It's time, once again, to separate fact from fiction, Schein Nine style.
1) The home teams are poised to win on Championship Sunday
Fiction. On both fronts. Give me both road teams to advance to Super Bowl LVII.
Cincinnati just stormed Buffalo and completely outclassed the Bills in a shockingly easy 27-10 win. The Bengals showcased their infectious swagger, savvy coaching and deep talent on both sides of the football. Most stunningly, Cincinnati's injury-riddled offensive line dominated the trenches in snowy Orchard Park, yielding just one sack while paving the way for 172 rushing yards. Of course the Bengals can beat the Chiefs in Kansas City. They did just that in last year's AFC Championship Game. And they beat them at home last month. The Bengals are a better and more well-rounded team than the Chiefs. While Joe Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase and Co. on Cincinnati's offense get most of the attention -- understandably so -- Lou Anarumo's defense is an excellent unit. The Bengals have held the opposition to fewer than 20 points in five of the past six games, with the D playing a major role in Cincy's current 10-game win streak.
San Francisco is the only team hotter than Cincinnati, boasting a win streak that hit a dozen games with Sunday's 19-12 dispatch of Dallas. The 49ers haven't lost a game since midseason trade acquisition Christian McCaffrey hit the starting lineup back in October. They have one of the NFL's best offensive minds in Kyle Shanahan, one of the hottest defensive coaches in the game in DeMeco Ryans and top-notch talent across the roster. Sending a seventh-round rookie quarterback into the terror dome of Lincoln Financial Field to face a ferocious Philly front could strike some as concerning. Not me. I'm not worried about Brock Purdy. The wise-beyond-his-years 23-year-old handles everything with aplomb.
I believe this coming Sunday will provide two classic games -- and two road victors.
2) Mahomes-Burrow is the new Manning-Brady
This is a fact. And it's quite fun.
Patrick Mahomes has been Kansas City's starting quarterback for five seasons. In related news, the Chiefs have made five straight AFC Championship Games. So essentially, K.C.'s annual starting point is Championship Sunday. Never, ever take that for granted. Mahomes, who already has a ring and a Super Bowl MVP to his name, is about to win his second regular-season MVP. He's magical, a 27-year-old with a Hall of Fame résumé. And yet ...
... Joe Burrow has his number. The Bengals QB is undefeated against his Chiefs counterpart, with statistical advantages across the board in their three career showdowns:
|Yards per attempt||9.1||7.5|
Burrow is the most awesome kind of cocky, oozing the confidence of a man who talks the talk because he routinely walks the walk. Burrow stressed all last week that the Bengals were NOT underdogs to the Bills and then guided his team to a three-score road win. In big spots, "Joe Brrrr" is a stone-cold killer. The thought of Burrow and Mahomes duking it out at Arrowhead -- with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line -- already has my heart racing. There was always a show-stopping quotient to the battles between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, with anticipation growing precipitously throughout game week. That's how I feel about Mahomes vs. Burrow.
Brady won his first six games against Manning. Burrow's halfway there, and he'll get even closer with another win at K.C. on Sunday.
3) The Bills' Super Bowl window is closed
This is fiction -- but it's a fair discussion.
This was supposed to be the Bills' season. Last season was supposed to be the Bills' season. 2020 was supposed to be the Bills' season. So far, Josh Allen's prime has produced one AFC title game appearance and zero trips to the Super Bowl.
Cincinnati deserves credit for its demolition of Buffalo, but that was a staggering no-show from the Bills on Sunday. They were outplayed, outcoached and flat as a pancake in front of the home crowd at Highmark Stadium. They got punched in the face and essentially dropped their gloves. A horribly uninspiring display that leads me to significantly adjust my priors.
Buffalo was my Super Bowl favorite during the offseason, preseason and entire regular season. But things change quickly in this league, and the AFC looks like a minefield for Buffalo. Burrow and Mahomes aren't going anywhere. Trevor Lawrence is a stud. So is Justin Herbert. The Jets clearly have a question mark at the game's most important position, but they're loaded elsewhere. If Joe Douglas nabs a worthwhile signal-caller, watch out. The Dolphins beat the Bills in Miami, then nearly beat them in Buffalo in both the regular season and playoffs, despite third-string QB Skylar Thompson starting the postseason tilt.
Sean McDermott's coaching was an issue -- again -- down the stretch this season. Buffalo still struggles to run the football and the team just seemed to fully peter out down the stretch. Brandon Beane is a gem of a general manager, and I trust he'll address roster issues this offseason. Allen remains terrific. But this team officially has a postseason block. If the Bills couldn't get it done over the past few years ...
4) The Eagles' swagger is back
Oh, yeah: Big fact. A 38-7 smackdown of the rival Giants was indeed a statement performance. While injuries sapped these Eagles of the air of invincibility that developed during their 13-1 start to the season, Sunday proved the team is healthy once again and ready to rock. The defense flew around the field, sacking Daniel Jones five times and holding New York to just 227 total yards of offense. The ground game straight ran over the Giants, piling up a whopping 268 yards and three touchdowns. Jalen Hurts didn't have to do much, but he looked healthier and contributed three total touchdowns (two passing, one rushing). At 31 points, this was the largest margin of victory in a playoff game between divisional opponents since the 1970 merger, per NFL Research.
Philly has its groove back, which is why I can't wait for this coming Sunday's epic clash at the Linc. But wait, didn't I already predict an Eagles loss? Yes, because they're running into an immovable object ...
5) The 49ers' D will be the best unit on Championship Sunday
With all due respect to Kansas City's top-ranked offense, to the well-rounded squads in Philadelphia and Cincinnati, and to San Francisco's own explosive attack ... That statement is factual.
There's a reason why DeMeco Ryans is one of the most sought-after head-coaching candidates in this cycle. His unit, which finished the regular season ranked first in total defense and scoring D, completely befuddled Dak Prescott and the Cowboys in Sunday's 19-12 triumph. Ryans has done a brilliant job in his two years as Niners defensive coordinator. Of course, GM John Lynch supplied him with plenty of talent.
With a Pro Bowler at each level -- DE Nick Bosa, LB Fred Warner and S Talanoa Hufanga -- this defense is overflowing with talent from front to back. Bosa leads the way and will be named Defensive Player of the Year next month, but the unit is littered with more impact players than I can mention in a quick-hitting blurb. LB Dre Greenlaw has enjoyed a Pro Bowl-worthy season, while CB Charvarius Ward and S Jimmie Ward do exquisite work in the back end. Shoot, Deommodore Lenoir has an interception in each of the past two weeks. San Francisco's shutdown defense is what happens when you combine a wealth of talent with inspired coaching.
With a rookie under center, the Niners need the soothing comfort of an elite defense. And that's exactly what they have.
6) The Jaguars will be back
That's a fact, Jack! I love Trevor Lawrence, who displayed his impressive skill set throughout his second NFL season. (And let's be honest: His first season was essentially lost to the Urban Meyer debacle.) The Jaguars won six of their final seven regular-season games to take the AFC South and then erased a 27-0 deficit to shock the Chargers on Wild Card Weekend, but the magical ride came to an end with a 27-20 loss at Kansas City on Saturday. Still, Lawrence hit all the right notes postgame: There was no feeling of satisfaction; it was all about making a playoff run the standard, and moving it forward next season. That's vintage Trevor Lawrence. And the marriage with Doug Pederson is a beaut.
Lawrence maximized the underrated weapons around him this season, and remember: Calvin Ridley should be in the fold next fall. The defense will get some reinforcements in the draft and free agency, but yeah, it all revolves around the franchise player in the No. 16 jersey. Lawrence makes Jacksonville a threat for years to come.
7) The Giants MUST bring back Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley
This is fiction. And the key word is must. For both players, the price has to be right.
After looking like Hall of Famer Steve Young at Minnesota on Wild Card Weekend, Jones appeared more in the mold of former Giant bust Dave Brown in Philadelphia on Saturday. Still, the 25-year-old definitely just posted the best campaign of his four-season career in Year 1 under Brian Daboll. Jones was rock solid this season, showing he can find the winner's circle pretty routinely, but he just isn't a franchise quarterback. His dual-threat ability is real, but at the end of the day, he barely averaged 200 passing yards per game, finishing the regular season with 15 touchdown throws and a 92.5 passer rating. Fine -- not franchise -- production.
Meanwhile, Barkley bounced back in a major way, making the Pro Bowl for the first time since his electric rookie season. Even so, his output hit a lull in November/December, and the soon-to-be 26-year-old has piled up a disconcerting number of injuries in his five-year career. Add that to the well-documented risks associated with running backs on a second contract, and signing Saquon to a big-money extension is far from a no-brainer.
The Giants massively overachieved in the first year for Daboll and GM Joe Schoen, but both of these men are in this for the long haul. The rebuild is not complete -- far from it. Jones and Barkley will be back if their salaries can fit into the long-term plan. They are really good players, not franchise cornerstones. Schoen and Daboll didn't draft them. Emotion is taken out. Schoen echoed as much on Monday.
"Again, this is a special team to me. It was my first year," Schoen said. "We'd like to have all the guys back, I really would, but there's a business side to it and there's rules you need to operate under in terms of the salary cap."
8) The Cowboys should make a coaching change
Straight fiction. Yes, there were the usual clock-management issues in the waning moments of Dallas' loss at San Francisco. Ezekiel Elliott at center on the final play was laugh-out-loud funny -- unless you are a Cowboys fan. And Dalton Schultz sure didn't look like a well-coached player on the final drive, making two bone-headed plays along the sideline that helped put a final nail in Dallas' coffin.
But Mike McCarthy just went 12-5 for the second straight season. He had to deal with offseason talent defections on both sides of the football, and then his starting quarterback got hurt in Week 1 and ultimately missed five whole games. The Cowboys destroyed an inferior Buccaneers team in Tampa Bay on Wild Card Weekend, then lost in San Francisco to a superior 49ers squad. McCarthy comes back.
9) Dak Prescott isn't the QB to take Dallas to the Super Bowl
I am a Prescott fan. He's a likable guy, quite easy to root for. However, he doomed his own team this season with sloppy play. He tied Davis Mills for the league lead with 15 interceptions, despite missing five games due to injury. The perfect game against Tampa on Wild Card Weekend? That was more about the Bucs being completely inept. On Sunday, Prescott threw a pair of brutal first-half picks in San Francisco, finishing the day with a lowly 63.6 passer rating -- and inherently finishing the Cowboys' season with a thud.
Here's the truth: Whatever words you use to describe Kirk Cousins, you should also use for Dak. Both put up numbers. Both can be in the 8-to-16 range of the quarterback hierarchy at any given time. But both also have big-game issues and an inability to take their respective teams to another level. Long story short, fact.