Six weeks into the 2021 NFL season and the Super Bowl LVI favorites are beginning to emerge from the page. Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Green Bay, Cardinals, Rams, and even the Cowboys are looking formidable in this young season. Every season, however, darkhorse teams come out of the woodwork to surprise. Considering the beginning of last year, the Buccaneers were considered a long-shot at this point in the year.
Three Darkhorse Super Bowl LVI Teams
Los Angeles Chargers
How can a 4-2, AFC West Division-leading Chargers team be considered a darkhorse Super Bowl LVI team? All eyes are on the 3-3 Chiefs.
Thus far, LA has beaten the likes of the Chiefs, Raiders, Football Team, and Browns. Their two losses came at the hands of the Ravens and Cowboys. Oddly enough, they’ve played their hardest stretch of the year. In terms of current records, the Chargers have the easiest remaining schedule.
Leading the way is second-year quarterback Justin Herbert and his 1,771 yards and 14 touchdowns. He’s been playing at such a high level that his MVP odds are even higher than Patrick Mahomes and Derrick Henry. Offensive weapon Austin Ekeler already has 100 touches for 598 scrimmage yards and seven touchdowns. Keenan Allen and Mike Williams provide a solid one-two punch.
The defense is extremely hot and cold, however, and is likely holding the team back. The secondary is strong, allowing the fourth-fewest yards through the air. Meanwhile, the rush defense is terribly porous and has allowed a league-high 975 yards through six games on the ground. While the schedule may be easy to some, LA will have to face Javonte Williams/Melvin Gordon twice, Joe Mixon, Saquon Barkley, and Dalvin Cook.
The Chargers are a legitimate threat to unseat KC as the king of the West behind Herbert and their elite pass defense. If they can manage to be closer to league average at stopping the run, the LA Chargers could very well represent the AFC in Super Bowl LVI.
San Francisco 49ers
The NFC West is an absolute gauntlet. The division has a very real chance of sending three teams to the NFC playoffs with the Cardinals, Rams, and 49ers. As has been the case ever since their Super Bowl LIV loss, there have been lofty expectations in the Bay. After starting 2-0, San Francisco has dropped three straight, each to divisional foes. Their bye week couldn’t have come at a better time.
Fire up the old Twitter machine and you’ll find a bit of a quarterback controversy. Jimmy Garoppolo has been the starter for the last few years, but a team doesn’t draft a new quarterback second-overall with the intent to just sit him (usually). Trey Lance lost in his lone start against Arizona but played well enough to earn a win. Despite his interception on the first drive in the game on a deep shot, he led the offense to nearly successful drives. Noted, the offense gave up the ball on downs four times, ending drives on Arizona’s 34, 1, 48, and 48.
For the 49ers to truly be a darkhorse to surprise, the offense is going to need to begin to fire on all cylinders. Through the air, they’ve accounted for the fourth-fewest yards; that tends to happen with a carousel at quarterback. On the ground, San Francisco has accounted for just worse than average at 21st.
In the remaining 11 games, the 49ers will play four of the ten worst defenses. Stick with Lance, utilize the best tight end in the game in George Kittle, and establish some semblance of a run game between Elijah Mitchell and Trey Sermon. It’s an uphill battle, but the 49ers have the talent and the roster to get hot down the stretch, earn a Wild Card spot, and take another division winner by surprise.
Finally, the longest shot of long shots. The Cincinnati Bengals are 4-2 heading into a pivotal matchup with the Baltimore Ravens. A win in Week 7 would vault Cincinnati to the top of the AFC standings and give them an inside track to the division. Now, in order to be a darkhorse, the Bengals will have to take advantage of the winnable games. Look at the final three games on their schedule; they could end the year with back-to-back-to-back matchups against playoff teams.
The leader of this team is second-year quarterback and potential Comeback Player of the Year, Joe Burrow. Burrow’s game has taken a step forward with the addition of Ja’Marr Chase, the possible NFL Rookie of the Year. Burrow has thrown for 1,540 yards and 14 touchdowns, but he’s thrown seven interceptions. Some have been good plays by the defense…others have been real head-scratchers like what happened in overtime against the Packers. His offensive line still isn’t as good as it should be, but it’s better than last year.
Speaking of improvements, the Bengals’ defense is night and day better than the 2020 edition. The addition of Trey Hendrickson and Chidobe Awuzie has paid dividends already: 5.5 sacks from Hendrickson and an interception and six passes defensed from Awuzie. Not to mention the breakout campaign of second-year linebacker Logan Wilson and his four (!) interceptions along with his 53 tackles. In just one year, the Bengals’ defense went from seventh-worst to ninth-best in yards allowed.
In order to be the best — or just be a darkhorse Super Bowl LVI team — the Bengals must stifle Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens offense in Week 7.