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Darron Cummings/Associated Press
Last year, the Cincinnati Bengals started the season with some of the worst Super Bowl odds in the league.
Ultimately, they didn’t go from long shot to Super Bowl winner, but they did come dangerously close to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
It would have taken Nostradamus to predict that Joe Burrow would come back from a torn ACL as strongly as he did, Ja’Marr Chase would elevate the offense and all of their defensive acquisitions would jell as quickly as they did.
Yet, all of that happened and the Bengals won the AFC.
While there isn’t a story like Cincinnati every season, there are always some sleeper teams that have a much better season than anticipated. The 2022 season is likely to yield at least one or two teams that do much better than expected.
The definition of “sleeper” can be broad. To clarify, were are taking a look at teams that have worse than +2000 odds to win the Super Bowl over at DraftKings Sportsbook. That accounts for roughly the top 10 contenders.
These teams aren’t in that category right now but very well could be by the end of the season.
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Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Super Bowl Odds: +13000
Let’s start with a real long shot.
While there’s no guarantee that we’ll see a team with a Bengals-like ascension, the New York Jets do have some similarities with that 2021 Cincinnati team.
Zach Wilson will be a second-year quarterback whose first season was impacted by injuries. He missed Weeks 8-11 last season and only went 3-10 as the starter. Wilson is not Burrow, but before Burrow led the Bengals to the AFC Championship this past season, he was 2-7-1 as the starter in his first season.
When Wilson came back from the injury in Week 11, he did so as a much better quarterback. After throwing four touchdowns to nine interceptions from Week 1 to Week 7, he threw for five touchdowns to just two interceptions over the final seven games of the season.
This year, the Jets bring back a much better supporting cast. Laken Tomlinson joins the offensive line, while Alijah Vera-Tucker and Mekhi Becton have an offseason of development.
Robert Saleh is a defensive coach, and he has a much different defense to work with. The Jets got Sauce Gardner and Jermaine Johnson II through the draft and D.J. Reed to play corner opposite Gardner.
There are a lot of unanswered questions at this point, but if everything comes together for the Jets, they are going to be much better than anticipated.
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Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press
Super Bowl Odds: +2500
The Eagles’ signing of cornerback James Bradberry is just the latest move to remodel the defense in Philly. That defense and the improved cast around QB Jalen Hurts on offense have made the Eagles one of the most underrated teams in the league.
Granted, the team hitting its ceiling relies on Hurts unlocking another level as a passer. But even if he doesn’t do that, the Eagles are going to be dangerous.
Last season it took them a while to establish their identity, but once they figured out they were a run-heavy team that could play good defense, they finished the season on a 6-2 run.
Of course, that all came crashing down in a 31-15 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the playoffs, but the Eagles have made quite a few improvements from that team.
Getting A.J. Brown creates a dynamic receiving duo with DeVonta Smith. The addition of Haason Reddick adds teeth to a pass rush that already has plenty of talent. Josh Sweat (third), Derek Barnett (seventh) and Reddick (eighth) were all in the top 10 of ESPN’s pass-rush win rate metric.
As long as Hurts can show at least some progression, all the tools are in place for the Eagles to compete in the NFC East.
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Mary Holt/Associated Press
Super Bowl Odds: +4000
The Dolphins and Eagles are in similar boats. Both are looking at third-year quarterbacks who hold the key to how successful their 2022 campaigns will be after doing a lot to improve the overall roster.
The Dolphins have the uncertainty of adding a new head coach in Mike McDaniel, but he happens to specialize in the side of the ball the Dolphins need to improve the most.
There’s already a lot to like about the Dolphins defense. Xavien Howard and Byron Jones are a strong pair of corners on the outside, the defense finished seventh in ESPN’s defensive efficiency last season, and they retained just about everyone while adding Melvin Ingram as a pass-rusher.
The thing that makes the Dolphins a sleeper is the potential on offense. They had one of the worst offensive lines in the leagues last year but made notable changes by signing Terron Armstead and Connor Williams.
They gave Tua Tagovailoa one of the best offensive weapons in Tyreek Hill and rebuilt the running back corps. Chase Edmonds, Raheem Mostert and Sony Michel will love McDaniel’s offense.
The Dolphins’ proven ability on defense and litany of offensive changes puts them just above the Eagles here.
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Michael Conroy/Associated Press
Super Bowl Odds: +2200
It’s hard to trust a franchise that lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars with a trip to the playoffs on the line, but there’s reason to believe in the 2022 version of the Indianapolis Colts.
For one, Carson Wentz is gone. For whatever reason, Wentz’s results in the win-loss column never seemed to line up with the numbers he put up in the box score. There’s little explanation for a quarterback who has posted a career passer rating of 90.1 to be traded twice in two years before he turns 30, but that’s where we are.
Taking his place under center will be Matt Ryan, who has spent the last two seasons of his career with a listless Falcons franchise. He’s 37 years old but still led the Falcons to seven wins last season and threw for nearly 4,000 yards.
Now, he joins a team that has one of the most vaunted rushing attacks in the league. Jonathan Taylor put up 2,171 yards from scrimmage last season, and Michael Pittman Jr. had a breakout year with 1,082 yards and six touchdowns.
On defense, the Colts finished 10th in ESPN’s defensive efficiency and added Yannick Ngakoue to their pass rush and replaced Rock Ya-Sin with Stephon Gilmore.
The team has posted winning seasons in three of four seasons under head coach Frank Reich. Now he has a team that can play good defense, run the ball and rely on a veteran quarterback.
That’s a recipe for a club that could do some damage in the playoffs.
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Terrance Williams/Associated Press
Super Bowl Odds: +2200
Based on Super Bowl odds and season win totals, it feels like the Baltimore Ravens are the forgotten contender in the AFC North.
Every other team on this list has questions at quarterback. Baltimore has a 2019 MVP in Lamar Jackson who is still young enough (25) to be on his rookie contract.
There are some fair questions about this Ravens roster. Namely, the receiving corps is iffy after the team traded Marquise Brown to the Cardinals.
But this is still a team that was 8-3 before Week 13 before losing Jackson for the majority of a six-game skid.
Losing Brown hurts, but the Ravens also acquired several key pieces in the offseason. Safety Marcus Williams and offensive tackle Morgan Moses both project as important starters, while their draft class features a few prospects who should contribute right away in safety Kyle Hamilton, center Tyler Linderbaum and defensive tackle Travis Jones.
When Jackson was healthy, the Ravens were among the best teams in the league. They don’t have a perfect roster. They could still use an addition at wide receiver, and a proven pass-rusher wouldn’t hurt, either.
However, they are deserving of more respect as a legitimate contender to win the AFC North and make a deep run in the playoffs.
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