You’d be hard-pressed to find someone outside the Cincinnati area who would have predicted back in the summer that the Bengals would be playing in the Super Bowl. After all, they finished last in the AFC North in 2020, and their franchise quarterback, Joe Burrow, was entering his second season after suffering a torn ACL that ended his rookie campaign. But that’s the great thing about the NFL — expect the unexpected.
Cincinnati has been the Cinderella of these playoffs, taking down the No. 1 seeded Titans in the divisional round and rallying from a 21-3 deficit in the AFC Championship to slay the Chiefs at Arrowhead. It’s been as magical as it’s been improbable, particularly from a betting standpoint. For instance, when the Super Bowl LVI odds were released before the season, the Bengals were 150-1 to win. They were also 75-1 to win the AFC.
Naturally, the Bengals’ run has us wondering if another worst-to-first contender is laying in the weeds leading up to the 2022 season. Below, you’ll find a rundown of all the last-place teams in the NFL from this past season, ranked from least to most likely to have a Bengals-like leap in 2022.
The Lions were a scrappy team in 2021, as evident in their 11-6 ATS record. Dan Campbell seems to be able to squeeze every ounce of talent out of this roster, which is an extremely promising sign that Detroit made the correct hire. Jared Goff being cemented as the team’s starter, however, lowers this team’s ceiling, especially when he’s in a division that consists of Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins, and Justin Fields. That said, Goff is certainly serviceable enough to keep you in games, but he won’t be able to propel the franchise as some other elite quarterbacks do.
Detroit will certainly need to improve its pass rush in 2022 after logging just 30 sacks last season, which ranked third-worst in the NFL. That inability to get after the quarterback won’t keep you in many games, especially in that division. The Lions defense as a whole also finished 31st in the league in DVOA, so it’ll need an overhaul to make a playoff bid next season.
The Panthers have total uncertainty at the quarterback position, and head coach Matt Rhule could very well be on the hot seat if the 2022 season doesn’t start on a promising note. After starting last season 3-0, the Panthers cratered in on themselves and finished the year on a 2-12 run, which included seven-straight losses down the stretch. The NFC South has a ton of uncertainty heading into next season with Tom Brady retiring from the Bucs and Sean Payton stepping down as the Saints head coach, but the Panthers will need to figure out the quarterback position before they can be taken seriously.
Had things gone a bit differently in 2021, you could make a case for the Jaguars to be much higher on this list. After all, they have the previous No. 1 overall pick in Trevor Lawrence, who could look to mirror what Joe Burrow, the 2020 No. 1 overall pick, has done in Cincinnati this year. However, there’s still too much uncertainty with Jacksonville to vault the team much higher on this list.
The Jaguars are still without a head coach after the Urban Meyer debacle didn’t even last a full season, and those issues seemed to hurt the development of Lawrence out of the gate. The Clemson phenom threw more interceptions (17) than touchdowns (12) and looked out of sync at times. Of course, a lot of that should be blamed on the coaching structure that was in place. Lawrence also showed promise in the regular-season finale that helped knock the Colts out of the playoffs.
For this team to make the type of leap we’re talking about, everything would need to go right. The Jags would need to hire the right head coach and address a number of issues they have along the roster, particularly on a defense that ranked 31st in the league in DVOA last year. This team plays in the AFC South, so there’s certainly a path towards moving up in the standings, but it would either take a massive overhaul of the roster or Lawrence carrying the franchise on his shoulders for it to happen in 2022.
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While they may be ranked No. 5 on this list, don’t sleep on the New York Jets in the years to come. Zach Wilson, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, showed some flashes of his first-round talent this past season and should be more consistent with a season under his belt. They also had some other young pieces from this most recent draft class — Michael Carter, Alijah Vera-Tucker and Elijah Moore — who showed some promise as well.
This offseason, they should look to improve their secondary after their pass defense ranked dead last in the NFL in DVOA and gave up roughly 260 yards per game this season. They could address that need, along with bolstering the offensive line, in this year’s draft since they have two picks inside the top 10.
While that leap into contention is likely not going to come in 2022, the Jets finally seem to be building a solid foundation, which should be encouraging.
This club has been in disarray for quite a while, but the organization seems to be heading in a more positive direction after the firing of head coach Joe Judge and the retirement of GM Dave Gettleman. Now, Brian Daboll is at the helm as head coach and Joe Schoen has been installed as the club’s new GM.
Those two worked together during their shared time with the Buffalo Bills, an organization that they helped turn around to a division-winning club that has gone deep in the playoffs the past two seasons. Daboll also had a heavy hand in the development of Josh Allen, who is now looked at as an MVP-caliber quarterback. The hope in East Rutherford is that Daboll and Schoen can work similar magic on Daniel Jones and the Giants in relatively short order. On top of Jones, the offense has some intriguing pieces, but the offensive line needs an upgrade. Meanwhile, the defense ranked 18th in the league in DVOA last season.
If Daboll can get Jones fixed quickly, the Giants play in a division where they could see a quick rise in the standings.
This is a team predicated on the quarterback. I have Denver possibly a little higher than it should be largely on the assumption that it’ll swing big for a quarterback this offseason. The big fish, of course, would be for new head coach Nathaniel Hackett to reunite with Aaron Rodgers in a trade with the Packers. That would immediately make the Broncos a legit contender in the AFC West and a big player in the conference.
Even without the major splash of a blockbuster Rodgers trade, the Broncos have several fascinating pieces in place, both at the skill positions and on defense. It almost reminds me of something similar to what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had going for them before landing Tom Brady in the spring of 2020. With the promise of some substantial quarterback movement this offseason, the Broncos are in a position to take a big leap in 2022 as long as they land a legit signal-caller.
This could change depending on what happens with Russell Wilson this offseason, but the Seahawks currently have one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL, which almost automatically has them in the conversation. It is worth noting that Seattle plays in one of the toughest divisions in the league in the NFC West, but it was able to have a respectable .500 record against those opponents, which included wins in San Francisco and Arizona.
The Seahawks also finished as a top-10 team in the NFL in DVOA this season, so there is certainly room for optimism. Defensively, the secondary will need to improve after allowing 6.9 yards per pass attempt and a 67.3 completion percentage last season. It was also a pretty uncharacteristic showing at home by Seattle in 2021 as it was 3-5 at Lumen Field, which was among one of the worst home records in the NFL.
Again, Wilson is the magic eraser for a lot of Seattle’s problems, so if he bolts this offseason, that changes this team’s chances of getting back in contention. If he’s back in the fold, then a few tweaks to the roster could help get it moving on a more positive track.
Might as well stick in the AFC North, right? For a minute, it looked like the Ravens were going to be a major player in the playoffs this season, beginning the year with an 8-3 record at the end of Week 12. However, a slew of injuries — particularly to Lamar Jackson — finally caught up to Baltimore, which lost its final six games to end the year under .500.
Jackson’s ankle injury proved to be the nail in the coffin for the Ravens, as the former league MVP missed the final four weeks of the year. That said, it wasn’t just Jackson who went down. Baltimore had a wide array of injuries headlined by running backs J.K. Dobbins (knee) and Gus Edwards (knee), along with cornerback Marcus Peters (ankle) — who were all ruled out for the season before Week 1. The Ravens also lost cornerback Marlon Humphrey (pectoral), safety DeShon Elliott (pectoral, bicep), and offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) for extended periods of time.
If Baltimore can get healthy for 2022 and keep the bulk of its core off of injured reserve, it should be back in the playoff conversation as one of the better teams in the AFC.