The 2021 NFL season came to a conclusion Sunday night with the Rams' Super Bowl LVI victory over the Bengals. But the season's culminating game should serve as inspiration for the rest of the league entering 2022, considering how the final two teams got there. Cincinnati rose quickly from the ashes, riding young playmakers to an unexpected title bid. Los Angeles spent big on proven veterans, securing a Lombardi Trophy by going bold. In other words, there are multiple ways to contend in a hurry.
With that in mind, which teams are poised to make a big leap in 2022? Here are five that come to mind:
2021 record: 8-9
If Aaron Rodgers stays in Green Bay, they still have a ceiling in the NFC North. And there will surely be hiccups with Kevin O'Connell, 36, instituting a new regime. But the defense can't be much more porous than it was during the final stages of Mike Zimmer's run, and most importantly, O'Connell knows offense. The Kirk Cousins-Dalvin Cook-Justin Jefferson contingent was already underrated. Assuming they delay a quarterback reevaluation until 2023, they can still be a playmaking wild card team.
2021 record: 7-10
This is assuming they actually upgrade at QB. An addition like Jimmy Garoppolo would raise the floor from Teddy Bridgewater, but only slightly. A rookie like Malik Willis or Kenny Pickett would raise the ceiling. But a veteran like Rodgers or Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson would change the whole picture. They play in a tough division, but the Raiders could be due for regression as they transition staffs, and Denver -- chock-full of cash -- already boasts a solid run game, receiving corps and defense.
2021 record: 9-8
Like the Broncos, they don't benefit from playing in the AFC West. But Brandon Staley has a year under his belt, five of their eight losses in 2021 were one-score games, with two going to overtime. Best of all, they have an emerging MVP type in Justin Herbert, who's already one of the game's finest passers. With a ton of cap space, they have a chance to follow the Bills' recent model, identifying and grooming a star signal-caller, then putting all their money to use to prop him up.
2021 record: 8-9
No team was mauled by injuries in 2021 more than the Ravens, who lost one starter after another to the war of attrition. Lamar Jackson needs to be smarter at QB, but he might be playing for a new deal in 2022. Alongside a healthier line and skill group, not to mention with his own arm and legs rested up, he feels primed to re-stake a claim on the AFC North with the Steelers entering uncharted waters post-Ben Roethlisberger. The defense will be in transition, but John Harbaugh can be trusted to right the ship.
2021 record: 3-14
They top the list because, frankly, they were so bad in 2021. Even finishing below .500, at 7-10 or 8-9, would constitute a major step forward for a franchise that can't get out of its own way. New coach Doug Pederson was the right choice to revive the culture after the failed Urban Meyer experiment, and his personable presence alone should bode well for Trevor Lawrence, who can seemingly only go up from here. While their front office is a question mark, they've also got premium cap space and draft picks to bolster the lineup around their young QB. It'll be hard for them not to be better.