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 personnel 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 J.K. 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.
“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 A.J. Cann and wide receiver D.J. 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.”