Nine Sundays in, the 2017 campaign is beginning to take shape. I think.
In a season rife with volatility, I believe I’m finally beginning to get my bearings. Famous last words? Probably. But might as well put this newfound confidence to good use. This edition of The Schein Nine is all about reading through the noise, all about getting down to brass tacks.
Let’s play … Fact or fiction?
1) The Philadelphia Eagles are the best team in the NFL.
This is a fact. With Philly at an NFL-best 8-1, riding a league-high seven-game win streak, it’s not really up for debate. The Eagles are going to nab the No. 1 seed, so the NFC playoffs are going through Lincoln Financial Field. And yes, I believe — as I have for some time now — that the Eagles will represent the conference in Minneapolis come February. And Howie Roseman’s gem of a deadline deal for Jay Ajayi was a Super Bowl-solidifying move. Five days after the trade, Ajayi made his Philly debut with a bang: eight carries for 77 yards and a touchdown.
Ajayi, of course, wasn’t the only Eagle to put on a show in Sunday’s 51-23 beatdown of the Denver Broncos. Carson Wentz threw four more touchdown passes, including two to Alshon Jeffery — very encouraging to see continued growth in that budding relationship. Wentz not only leads the NFL in TD strikes with 23, but the second-year signal caller has to sit atop the MVP race at this point. Meanwhile, Philly’s ferocious defense humiliated Brock Osweiler, who didn’t need any help embarrassing himself. The Eagles sacked Denver’s quarterback three times and picked him off twice.
In every Power Rankings across the interwebs this week, Philadelphia MUST be No. 1.
2) The Kansas City Chiefs are the team to beat in the AFC.
They were. But now … it’s fiction. Following their 28-17 loss in Dallas, the 6-3 Chiefs are no longer in first-round bye territory. At this point, I don’t see Kansas City regaining home-field for the AFC playoffs. That changes everything. I’m not saying the Chiefs are dead in the water. But they have slipped. And that’s concerning in a conference that includes the Steelers and Patriots, both of whom seemed to be figuring it out before spending this past week on a bye.
Tyreek Hill’s catch-and-run Hail Mary at the end of the first half on Sunday was majestic and unprecedented. But it also masked how truly lopsided the game was. Dallas grossly outplayed the Chiefs. It was a statement. Credit the Cowboys — they had incredible balance as an entire team. But this game also spoke volumes about the Chiefs’ vulnerability.
After flying out of the gate to 5-0, the Chiefs have lost three of their past four. Now on bye, this is a team that needs to recoup and get back on track.
3) The Denver Broncos can overcome quarterback uncertainty.
Ever since the Broncos won a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning a shell of himself, this sentiment has earned backing from some. But clearly, this is fiction. And Sunday’s 28-point loss in Philadelphia — Denver’s fourth straight defeat — felt like Brock bottom.
Honestly, I like Brock Osweiler more than most. I think he’s better than Trevor Siemian. And there are deeper issues on offense, like the line and running backs. But, well … Osweiler’s effort on Sunday (1:2 TD-to-INT ratio, 5.5 yards per attempt, 53.4 passer rating) was seriously lacking. Consequently, the Broncos recorded their lowest yardage total (226) of the season.
When Paxton Lynch is healthy, he has to start. With the season careening off the rails, Denver might as well see what it has in the 2016 first-round pick.
Vance Joseph has hardly inspired in his first season as Denver’s head coach. But John Elway takes a hit here. For the second straight year, the Broncos are spinning their wheels at the game’s most important position. And for the second straight year, it’ll cost them a spot in the postseason.
4) The Houston Texans are cooked.
This is a fact. And it stinks. I’m so bummed that the great Deshaun Watson tore his ACL in practice, thus ending a transcendent rookie season far too prematurely. The rookie quickly became one of my favorite players and faces of the NFL, with his thrilling game and overall likability. From Week 3 through Week 8, Watson racked up 19 total touchdowns and the Texans averaged a whopping 39 points per game. But Houston still only went 2-3 in that span, due in large part to lackluster defensive play. (And that defense only became more of a problem when J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus were lost for the year in Week 5.) Those three losses also came in respectable fashion — by three in New England, by eight at home vs. Kansas City, by three in Seattle — but where would Houston have been without the dynamic Watson. Can’t imagine any of those would’ve been one-score games.
Houston could’ve banked another win if Bill O’Brien started Watson in Week 1. Or kept the ball in the QB’s hands on the Texans’ final third down in Seattle. But I digress. The bottom line is the 3-5 Texans aren’t going to make a run with Tom Savage under center and Watt/Mercilus on the sideline.
5) The AFC South will still produce two playoff teams.
Despite the Watson-less Texans being cooked, this is a fact. I’ve been on the Jaguars’ bandwagon for a while now, with their incredible defense and run game. And more power to Doug Marrone for making star rookie back Leonard Fournette inactive on Sunday for violating team rules. That’s a strong message. No one’s above the law. And not only did Jacksonville still win on Sunday — 23-7 over Cincinnati — but the Jaguars got (another) solid performance from much-maligned QB Blake Bortles. I’ve been a (rightful) critic of Bortles, but over the past two games, he’s completed 65.6 percent of his passes for 589 yards and two touchdowns — racking up a 105.5 passer rating in the process. And most importantly, he hasn’t thrown a single interception. The Jaguars (5-3) are going to win the division.
And if Marcus Mariota is healthy, that changes everything for the Titans (5-3). They will win a lot of games down the stretch in the same style they beat Baltimore on Sunday. After starting the season at 2-3, Tennessee has won three straight. And the remaining schedule looks pretty manageable:
All of this adds up to the AFC South — long one of the most blah divisions in the NFL — sending two teams into postseason play.
6) The Seattle Seahawks are NFC West favorites.
Straight fiction. I might’ve been open to the idea if Seattle had won Sunday … but Kirk Cousins made the impossible possible in the Pacific Northwest, leading the Redskins to a last-minute win in front of the stunned 12s.
Seattle (5-3) is vulnerable. The defense got carved up by Deshaun Watson in Week 8 and then allowed Cousins to dominate in crunch time, with a pair of inexcusable bombs on the “Legion of Boom.” And while I loved the Duane Brown deal, the offensive line remains weak and the run game’s unreliable. Blair Walsh missed a few more kicks as you were reading this blurb.
And here’s the other problem for Seattle: The upstart Rams (6-2) are legit. Yes, the Giants are a mess, but 51-17 is 51-17. Sean McVay and his all-star coaching staff have revitalized football in L.A. Jared Goff was superb against the Giants, Todd Gurley continues to provide balance, and Andrew Whitworth has changed everything on the line. Los Angeles is an offensive juggernaut. Meanwhile, Aaron Donald and the defense have really come on in recent weeks. Since Week 6, the Rams are giving up just 11.3 points per game.
Don’t misinterpret: I still think Seattle makes the playoffs — though Thursday night’s game in Arizona this week is suddenly no cupcake. I think Seattle’s a wild-card team. L.A.’s been better all year. And that’s why I picked the Rams to win the division in our midseason predictions last week. I love this Rams team.
7) The New York Giants have quit.
Fact. Rolled over. Done. Embarrassing. This is a franchise that should undergo massive change in the coming offseason. Fresh off a 34-point home loss, the 1-7 Giants need a new general manager. They need a new head coach. New York’s had more suspensions for starting cornerbacks than wins this season.
Bad year — residue of a terrible design, as we’ve documented. Now, do something about it.
8) The New Orleans Saints will snap their three-season playoff drought.
It’s a fact. Heck, I think they win the NFC South and a playoff game. After three straight 7-9 campaigns, this 6-2 squad’s ready to bust out of purgatory!
New Orleans dominated the Buccaneers in every aspect during Sunday’s 30-10 win. Forget the preconceived notions. These Saints have a strong, playmaking defense. And they run the ball with authority. Not to mention, they still have a future Hall of Fame quarterback and a great coach. New Orleans has everything you want in a winning team.
9) The Buffalo Bills will snap their 17-season playoff drought.
But the sked lightens up down the stretch. And I still believe in Sean McDermott. I also loved the Kelvin Benjamin deal. These Bills (5-3) are poised to hit the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 campaign.
Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.
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