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The Schein Nine

Stretch-run fun! Jake Browning, DeMeco Ryans, Buccaneers among NFL underdogs I'm rooting for

The holidays are here!

It's a season of glee, a time for camaraderie and celebration. Thus, with today's edition of the Schein Nine, I'm stressing the positive!

I love what the Colts are doing in Shane Steichen's first season as a head coach. Joe Flacco leading a playoff contender? What year is this?! Is any team in sports more fun to watch these days than the healthy 49ers with Kyle Shanahan at the controls? And that's just the beginning of my gridiron joy. 

Like many, I'm a sucker for the underdog story. With that in mind, here are nine players, coaches and teams I'm rooting for as we hurtle down the stretch run of the 2023 NFL regular season.

Jake Browning
Cincinnati Bengals · QB

This story is simply awesome. With a nod to Seinfeld, Jake Browning is real and spectacular. Seriously!

I was skeptical at first. I thought Browning, a four-year starter at the University of Washington, could be a solid lower-level backup, but certainly not someone you'd want under center for more than a quick spell. Welp, four years after going undrafted, the 27-year-old has proven me wrong. Watching this backup quarterback light up the league is ... refreshing! Pulsating! This is Jake Browning! His general command of the game is off the charts, as evidenced by his 73.6 percent completion rate. His clutch play at winning time is scintillating (SEE: two fourth-quarter comebacks and two game-winning drives in his first four starts). I thought Cincinnati's season was over when Joe Burrow went down. Nope! Riding a three-game win streak, the Bengals currently hold a wild-card slot at 8-6.

With Ja'Marr Chase ruled out of Saturday's game in Pittsburgh, the doubters will crop back up. But I believe! With the hyper-efficient play I've seen from Browning, I expect the Bengals to take down the spiraling Steelers. Can Browning beat Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in Week 17? Of course it's possible. Browning might just be earning himself a starting job elsewhere. The man deserves so much credit. Clearly, he took full advantage of all the starter reps he received in training camp while Burrow was dealing with his calf injury. And I'm sure he'd be the first to praise Burrow and head coach Zac Taylor for all their help. Browning has improved so much since his college days. This is a terrific tale of perseverance.

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Color me obsessed. Baker Mayfield has found a new home and it's awesome. I'm an Associated Press awards voter, and the former No. 1 overall pick is my current leader for Comeback Player of the Year. After getting off to a hot start, the Buccaneers slumped at midseason, but Baker wouldn't let them die. Now Tampa's riding a three-game win streak, and Mayfield just became the first visiting quarterback to ever post a perfect passer rating at Lambeau Field. Unbelievable. And he's not the only Buccaneer to root for ...

Mike Evans continues to do what Mike Evans does: rack up 1,000-yard seasons. The man has now started his career with 10 straight! And honestly, at age 30, he appears as dominant as ever. Not a bad look in a contract season, eh? Meanwhile, I'm so happy for head coach Todd Bowles, who deserves immense credit for keeping the Buccaneers on task and getting them back in the playoff picture.

I didn't expect anything out of this team back in the preseason, and when the Bucs fell to 4-7 at the end of last month, I figured that was definitely a wrap. Now Tampa's surging at the right time, with three winnable games (vs. Jacksonville, vs. New Orleans, at Carolina) to close out the regular season. Let's keep the fun going right into the postseason tournament!

Kyren Williams
Los Angeles Rams · RB

Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp being healthy -- and inherently dominant -- is the easy explanation for the Rams' rebirth. But Williams' presence in the backfield takes this offense to a whole other level.

A fifth-round pick out of Notre Dame in 2022, Williams' rookie season was significantly abbreviated by injuries. And while he's dealt with additional ailments in Year 2, he's made a profound difference in the 10 games he's played. Per NFL Research, Williams is one of three players this season to average 100-plus scrimmage yards and score at least 10 touchdowns. The other two? Christian McCaffrey and Tyreek Hill. Not bad company to keep!

This past summer, Los Angeles coach Sean McVay came on my SiriusXM radio show, "Schein on Sports," and waxed poetic about this previously anonymous running back. Now I know why! The Rams' offense hasn't looked like this since Todd Gurley was in his prime.

Drew Lock! Going 92 yards in 84 seconds to beat the reigning NFC champs on Monday Night Football! You gotta love sports!

That final drive -- where Lock connected with DK Metcalf on a trio of highlight-reel plays and then delivered an absolute dime to rookie Jaxon Smith-Njigba for the game-winning touchdown -- is what dreams are made of. Seattle came into that game on a four-game losing streak. The Eagles took a touchdown lead into the fourth quarter, having outplayed the Seahawks most of the night. But Lock and Co. won that final period 10-0 to get the MUCH-needed victory. Now Geno Smith is back in the fold, but man did I love Lock getting his moment. The emotional postgame interview was something to behold.

It's so easy to root for head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider, given the tough, talented teams they routinely put together in the Great Northwest. Now, with remaining games against Tennessee, Pittsburgh and Arizona, Seattle can run the table!

DeMeco Ryans tn
DeMeco Ryans
Houston Texans · HC

My guy has changed everything in Houston. I loved this hire when it was made and implored everyone to hop on the DeMeco Ryans bandwagon back in May. What a job he's done in his debut season as a head coach. Nobody expected anything from the 2023 Texans, yet here they are at 8-6, squarely in the playoff race.

The injury bug is trying doing its darnedest to ruin all the fun, with Tank Dell out for the season, C.J. Stroud in concussion protocol and Nico Collins nursing a calf issue. And that's just on the offensive side of the ball! Houston's dealing with multiple health issues on defense, too. And yet, Ryans just rallied his troops for an inspiring win at Tennessee with Case Keenum under center.

With remaining games against Cleveland and Indianapolis -- two teams in direct playoff competition with Houston -- the Texans might ultimately fall short of the postseason if they can't get a cleaner bill of health. But my love and respect for Ryans will not wane. This is Year 1. I cannot wait to see what the future holds.

The Adam Schein Super Bowl is back on, baby! Bills vs. 49ers in Las Vegas? Sign me up!

OK, so Buffalo is a bit different than the other underdogs in this rundown. This team, of course, has been a powerhouse for multiple years with Josh Allen at the helm. But this season did not play out as expected over the first 10 weeks. With crippling injuries on defense and inconsistency on offense, the Bills sat at 5-5 just over a month ago, with many coming to view them as an also-ran. Buffalo started to get it together a bit before the Week 13 bye, but this group appears to be surging since the break. The Bills outlasted the Chiefs in Week 14 and then lambasted the Cowboys in Week 15. Suddenly, this looks like the team nobody wants to play.

The Bills are currently on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, but I think they can win out. Games against the Chargers and Patriots over the next two weeks should be nothing but speed bumps. The regular-season finale at Miami will present a challenge, no doubt. But with the way interim offensive coordinator Joe Brady has unlocked RB James Cook and this defense has admirably come together of late, I think this is a freight train chugging toward the postseason.

Antonio Pierce reacts to winning his coaching debut in Week 9 vs. Giants
Antonio Pierce
Las Vegas Raiders · HC

I'm personally skeptical Pierce will ultimately get the permanent head-coaching job. After all, we've seen this Raiders movie before with Rich Bisaccia. But man, I'd sure love to see AP fronting the Silver and Black in 2024 and beyond. I admired Pierce as a player and leader with the Giants. He's so smart and tough, two qualities that his Raiders reflect on the field today.

Currently 6-8, Las Vegas is a real longshot to make the playoffs. But with how this team plays under Pierce's direction, I won't be surprised if the Raiders log another head-turning win or two down the stretch. Do NOT count them out of this Monday's game in Kansas City.

Tommy DeVito
New York Giants · QB

We live in this world where every development demands an immediate and unequivocal take. And in his brief time in the NFL spotlight, DeVito's already heard it all ...

This guy STINKS! ... This guy's GREAT! ... He's costing us draft position! ... He's the savior!

It's all been said about "Tommy Cutlets." And this is actually a player I've followed and appreciated for quite some time, going back to his high school days at Don Bosco in New Jersey and on to his first college stop at my alma mater, Syracuse. Truthfully, I never expected this, but what fun it has been! It's the NFL version of "Linsanity." What fun he has been! DeVito always gives credit to coaches and teammates. And his magic, especially against Green Bay, has been inspiring.

Let's just live in the moment and enjoy this, people!

Ivan Pace Jr.
Minnesota Vikings · LB

Another superb story. An undrafted free-agent signee immediately becoming the heartbeat of a much-improved defense? I can dig.

The 2022 Vikings finished 28th in scoring defense and 31st in total defense. A season later, the Vikes rank seventh and 13th, respectively. The great Brian Flores has undoubtedly worked his magic in his first year as Minnesota's defensive coordinator, but that's no surprise to me. On the other hand, I can't get enough of this star rookie who seemingly came out of nowhere. Under Flores' watchful eye, Pace has burst onto the NFL scene as a hard-hitting, playmaking dynamo.

Minnesota's 3-0 win over Las Vegas two weeks ago wasn't the most enjoyable watch for your average football fan, but it was a thing of beauty for the Vikings' defense -- and Pace, in particular. Racking up 13 tackles, a sack and the game-sealing interception (capped off with a celebratory back flip), Pace earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

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