2023 NFL defense rankings: Best defenses in NFL Playoffs, Wild Card 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 the NFL defense rankings for the playoffs, evaluating all 14 teams and previewing NFL Wild Card Weekend.

Related: NFL Playoffs schedule

14. Minnesota Vikings

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings have the worst defense in the NFL playoffs. It’s great to have a dangerous pass-rushing tandem like Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith, especially with defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson in the middle. Yet, Minnesota entered the regular-season finale ranked 29th in ESPN’s pass-rush win rate (34%) with the 10th worst pressure rate (19.7%) in the NFL.

Minnesota’s secondary gets picked apart when it can’t collapse the pocket and that is a recurring issue. From Weeks 10-17, opponents averaged 289.9 passing yards per game with 7.7 yards per pass attempt. The numbers are even worse in the last four games, with a 98.2 QB rating allowed and a 6-1 TD-INT ratio. As for Minnesota’s ability to stop opponents on the ground, it allowed 148.5 rush ypg and 4.7 yards per carry (Weeks 14-17). If the Vikings are one-and-done in the NFL playoffs, the defense will be a big reason why.

13. Seattle Seahawks

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s difficult to imagine a worse matchup for the Seattle Seahawks. Not only is Christian McCaffrey the best running back in the NFL, but he’s also playing in the perfect system for ball carriers and running behind an outstanding offensive line. He’ll be facing a Seahawks defense that allowed over 150 rushing yards per game with 20 rushing touchdowns and 4.8 yards per carry through its first six games.

If all of that isn’t enough to tell you why this ends badly for Seattle, it finished with the ninth-most missed tackles in the NFL and now faces a group of skill players who thrive in YAC situations and know how to avoid defenders in open space. This is a bad defense and Kyle Shanahan will make sure everyone knows it.

12. Jacksonville Jaguars

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Jacksonville Jaguars
Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The Jacksonville Jaguars defense clinched the AFC South in Week 18 with a dominant second-half performance. It captured some of the peaks we’ve seen from this unit, especially late in the season. Over its final five games, Jacksonville’s pass rush stepped its game up and the young secondary started making more plays. It all translated into a more effective defense, leading to more takeaways and third-down stops.

  • Jacksonville Jaguars defensive stats (Week 14-18): 81.2 QB rating allowed, 16 sacks, 6-% TD-INT, 197.8 pass ypg, 35.6% third-down conversion rate, 4.2 ypc allowed

Naturally, we are hesitant to go too far with our forecast for this unit. Youth is great long-term for the franchise, but it can lead to a lot more mistakes that great quarterbacks will exploit in the playoffs. Jacksonville ranked 17th in yards per play allowed (5.4), with the fifth-highest conversion rate on third down (43.2%) allowed this season and opponents scored touchdowns on 59.6% of red-zone trips. Facing an elite quarterback in the Wild Card Game, this could bite the Jaguars.

11. New York Giants

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at New York Giants
John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

There are reasons to like the New York Giants defense. Kayvon Thibodeaux is emerging as one of the next defensive stars in the NFL, responsible for 21 pressures, 10 quarterback hits, six tackles for loss and three sacks from Weeks 12-17. Dexter Lawrence (63 pressures, 38 stops, 17% pass-rush win rate) is also playing like a first-team All-Pro selection this season.

However, New York’s secondary is a weakness and aggressive play-calling by defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale can only cover up for so much. The Giants blitzed more than any team in the NFL (38.9%) this season, a strategy to limit how often quarterbacks targeted their cornerbacks. While blitzing Kirk Cousins is key – fourth-worst QB rating vs blitz (85.0) and fourth-lowest completion rate (56.5%) vs blitz – it risks leaving Justin Jefferson torching New York.

10. Miami Dolphins

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Miami Dolphins
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Dolphins defense has put fans on a rollercoaster ride this season. It allowed a 100.6 QB rating, 7.4 ypa and 15 passing touchdowns in its first nine regular-season games this season. As Bradley Chubb settled in, the pass-rushing quarter of Chubb, Melvin Ingram, Jaelan Phillips and Christian Wilkins started creating havoc. With that pressure came a dominant three-game stretch.

  • Miami Dolphins defense (Weeks 10-13): 196.3 pass ypg allowed, 82.3 QB rating, 12 sacks, 89.7 rush ypg allowed, 3.7 ypc, 34.1% third-down conversion rate.
  • Miami Dolphins defense (Week 14-17): 260.3 pass ypg allowed, 100.2 QB rating, 8-1 TD-INT, 96.8 rush ypg allowed, 40.7% third-down conversion rate.

We never saw that unit again. While Miami still did a nice job winning at the line of scrimmage – 11 sacks and 3.9 ypc allowed in four games – its secondary was picked apart every week. Xavien Howard (123.6 QB rating allowed in coverage) and Keion Crossen (11.7 QB rating allowed) are liabilities right now. A rematch against Josh Allen (4 TDs, 118.3 QB rating in Week 15) doesn’t bode well for Miami.

There is, however, one thing to keep an eye on that could at least make things more competitive. Miami finished the regular season with the third-highest blitz rate (30.6%) in the NFL during the regular season. Allen posted the sixth-lost QB rating (81.8) among qualified quarterbacks facing the blitz this season and tied for the second-most interceptions (four). If the Dolphins are going to have any shot against the Bills, they’ll need to blitz.

9. Kansas City Chiefs

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Kansas City Chiefs
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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): 78.9 QB rating allowed, 60.9% completion, 9-5 TD-INT, 151.5 pass ypg, 91.5 rush ypg

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.

8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

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.

7. Los Angeles Chargers

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Los Angeles Chargers
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Chargers should feel fairly confident about their ability to match up with Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars’ passing attack. Since Week 12, Brandon Staley’s group has completely shut down opposing quarterbacks. In the last six games, Los Angeles allowed just 155.7 pass ypg with a 70.6 QB rating and a 55.9% completion rate. During that window, it also created 17 sacks and six interceptions. Keep in mind, much of this came without All-Pro talents Derwin James Jr. and Joey Bosa.

However, Travis Etienne could pose a real problem for Los Angeles. This is one of the worst run defenses in the NFL. The Chargers allowed 5.3 yards per carry during the aforementioned stretch and they rank 28th un Rush DVOA on the year. Etienne could be the key to a playoff victory for Jacksonville.

6. Baltimore Ravens

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals
Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve been wary of the Baltimore Ravens defense for a few weeks now, especially in advance of an AFC Wild Card matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals. While they rank 11th in Pass DVOA, this is a spotty secondary that allowed a 100-plus QB rating five times during the regular season and it ranks 18th in pass-rush win rate (40%) with the eighth-lowest pressure rate (19.4%) in the NFL.

Pressure matters against Joe Burrow. When operating from a clean pocket, he posted a 110.7 QB rating with 15 touchdown passes, averaging 7.7 yards per attempt with a 70.4% completion rate between Weeks 10-17. Baltimore will be taking its chances when it blitzes him – 102.3 QB rating and 90.5 PFF grade vs the blitz – putting more weight on the shoulders of the pass rush. The Ravens have the pure talent to stack up with Cincinnati, but the inconsistency is an issue.

5. Cincinnati Bengals

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Cincinnati Bengals
Kareem Elgazzar-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals’ defense played some of its best football in the final two months of the regular season. From Weeks 9-17, Cincinnati held opponents to an average 87.9 QB rating with just a 62.1% completion rate and averaged 1.7 sacks per game. It also held up extremely well against the run, allowing just 84.4 rush ypg and 3.8 yards per carry.

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Cincinnati’s secondary is what prevents it from being higher in the NFL defense rankings for the playoffs. Since losing top cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, the Bengals’ boundary cornerbacks are now Eli Apple (101.8 QB rating allowed when targeted) and Cam Taylor Britt (110.1 QB rating allowed in coverage). It might not be especially important against Baltimore’s receiving corps, but it’s an Achilles heel that will be exploited if Cincinnati advances further in the NFL playoffs.

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.

3. Buffalo Bills

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Buffalo Bills
Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

While the Buffalo Bills snag the No. 3 spot in the playoff edition of our NFL defense rankings, it doesn’t come without some hesitation. Season-ending injuries to Micah Hyde and Von Miller left massive voids in the pass rush and secondary that could never be filled. Furthermore, No. 1 cornerback Tre’Davious White still looks like a player in his first season back from an ACL tear and he’s the only cornerback on the roster playing well this season.

That’s a big problem against the Miami Dolphins. Buffalo allowed an average 100.2 QB rating with an 8-1 TD-INT line in its last four games before Week 18. Teddy Bridgewater is more than capable of hitting Jaylen Waddle or Tyreek Hill if they get open. While Buffalo’s secondary might not cost them initially, it’s a very different story if they advance to the Divisional Round.

NFL defense rankings: Best defenses in NFL Playoffs

2. San Francisco 49ers

NFL: Washington Commanders at San Francisco 49ers
Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers can easily be the best defense in the playoffs if the front seven dominates. After all, defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans is the architect of a scheme that finished with the sixth-highest pass-rush win rate (46%) and the fourth-highest run stop win rate (33%). It also allowed the fewest rushing yards in the NFL, terrorized quarterbacks with a ferocious pass rush and created plenty of takeaways.

Our lone concern is how this team lines up against No. 1 receivers. San Francisco allowed a combined 153 receiving yards and two touchdowns to Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson in Week 15. Davante Adams went scorched earth on the 49ers’ cornerbacks the following week (153 yards. 2 TDs). If a quarterback gets any time to throw, they will test this secondary.

Related: Seattle Seahawks vs San Francisco 49ers preview

In regards to the matchup against Seattle, things line up quite nicely for San Francisco. After such a promising start to the season, the Seahawks’ young offensive line took a step backward. It allowed the eighth-most pressure (85) and sacks (13) since Week 11.

It’s a real problem for Geno Smith, as he struggled vs pressure in his final five games (45.3% completion rate, 1-4 TD-INT, 40.0 QB rating). It’s also hard to count on Kenneth Walker finding success against a run defense that allowed just 68.4 rush ypg and 3.3 yards per carry in its final 10 contests.

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). Thanks to San Francisco’s sudden regression, the Eagles are the No. 1 defense in the NFL playoffs.

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

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