Every year, just before the season, I write a column about how every NFL team is capable of winning the Super Bowl. We spend so much time talking about how five or six favorites are going to win the championship when history tells us each season is more wide open than it seems. Usually, I say that ... and the Super Bowl ends up as Tom Brady facing a team with a young superstar quarterback.
Last year, though, was the quintessential example of how we can't write anybody off before the season begins. According to ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI), the Bengals had the league's fourth-longest odds of advancing to the Super Bowl. Quarterback Joe Burrow was coming off a serious left knee injury, while wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase had labored through a difficult camp. Even if you were optimistic about the team's future, the Bengals were stuck in a division with the Browns, Ravens and Steelers, each of whom had won 11 games and made the playoffs in 2020.
It would have been absolutely impossible to project Cincinnati to win the AFC North, let alone advance out of the AFC to the Super Bowl. And yet, that is exactly what happened. Take a look at what was in this space last season:
"If Burrow is back and close to the guy we saw at LSU in 2019, few quarterbacks in the league are going to have a more promising trio of wideouts than Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and rookie top-five pick Ja'Marr Chase.
"I'm less optimistic about the defense, although 2020 free agent additions Trae Waynes and DJ Reader should make more of an impact after playing a combined five games for the Bengals last season. The path to a division title would be murky and probably require some disappointing performances from the other quarterbacks in the AFC North, but Cincinnati has significant upside in a way that the teams ranked below it do not."
Waynes didn't do much in his final season with the team, but otherwise, this is what happened. Burrow thrived with his devastating trio of receivers. The other quarterbacks in the AFC North were either injured or playing through injuries. When everything broke right for the Bengals, they had the upside and the talent to emerge quicker than even their fans would have expected.
Let's continue this series and run through my look at how each of the league's 32 teams could win the Super Bowl in 2022. I'll try to provide a plausible scenario where each team could take home a championship, which usually involves some combination of playing well and getting help from their opposition. Just as Cincinnati benefited from quarterback issues in the AFC North, the Rams were happy to see a disappointing season from Russell Wilson and the Seahawks.
I'll rank them by the offseason projections from ESPN's FPI, which estimated each team's chances of winning the Super Bowl (Note: FPI's projections have been updated since publication). Let's begin with the league's worst teams. You'll see plenty of examples of how these teams at the bottom could be this year's Bengals, because it'll take something spectacular for them to make it to Arizona in February:
32. Chicago Bears
Chance to win Super Bowl LVII: 0.5%
Chance to make the playoffs: 12.0%
Kicking off a painful rebuild after coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace were fired, the Bears appear to be using 2022 as a season to reset their books and start over. They have more than $62 million in dead money on their cap this year, the third-largest amount in the league behind the Falcons and Texans, both of whom traded away their franchise quarterbacks. With defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi failing his physical, new GM Ryan Poles didn't give a single incoming free agent as much as $7 million in guarantees. Chicago could still have as many as 10 new starters on the field in Week 1.
Of course, unlike most teams beginning their rebuilds, the Bears have a playmaker capable of accelerating their contention in second-year quarterback Justin Fields. He wasn't good as a rookie, but with hints in preseason that new offensive coordinator Luke Betsy will install a movement and bootleg-heavy scheme for his young starter, he should be in a better position to succeed in 2022.
The Bears aren't making the Super Bowl. But even here, in the most unlikely of scenarios, it's not impossible to carve out their path. The Packers have been dominant in the NFC North under coach Matt LaFleur, but they can't defy their point differential forever. Aaron Rodgers is 38. The Vikings are transitioning to a new regime and are overturning their roster. The Lions project to be better without being a playoff contender. In a universe in which Rodgers declines dramatically or gets injured, the North could be wide open. Could a Chicago team with a solid defense and a surprisingly effective offense contend?
31. Houston Texans
Chance to win Super Bowl LVII: 0.6%
Chance to make the playoffs: 15.4%