Which NFL longshots could emulate the Bengals and drastically outperform their Super Bowl odds?
The race for places in Super Bowl LVII will begin on September 8 and it’s fair to say that the lineup for last season’s Super Bowl was not what anyone expected. The appearance of the Los Angeles Rams was not a huge surprise — Sean McVay’s team were 15/1 shots to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy at the start of the season — but the team that lined up opposite them at SoFi Stadium would have stunned a lot of NFL fans if you’d told them at the start of the campaign.
The Cincinnati Bengals were 150/1 for the Super Bowl last season as they were coming off a 4-11-1 year which had seen them finishing last in the AFC North. Quarterback Joe Burrow was coming off major knee surgery, people were fearing the worst for him playing behind what looked set to be a terrible offensive line and there were even training camp reports that top rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase was having trouble learning to catch an NFL football. It’s safe to say that proved to be wide of the mark.
Rather than another season of struggle, Burrow came back looking like an elite passer, Chase had 1,455 receiving yards and the Bengals won the AFC North before beating the Raiders and upsetting #1 seeds Tennessee and #2 seeds Kansas City on the road to reach the Super Bowl. Not bad for 150/1 shots!
So which team at triple-digit odds could be this year’s Bengals and dramatically outperform their market price? We’ve identified three teams at the bottom reaches of the market who might just have enough spark in them to stage a dramatic turnaround in them if everything falls into place.
Not all 4th-place teams are created equal, so we’ve not allowed ourselves to pick the Broncos, who finished last in the AFC West last year, but are just 16/1 for the Super Bowl this time after trading for QB Russell Wilson. The Ravens, who remain a top-quality team despite finishing last in the AFC North, were similarly ruled out. We’ve instead sorted through the real outsiders, the teams your friends would dismiss as contenders in seconds, but who do have some hope of a vast improvement. Let’s see who they are:
The case for the Jacksonville Jaguars being this year’s Bengals
To overachieve one year, it helps if you underachieved the year before, and few would argue that the Jaguars were anything other than a huge disappointment last season. The Urban Meyer era was just a disaster zone from start to finish and it’s something of a relief that only one year of QB Trevor Lawrence’s career was lost to it. The Jags went 2-11 under Meyer before he was inevitably and belatedly fired in December, but signed off on a high note with a 26-11 win over the Colts which kept Indianapolis out of the playoffs.
There’s a lot of young talent still with the Jaguars (even though they traded away virtually the whole of the dominant defense they had a few years back) with last year’s first-round pick Travis Etienne back to health after missing his entire rookie year, while Christian Kirk, Zay Jones and Marvin Jones give Lawrence some decent targets. New head coach Doug Pederson has a reputation for improving QBs, so could be exactly what Lawrence needs, and the Jags’ defense has plenty of potential with pass-rushers Josh Allen and Trayvon Walker plus linebacker Devin Lloyd and safety Andre Cisco.
The Jaguars don’t play in the AFC’s toughest division, so if Pederson at least gets everyone pulling in the right direction and turn them into a professional team again, they could outperform their current odds of 130/1 by some distance.
The case for the Carolina Panthers being this year’s Bengals
The Carolina Panthers have not come close to becoming the force that owner David Tepper envisaged when he bought the team in 2018, and last season they lost their last 7 games to finish at an uninspiring 5-12 and last in the NFC South. Their Super Bowl odds of 130/1 at DraftKings suggest an imminent improvement is not expected, but there is some good news for the Panthers. They were hardly proactive in making it happen, but the Panthers almost begrudgingly finally agreed to trade for QB Baker Mayfield for basically a ham sandwich and with his former club the Browns eating a chunk of his salary.
It’s the ultimate buy-low deal for the first overall pick in the 2018 draft, but with Sam Darnold and Cam Newton falling well short of the required standard last season, Mayfield does bring hope. You can write off his awful 2021 season as Mayfield suffered a shoulder injury earlier in the year, aggravated it a few weeks later and yet was still rolled out every week even though he really wasn’t fit for purpose. If he’s fully healthy now after surgery, and picks up the offense, he has the weapons in DJ Moore and Terrace Marshall to bring a spark to the offense. The Panthers also have Christian McCaffrey coming back from injury after missing the majority of the last two seasons. It’s certainly not a sure thing, but the Panthers are obvious contenders to improve this year.
The case for the New York Jets being this year’s Bengals
You might think we’re starting to struggle for candidates but hear us out. The Jets are absolutely stacked with young talent — a consequence of not winning many games for several successive seasons — and in Robert Saleh they have a coach with the know-how to forge a successful team. It didn’t happen in his first year, as the Jets went 4-13, winning only 1 road game and none at all in the AFC East, but Garrett Wilson, Corey Davis and Elijah Moore is an exciting receiving trio, while Breece Hall comes in to join Michael Carter in the backfield.
QB Zach Wilson is going to be a key figure in any Jets revival, but circumstances conspired against him in his rookie year and there have been glimpses of real arm talent, so it will be interesting if the light goes on for him in year 2. Saleh made his name with his 49ers D-line and the Jets have edge rusher Carl Lawson back from injury and rookie Jermaine Johnson II added to the mix this year.
It looks too soon for the Jets to overhaul the Bills in a straight fight for the division, but it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise to see them much closer to the Patriots and Dolphins this year.