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The Schein Nine

Bold predictions for 2023 NFL season: Sam Darnold's 49ers top Jets in Super Bowl! Bill Belichick era ends!

I don't lock in my official picks and predictions for the season until the Wednesday after Labor Day -- i.e., one day before the NFL Kickoff Game. That's tradition. And a lot can happen between now and then.

But with the 2023 campaign less than 100 days away, I'm champing at the bit on the forecasting front, with prophecies coming out of my ears. Time to let 'em loose!

Heading into the summer, here are my boldest predictions for the coming season, Schein Nine style.

1) Sam Darnold beats Jets in Super Bowl

This is an attention-grabbing prediction, to say the least. But it's not unreasonable. At this point in time, it's what I feel. Allow me to explain ...

The 49ers are the best roster in the NFL, 2-53. They just need to find that No. 1. Who's poised to man the game's most important position for San Francisco? Well, Brock Purdy is currently recovering from major elbow surgery, while Trey Lance is still struggling with the forward pass. So, in the moment, that leaves Sam Darnold as The Guy. And I see that as a golden opportunity.

I've always loved Darnold's raw talent. But he was dealt a raw hand in New York and Carolina. Just ask Le'Veon Bell about Adam Gase's development -- or lack thereof -- of the former No. 3 overall pick. I always wanted to see what Darnold could do with better support. Now he's under the watchful eye of offensive genius Kyle Shanahan, flanked by immense talent on both sides of the ball. Offensively, the 49ers boast an assortment of playmakers at running back, receiver and tight end, as well as a stout O-line. Defensively, San Francisco just finished first in points and yards allowed. I think Darnold has a real chance to take this opportunity and run with it. Therefore, there's a realistic chance I ultimately pick the Niners to win the whole damn thing with my official predictions in September.

On the AFC side, I've been debating between the Bills and Jets as the conference's Super Bowl LVIII reps. But last week, I scored an exclusive interview with Aaron Rodgers on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports." And with that chat still fresh in my mind -- particularly Rodgers' visualization of his Jets winning it all like the '86 Mets -- I am indeed drinking the Gang Green Kool-Aid. The Jets have an all-time quarterback, explosive weaponry and a top-five defense. It's not hard to envision a magical season reaching into February.

So there you have it: 49ers over Jets in the Las Vegas Super Bowl. Pencil it in. And pencil Darnold into the starting lineup. Is there a chance Purdy eventually is good to go and retakes the reins? Sure. But at the outset of summer, Darnold's in the catbird seat. And I still believe he has the natural talent to take advantage of an enviable situation.

2) Saints earn NFC's No. 1 seed

On paper, the Eagles, 49ers and Cowboys are better than the Saints. But as my colleague Eric Edholm spotlighted following the schedule release, New Orleans has a spectacularly favorable schedule. That's what happens when you play in the NFC South and get to play the AFC South. Look at the sked: 13-4 feels viable for the Saints.

New quarterback Derek Carr is going to have a huge bounce-back season in the Big Easy. It's why I picked New Orleans as my Cinderella team of 2023 back in March. And as time has gone on, I've become even more bullish on these Saints. If Carr gets a healthy Michael Thomas across from second-year stud Chris Olave, this offense can fly. Dennis Allen's defense remains stout -- and could be a true force with better injury luck than last season.

Last year, the NFC South winners had a losing record (Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 8-9). This year, the division could produce the conference's best record. That's the NFL for you.

3) Cardinals don't win a game

Immediately following the schedule release, one tweet caught my attention:

So 0-17 isn't just my bold prediction here, but at the moment, it's what the betting markets expect.

OK, at first blush, a Week 1 game against the Sam Howell-led Commanders doesn't seem too daunting. But outside of the notable question mark at QB, Washington's roster isn't bad at all. This team has some real dudes on both sides of the ball. Not to mention, the season opener will take place at FedExField, in front of a pumped-up fan base with a new lease on life now that Daniel Snyder is on his way out. Meanwhile, the Cardinals appear poised to start Colt McCoy at quarterback -- and he'll no longer have the DeAndre Hopkins security blanket. Consequently, Jonathan Gannon's first game as a head coach could be a long one, setting the tone for the rest of the season.

But in the long run, maybe this isn't a bad thing.

In his first six months on the job, general manager Monti Ossenfort is clearly playing the long game. In addition to rebuilding maneuvers like the release of Hopkins, Ossenfort brilliantly managed his first draft, significantly boosting Arizona's draft capital for 2024. Oh, and by the way, next year's draft could have some generational talent at the quarterback position. Might Kyler Murray's days be numbered in Arizona? Well, there'd certainly be some substantial contract hurdles to get over. But the QB, who's currently rehabbing from a torn ACL, hasn't exactly lived up to the hype. So, if the Cardinals do secure the No. 1 overall pick in next year's draft, it could be an interesting spring in the desert.

4) Packers post second-worst record

Imagine telling Packers fans a few years ago that Green Bay would trade Davante Adams and Aaron Rodgers in back-to-back offseasons. WOOF. This all-time talent drain will ultimately lead to a long 2023 in Titletown.

Packers coach Matt LaFleur is already preaching patience with Jordan Love. That underscores my worst fears about a quarterback who seemed like a reach as a first-round pick: At best, Love is green; at worst, he's inept. Green Bay's fragile offensive line sure doesn't ease concerns, either. And Joe Barry's defense took a step back in 2022.

The 2022 Packers were eliminated from the postseason in the NFL's regular-season finale. The 2023 Packers will be cooked in November.

5) Josh Allen wins MVP

The dynamic dual-threat quarterback is locked in.

"I've seen a different Josh this offseason -- not that it was bad before, but he's got a new sense of focus and determination, which is good," Bills coach Sean McDermott said to the assembled media last week.

The quarterback agrees with this assessment.

"Just understanding our window, and I want to give everything that I have for as long as I play," Allen said. "I'm not saying that I haven't done that in the past, but there's always new ways that I can find to get better and not being complacent with what I'm doing on the field, understanding that there's a lot of plays that we left out there."

After falling short of the AFC Championship Game in each of the past two seasons, Buffalo heads into the 2023 campaign with a healthy sense of urgency. And in a highly competitive AFC East -- and a loaded AFC as a whole -- the Bills need elite play from their 27-year-old superstar week in and week out. My prediction: Allen puts the team and city on his back, authoring his best season yet.

The first-round pick of TE Dalton Kincaid helps, giving Allen a dangerous middle-of-the-field weapon to go between Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis. And the second-round pick of O'Cyrus Torrence gives Buffalo more oomph up front, especially in the run game. Speaking of which, I think James Cook will flourish as a feature back.

With an improved supporting cast, Allen will carve up the league with his arm, legs, leadership and knack for the moment. Even among the AFC's staggering cadre of superstar quarterbacks, Allen will stand out. And thus, he'll take home the top individual award.

6) Myles Garrett wins Defensive Player of the Year

I nailed this award in this space last year, correctly predicting Nick Bosa would hoist the hardware. Honestly, Bosa could go back-to-back. He's a force of nature, and the 49ers -- as detailed above -- figure to be highly relevant. But I'm really feeling a monster season from Garrett.

The trade for Za'Darius Smith and free-agent signing of Ogbo Okoronkwo gave Garrett some much-needed support in the edge-rushing department. Inherently, with opposing offenses facing more pass-blocking challenges, I could see Garrett hitting 20 sacks. Cleveland should be vastly improved in 2023, too, helping the premium QB hunter draw more of the attention he deserves.

7) Justin Jefferson makes NFL history as first 2,000-yard receiver

No wide receiver has ever hit 2K. Calvin Johnson's come the closest, posting an NFL-record 1,964 yards in 2012. Nine years later, Cooper Kupp reached 1,947 yards. In 2023, Jefferson makes history.

Shoot, it's just the natural progression of Jefferson's NFL production, from 1,400 yards in Year 1 to 1,616 yards in Year 2 to 1,809 yards last season. To reach 2,000, he needs to average just under 118 yards over 17 games. Jefferson is the kind of unstoppable force who can make that happen, especially in Year 2 of Kevin O'Connell's offense. And his new WR running mate in Jordan Addison -- Minnesota's first-round pick in April -- will help the cause by commanding more attention than the Vikings' complementary targets last season.

The Griddy will be on full display in 2023, with No. 18 dancing his way into the record books.

8) Rookie Jahmyr Gibbs leads all running backs in touchdowns

I lauded the Lions' draft a few weeks ago, specifically stating my love for the controversial Gibbs pick. Was a running back at No. 12 overall too rich for your blood? Not mine! And Gibbs is not just a running back; with legit pass-catching ability, he's a true offensive weapon with breakneck speed. He's a home run hitter, and savvy offensive coordinator Ben Johnson will exploit this to the fullest.

Jamaal Williams -- last year's NFL rushing TD king -- and D'Andre Swift are gone. While free-agent signee David Montgomery is a solid power back who could vulture some scores, Gibbs is the first-rounder. The electric playmaker will prove Lions brass correct while helping lead Detroit to big things this year.

9) Bill Belichick's final season in New England is playoff-free

I think the Bills and Jets each win at least 11 games, while the Dolphins hit double digits. The Patriots? Feels like 7-10 or 8-9, and that's actually a credit to Bill Belichick's brain. No disrespect to the best coach in football history, but this roster is a distant fourth in the AFC East. Mac Jones is average, at best. His receiving corps is subpar. Belichick's defense will be typically solid, but you need firepower in this stacked AFC.

Back in March, New England owner Robert Kraft said it's "very important" the Patriots return to the playoffs. What happens when they finish in the AFC East cellar for the first time since Belichick's first season in New England? It becomes his last season in New England.

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