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Last season, the Cincinnati Bengals went from being one of the NFL’s worst teams to a title contender. A four-win team the previous season, Cincinnati reached Super Bowl LVI and narrowly lost to the Los Angeles Rams.
A year ago, no one saw the Bengals’ Super Bowl run coming. However, big things are expected from Cincinnati in 2022.
“To be honest, I feel like we might be the hottest thing smokin’ in the NFL on Sundays,” Bengals running back Joe Mixon told KPIX (h/t Kevin Patra of NFL.com).
Mixon isn’t too far off. Because of the jump Cincinnati made in 2021, the Bengals have to be taken seriously. The question many NFL fans have, though, is which teams can make a similar leap in 2022?
Here, we’ll examine six teams that finished below .500 last season but who could emerge as surprise contenders. These teams may not go deep into the playoffs as Cincinnati did—the upper echelon, especially in the AFC, may simply be too strong for that—but each could get hot during the playoff push.
Roster potential, past production, offseason additions, coaching, scheduling and any other team-relevant factors were all considered for this exercise. Teams are listed in alphabetical order.
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Cincinnati’s emergence in 2021 was thanks in large part to the second-year leap of quarterback Joe Burrow. The rival Cleveland Browns are unlikely to enjoy a similar boost in quarterback play.
The Browns have all but officially moved on from Baker Mayfield, and offseason trade acquisition Deshaun Watson faces league discipline for violation of the league’s personal conduct policy. That possible discipline stems from 24 lawsuits from women accusing sexual misconduct or assault, 20 of which have been settled.
What the Browns should have is a healthy quarterback under center, presumably Jacoby Brissett if Watson is suspended. Last year, Mayfield suffered a torn labrum in Week 2 and struggled with the injury for the rest of the year.
Cleveland also has a loaded roster, a top-10 defense and arguably the league’s best running-back duo in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Cleveland brought back pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney and added wideout Amari Cooper and return specialist Jakeem Grant this offseason.
Quarterback questions aside, Cleveland is a team built to win now.
“I’m going to be ready to play, and I know the rest of the team is still going to be ready to play,” Hunt said, per Ashley Bastock of Cleveland.com. “We didn’t have Deshaun last year or the years before.”
Cleveland won eight games in 2021 despite having a banged-up Mayfield and playing one heavily COVID-impacted game with third-stringer Nick Mullens under center. Six of their losses were by less than a touchdown, two by less than a field goal.
Facing a middle-of-the-road strength of schedule—tied for 17th, according to The Athletic—Cleveland could be better, even with a journeyman at quarterback. And if the Browns get into the postseason, their defense and ground game will make them a tough out.
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The Denver Broncos were another talented team that suffered from poor quarterback play in 2021. However, Denver solved its biggest issue when it acquired quarterback Russell Wilson in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks.
Wilson is a future Hall of Famer who remains among the league’s best signal-callers when healthy. He’s already making a strong impact on the Broncos.
“Every detail matters with him,” Broncos receiver Jerry Jeudy said, per Troy Renck of ABC 7 Denver. “You learn a lot, just how hard he works and how focused he is when he’s on the field and on the board. You realize how locked in he is. I’ve learned a lot. He’s a great quarterback. I am excited to play with him.”
With Wilson under center, Denver is poised to improve on its seven-win 2021 total. This is a team that ranked third in scoring defense last season and won boasts offensive weapons like Melvin Gordon III, Javonte Williams, Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick and Jeudy.
The addition of new head coach Nathaniel Hackett, who last served as Aaron Rodgers’ offensive coordinator with the Green Bay Packers, should further unlock the potential of Wilson and the Denver offense.
Last year, the Broncos held a 7-6 record in early December before losing their final four games. Three of those losses—against the Bengals, Las Vegas Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs—were by less than a touchdown. Had Denver acquired Wilson at last year’s trade deadline, it might have been in the playoffs.
The caveat here is that Denver plays in the brutal AFC West, where the Raiders, Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers should all be playoff contenders. Yet, the Broncos face the league’s 16th-toughest schedule, which is more than manageable.
As long as Wilson remains upright and on the field, the Broncos are virtually guaranteed to be relevant during this year’s playoff race.
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The Detroit Lions are admittedly longer shots to become playoff relevant than teams like Cleveland and Denver. A year ago, Detroit won just three games. However, the Lions played competitively, losing four games by a field goal or less and tying the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 10.
The Lions appear to have improved compared to a year ago. Free-agent additions DJ Chark Jr. and Jarrad Davis—who returns after a year with the New York Jets—will make the team better, and Detroit got an instant-impact defender by taking pass-rusher Aidan Hutchinson No. 2 overall in the draft.
“Pair all of Hutchinson’s powerful pass-rushing traits together with a tough, smart run defender, and the end result is an immediate starting edge-defender with Pro Bowl potential,” Derrik Klassen of the Bleacher Report Scouting Department wrote.
The Lions also got a potential star receiver in first-round pick Jameson Williams, though he is coming off of a torn ACL and unlikely to contribute early.
While the Lions didn’t upgrade the quarterback position, they have a serviceable starter in Jared Goff. The former Rams standout threw 19 touchdowns and just eight interceptions and was particularly valuable down the stretch.
In Goff’s final five starts, he posted a passer rating of 107.1 while the Lions went 3-2.
The schedule is also very favorable for Detroit. Outside of the Packers, the NFC North isn’t flush with talent, and overall, the Lions have the fifth-easiest strength of schedule in 2022.
Detroit is clearly a rebuilding team, but if a few balls bounce their way, the Lions could be thinking playoffs come December.
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The Jacksonville Jaguars have been the worst team in the NFL for two successive seasons. However, there are reasons to believe the Jags can surprise in 2022.
The first is the presence of quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Like Burrow, Lawrence has generational potential. However, that potential was largely wasted in 2021 under the “guidance” of head coach Urban Meyer.
Lawrence started all 17 games last season but threw 17 interceptions and posted a passer rating of only 71.9.
With an experienced and offensive-minded head coach in Doug Pederson, Lawrence may finally live up to his potential.
“We’re building toward something special,” Lawrence told Jenny Dell of CBS Sports HQ. “It’s been
great, just the way (Doug) interacts with the team, the way he leads. … Obviously he played quarterback, he’s won a Super Bowl as a player and as a coach, so he knows how to get there.”
Burrow wasn’t the only reason for Cincinnati’s rise last season, though. Cincinnati gets a ton of credit for pairing him with rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase and rookie kicker Evan McPherson. However, the team’s foray into 2021 free agency—which yielded key contributors like Larry Ogunjobi, Riley Reiff, Trey Hendrickson, Eli Apple, Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton—often gets overlooked.
Jacksonville went on a similar spending spree this year, adding the likes of Brandon Scherff, Christian Kirk, Evan Engram, Foyesade Oluokun, Arden Key and Darious Williams.
Jacksonville has built a much more complete team compared to a year ago. With competent guidance from the coaching staff, the Jaguars should expect better results. It only helps that they have the sixth-easiest (tied) strength of schedule in the NFL this season.
If Lawrence can become the quarterback he was expected to be coming out of Clemson, Jacksonville could be primed to contend far beyond this season.
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Like the Lions and the Jaguars, the New York Jets are a rebuilding team. Like the Bengals in 2021, though, New York could go from rebuilding to contending in one season.
With their offseason moves, the Jets should be significantly better than the four-win team we saw last year. They added three premium free agents in guard Laken Tomlinson and tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin, and then they nailed the early portions of the draft.
In April, New York landed a starting-caliber corner in Ahmad Gardner, a top-tier receiving prospect in Garrett Wilson, a premier pass-rushing prospect in Jermaine Johnson II and another solid running back in Breece Hall.
New York’s offensive skill group—which now includes Uzomah, Conklin, Wilson, Hall, Michael Carter, Elijah Moore and Corey Davis—is formidable. The Jets also boast an offensive line that features three former first-round picks in Tomlinson, Alijah Vera-Tucker and Mekhi Becton.
The Jets offense is poised to make a serious leap if second-year quarterback Zach Wilson can demonstrate improvement. The BYU product was not good as a rookie—he posted a passer rating of just 69.7—but he’s entering his second year with head coach Robert Saleh, offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur and the Jets staff.
“He’s in a different world than he was last OTAs,” receiver Braxton Berrios said on the Adam Schefter Podcast (h/t Nick Wojton of Jets Wire).
If Wilson can improve and Saleh can get more out of New York’s 32nd-ranked defense, the Jets can be playoff-relevant heading into the winter. New York is tied with Cleveland for the league’s 17th-toughest strength of schedule, and giving it plenty of opportunity for noteworthy improvement.
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Everything for the Washington Commanders will hinge on the play of new quarterback Carson Wentz.
The Commanders acquired Wentz in a trade with the Indianapolis Colts this offseason. While the 29-year-old was not a complete disaster in Indy, he notably struggled late in the season. He’ll have to be a clear upgrade over Taylor Heinicke for Washington to become a contender, which could certainly be the case.
Wentz was, after all, a Pro Bowler and potential MVP candidate back in 2017.
If Washington can uncover the good version of Wentz, the NFC East will be put on notice. This is a squad that won seven games in 2021 after claiming the division title the previous season.
The Commanders recently took care of their other big question mark by locking up star receiver Terry McLaurin with a new contract extension.
“It motivates me to work even harder. I understand and embrace the responsibility that comes with signing this extension,” McLaurin said in a social media post.
The Commanders will pair McLaurin with first-round pick Jahan Dotson to potentially give Wentz the best wide-receiver duo he’s had since that 2017 season.
Outside of perhaps Green Bay, Los Angeles and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, there are no dominant teams in the NFC, which means a team like Washington has a relatively open path to postseason contention.
Again, a lot will depend on quarterback play, but the Commanders have a talented roster, a seasoned head coach in Ron Rivera and are tied for the easiest strength of schedule in the entire league. A three- or four-win improvement is far from an outlandish prediction for Washington.
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