The Cincinnati Bengals proved to be the ultimate dark horse in 2021. Despite starting the year 7-6, Joe Burrow and Co. rallied to win three out of their final four regular-season games to clinch the AFC North, and then won three straight playoff games to get to Super Bowl LVI, where they fell to the Los Angeles Rams. While the Bengals didn’t hoist the Lombardi Trophy, their 2021 success is likely a sign of things to come.
The Bengals weren’t the only team fans were surprised to see find success last year. The Tennessee Titans went 12-5 and clinched the No. 1 seed in the AFC despite not having Derrick Henry for most of the season and having to play with what was a record-setting amount of different players. The New England Patriots made the playoffs with first-year quarterback Mac Jones and looked like a Super Bowl dark horse toward the end of the year and the Philadelphia Eagles overcame a 3-6 start to make the playoffs under first-year head coach Nick Sirianni.
Which teams are going to be better than most expect in 2022? Maybe there’s a team like the Bengals that could make a Super Bowl run this upcoming season. Below, we will break down five potential dark-horse teams that may be better than you expect in 2022. We will also list their Over/Under win totals and odds to make the postseason if you’re interested in making some money.
All odds are via Caesars Sportsbook
Over/Under win total: 8.5 (Over -135, Under +115)
Odds to make playoffs: Yes +140, No -160
If you asked anyone who the biggest addition the Dolphins made this offseason was, they would likely answer with Tyreek Hill. It makes sense; Hill has been one of the most effective wide receivers in the NFL over the past few years, and could help fast-track Tua Tagovailoa’s development, but the splashiest addition may be head coach Mike McDaniel.
The offensive wunderkind played a major role in the San Francisco 49ers deciding to move Deebo Samuel around in the offense in 2021, and it was a successful strategy the 49ers capitalized on until they were ousted from the postseason in the NFC Championship Game. Despite serving as an offensive coordinator for just one season, McDaniel quickly found attention on the coaching carousel. He’s someone who knows how to scheme to find success on the ground, which is why Miami has been stockpiling running backs in free agency, adding Chase Edmonds, Sony Michel and Raheem Mostert.
Adding Hill and several running backs weren’t all this front office did, as Miami signed wide receiver Ced Wilson from the Dallas Cowboys, signed a new left guard in Connor Williams and added one of the top players in this free agent class in former New Orleans Saints left tackle Terron Armstead.
I understand Tagovailoa is a big question mark and it’s no sure thing McDaniel hits the ground running, but this Dolphins team may be the second-best club in the AFC East. General manager Chris Grier has said that his defense has already noticed a difference in the offense during their short time together.
New Orleans Saints
Over/Under win total: 8 (Over -130, Under +110)
Odds to make playoffs: Yes +160, No -190
If you continue to speak of Jameis Winston like he has an interception problem, you are telling on yourself. The former No. 1 overall pick went 5-2 in his seven starts last season, and threw 14 touchdowns compared to three interceptions. He played within Sean Payton’s system, and wasn’t so gung-ho going downfield. He was more selective with those deep shots compared to how he played with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2019. Winston may not be a top-five quarterback, but he showed some good things before his ACL tear last season.
Even if you’re not sold on Winston as a franchise quarterback, his wide receiver unit has been completely revamped. Instead of Marquez Callaway and a rotating No. 2, Winston will have Michael Thomas, Jarvis Landry and Chris Olave at his disposal. Throw Alvin Kamara in there and this sounds like a pretty fun offense.
The Saints also beefed up the secondary, replacing Marcus Williams with Marcus Maye, signing hometown hero Tyrann Mathieu and then selecting Alontae Taylor in the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Even with the loss of Payton, this Saints team is going to be better than you anticipate if it can stay healthy.
Over/Under win total: 9 (Over -115, Under -105)
Odds to make playoffs: Yes +105, No -125
Is Kevin O’Connell the next Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan? He’s a former Washington assistant whom Jay Gruden had to promote to offensive coordinator back in the day so other teams wouldn’t steal him. He was even given head coach consideration after Gruden was fired, but the franchise chose Ron Rivera instead.
The Vikings weren’t a “bad” team in 2021. They went 8-9, and it’s very possible they just needed new leadership to really shake things up. O’Connell already has a rapport with quarterback Kirk Cousins, he also possesses one of the best running backs in the league in Dalvin Cook and Justin Jefferson is a rising star. Throw in the possibility that the Green Bay Packers could regress a bit, and this Vikings team could be better than you expect in 2022.
Over/Under win total: 7.5 (Over +105, Under -125)
Odds to make playoffs: Yes +310, No -400
Mike Tomlin has never registered a losing record in 15 seasons as head coach of the Steelers, but apparently Vegas is expecting that in 2022. Not only is Pittsburgh’s Over/Under win total listed at 7.5, but the Over is plus money! That’s very noteworthy.
The Steelers made the playoffs after going 3-1 to close out the regular season in 2021, which was a shock. It felt like at times this team was winning without much help from Ben Roethlisberger, which leads some to believe Mitchell Trubisky and/or Kenny Pickett could actually be an upgrade in 2022. It’s an interesting preseason debate we can have, but either way, these quarterbacks will be helped by Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and this wide receiving corps that lost JuJu Smith-Schuster, but gained Calvin Austin III and George Pickens.
Defensively, you would hope this unit improves in 2022. Myles Jack and Levi Wallace are two of the more underrated additions this offseason. There’s reason to be cautiously optimistic about this Steelers team in 2022 even though it resides in a tough division. I don’t see Pittsburgh as a dark-horse Super Bowl contender this year, but I do see the Steelers potentially being better than people expect.
Over/Under win total: 8.5 (Over +100, Under -120)
Odds to make playoffs: Yes +190, No -230
The Raiders finished in second place in the AFC West last year with a 10-7 record and made the playoffs, but sportsbooks expect them to finish in last place in the division in 2022. It’s true that the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers both made splash additions that could turn them into legitimate contenders, but the Raiders had a great offseason as well. They reunited Derek Carr with Davante Adams and made several additions on defense that should make immediate impacts such as pass-rusher Chandler Jones and cornerback Rock Ya-Sin.
I attempted to predict every game on the Raiders’ 2022 schedule and ended with a final record of 8-9. It was a tough project, and I easily could have ended on a 9-8 record. Like their rivals, the Raiders are going to be hurt by having to play the AFC West, but they should be improved compared to last season. Carr impressed me by throwing for a career-high 4,804 yards (fifth in the NFL), and adding Josh McDaniels as head coach could potentially help him.