The AFC and NFC dark horse teams in 2024 NFL playoffs

Who are the teams to keep a close eye on?
Houston Texans v Indianapolis Colts
Houston Texans v Indianapolis Colts / Cooper Neill/GettyImages

This weekend the playoffs kick off in Cleveland where the Browns play host to the Houston Texans. Finally, some of the best football will be played as the race to the Super Bowl turns another corner. Every year, there's always one or two teams that make a surprising run. This year, there are about two teams, one in each conference that are contenders to surprise many.

AFC dark horse: Houston Texans

Yes, the AFC South champion Houston Texans are a dark horse team. But why? How could a division champion be a dark horse? The answer is quite simple, they only won the division because the Jacksonville Jaguars choked away the division lead by mediocre play from Trevor Lawrence who's an overhyped quarterback. But, that's a conversation for another day.

The Texans were fighting for a wild card spot and it came down to the final week of the season for them to clinch. Their reward for clinching? The Cleveland Browns, who have one the best defenses in the NFL, and Joe Flacco who has revived his career after nearly losing it completely with the New York Jets.

But, the Texans aren't a terrible team. They are led by rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud who has had a phenomenal rookie season. Stroud has completed 63.9 percent of his passes for 4,108 yards with 23 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions. He has also rushed the ball 39 times for 167 yards and 3 touchdowns. The combination of Stroud and wide receiver Nico Collins at times has been top tier.

On the defensive side of the ball, it's rare for the Texans to miss a tackle. Their sack leader Jonathan Greenard has 12.5 sacks this season while in the secondary, Derrick Stingley Jr. leads the way with 5 interceptions. This defense quietly flew under the radar.

So what makes this team a dark horse other than the fact they had to fight for their right to be in the postseason? The unlikelihood of them reaching the Super Bowl. If they manage to get by Cleveland, which will be a challenge, they most likely are heading to Baltimore to face the Ravens who have the top seed. Even if it's not Baltimore or if they host another playoff game, they will have an even bigger challenge. Having an inexperienced player under center in the playoffs shows. Stroud has already proven himself a lot this season, but he will need to be near perfect to give Houston a miracle run in the playoffs.

NFC dark horse: Los Angeles Rams

This Rams team is not the same team that won the Super Bowl two years ago. They still have Matt Stafford and they still have Cooper Kupp and Aaron Donald, but they are not the dominant force they were once upon a time. Instead, like Houston, they had to fight for themselves to get in.

Additionally, the Rams' wild card matchup will be filled with emotion. Matt Stafford makes his return to Detroit where he spent 12 years playing for at the time the lowly Lions. This Lions team is much different, and also are better than the Rams, but, the Rams are coming into this red hot.

The red hot Rams have a four-game win streak coming into the playoffs. Yet, nobody is talking about them. Why? Teams like the Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles all have better shots at winning this weekend. Plus, there's not much to be said about the team rather than one player.

Puka Nacua is the newest star receiver in the NFL. He broke both rookie records for receiving yards and receptions this season. Nacua had 105 receptions for 1,486 yards and 6 touchdowns. Without Nacua, the Rams are not in the playoffs.

Defensively, this team is quiet. Only one player got over 100 total tackles (Ernest Jones, 145), and nobody had more than nine sacks this season. Aaron Donald had a quiet year and at times wasn't even noticeable. The offense essentially has carried this defense this year.

But, with high emotions going into this weekend, Stafford could play like an MVP. If the Rams get by Detroit, they most likely are heading to San Francisco unless Green Bay upsets Dallas. With the 49ers most likely waiting for them if they get by Detroit, it truly would take a dark horse team to take down San Francisco who has been dominant all season.