The Cincinnati Bengals are about to face the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI, the first trip for the Bengals to the big game since the 1988 NFL season. But the other 15 teams from Cincinnati's conference are already plotting ways to take down the Bengals in 2022. Below, Gregg Rosenthal spotlights one significant thing each non-Bengals AFC team must do to pave a pathway to Super Bowl LVII.
The Ravens must: freshen up that defense.
It should go without saying that the Ravens need better luck after being decimated by injuries in 2021, but they do also have roster holes. The defense finished 28th in defensive efficiency, easily the worst of the John Harbaugh era. Most of the defensive line (Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams, Pernell McPhee, Justin Houston) is in their 30s and headed to free agency. Ozzie Newsome and Eric DeCosta are two of the best in the business, but their insane run of drafting front-seven stars has finally run dry.
The Bills must: bottle up Playoff Josh Allen.
The promotion of quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey to offensive coordinator was surely a huge relief for Josh Allen, who pushed publicly for the move after Brian Daboll left for the Giants. It’s on Dorsey and the Bills' front office to build on what Allen showed down the stretch this season. No quarterback played better in these playoffs, because it would be impossible to play better. While maintaining that level for 17 weeks is nearly impossible, the focus for the Bills should be on maximizing their strengths, starting with Allen. Sean McDermott has cautiously embraced living in an offense-first league and should only go further, adding more weapons to make Allen’s prime count. It should be special.
The Browns must: find more pass catchers.
It’s possible the Browns use Baker Mayfield in a trade to attempt to upgrade at quarterback (Russell Wilson?), but that’s easier said than done. A more realistic path is to cultivate a better receiver group. Rashard Higgins and tight end David Njoku are free agents, and Jarvis Landry, who is set to carry the second-highest cap number (after Mayfield) on the team in 2022, is a potential cap casualty. This is not an easy fix, but the Browns need to better complement their boffo run game.
The Broncos must: acquire Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson.
Sure, this might be a longshot. It won't help that the Broncos are nearing new ownership. But Denver has the skill position talent and tradition to appeal to the biggest quarterbacks who could be on the market this offseason. They even have an Aaron Rodgers-endorsed head coach in Nathaniel Hackett, Rodgers' offensive coordinator in Green Bay over the past three seasons. Most importantly, they are in the AFC.
The Texans must: trade Deshaun Watson.
After the firing of David Culley and the eventual promotion of defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, it’s harder than ever to see a clear direction from the Texans. It’s even more difficult to imagine them in the next Super Bowl, considering the talent on their roster. Trading Watson is the first place to start moving forward. Moving him before June 1 would make 2022 yet another transition year, given that it would put the team's total dead-money figure (currently $35.5 million) over $50 million. But it would also save Houston $24.2 million cap space, according to Over The Cap, which could be used elsewhere. Cutting Watson outright would not provide the same relief. That said, the same dynamics that held up a Watson trade last year -- his pending legal troubles and possible impending suspension -- remain in place.
The Colts must: move off Carson Wentz.
Nothing about the Colts' defense screams "top-five group," and they need to replace defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, who left to coach the Bears. The receiver group needs more explosiveness. Perhaps those shortcomings lead to general manager Chris Ballard looking elsewhere, but I’d argue that it only outlines the need to cut their losses with Wentz, one year after they acquired him. There are great pieces here, from the star players to the front office to the coaching staff. If they recognize Wentz is not the future, they should aggressively try to upgrade to avoid spending the present in purgatory.
The Jaguars must: find Trevor Lawrence help.
Hiring Doug Pederson was a start. But the Jaguars were so short-handed in receiver talent that Laquon Treadwell and Tavon Austin had huge roles. Starting running back James Robinson will be coming off a late-season Achilles tear, and the solid-enough offensive line has two starters heading to free agency. Lawrence could not play free as a rookie because he was at such a disadvantage in scheme and talent.
The Chiefs must: re-imagine the defense.
The Chiefs did a great job fixing their offensive line last year. While left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. is a free agent, they should be able to re-sign him or use the franchise tag. The defense is the bigger issue. Frank Clark is a strong candidate to be cut because of his contract and declining play. Tyrann Mathieu, Jarran Reed, Melvin Ingram, Charvarius Ward and Daniel Sorensen all played starter snaps for the Chiefs and are headed for free agency. Expect a lot of turnover, with Mathieu a priority to re-sign.
The Raiders must: acquire more explosive offensive talent.
There isn’t a spot on the Raiders' offense that couldn’t use work, with the exception of tight end. But if new head coach Josh McDaniels loves Derek Carr as much as he says, the first order of business should be giving this offense more juice. There are terrific pieces to work with here in Darren Waller, Hunter Renfrow and Josh Jacobs. But it’s a station-to-station group that lacks an explosive element or the offensive line to protect Carr.
The Chargers must: fix the right side of the offensive line.
The standard Chargers offensive-line write-up in this column gets a tweak this year! GM Tom Telesco did a great job solving two positions by drafting Rashawn Slater and signing center Corey Linsley last season. But right tackle Storm Norton was one of the lowest-graded starters by Pro Football Focus, and journeyman right guard Michael Schofield is a free agent. The Chargers are this close to a being an offensive juggernaut.
The Dolphins must: acquire the right players for Mike McDaniel, especially on the offensive line.
McDaniel was an exciting choice for head coach of the Dolphins. He surely sold his vision on maximizing Tua Tagovailoa, who would be helped immeasurably by McDaniel's strong running-game credentials. The problem is that the Dolphins have changed course so often in roster-building that many of the high draft picks Miami used over the last few years, especially on the offensive line, may no longer fit. They were all underachieving anyway. If the Dolphins are going to embrace McDaniel's approach, they now need athletes who fit his style of offense, especially up front.
The Patriots must: replenish the defense in 2022 like they did the offense in 2021.
The Patriots' offense isn’t perfect, but they have a promising young quarterback and a strong offensive line, and the additions they made in 2021 are essentially locked in for one more year. As much as it pains me to focus on defense in this exercise, that side is the bigger concern. Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty are free agents and may both be done after legendary runs in Foxborough. J.C. Jackson should be retained with the franchise tag, even if Bill Belichick likes to avoid using it. 2021 second-round pick Christian Barmore is a future star, but the lack of speed and athleticism in the Patriots' front seven needs addressing.
The Just must: learn from the 2021 mistakes with Zach Wilson.
The front office, coaching staff and Wilson all bear some blame for how the No. 2 overall pick’s rookie season went. A rough rookie season is not fatal, but a sluggish second season would give Sam Darnold vibes in all the wrong ways. Heading into Year 2 of the Robert Saleh era, the staff knows what Wilson needs to improve, how to cover his weaknesses and what personnel is needed around him. Wilson’s development is the only measuring stick that matters for this Jets team. Wilson’s personal coach, John Beck, who was hired in November, will not be back. Two years is sometimes all a coaching staff and quarterback get to prove themselves together.
The Steelers must: aim higher than Mason Rudolph.
The Steelers are one of those teams that should happily enter the bridge-quarterback market. Whether it’s Jameis Winston, Teddy Bridgewater, Jimmy Garoppolo or Kirk Cousins, there are a lot of upgrades available from 2021 Ben Roethlisberger or 2022 Mason Rudolph.
The Titans must: fix the pass protection.
By nearly any metric, the Titans' offensive line was one of the worst in football in pass protection. Perhaps their best player, center Ben Jones, is 32 years old and a free agent. This team doesn’t have a lot of cap flexibility, so guard Rodger Saffold or Taylor Lewan could be surprise cap cuts. The Titans built their team to be bullies in the running game, and it unfortunately shows too often when Ryan Tannehill is on his back.