want to replicate their success over the past few years. Defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald is gone, but Roquan Smith, Kyle Hamilton and the stars of that defense are still on the roster as they go back and try to get it another year from now. The offense needs work, particularly on the line and they should try to add another wide receiver or pass catcher to play. They’re in good shape outside of that.

Jackson is a great place to start as far as the Ravens’ Super Bowl hopes are concerned. Time will tell if Zach Orr is a worthy replacement to Macdonald, but they certainly have the talent to pick up where they left off as one of the premier defensive teams in the league. The AFC is as brutal as it gets right now, and the Ravens are also one of the teams that make it such a difficult conference to play in. Reloading is going to take a lot of work over the next few months, but they have the pieces in place to make another serious run toward the Super Bowl next season.

Just like the AFC championship game, putting the losing opponent in the NFC title game makes too much sense. The Lions are in good shape to make another run, provided they make some key upgrades to their defense. Aaron Glenn is a very solid defensive coordinator, but didn’t quite have the horses to get the Lions to where they needed to be this season. That can change with the draft and a solid free agency period, and they’re closer than any other team in the conference toward getting to the Super Bowl.

The offense is in great shape with offensive coordinator Ben Johnson coming back for another year. Jared Goff is a quality quarterback, they have a dynamic running back duo, a real deal wide receiver in Amon-Ra St. Brown and arguably the best offensive line in football. This is a team that should be back in the thick of it next season.

They’re going to have to get some contracts done for their star talent sooner rather than later, but the offense alone should excite fans and get them to move past the heartbreak that happened against the 49ers. Infrastructure is the word to keep in mind when identifying teams that can get back to the top and make a run and the Lions clearly have that.

The NFC North is going to get tougher with the Green Bay Packers emerging as a championship threat and the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears making strides this offseason, but for now, the Lions are still the top dog in their division.

High-end quarterback play is the best bet toward beating the Chiefs in the playoffs, as the Cincinnati Bengals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers showed over the past few years. Patrick Mahomes has the top spot at quarterback in the NFL, but Josh Allen, like Lamar Jackson, is at the top of the non-Mahomes class of quarterbacks. If a team like the Bills is ever going to get past Mahomes and get into the AFC title game or Super Bowl, Allen is a great place to start.

They also have the infrastructure to continue to build on a roster that has been one of the best in the NFL over the past few years. Head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane have an offseason filled with tough decisions, including what to do with star wide receiver Stefon Diggs, but they should still be able to compete for a division title and a home playoff game next season.

The Bills have to fight through a division next year that should feature a much stronger New York Jets team and the newest iteration of the Miami Dolphins’ offense. Still, with Allen at the helm they have the singular overwhelming force to be able knock off any team in a one-game sample size like the playoffs.

Buffalo has a lot of work to do this offseason to make sure its roster is in a good place for next season, but as long as the Bills have an elite quarterback in place, good things are still possible for them.

The other NFC team to have a chance at knocking off the 49ers was tough to decide. The Packers are still a little green, the Cowboys have some defensive soul searching to do, the Eagles have soul searching to do all over their organization, and the rest of the NFC isn’t all that good now. The Rams might be the closest outside of the Lions in terms of being able to knock off San Francisco and get to the Super Bowl.

Matthew Stafford played excellent football last season, the Rams found a star wide receiver in Puka Nacua and L.A. added quality depth from last year’s draft. The Rams still don’t have the top to bottom talent like the 49ers, but a top-flight quarterback capable of making any throw combined with a head coach like Sean McVay is always going to be dangerous.

Los Angeles needs to nail this offseason to challenge the 49ers, but the framework to go on a postseason run is in place. If Cooper Kupp can stay healthy and get back to form, the Rams should have an incredibly dangerous offense next season, capable of supporting two 1,000-yard wide receivers and a 1,000-yard rusher. That’s a great starting point toward knocking off a talented division rival.

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