Thanksgiving is in the past. The calendar flips to December this week. It's time to start thinking about the simple question that ultimately defines every NFL season:
Who is going to raise the Lombardi Trophy?
What you will find below is not a power ranking, assessing the current league hierarchy at this very moment -- my colleague Elliot Harrison has that covered. No, this is a rundown of the teams that I think have the best chance to win Super Bowl LIII. That's it. Again, just a stab at answering the only question that really matters: Who can win the big game in February?
Let's dive in, Schein Nine style!
1) Los Angeles Rams (10-1)
I'm still buzzing from the Rams' epic win over Kansas City in the game of the year, and I think we will see that matchup again in the Super Bowl. L.A. has three legit MVP candidates: Todd Gurley, Jared Goff and Aaron Donald. Donald is the best non-QB in the NFL, a lock for Defensive Player of the Year. He's a mega-star with an NFL-best 14.5 sacks, a true game-wrecker. Goff is somehow underrated, sporting sparkling figures in yards per game (322.5), yards per attempt (9.3), completion percentage (67.7), TD-to-INT (26:6) and passer rating (113.5). He's having a fantastic year, making every big throw. Lastly, Gurley is the best running back in the NFL bar none. He leads the league in yards from scrimmage (1,484), rushing touchdowns (13) and total scores (17). And the bye week came at the right time for the well-worn running back; he will be healthier for December/January football.
That's a whole bunch of star power -- fitting for this Hollywood team. And I haven't even gotten to the leading man, Sean McVay. Still just 32 years old, the Rams head coach has already established himself as one of the best offensive minds in the game today. On the defensive side of the ball, the great Wade Phillips is at the controls. And while the unit ranks just 20th in both scoring and total defense, here's what stands out about the Rams defenders: They make plays. Look at the finish against K.C. That's what won the game. The pass rush. The picks. And now Aqib Talib is returning to the fold.
Bottom line: The Rams have the most talent in the NFL. So, yes, they belong at the top of this list.
2) New Orleans Saints (10-1)
Remember when the bloom purportedly came off the Sean Payton rose during those three consecutive 7-9 seasons? Yeah ... not so much. After a bounce-back 11-5 campaign in 2017, the Saints are firing on all cylinders this year, with an active 10-game winning streak currently giving them the NFC's No. 1 seed. So, yes, rumors of Payton's demise were greatly exaggerated. Meanwhile, Drew Brees is having a season for the ages -- at the ripe age of 39! His current completion percentage (76.4) and passer rating (127.3) will be NFL records if they stand. And 29 touchdowns against two picks? Not too shabby. But the big turning point on offense was the return of Mark Ingram. Don't get me wrong: Alvin Kamara is clearly a special player, but when he has Ingram as his wingman ... well ... Drew Brees is flanked by the best backfield in football. Add in a strong offensive line and the beast that is Michael Thomas, and you've got the kind of nightmare fuel that keeps defensive coordinators up at night. Speaking of defense: The Saints' unit hasn't been as stout as it was last season, but it's still a playmaking group, headlined by all-around stud Cam Jordan. It helps that CB Marshon Lattimore's been playing better of late, too.
I know New Orleans beat L.A. head to head, so why are the Saints below the Rams on this list? Well, for one thing, that game did occur in NOLA. Also, I'm counting on the Rams cleaning some stuff up from that loss: no ill-fated fake field goals, no missed field goals and no bad picks from Mr. Goff. But make no mistake: The Saints are superb and ooze confidence. That's the coach. And the quarterback.
3) Kansas City Chiefs (9-2)
My guy Patty Mahomes is still my MVP favorite, with a whopping 37 touchdown passes to his name in Year 1 as the Chiefs' starter. The offense is beyond explosive. Mahomes recently said on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," that it goes through Kareem Hunt. The second-year running back -- who led the NFL in rushing yards last season and is in the midst of another highly productive campaign (see: 1,202 yards from scrimmage) -- often gets lost in the shuffle. And no wonder. Mahomes is a bona fide star, with generational arm talent. Tyreek Hill is absolutely electric, playing like a first-team All-Pro wideout. Travis Kelce is a top tight end in the game today. Wait until Sammy Watkins gets fully healthy.
Andy Reid is fantastic. I'm openly rooting for him to cement his Hall of Fame resume with a title. But the key is the K.C. defense. Can this unit make enough plays to give the ball back to Mahomes? Sure, the Chiefs (and Reid) have had postseason issues in the past. This year feels different. Very different.
4) Los Angeles Chargers (8-3)
Back in August, I picked the Bolts to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. I give them the second-best odds in the conference now. Yes, the Denver loss still scares me, but if Melvin Gordon is healthy for the playoffs, I will argue that the Chargers have the most balance of any team in the conference. Phil Rivers is still playing at a Hall of Fame level. The receiving corps is deep and talented. The offensive line is the best it has been in years. The defense is really good, with rookie Derwin James making plays in the back end and Joey Bosa back in business up front.
And with the lack of fan support at "home" in Carson, Anthony Lynn's Chargers won't be phased by hitting the road in January.
5) New England Patriots (8-3)
I'm not going to declare that the Patriots' offense is back after a solid showing on Sunday. After all, it came against the Jets. But Gronk is still Gronk. And Sony Michel looks quite healthy and effective (21 carries for 133 yards and a touchdown). These are huge keys to Tom Brady's offense and another PatriotsSuper Bowl run. This New England team is flawed. Obviously. Before Sunday, Tom Brady had a stretch of three games with just one total touchdown. But it's Brady. It's Belichick. And they did beat the Chiefs -- albeit in Foxborough -- earlier in the year.
6) Houston Texans (8-3)
Houston is squarely in the mix for the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye. Not that the Texans are concretely the second-best team, but they can feast on their reamining schedule: vs. CLE, vs. IND, at NYJ, at PHI, vs. JAX. They need to win one more game than the Patriots to get that bye, since New England beat them head to head back in Week 1.
Having just won its eighth consecutive game, this Houston team is doing everything right heading into December. If we didn't all have the muscle memory of prior Texans teams failing, we wouldn't mute praise. But this team is loaded. These Texans are more well-rounded than the Patriots and Steelers. And their defense is better than the Chiefs' unit.
Deshaun Watson is healthy and has a knack for making magic happen. DeAndre Hopkins is special. The Demaryius Thomas deal took the sting away from the Will Fuller injury. Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt anchor a really solid pass rush and defense. Houston is very strong in every phase and deserves more credit for just that. The Texans deal with adversity and pounce on mistakes from the opposition. That was all on display Monday night. Bill O'Brien's team is going to be a handful in January.
7) Chicago Bears (8-3)
8) Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3-1)
No respect? Too much respect? Don't know? That's the problem. Pittsburgh showed a ton of character in Week 11, overcoming a 16-0 second-half deficit to beat the Jaguars in Jacksonville. Then, this past Sunday, Ben Roethlisbergerthrew a gruesome end-zone pick to seal a bad loss in Denver. I thought for sure Ben would deliver in the clutch, as per usual. Credit Denver; don't rip the Steelers.
Pittsburgh remains a contender. The passing attack is great, with Big Ben dealing to Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. The line is solid. But can the Steelers run to win in this postseason? James Conner hasn't looked the same since he officially became The Guy (when Le'Veon Bell didn't sign his franchise tender by the final deadline earlier this month).
9) Indianapolis Colts (6-5)
The ninth spot came down to the Colts and the Vikings. And I firmly believe the Vikings are making the playoffs. The defense has started to look like the unit we expected entering this season, and that makes Minnesota tough. The Vikings have the best 1-2 combo at receiver in the NFL. And Sunday night showed that Kirk Cousins can deliver in a big spot. Don't let the haters form the narrative -- Cousins has enjoyed a strong first season in Minnesota. And a healthy Dalvin Cook is the key to team balance. But can the Vikes beat the Rams or Saints? Nah. And we've seen it already in the regular season.
If/when the Colts get in, they will be piping hot. Andrew Luck is back -- he's a star and a top-four candidate for MVP. He's the type of quarterback who carries a team in January. The offensive line is strong and the defense is tough. Frank Reich has been superb in his first season as a head coach. The Colts have the firepower to topple a No. 3 seed in the first round. And then, let the fun begin!