INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The Cincinnati Bengals’ remarkable, worst(since 2018)-to-first 2021 campaign concluded with a 23-20 loss in Super Bowl 56, the closest this organization has come to winning a championship in its 54-season history.
A play here or there, and the Bengals would have become the 21st of the NFL’s 32 franchises to capture the Lombardi Trophy. Yet the future seems bright for a promising roster led by quarterback Joe Burrow, 25, who just completed his second season in the league.
“We’re a young team, so you’d like to think that we’ll be back in this situation multiple times over the course of the next few years,” Burrow said after the loss to the Los Angeles Rams. “So we’ll take and let it fuel us the rest of our careers.”
The Heisman Trophy-winning leader of the 2019 national champion LSU Tigers, Burrow suffered his first postseason loss since high school. “You live and you learn,” he said of his performance, which he deemed disappointing despite how valiantly he fought in the face of a relentless pass rush powered by likely future first-ballot Hall of Famers Aaron Donald and Von Miller.
“It’s gonna propel us into next year, and we’re gonna have a really good offseason. We’ve got a lot of hard workers in that locker room,” said Burrow. “Obviously we’re not satisfied with what we did this year. We’re going to keep getting better and attack next year with the same intensity.”
So (theoretically) will the other 11 teams still chasing their first taste of ultimate NFL glory, to say nothing of the 20 others that have scaled the mountaintop. Of the Lombardi-less, it’s easy to see that Cincinnati seems closest to a breakthrough.
“I feel really great about the future,” said coach Zac Taylor.
But so certainly do many of his peers, some quite capable of overtaking the Bengals in 2022. As we begin to think about next season, here’s a ranking – best to worst – of the NFL’s 12 title-starved teams and their viability as contenders for next season:
1. Cincinnati Bengals
Good luck finding anyone who honestly saw them coming. Burrow, who was coming off a major knee injury suffered during his rookie year, had a good core to work with. But a .500+ record seemed likely to be the upper limit for the 2021 Bengals, whose 6-25-1 mark (.203) in the preceding two seasons is the worst ever for a team that advanced to the Super Bowl. They came oh-so-close to glory, surrendering the winning TD, amid a hail of flags, with 85 seconds to go before Donald plastered Burrow on Cincinnati’s final drive to abort any hopes of a comeback or even overtime. There is work to be done, but the Bengals have resources. Per Over the Cap, their $50.4 million in salary cap space is currently fourth-most in the league. They’d be wise to re-sign (or even franchise) Jessie Bates III, one of the top young safeties in the league, and retain TE C.J. Uzomah, a locker room leader who isn’t going to break the bank. Beyond that, it’s incumbent to spend and/or invest however many draft picks necessary to bolster an offensive line that enabled Burrow to suffer a league-worst 51 sacks, not including 19 additional ones in the playoffs. Get these issues resolved, and this team could contend for some time.
1A. Buffalo Bills
They were as hot as any team in the league, rolling into the 2021 playoffs on a four-game winning streak – ending an uneven regular season on the upswing – before demolishing Bill Belichick and the division rival New England Patriots 47-17 in the wild-card round. But for the second straight postseason, the Bills couldn’t get it done at Kansas City, QB Josh Allen and Co. falling to the Chiefs for the third time in four meetings. Buffalo’s 42-36 overtime defeat stung deeply, literally coming down to a coin flip on a day when both teams were deserving of victory. (And you could definitely argue that the Bills – they won one more regular-season game than Cincinnati in 2021 –might have significantly helped the Bengals by softening up K.C., which didn’t have enough gas in the AFC championship game to become the first playoff team to win consecutive overtime contests.) From a personnel standpoint, Buffalo doesn’t need much – which is probably good, because they’re unlikely to have the cap room to be a significant player in free agency. They’ll need to reload the front line depth on a top-ranked defense, and one more weapon for Allen – maybe a thumping big back given how Zack Moss seemed to fall out of favor in 2021 – wouldn’t hurt. Otherwise, little reason to believe this squad can’t continue ascending – especially if coach Sean McDermott refines the game management details that failed he and his staff at Arrowhead Stadium when it mattered most.
3. Los Angeles Chargers
Before Burrow’s late-season explosion and subsequent Super Bowl run, the No. 1 pick of the 2020 draft had been somewhat overshadowed by the guy picked five spots later, Bolts QB Justin Herbert – the Offensive Rookie of the Year in his debut campaign, a Pro Bowler in 2021 and a player who’s gotten off to as good a two-season start as any passer in league history. The two forever linked, it should be fun to chart the progress of these slingers over the next decade-plus. Herbert was a few seconds away from dragging the Chargers into the playoffs and joining Burrow’s Bengals, alas they crapped out in Las Vegas. Still, Los Angeles is set at quarterback, appears to have a bright, young head coach in Brandon Staley and copious talent throughout the depth chart. GM Tom Telesco also has roughly $55 million in cap space – a war chest that should allow the team to keep WR Mike Williams while patching holes in the trenches. Herbert, who will occasionally force a ball, and Staley, who will occasionally force a play call, should get even better with experience while cultivating what appears to be positive cultural growth for an organization that needed some good vibes. The AFC West is a mosh pit, but the Bolts have already proven they can punch with any of their division rivals.
4. Tennessee Titans
Aside from the Chiefs, they’re the only team with a winning record in every season since 2016 – a stretch that includes four playoff berths, two division titles, an AFC championship game appearance in Kansas City and a No. 1 seed this past season. Coach Mike Vrabel and GM Jon Robinson have built a formidable outfit that seems likely to be a prohibitive favorite in the AFC South at least in 2022 and maybe beyond. The defense also took a major step forward in 2021. Buuut … workhorse RB Derrick Henry suffered his first major injury in 2021, Tennessee didn’t get nearly enough from its trade for WR Julio Jones – at least not last year – and, most concerning, QB Ryan Tannehill hasn’t raised his game sufficiently for a team that’s lost its past three playoff games. The cap-strapped Titans should find a way to keep Pro Bowl OLB Harold Landry this offseason before shoring up other areas in the draft.
5. Cleveland Browns
They’re only a year removed from nearly knocking off the Chiefs and reaching the AFC title round and continue to feature one of the league’s better rosters. But there’s no circumnavigating Cleveland’s primary issue after an 8-9 letdown in 2021: How far can QB Baker Mayfield, entering the final year of his rookie contract, take a team that currently projects to have one of the league’s weakest passing attacks, one that ranked 27th in Mayfield’s injury-marred season? If GM Andrew Berry can upgrade with a veteran replacement like Russell Wilson, the Browns could be right back in the Super Bowl mix – and might still be if Mayfield rebounds in 2022 … just feels like an increasingly longer shot that he’s the guy here for the long term.
6. Arizona Cardinals
Since their league-best 7-0 start in 2021, they’re 4-7 – that includes a thoroughly embarrassing loss to the division rival and eventual champion Rams in the playoffs – and showing signs of percolating dysfunction, including from QB Kyler Murray and his social media editing in recent weeks, not to mention an ongoing inability to close under coach Kliff Kingsbury. Even if the Cards wanted to run it back after reaching postseason for the first time in six years, they’re about to start hemorrhaging running backs, receivers, tight ends and probably even OLB Chandler Jones in free agency. Seems appropriate TE Maxx Williams is among the unsigned for a team that may have maxed out.
7. Minnesota Vikings
If newly hired head coach Kevin O’Connell can bring some of that Rams pixie dust, this team has the talent – particularly on offense (and especially if Aaron Rodgers vacates the NFC North) – to make a serious run in 2022, which is the last on QB Kirk Cousins’ current contract. Beyond that? Hard to know what course rookie GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell will chart.
8. Jacksonville Jaguars
They might have a generational talent in QB Trevor Lawrence. They do have a Super Bowl-minted coach in Doug Pederson. Once again they have a Brink’s truck worth of cap money to improve the roster – hopefully more effectively than last year. Perhaps the anti-Vikes, the Jags won’t likely be a major factor in 2022 but could have a decent shot at a Bengals-like ascent in 2023 and beyond.
9. Detroit Lions
Lot of work to do here, but coach Dan Campbell and GM Brad Holmes began establishing an intriguing brand in 2021 while accruing resources – four first-round picks over the next two drafts – for the future. A bully offensive line might be a microcosm for what this team could become.
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10. Atlanta Falcons
Getting seven wins out of this roster in 2021 probably represents maximum return on investment. But aside from TE Kyle Pitts and CB A.J. Terrell, how many young cornerstones are in place and how long will the organization stick with QB Matt Ryan, 36, whose contract won’t be easy to trade before 2023?
11. Houston Texans
Organizationally, it’s not a destination that attracts premier free agents. And there’s still no resolution on the status of Pro Bowl QB Deshaun Watson, who was mothballed in 2021. But, now that he’s a year into a methodical roster overhaul and armed with a full draft board – and perhaps able to significantly augment it by dealing Watson and/or this year’s No. 3 overall pick – GM Nick Caserio should at least begin laying a foundation for the future.
11A. Carolina Panthers
They’re in rough shape, y’all. They have to pay QB Sam Darnold nearly $19 million in 2022 while hoping the No. 3 pick of the 2018 draft (by the New York Jets) can finally translate what once seemed like grand potential into production. If GM Scott Fitterer and embattled coach Matt Rhule decide that’s as unlikely as most league observers, they can draft a quarterback sixth overall … and then wait around for the next 99 players to be called before Carolina picks again in Round 4. Even if Fitterer wheels and deals his way into more draft capital – and maybe moving RB Christian McCaffrey would help there – the cap won’t currently allow for significant reinforcements. Though Rhule swears progress has been made heading into his third season, a team that’s gone 10-23 under his watch suggests otherwise and seems stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels. Perhaps the uncertain outlook of the NFC South – now devoid of Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Tom Brady and New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton – will give the Panthers the opening they need to return to relevance sooner than seemed likely just a few weeks ago.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.