2023 NFL defense rankings: Best defenses in NFL Playoffs, Divisional Round previews

Who has the best NFL defense in 2023? Our weekly NFL defense rankings examine every unit across the league on a weekly basis to determine the best defenses in the NFL.

The NFL playoffs have arrived and the proverbial saying that defense wins championships feels especially prevalent right now. Look at the latest Super Bowl odds. We’ve also seen plenty of instances over the past few years where key defensive stops or a huge takeaway created by a star player decides which team hoists the Lombardi Trophy.

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Stats courtesy Football Outsiders, Pro Football Reference, ESPN, and Pro Football Focus.

Let’s dive into our latest NFL defense rankings, with an outlook on matchups for each of the Divisional Round games.

9. New York Giants

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at New York Giants
John Jones-USA TODAY Sports
  • Previously: No. 11 in NFL defense rankings

While the New York Giants secondary isn’t a strength, it did an admirable job against Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson on Sunday. Minnesota’s All-Pro wideout went without a single target in the fourth quarter, a credit to double coverage complemented by an effective pass rush. Together, Thielen and Jefferson combined for just 97 receiving yards on 13 targets, while Dalvin Cook managed just 60 rushing yards and never broke off anything longer than an 11-yard run.

The Philadelphia Eagles offense will be a far greater challenge. However, it also creates great matchups. All-Pro defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence (8 pressures in Wild Card Round) vs Jason Kelce (11 pressures allowed in 653 pass-block snaps) and Kayvon Thibodeaux squaring off against Lane Johnson will make for great battles in the trenches. If the Giants’ defensive front can’t get pressure, though, A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith will go for 65-plus yards apiece in a win.

8. Jacksonville Jaguars

Syndication: Florida Times-Union
Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union / USA TODAY NETWORK
  • Previously: No. 12 in NFL defense rankings

The young Jacksonville Jaguars defense is beginning to earn its stripes. Trevor Larence‘s four interceptions put this team in a terrible position. However, Jacksonville held the Los Angeles Chargers to 67 rushing yards (2.9 ypc) and it adjusted nicely to shut down Justin Herbert in the second half. While Lawrence led the comeback, it doesn’t happen without this unit holding the Chargers’ offense to 145 total yards and three points in the second half.

  • Jacksonville Jaguars defense (Week 16-WC): 72.3 QB rating allowed, 2-2 TD-INT, 12 sacks, 5.2 yards per attempt, 59.7% completion rate, 193 pass ypg allowed, 91 rush ypg allowed


7. Kansas City Chiefs

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Kansas City Chiefs
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
  • Previously: No. 8 in NFL defense rankings

The Kansas City Chiefs defense ended the regular season on a high note. We held a lot of concerns entering Week 14, this unit allowed an average 101.4 QB rating with a 68.1% completion rate, 237.3 pass ypg and a 24-6 TD INT rate to opponents in 12 games. Paired with a spotty run defense – 4.4 yards per carry – there were reasons to be worried about how this defense would fare in the playoffs if Patrick Mahomes didn’t plat at an MVP-caliber level.

  • KC Chiefs defense (Week 14-18): 81.1 QB rating allowed, 60.9% completion, 9-5 TD-INT, 19 sacks, 181.8 pass ypg, 5.6 yards per attempt

At the very least, there are signs of improvement. Kansas City really turned things around, with defensive tackle Chris Jones playing like an All-Pro and the cornerback tandem of L’Jarius Sneed and rookie Trent McDuffie standing out in coverage. The caliber of opponents – Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, Seattle Seahawks, Las Vegas Raiders – raises questions, but fans should feel a lot more confident about this unit when the Divisional Round arrives.

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
  • Previously: No. 8 in NFL defense rankings

This isn’t the same Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that came out of Week 1 near the top of the NFL defense rankings. Even before losing Shaq Barrett for the season, Tampa Bay’s pass rush hasn’t been nearly as dominant since the season opener. Entering Week 18, the Buccaneers ranked 23rd in pass-rush win rate (37%) and 15th in pressure rate (22.2%).

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Just take a look at the numbers. Opposing quarterbacks have posted a 20-4 TD-INT ratio against Tampa Bay since Week 6, averaging 6.9 yards per attempt with a 98.8 QB rating. The Buccaneers also recorded just seven total sacks (Weeks 13-17) after snagging 10 in their first two games. Quite frankly, even the run defense (six games with 150-plus yards allowed) can’t be counted on.

5. Cincinnati Bengals

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Cincinnati Bengals
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports
  • Previously: No. 5 in NFL defense rankings

It wasn’t the cleanest performance from the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday Night Football. Facing a Baltimore Ravens offense without Lamar Jackson, Cincinnati allowed a whopping 5.5 yards per play with Tyler Huntley throwing for 226 yards, two touchdowns and rushing for 54 yards. Keep in mind, he accomplished all of this while playing through shoulder and wrist injuries.

With that acknowledged, game-changing plays matter. The Bengals sacked Huntley twice, picked him off once and Sam Hubbard’s 98-yard touchdown swung the game by 14 points. Wild Card Weekend highlighted once more that Josh Allen will make multiple turnover-worthy plays. That’s Cincinnati’s best shot at pulling off the upset and heading to the AFC title game for the second consecutive season.

4. Dallas Cowboys

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Tennessee Titans
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Once No.1 in the NFL defense rankings, the Dallas Cowboys have really taken a step back, with injuries playing a key part in that. Dan Quinn’s secondary lost cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis to season-ending leg injuries, pushing Nahshon Wright and Kelvin Joseph into prominent roles.

Pass YPG Sacks per Game TD % – INT % YPA 3rd Down Conversion
Weeks 1-11 174.5 4.2 3.5% – 2.2% 6.5 34.6%
Weeks 12-17 252 1.5 5% – 3.6% 7.2 45.7%
Dallas Cowboys defensive stats

It puts them at risk for bad matchups in the NFL playoffs, especially now that the pass rush is becoming far less effective at getting after the quarterback. Micah Parsons explained it well, pointing to opposing quarterbacks getting the ball out faster. Unfortunately for Dallas, Tom Brady is better than almost anyone at making quick throws and evading pressure and Tampa Bay boasts the receiving corps to attack the Cowboys’ secondary.

Related: Dallas Cowboys coaching candidates if Mike McCarthy fired

3. Buffalo Bills

NFL: AFC Wild Card Round-Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Facing a third-string quarterback in the NFL Playoffs is a gift. Even on a Sunday when quarterback Josh Allen turned it over three times, one returned for a touchdown, the Buffalo Bills defense stood strong. Two of Miami’s scoring drives came after a takeaway, with the drive starting in Bills’ territory. In four quarters, Buffalo surrendered just 231 total yards, 3.3 yards per play and held the Dolphins’ offense to a 25% third-down conversion rate.

We can credit Buffalo’s secondary for helping contain Tyreek Hill (XX receiving yards on XX targets), but the end result might be a greater reflection of Skylar Thompson. Buffalo’s pass defense is what keeps it from being atop our rankings. In its final seven regular-season games, the Bills allowed a 12-4 TD-INT rate and managed just 13 sacks across nearly 300 dropbacks.

2. San Francisco 49ers

NFL: NFC Wild Card Round-Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers won on Wild Card Weekend, but it was far from their best defensive performance of the season. Seattle Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf turned Charvarius Ward around on multiple occasions, with San Francisco’s No. 1 cornerback allowing 98 receiving yards on throws against him. It served as a reminder of the 49ers’ issues vs No.1. receivers, especially late in the season and outside corner Deommodore Lenoir (96.8 QB rating allowed) is part of the problem.

Related: NFL Playoff predictions

The best run defense in the NFL also looked like much less of a brick wall than usual. For the second time in three weeks, San Francisco allowed a 100-yard game to its opponents and 4.2 yards per carry. It could just be a blip on the radar, but the defensive decline is worrisome entering the Divisional Round.

1. Philadelphia Eagles

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Chicago Bears
Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia Eagles defense is getting healthy at the perfect time. It lost Robert Quinn (knee) in early December, forced to put an outstanding third edge rusher on the shelf for more than a month. Philadelphia also played its final games without Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who snagged six interceptions in 11 games and closed passing windows. Both will be back for the NFL playoffs.

Now, add those impact defenders to an already impressive unit. Philadelphia entered Week 18 ranked second in ESPN’s pass-rush win rate (52%) with the third-lowest average QB rating allowed (82.0), the second-most QB hits (115) and the fewest yards per play allowed (4.8). If that’s not enough, the Eagles led the NFL in sacks (68). Entering the Divisional Round, the Eagles are the No. 1 defense in the NFL playoff rankings.

Philadelphia’s matchup against New York is a fascinating one. On the surface, the Eagles boast a significant talent advantage both in the trenches and on the outside. However, Daniel Jones has performed well when pressured this season and the Giants should find some success on the ground. The chess match between Brian Daboll vs Jonathan Gannon will be a treat.

This article was originally published on Sportsnaut.com and is republished here with permission.

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