With the 2024 NFL Playoffs set to begin this weekend (1/13/24), let’s take a look at the best defenses among this season’s NFL playoff teams. We provide a detailed analysis of the top five defenses as well as a quick ranking of the other nine teams.
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 and how we expect them to perform in the playoffs. While we used season-long data in our analysis, that data does not necessarily reflect how they are playing right now.
For example, the Eagles’ defense was much stronger earlier in the season and fell off a cliff over the last six weeks of the regular season, so their season-long metrics do not reflect their recent performance or expectations going forward. The opposite is true of the Miami Dolphins, who got much better as the season progressed. Miami also suffered some late-season injuries that would not yet be reflected in their metrics, so these rankings also consider how we expect injuries (especially recent ones) to affect the defenses in the playoffs.
1. Cleveland Browns
The Browns did not just have the best defense during the regular season. At times this season they looked like one of the most dominant defenses of this generation. While they probably fall short of that lofty distinction, the fact that they were even in that conversation with teams like the 2001 Ravens says all you need to know about just how dominant this unit was.
say it with us… this defense is the best in the world 🥇 pic.twitter.com/ngRoPVClSl
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) January 9, 2024
Those are some crazy numbers and here are a few more. The Browns finished the season as the league’s top unit in terms of both EPA per play and defensive success rate, and they were 2nd (behind the next team in our rankings) in DVOA. They also led the league in ESPN’s run stop win rate and they were 2nd in pass rush win rate, led by Defensive Player of the Year front runner Myles Garrett. The star edge rusher was 2nd in the league at his position in pass rush win rate and was 7th in run stop win rate.
The Browns blend a dominant pass rush that produced 49 sacks this season (6th most) with elite secondary talent led by the cornerback duo of Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome II. That combination helped the Browns lead the league in yards per game, EPA and success rate against the pass and finish 2nd in pass defense DVOA.
Joe Flacco has been a great story, but the Browns’ defense is the reason they’re in the playoffs for just the third time this century, and it’s what makes them a potential dark horse as a Super Bowl contender.
2. Baltimore Ravens
As dominant as the Browns’ defense has been this year, it was not an obvious choice to put them in the top spot ahead of the Baltimore Ravens. As noted above, the Ravens led the league in defensive DVOA and they were 2nd in EPA, flip flopping in those spots with their division rivals. Baltimore also led the league in the metric that matters most – points allowed, where they yielded an average of 16.5 points per game. While we gave the edge to Cleveland, a strong argument could be made for Baltimore.
The Ravens defense is the first in NFL history to lead the league in points allowed per game (16.5), sacks (60), and takeaways (31). 🤯 https://t.co/H6CX0vZaeh
— Ryan Mink (@ryanmink) January 8, 2024
The Ravens do not have any standout individual pass rushers like Garrett, but they still managed to lead the league with 60 sacks this season. Defensive tackle 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 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 Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen manning the 2nd level while presumptive All-Pro safety Kyle Hamilton controls the back end.
Hamilton is expected to be healthy for the playoffs after suffering a knee injury late in the season, which is incredibly important news for this defense. Hamilton was arguably the best safety in the league this year, leading 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 main reason we have the Ravens at #2 on this list is that their run defense can be vulnerable. Over the second half of the season — namely 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. That could be a problem in the postseason, but the Ravens are still an elite defense that should carry this team deep into the playoffs.
3. San Francisco 49ers
There is a clear line of separation between the top three defenses in these rankings and everyone else, with the 49ers being the clear third team in that elite top tier. While they are a half step below the top two teams in our rankings, they are still a dominant unit capable of shutting down any offense in the league (except maybe their own!).
The 49ers finished the season just behind the Browns and Ravens, ranking 4th in DVOA, 10th in EPA allowed per play, and 15th in success rate. Those are excellent advanced metrics, but not quite on the same dominant level as the Browns or Ravens. They were also 3rd in points allowed per game (17.5) and 8th in total defense (303.9 yards per game, 5.0 yards per play).
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, and 24th in success rate against the run. The unit owes its success to a two-pronged attack that starts with an elite pass rush led by Nick Bosa and Chase Young, and ends with a secondary led by CB Charvarius Ward.
The 49ers’ struggles against the run are somewhat surprising given the elite linebacker duo of Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, who rival the Ravens’ duo as the best in the league. But their defensive line is geared more towards 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. That said, neither is a space eater who can plug gaps in the run game.
Though not quite the same dominant unit it has been in recent seasons, the 49ers’ defense remains one of the best in the league. If their offense keeps humming, this defense is capable of making big plays to help the team win en route to a Super Bowl.
4. Buffalo Bills
The Bills are the first team on this list where late-season performance played a significant role in determining our rankings. Buffalo suffered multiple season-ending injuries to some of its best defensive players early in the season, most notably All-Pro linebacker Matt Milano and cornerback Tre’Davious White. Defensive tackle DaQuan Jones also missed 10 games in the middle of the season and returned in week 17. Due at least partly to those injuries, the Bills’ defense struggled for a large stretch of this season, but it was also one of the biggest reasons for their five-game winning streak to end the season.
Those three key injuries occurred in weeks 4 and 5, and it took some time for the Bills to figure things out defensively without those players. From weeks 5 through 10, they were dead last in EPA allowed per play and they were 26th in success rate. But over the second half of the season (weeks 11-18), they were 4th in EPA and 11th in success rate. They also improved from 23rd in defensive DVOA after 10 games to be 3rd over their final seven, as they finished 12th on the season.
Wk 1-10: 24.9% DVOA (3rd)
Wk 11-18: 14.1% DVOA (6th)
— Aaron Schatz 🏈 (@ASchatzNFL) January 10, 2024
The trade deadline acquisition of cornerback Rasul Douglas had a big impact on this defense. Since joining the Bills in week 9, Douglas is third among cornerbacks with a 40.1 passer rating when targeted and he is tied for 2nd in the league with four interceptions. He was a huge part of their second-half turnaround.
The Bills finished the season 4th in sacks with 54 and 3rd in takeaways with 30. They are a playoff-tested, playmaking defense that will pose a big challenge for every offense they face in the playoffs.
5. Kansas City Chiefs
It was a difficult choice between the Chiefs and Cowboys for the final spot in our top five playoff defenses. We easily could have gone the other way here, but ultimately the Chiefs’ numbers and consistency were slightly better. For the first time in years, the Chiefs’ defense was a bigger reason for their success this season than their offense was (while the opposite was true for the Cowboys).
The Chiefs finished the season 7th in defensive DVOA, 6th in EPA and 4th in success rate (the Cowboys were 5th and 4th, respectively, in the first two categories but just 21st 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 Cowboys in all those categories, and neither team’s performance changed dramatically late in the season.
Kansas City’s defense was remarkably consistent this season. They gave up more than 21 points only two times all season (the Broncos scored 24 and the Packers scored 27). By contrast, the Cowboys allowed 28 or more points five times (against the Cardinals, 49ers, Eagles, Seahawks, and Bills). There was an element of beating up on bad teams in the Cowboys’ numbers, while the Chiefs performed well across the board and were better against the best offenses they faced.
Like some other teams on this list, run defense could be the downfall for this unit in the playoffs. They were 27th in DVOA and 28th in EPA against the run this season. But their pass defense is dominant, and that carried them throughout the season. We will see if the same is true in the postseason.
Teams Ranked 6 Through 14
If you’ve read this far, we thank you for your time and attention and we will spare you any further in-depth analysis. Here is how we rank the remaining nine defenses:
6. Dallas Cowboys
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
8. Houston Texans
9. Miami Dolphins
10. Los Angeles Rams
11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
12. Detroit Lions
13. Green Bay Packers
14. Philadelphia Eagles