The email pitch from my editor was pretty straightforward.
Adam, we want you to rank your top nine teams in order of how likely they are to win the Super Bowl.
Or is it?
The Chargers just got done melting down, currently aren't a playoff team -- and yet, they split their home-and-home series with the Chiefs, for the most part outplaying the back-to-back reigning AFC champions.
The Patriots looked brilliant for two months, then hit a wall against better teams, with their rookie quarterback crashing back to earth. This week's home game against the lowly Jaguars is a late Christmas present, but the regular-season finale in Miami could spell more trouble.
The 49ers are the team nobody wants to face ... unless Jimmy G is handing out gifts.
In a bizarre, unpredictable season, the playoffs feel as wide open as I can remember. Consequently, getting that coveted No. 1 seed -- and inherently skipping a Super Wild Card Weekend that could be defined by COVID-19 protocols -- is more crucial than ever before.
With all of that in mind, maybe this isn't the easiest assignment after all. But I'll accept the challenge. Here is my CURRENT ranking of NFL teams most likely to win Super Bowl LVI, Schein Nine style.
Don't overthink this one. Riding the NFL's longest active win streak at eight games, Kansas City is peaking at the right time. Here's the surprising part, though: It's the defense that pushes these Chiefs over the top. Crazy, but true. Since K.C. traded for Melvin Ingram and moved Chris Jones back inside full time, Steve Spagnuolo's unit has been the best defense in the game. Over the Chiefs' past seven games, they've yielded 14 points or fewer six times. Quite a turnaround from the first five weeks of the season, when Kansas City opponents averaged 32.6 points per game.
Patrick Mahomes, despite rumors to the contrary, is still Patrick Mahomes. A true nightmare to defend. The same can be said for Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. You can ask for more depth or a more consistent ground game, sure, but this team's full of star power and championship fiber. Andy Reid has the Chiefs in position to make a third straight Super Bowl -- and no one will be surprised if they lift the Lombardi.
Aaron Rodgers is playing the best ball of his career, giving the Packers the ability to win every time out, despite leaky special teams and erratic defense. The man has a 16:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the last five weeks. Rodgers' sheer genius -- and his unparalleled connection with Davante Adams -- overshadows all other weaknesses. In related news, Mr. Rodgers is well on his way to receiving my Associated Press MVP vote. Again.
Green Bay is still waiting on potential returns from injury of several key players, including LT David Bakhtiari and CB Jaire Alexander. Those are two Pro Bowlers, two of the very best players at their respective positions. Imagine what this team could be at full strength. Regardless, the Packers still have something no one else does: Aaron Charles Rodgers, the most talented quarterback ever. And that alone might be enough to put the title back in Titletown.
Bills over Rams was my preseason Super Bowl prediction, and it's still entirely possible. Buffalo can play with -- and beat -- anyone, thanks to a special quarterback who carries the team on his back. Josh Allen is a monster. We saw it a couple of weeks ago in Tampa, when he brought the Bills all the way back from a 24-3 halftime deficit to force overtime. Despite the eventual loss, Allen authored one of the most impressive halves of football this season. And this past Sunday in Foxborough, Allen bedeviled Bill Belichick's Patriots in a massive 33-21 win. He was the best player on the field, which isn't a rare occurrence. When Allen's on his game, he lifts Buffalo with his unreal arm, athleticism and playmaking ability. It's spectacular to watch. The key is giving him a little balance on offense, which Buffalo has flashed down the stretch.
To the credit of Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier, the defense hasn't fallen apart since Tre'Davious White's season-ending injury. In the four games since the Pro Bowl cornerback went down, Buffalo has kept three opponents below 300 yards of offense.
With remaining games against the Falcons and Jets -- both at home -- Buffalo should hit the postseason with a second consecutive AFC East championship, fired up to avenge last season's loss in the AFC title game.
Dak is back! But actually, did he ever really leave? OK, after a calf injury forced him to miss the game on Halloween night, Prescott did scuffle a bit. And then people started tossing around the S-word -- SLUMP -- which animated a sports media industry that's always hot for some Cowboys drama. But in this past Sunday night's 56-14 beatdown of Washington, Dak threw four first-half touchdown passes to four different positions, hitting a running back (Ezekiel Elliott), tight end (Dalton Schultz), offensive tackle (Terence Steele) and wide receiver (Amari Cooper) for six. Not too shabby, eh? Like Jerry Jones joked on his weekly radio appearance, "What slump?"
Prescott is an elite quarterback flanked by a stellar receiving trio, a dynamic backfield duo and a stout line. But what really makes this Dallas team different -- what really makes it a true Super Bowl threat -- is the defense, which boasts playmakers at every level. DeMarcus Lawrence has been an absolute beast since returning from injury, providing one of the defensive plays of the year this past weekend on his 40-yard pick-six. Micah Parsons has taken the league by storm in Year 1, emerging as a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate with a game that's as versatile as it is dominant. And Trevon Diggs, well, he probably intercepted another pass while you were reading this. Dan Quinn has changed the culture and execution of this defense. Dallas can win any style of fight.
I put Dallas just ahead of Los Angeles -- for now. As mentioned above, the Rams were my preseason pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. They ooze stars and are well-coached by Sean McVay and his great staff. Aaron Donald is a Mount Rushmore defender, an all-time great who simply wrecks games. Jalen Ramsey just made his fifth straight Pro Bowl; you can make a strong argument he's the best defensive back in football. Cooper Kupp is having a historically great season, currently boasting the receiver triple crown with league-highs in catches (132), yards (1,734) and touchdowns (14). Odell Beckham Jr. has stepped in and scored four touchdowns in the last five games. And running back Cam Akers could be back in action as soon as Sunday, which is quite exciting.
It all comes down to Matthew Stafford, and I'm a fan of No. 9. I believe in him. I called the Rams a Super Bowl contender after they made the trade this past offseason, and the ensuing regular season has only bolstered that sentiment. The Matthew Stafford we saw on Monday Night Football in Los Angeles' enormous Week 14 win at Arizona is a quarterback who can indeed lead a team to the promised land.
UPDATE: McVay pumped the brakes on Akers' chances of playing against the Ravens on Sunday.
The defense is superbly coached by Matt Eberflus, but the unit also has two big-time difference-makers in LB Darius Leonard and DT DeForest Buckner. Jonathan Taylor is a wrecking ball having a season for the ages, currently leading the league in rushing by a whopping 467 yards. Credit is due, of course, to the offensive line, which is a road-grading machine. Carson Wentz has looked both great and worrisome, but it's surely been more up than down. Though now he needs to work his way back from the reserve/COVID-19 list.
The Colts team we've seen in December -- with wins over the Patriots and Cardinals in the past two weeks -- is Super Bowl-caliber. It's a complete squad, brilliantly led by head coach Frank Reich. And with the ability to control the game through Taylor and the stout D, Indy can win on the road against strong teams. Just ask the Bills, who were blown off their own field by the Colts.
No, this isn't an overreaction to Sunday's rout of the Ravens. I said the Bengals would win more games than the Steelers back in May and then fired up the Burrow bandwagon in June. I've been on this squad, thrilled by its potential all year. Now Cincinnati's sitting atop the AFC North, with a must-see matchup against the Chiefs this Sunday. Can't wait!
Fresh off a 525-yard air show, Joe Burrow is a star. And his receiving trio of Tee Higgins, Ja'Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd is second to none. Joe Mixon is a top five running back, with the ability to beat you as a runner or receiver. The defense has rounded into form of late as a playmaking unit led by fantastic free-agent addition Trey Hendrickson.
Cincy has all the elements you want in a winner. We just need to see it. A victory this weekend over the No. 1 team on this list would be quite a statement. I think it can happen.
There's a real part of me that didn't want to even put the Bucs on this list. They are so banged up. The defense hasn't been the same as last season's unit. And now head coach Bruce Arians is on the COVID-19 list. I have felt all season that the Packers, Cowboys and Rams are better NFC teams. And shoot, repeating as Super Bowl champs is much easier said than done.
But it's Tom Brady. So nothing is off limits. Ever. And, of course, he just happens to be the last quarterback to go back-to-back.
I never lie to my audiences on radio, television or the internet. And here's the simple truth when it comes to my outlook on this Tennessee team: I have no idea. Are the Titans too low on this list? Should they even be included at all? Do I trust Ryan Tannehill? Will Derrick Henry come back? And if so, will he be Derrick Henry?
The timing of this column is noteworthy, fresh off A.J. Brown's monster return in the comeback win over San Francisco. That guy is a problem. Meanwhile, Jeffery Simmons, Harold Landry and the Titans defense have played really well. Mike Vrabel is fantastic and very much on my short list of candidates for Coach of the Year. He's instilled an unreal savvy, brawn and confidence in this team.
The fear is that Tennessee is ripe to be knocked out in Round 1, which isn't ideal for this exercise. But if the Titans make it to the Divisional Round, they will be brimming with swagger and a knowledge that they're 5-0 against teams listed above them here.