We have three weeks left in the regular season. There are major races for the final playoff slots in both conferences. But the cream is rising to the top.
I think there are just five teams that can truly win the Super Bowl. And I think there are four teams that are total frauds.
In our latest Schein Nine, let's examine both groups:
SUPER BOWL CONTENDERS
That was an absolute clinic Monday night. But honestly, who didn't see that coming? Tom Brady, one of the most clutch performers in NFL history, is having another MVP-caliber season. Stevan Ridley is a legit back who gives New England balance and the ability to run the ball with authority in January. And the Patriots will get Rob Gronkowski back. Defensively, Devin McCourty is a different player at safety. Aqib Talib suffered a hip injury Monday night, but he is an upgrade at corner. Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower don't play like rookies. The battle-tested Patriots can win at home, on the road or on the moon.
I predicted after the Monday night win against San Diego in October that the Broncos wouldn't lose again in the regular season. They haven't. They won't. Peyton Manning is playing at a Hall of Fame level. His receivers have stepped up. You never want to over-evaluate a runner who is successful against the pathetic Oakland Raiders, but Knowshon Moreno gained needed confidence after two average games replacing an injured Willis McGahee. This will pay dividends. Denver's defense is strong in a league filled with weak play on that side of the ball. Von Miller is the front runner to be the defensive player of the year, a quarterback-chasing wrecking ball.
San Francisco is legit. As I wrote last week, the Niners have the best defense in the league. Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks are beasts in the front seven. Jim Harbaugh is a great coach. Colin Kaepernick again proved he is more than capable at quarterback, with his accuracy, arm strength, and ability to run the ball via the read option. He's getting better. And Alex Smith is a heartbeat away.
It's the Giants' time of year. They know how to deal with adversity. The Patriots have Belichick and Brady; the Giants have Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning. They have flaws -- the back end of the defense is leaky -- but they have a great pass rush and a knack for making plays on defense. Manning and Victor Cruz are humming. Hakeem Nicks, who has endured an injury-plagued campaign, is back and battle tested. David Wilson, banished to Coughlin's dog house for most of the season, just set the team record for all-purpose yards and will be fresh for the playoffs. Sure, the NFC East isn't even clinched yet, with the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys nipping at the Giants' heels. But the Giants have earned respect, and nobody would be surprised to see them in New Orleans.
The Packers haven't resembled the Packers in a while. It wasn't pretty, but Green Bay showed toughness Sunday night, coming back and surviving the Detroit Lions. And they survived the Minnesota Vikings the week before, in a game where it would be easy to argue that Christian Ponder was serving as a double agent. But help is on the horizon, with Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and Jordy Nelson on their way back from injuries. Sure, they have issues with pass protection and running the ball. Come playoff time, I trust Aaron Rodgers to overshadow those issues.
SUPER BOWL FRAUDS
Debate: Playoff one-and-done?
I credit corner Dunta Robinson for telling us on the SiriusXM Blitz that he understood the skepticism and the doubters. The Falcons knows they need to win in January to silence the haters. I just don't think they are capable. The Carolina Panthers debacle was alarming. A game like that was a long time coming. San Francisco, Green Bay, and the Giants would suffocate Atlanta in the postseason. I think the Seattle Seahawks, with their great defense, power run game and wise-beyond-his-years quarterback, also could win in the Georgia Dome. No matter who they play in the playoffs, the Falcons will fall short in key matchup areas of quarterback play, defense, head coach and confidence.
I love this team. I root for the organization, from the owner down. But there are some questions. What has happened to this defense since Brian Cushing's injury? You can't rely on them. If this defense was performing at a dominant clip, perhaps the Texans could overcome their lack of an elite quarterback. Matt Schaub is somewhere between very good and solid, but he can't beat the star quarterback (like Rodgers and Brady in the regular season this year) in the big game. And I don't love the receiver depth. I would easily pick Denver or New England over Houston, regardless of where the game was played.
I wrote two weeks ago that I didn't trust Joe Flacco. Look at what's happened since. Cam Cameron was rightly fired as the offensive coordinator. The offense should go through Ray Rice; it's absurd that it doesn't. The defense is weak and a shell of what it used to resemble. There is a very realistic chance the Ravens lose out. What a mess.
I'll be the first to tell you when I am right and the first to tell you when I am wrong. I whiffed on Chicago's second half in Cecil Fielder fashion. Injuries have piled up. The defense is compromised. The offensive line is a wreck. Now, Lovie Smith is talking about his own job security heading into the final three weeks. A month ago, the Bears looked like NFC North winners and Super Bowl contenders. Now, their spot in the playoffs is deservedly on life support.