Football is BACK!!
After an entertaining Labor Day weekend on the college gridiron, it's Week 1 of the 2023 NFL season. I'm beaming! I'm a font of positivity! Thus, as I look to provide my final takes before the pro action kicks off with Lions-Chiefs on Thursday night, I'm in no mood to play the role of Debbie Downer today.
My 0-17 prediction for the Cardinals is already on record. As is my forecast that the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers bottom out. And yes, I previously stated my belief that the Patriots will again miss the playoffs, making this Bill Belichick's last season in New England.
You won't find any of that depreciation below. On the eve of a new season, hope springs!
So, without further ado, here are my last-minute predictions for the '23 campaign, Schein Nine style.
1) Josh Allen nabs No. 1 seed, wins MVP
In the last couple years, this wouldn't feel like too hot a take. But Buffalo's cachet is down these days, with the Bills coming off a roller-coaster season that ended with a massive thud. Not to mention, Aaron Rodgers joined the AFC East race, while reigning MVP/Super Bowl champion Patrick Mahomes remains reigning MVP/Super Bowl champion Patrick Mahomes.
Simply put, Josh Allen and Company aren't en vogue. No matter. I still believe! In fact, in addition to predicting the quarterback will win his first MVP -- something I forecasted back in May -- I think he'll put Buffalo on his back and seize the No. 1 seed in an absolutely loaded AFC.
Even if you've soured on the Bills as a whole, you can't deny that Allen remains a certified star. The kind of transcendent playmaker who can lift an entire roster. Talking to him last week on my SiriusXM radio show, "Schein On Sports," Allen's hyper focused, not hearing the outside noise claiming Buffalo's Super Bowl window might have closed. Allen raved to me about first-round tight end Dalton Kincaid, the emergence of second-year running back James Cook and the improved health/explosiveness of WR2 Gabe Davis. And despite what you've seen or heard, Allen says his on-field chemistry with Stefon Diggs is better than ever after a lot of conversation during the offseason and training camp.
With Von Miller sidelined for at least the first four games of the season, Allen and the offense will carry the load early and continue to flourish en route to a prized bye in the AFC playoffs.
2) Justin Jefferson becomes first 2,000-yard receiver, carries Vikings to playoffs
Justin Jefferson is the best receiver in the NFL. And the addition of first-round WR Jordan Addison gives Batman a true Robin, someone who won't allow opposing defenses to focus ALL efforts on No. 18. Kirk Cousins and Jefferson clearly have a great rapport. I mean, look at the 24-year-old's receiver slash lines through his first three NFL seasons: 88/1,400/7, 108/1,616/10 and 128/1,809/8. You see the trend line of that yardage total, right? Jefferson is about to become the first 2,000-yard receiver in NFL history, breaking Calvin Johnson's single-season record (1,964) in the process. This is another prediction I first tossed out there in May, but like I did with Josh Allen and the Bills just above, I'd like to supplement the individual achievement with a team feat:
Jefferson will lead Minnesota back to the playoffs. That's right. Despite everyone talking all offseason about the 2022 Vikings' fortuitousness to go 13-4 despite possessing a negative points differential, I still believe in Skol.
Now, Minnesota is due for a slight regression, as I have the upstart Lions winning the NFC North, but the Vikings will take part in the tournament via wild card. Why? Well, for one thing, new defensive coordinator Brian Flores is going to make Minnesota much better on that side of the ball. I'm not saying the Vikes are about to field a top-10 defense, but Flores' group will be good enough -- and well-coached enough -- to get the ball back to the offense, allowing Jefferson to cook all comers. I can't wait to see what this extraordinary receiver can accomplish in his second year under savvy offensive architect Kevin O'Connell.
3) Lamar Jackson peaks as a passer
If you don't believe me, ask the man himself. Last week on SiriusXM, I told Lamar Jackson that he was primed for his best passing season yet. Despite the fact that Jackson already won a unanimous MVP while leading the NFL in passing touchdowns, Lamar didn't disagree, saying he's "a lot wiser" at age 26. He's also 100 percent healthy -- and 1,000 percent happy, with all the contract drama in the rearview.
Furthermore, Jackson loves the high-octane pace of new coordinator Todd Monken's offense. Also, Lamar says he cannot get over Odell Beckham Jr.'s speed, saying it looks like the three-time Pro Bowler is back in his second year in the league. And he loves what first-round rookie Zay Flowers brings to the table, in conjunction with a healthy Rashod Bateman and the dynamic tight end duo of Mark Andrews and Isaiah Likely.
4) Derek Carr wins 12 games
I love this fit for both parties, Derek Carr and the Saints. Talking to the veteran quarterback on SiriusXM earlier this week, Carr said he's "absolutely" motivated by the way things ended in Las Vegas, with the Raiders benching and then unceremoniously releasing him after nine years of faithful service.
"That chip on your shoulder, when you wake up, it's always there," Carr told me. "I remind myself all the time: I got cut. And I know that maybe I could've accepted a trade and all that, but I like to remind myself that I was cut."
Carr says Michael Thomas is fully healthy -- finally! -- and that he has a great rapport with both Thomas and second-year stud Chris Olave. Carr was never supported by a viable defense on the Raiders. In New Orleans, Dennis Allen will flank the 32-year-old with a top-10 D. The Saints also provide superior organizational stability.
The passionate fans in NOLA are going to love their new quarterback's toughness, execution and clutch play as he guides the Saints back to the top of the NFC South.
5) Dak Prescott dominates in Big D
'Tis the season for Cowboys propaganda, amirite? But this time, the hype is validated. With explosive talent on both sides of the football, I see Dallas retaking the NFC East and making it to Championship Sunday for the first time since the organization's last Super Bowl title in the 1995 campaign. Inherently, I see a big bounce-back season from the team's much-discussed quarterback.
No beating around the bush: Dak Prescott was bad last season, leading the NFL with 15 interceptions despite missing five games. But Dak was also hurt -- and running an offense that just had too many cooks in the kitchen. Don't get me wrong: I think former Cowboys OC Kellen Moore is a sharp offensive mind. He'll enjoy plenty of success with Justin Herbert in his new post with the Chargers. That said, Moore clearly wasn't on the same page with head coach Mike McCarthy last season. And I really believe in McCarthy as an offensive guru/quarterback whisperer. Now that he's taken the play-calling reins, Prescott will benefit from having one voice in his head. The QB will also benefit from having Brandin Cooks, the offseason trade acquisition who gives Dallas a viable WR2 beside emerging superstar CeeDee Lamb.
Taking all of that into account -- and removing Ezekiel Elliott from a touchdown-vulture role -- Prescott throws 40 touchdown passes for the first time while significantly reducing his picks.
6) Jets log at least 11 wins
It can't fail. It won't fail. Aaron Rodgers is too amazing and too motivated. Are you betting against the four-time MVP? I still think about what Rodgers told me back in May, how he had been watching a documentary on the 1986 Mets.
"You realize how special it would be to win a championship -- anywhere, obviously -- but I think especially here in New York, with a team that hasn't been to the playoffs in 12 years, obviously hasn't been back to the Super Bowl since 'Broadway Joe' (Namath)," Rodgers said.
This man is ready for the searing spotlight of NYC. He revels in it. And he already has a go-to guy in reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Garrett Wilson. The weapons around Wilson are plentiful and diverse. The defense is a top-five unit with the potential to be the best in the business.
Fade this team at your own peril. Rodgers and Co. are about to end the league's longest playoff drought.
7) Falcons' Big Three provide playoff berth
I know it's a quarterback league, but with apologies to Falcons starter Desmond Ridder, he's not among Atlanta's Big Three -- though he's poised to significantly benefit from them!
I'm talking about rookie RB Bijan Robinson, second-year WR Drake London and third-year TE Kyle Pitts. Those three, all top-10 draft picks, comprise the gifted core that will define the Falcons in 2023 and well beyond. Robinson is an all-around back who enters the league as a considerable favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year. London is poised to build on a strong rookie season that saw him catch 72 balls for 866 yards and four touchdowns. And Pitts is healthy again, ready to live up to the billing as the highest-drafted tight end in NFL history.
With the terrific Arthur Smith at the controls in Atlanta, I expect Ridder to efficiently distribute the football to his posse of playmakers and the Falcons to return to the postseason for the first time since the 2017 campaign.
8) Justin Fields makes the leap
I don't have Chicago making the playoffs, but the Bears still have room for substantial improvement from their 3-14 campaign. Especially with the must-see playmaker lining up under center.
I cannot wait for the Justin Fields show this fall. Year 2 showcased the quarterback's electric running ability, as Fields carried the ball 160 times for 1,143 yards (a league-best 7.1 average) and eight touchdowns. Year 3 promises a big leap in passing production, as Fields finally has a winning combination of coaching and supporting cast. The connection with DJ Moore, in particular, will prove prolific.
Fields' overall growth -- and subsequent domination -- will be special. I imagine I'll be touting a real Bears breakthrough in this space next year.
9) Kyle Shanahan puts genius on display as 49ers earn sixth Lombardi Trophy
Admittedly, I was a little freaked out when I sat down to write this column -- at that point, reigning Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa was still holding out. On top of the fact that DeMeco Ryans is no longer driving San Francisco's defensive ship, not having Bosa was a concerning thought. Still, I figured the Niners had enough talent across the roster to temporarily survive Bosa's absence -- and now they won't even have to do that! On Wednesday, Bosa signed a five-year, $170 million extension. Onward and upward to the franchise's sixth Lombardi Trophy!
Wait, can 2022's Mr. Irrelevant really guide this team to a Super Bowl title? Yes. Yes, he can. I just ranked the Brock Purdy-led Niners offense as the league's best, so clearly I'm quite confident in San Francisco putting points on the board. How could you not be? Kyle Shanahan is a special offensive mind. And with weaponry at his disposal that includes Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk and Elijah Mitchell, Shanahan will continue to befuddle opposing defenses with his inspired game plans. Meanwhile, the defense just ranked first in yards and points allowed last season. The group is stacked with difference-makers at each level -- including the freshly PAID sack artist in the No. 97 jersey.