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The Schein Nine

Predictions for 2023 regular season's final quarter: Dak Prescott wins MVP; Bills and Rams hit playoffs

Well, Monday night's double feature sure put the cherry on top of another wild week in the NFL.

The Tommy DeVito-led Giants ended Green Bay's three-game winning streak by logging a third straight victory of their own. Meanwhile, the Will Levis-led Titans essentially gave a game away before taking it back, ultimately handing the Dolphins a shocking defeat. Both upsets shook up the playoff picture, helping set the table for what should be a thrilling finish to the 2023 regular season.

So, what can we expect over the next four weeks? Well, that's what I'm here to explore today. Without further ado ...

Here are nine predictions for the final quarter of another unpredictable regular season, Schein Nine style.

1) 49ers earn NFC's No. 1 seed

Currently riding a five-game winning streak that includes an average margin of victory of 19.4 points, my preseason Super Bowl pick is playing dominant football in every phase. The 49ers are now 17-0 when QB Brock Purdy, RB Christian McCaffrey and WR Deebo Samuel all finish the game. Kyle Shanahan is a sensational coach, and when you give him a healthy roster ... WATCH OUT! San Francisco just has so many gamebreakers to account for -- game-planning for this team must be an absolute nightmare.

And now the 49ers are in the driver's seat to earn the NFC's No. 1 seed, which would given them the coveted first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. While San Francisco, Dallas and Philadelphia all boast 10-3 records, the Niners own the tiebreaker over both foes, having blown out the Cowboys in Week 5 and the Eagles in Week 13. San Francisco's remaining schedule? It's manageable:

Obviously, that Monday-nighter vs. the Ravens on Christmas Day looms large, but it's at Levi's Stadium, underscoring my confidence in the 49ers in that enticing showdown. In fact, I don't think San Francisco will lose again this season, playoffs included. That's right, I predict the 2023 Niners will finish with a 12-game winning streak -- and the franchise's sixth Lombardi Trophy.

2) Dak Prescott wins MVP

I always stress that many things can happen to shake up an award race. (Yes, even at this late juncture of the season.) But this is a prediction piece, and at the moment, my crystal ball shows Prescott taking home the league's most prestigious single-season honor.

Dak has been simply brilliant over the past eight games, during which Dallas has gone 7-1, with the lone loss being a five-point defeat at Philly. Seriously, check out these numbers for the Cowboys quarterback ...

  • Prescott since Week 6: 69.3 percent completions, 305.5 passing ypg, 23:2 TD-to-INT ratio, 118.5 passer rating.

The man is locked in, to say the least. And Dallas is now entering a three-game gauntlet: at Buffalo, at Miami, vs. Detroit. Are those games that the Cowboys can lose? Sure. Are those games that offer Dak a spotlight to shine against legit competition? Absolutely.

As an Associated Press voter, I actually have some real skin in this game. Right now, I have Prescott ahead of Brock Purdy, with both of them comfortably clear of the rest of the field. Nobody has been more valuable and excellent so far this year than Dak -- and I believe he'll close out the regular season in style, thus locking up MVP honors.

3) Bills make playoffs

My issues with Sean McDermott's game management are well documented, but I still can't get enough of Josh Allen.

As an eternal backer of the Bills quarterback, I wasn't surprised by Sunday's triumph over Patrick Mahomes' Chiefs in Arrowhead. And maybe the take stated in the subhead above means Buffalo (7-6) has to beat the Cowboys at home this Sunday and the Dolphins at Miami in Week 18. OK, that's fine. Allen and Stefon Diggs are capable of winning every single game they play. No margin for error? No problem!

Allen has to overcome his own head coach's deficiencies, but the quarterback is Superman. And I like what I've seen since the change at offensive coordinator to Joe Brady, particularly the uptick in usage for dynamic RB James Cook. I foresee Allen balling out over the next month, carrying Buffalo into the playoffs and finishing as a top-five vote-getter in the MVP race.

4) Broncos make playoffs

In fact, I think the Broncos (7-6) run the table, winning each of their four remaining games.

The most challenging contest left on the slate is the next one: Saturday night's prime-time tilt in Detroit. These feel like two teams currently trending in opposite directions, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The Lions have given up 26-plus points in their last five games -- and six of the last seven. The Broncos, on the other hand, have yielded an average of just 16 points over their last eight games. What a turnaround from Vance Joseph's unit, which became a league laughingstock when Denver gave up 70 points to Miami in Week 3. Detroit QB Jared Goff has been struggling of late; going up against a secondary that features established stars Pat Surtain II and Justin Simmons, as well as emerging playmaker Ja'Quan McMillian, is NOT what the doctor ordered.

If the Broncos do indeed get past the Lions, their final three games appear quite winnable: vs. Patriots, vs. Chargers, at Raiders. If Denver can finish at 11-6 -- after starting the season at 1-5 -- what a spectacular job it'd be by Sean Payton in his first year with the franchise. Regardless, the Super Bowl-winning head coach has clearly upped this team's toughness and clutchness -- two factors that will guide the Broncos to their first postseason appearance since they hoisted the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the 2015 campaign.

5) Chiefs DON'T earn AFC's No. 1 seed

The Kadarius Toney offside call was easy, obvious and correct. Nothing controversial at all. The flag was thrown immediately, long before Travis Kelce's ad-lib brilliance. You can't just negate a blatant penalty because the end result was cool.

Honestly, I think the real reason Patrick Mahomes went nuts is because his receivers let him down once again. Tension has been building with the Chiefs' unusual struggles on offense. Over Mahomes' first five regular seasons as Kansas City's starting quarterback, the Chiefs failed to reach 20 points just six times. They've already matched that total in 2023 alone, falling short of 20 points four of their past six games (losing all four contests). The receiving corps is inexperienced and highly inconsistent. The run game is spotty, especially with Isiah Pacheco injured.

Mahomes has never played a true road playoff game. But if he has designs on making another deep postseason run this January, he'll have to win outside of the comfy confines. The Arrowhead Invitational is canceled. And frankly, I don't expect much from the defending champs. This is not a Super Bowl team.

6) Rams make playoffs

Last week, I predicted the Rams would beat the Ravens in Baltimore. The home team prevailed in overtime, 37-31, but I don't regret the pick for a second.

I really dig this team. Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp are healthy and doing special things. Rookie WR Puka Nacua and second-year RB Kyren Williams have infused the offense with youthful exuberance. Sean McVay is an elite coach. Raheem Morris has done a fine job with the defense and deserves to be a head coach again. I want this group in the postseason tournament, and I believe it will happen.

At 6-7, Los Angeles is the first team out of the current playoff field. But the Vikings, currently holding the No. 6 seed, don't have a quarterback. The Packers, sitting at No. 7, cannot be trusted. And the Seahawks, one spot below the Rams in the playoff standings, are coming apart at the seams with four straight losses.

I think the Rams win three of their last four and punch a wild-card ticket at 9-8.

7) Eagles earn NFC's No. 2 seed

The Cowboys and 49ers are both better teams than the Eagles, and I wasn't surprised when they smoked Philadelphia over the past two weeks. But even with the Eagles looking wobbly lately, their schedule to close the season is a feast of cupcakes.

Again, the Niners are taking the top seed. As the Eagles battle for the NFC East title and No. 2 overall seed, they will face the 6-7 Seahawks in Seattle, plus the Giants (5-8) twice and the Cardinals (3-10) at home. That's easy street compared to the Cowboys' remaining slate: at Bills, at Dolphins, vs. Lions, at Commanders. Thus, Philadelphia finishes ahead of their superior division rival.

8) Browns make playoffs

I've written the Browns off too many times: when Nick Chubb went down; when Deshaun Watson was lost for the year; when PJ Walker and Dorian Thompson-Robinson were combining for a 2:9 TD-to-INT ratio. And yet, there sits Cleveland at 8-5, in prime position to secure a wild-card spot, thanks to ... Joe Flacco?!

What year is this?! Are we back in 2012, when Flacco helped win a Super Bowl for Baltimore? Did we revert to 2017, when Flacco last started a full season in the NFL? Or 2019, when he last appeared in more than five games?

No, we're in the stretch run of 2023 -- and Flacco is _still_ elite. At least, he was in Week 14, when the 38-year-old reeled off 311 passing yards and three TDs (against one pick) in a win over Jacksonville, building off a (mostly) encouraging debut in a loss to the Rams the week before. Browns coach Kevin Stefanski has done a sensational job keeping his team together despite a stunning onslaught of injuries, including to multiple members of the offensive line, plus defensive stars Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward. The defense has not been quite as dominant as it was earlier this year, but it's still plenty capable. All of which sets up this doozy of a sentence:

Joe Flacco will lead the Cleveland Browns to the playoffs.

9) Steelers MISS playoffs

When I glance at the current playoff picture, one team sticks out like an exceptionally ugly Christmas sweater: Pittsburgh.

In Weeks 1-12, the Steelers somehow got to 7-4 despite being outscored (by 23 points) and outgained (by 676 yards). Still, they looked postseason-bound -- until a disastrous five-day span in which they inexplicably dropped a pair of home games against two 2-10 teams. In a flash, Pittsburgh slipped to 7-6. And there's no sign the decline will stop.

The quarterback play (first from Kenny Pickett, then from injury replacement Mitch Trubisky) has been subpar. The receivers are generating too many headlines about frustration and a lack of focus. The run game has been inconsistent. Whatever charge was generated by last month's change at offensive coordinator appears to have dissipated, judging by Pittsburgh's 264-yard effort last Thursday. And the defense coughed up 21 first-half points to a Patriots team that posted a goose egg against the Chargers one week prior.

Running back Jaylen Warren confessed that the Steelers didn't take the Cardinals seriously in Week 13 -- and then they went out and produced another massive dud. At this point, there is little reason to believe in Mike Tomlin's team, which I think has a realistic chance to lose all four of its remaining games (at Colts, vs. Bengals, at Seahawks, at Ravens) and finish with its first losing record since Tomlin arrived in 2007.

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