Happy New Year! Unless you root for the Jets or Commanders, who joined the ranks of the eliminated.
For some NFL teams, the first day of 2023 was Sunday Funday. For others? A depressing way to ring in the new year.
Fresh off the penultimate Sunday of the 2022 regular season, it's time for another round of winners and losers, Schein Nine style.
The Giants are in the playoffs! I repeat: The Giants are in the playoffs!! Do not overlook the impressiveness of this accomplishment in Year 1 of a new regime, with New York returning to the postseason for the first time in six seasons -- and just the second time since the G-Men won Super Bowl XLVI in February of 2012 -- with Sunday's 38-10 dismantling of Indianapolis.
When Big Blue hired Brian Daboll and Joe Schoen to serve as head coach and general manager, respectively, I showered the organization with praise. After Tom Coughlin brought the franchise two Lombardi Trophies in his dozen years as head man, the Giants fell into the coaching abyss, cycling through Ben McAdoo, Pat Shurmur and Joe Judge over a six-season span. Dave Gettleman didn't help matters, either, replacing Jerry Reese as general manager in December of 2017 and proceeding to deploy dated, short-sighted roster-building strategies. The Daboll-Schoen pairing represented a much-needed step into the modern football world, but I thought it would take time to see the fruits of their labor.
Instead, New York's new leadership put together a brilliant coaching staff and immediately established a fresh culture. Daboll, a true quarterback guru, lifted Daniel Jones to new heights by unleashing his legs and reining in his erratic ball security. The former No. 6 overall pick is easily playing the finest football of his NFL tenure, with career bests in completion percentage (67.2), yards per attempt (6.8) and passer rating (92.5). Not to mention, "Danny Dimes" suddenly has a clutch gene: In his first three seasons, Jones totaled three game-winning drives; in his first campaign under Daboll, he already has five.
The Giants posted double-digit losses every year from 2017 through 2021. Now they're one positive result shy of double-digit wins. It's an exceptional feat and proof that the right management can equal wins -- immediately. Just wait until Schoen digs out of his inherited cap hell and re-stocks the shelves with functional, win-now talent.
In this space last week, I ranked Green Bay as the eighth-most-likely team to win Super Bowl LVII. This placement raised many eyebrows, especially with the Packers sitting one spot ahead of the 12-win Vikings. Then Minnesota went out to Lambeau and got blown off the field, 41-17. The Vikes have split their past four games, while the Pack are riding a four-game winning streak.
Remember the talk entering December that Green Bay should just shut down Aaron Rodgers for the season and give Jordan Love a trial run? A month later, the Packers can punch their postseason ticket with a home win over the Lions in Sunday's regular-season finale. And you better believe Green Bay is going to do just that, logging a fifth straight win with this new formula for success: a stout defense, a potent run game and a legendary quarterback making key plays.
Green Bay's defense was flying around the field in Sunday's beatdown of Minnesota, causing the Vikings to cough up a season-worst four turnovers, including the 75-yard pick-six that gave the Packers a double-digit lead they'd never relinquish. Cornerback Jaire Alexander talked a big game ... and then played even bigger, completely shutting down Justin Jefferson, who finished the game with just one catch. Meanwhile, running backs Aaron Jones (14 rushes for 111 yards) and AJ Dillon (12/41/1) really paced the Packers' offense. Rodgers wasn't exactly prolific with 159 yards passing, but he made plays -- with his arm and legs -- when need be, hammering home the 24-point victory.
The Packers are going to win Sunday and hit the playoffs without a loss since November, effectively assuming the role of "the team nobody wants to play."
When Pittsburgh hit the Week 9 bye at 2-6, Mike Tomlin appeared destined to finally suffer his first losing season as Steelers head coach in Year 16. Not so fast! With a 6-2 mark since the off week, Pittsburgh's one victory away from not only extending Tomlin's streak, but possibly sneaking into the playoffs. If the Steelers beat the visiting Browns, the Jets win at Miami and the Patriots lose in Buffalo, Pittsburgh nabs the No. 7 seed. That's definitely possible, and what a turnaround it'd be -- especially for a franchise transitioning from a Hall of Famer to a rookie at the game's most important position.
Maybe life after Ben Roethlisberger won't be so rough after all. For the second straight week, Kenny Pickett threw a game-winning touchdown pass in the final minute. In Week 16's 13-10 win over Las Vegas, the first-round pick hit fellow rookie George Pickens for the deciding score. In Sunday's 16-13 win over Baltimore, he delivered a scrambling, off-platform dime to second-year back Najee Harris for the win. Notice a trend here? That's right, the Steelers are undergoing a youth movement on offense -- and winning games along the way.
The lesson here is simple: Do NOT bet against Mike Tomlin, regardless of his record or roster.
Tom Brady and Mike Evans made sweet music in their first two seasons together, connecting on 27 touchdowns in 2020 and '21. But Evans came into Sunday without a touchdown grab since Week 4 -- a career-long scoring drought of 11 games. Then the dam broke in spectacular fashion, with Evans notching three TDs and 207 yards on 10 catches in the NFC South-clinching, 30-24 win over Carolina. Brady finished with a season-high 432 yards passing, efficiently completing 75.6 percent of his throws in a comeback victory that saw Tampa Bay overcome an 11-point, fourth-quarter deficit.
Seeing Brady and Evans rekindle their chemistry was encouraging, though not entirely surprising. After all, we're talking about the greatest quarterback of all time and a receiver who's now eclipsed 1,000 yards in each of his nine NFL seasons. But the biggest play of the game came via Tampa Bay's rookie punter, Jake Camarda. With 42 seconds remaining and the Bucs clinging to a six-point lead, Camarda scooped up a bad snap, avoided multiple Panthers as he scampered toward the sideline, then supplied a perfect punt under duress. The Buccaneers were called for an ineligible player downfield, but Camarda's ability to just get the kick off was absolutely critical. And after Carolina accepted the penalty, Camarda abruptly boomed a punt that was fair caught at the Panthers' 8-yard line. Three plays later, the game was over. Pretty clutch, rook. It's not hyperbolic to say the punter just saved Tampa Bay's season.
Sunday was a big day for Tom Brady ... and Bill Belichick. Frankly, neither the Buccaneers nor Patriots have looked very good all season. Yet Tampa Bay just punched its ticket to the postseason tourney, while New England now controls its own destiny following Sunday's 23-21 win over the spiraling, injury-riddled Dolphins. With a victory at Buffalo this week, the Pats are dancing.
Do I think New England will get that win over the rival Bills? No, I don't. But what do I know? I predicted these Patriots would hit rock bottom back in the preseason, forecasting a 14th-place finish in the AFC pecking order. Led by a top-notch, playmaking defense that recorded its franchise-record seventh touchdown of the season on Sunday, New England has served me a plentiful dish of crow this season.
The Jets are officially eliminated from the playoffs, and they went out with an inexplicable whimper, sleepwalking in Seattle. New York was stunningly flat as a pancake in the 23-6 loss, extending its postseason drought to 12 years, the longest active streak in the NFL.
With the season hanging in the balance, Mike White turned into a pumpkin, completing just 23 of his 46 passes for 240 yards, with zero touchdowns, two picks and a lost fumble. The journeyman quarterback wasn't helped by offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, who called another horrible game for an attack that's totaled nine points in the last eight quarters, failing to score a single touchdown over the past two games. Head coach Robert Saleh doesn't escape blame, either -- not when his team crumbles to pieces with five straight losses in the stretch run, not when his defense gives up a season-high 198 rushing yards in a must-win spot.
This roster is loaded with young talent on both sides of the football, but there's clearly an enormous question mark at the quarterback position. And given how this season came apart down the stretch, the coaching staff might be due for an offseason shakeup.
Ron Rivera's team is cooked, whether he knows it or not. With a 24-10 home loss to Cleveland on Sunday, Washington hasn't won a game in over a month. After entering December with a 7-5 record, the Commanders completely spit the bit and officially missed the playoffs.
It was fitting that Carson Wentz took the QB loss in the season-dooming defeat. Remember when Washington sent Indianapolis valuable draft currency for Wentz's services? Strange then, downright laughable now. Wentz threw three picks in Sunday's loss, with the FedExField crowd routinely chanting for Taylor Heinicke to retake the reins. But that's no long-term solution, either.
Washington must be in the quarterback business again this offseason. And frankly, this team needs to learn how to finish, as the Commanders let a golden opportunity to make the playoffs slip away.
One week ago, when I said Green Bay had a better chance to win the Super Bowl than Minnesota, Vikings fans were apoplectic. Twitter tough guys were all over me. Strangely, though, it's been very quiet on these streets since Sunday evening. You know, in the aftermath of Green Bay's 41-17 demolition of Minnesota.
Minnesota's defense is awful. It has been all season, ranking 31st in points and yards allowed after its latest debacle. And Kirk Cousins remains untrustworthy in big spots -- like Sunday's rivalry bout in Lambeau Field, where the veteran QB threw three picks and lost a fumble. This team has legit flaws. That said ...
... I'm not going to join the increasing chorus of voices screaming that the Vikings are fraudulent. They've earned their division title. But when it comes to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy next month? Yeah, I just can't see it. At all.
The No. 1 seed in the NFC remains up in the air, thanks to the Saints marching into Philadelphia and knocking off the Eagles, 20-10. Heck, the NFC East isn't even locked up yet, with 12-4 Dallas hot on Philly's heels. Now, the Eagles can still take the division title and secure a first-round postseason bye with a win over the Giants on Sunday, but that's no guarantee. And seeing how Philadelphia owns New Orleans' first-round pick in April's draft, Sunday's Saints win hurt that Eagles draft stock. Just an annoying result all around.
The good news: NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported on Monday that QB Jalen Hurts is expected to return to action for the regular-season finale after missing two games with a shoulder ailment. A top MVP candidate before his injury, Hurts' absence significantly hindered the Eagles' explosive offense, especially in the ground game.
The bad news: The Eagles have lost consecutive games for the first time this season, and suddenly don't look like the all-around juggernaut from just a few weeks ago. Will Hurts take time to get back into his midseason groove? Because time is in short supply entering Week 18. With home-field advantage riding on this coming weekend's results, Hurts and Co. need to kick it back into gear right now.