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The Schein Nine

Which NFL teams can you trust in erratic 2021 season? Packers, Bills and Cowboys top my list

I stared at the text message from my editor for five minutes on Sunday evening.

Hey ... idea for your Schein Nine. Another topsy-turvy Sunday. What if you rank the nine teams you trust most right now.

It's genius. It's daunting.

And I want to stress a few key words in this exercise: "trust" and "right now."

Just before this season kicked off, I predicted the Rams would hit the Super Bowl (where they'd lose to the Bills). And I'm sticking with that. Not because I'm stubborn. I think the Rams have awesome talent and coaching. I think this bye week will help -- though the ensuing Thanksgiving weekend game at Green Bay will not. But yeah, the original Super Bowl forecast -- Bills over Rams -- remains quite viable, so I'll keep it. Preseason Super Bowl predix are a long play!

That said, seeing the Rams follow up a double-digit home loss to the Derrick Henry-less Titans with a road shellacking at the hands of the 49ers, I cannot include my NFC Super Bowl rep on a list of teams I trust most RIGHT NOW. Especially with L.A. still clearly reeling from the Robert Woods injury. I'm just not there with this team in this very moment. Talk to me in December.

But in mid-November, which teams do I ride with? Well, that's why we're here today.

This is NOT a power ranking, as Titans fans need to realize. Rather, this is an up-to-the-minute trust tree. And at this point, in the third week of the season's third month, these are the NFL teams I trust most, Schein Nine style.

Green Bay Packers
8-2 · 1st in NFC North

Aaron Rodgers is back. And he's Aaron Rodgers, the most talented quarterback in NFL history; the reigning MVP, in the midst of another fine season. In a pass-happy league, no aerial connection's as potent as Rodgers' with Davante Adams. Green Bay's star receiver is such a masterful route runner, and when he inevitably gets separation, Rodgers invariably finds himAaron Jones' injury will only cost the Pro Bowl back 1-2 weeks, thankfully. Not to mention, backup RB A.J. Dillon is playing like a man possessed of late; over the last three weeks, the 247-pound wrecking ball has racked up 190 yards rushing and 106 receiving.

But the thing that pushes Green Bay over the top -- that lands the Packers in this No. 1 spot -- is the defense. Joe Barry's unit is red hot. Facing Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson over the past three games, Green Bay has given up a grand total of 34 points. The Pack just handed Russ his first shutout in 150 career games! And this is all without Jaire Alexander, the injured lockdown corner who could return for the stretch run.

The Packers have two blemishes on the record this season: The first being the Week 1 head-scratcher in New Orleans, and the second coming in a tight loss at Kansas City with Jordan Love under center. The trust here is legit. With a remaining schedule that includes just two games against teams currently holding a winning record, I can see Green Bay getting the No. 1 seed and having the NFC go through Lambeau.

Buffalo Bills
6-3 · 1st in AFC East

As mentioned above, Buffalo was my preseason pick to lift the Lombardi Trophy. Ten weeks into the season, that forecast still looks good. And in this trust exercise, Buffalo offers a whole lotta reliability. When I look at these Bills, I see the league's best defense, a superstar quarterback, a deep receiving core and a spectacular trio at head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator. That's a pretty good stew, no? I wish I trusted Buffalo's run game more, but Josh Allen is a true playmaker with swift legs to complement his rocket arm. Also, OC Brian Daboll uses the short passing attack as a pseudo ground game.

OK, let's address the elephant in the room: That ghastly 9-6 loss in Jacksonville two Sundays ago. Yes, it was horrible. Unforgivable, really. But I think it will serve as a learning experience to keep the focus on every single opponent. The early returns on that notion were positive, with the Bills blowing the Jets out of their own stadium in a solid bounce-back performance. I trust Sean McDermott and Co. will bring their A-game this Sunday, when they host the surging Colts.

Dallas Cowboys
7-2 · 1st in NFC East

Week 9's blowout loss to Denver was a debacle, for sure. But it felt like a blip, not a trend. Just look at this past Sunday's 43-3 pasting of the Falcons, which wasn't even that close, considering Dallas led 36-3 at halftime. Dak Prescott had multiple touchdown passes in that beatdown, something he's done in seven of his eight games this season. A popular pick for Comeback Player of the Year entering the season, Dak has legit MVP credentials. Meanwhile, CeeDee Lamb has really come into his own in Year 2, leading the Cowboys in receptions (47), yards (726) and receiving touchdowns (six). The run game is strong, with Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard providing one of the league's best 1-2 punches.

These are not your older brother's up-and-down Cowboys. This Dallas team is deep and talented in every phase, including on defense. Dan Quinn's group is a reliable rock. Micah Parsons is an absolute stud. Quinn could easily win the Assistant Coach of the Year award, while Parsons has to be the current favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Long story short: Dallas has great balance to beat you in any style of fight. That's the kind of quality that earns trust.

Kansas City Chiefs
6-4 · 1st in AFC West

Too high? Too low? Just right?

The rest of the AFC West let Kansas City off the hook. The Chiefs are officially in first place after 10 weeks. That's pretty wild, considering they never felt legit in the first half of the regular season, because Patrick Mahomes wasn't Patrick Mahomes. Well, now he is. Sunday night's 41-14 throttling of the Raiders in Las Vegas was vintage Chiefs -- and vintage Mahomes. Racking up 406 yards passing, five touchdowns and zero interceptions, that was the guy who had the epic start to his career. He's back. And so are two of the game's most devastating weapons, Tyreek Hill (two touchdowns on Sunday) and Travis Kelce (eight catches for 119 yards). The defense was excellent, too, only allowing the Raiders to convert one of their nine third-down attempts while logging three takeaways.

But it's Mahomes. It's always Mahomes. And the 26-year-old wunderkind got his swagger back in a nationally televised demolition of an AFC West rival. I can't wait to see what he has in store for Dallas on Sunday.

New England Patriots
6-4 · 2nd in AFC East

I love Mac Jones. And if you were in the camp that he has a "low ceiling," well, you have been proven wrong. The 23-year-old put on a masterclass in efficient quarterbacking during this past Sunday's 45-7 bludgeoning of the Browns, completing 19 of his 23 passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns in just over three quarters of play. (New England had such a commanding lead that Brian Hoyer handled the Pats' last few drives.) Sure, Jones is a "Beli-bot" -- and that's a great thing. Questioned throughout the pre-draft process, Jones was the fifth quarterback off the board in April -- but he has easily been the best of the bunch in Year 1. And with New England squarely in the playoff picture -- currently holding a wild-card slot and nipping at Buffalo's heels in the AFC East race -- Jones is going to be the Patriots' first Offensive Rookie of the Year since Curtis Martin in 1995.

Bill Belichick is the greatest coach in sports history. The offensive line is finally healthy -- and inherently imposing. The run game is deep and strong. The defense is really rounding into form, with Matt Judon proving to be one of the best free-agent pickups of last offseason. The Patriots are back, and everyone should be afraid.

Arizona Cardinals
8-2 · 1st in NFC West

Eradicate Sunday's 34-10 defeat to Carolina from your mind. No Kyler Murray. No DeAndre Hopkins. No Chase Edmonds. And thus, no lasting repercussions from the loss. The Cardinals will be back -- and don't forget what they were at full strength. Arizona won its first seven games of the season, prevailing by an average of 15.9 points per contest. And the Cards would've won their first eight games if A.J. Green knew what was going on.

While Murray rightfully received MVP buzz over the first two months, Kliff Kingsbury's team is quite well-rounded, with game-changers on both sides of the ball. Through 10 games, Arizona ranks fourth in points scored and fifth in points allowed. Find the weakness.

Baltimore Ravens
6-3 · 1st in AFC North

It's still Lamar Jackson. And it's still John Harbaugh. That means an MVP candidate with Superman qualities and a buttoned-up coach who will be ready for everything.

Injuries concern me with Baltimore. So does the blitz-heavy approach Miami just put on tape in a stunning 22-10 win over the Ravens. How will Baltimore counterpunch when opponents bring constant heat going forward?

But I guess that's just it: I trust this organization to adjust. I trust Harbaugh, Lamar and Co. to do what they have to do to get it right. Baltimore's culture is real and spectacular. As is the Ravens' resilience. I would not want to be the Bears on Sunday.

Tennessee Titans
8-2 · 1st in AFC South

My respect level for the Titans is off the charts. I love Mike Vrabel, whose fingerprints are all over this team. Tennessee is the hottest team in the NFL, riding a six-game winning streak. And the last five of those victories have come against playoff teams from last season -- a streak that's only been accomplished one other time in league history, per NFL Research, by the 2003 Eagles. The Titans have a two-game lead in the race for the No. 1 seed. Ryan Tannehill is a winner. A.J. Brown is a stud. The defense is flying around, with Jeffery Simmons setting the tone up front and Kevin Byard ballhawking in the back end.

So, what gives? Why is Tennessee ranked just eighth on this list?

With Derrick Henry on the shelf with a broken foot, I just can't trust this team as much as the ones listed above. Again, I love these Titans. I love Nashville. I love my childhood friend, Keith Bulluck. But I just can't have next-level trust with the best back of the game -- with the engine of this entire operation -- in a boot. Even if he returns to action for the end of the regular season or the playoffs, will he be full KING HENRY? It's a question that concerns me.

If the Titans win the Super Bowl, I'll gorge on crow.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
6-3 · 1st in NFC South

What are the defending Super Bowl champions doing holding up the rear on this list? Tampa's 29-19 loss at Washington wasn't at all fluky; and thus, it was alarming. Sure, we've seen bigger upsets this season, but Tampa was fresh off a bye. That's when the Buccaneers really kicked it into gear last season. Not the case in 2021, as Tampa dropped its second consecutive game on Sunday. The Buccaneers were outplayed and outcoached by the Football Team. Washington iced the game with a remarkable 19-play touchdown drive that essentially ate up the final 11 minutes of the fourth quarter. Talk about choking out an opponent!

Look, Tom Brady is Tom Brady, the ultimate TRUST player. But the Bucs have injuries. The defense isn't the same as it was down the stretch last season. I'd rank the defending champs fourth among NFC division leaders right now.

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