The beauty of last year’s Bengals Super Bowl run was that it refreshed our optimism a bit. Here was a franchise supposedly adrift, with a quarterback we weren’t sure was healthy or sustainably protectable. Here was a ho-hum collection of free agents on defense. And, amazingly, they caught a wave and rode it all the way to the postseason. Joe Burrow was the perfect antidote to the rise of two-high-shell defenses. Lou Anarumo’s rendition of a blitz-averse defense that empowered his edge rushers was the perfect antidote to Patrick Mahomes. A few well-timed interceptions here, a few made field goals there: Voila.
While their run is likely a once-in-a-decade type heater, it opened our eyes to the idea that teams can rise and fall more quickly than maybe we expected. Here’s my list from going through this exercise last year, for reference, which notably left off those Bengals. This year, I’ll stick with 12 teams, but I want to add a wildcard section to spotlight one team on the periphery of our collective betting interest. Call it the Bengals effect if you will, but in an effort to look less silly (I didn’t have the Buccaneers on my 2020 list, either), we’ll try anything.
Before we get into it, a few notes:
• As a noted longtime Bill Belichick apologist who thinks the coach has a 3-D chess reason for everything, it absolutely pains me not to find a way to put the Patriots on this list, even though I am 100% certain they’ll reach the playoffs. In fact, by not putting the Patriots on this list, I have all but guaranteed their spot in Super Bowl LVII.
• I also wanted to try to find a way to sneak the Vikings onto this list. If Kirk Cousins is ever going to be maximized as a player, it’s going to be in a relatively weakened conference alongside a new play-caller who doesn’t have a great deal of tendency information. While I personally like the Lions, the Vikings would represent a strange, Bengals-like presence on the list. Alas, there is simply no room. If we can’t squeeze the Patriots onto this list, there is no fat left to trim.
• Titans/Colts was, perhaps, the single most difficult decision of this exercise. I switched the teams about a half-dozen times before submitting the piece. My final determination comes down to some slight edges I feel Indianapolis has in offensive line age and health, running game age and health, quarterback experience and tight-game offensive play-calling. I think both teams will almost certainly be in the tournament.
• Yes, we put the entire AFC West in.
It feels like we’ve said this 1,000 times already this offseason, so flag us down if you get tired of hearing it: I see no holes in this roster. If the Bills can find a way to capture Brian Daboll’s play-calling rhythm without their former OC, I see no surer bet for a Super Bowl contender. Buffalo went into this offseason challenged to get a little better as a pass-rushing unit, a little tighter as a coverage unit and a little more versatile on offense. They added Von Miller (check), Kaiir Elam (check) and James Cook (check). They added O.J. Howard, which should allow them to present more 12-personnel looks after sitting in 11-personnel for 72% of their snaps last year. They will attack teams differently despite the fact that we still have not seen an effective strategy to stop Josh Allen in the first place.
A team that made it within a few plays of a Super Bowl victory completely revamped its offensive line this offseason. The Bengals will be better than they were a year ago, though the question becomes how much better the AFC North becomes, and who will stand in their way. While we almost never see a Super Bowl runner-up climb back into the championship game (only 14% of runners-up even reach the postseason the following year) Joe Burrow is simply better than most quarterbacks. Ja’Marr Chase is better than most receivers. The Bengals’ offense is deep and well-constructed. There is something uniquely special about this team, which was a byproduct of some long hours spent between the coaching and scouting departments envisioning a versatile team that could win in multiple ways. Burrow is not the kind of quarterback who flames out. Instead, he has the DNA of a Peyton Manning, who is perpetually going to will his way back into the tournament year after year. He is that good. Want another reason? The Bengals retained most of the pieces needed to maintain a solid secondary, while adding rookie safety Daxton Hill and cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt. They’re going to be harder to throw on than the team that finished 10th in opponent drop back EPA last year.
My offseason love affair with the Ravens is well known. Here’s a column about it. Here’s a podcast about it. They already had one of the best drafts in modern NFL history back in 2018, and ’22 may end up being a close second with the addition of talented prospects such as safety Kyle Hamilton, center Tyler Linderbaum and edge rusher David Ojabo. That’s one reason I love the Ravens this year. Another? No one has figured out how to stop their offense yet! Teams have borrowed freely from Baltimore’s suite of backfield motion concepts and still, since ’18, they remain one of the most efficient units in football featuring a quarterback who has never thrown for more than 3,200 yards in a season. It’s incredible, quite frankly. This season, the Ravens will be healthier, more athletic and younger at key offensive line positions. I have seen your rebuttal, that they have only one potentially good wide receiver, and I will counter by saying that Mark Andrews is one of the 10 best pass catchers in the NFL, and that a 10-yard pass to a tight end is largely the same as a 10-yard pass to a wide receiver.
The Colts have had one of the league’s deepest rosters for three years now, but remain unable to tie the package together due to their quarterbacking situation. Luckily for them, Matt Ryan was made available due to the Falcons’ pursuit of Deshaun Watson. There are two potential scenarios at play here. Either Ryan, like many of his contemporaries, ages beautifully and the dips he’s endured of late are proven to be due to faulty roster construction and unoriginal play design, or Ryan was simply declining, which is why the Falcons chose to pursue Watson in the first place. The Colts, right now, are viewing Ryan as a multiyear answer at the position. If that’s true, if he is able to play somewhere near the level of the quarterback who was buoyed by an in-prime Julio Jones and Kyle Shanahan to the Super Bowl, the Colts could find their way back. Especially because they already possess so many of the key tenets of a successful team: unstoppable running game, good enough offensive line, physical defensive interior paired with QB-hunting edge rushers (Kwity Paye is a potential Pro Bowl dark horse this year) and a secondary that could play better than expected depending on how Stephon Gilmore ages.
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A favorite of editor and podcast co-host Gary Gramling, the Cowboys have one of the five best quarterbacks in football; one of the game’s most sought-after play-callers; a defensive coordinator (Dan Quinn) who, a year into his head coaching rehab assignment, was one of the hottest names on the market; a game-changing, positionless pass rusher and a running game that should be solid enough to complement the times Dak Prescott isn’t hurling the ball to CeeDee Lamb. While this team has let us down before, Prescott is now more than a year removed from a devastating ankle injury and Dallas has a cleaner route than most to the postseason through an NFC East that shouldn’t offer much pushback outside of the Eagles. Last year, they were one wanton tackling official away from a possible NFC Championship Game trip to Lambeau where, in those conditions, anything could have happened.
Kansas City Chiefs
Some of the teams on this list require no explanation, so we’ll keep this short: While the Chiefs are somewhat flawed, they offer the best perennial combination of quarterbacking talent and offensive coaching acumen. This offseason, the drafting of George Karlaftis and Skyy Moore provided the Chiefs with some immediate answers at positions of need. If developed, both could elevate them beyond a team that was one Burrow miracle away from another Super Bowl. Meanwhile, the savvy free-agent acquisition of Juju Smith-Schuster, once among the best receivers in the league before his quarterback aged into a petrified fossil before our eyes, may be among the smartest low-cost team fits we’ve seen. Kansas City’s loss of Tyreek Hill can largely be made up in the aggregate, with Smith-Schuster taking on more of the confounding third-and-1 receptions and former Packer Marques Valdez-Scantling acting as the safety-valve-remover atop most defenses. If Andy Reid needed Hill, he would still be in Kansas City.
Los Angeles Chargers
This is the year I believe we’ll see the making or breaking of the Brandon Staley regime. Few coaches have entered the conversation with such force. Staley was determined to mold a team in his vision, but didn’t have the runway or personnel flexibility to get it done in one offseason. Thus, they had a team largely naked against the run during a stretch of the season where run defense is incredibly critical. The Chargers beefed up, made themselves harder to throw against and added some juice to their pass rush, teaming Staley up with Vic Fangio system star (and all-around great player) Khalil Mack. While it’s unfair to assume Justin Herbert will again elevate his game after a 38-touchdown Pro Bowl campaign from 2021, in which he had a higher EPA per play average than Josh Allen, we can also dream about his ceiling and where it might lead a team this talented.
Five NFL head coaches—George Seifert, Bill Callahan, Jim Caldwell, Red Miller and Don McCafferty—have reached the Super Bowl in their first season, so this is not an unprecedented scenario. While Callahan and Caldwell were both taking over established trains already in motion, Nathaniel Hackett is grabbing the reins of a Broncos organization in the midst of some significant changes. By virtue of having one of the six best quarterbacks on earth, Hackett puts himself on this list. The defense, while transitioning coaches, is keeping largely the same principles installed by Fangio, who was fired after last season. There is a great deal of talent on this roster. Russell Wilson is best when paired with a dominant running game, and Javonte Williams could break out as one of the NFL’s elite, premier backs this year in an outside-zone-inspired system that will unlock his potential. While the Broncos are a long shot relative to most on this list, any team that manages to crawl out of the AFC West is going to be battle-tested and versatile enough to handle just about anything, much like the Bengals were last year after surviving the AFC North.
Las Vegas Raiders
Likely my most controversial selection, the Raiders possess critical, foundational pieces necessary for a playoff run: an accurate quarterback at the peak of his abilities (Derek Carr), a dominant pass rusher (Maxx Crosby) and a deep set of dependable playmakers. If we were to put Las Vegas into the NFC, would we be looking at a potential No. 4 or No. 5 seed? Perhaps. I also believe new coach Josh McDaniels has had a long time to think about what he wants this to look like. And, for a coach who has had this much free time, I don’t think he would have greenlit the trade for Davante Adams lightly. This was a belief in a current roster up against what might be the most competitive division in recent NFL history. A good psychiatrist might say this is my way of back-dooring the Patriots onto this list in a back-handed sort of way. So be it.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers are going to find themselves on any list of legitimate postseason contenders, even though each postseason in the Matt LaFleur era has seen some unique playoff blunders, be it their defensive unpreparedness in two years or special teams unpreparedness in another. This offseason, Green Bay fortified its roster with the drafting of two key defensive players out of Georgia: Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt. Wyatt is a dominant interior presence and, when paired with Green Bay’s edge talent, should eviscerate most of the competition in the conference, given that most teams standing in the Packers’ way don’t possess the depth of offensive line talent to counter what Green Bay can now do.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Here’s another fairly obvious selection. The Buccaneers, palace intrigue be damned, are trying to run back their 2020 Super Bowl victory with a few minor tweaks to their roster (and no Bruce Arians on the sideline). Notably, they’ve tried to get younger at a few positions and double down on what they do best, which is run the ball up the gut to set up their offensive playmakers, and stuff running lanes to set up their defensive playmakers. I have a thought—based on nothing but my own preconceived notions and some spicy reports linking Brady to the Dolphins—that Brady is nowhere close to being done in his own mind. And while I think this is the end for him in Tampa Bay, I don’t think it’s the end for him in the NFL. It will be worth watching to see if the organization braces itself in any meaningful way. The division doesn’t pose much of a serious threat, and the Buccaneers are easily one of the most talented teams in the conference. What they do best is especially potent in the postseason, mitigates mistakes and keeps the ball away from their opponents.
Los Angeles Rams
The defending Super Bowl champions are such for a reason. We’re not breaking any new ground by telling you the Rams are going to be good. However, it may be exciting to see how and why they are good in 2022, which, by necessity, will have to be different from how they succeeded in ’21. It already seems like Sean McVay and Les Snead are trying to veer their personnel into a slightly more functional direction. They’ll need to ease the burden on Cooper Kupp and provide Matthew Stafford with a longer list of ancillary options once a defense clamps down on his safety valve. Is Allen Robinson II that player? After years in offensive purgatory, one hopes he’ll have a time to shine.
Wild card: Philadelphia Eagles
Last year was really Jalen Hurts’s first as a full-time starter. If Hurts is going to make the leap as a quarterback, it will come during this offseason. The Eagles present an offensive blend that, because of Hurts’s mobility, makes them difficult to game plan for. They are a hybrid of some of the league’s most successful offenses, which allows them to pivot from a Patriots–style attack one week to a Ravens–style attack the next. Hurts has not necessarily taken over games, but has an early-career Wilson kind of feel to him. Cloaked behind that powerful offensive line, he can buy himself more time to see his dominant trio of pass catchers (A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert). On defense, Philadelphia will be able to complement its run-first offense with a pocket-pushing defense supplemented by a legitimate outside speed rush. The Eagles are still a bit vulnerable at defensive back, but will continue their trend of flooding the backfield with bodies in an effort to make up for the lack of individual matchup prowess.
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