Which NFL Teams Can Make Surprise Super Bowl Run Like the Bengals Did? Jags, Jets, Bears Among Top Candidates
Getty Images. Pictured: Zach Wilson, Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence
What a story the Cincinnati Bengals were this season!
The Bengals entered the year as mostly an afterthought. Cincinnati had the third-longest odds of any NFL team to win the Super Bowl at 150-1, tied with the Jets and ahead of only the lowly Texans and Lions. Sophomore quarterback Joe Burrow was a question mark coming off a torn ACL, and head coach Zac Taylor had won only six of his 32 games with the team.
Fast forward six months and suddenly the Bengals were on the cusp of winning Super Bowl LVI. Cincinnati came within two minutes of pulling off one of the biggest Cinderella stories of all time before Cooper Kupp and Aaron Donald pulled the rug out. The Bengals were one of only 12 NFL teams since 1977 to make the Super Bowl with odds at 50-1 or longer, per Pro Football Reference, and would've been only the fourth to win it.
Still, the long-shot Bengals were right there, just one or two plays away from victory, and we can only help but wonder — who will be next year's Bengals?
We're looking for a team that's mostly off the radar, a long shot with odds off the beaten path — all the better if they have a question marks that could pay off at coach or a young, upstart quarterback ready to defy the odds.
Here are five teams who could fit the bill as next year's Super Bowl surprise. Odds below are the best available from major sports books as of publishing the week after the Super Bowl.
Joe Burrow was the first quarterback selected No. 1 overall to ever lead his team to a Super Bowl as a sophomore. Could Trevor Lawrence follow in his footsteps?
It was a rocky rookie season for Lawrence, who led the league with 17 interceptions and threw just 12 touchdowns despite starting every game. Burrow only had 13 touchdowns his rookie season though, and it's not like much of anything went right for the Jaguars in this dumpster fire of a season.
That probably wasn't Lawrence's fault. The Urban Meyer experiment was an abject disaster, and new coach Doug Pederson brings a totally different pedigree and level of respect, along with a recent Super Bowl ring.
Pederson also brings a full staff with him, including new offensive coordinator Press Taylor. Why yes, that would be Bengals coach Zac Taylor's brother, who designed the Philly Special under Pederson during that Eagles Super Bowl win. Veteran coaches Jim Bob Cooter and Mike McCoy will also assist the offense.
Who knows what a little coaching and offensive system could do for Lawrence, who had his best game of the season in the finale per PFF? The Jags get last year's first-round pick Travis Etienne back healthy at running back and should add a wide receiver next to Laviska Shenault Jr. They also have the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft, which could mean adding a stud in the trenches, or it could turn into multiple assets and additions on a trade down.
It's impossible to overstate how much low-hanging fruit there may be on this team after the screw-job Urban Meyer's staff did. Combine that with the third-most cap space in the NFL and a super soft division ripe for the picking, and there's a pretty obvious path to a Jaguars turnaround. If Lawrence follows in Burrow's footsteps with a breakout sophomore season, the sky's the limit.
Jets +15000 (DraftKings)
At 150-1, the Jets are just as much a long shot as they were entering last season, but this team is ready to take a step forward.
The Jets did beat the Bengals after all, and the eventual 1-seed Titans too. They also pushed the playoff-bound Bucs and Bills all the way over the final two weeks, showing serious improvement from early in the year.
Unfortunately, the Jets' season was doomed from the start due to a barrage of injuries. New York spent big in free agency, bringing in edge rusher Carl Lawson and wide receiver Corey Davis. But Lawson ruptured his Achilles and never played a down, and Davis missed half the season. Stud left tackle Mekhi Becton also got hurt in the opener and never played again.
The Jets never had a chance in the trenches or secondary, two areas where it's nearly possible to overcome a slew of injuries. But New York enters the offseason top five in cap space, and the return of Lawson and Davis will make this a double crop of free agents. The Jets also have more draft capital than any team with four picks in the top 38, including No. 4 and No. 10.
Besides, even with the deck stacked against them plus debut coach Robert Saleh and rookie quarterback Zach Wilson, the Jets actually took a real step forward. Despite everything, they improved from 32nd to 26th in Football Outsiders' DVOA, and their 32nd-ranked defense this season can only improve with better health. The Jets won four games but deserved 5.8 wins.
Wilson could take a big step forward as a sophomore, and so could Saleh and this young, innovative coaching staff. The Jets also saw rookies Elijah Moore and Michael Carter get going late, so that could spark the offense. All signs point to a serious step forward for the Jets next season — the only question is how far.
Bears +8000 (DraftKings)
Noticing a theme? Second-year quarterbacks are all the rage when looking for a sleeper, since that's the year so many of them take a big step forward. Mac Jones was already very good for New England, while Trey Lance is essentially a rookie for the 49ers, so Justin Fields is our third and final sophomore choice.
Fields struggled with precious little protection, but he had his flash moments both as a runner and as a thrower. As the game slows down, Fields has the sort of game-breaking talent to change everything for this offense. He'll be helped by a good running game in David Montgomery and, perhaps, a free agent wideout like Chris Godwin next to Darnell Mooney.
The Bears also bring in a new coaching staff. Matt Eberflus is the new sheriff in town, and he brings defensive coordinator Alan Williams with him from Indianapolis, where the two consistently had a defense that outperformed expectations and forced big turnovers. Chicago already had a strong defense this year that ranked 13th in DVOA despite getting very little help from the offense. It wouldn't be a shock to see the Bears rise into the top 10 or even top five.
Chicago also adds Luke Getsy at offensive coordinator. Getsy was the passing coordinator and quarterback coach the last two seasons in Green Bay, where he helped Aaron Rodgers to back-to-back MVPs and led the No. 1 offense in football. And speak of the devil, these odds would certainly find a nice boost if Rodgers really does leave the Packers this offseason, leaving the NFC North wide open.
An outstanding defense plus a creatively-juiced offense, with just enough highlight plays from Fields mixed in? Sounds like a recipe for success if everything clicks.
Back to the well with another New York sleeper?
Unlike the teams above, the Giants don't have a sophomore quarterback, but they'll need a big leap from Daniel Jones either way. Jones has quietly improved in completion percentage, interception rate and sack rate each of his three seasons, though he's still a long way from good or even average.
What's interesting about Jones, though, is that the best hope for his career arc at this point is probably Josh Allen — a similarly strong runner with a big arm who took a couple years to find his way before breaking out. And who did Allen break out under? Why, new Giants head coach Brian Daboll!
The year before his breakout, Allen completed 59% of his passes, fumbled 14 times and was sacked 7.6% of the time. Jones has a career 63% completion percentage and 7.6% sack rate and averages 12 fumbles per season. He's already matched Allen's bad — could he match his good now too with Daboll?
There's plenty of help — if Saquon Barkley, Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney, Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram actually stay healthy — plus a talented defense that finished around league average and brought in longtime Ravens DC Wink Martindale to take them to the next level. The G-Men need major offensive line help, but they can start rebuilding with the No. 5 and No. 7 overall picks.
Still, the Giants are sure to see some cap casualties, and this will all come down to how much Daboll can get out of Danny Dimes. He worked miracles with Josh Allen, but we'd really never seen that level of improvement in NFL history. Can history repeat itself on the other half of the state?
Maybe we don't need to look that far to find the next Bengals Super Bowl surprise — perhaps we need only look across the state of Ohio.
Everything went wrong for the Browns this season. Doesn't it always? Baker Mayfield was injured early and never got right. Odell Beckham Jr. got hurt, then traded, then won a Super Bowl. Cleveland dealt with a COVID outbreak and a barrage of injuries on both sides of the ball, and the Browns lost six one-score games.
Despite all that, the Browns finished 8-9 and were still in the division race in December. Cleveland finished 13th in DVOA and top 14 on both offense and defense, but their COVID-ravaged squad fell two points short of the Raiders and Packers during a five-game yuletide stretch that all but ended the season. In an alternate universe, the Browns might have been this year's Bengals.
Alas, they're the Browns.
But the core of a very talented team remains intact. The offensive line was never healthy this season but should bounce back, and the defense is loaded and ready to take another step forward with Defensive Player of the Year contender Myles Garrett. Cleveland finished with a top-10 defensive DVOA, so this could be one of the league's top units next season. The Browns also have the league's best one-two running back duo in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
The big question mark comes at quarterback. Will Baker Mayfield be healthy? Will he be back at all, and is that good or bad? Remember, Mayfield was a No. 1 pick himself. Maybe a healthy Mayfield takes a step forward, especially if Kevin Stefanski rediscovers his magic from his debut Coach of the Year campaign.
The Browns need to get Mayfield some help. He's still lacking that go-to receiver, and they need a healthy line. But with a decent amount of cap space, the No. 13 pick and an already stacked roster, a leap from Mayfield could move the Browns to contender status in a hurry.
Cleveland isn't quite the long shot the Bengals were at 40-1, but those odds could drop if Mayfield sticks around and the Browns don't make a trade for a veteran quarterback.
Who knows? Maybe the next Bengals are just a quick trip up Interstate 71.