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The Schein Nine

Nine takes that WON'T change in NFL's stretch run: Bills are AFC team to beat; Patrick Mahomes is MVP

With five Sundays left in the 2022 regular season, the NFL remains deliciously unpredictable. Week-to-week volatility spawns capriciousness on the analysis front, with league observers changing takes more frequently than they change underwear.

However, it does appear some aspects of this football campaign are crystalizing, at least to these eyes. I'm getting more and more bullish on the prospects of certain teams and individual players.

With that in mind, I'd like to supply a series of opinions that will NOT change during the stretch run. Here are the takes that you can take to the bank, Schein Nine style!

1) Buffalo is the team to beat in the AFC

Buffalo opened up Week 13 with a 24-10 win at New England on Thursday Night Football. On Sunday, Kansas City fell short in Cincinnati and Miami lost at San Francisco. Those three results vaulted the Bills back up to the No. 1 seed in the AFC -- right where they should be.

Buffalo had fallen onto the wild-card line during a challenging November that included back-to-back three-point losses to the Jets and Vikings, injuries to Josh Allen and Von Miller, and a record snowstorm that forced the team to play a "home" game at Detroit's Ford Field. But here the Bills are, back atop the conference. And they're here to stay, boasting the AFC's most well-rounded roster.

Allen showcased his special abilities during a host of plays in last Thursday's dismantling of the Patriots, but just as importantly, the Bills got plus production from their running backs, with rookie James Cook eclipsing 100 yards from scrimmage. Meanwhile, Buffalo's defense completely stifled New England, holding the Pats to just 242 total yards of offense.

Currently riding a three-game winning streak, the Bills (9-3) now face back-to-back bouts against strong AFC East foes in the 7-5 Jets and 8-4 Dolphins, but both of those games are taking place in the comfy confines of Highmark Stadium. And then there's the enormous Week 17 trip to Cincinnati for a Monday Night Football game against the reigning AFC champions.

This is no cake walk, but Buffalo is the most talented all-around team in the AFC -- and the Bills will prove that with a rollicking finish to the regular season, setting them up for a Super Bowl run.

2) The NFC race goes through Philly ...

Philadelphia just bullied Tennessee in a 35-10 statement win. Physicality is the calling card of Mike Vrabel's Titans, but the Eagles took them to the woodshed with a dominant display on both sides of the ball. Jalen Hurts continued his eye-opening superstar turn with a season-high 380 passing yards and four total touchdowns, while A.J. Brown torched his former team with eight catches for 119 yards and two scores. Defensively, Philly held Derrick Henry to just 30 yards on 11 carries (2.7 yards a pop) and sacked Ryan Tannehill six times.

The beauty of these Eagles is that they can beat you in so many different ways. Sunday's aerial acrobatics came one week after Philadelphia ran roughshod over Green Bay with a staggering total of 363 rushing yards. Howie Roseman put together a juggernaut and Nick Sirianni has done a great job coaching it up to win any style of fight. The Eagles can pass, they can run and the defense has playmakers on all three levels, with a truly special group in the back end.

Now, I'm not crowning Philly as an unquestioned NFC king. Dallas is really rounding into form as a complete team, while San Francisco has one of the best units in football (more on these two teams in a moment). But at 11-1 with a tiebreaker over the NFC's lone 10-2 club (Minnesota), the Eagles are going to secure the No. 1 seed. Question is, what will they do with it?

3) ... but the Cowboys can beat the Eagles

The 9-3 Cowboys aren't going to catch the Eagles in the race for the division title and No. 1 overall seed in the NFC, but I like Dallas to hand Philadelphia a loss in the teams' Christmas Eve showdown at Jerry World. And that could set the stage for an epic rubber match in January.

Don't forget: When the Eagles beat the Cowboys 26-17 back in Week 6, Dallas was operating with Cooper Rush at quarterback. While the Cowboys' backup QB performed admirably in his first four games of relief, he threw three picks in that loss to the Eagles. Dak Prescott came back from injury the following week, and he's posted some sparkling numbers since, completing 71 percent of his throws with a 103.8 passer rating. In related news, Dallas has gone 5-1 since Dak's return, averaging a whopping 37.2 points per game.

Sure, the Cowboys played with their food a bit on Sunday night, entering the fourth quarter with a 21-19 lead over the sub-.500 Colts. Then Dallas reeled off five unanswered touchdowns, becoming just the third team in league history to score 33 or more points in the fourth quarter of a game, per NFL Research. Final score: 54-19.

This team could definitely peak at just the right time.

4) The 49ers boast the NFL's best defense

The unit is so good, in fact, that I refuse to eliminate the 49ers (8-4) from Super Bowl contention, even in the wake of Jimmy Garoppolo's season-ending foot injury.

Miami arrived in Santa Clara with a five-game winning streak, having hit the 30-point mark in each of the past four contests. Tua Tagovailoa's numbers during that streak: 69.8 completion percentage, 11:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 119.7 passer rating. Pristine stuff! And then Tua opened up Sunday's game with a 75-yard touchdown pass to Trent Sherfield on the very first play from scrimmage. It appeared he was on his way to another banner performance.

But that was basically the end of the Dolphins' offense for the day. Despite losing Jimmy G after one drive, San Francisco cruised to a 33-17 win. Sacked three times and harassed throughout, Tua turned the ball over three times in his worst game of the season. Tagovailoa has enjoyed a breakthrough season in Year 1 under Mike McDaniel, but the Dolphins QB was completely flummoxed against the Niners. This is the kind of impact we've come to expect from the best defense in football.

DeMeco Ryans' unit is just plain nasty, pacing the NFL in scoring defense and total defense. Nick Bosa wrecks games. With three more sacks on Sunday, he now leads the league with 14.5 on the season, putting him squarely in the Defensive Player of the Year mix. But Bosa isn't the only difference-maker on this D -- not by a long shot. Fred Warner, Jimmie Ward and Dre Greenlaw each provided significant contributions on Sunday, and Arik Armstead returned to action for the first time since Week 4. Everyone loves to marvel at all the playmakers on San Francisco's offense, but the defense is packed to the gills with talent on all three levels.

The 49ers are on to their third starting quarterback of the season: rookie Brock Purdy, the literal last pick of the 2022 NFL Draft. And yet, I still can't quit this team. The defense is just that good.

5) The Bengals are winning the AFC North

I predicted this before the season kicked off and have never wavered -- largely because of the guy under center. Joe Burrow is a certified superstar, having just improved to 3-0 against Patrick Mahomes with a 27-24 win over the Chiefs. Those third-down throws to seal the game were vintage Joe Cool. The Bengals have a truly elite quarterback, giving them a chance in any game against any opponent.

With four straight wins, Cincinnati has weathered a storm of injuries with aplomb. In addition to the quarterback's stellar offerings on a weekly basis, the Bengals have also received inspired play from a defense that is both fundamentally sound and opportunistic. And now they find themselves in a first-place tie with the Ravens at 8-4. Baltimore currently owns the tiebreaker, thanks to a win over Cincinnati back in Week 5. But seeing how Lamar Jackson just injured his knee and the Bengals will be hosting the Ravens in Week 18, I like Cincy to take the AFC North for the second straight year. And, as we saw last January, this team absolutely has what it takes to make it all the way to Super Bowl Sunday.

6) Patrick Mahomes is the league MVP

As an Associated Press voter, I will always keep an open mind. But frankly, the loss in Cincinnati actually solidified my take on Mahomes.

I don't think these Chiefs are that good or consistent in most areas. And yet, they're 9-3 with a commanding division lead and a realistic chance at winning the Super Bowl. This is because they have Mahomes and Andy Reid spinning magic on the offensive side of the ball. Leading the league in passing yards (3,808) and passing touchdowns (30), Mahomes is enjoying another majestic season. And he's doing so without Tyreek Hill. He's also doing it with his legs, as evidenced by Sunday's Michael Jordan-esque dunk move on the goal line. What a highlight-reel moment -- it's like the guy was looking to create a new NFL logo.

I argued forever that the MVP voting process needed to change, and now it has! For the first time, I'll be asked to enter my top five choices for the award, as opposed to supplying just one name. Jalen Hurts deserves a spot on my list. And guys like Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Tyreek Hill, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Jefferson, Micah Parsons and Nick Bosa merit serious consideration.

But the No. 1 slot isn't hard right now. Mahomes is the clear front-runner. I foresee the 27-year-old taking home the hardware for the second time in an already-storied career.

7) Mike White is The Guy for these Jets

The Jets lost to the Vikings on Sunday, 27-22, but don't let that lead you to believe White lost his grip on the starting job. Not at all.

Yes, after a sparkling season debut (22-for-28, 315 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions) in the 31-10 victory over Chicago in Week 12, White came back to Earth with a pair of picks on Sunday. OK, he also kept the Jets in the game with 369 passing yards at a hostile road venue. And then there's this:

"That boy a dog, for real," Jets WR Garrett Wilson said about White after the loss. "He was out there, controlling the huddle ... never letting the moment get too big. It was cool to see. Looking back on it now, it's cool to think about. I know that I'd go to war for that boy. He got something special about him."

In their travels to Minnesota, multiple Jets were spotted wearing "Mike F'in White" T-shirts. This is a thing. The Jets believe in Mike White, which stands in stark contrast to the vibes around Zach Wilson. Prior to his benching, Wilson was lacking as a player (SEE: 4:5 TD-to-INT ratio in seven starts) and a leader (remember his response to the offense scoring three points in the New England loss?). Wilson held the 2022 Jets back. White gives them the best chance going forward.

Now, I'm not making any declarative statements about White beyond this season. For now, though, he's the Energizer Bunny, the spark for Gang Green to rally around. He's the antidote to Wilson, who sucked the life out of the team. (You can argue I could've ended the previous sentence six words before I did.) With White, these Jets have a great shot to make the playoffs.

8) Vegas will be tough down the stretch

This is exactly what I expected back in July, when I said Las Vegas would win 11 games! In a 27-20 victory over the Chargers, the Raiders looked like a playoff team. Davante Adams went off -- again -- with eight catches for 177 yards and two touchdowns. Josh Jacobs further bolstered his case for Offensive Player of the Year with 144 yards and a touchdown on the ground, giving him an NFL-best 1,303 rushing yards on the season. Shoot, we even had a Chandler Jones sighting -- these days, that's like spotting Bigfoot! The big-ticket free-agent signee entered the game with just a half sack on the year, but he terrorized Justin Herbert to the tune of three sacks and five QB hits.

These are the Raiders I always expected to see! Since the humiliating loss to Indianapolis in Jeff Saturday's coaching debut dropped Las Vegas to 2-7, the team has run off three straight wins to get back on the fringes of the playoff picture at 5-7. Facing the reeling Rams this Thursday, the Raiders should make it four in a row. And they can beat New England and Pittsburgh after that. Can they knock off San Francisco and Kansas City to finish the regular season on an absolute heater? Heck, they were up 17-0 on the Chiefs earlier in the year before blowing that Monday nighter. This team has the raw talent to run with anyone when everything's clicking.

9) Detroit will be tough down the stretch

Oh, yeah. I love watching these Lions rock and roll. The Jared Goff-Amon-Ra St. Brown connection has been piping hot of late, and those two tormented Jacksonville in Detroit's 40-14 win. Goff targeted St. Brown a dozen times, racking up 11 completions for 114 yards and two scores. Meanwhile, Jamaal Williams scored his NFL-best 14th rushing touchdown, and ultra-talented D'Andre Swift provided his best outing since Week 1 with 18 touches for 111 yards and a score. Just wait until first-round pick Jameson Williams, active for the first time since tearing his ACL in the 2022 College Football Playoff National Championship Game, gets going. Detroit ranks sixth in scoring and seventh in yards -- this is no longer a fluke. Defensively, Aaron Glenn's unit has shown significant improvement after a horrendous start to the season, allowing fewer than 20 points for the third time in the past five games on Sunday. Rookie edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson is a stat-stuffing stud, with six sacks, 11 QB hits, two picks and a fumble recovery in Year 1. The Lions nailed that pick.

Dan Campbell's guys have won four of five to get to 5-7. The 10-2 Vikings and 7-5 Jets are up next, and both should be on alert. Then Detroit finishes off the season against Carolina (current record: 4-8), Chicago (3-10) and Green Bay (5-8). Could Detroit finish this season with seven or eight wins? Absolutely. And that's something, considering this team opened November at 1-6.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter.

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