The 2021 NFL season has been full of surprises, a true roller-coaster ride through the first 12 Sundays of action.
So, as we head into December, what's real and what's a mirage? Who are the contenders? The pretenders? Which individuals can we genuinely believe in?
It's that time again, folks -- time for another round of TRUE OR FALSE, Schein Nine style.
1) The Patriots will nab the AFC's No. 1 seed
It's true. Yes, I still love the Bills. They can beat the Patriots next Monday night in Buffalo. And they can indeed win the Super Bowl, as I predicted in the preseason. But at this point, anyone questioning this New England team just isn't paying attention. Not the case for me. I had the Pats making the playoffs in my preseason picks, hyped their Week 8 win over the Chargers as a huge deal, and just a few weeks ago, declared that I trusted Bill Belichick's team over Tom Brady's.
It's not just that the Patriots (8-4) have won six straight games -- it's how they're winning. Mac Jones, as predicted in this space, is enjoying a fabulous rookie season under the best coach in NFL history. Jones just posted a career-high 310 passing yards in Sunday's 36-13 beatdown of the Titans. During New England's six-game win streak, the 23-year-old quarterback boasts a 9:2 TD-to-INT ratio and a 106.4 passer rating. Of course, he's received plenty of help from a gargantuan offensive line that has really rounded into form with a clean bill of health. And with a deep backfield, the Pats have eclipsed 100 yards rushing in each of the past eight games. And then there's the defense, which is flat out fantastic. With Matt Judon harassing quarterbacks and J.C. Jackson picking 'em off, New England suddenly boasts the No. 1 scoring defense in football. During the win streak, the Patriots have yielded just 10.5 points per game.
I think New England and Buffalo will split their two showdowns over the next four weeks. That said, I think the Patriots' schedule is a smidge more favorable, and in this moment, Belichick's team is a tad bit more trustworthy. The AFC is going through Foxborough. Deal with it.
2) The Steelers are cooked
Fried. Finished. Donezo. See ya next year. The truth hurts -- even if it was completely predictable in the first place. I always thought this would be Mike Tomlin's first losing season in Pittsburgh. Told you back in May that Cincinnati would be superior -- and hey, the Bengals just completed the season sweep with a 41-10 throttling on Sunday. Now winless in their last three outings, the Steelers sit at 5-5-1. But look at their remaining schedule:
How many wins do you see there? More than one? I just cannot imagine this group going on a run down the stretch. Ben Roethlisberger is washed. The offensive line is poor. The offensive play-calling is offensive. The defense has underachieved. And on top of it all, T.J. Watt just hit the reserve/COVID-19 list. Pack it in, Pittsburgh.
3) The Bengals are the most dangerous team in the AFC North
You bet your sweet bippy this is true. This is the most balanced team in the highly competitive division. It all starts with Joe Mixon, a certified stud who ranks third in the NFL with 924 rushing yards. Squarely in his prime at age 25, Mixon followed up the 123-yard, two-touchdown destruction of the Raiders by gashing the Steelers for 165 yards and two more scores. Mixon has now scored a touchdown in eight straight games. This offense -- this team -- goes through Mixon. He helps second-year QB Joe Burrow. He helps the playmaking defense. The Bengals control the clock and bust your will. All of the elements are there for Cincy to make the playoffs and win a game or two. I really dig this team.
Cincinnati swept Pittsburgh by a combined score of 65-20. Like I said just above, the Steelers are toast. Meanwhile, Sunday night's bout between the AFC North's other two teams was an eye sore, with the Ravens grinding out a 16-10 win over the Browns. John Harbaugh and the Ravens are always strong, but it feels like something's amiss for this fine franchise. Or maybe it's just all the injuries piling up. Lamar Jackson is still one of the game's most electrifying players, but sometimes it seems like he's tasked with carrying too much of a load for this team. Maybe that's what happened Sunday night, when he threw a career-high four interceptions. The Ravens' culture and toughness is special, but they just aren't firing on all cylinders right now. They might not have enough dudes who can play. And while Lamar typically lifts Baltimore up, Baker Mayfield continues to hold Cleveland back, with the Browns eclipsing 17 points in just one of their past seven games.
Cincy's ranked sixth in scoring offense and scoring defense. Zac Taylor's team is well-rounded -- and dangerous.
4) The NFC's seven playoff teams are set
It might ultimately prove to be true, but I'm not there yet. We've had five locks for quite some time: the Cardinals, Packers, Buccaneers, Cowboys and Rams. With a reinvigorated ground game and a three-game winning streak, the 49ers are back in the playoff picture with the No. 6 seed, finally playing like the team many of us anticipated when this season kicked off.
But who's team No. 7?
The Vikings currently hold that spot, but I'm not entirely confident they can seal the deal. I was recently buying the Eagles -- given a pronounced commitment to the run game and an easy schedule -- but I regret that purchase in the wake of an uninspired loss to the lowly Giants.
I guess I'll just go back to my preseason pick of the Saints. That was actually looking quite good before everyone got hurt. But I'll trust Sean Payton to work his magic and find a way for the Saints to nab that last wild-card bid.
5) The Panthers are making the right call in sticking with Cam Newton
False. I'm surprised it's happening, to be honest. Matt Rhule benched Cam in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 33-10 loss at Miami. The former MVP's stat line was grotesque: 5 of 21 for 92 yards with zero touchdowns and two interceptions. That's a 23.8 percent completion rate. That's a 5.8 passer rating. That's simply amateur hour.
But in the postgame, Rhule announced that Newton would remain the starter. Why? Cam has been shot for years.
Look, I understood the original reunion. With Sam Darnold being injured -- and before that, awful -- Carolina was looking for a spark on a season that felt like it was spiraling. But lost in the "I'm back" hoopla was the fact that P.J. Walker beat the Cardinals. The two games since then -- both Cam starts -- have been losses to Washington and Miami.
Cam was a transcendent player in the franchise's past, but he's not part of the future. So why keep pretending in the present?
6) The Eagles' quarterback of the future is on the roster
I like Jalen Hurts. I root for Jalen Hurts. But this is false. Sunday was the proof. Again, I don't like writing that, but Hurts was a double agent in Week 12, throwing three picks in an inexplicable, 13-7 loss to the Giants. The second-year pro looked lost out there, completing just 14 of his 31 throws and finishing with a 17.5 passer rating. The play-calling and Nick Sirianni's coaching were subpar on Sunday, sure, but the stinging defeat was a reminder that the Eagles don't have a stud quarterback. Speaking of which ...
This offseason could be another active one on the quarterback front, with Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson (depending on his legal situation) potentially on the move. In related news, the Eagles are loaded to the gills with draft currency that could be used to procure the services of one of those all-star quarterbacks. Or maybe they end up falling in love with a draft prospect. Either way, I just don't think Hurts has done enough to secure the long-term reins.
7) Aaron Rodgers is a top-three MVP candidate
I'm not just a host with great hair -- I'm also an AP voter. And the MVP isn't remotely close to being decided.
Having said that, Rodgers' genius, domination and overall value to this Packers team have been on display every game, including the one he missed. On Sunday, Rodgers tormented the Rams' defense with a series of "wow" throws and splash plays. Don't be surprised if/when Rodgers takes home the hardware once again. The above statement is beyond true.
8) The Rams' ALL IN approach is a failure
It's false, for now. This is a results-oriented business. Los Angeles has lost three straight. Matthew Stafford looks like Jared Goff. The chemistry isn't there. And the Rams really miss Robert Woods.
Still, it's not too late to turn it around in December, January and the playoffs. After all, this will only be judged by what the Rams accomplish -- or don't accomplish -- in the postseason. The talent is there. The coaching -- despite some goofy game management on Sunday -- is there. No excuses.
9) Firing Jason Garrett solves everything for the Giants
Oh, heck no. FALSE! NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported on Sunday that GM Dave Gettleman is unlikely to return in 2022. No surprise there. I mean, have you seen his recent drafts? Daniel Jones doesn't have it. The defense doesn't have players. The offensive line is terrible. And Sunday's win over the Eagles doesn't change the reality that the 4-7 Giants have looked consistently ill-prepared under Joe Judge.
I don't know exactly how far the changes will go, but more are coming. They must be. Big Blue is well on its way to a fifth straight season with double-digit losses. Intolerable in New York. Unacceptable for this proud franchise.