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The Schein Nine

49ers still NFC's team to beat? Chiefs broken? Bills poised to leapfrog Dolphins? Hot takes on hot topics!

Upset specials! Sensational individual performances from unexpected sources! A major shakeup in the MVP race!

Yes, the long Christmas weekend was a true gift to football fans, full of surprises small and large. Thank you, Santa, for delivering the goods -- even if the experience proved quite humbling for this takesman ...

Heading into Week 16, I loved San Francisco to beat Baltimore, Pittsburgh to lose to Cincinnati, and Dallas to handle business in Miami. Absolutely not, no chance and nope. I also envisioned statement showings from the Vikings and Colts. Both, of course, lost.

This is why the NFL is the best: The parity-driven league always keeps you on your toes.

And with just two weeks remaining in the 2023 regular season, I'm bubbling over with opinions. (Shocking, I know.) So, here are my hottest takes on the hottest topics, Schein Nine style!

1) Brock Purdy's MVP candidacy is over

As a voter in the Associated Press' NFL awards, I've been thinking a lot about this wide-open race lately. And Purdy's four-pick puke fest in a marquee matchup against the Ravens on Christmas night effectively ended his chances of taking home the hardware. That kind of dud -- coming this late in the season, in a prime-time island viewing window -- is just impossible to overcome.

Now, remember: The AP changed its MVP voting process last year, asking us to rank our top five selections. And barring another Purdy pickapocalypse in the final two weeks of the regular season, the 49ers quarterback will probably receive a slot on the back end of my ballot, likely behind Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott and his San Francisco teammate, Christian McCaffrey, in some order. Tyreek Hill, Josh Allen and potentially C.J. Stroud are a few other names I could see in my final top five. But yeah, Purdy's chances of fronting the list died on Monday night.

This was a nightmare showing, at home, in a HUGE spot. Frankly, it made Purdy's biggest supporters -- like me -- look terrible. That wasn't his only bad outing of the season, either, as he posted a 3:5 TD-to-INT ratio and 77.9 passer rating during San Francisco's three-game losing streak in October. And while Purdy struggled mightily against Baltimore, McCaffrey piled up 131 more scrimmage yards and another touchdown, underscoring the notion that CMC is indeed the best and most valuable Niner.

Meanwhile, Lamar played like an MVP on the road against the Super Bowl favorites. If he continues to roll this Sunday against Miami and in Week 18 vs. Pittsburgh, he'll likely top my ballot.

2) 49ers are still the NFC team to beat

OK, now that I straightened things out on the MVP front, I need to reiterate my continued believe in these 11-4 49ers. No, I do not think Purdy just turned into a pumpkin. And no, I do not believe Baltimore revealed any fatal flaws with San Francisco. I still strongly feel that the Niners -- my Super Bowl pick throughout this past offseason -- are the class of the NFC. This team combines incredible talent with savvy coaching, possessing the ability to win any style of fight.

I still like Dallas (10-5) a lot, but the Cowboys' road issues are impossible to ignore and their defense isn't as dominant as expected. Detroit (11-4) is such a fun team on the rise, but I am not ready to believe these upstart Lions can beat the established Niners in the playoffs. I love the resurgent Rams (8-7), but they aren't true title contenders in my eyes.

And then there's Philadelphia ...

3) Eagles will not return to Super Bowl

Sure, the Eagles snapped a three-game losing streak, but they didn't exactly light the world on fire in a 33-25 win over the Giants. It was another unimpressive victory from Philadelphia, just like when the Eagles beat the Patriots, Vikings and Commanders (twice) earlier in the year. The defending NFC champions just haven't looked the part for most of this season, despite a nice 11-4 mark.

The defense is shockingly unreliable, especially in the back end. (If Matt Patricia is the answer, I'd love to know the question.) Jalen Hurts has been a tad off this year -- in fact, his 18 turnovers already nearly equal the number of giveaways he recorded in 2021 and '22 combined (19) -- while the Eagles' run game is inconsistent. The vibes just aren't flowing in Philly.

At the moment, I think the Eagles would lose to the 49ers, Cowboys, Lions, Rams in the postseason.

4) Chiefs are not a Super Bowl team

Speaking of bad vibes, Kansas City's suddenly churning 'em out at a prolific rate. Maybe the most telling symbol of my lack of confidence in this 9-6 team right now: I never -- not for one moment on Monday -- thought the Chiefs would erase a second-half deficit and beat the Raiders. It was Patrick Mahomes (the reigning MVP) and the Chiefs (the reigning Super Bowl champions) playing a division rival at Arrowhead Stadium (one of the league's most hostile venues for away teams), and yet ... Once Las Vegas went into the half with a two-score lead, the game felt over. And it was. How far the mighty have fallen.

Andy Reid's offense remains stuck in the mud, with the Chiefs ranking outside of the top 10 in scoring. Mahomes can't consistently find his receivers, and when he does, they drop the ball at an alarming rate. It's wild to see, and the frustration is clearly growing on the Kansas City sideline.

Mahomes overcame the loss of Tyreek Hill in as impressive a manner as possible -- earning his second Super Bowl ring -- but now it feels like the chickens are coming home to roost.

5) Matthew Stafford will log a playoff win

I've long argued that Stafford is a Hall of Famer, and his sensational efforts this season certainly further my case. Since missing the Week 9 loss in Green Bay with a thumb injury, the 35-year-old has guided the Rams to five wins in six games, posting a 15:2 TD-to-INT ratio and 107.7 passer rating in the process. The only loss in that span: an overtime defeat at Baltimore in which Stafford cooked the Ravens' stellar defense through the air with 294 passing yards and three touchdowns.

Stafford's rapport with Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua is special. Kyren Williams is the perfect complement in the backfield. Sean McVay is an absolute stud and very much at the top of my mind in the Coach of the Year race.

The 49ers already clinched the NFC West, so the Rams -- who currently hold the No. 6 seed -- will be forced to hit the road if they make the playoffs. I think they will punch a postseason ticket and log a postseason win because I believe so greatly in No. 9. Stafford in Philly on Wild Card Weekend? I'd take the Rams to win. Stafford back in Detroit? Well, that'd be an epic showdown in Motown -- and I'd have to side with the Lions' old signal-caller over Jared Goff.

6) Joe Flacco will log a playoff win

Just over a month ago, Flacco abandoned the couch to join Cleveland's practice squad. Now he has the Browns riding a three-game winning streak, having forged immediate bonds with Amari Cooper (SEE: franchise-record 265 receiving yards last week) and David Njoku (four touchdowns in the past three contests). This is truly one of the most remarkable tales in the NFL this season. And I do NOT think the clock is about to strike midnight in Cleveland.

With Kevin Stefanski brilliantly manning the controls, Flacco is able to exploit Cleveland's weaponry like no Browns quarterback has in years. And this team is built on complementary football, with Myles Garrett leading the way for Jim Schwartz's top-ranked defense. A shutdown D is portable come playoff time -- as in, you can take it anywhere.

Currently holding the AFC's No. 5 seed at 10-5, the Browns would visit Jacksonville if the season ended today. Flacco just shredded the scuffling Jags a few weeks ago. What if Cleveland has to face Kansas City in the opening round? Well, I already discussed how underwhelming these Chiefs look, even at Arrowhead.

7) Dolphins lose out; Bills win AFC East

The Tua Tagovailoa truthers can stop tweeting at me. I also believe in Tua -- always have.

That said, I hated Tua ranting last week about keeping receipts when he should have been singularly focused on preparing for the Cowboys. Thankfully for the Dolphins, Jason Sanders made all five of his field goal attempts -- including three from 50-plus yards out -- and Miami won, proving my aforementioned Dallas pick wrong. Congrats, but ...

I still see Miami (11-4) losing this week's game in Baltimore and next week's showdown with Buffalo. Assuming the Bills (9-6) take care of the lowly Patriots this Sunday in Buffalo, they'd lock up a fourth straight AFC East title by beating the Fins in the regular-season finale. Sounds about right to me.

This isn't disrespect to Miami. I had Buffalo making the Super Bowl all offseason, and while the Bills started to come apart in October and November, they've clicked back into form with three straight wins in December. And remember what happened the last time these two division rivals got together back in Week 4? The Bills handed the Dolphins their first defeat of the season, rolling to a 48-20 win just a week after Miami had dropped a 70-burger on Denver.

8) Antonio Pierce deserves to be Raiders' permanent head coach

As an interim head coach, earning the permanent job is an uphill battle. Frankly, there are times when the interim earns the gig, but doesn't receive it. Miami looks like it finally has a keeper in Mike McDaniel, but did the Dolphins regret not initially seeing Dan Campbell's genius when he acquitted himself pretty well in a trial run last decade? Carolina opted against keeping Steve Wilks despite his spirited job in the interim role last season ... and then the Panthers fired the new guy 11 games into this season. And of course, the Raiders rallied behind Rich Bisaccia to make the playoffs after Jon Gruden's abrupt resignation in 2021, but they ultimately chose to hire Josh McDaniels, whose midseason firing gave Pierce this opportunity in Las Vegas.

Pierce is raw as an in-game coach, but he's done a terrific job in swiftly changing the culture while posting a 4-3 mark in the big chair. He's had some excellent wins, with the Raiders putting up 63 points on the prime-time stage two Thursday ago and then beating the Chiefs in Kansas City on Monday. The man is making his case!

Retainment is always a long shot, but Pierce was a smart, winning player in this league -- and I think he can continue that success as a head man. Perhaps the Raiders' most promising setup for a new regime is already in place, with Pierce and interim GM Champ Kelly leading the charge.

9) Baker Mayfield deserves to win Comeback Player of the Year

I love this storyline. Honestly, I didn't take Tampa Bay too seriously until the gutsy Week 14 win at Atlanta. That got my attention. And then Baker's historic game at Lambeau one week later forced me to snag a seat on the Buccaneer bandwagon.

Mayfield has been a revelation for the Bucs, building quite a rapport with Mike Evans while closing in on career highs in passing yards and passing touchdowns. His arm strength, accuracy and leadership are on full display, and consequently, Tampa sits alone atop the NFC South at 8-7. Talk about a career resurrection!

Seventeen months ago, the Browns sent their former No. 1 overall pick to the Panthers for a conditional fifth-rounder. After going 1-5 as Carolina's starter last season, Mayfield was cut by the Panthers, allowing the Rams to take the quarterback for a quick, 2-3 spin as they played out the string on a lost season. This past March, Mayfield signed a one-year prove-it deal in Tampa with a base salary of $4 million. And now he's enjoying what could be his best season yet.

This is the ultimate Horatio Alger story, and I'm here for it. Comeback Player of the Year is the league's most nebulous award, but Baker sure offers up a compelling case.

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