Patriots, Panthers, Cardinals most likely to win Super Bowl 50

By Adam Schein, NFL Media columnist

Thanksgiving is in the rear-view mirror. In the NFL world, that means the postseason chatter amps up. The expression playoff scenario becomes en vogue and omnipresent. It’s intoxicating. It’s especially so in a year like this where you have so many teams still alive.

But while fans of the Texans and Colts can still day dream about Wild Card Weekend, which teams really can win Super Bowl 50?

In theory, if there was ever a year for teams to get hot in December and ride momentum to Super Bowl Sunday, it’d be this one. I think the competition in the middle makes the NFL great this season. But how much competition truly exists in the top tier?

The following is my ranking of the Three teams most likely to win Super Bowl 50. This isn’t a current power ranking. Or a guarantee of making the playoffs. And understand, as a backdrop, I think the Patriots will hoist the Lombardi Trophy and I would be stunned if they weren’t in Santa Clara the first week of February. Thus, talented AFC teams might be ranked a bit lower than you’d expect.

OK, let’s start at the top:

1) New England Patriots

It’s Bill Belichick’s world and we’re all just living in it. I’ve written it too many times to count, but in a salary-cap era built for competitive balance, Belichick continues to thrive in unparalleled fashion, routinely proving he is the best coach in NFL history. The Patriots were perfect through 10 games — dominant despite a rash of key offensive injuries at receiver, running back and along the line. They are beautifully abnormal and defy logic. That’s Belichick.

Belichick has built up the New England defense. The line is stout. Defensive end Chandler Jones is a game wrecker and a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. NFL Media’s Albert Breer reports Dont’a Hightower is believed to have suffered an MCL sprain on Sunday night. That hurts — big time. But that injury’s no death knell. And it appears the Pats might’ve dodged a major bullet on the injury front.

All of New England held its collective breath on Sunday night, when Rob Gronkowski took a shot to the knee, began rolling around on the turf in agony and needed a cart to get off the field. But on Monday, NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport reported the belief is the tight end suffered no structural damage in his knee and is unlikely to miss more than one game (if that). Thus, the Patriots, and their fans, can breathe a collective sigh of relief.

In the face of all the injuries — and of course, all of the Deflategate drama — Tom Brady’s revenge tour has been quite remarkable. Brady has racked up 28 touchdown passes against just four interceptions. He leads the NFL with 3,600 passing yards and boasts a healthy 106.7 passer rating. Brady is the league MVP and the quarterback you want in January, hands down.

No, I’m not going to downgrade the Pats after Sunday’s loss at Denver, in a game I picked the Broncos to win. I stand by my prediction from the middle of the season that no team will go undefeated in 2015. (Sorry, Panthers.)

Even if Gronk is compromised — and make no mistake, he’s the ultimate weapon in today’s NFL — I’d still rank New England No. 1 due to the Belichick and Brady combo. And there is a realistic chance both Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola will be healthy for January football.

2) Carolina Panthers

The Panthers are the last remaining undefeated team in the NFL. How many people anticipated that, particularly after Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL in August? As I alluded to above, I don’t see Carolina maintaining perfection through the entire regular season. But what do I know, especially when it comes to this franchise?

As I wrote a couple weeks ago, I was wrong about Cam Newton, Ron Rivera and the Panthers. Completely wrong. This team packs a punch and continues to impress me every week. Blowing away the Cowboys in Dallas on Turkey Day? Not too shabby.

The defense is strong and dominant on every level. Cam Newton makes plays and is incredibly clutch. All in all, this is the team to beat in the NFC.

3) Arizona Cardinals

I think the Cardinals have the best chance to spoil the party for either the Patriots or the Panthers.

Arizona can play — and win a game — in any style. The defense, led by a strong line and a playmaking defensive backfield, can pound you and turn you over. The offense is sharp, as Carson Palmer’s enjoying an MVP-type season with a plethora of weapons at his disposal.

I’d argue that general manager Steve Keim has put together the most talented roster, 1-53, in the NFL. We know Bruce Arians, who has earned Coach of the Year honors in two of the past three seasons, is a superb head man. He’s done a fine job steering this loaded ship in 2015. And his aggressive style and swagger can pay dividends in the playoffs.