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The Schein Nine

NFL playoff picture: Bubble teams I love/like/loathe

With 13 weeks of regular-season action in the books, the NFL playoff picture is coming into focus.

At this point, I expect the Dolphins, Ravens, Chiefs and Jaguars to eventually punch a postseason ticket in the AFC. Same with the Eagles, 49ers, Lions and Cowboys on the NFC side of the bracket. The remaining drama among these teams revolves around playoff positioning -- most importantly, who will end up with each conference's No. 1 seed (and the accompanying first-round bye)?

But beyond those eight powers, we get to the postseason bubble. In this delicious and delirious 2023 NFL campaign, a number of teams remain squarely in the mix. Who will make it? Who'll fall short? And who's worth rooting for?

Without further ado, here are the bubble teams I love, like and loathe, Schein Nine style.


Yes, Tank Dell's broken leg really bums me out. Houston's rookie connection between C.J. Stroud and Dell was beyond amazing. Dell leads the Texans with seven touchdown grabs, while ranking second in catches (47) and yards (709). It's a big-time loss. But I trust this team to overcome because this team has it -- beginning with the aforementioned wunderkind under center.

I'm not breaking any news here in saying Stroud is putting together one of the greatest rookie campaigns ever seen at the game's most important position. Averaging a league-best 295.0 passing yards per game while boasting a 20:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 101.2 passer rating, the No. 2 overall pick isn't just a shoo-in for Offensive Rookie of the Year -- he's a legitimate MVP candidate. And fortunately for him, Dell isn't the only emerging receiver on this roster. Nico Collins is enjoying a breakout season in Year 3, leading Houston in catches (59) and yards (991), while ranking second with six receiving touchdowns. The big-bodied wideout just shredded Denver's secondary with nine catches for 191 yards and a touchdown in Sunday's win.

I love rookie head coach DeMeco Ryans -- and his young defense has shown up in crunch time. Look at what the unit just did to Russell Wilson, picking off the nine-time Pro Bowler three times in the final 16 game minutes of a tight win. Cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., who snatched two of those picks himself and has four total over the past three weeks, is living up to his pedigree as the No. 3 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Meanwhile, the No. 3 overall pick in this past April's draft, Will Anderson Jr., has been an edge-rushing menace all season, but he provided his best effort yet on Sunday, racking up two sacks, four QB hits and eight pressures, per Next Gen Stats. Seems like the Texans were pretty wise to jump up the draft board to secure his services after all. And there's another level to this defense, too. With emerging talent at all three levels, this Texans' defense is just scratching the surface of its ultimate potential. Scary.

On top of it all, Houston's remaining schedule looks quite manageable. The Texans will face the Jets, Titans (twice) and Browns before a potentially huge class with the Colts in Week 18. I think Ryans' team hits 11 wins -- which would equal the total number of Ws from the previous three seasons combined.

Shane Steichen, like Ryans, has impressively thrust himself into the Coach of the Year race during his first season in the big chair. He's been remarkable as a leader and offensive mastermind. Starting quarterback out for the season? Bell-cow back in and out of the lineup? No problem. Steichen has coaxed fine production out of a pair of veterans in QB Gardner Minshew and RB Zack Moss. Steichen's also getting the most out of fourth-year pro Michael Pittman Jr., who has developed a sizzling connection with Minshew. I'm just so impressed by the offensive-minded head coach's work with this roster. Despite a spate of injuries, the Colts rank eighth in the NFL in scoring.

Indianapolis currently holds the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoffs. Everyone keeps waiting for this club to fall back, but at this point, I don't think it's gonna happen. Steichen won't let it. And the Colts' remaining schedule doesn't hurt. Indy faces Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Las Vegas before the season-ending bout with Houston.


Wow, Jordan Love. Color me stunned -- and quite frankly, dead wrong.

When Green Bay lost five of six games in Weeks 4 through 10, Love looked like he could be a one-year starter for the Packers. During that span, he stumbled his way to a 7:9 TD-to-INT ratio with a 73.9 passer rating. A lot of doubters -- like me -- took their shots at the former first-round pick. But over the last three weeks, he's put it right back in our face:

  • Love in Weeks 11-13: 68.5 comp%, 285.7 ypg, 8:0 TD-to-INT, 116.9.

Impressive stuff, especially when you consider that the 25-year-old has gone a perfect 3-0 in that stretch, with wins over the Lions (in Detroit on Thanksgiving) and defending champion Chiefs (on Sunday Night Football) over the past two weeks. Love has improved his pocket awareness, deep-ball accuracy, clutch play and ... well ... everything. The first-year starter's rapport with young receivers Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs and Jayden Reed, among others, is SO encouraging -- not just for the rest of this season, but for years to come. This team is finding a real identify in life after Aaron Rodgers -- something I thought Green Bay would seriously struggle to do. The Pack are beginning to come back together defensively, too. After tearing his ACL last season, Rashan Gary is right back to where he left off: as one of the league's most imposing young edge rushers.

Matt LaFleur deserves so much credit for maximizing this flawed roster, handling injuries and just generally keeping the train on the tracks during some rough patches. And the man still has yet to lose a single game in December: 16-0 in the month as a head coach!

Green Bay's remaining schedule is favorable. The Packers, who currently hold the No. 7 seed, have a head-to-head win over the first team out of the playoff field, the Rams. Speaking of whom ...

As long as Matthew Stafford is healthy and slinging the football, I believe in this team. He's a future Hall of Famer in my book, and he can work wonders with stud wideouts Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua at his disposal. And a healthy Kyren Williams provides the ground game to give this offense sweet balance. Still just 37 years old, Sean McVay is an offensive guru and a master motivator. And speaking of Rams coaches, Raheem Morris has done a nice job revitalizing this defense after a down season. Aaron Donald's doing Aaron Donald things again, and Los Angeles hasn't allowed more than 20 points in a game since October.

While the Rams lose head-to-head tiebreaker to the Packers, they swept the season series with the Seahawks and that's huge. Road games at Baltimore and San Francisco loom large on the remaining schedule. But L.A.'s coaching and quarterback play are special and -- most crucially -- trustworthy.

Regular readers of this column have heard me lament Sean McDermott's knack for committing in-game coaching malpractice via mind-numbing decisions. Shoot, I just aired my grievances on the matter last week in this space. Yes, an unrelenting injury bug has also led to Buffalo's inexplicable 6-6 record this year, but the head man bears plenty of responsibility for the disappointing campaign. I have a whole lot of trouble trusting him. That said ...

Josh Allen remains special. We saw this his last time out, when he was otherworldly in a crushing three-point loss at Philadelphia. And in a season that has been shaped by shaky play and numerous injuries at the quarterback position, I cannot totally quit the Bills. Allen's individual genius is that impactful to me. When he's at his best, Buffalo has the ability to hang with any team in the NFL.

Can the Bills storm Arrowhead Stadium and beat Patrick Mahomes and Co. this coming Sunday? Sure, why not? The Chiefs aren't exactly playing like world-beaters, having lost three of their past five games. Buffalo's schedule to close the season certainly isn't easy, but Allen makes anything possible.


Head coach Dennis Allen just has not done a good job -- at all -- with a talented roster. The Saints underachieved in so many winnable games early in the season, and now they're mired in a three-game losing streak. Adding injury to insult, Derek Carr is back in concussion protocol for the second time in three weeks. Do you really trust Jameis Winston to hold the fort if Carr has to miss time?

Sure, the Falcons are hardly secure as the current NFC South leaders at 6-6. But it's just impossible for me to imagine the Saints suddenly developing consistency. And it makes me sad. I had high hopes for this team. Back in the offseason, I picked New Orleans as my Cinderella team for 2023. I thought there was a chance the Saints could earn the NFC's No. 1 seed and Carr could be a dark-horse MVP candidate. All of that is laughable now. And given the moribund state of the division, it feels like a massive opportunity missed in the Big Easy.

My default is to always believe in a Pete Carroll/John Schneider team. I love the toughness and experience that's routinely on display with this franchise. But while Geno Smith was excellent last Thursday against Dallas, he just isn't having the same season as his Comeback Player of the Year effort in 2022. Kenneth Walker III being banged up hasn't helped, either. And what on earth is going on with this defense, which currently ranks 23rd in total D and 25th in points allowed. Wasn't this supposed to be a bounceback year for the unit? What happened to the second coming of the Legion of Boom?

In the midst of a three-game losing streak, Seattle hosts San Francisco this Sunday. In Week 15, the Eagles come into town for Monday Night Football. You see the 'Hawks getting right against either of those powerhouses? Me neither.

This team bugs me. Kenny Pickett is hurt now, but even when he was healthy, he was not making the Year 2 leap many envisioned in August. And you can't blame Matt Canada anymore, as the offensive coordinator was fired back in November.

Truthfully, the Steelers are lucky to even be 7-5. After all, they've been outscored by 37 points on the season. Now it feels like all the luck has run out. Pittsburgh just suffered a 14-point home loss to lowly Arizona. Running back Jaylen Warren says the Steelers took the Cardinals too lightly. How does this team take anyone too lightly? Pittsburgh was outgained in each of the first 10 games of the freakin' season!

The T.J. Watt-led defense is good, but not special -- at least not special enough to overcome a seriously flawed offense. The Steelers are not consistent, fun to watch or trustworthy. I'm out.

The Chargers just logged a 6-0 win over the Patriots. As Derrick Coleman once said, whoop-de-damn-do. Los Angeles is still dwelling in the AFC West basement alongside Las Vegas, currently ranking 12th in the broader AFC playoff picture.

The shame of it, of course, is the Chargers have legit talent on both sides of the football. And by the way, the defending champion Chiefs are experiencing serious offensive issues -- particularly at the receiver position -- making them look quite vulnerable. But once again, Brandon Staley has failed to maximize an enticing roster headlined by gifted quarterback Justin Herbert. Yes, the Bolts have suffered some tough injuries, but that's not what has this team significantly underperforming. It's a problem with consistency -- or the lack thereof -- on a weekly basis. And that falls on the head coach.

The Chargers won four of their final five games to make the playoffs last season. I do not see that kind of rally happening again -- not with two games against Sean Payton's revived Broncos, a Saturday night contest vs. Josh Allen's Bills and the season finale vs. Kansas City.

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