Christmas is in the rearview mirror, and I hope Santa treated you well. With New Year's fast approaching, the NFL playoffs are nearly upon us. So it's time to get down to brass tacks, time to explore the only question that really matters ...
Who's going to win Super Bowl LVII?
Before we assess the top contenders, I want to stress that this is NOT a Power Ranking. My colleague Dan Hanzus has that covered. This is not a playoff predictor or seeding forecast, either.
What is this?
It's my Schein Nine ranking of teams, based on one simple criteria: Who has the best chance to lift the Lombardi Trophy in Arizona this coming February?
If the preseason prediction ain't broke, don't fix it.
Currently holding the top seed in the superior AFC, Buffalo is the best team in the NFL. It all starts, of course, with Josh Allen, a true megastar quarterback who carries the Bills with his arm, legs and leadership. Yes, he threw two interceptions in Saturday's 35-13 win at Chicago, but he also accounted for three scores, passing Dan Marino for the most total touchdowns (174) in a player's first five seasons in the Super Bowl era. The most surprising part of the Bills' AFC East-clinching beatdown of the Bears: Pro Bowl wide receiver Stefon Diggs had his least-productive game of the season, catching just two passes for 26 yards. Buffalo's ability to still log a 22-point road victory is a testament to surrounding weapons like Devin Singletary, James Cook, Gabe Davis and Dawson Knox, all of whom hit paydirt on Christmas Eve.
Defensively, even sans Von Miller, the Bills are strong, deep and reliable. Bears QB Justin Fields became just the third quarterback to reach 1,000 rushing yards in a season in Week 15. In Week 16 against Buffalo, Fields totaled just 11 yards on the ground, snapping an eight-game streak of at least 60 rushing yards. On the season, Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier's D is giving up just 17.5 points per game, only trailing San Francisco in that figure league-wide.
Home-field advantage would be huge, given the Bills' spectacular fans and Buffalo's inclement weather. I think the Bills do indeed lock up the No. 1 seed -- gaining the coveted playoff bye -- with a win at Cincinnati on Monday night and a home victory over New England in Week 18.
Currently riding a seven-game win streak, Joe Burrow and the Bengals are on a special heater. Joe Cool 2.0 just went on the road to beat Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in consecutive weeks, throwing seven touchdown passes in the process.
Everyone knows about Cincinnati's preternaturally savvy quarterback, as well as the team's dynamic pass-catching trio of Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, three wideouts who've combined to catch 205 balls this season for 2,693 yards and 20 touchdowns. But this is a well-rounded roster with strengths that go far beyond just the aerial attack. Backfield buddies Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine comprise a steady 1-2 punch at running back, while the Bengals' defense is currently in position to finish top 10 in points allowed for the first time since 2016. The unit is supremely coached by Lou Anarumo, regularly delivering big plays in the clutch (SEE: Vonn Bell's successful punch-out job on Rhamondre Stevenson with one minute left and Cincy on the verge of blowing a 22-0 halftime lead in Foxborough.
The one big concern is Cincy's offensive line, which just took major hit with right tackle La'el Collins' season-ending knee injury. After taking a whopping 70 sacks last season (playoffs included), Burrow has enjoyed moderately improved protection this year. Though it helps to have a wise-beyond-his-years passer swiftly getting rid of the ball before the pass rush can get home.
Color me obsessed with this defense. DeMeco Ryans is a gem, and his unit has true difference-makers at all three levels. Nick Bosa's getting most of the attention, and understandably so: Having just wrecked another game with seven tackles, four QB hits, two sacks, two tackles for loss and a fumble recovery in the 37-20 win over Washington, Bosa is closing in on Defensive Player of the Year honors. As an Associated Press voter, he's my current pick for the award, with a league-best 17.5 sacks, including 11.5 in the last nine games. San Francisco also boasts an additional Pro Bowler at the second (Fred Warner) and third level (Talanoa Hufanga). And I haven't even mentioned LB Dre Greenlaw, S Jimmie Ward, CB Charvarius Ward -- three all-star-caliber studs in their own right -- or the waves of additional disruptors along Kris Kocurek's defensive line. This is a true championship defense, which is why the Niners remain squarely in the title hunt despite being down to their third-string quarterback.
That said, the third-string quarterback deserves plenty of praise; the last pick of the 2022 NFL Draft has been anything but irrelevant. Taking over for the injured Jimmy Garoppolo in the second drive of the Week 13 bout against Miami, Brock Purdy deftly guided San Francisco to a 33-17 win with a pair of touchdown passes. Since then, he's been even better, going 3-0 with sparkling statistics across the board: 70 percent completions, 6:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 121.4 passer rating. The freshly minted 23-year-old sure looks like he belongs, eh? Obviously, Purdy greatly benefits from having an elite play-caller in Kyle Shanahan and a smorgasbord of game-changing weapons at his disposal. If Deebo Samuel returns with fresh (and healthy) legs for the postseason run? Watch out.
Howie Roseman is the Executive of the Year, bar none. The man adroitly assembled a juggernaut, backing up sound team-building strategies with some bold moves like the A.J. Brown trade. Two years after bottoming out at 4-11-1, Philadelphia owns the NFL's best record, with an offense that leads the league in scoring and a defense that ranks second in yards allowed. This is a deep and talented roster on both sides of the football.
Of course, Jalen Hurts' health is the looming question. How's the shoulder? Will the MVP candidate be 100 percent for the playoffs? How long will it take to shake off the rust if/when he returns? Gardner Minshew is one of the best backup quarterbacks in the league, as evidenced by his valiant effort this past Saturday in a narrow, 40-34 loss at Dallas. But is Minshew Super Bowl quality? I have my doubts. The injury to Pro Bowl right tackle Lane Johnson certainly doesn't help matters.
When this Philadelphia team is firing on all cylinders, it's a monster. The Eagles have proven that all season. But suddenly, Philly's compromised, just before the start of the single-elimination postseason tournament ...
Patrick Mahomes is a legend. He's Football LeBron, an extraordinarily talented individual who consistently lifts his team while making jaws drop. And he's currently my choice for MVP. Add in one of the greatest coaches (Andy Reid) and tight ends (Travis Kelce) in league history, and Kansas City clearly has the core of a Super Bowl champion.
Problem is, I don't trust the rest of the team.
The receiving corps lacks sizzle and the defense lacks consistency. These are serious concerns with potential playoff games looming against the well-rounded powerhouses from Buffalo and Cincinnati.
In fact, assuming Kansas City falls short of the first-round bye, the Chiefs could be on upset alert in Round 1 against the wrong opponent. They swept the AFC West-rival Chargers during the regular season, but won each game by three points. Could a third matchup be the charm for the Justin Herbert-led Bolts?
The Cowboys had a growing problem at the game's most important position, as Dak Prescott apparently forgot which team he was supposed to throw the ball to. In his first eight games since returning from a thumb injury, the star quarterback posted 10 interceptions. Then in Dallas' first drive of a massive NFC East showdown with Philadelphia this past weekend, Dak tossed a brutal pick-six, making it seem like Prescott and Co. could be in for a depressing loss to the Jalen Hurts-less Eagles. But that fear proved fleeting, as Dak bounced back in a major way, eviscerating Philly's highly ranked defense for the remainder of the game.
- Prescott after his opening-drive pick six: 25-of-32 for 330 yards and three touchdowns, with zero interceptions and a 140.9 passer rating.
Prescott was clutch down the stretch, with Dallas scoring points on their final five full drives to eke out a 40-34 win over Philadelphia, preventing the rival Eagles from clinching the division title and No. 1 overall seed in the NFC playoffs. Absolutely huge -- just like the Cowboys' upside. They have a strong run game, a stud receiver, a defense full of playmakers and a championship-level quarterback -- at least when Dak plays like he did after Saturday's pick-six. Problem is, that talented defense lacks consistency, the passing-game weapons around CeeDee Lamb aren't special and the offensive line isn't what it used to be.
Every postseason field features an erratic team with the potential to catch fire and win any style of fight. This time around, it's Mike McCarthy's Cowboys.
I thought the Chargers could've been the Bengals in last season's playoffs, but we all know what happened in the final game of the regular season: Brandon Staley called an odd timeout late and the Raiders beat the Bolts in overtime, eliminating Los Angeles from postseason play. Staley's overall game management still scares me, though he's toned down the haphazard aggressiveness this season. And with Monday night's 20-3 win over the moribund Colts, the Chargers clinched their first postseason appearance since 2018. Giddy up! This is a team with enticing potential.
Justin Herbert is an MVP candidate and a flat-out star, with 90 touchdown passes in his first three NFL seasons. And he has a brilliant 1-2 punch to exploit out wide in Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, who are finally healthy at the same time. Not to mention, RB Austin Ekeler is a scoring machine as a runner and receiver, boasting a league-best 36 total touchdowns since the beginning of last season. The defense still hasn't lived up to expectations, but it's at least been better of late, giving up a grand total of 34 points during the current three-game winning streak.
This team has frisky potential, especially as an underdog in Wild Card Weekend. Herbert gives the Chargers a chance to win every time out.
If my name rhymed with seven, we'd be appropriately done. But it's the Schein Nine, so here we are. Use that for perspective.
I have ranted against the mob that shouts, "Nobody wants to play Tom Brady in the postseason!" Truth is, everybody should want to play the Buccaneers, because they're just not a good football team. Aaron Rodgers' resurgent Packers, on the other hand ...
Not that Rodgers is enjoying another MVP-worthy campaign. At all. But ... the Packers' comeback win in Miami was pretty awesome. And in a broader sense, Green Bay has showcased three things during this three-game win streak: a defense, a run game and a legendary quarterback making key plays. This is the formula we expected all year. Better late than never!
The Packers close out the regular season by hosting the Vikings and Lions at Lambeau Field. I expect them to use the aforementioned formula to win both games. And if they do, and get some help, and get into the dance ... Rodgers' Pack officially become that team you don't want to face.
Green Bay ahead of Minnesota?!?! That's correct.
Like I said before, I'm an AP voter. And I currently have Kevin O'Connell as the leader for Coach of the Year, with the sensational Justin Jefferson as top dog for Offensive Player of the Year. Furthermore, Kirk Cousins has been strong of late. And Minnesota truly has a special knack for prevailing in close games this year, having earned an NFL-record 11(!) one-possession wins. But ...
I just cannot look into the crystal ball and see that defense winning three/four playoff games. And I find it quite hard to envision Cousins hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, with his disastrous games against Philadelphia and Dallas burned into my brain.
All that said, I think Vikings could win a couple of shootouts this postseason, matchups depending.