We like to buy the narrative of a team slowly climbing the hill, inching forward and using past playoff losses to finally reach a Super Bowl.
Sometimes, it happens without warning.
The Cincinnati Bengals were 4-11-1 in 2020. Their head coach Zac Taylor was probably on the hot seat. They started last season 7-6. Then they caught fire and made the Super Bowl. They might have won a championship if not for a questionable third-and-goal holding call that led to the Los Angeles Rams' game-winning touchdown. It was a magical run, practically out of nowhere.
It's the NFL and fortunes can change fast. Which team could be this season's Bengals and go from not making the playoffs last season to playing in Super Bowl LVII? Let's take a look at the top five candidates:
Just missed: Ravens, Colts, Lions
The Baltimore Ravens don't fit on this list. They missed the playoffs last season due to an incredible streak of injuries. They can make a Super Bowl. It shouldn't surprise anyone, considering the Ravens' track record. I'm going to put the Indianapolis Colts in the same bin. They should be better and make the playoffs, but they've been pretty steady under Frank Reich. Nobody should be surprised if they're pretty good with new quarterback Matt Ryan.
The Detroit Lions are an interesting case. They came on late last season. Everyone seems optimistic about them. I just can't get them all the way to a Super Bowl. Then again, nobody thought the Bengals would do it at this point last year.
Maybe all the Vikings needed was a new voice. Mike Zimmer had a fine record as Vikings head coach but there was some disconnect between his staff and a roster that was underachieving. We have no idea what Kevin O'Connell will be as a head coach, but maybe the ideas he brings from his time as a Los Angeles Rams assistant will spark something. There is a lot of high-end talent on the offense, just like last season's Bengals. Maybe this is the season it all comes together.
The Saints had a surprising offseason. They seemed to be stuck finally having to face their habit of kicking salary-cap hits down the road as they entered the offseason more than $70 million over the cap. Then they just kicked more salary-cap hits down the road and were mostly fine. What was left was a defense that could be one of the best in the NFL, an offense that has Michael Thomas back and apparently won't lose Alvin Kamara to a suspension, and an NFC South that is pretty weak other than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who look vulnerable. It would be a different approach than the Bengals, relying on defense instead of offense, but nobody has the Saints on their list of Super Bowl contenders.
Just like the 2021 Bengals, the Jaguars have a No. 1 overall pick entering his second season with a lot of questions. With Joe Burrow at this time last year, it was his knee. With Trevor Lawrence, it was a bad rookie season that may or may not be attributable to having Urban Meyer as his coach. If we blame Meyer, the worst coach in recent NFL history, then Lawrence should start living up to his uber-prospect status. The Jaguars spent a lot of money in the offseason, overspending at just about every turn, but the roster is better. The AFC South is the weakest of the four divisions in the conference. It seems hard to project the Jaguars for a really big jump, but the 2021 Bengals were coming off a 4-11-1 season and they did it.
The last playoff game for the Broncos was Super Bowl 50. Peyton Manning was their quarterback. Manning has been in the Hall of Fame for more than a year. Denver has been desperate to find a quarterback since Manning retired, and Russell Wilson has been added. It has been said countless times that the Broncos were a good team that simply needed a quarterback to bring it all together. We're about to find out.
No, this isn't a Bengals-level jump. The Chargers would have made the playoffs last season had the Las Vegas Raiders settled for a tie in overtime of Week 18, which they didn't. But the commonality between the two situations is a star quarterback from the 2020 draft. Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow have played at a superstar level since breaking into the league. Burrow got his playoff run last season and it's easy to project Herbert to get his this season. The Chargers, like last year's Bengals, have a lot of exciting talent around the quarterback. And even though the Chargers have been competitive in recent seasons, they have not won a playoff game beyond the wild-card round since January of 2008. While it wouldn't be a total shock if the Chargers made a Super Bowl, the story of a franchise that has never won a Super Bowl and has had little playoff success finally breaking through with a talented roster around a phenomenal young quarterback ... well, that would be pretty familiar.