Time to look into the crystal ball and see who'll be playing for the Lombardi Trophy in February.
I write this column every year for NFL.com. And if there's one thing I learned from infamously predicting a Falcons-Texans Super Bowl a few years back (in a season where those two teams would go on to win a combined six games), it's this:
Always pick the best teams. Pick the most talented rosters. Pick great organizations. Pick Hall of Famers.
Aaahhh, yes -- logic. Quite a concept.
Why the Cards?
Arizona is the best team in football. Steve Keim, the Cardinals' outstanding general manager, has built the NFL's No. 1 roster, 1 through 53. Arizona has depth and oozes talent. The Cards can beat you in multiple ways. And after losing on Championship Sunday last season -- getting blasted by Cam Newton and the Panthers, to be frank -- Arizona is driven and ready to get over the hump.
The Cardinals have everything you want in a contender, starting with the man in the Kangol cap. Bruce Arians is a fantastic coach who will maximize Keim's roster. Arians coaches aggressively and confidently -- and the players take on his personality. The Cardinals aren't cocky, but they know their capabilities. They practice hard. They play hard. They expect to win. That's Bruce Arians football.
When Tyrann Mathieu tore his ACL last December, the Cardinals lost their heart and soul, not to mention a true candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Mathieu rehabbed with his trademark intensity, and now he's "ready to roll" for Week 1, according to Arians, who also added that he expects his Swiss Army Knife "to be out there full speed." Yes! Mathieu's poised to regain his status as one of the most impactful defensive players in the league, a true playmaker who just has a knack for being around the football. Keim knows Mathieu's immense value, as evidenced by the megabucks extension he just handed the safety. $40 million in guarantees for a guy who just suffered his second major knee injury? Tells you how big a game changer Mathieu is when he's on the field.
Mathieu, of course, isn't the only superstar in Arizona's secondary. Patrick Peterson is the best cornerback in the NFL. This summer, Calais Campbell told me on my nightly CBS Sports Network TV show, "Time to Schein," that he thinks Peterson is equivalent to Deion Sanders in his prime. A stretch? Sure. But Peterson is the best in the business in 2016 -- a true lockdown, shutdown glove.
Campbell is a spectacular player himself -- a leader who anchors the front seven on defense, a guy who finally has gotten the respect he deserves with back-to-back Pro Bowl selections. Even with Campbell up front, Arizona had one glaring weakness a year ago: the lack of a consistent pass rusher off the edge. So Keim traded for one of the best in the league, former Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones. He will sack the quarterback 15 to 20 times this year.
Bottom line: The Cardinals will field a top three-to-five defense in 2016. And then there's the offense.
I love the dynamic versatility of Arians' attack. On a team that boasts a fantastic aerial assault, I actually think running back David Johnson will be the Cardinals' best offensive player. Johnson is a second-year stud who will run the ball with speed and power -- oh, and he's also a terrifying weapon in the passing game. Johnson will be a top-five running back in the league this year. The offensive line is solid and underrated.
Yes, notice that I ended that last sentence with "in the regular season." I share the hesitation many of you have with Palmer in the playoffs. Majestic regular seasons have not carried over to January for the quarterback. His numbers from last season's two postseason games: four touchdown passes, six interceptions, three fumbles (two lost) and a 67.1 passer rating. Oof. Well, this year, I'm banking on Johnson to truly help shoulder the load. I'm banking on Honey Badger being back, spearheading a stingy defense that won't allow Arizona to get down big early in a game. I'm banking on Palmer breathing. He's stunned me in the regular season as a Cardinal. Now, the way his career will be defined is hanging in the balance. It's go time. I trust Arians to guide him to the Promised Land.
Arizona is loaded. The Cardinals can withstand inevitable injuries. My biggest concern is the stout competition in the NFC. The NFC West rival Seahawks are loaded, too. And the reigning NFC champion Panthers will be back in the playoffs and ready to rock. But I like Arizona's team better than both. With the crushing news on Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater, Green Bay might go 6-0 in the NFC North. I have the Cardinals beating the Packers on Championship Sunday in Arizona.
Why the Pats?
Frankly, I didn't hesitate in the AFC, even with Tom Brady missing a quarter of the regular season. After the Cardinals beat the visiting Patriotsin Week 1, Jimmy Garoppolo will win three straight home games (over the Dolphins, Texans and Bills). The young QB has Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels. He has Rob Gronkowski.
And then Brady comes back and reminds you he's the best quarterback in NFL history.
Did I mention Bill Belichick is the single best coach in NFL history?
And the Super Bowl LI winner will be ...
Maybe Super Bowl Sunday is won with Jones strip-sacking his old teammate Brady (leading to a recovery by Mathieu, obviously). Maybe Johnson takes a swing pass the distance for the game-winning score. Maybe it's a Peterson pick. Maybe it's a Palmer-to-Brown home-run ball.
But there are no maybes about the 2016 Arizona Cardinals. They are built brilliantly. They are coached brilliantly.
It's the Cards' time to shine.