The Cincinnati Bengals’ 2021 season, like that of 30 other NFL teams, ultimately ended in disappointment. They could not hold a seven-point third-quarter lead over the Los Angeles Rams and lost Super Bowl 56, 23-20.
But getting to that point was a remarkable achievement for the Bengals, one that franchises around the NFL would desperately love to emulate in 2022. We asked current and former NFL executives to identify potential teams who could shock the league and become this year’s Bengals by making or perhaps even winning a Super Bowl.
Cincinnati was one year removed from a 4-11-1 last-place finish in the AFC North and, although they came up short, were +15000 to win the Super Bowl before the 2021 season. Only the Houston Texans (+30000) and Detroit Lions (+25000) had worse Super Bowl odds last September. The New York Jets also had matching +15000 odds. While the Bengals went 10-7 and won the AFC, the Texans (4-13), Jets (4-13) and Lions (3-13-1) were among the NFL’s worst teams.
It is rare but certainly not unheard of for a team to go from worst to first and earn a Super Bowl berth. Over the past 25 years, the 1999 Rams, 2001 New England Patriots, 2003 Carolina Panthers, 2009 New Orleans Saints and 2017 Philadelphia Eagles made the Super Bowl after finishing last in their respective divisions the year prior. Also noteworthy are the 2019 San Francisco 49ers, who did so after a third-place 4-12 finish the year prior.
The Jets, Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks, Lions and Panthers finished last in their respective divisions in 2021. The Broncos, who added quarterback Russell Wilson this offseason, lead that pack with the best Super Bowl odds (+1640) for now. None of those teams currently have longer odds than last year’s Bengals entering the 2021 season.
- Broncos: +1640
- Ravens: +2080
- Giants: +10700
- Jaguars: +11300
- Panthers: +11100
- Seahawks: 11800
- Jets: +12600
- Lions: +13000
The 2021 Bengals, 2001 Patriots and 1999 Rams all had young, transformative quarterbacks in Joe Burrow, Tom Brady and Kurt Warner who helped their teams make the massive leap needed to go from last place to the Super Bowl. The Jaguars and Jets have second-year passers in Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson who could vault their teams forward in 2022.
But one AFC staff executive can’t see a clear path for any of those eight franchises to make the Super Bowl.
“Maybe the Ravens,” he told PFF. “That’s it. And that’s a maybe. ”
The Ravens finished 8-9 in an injury-plagued 2021 campaign, are getting JK Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Marlon Humphrey, Ja’Wuan James, Marcus Peters and Ronnie Stanley back and seemingly drafted well, picking up safety Kyle Hamilton, center Tyler Linderbaum , edge defender David Ojabo and defensive tackle Travis Jones in the first three rounds. They also signed safety Marcus Williams, offensive tackle Morgan Moses, defensive tackles Michael Pierce and Brent Urban and cornerback Kyle Fuller, among others, in free agency.
“Ravens were 8-9 and they’ve got Lamar – they gotta deal with his contract,” former Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman told PFF. “They had a hell of a draft I thought, but I don’t know if they have enough receivers. They’re gonna have to have some receivers step up for them. ”
Baltimore traded Marquise Brown to the Arizona Cardinals and also lost Sammy Watkins in free agency, leaving them with 2021 first-round pick Rashod Bateman and a collection of young wideouts who served as backups last season.
Looking elsewhere, the Broncos finished last in their division at 7-10 in 2021 but made a major upgrade at quarterback from Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock to Wilson ahead of the 2022 campaign.
“They’re playing in one of the toughest divisions, if not the toughest division, in the NFL and they got a new coach, first-time head coach,” Spielman said. “But Russell Wilson, that’s why they traded for him.”
An NFC pro personnel executive didn’t know if the Broncos belong in this exercise since it wouldn’t be a shock to see them contend.
“Denver was worst in their division but weren’t a bad team like the 2020 Bengals.
“I’d have to go with Jacksonville or the Jets, but I thought Cincy at this time last year was better than both of them.
“The Jaguars had a massive overhaul on defense in the offseason just like Cincy had. They have the No. 1 overall drafted QB like Cincy had. I just don’t think Jacksonville has the offensive firepower despite adding some. And Jacksonville has some OL questions just like Cincy. ”
The Jaguars selected defensive end Travon Walker No. 1 overall in the 2022 NFL Draft before also adding linebackers Devin Lloyd and Chad Muma and center Luke Fortner in the first three rounds. They spent big money in free agency, signing wide receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones, tight end Evan Engram, guard Brandon Scherff, linebacker Foyesade Oluokun, cornerback Darious Williams and defensive tackle Foley Fatukasi in free agency while losing linebacker Myles Jack, guards Andrew Norwell and AJ Cann and wide receiver DJ Chark Jr.
“I think any of the teams that had rookie QBs last year could (be this year’s Bengals) if the QB makes a big leap,” an NFC analytics executive told PFF. “The AFC South is wide open for Jacksonville.”
The Jaguars also made a big move in adding Super Bowl champion head coach Doug Pederson, who took the Eagles from worst to first from 2016 to 2017.
“Jacksonville, even though they have an experienced coach and they put a lot of money into that team, they overpaid for a lot of guys just to get them to go there, I believe,” Spielman said. “Lawrence should take a step, but I don’t know if he’s ready if they’re going to make that big of a jump.”
The Jets also had a big offseason, losing Fatukasi, Moses and safety Marcus Maye but gaining guard Laken Tomlinson, cornerback DJ Reed, tight ends CJ Uzomah and Tyler Conklin, safety Jordan Whitehead and linebacker Jacob Martin in free agency and cornerback Ahmad Gardner, wide receiver Garrett Wilson, defensive end Jermaine Johnson II, running back Breece Hall and tight end Jeremy Ruckert in the draft.
“NYJ similarly retooled their defense,” the NFC pro personnel executive said. “They have offensive talent and firepower but not quite like Cincy. I just don’t see Zach Wilson making that big leap to allow the worst-to-first jump, and that division is going to be brutal for them. ”
Spielman doesn’t believe the Jets are quite ready as they get set to contend with the Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins in the AFC East.
“Giants are in a rebuild program, and Seattle is in a rebuild,” Spielman said as he ran through the rest of the last-place teams.
“Lions are not there yet, but they got a ton of young weapons on the offensive side of the ball. If (running back D’Andre) Swift can stay healthy and Chark that they signed and (rookie wide receiver Jameson) Williams and (tight end TJ) Hockenson. It depends if (Jared) Goff is that future franchise quarterback or not. Their defense should be better, but I think the Lions are going to be a lot better than people think too.
“Then the Panthers, I don’t know with the quarterback dilemma and a lot still going on down there.”
The Panthers currently have Sam Darnold, PJ Walker and rookie Matt Corral at quarterback, with Baker Mayfield and Jimmy Garoppolo still available as veteran options on the trade market.
Spielman and former Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum, who co-founded The 33rd Team website, went outside the box for their top choices to make deep runs in 2022.
Tannenbaum picked the Los Angeles Chargers, who missed the 2021 playoffs with a 9-8 record and third-place finish in the AFC West.
“I felt like they attacked their weaknesses,” Tannenbaum said. “If you think about offensive line, Zion Johnson… I think he’ll do a really good job fortifying the line. And then on the other side of the ball, when you think about what they can do offensively if they have the lead in the fourth quarter, Khalil Mack can hopefully help close out games opposite Joey Bosa, and then JC Jackson is a guy that can turn the ball over. And I’m assuming that Derwin James is gonna be healthy. So when I think about both sides of the ball, I think they got better.
“I was encouraged by last year. I’m very impressed with coach (Brandon) Staley, and I think defensively, they also added guys like Sebastian Joseph-Day, like the run defense wasn’t good enough, so I think it’s a couple of things. A guy like Asante Samuel, having another year with him. Derwin James, I think it would be fascinating to see what Brandon Staley can do with him if he’s healthy for 17 games. I think it’s a little bit of the transition of head coach, but I think it’s more fundamentally of them attacking their weaknesses. ”
Spielman also believes the Chargers have “a legitimate chance to be a Super Bowl contender.”
Spielman’s top choice, however, and the team that intrigued him the most was the Miami Dolphins, who also went 9-8 and finished third in the AFC East. The Dolphins fired head coach Brian Flores and hired former 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel to succeed him while retaining defensive coordinator Josh Boyer. They added running backs Chase Edmonds, Sony Michel and Raheem Mostert, wide receivers Tyreek Hill, Cedrick Wilson and Trent Sherfield, offensive tackle Terron Armstead, offensive lineman Connor Williams, edge defender Melvin Ingram III and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater this offseason while losing wideout DeVante Parker .
“They’ve got a really good defense,” Spielman said. “The (Xavien) Howard contract dilemma is done, so that should be a non-factor. I think (Jevon) Holland is going to be a young, rising potential Pro Bowl-type talent at the safety position. And then what they did on offense with going to get Hill and Cedrick Wilson, and they got a Pro Bowl-type tight end, pass-catching tight end (in Mike Gesicki) and they helped the offensive line by signing Connor Williams from Dallas and going to get Armstead from New Orleans to solidify the left tackle position. Then they got whole different types of running backs. Mc It’s McDaniel’s first year as the head coach, but if he can do what he did in San Francisco with that run game, that takes a lot of pressure off Tua (Tagovailoa).
“And then I think you just have to ask yourself, does Tua have more upside or more potential than Garoppolo? And what he (McDaniel) did with Garoppolo and if he can elevate his game because Garoppolo got them to the NFC Championship game last year. But they had a good offensive line, they had a really good running game. That’s why I’m excited to see what he will do with Tyreek Hill and with some of these weapons in the running back room, how he’s going to utilize those guys. I think Miami may surprise a lot of people, too, and rise up through it. ”
The Chargers are +1540 to win the Super Bowl, while the Dolphins are +3700.
A third-year leap from Tagovailoa will be necessary for Miami to reach contender status, and Spielman believes Tua has it in him with some help from McDaniel.
“I think this type of offense will help Tua to take it to another level,” Spielman said. “There’s no question, and everybody saw the talent that he had at Alabama. It’s just a matter of him growing into the position at the NFL level, and I think that Mike will do a great job as far as getting him to get the ball out of his hands to make quick decisions to get into a rhythm because I think he’s pretty good if he’s got a run game going. He can get into rhythm, they can evolve in the play-action pass, take the shots downfield when there is. But it takes so much pressure just off that quarterback when you’ve got a strong run game and you can do play action. ”
The Bengals saw improvement throughout their roster in 2021, but their sudden ascent mostly boiled down to the performance of three players: quarterback Joe Burrow, rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and free agent addition Trey Hendrickson at defensive end.
All it takes is one second-year leap from a quarterback or one exceptional offseason for a team to go from also-ran to Super Bowl contender. Among teams mentioned, the Ravens, Broncos and Chargers all received A’s in PFF’s offseason grades, while the Jets and Lions each took home A-minuses.
It’s not easy to replicate the Bengals’ success, but there are a handful of teams to watch in 2022 who could make the Super Bowl after missing the playoffs altogether in 2021.