Seven weeks from now, we will know the winner of Super Bowl LV. Who'll it be? Well, projecting that is kind of my task here today.
In this edition of the Schein Nine, I'm ranking which teams are most likely to hoist the Lombardi Trophy on the evening of Feb. 7 in Tampa, Florida.
The list below is not a power ranking. It's not about who has accomplished the most thus far in the 2020 NFL season. It's not a simple regurgitation of the current standings. In fact, three teams with double-digit wins miss the cut altogether. Why? Allow me to explain those notable omissions:
Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers cannot run the football at all. And the talented receivers suddenly have the yips. Defensively, Pittsburgh has weathered prior injuries, but Bud Dupree's torn ACL is a killer.
Cleveland Browns: I'm actually pretty obsessed with these Browns. This is a long-downtrodden franchise that's finally on the rise under first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski. Cleveland can run with authority. Baker Mayfield is hot. Myles Garrett is special. The future is bright! All that said, I just can't see this franchise going 25 years without a single playoff win and then suddenly stringing together four straight.
Seattle Seahawks: Seattle has the pedigree and the quarterback and coach. It's just the defense that scares me.
OK, with that out of the way, let's get to the meat of this piece.
Here is my annual December ranking of who's most likely to be the last team standing in February:
Did you expect anyone else? Of course not. The Chiefs were my pick in July, remained as such right before the season kicked off ... and now they've gone out and compiled the NFL's best record at 13-1, having just beaten a 10-win Saints team in New Orleans to extend their current win streak to nine games. This isn't hard.
Patrick Mahomes is a true generational superstar. Travis Kelce is enjoying a historic season at tight end. Tyreek Hill is the scariest home run threat in the game. And these guys are flanked by a cavalcade of speedy complementary weapons, with future Hall of Fame head coach Andy Reid at the controls. Yes, the Clyde Edwards-Helaire injury hurts, as he's logged a solid rookie season. But the aforementioned talent trumps the loss. Plus, Le'Veon Bell is there for a reason. Meanwhile, Steve Spagnuolo's defense is an aggressive, well-coached unit, currently ranked eighth in points allowed. Chris Jones wrecks games up front and Tyrann Mathieu makes plays in the back end.
And did I mention Mahomes? Yeah, No. 1's a slam dunk on this list. But No. 2 might surprise some people ...
Been on this bandwagon for quite some time now, having predicted (correctly) that Buffalo would become the NFL's Cinderella team before last year's 10-6 run. One season later? The Bills have all of the elements you need to win a Super Bowl.
Josh Allen, whom I touted back in May as the top dark-horse MVP candidate, is now a bona fide star. Having already set career-highs in passing yards (4,000) and passing touchdowns (30), he's well on his way to posting easy bests in completion percentage (68.7), yards per attempt (7.8) and passer rating (104.2). Oh, and he's also at eight-plus rushing scores for the third year in a row. In Saturday's 48-19 thrashing of Denver -- a win that gave Buffalo its first AFC East crown in a quarter-century -- Allen piled up 393 total yards and four touchdowns (two passing, two running). It was one of his most impressive performances in a season full of gems; Allen was throwing Nolan Ryan fastballs with Greg Maddux precision.
Of course, Allen's breakout season isn't a solo effort. Stefon Diggs is a true No. 1 receiver. Brandon Beane's prized offseason acquisition is having a first-team All-Pro season, with an NFL-high 111 catches for 1,314 yards. Cole Beasley is a perfect No. 2 and speed merchant John Brown should be back for the playoff drive. Don't sleep on what rookie WR Gabriel Davis means to Allen, either. Long story short: Beane's surrounded his franchise passer with a deep, versatile and highly talented receiving corps.
Sean McDermott is a fantastic, buttoned-up coach. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is getting my vote for Assistant Coach of the Year. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and McDermott have the Bills' defense flying around and peaking at the right time, having held three of the past four opponents under 20 points.
I think we are en route to a Bills-Chiefs Championship Sunday clash and I cannot wait.
Here's the deal: If/when the Packers lock up the No. 1 seed, they won't lose at Lambeau. Aaron Rodgers is an all-timer who very well might be having his best season yet. In fact, I'd make that exact case. The 2011 season was special, no doubt, but this is an older, wiser Rodgers operating at the peak of his powers, with a mind-boggling 40:4 TD-to-INT ratio and a Breesian completion rate (69.6). Rodgers' connection with Davante Adams is the best pitch-and-catch combo in the game today.
Green Bay has flaws, yes -- particularly on the defensive side of the ball, where Mike Pettine's unit just isn't swarming like it did last season. But this is still an incredibly well-coached team under second-year head man Matt LaFleur, he of the 24-6 career record. And if the Packers make the Super Bowl, the magic quotient on Rodgers' side will be off the charts.
Brees, who had missed the previous four games due to 11 broken ribs and a punctured lung, clearly wasn't his usual self in the 32-29 loss to Kansas City. The 41-year-old missed on his first six throws and ended up completing just 15 of his 34 attempts, giving him a completion rate below 50 percent for the first time since 2013. The hope is that he'll be able to kick off the rust and get better health-wise in the next couple weeks, but it's hard to imagine he'll be near 100 percent for the postseason tournament. Brees isn't getting any younger and the arm just isn't what it once was.
On the plus side, Sean Payton is a sensational coach. Alvin Kamara is an absolute nightmare to defend. Michael Thomas is out for now, but should be back in the postseason. And of course, the defense is strong and well-coached, with playmakers at every level (SEE: Cameron Jordan, Trey Hendrickson, Demario Davis and Marcus Williams, to name a few).
The Saints' 10-4 record is earned. They have no fear. The quarterback position is a huge concern, but the upside and experience and talent and coaching are all there.
Baltimore is back. Baltimore has been back since the 34-17 win over Dallas in Week 13, a result that was always more about the Ravens' resurgence than the Cowboys' issues.
With 10 total touchdowns in the Ravens' current three-game win streak, Lamar Jackson is playing at his 2019 MVP level again. In a related story, Baltimore is running with authority again, averaging 228 ground yards per game over the past three weeks. Rookie RB J.K. Dobbins is really starting to come into his own as the Ravens' lead back. In the air game, Mark Andrews remains a matchup problem at tight end, while speedy wideout Marquise Brown has started to pick it up in December. Defensively, Baltimore's loaded with talent. And even though the unit's been devoured by the injury bug, the Ravens still rank fourth in scoring D.
While Jackson certainly has something to prove come playoff time, he just won the game of the year thus far -- Baltimore's thrilling 47-42 road victory at Cleveland -- with a Superman performance straight out of a Hollywood script.
Yes, the Rams just suffered the most inexplicable, pathetic, atrocious, unacceptable dud of a loss in memory, handing the previously winless Jets their first triumph of the season. I had been saying for two months that the Rams were the best team in the NFC. Sunday, I was embarrassed. That said ...
I still love the defense. I still like the offensive weapons. I still think Sean McVay can coach.
Indy can beat anyone at any time. Jonathan Taylor is currently rocking at the level I expected when I picked him as my preseason Offensive Rookie of the Year. He's the perfect complement to veteran QB Philip Rivers, providing the needed balance on offense. The Colts' defense is legit. Darius Leonard is a stud. So is DeForest Buckner. And Frank Reich leads a stellar coaching staff.
It's easy to imagine the Colts getting hot and rocking out in the playoffs.
Derrick Henry is the best running back in the game and showed he can carry the Titans on his back last postseason. Ryan Tannehill's connection with A.J. Brown can flip a game at any moment. And Corey Davis' emergence as a legit No. 2 is huge for this offense.
Now, the defense -- which ranks 12th in point allowed and 21st in total D -- obviously worries me. Tennessee ranks dead last in sacks with just 14 on the season. If the Titans are to make another playoff run, it'll be fueled by those prolific playmakers on offense.
Honestly, my confidence level is low here. But I'm not leaving Tom Brady off this list, especially right after a stellar performance in which he erased a 17-0 deficit, threw for 390 yards and spread the wealth to all three of his studs at wideout (Mike Evans had 110 receiving yards, while Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown both scored). We are talking about Tom Brady, after all ...