Cowboys, Patriots, Raiders headline Super Bowl LI contenders

Print

Thanksgiving weekend is in the past. And in the NFL, that means it's time to truly begin looking ahead.

With five weeks remaining in the regular season, it's time to zero in on the teams capable of making a sustained playoff run.

In this edition of the Schein Nine, I rank the nine teams with the best chance of winning Super Bowl LI.

9) Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5)

When you employ a future Hall of Fame quarterback with a knack for playing his best when it matters the most, you always have a chance. And Ben Roethlisberger isn't the only Steeler with the ability to take over a game and dominate any defense -- Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell are unstoppable weapons who rank among the cream of their positional crops, as well.

The downside? That's all I trust when it comes to Pittsburgh. I don't trust the defense. Or the coach, as Mike Tomlin's ego (see: the insistence on continually going for two) is hurting the team.

But again, that explosive upside is hard to ignore.

8) Atlanta Falcons (7-4)

Last season's second-half collapse is a distant memory. Matt Ryan is a top-five candidate for MVP and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan should be the AP Assistant Coach of the Year. (Lil' Shanny will get my vote.) Julio Jones is a force of nature, on pace for his third straight season over 1,500 yards receiving. The Falcons can run the football. Mohamed Sanu and Alex Mack are pros' pros who have helped changed the culture. Bottom line: This offense is multidimensional and explosive -- the kind of unit that should be a nightmare in January. Atlanta's defense is improved, as Vic Beasley (9.5 sacks) has emerged as the edge pass rusher this team has lacked for so long.

The Falcons know they outplayed the Seahawks in Seattle back in Week 6. Atlanta would've won that game if Richard Sherman was rightly called for mugging Jones.

All that said, I still only rank the Falcons as the fourth-most-dangerous team in the NFC. Do you really trust Dan Quinn?

7) Denver Broncos (7-4)

With Aqib Talib healthy and Chris Harris Jr. playing at his typically high level, the Broncos boast the best corner combo in the NFL. (Oh, and Bradley Roby -- Denver's third CB -- can play, too.) Von Miller is a pass-rushing terror who simply takes over games. Wade Phillips continues to dial up brilliance, and this group is experienced from last season's Super Bowl run.

On the other side of the ball, though, C.J. Anderson being injured is a big deal. In four starts since Anderson went down, rookie Devontae Booker has averaged just 3.0 yards per carry. And Trevor Siemian is Trevor Siemian. All in all, this offense leaves much to be desired.

The Broncos used a similar formula to win the Super Bowl last year. But I would argue the offense is significantly worse on the line, which is huge, considering Denver's ineffectiveness at RB and inexperience at QB.

However, I won't underestimate the upside of this team getting back to the Super Bowl.

6) Washington Redskins (6-4-1)

Every year, there's a wild-card team that surprises everyone and makes a run. I think it's Washington -- not the Giants or the piping-hot Bucs -- that's most capable of performing the feat.

Kirk Cousins and this aerial attack are on fire and not showing any signs of slowing down. Don't look now, but the 'Skins boast the second-best passing offense in the league. Jamison Crowder, who leads the team with 725 receiving yards and six touchdown grabs, has emerged as an absolute stud in Year 2. And with DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, the great Jordan Reed and a rejuvenated Vernon Davis also at his disposal, Cousins has a plethora of dynamic and diverse weapons to choose from. Thunderous Rob Kelley continues to pound the football, too, giving Jay Gruden's offense great balance.

I love Dallas (more on the Cowboys below), but it is worth noting that Washington has hung right with the Cowboys twice, albeit in losses.

The defense is good, but not great. Josh Norman is having a really strong year.

Washington oozes confidence right now. Don't sleep on the Redskins.

5) Kansas City Chiefs (8-3)

Too low? Too high? Here's a strong take: Who knows! The Chiefs aren't guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. I also wouldn't bat an eye if we saw them in the Super Bowl.

If anything, I'm guilty of liking Alex Smith and Andy Reid too much. I love Smith, who never gets the respect he deserves. Smith wasn't spectacular throughout Kansas City's thrilling overtime win in Denver, but the quarterback sure delivered when the Chiefs needed it most. In the bright lights of "Sunday Night Football," with three minutes left and K.C. trailing by eight, Smith authored a 13-play (all passes), 75-yard touchdown drive -- converting the game-tying two-point conversion on a well-placed ball to little-known Demetrius Harris. In overtime, Smith completed two big passes to set up Cairo Santos' game-winning doink. Meanwhile, Reid is a great coach who wins a ton of games ... with the huge "yeah, but" being his clock management and playoff faux pas.

Kansas City is so tough and so well-prepared each week. I love the defensive backfield. Justin Houston is finally healthy and, as the world saw on Sunday night in his sheer domination of the Broncos (10 tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble), he is indeed back. The offensive line has improved greatly -- free-agent acquisition Mitchell Schwartz is a rock at right tackle. But there are questions looking into the crystal ball. Will Dee Ford get healthy down the stretch? Jeremy Maclin? Will Tamba Hali resemble Tamba Hali?

Don't underestimate the upside of this team, with its talent, coaching and toughness. These Chiefs can win anywhere, as they just proved again Sunday night.

4) Seattle Seahawks (7-3-1)

Yes, I'm writing this after the Seahawks' clunker in Tampa. But while you credit Gerald McCoy and the Bucs' defense for smothering Russell Wilson, Seattle is still a strong team with a very manageable schedule down the stretch:

» vs. Carolina

» at Green Bay

» vs. Los Angeles

» vs. Arizona

» at San Francisco

I believe the 'Hawks will get the No. 2 seed, giving them a bye and at least one home game in Seattle with the 12s and a sensational home-field advantage.

Earl Thomas was out on Sunday, which really changes Seattle's defense. He will be back, and the Seahawks' defensive backfield is still great. Bobby Wagner is a stud. And before Sunday, Wilson was in a groove with Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham.

I am concerned about the run game, with the C.J. Prosise injury and the odd jettisoning of Christine Michael from the roster. Can Thomas Rawls really carry the entire load for the rest of the season?

But it's Pete Carroll with an experienced and talented group that beat the Patriots in New England a few weeks ago. Seattle is a legit team once again.

3) Oakland Raiders (9-2)

Derek Carr is my MVP at this point in the season. And as long as his pinky is OK, the Raiders are winning the AFC West, as I predicted in the preseason. And I think Oakland is getting the No. 2 seed.

The Raiders boast a top-two offensive line (along with Dallas) and a fantastic wide receiver duo in Amari Cooper (who ranks sixth in the NFL with 922 yards) and Michael Crabtree (six touchdowns). Latavius Murray is running hard. Khalil Mack is my pick for Defensive Player of the Year. He terrorized Cam Newton and the Panthers on Sunday (record a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a pick-six) and has been on fire over the last six games (with eight sacks in that span).

Jack Del Rio has instilled amazing confidence in his team. The Raiders are true Super Bowl contenders and you can make the case that they are the favorites. How great is that for Raider Nation -- and the NFL?

2) New England Patriots (9-2)

I'm a bit concerned as I write this about Rob Gronkowski's health. I'm also a bit concerned about the Patriots' defense.

On the plus side, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport says Gronk's back injury "is not considered serious." Still, the injuries have mounted for No. 87 this year -- and for a guy who plays as physically as Gronk, that's certainly not a good thing.

Bill Belichick is the best coach in NFL history. Having said that, I totally disagreed with the Jamie Collins trade -- and the Patriots' defense has looked underwhelming even since the move.

But OK, it's a quarterback league. And Tom Brady is the best quarterback ever. At 39 years old, Brady boasts an NFL-best 116.7 passer rating, with 18 touchdowns against just one pick over seven games. With Brady under center, a Super Bowl LI win is in play, even with legit questions in other areas of the roster.

UPDATE: Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski is scheduled to undergo back surgery Friday after being diagnosed with a herniated disc and will be out several weeks, according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport.

1) Dallas Cowboys (10-1)

This needs to be reiterated: No team is playing better ball than Dallas. The Cowboys have it all. They are built for a sustained playoff run.

Dallas has the best offensive line in football. Rookie Ezekiel Elliott is No. 2 on my MVP ballot and the best running back in the NFL this year, as evidenced by his 1,199 yards -- easily the most in the league. Dak Prescott, also a rook, has answered every challenge and question. He continues to dominate -- see: 18:2 TD-to-INT ratio and 108.6 passer rating -- and win. Dez Bryant is a bona fide star. Jason Witten keeps on playing great. Jason Garrett deserves so much credit. As does offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.

And the Dallas defense flies under the radar. Elite? Hardly. But really good and opportunistic. Also, Elliott keeps them off the field with long, sustained scoring drives.

The Dallas Cowboys have the formula to win a Super Bowl.

Take that, haters.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

Print

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop