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The Schein Nine

NFL FACT OR FICTION: Eagles = NFC team to beat? Jalen Hurts the MVP front-runner? Broncos for real?

The late, great John Madden always used to tell me not to go overboard with NFL opinions until after Thanksgiving.

Well, here we are. Game on, Coach!

With the playoff picture coming into focus and award races heating up, it's a perfect time to assess the validity of some emerging takes. Let's separate fact from fiction, Schein Nine style!

1) Philly's the team to beat in the NFC

The Eagles are amazing. They simply have a knack for winning. Need proof? Well, the good folks at NFL Research have you covered. Sitting at 10-1, Philadelphia is just the third team since 1950 to win at least 10 of its first 11 games in back-to-back seasons, joining the 1972-73 Dolphins and 2005-06 Colts. And the Eagles have actually faced halftime deficits in five games this season. Their record in those contests? A perfect 5-0. The rest of the league's record this season after trailing at half? A highly imperfect 35-129. Like I said, this team has a knack.

The Bills outplayed the Eagles for most of Sunday's game. So did the Chiefs on the previous Monday. Other teams like the Cowboys, Commanders and even the Patriots have had Philly on the ropes. It doesn't matter. General manager Howie Roseman has put together a team with gobs of talent everywhere. These Eagles are so tough and clutch -- and they can win any style of fight. They never flinch, but always pounce on the opposition's mistakes.

Still, despite that glowing preamble, this is fiction. The NFC team to beat is the 49ers.

San Francisco (8-3) is loaded. The 49ers have been my Super Bowl  pick all year. I've never waffled. I'm obsessed with their special combination of elite talent and sage coaching. The Chase Young deal helped unlock a talented defense.

And this Sunday, the Niners are going to storm Lincoln Financial Field and do what the Bills and Chiefs couldn't over the past two weeks: beat the Eagles. I cannot wait for this game. And neither can the 49ers, who are undoubtedly still smarting over Brock Purdy's injury -- and San Francisco's ensuing loss -- in this past January's NFC Championship Game. Remember what Deebo Samuel said on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," this past February? That the Niners would've won by double digits without the Purdy setback. Buckle up!

2) Jalen Hurts is the MVP

Also fiction. I don't care what the Vegas odds say, either. As an actual voter for the Associated Press awards, I don't currently have Hurts among my top five candidates for the most coveted individual honor. Truthfully, for most of the season, I've felt like A.J. Brown is the most valuable Eagle.

Admittedly, Hurts has been tough and has earned a place in the conversation, given the way he's played late in Philadelphia's series of comeback wins. But I cannot rank him ahead of Lamar Jackson or -- most especially -- Dak Prescott. I know the Eagles beat Dallas in Week 9, but Prescott outplayed Hurts in that game. Honestly, Dak has been the best quarterback in the NFL since the San Francisco debacle in Week 5. Frankly, it hasn't been close. He's shredding defenses.

At the moment, the Cowboys quarterback tops my MVP board. But there's a lot of football left to be played. This feels like one of those seasons when post-Thanksgiving performances will really decide who takes home the hardware. Patrick Mahomes? Brock Purdy? Christian McCaffrey? Will the Dolphins beat a team with a winning record and get Tua Tagovailoa in the mix? Someone out of the blue? This race still feels wide open.

3) Pittsburgh is indeed rising

This is a fact. Yes, the bar was low. Matt Canada, who should have been fired at the end of last season, received his walking papers last week. And what do you know? The Steelers (7-4) actually outgained an opponent for the first time all season! In fact, Pittsburgh eclipsed 400 yards of total offense for the first time since Week 2 of the 2020 season, snapping an ignominious 58-game streak.

Now, I'm not gonna go crazy here. This team still has flaws, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. To begin with, Diontae Johnson obviously must get his mind right. Kenny Pickett needs to step his game up, and I still believe he can.

But Pat Freiermuth (nine catches for 120 yards) was unlocked this past Sunday, while the run game kept clicking (150-plus yards for the fourth straight game). And with home contests against the lowly Cardinals and Patriots on tap, Pittsburgh has a great opportunity to further its offensive resurgence.

4) Denver is indeed for real

Yup, factual. Denver (6-5) is tied with Philadelphia for the longest active winning streak at five games. And over the past four outings, the Broncos have knocked off four teams that are currently .500 or better: the Browns (7-4), Vikings (6-6), Bills (6-6) and Chiefs (8-3).

This is not a fluke. It's representative of what we expected from Sean Payton, before his team started off at 1-4 by losing to Josh McDaniels' Raiders, blowing an 18-point lead to the Commanders, giving up 70 points to the Dolphins and dropping the Nathaniel Hackett revenge game. All of that is deep in the rearview now. Vance Joseph's defense buttoned up big time, while Russell Wilson is playing clean, efficient football.

I can't wait for this Sunday's big game in Houston. What a matchup, with rookie sensation C.J. Stroud going up against Denver's revitalized defense, which is led by a pair of stars in the secondary (CB Pat Surtain II and S Justin Simmons). Payton has really turned this entire organization around: Suddenly, you can't count out these Broncos in any matchup.

5) Buffalo's still dangerous

My love for Josh Allen is well-documented. And the Buffalo star played absolutely brilliantly this past Sunday in Philadelphia. Yes, the Bills (6-6) lost 37-34 in overtime, but don't blame their quarterback. He gives this team a chance every time out. Unfortunately, I just can't say the same for his coach.

And thus, the above statement is fiction. Sean McDermott makes it so, at least to me.

With the Eagles trailing by three points on Sunday and frantically trying to get in field goal range in the final minute of regulation, it felt like McDermott helped out the opposition by calling a pair of unnecessary timeouts. Odd stuff to me. Then, after Jake Elliott nailed the game-tying, 59-yard field goal, McDermott ultimately just threw away the final 20 seconds of the game, despite the fact that his quarterback was on a heater and the Bills still had a timeout to spare. What?! Buffalo, of course, ultimately lost in overtime.

Every week, numerous NFL games are decided by the tightest of margins. And in that kind of setting, I just do not believe in McDermott pulling the right levers at winning time. Each of Buffalo's six losses this season have come by six points or fewer. This is not a coincidence. Remember the "13 seconds" loss at Kansas City in the 2021 Divisional Round? Absolutely gutting, but it also underscores the trend with this coach.

On a bye this week, the Bills face a crucial game in Kansas City two Sundays from now. Allen has the ability to go blow for blow with Patrick Mahomes, no doubt about it. But how can you trust McDermott against Andy Reid?

6) The NFC North has three playoff teams

Fiction. Detroit (8-3) will make it, though my "Lions will get the No. 1 seed" take sure hit a major bump in the road with the Thanksgiving disaster against Green Bay. Still, I have Detroit taking the NFC North crown.

Meanwhile, Minnesota just dropped to 6-6 with a crushing home loss to the lowly Bears on Monday night. Still, I think Justin Jefferson will indeed return to action following the Week 13 bye, and this could allow the Vikings -- who currently sit in the No. 7 seed -- to lock up a wild-card spot. But that's it. Two teams -- MAX -- from the NFC North.

So, what about the 5-6 Packers, currently the first squad out of the NFC playoff field? I'm just not seeing it. Matt LaFleur and Jordan Love deserve credit for weathering a midseason storm and coming out on the other end, with the first-year starter looking like a franchise quarterback over the past two weeks. But I'm not sure I can trust that to continue over the next six weeks. Shoot, this coming Sunday night, Green Bay hosts Kansas City. Even in the comfy confines of Lambeau Field, that's a TOUGH spot -- especially for Love, going against a stifling K.C. defense.

I like the Rams' chances of nabbing a wild-card slot despite Green Bay currently holding the head-to-head tiebreaker. Matthew Stafford is back. That's everything. Sean McVay and Co. are ready to roll. And I definitely wouldn't eliminate the Seahawks (6-5), who currently own the No. 6 seed. Even with all the injuries and the tough remaining schedule, I still value Pete Carroll at this time of year.

7) Jacksonville made the biggest statement in Week 12

This is a fact. Jacksonville needed a win like Sunday's 24-21 triumph in Houston. Coming on the road, against a rising division rival with an emerging superstar (C.J. Stroud) under center, that was impressive stuff. Image wise, Trevor Lawrence also kind of needed a transcendent performance in a big game. I think 364 yards passing in a winning effort counts.

Now 8-3, Jacksonville is two games clear of Indianapolis and Houston in the AFC South race. And winning the division for the second straight year could just be the beginning. The Jags have all the elements for playoffs success, including a Super Bowl-winning head coach in Doug Pederson. The AFC is wide open at the top -- and in general. Jacksonville is flawless on the road this year at 5-0. This team could indeed make a run in January.

8) Miami's looking strong

I have gone on the record with my doubts about Miami, which still has not defeated an opponent with a winning record. But the above statement is a FACT. Yes, the Dolphins lost their last showdown with an upper-tier contender, coming out flat against the Chiefs in Frankfurt in Week 9. I just can't ignore the toughness, heart and physicality they've shown since then. Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle continue to dazzle, averaging 124 and 84.5 receiving yards over the past two games, respectively. The run game -- Miami ranks first in the NFL with 5.5 yards per carry -- has continued to be stout, even with De'Von Achane not back in the fold yet. And the defense has been dominant of late, holding the Raiders to three points in the final three quarters in Week 11 and keeping the Jets from scoring an offensive TD until the final five minutes in Week 12. Jalen Ramsey's return has been gigantic for that unit; the cornerback contributed two of the Dolphins' five takeaways over the past two weeks.

Miami will have more chances to prove itself against elite opposition, including a home date with the Cowboys in Week 16 and a visit to the Ravens in Week 17 -- when the No. 1 seed in the AFC could be at stake. For now, though, I must tip my cap to the Dolphins' resolve.

9) Kansas City's offense is BACK!

This is fiction! Don't let the Chiefs' 31-point outburst against the Raiders on Sunday fool you into thinking Kansas City has become a scoring juggernaut again. Sure, Rashee Rice (who logged eight catches for 107 yards, both career highs) and Justin Watson (who caught a TD pass in a second consecutive game for the first time in his career) helped Patrick Mahomes out -- this time. Just one week earlier, though, multiple drops by Chiefs pass catchers doomed the team against the Eagles.

Mahomes is still a superstar QB. Andy Reid is still an amazing coach. The defense is among the NFL's best. But outside of Travis Kelce, the Chiefs' pass-catching corps is completely unreliable -- Kansas City's receivers are tied for second in the NFL with 13 drops, according to Pro Football Focus. And that makes the team potentially vulnerable to being knocked off a few times down the stretch, which could, in turn, prevent Kansas City from hosting the AFC Championship Game for a sixth consecutive postseason.

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