In theory, if there was ever a year for teams to get hot in December and ride momentum to Super Bowl Sunday, it'd be this one. I think the competition in the middle makes the NFL great this season. But how much competition truly exists in the top tier?
The following is my ranking of the nine teams most likely to winSuper Bowl 50. This isn't a current power ranking. Or a guarantee of making the playoffs. And understand, as a backdrop, I think the Patriots will hoist the Lombardi Trophy and I would be stunned if they weren't in Santa Clara the first week of February. Thus, talented AFC teams might be ranked a bit lower than you'd expect.
OK, let's start at the top:
1) New England Patriots
It's Bill Belichick's world and we're all just living in it. I've written it too many times to count, but in a salary-cap era built for competitive balance, Belichick continues to thrive in unparalleled fashion, routinely proving he is the best coach in NFL history. The Patriots were perfect through 10 games -- dominant despite a rash of key offensive injuries at receiver, running back and along the line. They are beautifully abnormal and defy logic. That's Belichick.
Belichick has built up the New England defense. The line is stout. Defensive end Chandler Jones is a game wrecker and a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. NFL Media's Albert Breer reports Dont'a Hightower is believed to have suffered an MCL sprain on Sunday night. That hurts -- big time. But that injury's no death knell. And it appears the Pats might've dodged a major bullet on the injury front.
All of New England held its collective breath on Sunday night, when Rob Gronkowski took a shot to the knee, began rolling around on the turf in agony and needed a cart to get off the field. But on Monday, NFL Media's Ian Rapoport reported the belief is the tight end suffered no structural damage in his knee and is unlikely to miss more than one game (if that). Thus, the Patriots, and their fans, can breathe a collective sigh of relief.
In the face of all the injuries -- and of course, all of the Deflategate drama -- Tom Brady's revenge tour has been quite remarkable. Brady has racked up 28 touchdown passes against just four interceptions. He leads the NFL with 3,600 passing yards and boasts a healthy 106.7 passer rating. Brady is the league MVP and the quarterback you want in January, hands down.
2) Carolina Panthers
The Panthers are the last remaining undefeated team in the NFL. How many people anticipated that, particularly after Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL in August? As I alluded to above, I don't see Carolina maintaining perfection through the entire regular season. But what do I know, especially when it comes to this franchise?
As I wrote a couple weeks ago, I was wrong about Cam Newton, Ron Rivera and the Panthers. Completely wrong. This team packs a punch and continues to impress me every week. Blowing away the Cowboys in Dallas on Turkey Day? Not too shabby.
The defense is strong and dominant on every level. Cam Newton makes plays and is incredibly clutch. All in all, this is the team to beat in the NFC.
3) Arizona Cardinals
Arizona can play -- and win a game -- in any style. The defense, led by a strong line and a playmaking defensive backfield, can pound you and turn you over. The offense is sharp, as Carson Palmer's enjoying an MVP-type season with a plethora of weapons at his disposal.
I'd argue that general manager Steve Keim has put together the most talented roster, 1-53, in the NFL. We know Bruce Arians, who has earned Coach of the Year honors in two of the past three seasons, is a superb head man. He's done a fine job steering this loaded ship in 2015. And his aggressive style and swagger can pay dividends in the playoffs.
4) Minnesota Vikings
I wrote about the Vikings' immense promise back in June, comparing them to the Golden State Warriors as an up-and-coming bunch that oozes youth and likeability. I thought they'd add sizzle and spice to the league in 2015. Well, here they are at 8-3, sitting atop the NFC North. And they have the makeup to do damage in January.
Minnesota is a team with a definable -- and, in an otherwise pass-happy NFL, different -- style of play that would be an ultra-difficult out come playoff time. Adrian Peterson runs the ball like Steph Curry shoots the 3 -- both dominate the game in a dynamic manner that takes your breath away. Add in Mike Zimmer's hard-nosed defense, and this is a team you don't want to face in a single-elimination format.
5) Green Bay Packers
You can argue with me that the Packers are ranked too high on this list -- or too low. They looked like a Super Bowl team at Minnesota two Sundays ago, beating up the Vikings in a highly anticipated NFC North bout and clicking in every phase. Then they lost to Chicago on Brett Favre night at Lambeau. Go figure.
I refuse to count Green Bay out because of Rodgers' genius. But the quarterback and the team haven't been at their usual level of domination. Eddie Lacy has been up and down. Same with the defense.
6) Denver Broncos
I think Denver will meet New England on Championship Sunday ... if the Broncos keep Brock Osweiler under center. Peyton Manning is a living legend -- there is no disputing this. But, as I wrote a few weeks ago, he's no longer a legit or healthy NFL quarterback. And Osweiler proved his worth again by beating the previously undefeated Patriots in comeback fashion Sunday night. The snapshot throw was the gorgeous delivery Brock made to Demaryius Thomas for a 36-yard gain late in the fourth quarter. Manning, simply put, can't make that throw any more.
Osweiler is running Gary Kubiak's offense the way the coach wants it to be run. And with the quarterback under center more, the run game has picked up, as we saw on Sunday night with C.J. Anderson.
We saw some questionable game-management decisions from Gary Kubiak on Sunday night, which would scare me in a head-to-head matchup with the Patriots and Belichick in New England. Thus, the seeding for the Broncos is very important down the stretch of the regular season. They need to beat out Cincy for a bye. And if they could ever get the No. 1 seed and the injuries pile up for New England ...
7) Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals ooze talent. This is the year they have to win a playoff game, right? But then again, they never have with Lewis (0-6 in the postseason) and Dalton (0-4).
And the worst possible matchup would be ...
8) Pittsburgh Steelers
Currently, Pittsburgh is not in the playoffs. And if you are looking for a guarantee or a prediction on whether or not they make it, you won't get it here. Hell if I know. Kansas City is rocking and the Chiefs have a favorable schedule down the stretch. Indy is clicking all of a sudden (three straight wins). So are the Texans (four straight). The Jets remembered they have talent on Sunday, blowing away an inferior opponent.
Still, none of those teams have the upside of the Steelers with a Hall of Fame quarterback and a sizzling passing attack. Also, DeAngelo Williams has been steady, stepping in for the injured Le'Veon Bell. And while it seems funny to write this after Russell Wilson just carved it up, Pittsburgh's defense isn't that bad.
9) Seattle Seahawks
Seattle is back! Mainly because nobody in the NFC seems motivated to grab the second wild-card spot.
And being fair, Seattle obviously has the recent experience of surviving the intensity of the playoffs. Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll are champions. Thomas Rawls has stepped in at running back and provided Seattle with a seamless transition from injured Marshawn Lynch. The defense, albeit clearly not the same, can still make plays.
All year, since that ill-fated goal-line call in Super Bowl XLIX back in February, Seattle has dealt with drama. I still don't fully believe in these 'Hawks. The Jimmy Graham injury -- done for the season with a torn patellar tendon -- is a big deal. So is the lack of consistency on the offensive line.
So you are saying there's a chance ...