NFL Playoffs Defense Rankings 2024: Best Defenses Remaining Heading into Conference Championship Games
The 2023-24 NFL Playoffs are down to the final four teams, with the San Francisco 49ers hosting the Detroit Lions in the NFC Championship Game and the Baltimore Ravens hosting the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. As such, it is time to update the rankings of the best defenses remaining in the playoffs. Let’s see how the last two weeks have impacted the rankings we published before the playoffs started.
NFL Playoff Defense Rankings 2024
Before we get into our rankings, it’s worth noting that these rankings reflect how each team’s defense is performing right now. While we used some season-long data in our analysis, we focused on recent performance when determining these rankings.
1. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens were No. 2 in our initial rankings (behind the Browns), and in retrospect that might have been too low after seeing how the Houston Texans’ offense performed against each defensive unit. C.J. Stroud dominated the Browns’ No. 1 pass defense, throwing three touchdowns including explosive plays of 37 and 76 yards, and he finished with a nearly flawless 157.2 passer rating. Then the Ravens completely shut him down, allowing no offensive touchdowns and holding the Texans to just 213 total yards of offense, their second-lowest offensive output of the season.
The Ravens held the Texans to an EPA per play of -0.21, which was the third-lowest mark of the season for a Texans offense that exceeded all expectations and finished 15th on the season in EPA. It was a dominant performance that the Ravens needed as they got off to a slow start offensively in the first half of that game. That performance has the Ravens standing alone as the clear most dominant in the defense in the playoffs so far (albeit a limited sample size).
During the regular season, the Ravens led the league in defensive DVOA and they were 2nd in EPA. Baltimore also led the league in the metric that matters most – points allowed, where they yielded an average of 16.5 points per game.
The Ravens do not have any standout individual pass rushers, but they still managed to lead the league with 60 sacks this season. Second-team All-Pro DT Justin Madubuike led the way with 13.5 sacks while veteran edge rushers Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy added 9.5 and 9.0 sacks, respectively. Clowney and Van Noy were 5th and 18th, respectively, in ESPN’s pass rush win rate among EDGE players.
The heart of the Ravens’ defense is their strength up the middle. They have arguably the best linebacker duo in the league with First-Team All-Pro Roquan Smith and Second-Team All-Pro Patrick Queen manning the 2nd level. The back end is controlled by arguably the best safety in the league in First-Team All-Pro Kyle Hamilton, who led all safeties in passer rating allowed (38.4), yards allowed per slot coverage snap (0.48), and completion percentage over expected when targeted (-13%!).
The Ravens’ biggest vulnerability is their run defense. Over the second half of the season (Weeks 10-18), they were 29th in EPA and 31st in success rate against the run, and they allowed 129.1 rushing yards per game and 5 yards per carry over that span. They were dominant against the run against Houston, but the Texans are not exactly a strong running team. That will be a bigger challenge against the Chiefs’ Isiah Pacheco and (potentially) either the 49ers or Lions in the Super Bowl.
2. San Francisco 49ers
We had the 49ers ranked No. 3 in our initial rankings as the last team in a clear-cut top tier of elite defenses. While the Packers were able to find some success against San Francisco’s defense in the Divisional Round, it was not enough for their spot in the ranking to change.
Like the Ravens, the 49ers’ biggest vulnerability on defense is their run defense, and that proved to be the case once again against Green Bay. They struggled to slow down the Packers’ talented RB Aaron Jones, who amassed 108 rushing yards on 18 carries (6.0 yards per carry).
During the regular season, San Francisco was much stronger against the pass, where they were 4th in DVOA, 6th in EPA and 7th in success rate. Comparatively, they were 15th in DVOA, 26th in EPA (-0.041) and 24th in success rate (41.3%) against the run. The Packers were even more successful against them, converting 50% of running plays into successful outcomes.
The struggles against the run are somewhat surprising given the elite linebacker duo of Fred Warner (a First-Team All Pro) and Dre Greenlaw, who rival the Ravens’ duo as the best in the league. But the 49ers’ defensive line is geared more toward rushing the passer than stopping the run. Their defensive tackle duo of Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead combined for 12 sacks and both players were top 10 DTs in pass rush win rate, but they are not space eaters who can plug gaps in the run game.
The pass defense saved the 49ers against the Packers. After leading the league with 22 interceptions during the regular season, they added two more against Jordan Love, who had thrown just one interception in his previous nine games. Greenlaw had both picks after not recording any in the regular season, and he sealed the victory on the Packers’ final possession.
INT NO. 2 FROM DRE GREENLAW!
— NFL (@NFL) January 21, 2024
The 49ers’ defense may not be the same dominant unit it has been in recent seasons, but it’s still a Super Bowl-caliber defense. They will have a difficult task against the Lions in the NFC Championship Game, particularly against the run, but they are more than capable of getting the job done.
3. Kansas City Chiefs
It was tempting to put the Chiefs 2nd on this list after very strong playoff performances against two elite offenses in the Dolphins and Bills. The gap between the 49ers and the Chiefs is much smaller than the gap between the Ravens and the 49ers. If it were based only on playoff performance, then the Chiefs would probably be 2nd, but the 49ers were the better unit during the regular season and we still have more confidence in them right now.
The Chiefs finished the regular season 7th in defensive DVOA, 6th in EPA and 4th in success rate (the 49ers were 4th and 10th, respectively, in the first two categories but just 15th in success rate). Kansas City was also 2nd in the league in scoring defense (17.3 points per game), total defense (289.8 yards per game), and sacks (57) and they led the way in pressure rate (26.7%). They edged out the 49ers in all those categories.
Kansas City’s defense has been remarkably consistent this season. They gave up more than 21 points only two times during the regular season (the Broncos scored 24 and the Packers scored 27), and they held the Bills to 24 points on the road in the Divisional Round.
Like both teams above them on this list, run defense could be the Chiefs’ downfall, particularly against Lamar Jackson. They were 27th in DVOA and 28th in EPA against the run this season, and the Bills also ran the ball effectively against them with 182 yards on 4.67 yards per carry. Josh Allen did most of that damage with 72 yards on 12 carries, and now they need to find a way to contain Lamar Jackson, who just had over 100 rushing yards in the Divisional Round after leading all QBs in rushing during the regular season.
The Chiefs’ questionable run defense is the main reason they come in at No. 3 on this list. However, their pass defense is dominant, and it carried them throughout the season. We will see if that will be enough for them to make their fourth Super Bowl appearance in the last five seasons.
4. Detroit Lions
The Lions are quite clearly the weakest defense remaining in the playoffs. While they were much improved over previous seasons, they were still the weakest defense of the four remaining units during the regular season, finishing 13th in DVOA, 21st in EPA and 18th in success rate. They are also a distant 4th in all those categories so far in the playoffs.
The Lions’ calling card defensively is their run defense. They have the best run defense of the four remaining teams, at least on paper, after finishing the regular season 1st in DVOA, 4th in EPA and 8th in success rate. They are a physical unit with a strong defensive line that focuses on making opposing offenses one-dimensional, and they have been successful at doing that throughout the season.
The problem is that they can be vulnerable against the pass. They were just 16th in DVOA and 25th in both EPA and success rate during the regular season, and they have not been much better so far in the playoffs. Both Matthew Stafford (367 yards, 69.4% completions, 2 TDs, 0 INTs) and Baker Mayfield (349 yards, 63.4% completions, 3 TDs, 2 INTs) had great games against them.
That could be their downfall in the NFC Championship Game against the 49ers, who boasted the most dominant passing offense in the league this season (1st in DVOA, EPA and success rate). However, the 49ers could be missing Deebo Samuel, which would make them much easier to defend. Either way, that will be the biggest challenge for the Lions to overcome if they want to reach their first Super Bowl in franchise history.
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