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The Schein Nine

C.J. Stroud CAN be MVP; Lions WILL earn NFC's No. 1 seed; Bengals MUST win on Thursday in Baltimore

Everyone has played at least nine games, meaning the 2023 NFL regular season is beyond halfway done. Consequently, we're starting to get a clearer picture on where teams stand -- and where they ultimately could end up.

With that in mind, it's a good time to clarify where I stand on the happenings across the league. As we head down the back half of this 18-week sprint, here are the statements you can take to the bank, Schein Nine style.

1) C.J. Stroud is a legit MVP candidate

You can take it to the bank and make a deposit. Frankly, there's a case he's the current leader. Personally, as an Associated Press voter, I see two candidates standing out above the rest at this moment: Stroud and Eagles WR A.J. Brown.

OK, so Stroud's a rookie. Who cares? He's carrying Houston's offense with his pinpoint accuracy, smarts, leadership and innate ability to shake off mistakes. The No. 2 overall pick brings the best out of his teammates -- like Peyton Manning used to do -- and he does so with impressive flair.

One week after shredding the Buccaneers for a rookie-record 470 passing yards in a thrilling comeback win at home, Stroud guided the Texans on the road and orchestrated another awe-inspiring victory, this time over Joe Burrow and the Bengals. Sure, the 22-year-old threw a bad pick late this past Sunday, helping Cincinnati erase a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit and tie the game up at 27-27 with 93 seconds remaining. But then Stroud swiftly drove his team 55 yards in six snaps, setting up Matt Ammendola's 38-yard, walk-off field goal.

Stroud is currently averaging the most passing yards per game by a rookie (291.8) in league history, per NFL Research. He's just the second first-year player since 1970 (joining Cam Newton) to record 800-plus passing yards in the span of two consecutive starts. And according to the AP, he just became the first rook in the last 40 years to lead game-winning drives in the final two minutes of regulation in back-to-back games.

This isn't a fluke. I loved Houston's selection of Stroud. I loved the DeMeco Ryans hiring. But even I am surprised by the Texans' abrupt rise in 2023. After winning 11 games over the previous three seasons combined, Houston is 5-4, currently holding a wild-card slot. This is one of the most surprising developments of the season, so you shouldn't be surprised seeing Stroud squarely in the MVP conversation. It's legit.

2) The Lions are getting the No. 1 seed

The 8-1 Eagles currently hold the top seed in the NFC, but check out their remaining schedule:

Sure, those final three games look accommodating, but the next five weeks are an absolute mine field.

Meanwhile, check out what's on tap for the Lions, who currently hold the No. 2 seed and are nipping at the Eagles' heels at 7-2:

This Honolulu Blue crew should rampage through that remaining slate. These are not the same old Lions. Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes have deftly turned around this long-suffering franchise, and I think -- wait for it -- the NFC will go through Detroit in January. No joke.

3) The Bills are cooked

Monday's home loss to an inferior Denver team was the straw that broke the camel's back, at least for me. Back in the preseason, I had Buffalo representing the AFC in the Super Bowl. Now, I can't even see the 5-5 Bills making the playoffs. That was just such a crushing defeat -- and Buffalo's third loss in the last four games.

Why would Sean McDermott send an all-out blitz with Denver out of field goal range, facing a third-and-10 with half a minute remaining? The resulting outcome, a pass interference by Bills DB Taron Johnson, gave the Broncos an easy field-goal attempt for the win. And to make it even more painful, Denver K Wil Lutz missed the 41-yarder ... but Buffalo inexplicably had 12 men on the field, giving Lutz a second attempt from 36. He didn't miss.

Josh Allen, who's been loose with the football all season, had three more turnovers on Monday. And on Tuesday, offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey lost his job. With Buffalo sitting at .500 and staring at a pretty daunting schedule down the stretch, you have to wonder if this is just the beginning of some significant changes for one of the most disappointing squads thus far in 2023.

4) The 49ers are back

Rough time for the haters. So, you're telling me you get LT Trent Williams and WR Deebo Samuel back in the lineup, and suddenly the sky isn't falling in San Francisco. Who'd have thunk it?

After starting 5-0 and looking like the best team in football, the 49ers suffered three straight losses before the Week 9 bye. Once they had time to rest, they clearly got right. San Francisco traveled to Jacksonville this past weekend to face a Jaguars team riding a five-game winning streak. The result was something: a 34-3 waxing of the home squad that, honestly, could have been even more lopsided. Statement made: San Francisco is BACK. In fact, these Niners suddenly might be better than ever.

With his weaponry back in place, Brock Purdy directed the offense with aplomb once again, carving up Jacksonville with a nearly perfect day from the pocket: 19-for-26 for 296 yards and three touchdowns, giving him a career-high 148.9 passer rating. Meanwhile, the defense looked back to its dominant self, with trade acquisition Chase Young boosting the edge pressure opposite Nick Bosa.

Some wavered on this team during the rough patch, when the injury bug bit hard. Not me. My projection for these 49ers remains the same as it was back in the preseason: Super Bowl LVIII champions.

5) The Cowboys are real

How 'bout THESE Cowboys?! I know the Giants are in a moribund state these days, but Mike McCarthy's squad did what good teams do, blowing a clearly inferior opponent off the field. It was another inspiring effort for a Dallas team that's done a better job taking care of business of late.

Since the Week 5 no-show at San Francisco, the 'Boys have gone 3-1, with the lone loss being a game effort that fell just short in Philadelphia. With 11 touchdown passes over the past three weeks, Dak Prescott is on a true heater. So is CeeDee Lamb, who just became the first receiver since at least 1970 with 10-plus catches and 150-plus receiving yards in three straight games, per NFL Research.

Dallas ranks top five in scoring/total offense and scoring/total defense. This is a well-rounded roster that's gaining confidence. The Cowboys have ultimately proven to be paper tigers many times in seasons past. I don't sense that this time around.

6) The Vikings are real

I'm obsessed with Josh Dobbs' Cinderella story. And I do NOT expect the 28-year-old quarterback to turn into a pumpkin. Dobbs is smart and talented -- and now he's receiving the savvy tutelage of Kevin O'Connell, who looks like a prime Coach of the Year candidate for the second straight season. Oh, and Justin Jefferson is coming back soon. Rookie WR Jordan Addison and veteran TE T.J. Hockenson have been stellar in JJ's absence, but I can't wait to see Minnesota (6-4) with all three talented pass catchers at Dobbs' disposal.

Meanwhile, Brian Flores has done a fine job turning around the Vikings' defense in his first year as the unit's coordinator. Over the past seven weeks, Minnesota has held five opponents to 19 points or fewer. This has allowed the Vikes to go 6-1 during this span, tossing them right back into the playoff picture despite some crippling injuries to the offense.

With the Broncos, Bears and Raiders on deck, Minnesota can extend its current win streak to eight games. I love this team. Talking to O'Connell last week on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," I could feel the coach's great energy. It's palpable. The second-year head man has quickly established a winning culture in Minnesota, and I truly believe.

7) Antonio Pierce is real

I love AP. And I love Raider Nation. The energy boost following Josh McDaniels' firing is real and spectacular, with the Silver & Black winning two straight games to get back to .500.

Now, unfortunately, the Raiders (5-5) can't play the flawed New York teams every week. But it's great to see RB Josh Jacobs return to form as Las Vegas' offensive engine. And you can't tell me Davante Adams hasn't looked much happier over the past two weeks.

So, can Pierce eventually shed the "interim" part of his head-coaching title and get the permanent nod? I wouldn't bet against him. In fact, I won't bat an eye if the Raiders finish this season around 9-8, leaving the lifeless version of this group in the past by admirably competing every week. Given what Pierce inherited a couple weeks ago, if Vegas finishes this campaign with a winning record, the former Pro Bowl linebacker deserves serious consideration to lead this franchise into 2024 and beyond.

8) The Giants are getting a top-two pick

I think the 1-8 Panthers are indeed the worst team in football, but sadly, they already traded away their 2024 first-round pick to the Bears. Thus, the Panthers will not be picking in the top two -- but I believe the 2-8 Giants will be.

Losers of three straight, New York has completely come apart on both sides of the ball. With Daniel Jones and Tyrod Taylor injured, the offense is led by quarterback Tommy DeVito, an undrafted rookie who's clearly in above his head. Meanwhile, Wink Martindale's defense, which showed some mettle in October, has given up 79 points over the past two weeks, yielding a whopping 640 yards of offense to rival Dallas this past Sunday. The Giants are bickering on the sidelines and to the press. It's not a good scene.

With Kyler Murray back in the fold, I believe the Cardinals (2-8) will win more games. Meanwhile, you have to imagine Bill Belichick will be able to coax at least another victory or two out of the 2-8 Patriots, right? But with this Big Blue team, I just don't see reason for optimism. It's a lost season. On the bright side, though, this could lead to the organization landing an actual franchise quarterback next April.

9) The Bengals MUST win Thursday night

Week 11 starts out with a bang: Bengals at Ravens on Thursday Night Football. With Joe Burrow back to good health, Cincinnati appeared to be back as an AFC power. But then the Bengals suffered Sunday's home defeat to the Texans, dropping the team to 5-4 on the season. At the moment, when it comes to the playoff picture, Cincy's on the outside looking in.

If the Bengals still want to claim a third straight AFC North title, they kind of NEED a win in Baltimore. Not only do the Ravens hold a 1.5-game lead over the Bengals, but they already beat them back in Week 2. Thus, Thursday night is a monster showdown in the NFL's best division race.

And shoot, if the Bengals fall to 5-5, they're going to be fighting an uphill battle just to get into the playoffs. Cincinnati is 1-4 against AFC teams, which certainly doesn't help in tiebreaker scenarios. Zac Taylor's squad has Super Bowl potential, but you can't win the Lombardi Trophy if you don't make the tournament in the first place.

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