With just three Sundays remaining in the 2019 NFL regular season, one thing is on everyone's mind ...
The list below is NOT a Power Ranking. (My colleague Dan Hanzus will supply his weekly update on that front Tuesday.) Rather, this is my annual late-season rundown of the teams most likely to lift the Lombardi in February. And this year's edition is the toughest yet. But allow me to give it a shot, Schein Nine style:
1) Baltimore Ravens (11-2)
The Ravens are an absolute machine. They have no weakness. Baltimore's offense, defense, special teams, coaching, culture and management are at the head of the class.
Lamar Jackson is the clear leader for NFL MVP (he's getting my Associated Press vote). But it goes beyond the special nature of Lamar. Mark Ingram is a beast running the ball. Mark Andrews is a fantastic tight end. The defense has become great after a rough, injury-riddled start to the season. Justin Tucker is the best kicker in the game, bar none. John Harbaugh is a superb head coach (and has been for a decade). Offensive coordinator Greg Roman is getting my vote for Assistant Coach of the Year. General manager Eric DeCosta brilliantly traded for Marcus Peters in October after brilliantly signing Ingram and Earl Thomas in March. (Not to mention, drafting Marquise "Hollywood" Brown in April.)
Jackson is the ultimate weapon, and the Ravens can win any style of fight -- against any team. During Baltimore's current nine-game winning streak, the Ravens have beaten four of the other contenders listed below -- Seattle, New England, Houston and San Francisco -- as well as the Steelers (currently 8-5), Rams (8-5) and Bills (9-4). Since the beginning of October, this team has faced a gauntlet of high-level teams ... and come through it all unscathed. Baltimore's a battle-tested juggernaut.
2) San Francisco 49ers (11-2)
I love this team. I begged my listeners on SiriusXM's Mad Dog Sports Radio not to give up on San Fran after the loss to Baltimore. If anything, that narrow defeat proved that the Niners are absolutely in the mix to win the big one. But if you didn't believe it then, believe it now, after San Francisco just won an instant classic in New Orleans, outlasting the Saints, 48-46. I expected the Niners to win, albeit not like that. And it's more proof that San Francisco can win anywhere and -- like the Ravens -- in any style of game.
Jimmy Garoppolo was superb, completing 26 of 35 passes (74.3 percent) for 349 yards and four touchdowns. Yes, he also had an interception -- a poorly thrown ball grazed off Emmanuel Sanders' fingertips and right into the arms of Saints LB Craig Robertson -- but he more than made up for it by driving the 49ers 63 yards in less than a minute for the game-winning field goal. He now has trusty weapons at wide receiver, with the veteran Sanders and rookie playmaker Deebo Samuel as his top dogs. And of course, as you saw on the fourth-and-2 catch-and-run spectacle, George Kittle is the best tight end in the NFL today.
Sunday was obviously a shootout for the ages, but the Niners have largely stockpiled 11 wins on the strength of their run game and defense. The D, despite New Orleans' 465 yards and 46 points, is one of the league's very best, especially up front. The diverse and dynamic run game has churned out 150-plus yards in six different games, including each of the past two. Kyle Shanahan is an absolute gem of a coach. Here's hoping that his decision not to play for the tie against Seattle in November doesn't cost San Fran the division or home playoff games. But truth be told, I'll take the Niners to rock in any location.
3) Kansas City Chiefs (9-4)
My preseason pick to win it all is still right in the mix, despite some hiccups along the way. The Chiefs clinched the AFC West title on Sunday with a 23-16 win at New England (and the Raiders' 42-21 home loss to Tennessee). Given the remaining three games on the schedule -- vs. Broncos, at Bears, vs. Chargers -- K.C. could end up with a sparkling 12-4 record.
While Jackson is the MVP, Patrick Mahomes remains the most talented passer in the game today. Travis Kelce is a star. So is Tyreek Hill. Kansas City's defense is getting healthy (and looking imposing) at the right time. Steve Spagnuolo's unit gave up nine points to the Raidersin Week 13 and 278 total yards to Tom Brady and Co. on Sunday. This defense doesn't have to be great, either -- just make some plays here and there and get the ball back to Mahomes.
4) Green Bay Packers (10-3)
Green Bay's passing attack was relatively bland in Sunday's 20-15 win over lowly Washington. The Packers really won that game by riding Aaron Jones, who rushed for 134 yards and a touchdown on just 16 carries. (Not to mention, the back also paced the team with six catches for 58 yards.) But Aaron Rodgers is still Aaron Rodgers, meaning Green Bay has the ability to win every game it plays.
With Green Bay facing its three divisional foes over the last three weeks of the regular season, I think the Packers will run the table, though it won't be easy. Mitch Trubisky suddenly looks like a new man in Chicago, fresh off his best game of the season, but I think the Packers' defense will match up well with him this Sunday. Yes, the Vikings game is in Minnesota, but it's on a Monday night and Kirk Cousins can't win on Monday night. And the Lions? Well, they're the Lions.
A bye and a home playoff game in Lambeau would be a huge deal for Green Bay, which currently holds the NFC's No. 2 seed. The Packers don't always pass the eye test, but they've enjoyed a fine season and should be ready to rock here in the stretch run. Matt LaFleur has done a fine job in Year 1.
5) New Orleans Saints (10-3)
In the wake of Sunday's scintillating Superdome shootout, I wouldn't be remotely surprised (or upset) to see the Saints and 49ers facing off again on Championship Sunday. With future Hall of Famer Sean Payton calling the plays, New Orleans' offense remains balanced and dangerous. (Just ask Robert Saleh and his Niners.) The defense -- led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Cam Jordan -- is solid, though it didn't show up on Sunday.
Sometimes the Saints don't look like a worldbeating Super Bowl team. But to deny their upside would be irresponsible, so I won't. Michael Thomas is the best wideout in the game right now, a leading candidate for Offensive Player of the Year honors. Thomas' connection with Drew Brees is special. And while Alvin Kamara hasn't enjoyed the year everyone anticipated, he's still a frightening guy to game plan for, in both the run and pass games. Is it that hard to imagine Brees, Kamara and Thomas locking in and running roughshod over all comers in the new year?
6) New England Patriots (10-3)
Bill Belichick is the best coach ever. Tom Brady is the best quarterback ever. But the latter is hardly apparent in 2019.
New England's offense has major problems. And we're 14 Sundays into the season -- it's not changing. Over their last five games -- three of which were losses -- the Patriots have averaged just 17.6 points per outing. Tom Brady looks 42. The chemistry with receivers just isn't there. Neither is the talent. New England never replaced Rob Gronkowski. Fullback James Devlin hit injured reserve in September. The offensive line isn't good. The run game has been a major disappointment, with the Pats averaging just 3.5 yards per rush (tied for 29th). Yes, the officiating was awful on Sunday, but this is the bottom line: New England has now played the other three AFC division leaders, and the Pats are 0-3 in those games.
It's obviously unwise to fully dismiss the Belichick/Brady Pats, but they look quite vulnerable at this moment.
7) Seattle Seahawks (10-3)
This is not a reaction to Sunday night's one-sided loss to the Rams. I just don't think this Seattle team, as a whole, is special. I obviously give the Seahawks a ton of credit for piling up 10 wins in 13 games. But if this team wins the Lombardi Trophy, I will have completely missed it all. These 'Hawks just don't consistently leave me in awe. And the defense, which ranks 22nd in yards and 29th in points allowed, is a far cry from the "Legion of Boom" units of yore.
Now, I completely acknowledge the possibility of a title. After all, it's Russell Wilson. It's Pete Carroll. It's Bobby Wagner. But I just think the Niners, Packers and Saints are all superior NFC teams.
8) Houston Texans (8-5)
What on Earth was that, Texans? Getting blow off your home field by the Drew Lock-led Broncos a week after beating the Patriots? That is a frightening result, less than a month before the playoffs are set to begin.
I love Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins. It's just everything else with Bill O'Brien's Texans that drives me batty. Houston has taken down the Chiefsand Patriots this year. If they get in, they are super dangerous. The issue is getting in ...
9) Tennessee Titans (8-5)
With four straight wins, the Titans now have the same mark as the Texans, with these two teams facing off twice in the final three weeks of the regular season. Ryan Tannehill is getting my AP vote for Comeback Player of the Year. He's reborn in Nashville, having won six of his seven starts since replacing Marcus Mariota, providing clutch play and accuracy to all levels of the field. Tannehill's rapport with rookie playmaker A.J. Brown is legit. And then there's Derrick Henry, the engine of this team. Over his last four games, Henry has been the best running back in the NFL, racking up 599 yards and seven touchdowns on just 86 carries -- good for 6.97 yards a pop.
Mike Vrabel is doing a great job coaching this team in his second year on the job. The defense is solid. The confidence is sky high.
SO ... WHAT ABOUT THE BUFFALO BILLS?
As regular readers know, I've been quite bullish on the Bills in past columns. Back in April, I predicted Buffalo would be the 2019 season's Cinderella team. And I still expect the 9-4 Bills to make things very interesting this postseason. Think about the two games they've lost to the Patriotsand Ravens this season -- each came by a single score. Buffalo is very close to being special, but I think this group's a year away from seriously contending for a title. I believe the Bills will beat Pittsburgh this Sunday night and make the playoffs. No one will be able to take them lightly in January. Sean McDermott is an absolute gem of a coach. The Bills don't beat themselves. They are well-rounded on offense and solid on defense. Josh Allen has enjoyed a strong sophomore campaign. I'm a huge fan, even though he needs to be more accurate than he was on Sunday. The Bills just missed the No. 9 slot on this list because I'd be more confident in this Titans team going on a postseason run.