With just four Sundays left in the 2022 NFL regular season, the pressure's increasing across the league. And it's getting to some folks.
As playoff and division races heat up, it's time to drill down on certain teams at risk of fading into the background.
That's right: It's time to check the panic meter, Schein Nine style.
THE DREAM IS OVER
Ugh. I took the cheese on these Raiders -- again -- after three straight wins. Just last week in this space, I said Las Vegas would be tough down the stretch. Boy, was I wrong.
Going up against the Zombie Rams -- the injury-riddled defending Super Bowl champions who entered Week 14 with a six-game losing streak -- the Raiders held a 16-3 lead in the fourth quarter. The Rams' quarterback, Baker Mayfield, had literally arrived in Los Angeles on Tuesday, participating in a single practice with his new team on Wednesday before starting on Thursday. And yet, Las Vegas still found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, losing 17-16.
How does this happen? How does this keep happening? It's just the latest staggering setback in a disastrous debut season for Josh McDaniels in Vegas, but there's no coming back from this one. The Raiders are cooked, done in by their most devastating debacle yet. This was worse than blowing three-score leads against the Cardinals, Chiefs and Jaguars. This was worse than not scoring a single point vs. the Saints. And yes, this was worse than losing to the Colts in Jeff Saturday's coaching debut.
My guy Derek Carr (11-of-20 for 137 yards with zero touchdowns and two picks) was awful. The Raiders' coaching was worse. Davante Adams didn't log a single catch after halftime. How do you not scheme up plays for your best player, Josh? Defensively, Patrick Graham had the Raiders in press-man coverage during the Rams' 98-yard, game-winning drive, a reckless approach that left Mayfield "completely shocked." That pretty much sums up this season in Vegas: completely shocking.
Remember, McDaniels didn't take over this team to execute a rebuild. The Raiders won 10 games and made the playoffs last season. Then they went out and improved the roster with key additions on both sides of the ball. Yet here Las Vegas sits at 5-8, with a 3-7 record in one-score games. Boasting the game's leading rusher (Josh Jacobs), third-leading receiver (Adams) and No. 5 sack artist (Maxx Crosby), the Raiders' roster clearly has talent. McDaniels and Co. simply have failed to maximize it.
Having won three of four games since the Week 9 bye, the Steelers had a golden opportunity to keep the good times rollin' against the archrival Ravens. Not only was superstar QB Lamar Jackson sidelined by injury, but Baltimore lost replacement starter Tyler Huntley in the third quarter. No matter. Third-string QB Anthony Brown didn't need to do much of anything, as the Ravens ran roughshod over the Steelers with 42 carries for 215 yards and a touchdown, humiliating the home team with simple ground dominance in a 16-14 Baltimore win.
I know Pittsburgh lost starting quarterback Kenny Pickett to a head injury in the first quarter, but highly experienced backup Mitchell Trubisky should've been the best signal-caller on the field. Instead, he buried the Steelers with three interceptions.
Year 2 of the Matt Canada experience on offense is going worse than Year 1, with Pittsburgh currently ranking 27th in scoring and 26th in total yards. The play-calling leaves much to be desired, with the Steelers failing to exploit their best mismatch weapons. George Pickens was only targeted three times on Sunday. He recorded three catches for 78 yards. Can we feed the rookie standout a bit more, please?
These Steelers are not going to win out, meaning Mike Tomlin will post his first losing season ever.
Remember when Cleveland blasted Cincinnati 32-13 in the island-game spotlight of Monday Night Football on Halloween night? That season-high scoring output feels like a lifetime ago, with Deshaun Watson managing just three field goals and one touchdown in his first 24 drives as a Browns quarterback. Watson and Co. fell behind 20-3 at Cincinnati on Sunday, recording four three-and-outs in their first six real drives, before ultimately losing 23-10. Nick Chubb could only scrape out 34 yards on 14 carries, averaging a very un-Chubb-like 2.4 yards a pop.
While the offense was stuck in the mud, the defense basically allowed Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase to play catch. Early injuries limited Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd to a grand total of three combined snaps, but Cincy had all it needed out wide in Chase, who torched Cleveland with 10 catches for 119 yards and a score.
Cincinnati continues to look like a team on a mission. Cleveland continues to waste high-level talent.
SOUND THE ALARM
To be fair, the talent discrepancy between New York and Philadelphia was utterly apparent before the Eagles' 48-22 blowout win at the Meadowlands. The Giants just don't have the requisite dudes to hang with their one-loss division rivals at this point. Former general manager Dave Gettleman left the cupboard pretty darn bare for Brian Daboll and Joe Schoen. That's why it was stunning -- and a testament to Daboll's coaching prowess -- when Big Blue started off the season at 6-1. With one win over the past seven weeks, though, the G-Men are barely holding on to the NFC's last wild-card slot. And it's not hard to imagine them losing their grip entirely, given this remaining slate:
- Sunday, Dec. 18 (Sunday Night Football): at Washington Commanders (current record: 7-5-1)
- Saturday, Dec. 24: at Minnesota Vikings (10-3)
- Sunday, Jan. 1: vs. Indianapolis Colts (4-8-1)
- Sunday, Jan. 8: at Philadelphia Eagles (12-1)
That lone home game vs. Indy's obviously a must-win, and maybe the Giants catch a break with the Eagles resting players in Week 18. But New York's first playoff appearance since the 2016 season might just slip away.
Last week on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein On Sports," I picked Carolina to win because Carolina felt like the better team at this juncture. Despite having the 12s in this home contest, the Seahawks didn't have Kenneth Walker III (ankle injury), so the Panthers' six-point road win wasn't surprising. Neither is the fact that the 'Hawks have lost three of their last four games, falling out of the current playoff field in the process.
Like the Giants, the Seahawks significantly overachieved in the first half of the season, jumping out to a 6-3 mark at the beginning of last month. But they've crashed back to Earth of late, with Geno Smith turning the ball over seven times in the past four games. With the next three contests coming against the 49ers, Chiefs and Jets, the Seahawks are suddenly staring down the barrel of a second straight losing season, something that hasn't occurred since Pete Carroll's first two years on the job.
What happened at the end of the Saints game in Week 13 was majestic. It was also a fluke. Still, I heard some insane takes following that 17-16 comeback win, with this one chief among them:
Does anyone want to play Tom Brady this postseason?
Um, yes. The answer is everyone.
With Brock Purdy making his first NFL start, and despite the fact that San Francisco lost Deebo Samuel to injury midway through the second quarter, the 49ers destroyed Brady and the Bucs, 35-7. Tampa Bay's quarterback is indeed the greatest of all time, but he's been subpar this season. The Bucs' offensive line has been worse. And Mike Evans hasn't scored since Week 4, with the aforementioned O-line costing him a 68-yard touchdown via a holding penalty on Sunday. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's defense is an injury-riddled, inconsistent unit.
The only reason these Buccaneers aren't cooked is because they just so happen to play in an embarrassingly bad NFC South. They could win the division with a losing record, but don't expect Brady to provide any postseason magic.
TRENDING IN THE WRONG DIRECTION
Despite Miami's ill-fated decision in the 2020 NFL Draft, it's always been Justin Herbert over Tua Tagovailoa, and it'll always be Justin Herbert over Tua Tagovailoa.
While Herbert dazzled throughout the Chargers' 23-17 win with a season-high 367 yards passing -- breaking Andrew Luck's NFL record for most passing yards in a player's first three seasons with 13,056 -- Tagovailoa turned in what might have been the worst game of his professional career. After going just 3-of-15 in the first half, Tua finished 10-of-28 (35.7 percent) for 145 yards, with 60 of those yards coming on a Tyreek Hill catch-and-jog touchdown where the cornerback fell down. Without Hill's lightning strikes on that play and a wild, 57-yard scoop-and-score, Miami doesn't even come close in this one. It was never really in doubt, anyway -- not with the way Tagovailoa played. And this is a very troubling trend for the Dolphins' quarterback:
|2022 season||Tua's first nine starts||Tua's last two starts|
Yikes. In the wake of two Tennessee losses to two great teams (Cincinnati and Philadelphia), I thought Mike Vrabel's squad was set to bounce back brilliantly with a home game against the Jaguars. After all, Jacksonville had lost five straight -- and nine of 10 -- in this AFC South rivalry. The Jags hadn't beat the Titans in Nashville since November of 2013. And Derrick Henry looked to be back on track in the first half, racking up 119 yards and a touchdown. Then the King totaled 3 rushing yards after the break, and the Titans were blown out of Nissan Stadium, 36-22.
What happened to the hallmark toughness of Tennessee? With a chance to snap a losing streak and essentially put the division race to bed, the Titans cowered. Ryan Tannehill was sloppy with two giveaways, and Henry lost his first two fumbles of the season. Tennessee's defense was shredded by Trevor Lawrence (30-42, 368 yards, three touchdowns, plus a rushing score), with Evan Engram enjoying a career day (11/162/2). In a big spot, Vrabel's crew came up small. Quite surprising.
MAKING ME NERVOUS
Don't get it twisted: Sunday's 34-23 loss in Detroit wasn't even that close. The Lions totally outplayed the Vikings from start to finish. With the opportunity to clinch the NFC North title, Minnesota just couldn't stop Detroit, which piled up 464 yards of offense and scored on five of its final six drives (with the only empty march coming when Mike Badgley missed a 47-yard field goal).
Now, I still dig this Vikings team. Kevin O'Connell is still a legit Coach of the Year candidate. Justin Jefferson is still right in the mix for Offensive Player of the Year -- no receiver has been better in 2022. Kirk Cousins has beaten top-notch opponents on the road (SEE: the overtime win at Buffalo) and even won in prime time (downing the Patriots on Thanksgiving night).
But I just don't put the Vikings on the same level as the Eagles, 49ers or Cowboys in the NFC. I know Dallas was dreadful against Houston, barely escaping with a home victory over the one-win Texans on Sunday. But Dallas' upside -- like that of Philadelphia and San Francisco -- is the Super Bowl. And we saw what happened when the Cowboys visited the Vikings a few weeks ago, with Dallas delivering a 40-3 obliteration of the home team.