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The Schein Nine

Who will win Super Bowl LVIII? Ranking 9 most likely NFL champions as 2023 regular season winds down

The Philadelphia Eagles are cooked. Fried, in fact. I've doubted this team all season, and now, after a shocking home defeat to the lowly Arizona Cardinals, Philly is officially broken. I'm confident in saying that the reigning NFC champions, with four losses in their last five games, will not be returning to the Super Bowl.

On the AFC side, the Miami Dolphins are struggling with injuries at the wrong time. Same with the Jacksonville Jaguars. While both Florida teams had moments over the past four months where it seemed like this season could be the season, neither inspires confidence in the here and now. I can't envision a Vegas vacation in February for either one.

So, who can raise the Lombardi Trophy next month at Allegiant Stadium? Well, that's what I'm here to determine today!

Here is my annual ranking of teams that could win the whole damn thing, Schein Nine style.

San Francisco 49ers

I know what you're thinking ...

You're ranking San Francisco ahead Baltimore less than two weeks after the Ravens put it on the 49ers in their own building?!

Yeah, just to immediately attack that elephant in the room (or on the list): I think Baltimore has tougher potential matchups/pitfalls in the AFC field than San Francisco will face on the NFC side of the bracket. So, with an easier path to Super Bowl Sunday, I give the Niners a better chance of being the last team standing. Not to mention, San Francisco was my preseason pick to win it all, so I'm sticking to it.

Brock Purdy was wretched against the Ravens in Week 16, throwing a career-high four interceptions. The quarterback needed a bounce-back performance against the Commanders this past Sunday. Mission accomplished, as Purdy efficiently shredded Washington, completing 22 of his 28 passes (78.6 percent) for 230 yards and two touchdowns. I have no concerns with Purdy entering the postseason, as he's enjoyed a fantastic Year 2 that had him as the odds-on favorite for MVP just a few weeks ago. Of course, it doesn't hurt when you have a supporting cast like Purdy's in San Francisco.

Christian McCaffrey is a true gamebreaker. Currently leading the league in rushing yards (1,459), scrimmage yards (2,023) and touchdowns (21), the 49ers running back will be receiving my Associated Press vote for Offensive Player of the Year. Yeah, he's currently dealing with a mild calf strain, but with San Francisco having already clinched the NFC's No. 1 seed, McCaffrey can rest up this week and next before the Niners begin their postseason voyage in the Divisional Round.

In addition to handing the ball off to the best running back in the game, Purdy also gets to throw to a pair of prolific of receivers in Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel. Oh, and there is one 1,000-yard tight end in the NFL at the moment, and his name is George Kittle. Purdy's also protected by a first-ballot Hall of Famer on the blind side in Trent Williams. And shoot, I haven't even mentioned San Francisco's loaded defense, which ranks second in points allowed.

Bottom line: This roster is loaded for bear -- and guided by one of the very best coaches in football today, Kyle Shanahan.

I will always believe the 49ers would have won last year's NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia if Purdy hadn't gotten hurt. I still love this team and have no trouble envisioning San Francisco finishing the job this season by hitting the Super Bowl and earning the franchise's sixth Lombardi Trophy.

Baltimore Ravens

There's no downplaying what Baltimore accomplished over the past two weeks, obliterating San Francisco and Miami by a combined score of 89-38, clinching the AFC's No. 1 seed in the process. Lamar Jackson locked up the MVP in this span, too, completing over 73 percent of his passes for 573 yards and seven touchdowns, while adding 80 rushing yards for good measure. Now the Ravens boast the NFL's best record, having won 10 of their last 11 games. Honestly, it's no big surprise, given how they do business in Baltimore.

The Ravens are an elite organization, top to bottom: from owner Steve Bisciotti to general manager Eric DeCosta to head coach John Harbaugh and right on down the line. This franchise brilliantly evaluates talent, finding culture fits who can come in and immediately contribute. Like, for example, first-round pick Zay Flowers, who hit the ground running in Year 1, giving Baltimore the kind of receiving juice it sorely lacked in recent seasons. The team's top-ranked scoring defense is anchored by linebacker Roquan Smith (a savvy midseason addition by DeCosta last season) and safety Kyle Hamilton (the Ravens' top draft pick in 2022), while free-agent signee Jadeveon Clowney has provided immense value to his fifth NFL team.

Admirably overcoming injuries throughout the season, Baltimore is a resilient group representing a fine football city. M&T Bank Stadium is a tough environment for all visitors; beating the Ravens there -- or perhaps in Las Vegas -- won't be an easy task.

Like I said, though, Baltimore faces an imposing field of AFC contenders, starting with the team I picked to win the conference back in the preseason ...

Buffalo Bills

It's been a roller-coaster ride to get this point, but suddenly, Buffalo's carrying a four-game win streak into Sunday night's regular-season finale at Miami. Win that game, and the Bills don't just take their fourth straight AFC East title, but they clinch the No. 2 seed. Of course, they could still miss the playoffs altogether with a loss, but I don't see that coming to pass.

Remember what happened when the Bills hosted the Dolphins back in Week 4? Mike McDaniel's team entered that game as the toast of the league, having just dropped a 70-burger on Denver to improve to 3-0. Then Miami hit Highmark Stadium ... and promptly got blown off the field, losing 48-20. Much has changed since that Oct. 1 showdown, sure, but the most concerning development is the spate of injuries that have debilitated the Dolphins. Consequently, I think Buffalo will bash Miami once again.

Josh Allen is the kind of special quarterback who can carry a team deep into the postseason by himself, but much to the credit of interim offensive coordinator Joe Brady, Buffalo has found more balance on that side of the ball, with running back James Cook being one of this season's biggest Year 2 breakouts. Defensively, the Bills weathered a devastating storm of injuries earlier in the season and now the unit's playing some of its best ball.

All in all, the confidence is high in Buffalo, while the drama is low. Perfect timing, with the Bills set up to enter the postseason as one of the league's hottest teams.

Cleveland Browns

Cleveland rocks? Hell yeah! Seemingly overnight, Joe Flacco went from driving carpool to turning David Njoku into Gronk. Anything's possible!

Defense has been this team's calling card all season, with the top-ranked unit led by game-wrecker extraordinaire Myles Garrett. The Browns boast playmakers on all three levels of the D, allowing them to routinely stifle opposing attacks. And defense travels in the postseason, which is huge for a Cleveland team that is locked into the AFC's No. 5 seed.

How about the job this season by head coach Kevin Stefanski, particularly with the offense? Cleveland lost 1,500-yard rusher Nick Chubb in Week 2. The Browns have started four different quarterbacks. And yet, here they are with a top-10 scoring offense and sparkling 11-5 record.

The Browns split their season series with the Ravens, winning the more recent contest -- in Baltimore -- by a score of 33-31 back in Week 10. That was before Flacco mania took the offense to a new level. And speaking of Flacco, the man who guided Baltimore to a Super Bowl title just over a decade ago could return to Charm City on the opposing sideline in a playoff game. How juicy would that be?! And all the pressure would be on the Ravens.

Dallas Cowboys

With apologies to Tyreek Hill, CeeDee Lamb has been the most consistently excellent and dominant receiver in the league this year. Dak Prescott currently holds a top-three slot on my AP MVP ballot. Dallas' defense is well coached by Dan Quinn and full of splash-play artists like Micah Parsons and DaRon Bland.

Simply put, this is a talented, explosive and well-rounded team in Big D. So ... can the Cowboys finally live up to the hype?

As regular readers know, I like Mike McCarthy. A lot. The man just wins games -- and I expect Dallas to log a couple playoff Ws to reach Championship Sunday.

Los Angeles Rams

I'm obsessed. And impressed. Who saw this coming from the Rams?

Well, Sean McVay did when he came on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," back in June. Fresh off a disastrous, injury-riddled Super Bowl-hangover season, the Rams coach oozed optimism. And apparently, he wasn't just blowing smoke: Los Angeles has torn through the back half of the schedule, winning six of seven games since the team's Week 10 bye, with the lone loss coming in overtime at Baltimore. Pretty darn impressive.

Beyond their genius head coach, the Rams boast a Hall of Fame quarterback (Matthew Stafford), a dynamic receiving duo (Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua), a legit bell-cow back (Kyren Williams) and a shrewd defensive coordinator (Raheem Morris) directing a unit that could boast the best defensive player in NFL history (Aaron Donald). That's an imposing mix to face in a single-elimination tournament.

What if we get a Stafford return to Detroit for Wild Card Weekend? Pretty please, football gods! Stafford would win that game.

Detroit Lions

I still cannot believe the Lions' two-point conversion didn't count. #DeckerReported

Having said that, Dan Campbell continuing to go for two amid all that flag-soaked chaos was insane. Take a deep breath, kick the extra point and hit overtime with momentum.

Look, I dig this Lions team. It's an upstart group that has potential to do serious damage -- not only in the remainder of this season, but for years to come. And unlike all those "Same Old Lions" outfits that have disappointed Detroit for decades upon decades, this group has a serious swagger, most prominently in a Ben Johnson-coached offense that's top five for the second straight season.

And I generally love the bold, tone-setting attitude that Campbell brings. But the man also has a knack for irresponsible decision-making in the heat of the game. At times, it seems like he lets his emotions get the best of him. And in a win-or-go-home setting, that scares me.

Kansas City Chiefs

Honestly, I draw a line after Detroit on this list. If my name rhymed with seven, that'd be the group. But alas, this is the Schein Nine, so two more teams receive mention, even if I don't ultimately believe they can win the Super Bowl.

I really think the defending champions are cooked. Kansas City's high-powered offense is broken, en route to its first finish outside of the top 10 in scoring since 2016. Beyond rookie Rashee Rice, no other receiver has earned Patrick Mahomes' trust. It's Week 18, people -- this isn't just suddenly going to click. Andy Reid, Brett Veach and Co. have a lot of work to do this offseason, needing to give Mahomes more capable cohorts. Meanwhile, while the Chiefs' defense looked like an elite unit in the first half of the season, it's had some hiccups of late. Maybe consistently carrying a frustratingly flawed offense finally caught up with Chris Jones and friends.

Now, I'm not saying Kansas City can't win a playoff game. (Shoot, if Miami loses Sunday night, drops to the No. 6 seed and draws the Chiefs on Wild Card Weekend, I can't see the banged-up Dolphins beating Mahomes and Reid at Arrowhead.) What I'm saying is Kansas City can't win four playoff games. This offense is just too faulty.

Houston Texans

Might as well have fun with this last team. I'm rocking with Houston!

The head coach-quarterback combo is SO important in the playoffs, and I love DeMeco Ryans and C.J. Stroud. Both are rookies in their respective roles, but in name only. Ryans has the Texans on the cusp of 10 wins -- which would be one short of their combined total in the three previous seasons. Meanwhile, Stroud has taken the league by storm in Year 1, playing the game's most important position like a 10-year vet. The future is blindingly bright in Houston, so why not dream a little in the present?

Even if Jacksonville wraps up the AFC South with a win in Tennessee on Sunday, I don't like the Jaguars' health status and general juju entering the postseason. This Texans team has more upside, even on the road.

Now, if Miami somehow miraculously gets healthy in the coming days, we never had this conversation.

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