Any Super Bowl win is meaningful for the franchise who wins it, as well as for their home city and fans around the globe. But not all Super Bowl victories are created equally when we look at the longer term ramifications wrought on the league by the teams that win them.
The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles are two excellent examples of teams that produced exceptional Super Bowl victories but were ultimately unable to foster greater success for their franchise out of their triumph. The Bucs went 7-9 and missed the playoffs the year after their Lombardi-winning campaign, and 5-11 in 2004. Philadelphia were also unable to transform their underdog defeat of the Patriots in the 2017 Super Bowl into any sort of consistent success. The team flirted around the fringes of playoff success in 2018 and 2019, before Super Bowl winning Head Coach Doug Pederson was sacked following a disastrous 4-11-1 campaign in 2020.
Neither of those teams grew into a dominant, decade long dynasty. Neither produced a game style or a team-building approach to be replicated by other clubs around the league in the years to come. Both great teams, with memorable playoff runs, but their Super Bowl victories were not landscape shifting events for the NFL.
The 2001 New England Patriots are the most clear and blatant example of a team that not only achieved success on the franchise level, but whose success and approach to the game drastically altered the way other clubs around the NFL attempted to achieve success themselves. How many front offices attempted to lure away a Belichick disciple in the hope of unlocking a similarly unique level of success for their own franchise? During their six Lombardi trophy-winning campaigns across the 21st Century, the Patriots shifted the landscape of Pro Football. The standard for success, and what kind of dominance could be achieved in the era of the salary cap, was forever altered, as teams looked to defy the process of league equalization and establish a dominant force of their own.
So, as we hurtle toward another NFL playoff campaign, with our 2021 Super Bowl winner just a over a month away from emerging, I decided to take a look at four playoff teams whose acquisition of a Lombardi at the conclusion of the 2021 season could most dramatically shift the landscape of the NFL. Four teams who I believe could rise to an extended period of dominance themselves, or perhaps shift the way other teams approach the race for the Super Bowl moving forward.
Let’s begin with an upstart team from the State of Ohio…
CINCINNATI BENGALS (10-7, won AFC North)
For most of the 2000s and 2010s, the Bengals have served as the third best franchise in the AFC North behind the dominant Divisional powers in Pittsburgh and the Baltimore. Both the Ravens and Steelers have each won two Super Bowl titles this century, and together have won 15 of a possible 20 Division titles since the AFC North was born in 2002. While never as derelict as the Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati have managed only to cycle to the surface of the Division inconsistently, and briefly, suffering too often from key quarterback injuries at devastating times, and playoff misfortune during the odd opportunities they’ve had in the post season.
Zac Taylor’s first two seasons in charge gave no indication that a Bengals transformation was on the way, with the team acquiring a record of 6-25-1 and a season ending leg injury to their 2020 1st Round QB Joe Burrow in his rookie season. But transform they have, into a team that has turned the tables on its AFC North tormentors in 2021, punching out a 4-0 record over the Steelers and Ravens this season, with a combined score in those games of 147-58. To further validate their credentials as a rising force, they sealed their Division crown with an arse-clenching 34-31 victory over the reigning AFC champions, the Kansas City Chiefs.
This Cincinnati transformation has arrived on the back of improvement on defense, with former New Orleans Saint Trey Hendrickson providing great return on investment with a team-high 14 sacks and 27 QB. There has been growth too for second year linebacker Logan Wilson, who leads the team with 100 tackles and 4 interceptions. While perhaps not a top 5 defense, the Bengals have a rabid group that can provide at least average to above average support to the team’s explosive offense.
Cincinnati’s offense has evolved into one of the most talented groups of weapons in the NFL seemingly overnight. The acquisition of a genuine No. 1 receiving talent like Ja’Marr Chase (81 catches 1,455 yards, 13 touchdowns) has served to significantly loosen the coverage for players like Tee Higgins (74 catches for 1,091 yards and 6 touchdowns), Tyler Boyd (67 catches for 828 yards and 5 touchdowns) and TE C.J. Uzomah (49 catches for 493 yards and 5 touchdowns). Add to the mix a 1,205 yard, 13 touchdown rushing season for RB Joe Mixon, and the Bengals can hang with any gunslinging team in the NFL.
But the key to this Bengals team is its swaggering, bristling personality, and that growth in identity can be directly linked to the self-assured strut of its starting quarterback, Joe Burrow. I’ve written extensively about Burrow’s journey to the NFL, and his ascension to stardom, previously on A Football World so I won’t deep dive here. Suffice to say, the evolution in his performance at the pro level from 2020-2021 has been eerily similar to the pattern he followed during his two year stint in College at LSU. On the Bayou, he went from gritty competitor in his Junior year, to ruthless game-wrecker as a Senior, guiding the Tigers to a 15-0 record, the National Championship, en route to acquiring a Heisman Trophy and various quarterback records for himself.
Burrow has been superb in his second season of NFL football, throwing for 4,611 yards at 8.9 YPA with a 70.4% completion percentage, to go with 34 touchdowns and 14 picks. He has led two 4th quarter comebacks, and three game winning drives, and looks every bit the best quarterback in his Division. And herein lies the opportunity for the Bengals to turn a Super Bowl win this year into an even greater period of dominance for the franchise.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are about to open a void at quarterback the likes of which they haven’t experienced in the best part of two decades, as veteran Ben Roethlisberger takes his final pro football bow. The Cleveland Browns have self-combusted with injury and bizarre play-calling to finish bottom of the Division after a soaring season in 2020. Baker Mayfield will no doubt have his defenders, but there is a strong case that Mayfield is a vessel that rises with the talent around him, rather than serving as the quarterback tide that lifts all boats. Lamar Jackson at the Baltimore Ravens might have an MVP award tucked into his belt, but I have question marks about his ability to be consistent in the passing game, especially when it comes to the crunch time of the playoffs, against the league’s best defenses.
And so there is a potential power vacuum at quarterback in the AFC North as the Bengals’ three opponents attempt to prove and/or solidify the position. Add to that the fact that Joe Burrow is still on his rookie deal, which allows the team to continue to sign and retain talent around him while he’s not being paid like an Aaron Rodgers/Patrick Mahomes type.
If Cincinnati could claim a Super Bowl title this season, don’t be surprised if they rise to become a conference super power in their own right. Especially because the current reigning force in the AFC, the Kansas City Chiefs, now face the prospect of Justin Herbert and the Chargers, as well as a boisterous and resurgent Raiders team within its own Division.
All of this, of course, hinges on team ownership and front office to be as aggressive as possible in building on the momentum that a Championship would bring. And in Cincinnati, that may be the least certain factor of all.
DALLAS COWBOYS (12-5, won NFC East)
To describe the Dallas Cowboys as a long-suffering franchise seems both grossly inaccurate, and deceptively true, within the context of the organization. While it’s true that the Cowboys have never lost their oft-quoted moniker as “America’s Team”, it’s also fair to say that for much of the 21st Century the Dallas Cowboys have been decidedly mediocre. For a franchise that paints itself as the royalty of the league, from it’s silver uniforms and glamorous Jerry World sports complex (as seen on that truly delightful drone shot during Hard Knocks) to it’s penchant for shelling out a Kings ransom to pay it’s beloved home-grown stars, the lone star team has shone less brightly in the last two decades than almost any other time in it’s history.
To contextualize the sort of lifestyle Cowboys fans had become accustomed to prior to the turn of the century, from 1960-1999 Dallas had enjoyed a combined record of 352-236-6 in 40 seasons. They had 23 double-digit win seasons, 26 playoff appearances, 8 trips to the Super Bowl and 5 Lombardi Trophies in the cabinet. Compare that with their run from 2000-2020, where they have held a combined record of 174-162-0, with just 6 double-digit win seasons and 7 playoff appearances in 21 seasons and no trips to the Super Bowl. For the majority of the last two decades, it’s been all sizzle and no steak for America’s Team. The Cowboys have fallen decidedly short, despite consistently getting the advantage of playing in an NFC East which has struggled to establish itself as one of the premier Divisions in Pro Football, outside of its gratuitous amount of Nationally Televised games.
2021 has seen the return of a once-familiar lustre to the football of the Dallas Cowboys franchise. The upswing began with the re-signing of franchise quarterback Dak Prescott, who returned after suffering a gruesome leg injury during the 2020 season. There was some amount of tension leading up to this deal, as the NFL media floated the idea of Jerry Jones and the Cowboys franchise tagging their star in order to see how he fared in the wake of his 2020 wounds. But true to form, Dallas honored a son who had served the Star well, committing to Prescott with a four-year $160 million dollar deal. A fitting reward for a fourth round draft selection who had diligently worked his way to becoming one of the top dozen quarterbacks in the league.
Prescott, for his part, has paid back the faith in 2021, throwing for 4,449 yards at 68.8% completion percentage, with 37 touchdown passes and just 10 interceptions. His last four games of the season have been imperious, connecting on 13 touchdown strikes while offering 0 interceptions the other way. In two of those contests, the Cowboys dunked more than 50 points on two Divisional opponents, against Washington and Philadelphia.
It is not only been the team’s star quarterback who has performed to his billing, but other Dallas Draft seeds that have begun to flower and bear fruit. Wide receiver CeeDee Lamb (79 catches, 1,102 yards, 6 touchdowns) and Tight End Dalton Schultz (78 catches, 808 yards, 8 touchdowns) have both enjoyed career-best seasons, while veteran receiver Amari Cooper (68 catches, 865 yards, 8 touchdowns) has remained dynamic even while playing through injury and health concerns. The running game too has been powerful, with the explosive Tony Pollard charging for 719 yards on 130 carries while spelling team-leader Ezekiel Elliott, who has somewhat quietly compiled another 1,000 yard season and rushed for 10 touchdowns, the 3rd most of his career.
In fact, it seems that we have become so accustomed to this orgy of Dallas scoring in 2021, that their offensive prowess is almost flying under the radar as we head to the post season.
And if a high-powered offense isn’t enough to get you excited about the Cowboys this post-season, the emergence of a turnover-ravenous Dallas defense might.
The Cowboys defense heads to the playoffs ranked 1st in the NFL for turnovers, with a league-leading 26 interceptions, ending 16.7% of opponent drives in a turnover. Breakout rookie linebacker Micah Parsons has dominated. The former Penn State alumni has torn up the opposition with 84 tackles, 13 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and a whopping 30 QB hits with 20 tackles for loss. The next highest QB hits total on the team belongs to DE Randy Gregory, who has 17. Parsons has been simply terrifying. He seems a lock for at least a Defensive Rookie of the Year Award, and an early candidate as the generational talent selected from his Draft class. DB Trevon Diggs, with 11 interceptions, has taken full advantage of the chaos being caused up front to record far and away the best year of his two season career.
It’s an embarrassment of riches on both sides of the ball for the Cowboys this season.
This Dallas team is equipped to become an absolute juggernaut if it can break through and win the franchise’s first Lombardi trophy since 1995. Unlike some of the other organizations vying for Super Bowl success in the 2022 playoffs, the Cowboys are well placed to translate a year of success into a dynasty of dominance. They have been there, and done that. This is an organization accustomed to a history of success, and ready to pour every considerable resource available to them into maintaining a ruthless grip atop the mountain, once they reach the summit.
Should the Super Bowl trophy find its way back Jerry World in 2022, don’t be surprised if it finds residence there on the regular across the next decade.
BUFFALO BILLS (11-6, won AFC East)
When Sean McDermott took over the role of head coach of the Buffalo Bills in 2017 he was taking the helm of an organization that had enjoyed just two winning seasons in the 21st Century, and hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1999. The Bills were perennially on the outside looking in, having amassed a glut of playoff (and Super Bowl) appearances during the late 80s and across the 90s, but run foul in shallow waters ever since. The team had been completely dominated by Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots for the better part of two decades, and it was McDermott’s task to reinvigorate the franchise with new life and identity.
To his credit, the former college football player and wrestler has done just that, taking the Bills back to the playoffs in his first year as Head Coach in 2017. Despite a first round loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, there was a general feeling that the team was trending in the right direction under McDermott, a man with a serious plan. 2018 saw a return to the red, as the Bills went 6-10 with rookie quarterback Josh Allen looking thrilling in some patches, but raw and unready in others. The feeling that McDermott had Buffalo pointed upwards in those early seasons has been validated, as he leads the Bills into their third straight playoff campaign in 2021, on the back of a combined record of 34-15 across the last three seasons, and back to back AFC East Division title wins. The team advanced to the AFC Conference Championship game last season, only to lose to the Chiefs in a game that was rarely close.
Perhaps more than anyone else, Sean McDermott seems to understand the urgent nature of turning around a franchise like Buffalo, to strike while the opponent is down and seize the advantage. That opponent, as much as anyone, has been Buffalo’s longtime tormentor, the New England Patriots. Since he set foot in Orchard Park, McDermott has understood, and acknowledged, what everyone else on the outside can see. That no matter how talented Buffalo is, no matter how many double-digit victories they rack up (and they have racked up a plethora under McDermott in five years), the franchise cannot move into a period of prolonged dominance unless it finds a way to defeat, and gain the upper hand on, their Divisional neighbors – the Patriots.
McDermott began his head coaching career against New England 0-6 in his first three seasons. The Bills were outscored 64-109 in those first six losses, but the Bills have turned the tables since, winning three of their last four games against the Patriots by a combined score of 105-65. The most recent win, a 33-21 triumph in New England after the Patriots had humiliated the Bills a few weeks early in a game where Buffalo couldn’t stop the run in the wind and snow, seems to have solidified the mentality of McDermott’s team headed into the playoffs.
Questions, of course, still abound about this team. For even as they have crushed opponents this season, with 11 of their 12 victories coming by double digits, they have suffered some befuddling and cringe-worthy defeats. An opening day 23-16 loss to the mediocre Steelers, a 9-6 defeat to Urban Meyers’ atrocious Jaguars in Week 9 and a 41-15 thumping at the hands of the Colts have at times led NFL fans to scratch their collective heads about just how to forecast success for this team.
But following a gutsy comeback on the road in Tampa Bay in Week 14, a game the Bills ultimately lost in Over Time, Buffalo seem to have found their groove, closing the season with four straight win to seal a second consecutive AFC East Crown, and outscoring their opponents handily. T
Possessing the league’s most miserly defense (the Bills have allowed just 283 points in 17 games), and one of it’s most potent offenses (scoring over 480 points this season), Buffalo is poised to become a reigning NFL super power if this team can break the franchise’s long-suffering Championship drought (the Bills remain one of twelve teams to have never won a Super Bowl). But as McDermott seems keenly aware, it is the ability of his team to impose itself on the mentality of fellow AFC contenders that could make or break what he has been building since 2017.
An opportunity to land another significant blow in this eternal struggle arrives this weekend in the first round of playoffs, as the Bills welcome New England for the third and final act of this bitter rivalry in the 2021 season. This is a Buffalo team with as much talent as any team in the league, but with a reputation for producing results, in key moments, far less than the sum of its parts. If McDermott’s men can deliver the killer blow to the Patriots in 2022, and go on and finish the job, Buffalo has the potential to establish itself as one of the most dominant two or three powers in the NFL for many seasons to come.
No pressure or anything.
LA RAMS (12-5, won NFC West)
When Sean McVay assumed the title of LA Rams Head Coach in 2017, he became, at age 30, the youngest person to hold that title for any NFL franchise in the history of the league. He was taking control of a Rams team that was one year removed from an unpopular relocation from St. Louis to Los Angeles, and stepping into an organization that had not produced a winning record since 2003. Under previous Head Coach Jeff Fisher, the plan had seemingly been to straddle the line of 7-9 in perpetuity. But when he arrived, fresh from a seven year stint with the Washington Football Team, the coach with the league’s most manicured facial hair brought with him his own timetable, and his own ideology for success.
The results were staggeringly instantaneous, as the Rams transformed overnight from one of the most boring teams in the NFL, into one of the league’s most attractive franchises. In 2017, McVay’s Rams stormed to an 11-5 record, a Division title and a painful Wild Card loss to the Atlanta Falcons. In 2018, LA went many steps further, crushing their schedule for a 13-3 record, a second consecutive Division title, and a trip to the Super Bowl. The Rams devastating offense was ultimately dismantled on the biggest stage of all, by the greatest coach of all, as Bill Belichick’s Patriots defeated LA 13-3. While there was obvious humiliation in such a demoralizing Super Bowl performance, McVay and Rams General Manager Les Snead (perhaps the NFL’s most sculpted hair, guess it’s an LA thing) had set down a foundation for what the LA Rams could, and would be expected to, achieve.
While 2020 was a dip back down below double digits wins for the Rams, the 2021 season has seen the team crunch it’s way to a 12-5 record and a 3rd NFC West title in McVay’s 5 years. To put that in perspective, the Rams had only won 2 Division titles in the 17 years prior to McVay’s arrival. While a powerful offense has been one of the most enduring legacies of the Rams under their young coach, it has been the team-building approach Snead and McVay have taken that has been the most intriguing element.
Since 2017, the LA Rams have not drafted a single player in the 1st Round of the NFL Draft, preferring instead to use those high-end picks to acquire ready made talent via the trade table. Jacksonville Jaguar’s Pro Bowl CB Jalen Ramsey was acquired in 2019 for the high price of two 1st round Draft selections, and has gone on to become one of the cornerstones of LA’s defense, prowling the secondary behind the already impressive Rams pass rush. In 2021, it was the addition of Detroit Lions veteran QB Matthew Stafford, for a cost of another two 1st round draft picks, a 3rd round pick, and QB Jared Goff, that really turned NFL heads. The phrase “the Rams are all-in”, “LA is Super Bowl or bust”, have become well-worn phrases for fans and media around the league. And it’s not hard to see why.
The aggressive trades haven’t stopped at Stafford this season for McVay and Snead, with perhaps the most outrageous example of stacking strength on strength being the acquisition of longtime Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller in exchange for a 2nd and a 3rd round draft pick in 2023.
This Rams approach has ruffled feathers around the league, with various members of the media and NFL fanbases (and no doubt a few front offices and coaching staffs) skeptical as to whether this ideology can result in anything more than one massive Super Bowl swing for LA. The common theory, of course, seems to be that the Rams will be unable to sustain their success without the requisite 1st Round picks to replenish their young stocks of talent. Whether this is true or not will be proven out over the next several seasons, but what I am fascinated by is the potential for a Rams’ Super Bowl victory in 2022 to give rise to a proliferation of this team-building approach around what is so aptly described as a copycat league.
Since McVay was hired in 2017, the most valuable commodity in the annual coaching cycle has become the “young offensive mind”, as follower franchises around the NFL begin the copycat process of trying to find their own McVay. Kliff Kingsbury, Matt LaFleur and Zac Taylor are just three names who have seemingly sprung from the McVay coaching sapling.
But what happens if this Rams team, who have traded Draft picks for players as if they were trading football cards in the school yard, win the Super Bowl? Could we see a mob of starry-eyed franchises feeling vindicated in following the Snead/McVay path of throwing picks at proven players, eschewing the time-honored NFL team-building philosophy of player development via the Draft?
It’s fascinating to wonder, and in my eyes a Rams Super Bowl win could have some of the more far-reaching reverberations for the NFL, even if it doesn’t end up being a sustainable model for long term success in LA. You would be hard pressed to find a front office across the league who wouldn’t trade the draft room cupboard for a grotesquely stacked Super Bowl window, especially if the Rams show it can be done.
And if some teams do begin making these aggressive trades, dealing away handfuls of 1st and 2nd round draft picks, which of the more traditional Draft and development franchises could take advantage of a flood of available Draft picks, by making savvy trades exchanging their own stars who are perhaps about to turn into the Autumn of their career?
To a football sicko like me, this is fascinating food for thought. I hope it is for you too.
Jake Bowtell is a sports podcaster and writer with a particular obsession with American Football. You can listen to him on The Jake Bowtell Sports Experience, The Chaps Chat Cats, and read him on A Football World, and his Patreon page “The Jake Bowtell Sports Experience”. He resides in the Middle of Nowhere, Australia, and is stared at oddly by locals when he wears his NFL jerseys down the street.
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