The Los Angeles Rams won the Super Bowl last year, but it really felt like the Cincinnati Bengals were the story of the 2021 season. This team rebounded from early losses to the Chicago Bears and New York Jets to not only win the AFC North for the first time since 2015, but make it all the way to Super Bowl LVI.
While Cincy ultimately came up short, the majority of the NFL world now views this franchise very differently compared to last year. Which NFL team will shock in 2022? There are a couple of young quarterbacks who may be ready to break out, and a couple of teams that will be much better than people expect.
What does it mean to "shock?" Well, for this list, we won't use any of the teams that Caesars Sportsbook has inside the top 10 of shortest Super Bowl odds. Teams like the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens, for example, finished last in their respective divisions in 2021, but many expect them to be contenders in 2022. Let's talk about some real sleepers in the NFL this season.
New Orleans Saints
I'm high on this team, and will be betting them at +105 to make the playoffs. A main reason why people don't seem excited about the Saints from a national perspective is because they lost head coach Sean Payton. There's no doubt that is a loss, but Dennis Allen is a nice replacement. He's been with the organization for seven seasons, and is the defensive coordinator that has defeated Tom Brady four straight times in the regular season since he joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
This defense can be a top five unit, but I'm excited about the offense. The leading wide receivers for New Orleans in Week 1 last year were Deonte Harty, Marquez Callaway and Chris Hogan. Now, the Saints have added Jarvis Landry and Chris Olave, plus Michael Thomas is back healthy. Some may see this as a non-serious stat since he started just seven games last year before injury, but Jameis Winston had the fourth-best win percentage among all Week 1 starting quarterbacks last year. He isn't the same signal-caller with poor eyesight who tossed 30 interceptions with a broken thumb on his throwing hand and a torn meniscus back in 2019. Throw in the versatile Alvin Kamara to go along with the revamped passing game, and this team is set to shock.
There are many reasons to believe the Dolphins could shock the NFL world in 2022. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has new weapons in Tyreek Hill and Cedrick Wilson Jr., a revamped offensive line with the additions of Connor Williams and Terron Armstead, a new running back duo in Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert and then a fiery defense with fun pieces such as Jevon Holland and Jaelan Phillips. However, what is probably the most important addition, and the most intriguing one as well, is head coach Mike McDaniel.
The Yale graduate is one of these now-stereotypical prospective offensive wunderkinds who could make an immediate impact as a head coach. McDaniel made his name scheming for one of the most successful rushing attacks in the NFL during his time with the San Francisco 49ers. With full control over a talented roster that has missed the playoffs by a single game two years in a row now, the Dolphins could shock the NFL world this season.
This Vikings team wasn't terrible last year. Despite a 1-3 start, Minnesota finished with an 8-9 record and beat a couple playoff teams. It was probably time to move on from Mike Zimmer, and Kevin O'Connell is another one of the young offensive minds people are high on. With tools to work with like Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook, we could see an impressive campaign from Kirk Cousins -- who actually spent time with O'Connell back during his days with Washington.
Another reason the Vikings will have the opportunity to shock the NFL world is because the Green Bay Packers could take a step backwards from their 13-win ways. No one is quick to bet against Aaron Rodgers, but without Davante Adams in the fold, can this offense be as effective? I say the Vikings are a playoff team, and maybe they can make a bit of a late-season run.
The second NFC South team on this list. I don't know about you, but I think I'm starting to find myself rooting for Baker Mayfield. I'm not guaranteeing he's a franchise quarterback, but I think the majority of the NFL world would like to see him thrive in his new situation. I mean, a former No. 1 overall pick who brought a franchise their first postseason victory since Jan. 1, 1995 was supplanted by a quarterback who hasn't played in a year and a half, yet remained in the headlines due to off-field allegations.
If you know anything about the kind of player Mayfield is, his competitive fire is one of his best qualities. I'll never forget watching Kansas football players make the decision to not shake hands with Mayfield and his Oklahoma squad before a November game in 2017. Mayfield spent the next few hours on a tear that was borderline frightening. On the field, he threw for 257 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-3 shellacking. During his time on the sidelines, Mayfield yelled and made gestures towards Kansas players, while also chirping the Kansas fans that were in attendance. College commentators at the time claimed it would affect his draft status, but it was probably seen as a beneficial thing to some NFL general managers. Wouldn't it be great to get that Mayfield when the Panthers take the field vs. his former team in the Cleveland Browns this Sunday?
In all seriousness, a healthy Mayfield is an automatic upgrade for the Panthers. Christian McCaffrey is back healthy -- hopefully -- DJ Moore is a great wideout, the offensive line was upgraded with free-agent additions and the defense has some dogs. I don't see a situation where Carolina could clinch the division crown, but I can't put my finger on what the ceiling is for this team. Maybe the Panthers could create some shockwaves with a rejuvenated quarterback out to prove he's one of the best.
I can't say the Cardinals are my No. 1 pick for a team to shock the world in 2022, but it's interesting how most people believe they will take a significant step backwards this season. They have worse Super Bowl odds than teams like the Las Vegas Raiders and Indianapolis Colts, and the same odds as the Browns! Ever since the Cardinals hired Kliff Kingsbury as head coach, Arizona has improved its win total by three each season, and has improved its final standing in the division each season. The Cards finished in last place in the NFC West in 2019, third in 2020 and second in 2021 with an 11-6 record. What happens in 2022?
The Cardinals are becoming known for their fast starts and slow finishes, and not having superstar wideout DeAndre Hopkins for one-third of the year will hurt. Arizona did go out and acquire Marquise Brown, however, who helped Murray win the Heisman Trophy during their time together at Oklahoma. The NFC West is one of the best divisions in football, but I don't think it's fair to count the Cardinals out given Kingsbury's track record of improving Arizona every season. For the Rams, it's rare to repeat as Super Bowl champions, and the 49ers are going through a quarterback change. Maybe we all are shocked by the Cardinals in 2022.