Lombardi: A look ahead to next season’s NFL contenders

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By the time the confetti hit the ground, and before Terry Bradshaw was handing out the Lombardi Trophy to Clark Hunt, owner of the Chiefs, thirty NFL teams suddenly became 0-0 again.  Only the Eagles and the Chiefs were left to deal with the aftermath of Super Bowl 57.  The Chiefs celebrated their win, the Eagles were left wondering—how did we lose? 

With zeros all over the game clock, the 2023 season officially began.  There is never downtime in the NFL, and with the slate clean, some teams focus on how they can improve while others focus on how they can take the next step.  As bettors, we focus on the best odds for who might win the title next season.   What team has a realistic chance to close the gap on the Chiefs and derail their efforts to repeat?  Right now, before the off-season moves and reshuffling, there is only one team—the Joe Burrow-led Cincinnati Bengals. 

 

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If you’re honest with yourself, the Bengals could make the case for already being two-time Super Bowl champions had they managed games differently, and if the officials had made a simple call.  In Super Bowl LVI against the Rams, the Bengals are a missed false start call from keeping the Rams from taking the lead.  Later, they failed to convert 3rd and 1 and 4th and 1 to get their hot kicker Evan McPherson into field goal range to tie the score.  This year, they are a bad decision of punting down the middle of the field and a roughing call (the correct call) away from getting their game against the Chiefs into overtime.  Had the Bengals gotten the game into overtime, they would have beaten the wounded Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.  Two years in a row the Bengals had their chances—and fell a little short—but maybe not next season.  Hint—Bengals coach Zak Taylor needs to read Gridiron Genius, which might help his game management.   

The Bengals are a young team with all their draft picks and boatload of cap room as they enter the 2023 season.  They will use a large portion of their cap to resign Burrow to a deal, but there will be enough left over to make a few moves to improve their roster.  Keeping Lou Anarumo as their defensive coordinator was huge.  Not only is Anarumo a great coach and play caller, but he is also well-versed in player procurement, helping shape the defensive roster.  The Bengals run their franchise much like a college team, where the coaches have significant input on the roster breakdown, and owner Mike Brown values their opinion.  The defensive personnel for the Bengals were handpicked by Anarumo and his staff, fitting perfectly into his scheme.  A scheme that has been able to contain Mahomes, preventing them from scoring over 30 points in the last four games. 

 

 

The Bengals understand how to play the Chiefs on both sides of the ball.  The Bengals have made the game harder for Mahomes than most.  Their pressure packages and defensive designs create confusion, and Mahomes isn’t playing pitch and catch like he did against the Eagles.  In all four games over the last two seasons, the Bengals forced Mahomes to make hard throws into tight windows—something the Birds never did.  Mahomes played Super Bowl LVII without having to make one challenging throw—never once forcing us to react by saying out loud, “How did he get that throw in there?” As great as Mahomes played, you never said to yourself the entire game, that was a rare throw—never.  You said it when Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts threw the corner route on 3rd and 12 to Dallas Goedert.  That was a big-time throw into tight coverage— one inch in either direction and it’s an interception.   Mahomes had receivers open in big windows and made the game look easy like he was playing still playing at Whitehouse High School. 

On offense, even behind a bad makeshift offensive line, the Bengals with Burrow under center create matchup problems all over the field.  They went into Buffalo and dominated the Bills, then came a fraction of a second of beating the Chiefs on the road.  Two road games almost overcoming my axiom, “bad lines don’t travel.”  Once the Bengals tighten up their offensive line with off-season moves and returning players from injury, then adding a few more pieces to their offense—they are going to be a tough team to play.  Burrow and the Bengals are not intimated by the Chiefs, nor are they going to back down.  Entering this off-season, the Bengals are the most dangerous threat to the Mahomes reign. 

The Eagles will lick their wounds all off-season as this loss will sting—badly.  They had their chances in the game, and their quarterback outplayed the best quarterback in football for one game.  Hurts, made the one mistake, moving the ball from his left to right hand creating the fumble, thus spotting the Chiefs seven points.  Other than the one play, Hurts was sensational and will be rewarded with a huge deal this off-season.  The Eagle fans can blame the field, the holding call, the catch/non-catch on DeVonta Smith, or whatever else they want, yet they have no one to blame but themselves.  They never forced the Chiefs to play outside their comfort zone. Their defensive line failed to pressure Mahomes, and their secondary wasn’t equipped to win playing man-to-man.  Zone teams that need to play man never transition well, whereas man teams can play zone effectively. 

The Eagles’ roster will get younger overall, more by choice than salary cap.  They need to reallocate their cap towards paying the quarterback, and with two number-one picks, they should be able to replenish the lost talent.  They have a solid nucleus on both sides of the ball, allowing them to continue to compete for the title—only next year, the schedule will not be as favorable, nor can they count on being as healthy.  Losing a Super Bowl takes a toll—and this off-season will present a few challenges, from players to hiring a new defensive coordinator. 

As for the Chiefs, they will have their assorted problems that come with winning a Super Bowl, from players wanting more money to not having the best off-season in terms of dedication to their craft.  The long season does impact the winning teams—making it harder to reconnect to their training, which often results in more injuries.  Andy Reid is fully aware of the problems and having Mahomes offsets any major issues.  The Chiefs aren’t going anywhere and will be in the mix again next year—but they might have to play a road playoff game, which would be their first with Mahomes at quarterback. 

In the Queen City, the Bengals have something special, and if Taylor ever starts thinking about the game like a head coach and not an offensive coordinator, they will be the team to beat.  Don’t fall for all the Mahomes dominating love—Burrow will have an answer.