The Schein Nine  

 

Marvin Lewis headlines guys with most to prove in NFL playoffs

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There's nothing quite like the NFL playoffs. The drama runs thick. The pressure builds. Annually, there are particular players, coaches and units on the spot.

As we get set for a wild and unpredictable ride in the 2015 NFL playoffs, here's our Schein Nine on those with the most to prove this postseason:

1) Marvin Lewis, head coach, Cincinnati Bengals

Give me a minute to add up Lewis' career playoff wins ... Thirteen years on the job ... Carry the one ...

Zero.

Zero playoff wins for Marvin Lewis. The Bengals coach is 0-6 in the postseason, with an average margin of defeat of 14 points.

Cincinnati, which is absolutely loaded with talent, hosts the Steelers on Saturday night. Yes, Pittsburgh made the playoffs -- barely -- but has hardly looked the part down the stretch of the season. Cincy is clearly the more well-rounded team in this matchup, even with backup quarterback AJ McCarron in line to start for the injured Andy Dalton. Beyond Pittsburgh's explosive passing attack, Cincy owns the advantage in every other matchup.

Marvin needs to erase the playoff donut to prove he's more than just a regular-season head coach.

2) Pittsburgh Steelers' defense

This unit got shredded by Ryan Mallett -- that's illegal in most states -- in an inexplicable Week 16 loss that nearly cost Pittsburgh a spot in the postseason. Mallett was out of the league three weeks ago, struggling with traffic in Houston three months ago. And while Pittsburgh made the playoffs thanks to a Week 17 win over lowly Cleveland -- and the Jets' unacceptable loss in Buffalo -- the Steelers hardly played well. In fact, you could make the argument that if Johnny Manziel had been healthy, he could've beaten the Steelers. And that's frightening.

You trust Ben Roethlisberger in the playoffs. He's clutch. He's a future Hall of Famer. But this Pittsburgh pass defense -- the AFC's worst during the regular season -- is completely untrustworthy. Entering this Steelers-Bengals rubber match, you expect aforementioned Cincy backup AJ McCarron to make plays, and that says something about something.

3) Alex Smith, quarterback, Kansas City Chiefs

I am an unabashed Alex Smith fan and apologist. Always have been. And he enjoyed an excellent, accurate season, completing 65.3 percent of his throws while piling up 20 touchdown passes against just seven picks. Oh, and he also ran for 498 yards and two more scores, just for good measure.

The connection Smith formed with free-agent addition Jeremy Maclin (87 catches for 1,088 and eight TDs) was fantastic. And sans Jamaal Charles, Smith helped guide the sizzling-hot Chiefs on an incredible 10-game win streak to close out the regular season -- this after the team started off at 1-5. And I still remember Smith's 49ers beating a high-powered Saints team in the 2011 playoffs, with Smith making a series of big plays and outdueling Drew Brees. I still remember Smith's valiant, 378-yard, four-touchdown effort in a tough road loss to Andrew Luck's Colts in the 2013 playoffs.

Smith still carries a game-manager rep to most. The critics and haters wonder how far the Chiefs can go with him as the quarterback. I say he's got what it takes. But he has to prove it.

4) DeAndre Hopkins, wide receiver, Houston Texans

I put Hopkins on this list because of the incredible belief I have in him. I think he's a megastar in the making. As an Associated Press voter, I had him as a first-team All-Pro at receiver, alongside Antonio Brown. Yes, that means I picked Hopkins over Julio Jones and Odell Beckham Jr. He's that dominant. Just think: The third-year pro caught 111 balls for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns despite playing with a four-man motley crew at quarterback: Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden.

Hoyer's return to health gives Hopkins the best chance for success in the playoffs, but the stud receiver will have his hands full against a stout Kansas City defensive backfield. With Arian Foster out most of the season, Hopkins has been everything to the Houston offense. To prove he is truly elite, fair or unfair, Hopkins has to keep it going and give the Texans a chance on Saturday. I believe in Hopkins.

5) Tom Brady, quarterback, New England Patriots

Wait -- Tom Brady on a list of guys with something to prove?!?! How does that make sense?! Allow me to explain ...

I think Brady is the greatest clutch quarterback in NFL history. You can argue he is the greatest overall quarterback in NFL history. But it's still an argument.

If Brady guides these Patriots to another title, giving him a fifth ring, it's a legacy changer and there's no debating anything.

6) Adrian Peterson, running back, Minnesota Vikings

He is the best running back in the NFL. He proved that again this year, leading the league in rushing after being suspended for nearly all of last season. Can you imagine the historical implications if he could carry the Vikings to their first ever Super Bowl triumph? Heck, I'll be impressed if he gashes the stingy Seattle defense on Sunday.

Peterson has played in four career postseason games, averaging less than four yards per carry overall and eclipsing the 100-yard mark just once. As a truly transcendent and generational talent, this guy is just too good to not have more playoff glory to his name.

7) Seattle Seahawks' defense

We know the "Legion of Boom" well. But during stretches of this season, the Seattle defense certainly didn't look like the shutdown unit we've grown accustomed to seeing in recent years, particularly against the pass.

That said, the unit has mostly looked like its dominant self of late. Seattle yielded fewer than 14 points in four of its final five games -- and just finished with the NFL's top-ranked scoring defense for the fourth consecutive year. The Seahawks have been dominant against the run all season, allowing an NFL-low 85.1 rushing yards per game. While the secondary got most of the props in prior seasons, the front seven has been excellent in 2015. That unit is led by middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, whom I voted first-team All-Pro.

The question is: Is this still the best defense in the NFL? How does it stack up against the unit in Denver? Arizona? How will the 'Hawks match up against Adrian Peterson in the frigid elements on Sunday?

If Seattle is going to truly be a force in the playoffs -- and reach a third straight Super Bowl -- the defense has to prove its No. 1.

8) Denver Broncos' offensive line

On Tuesday, I explained why Denver should start Brock Osweiler in the playoffs. On Thursday, the team announced that it's going with Peyton Manning. Don't say I didn't warn you, Broncos fans ...

All that said, it really doesn't matter who the quarterback is if the Broncos can't pass protect or open up holes for the running backs. The Denver offensive line has been the weakness of the AFC's top seed all season long. With the Texans and Chiefs -- two teams with scary D-lines -- looming as potential Divisional Round opponents, the Broncos' O-line better come out ready to play.

9) Eddie Lacy, running back, Green Bay Packers

The Packers haven't shown consistency all year. The fact that they play the Redskins in the wild-card round of the playoffs and Washington is clearly the team that inspires confidence is noteworthy. The weight of that statement is overwhelming.

Packers receivers can't get separation these days, while Green Bay's O-line can't protect Aaron Rodgers. The result? Thirteen sacks allowed in just the past two weeks. Thus, if the Packers are to win on the road this Sunday, they must get production out of the ground game.

Unfortunately, Lacy's had a miserable season. After eclipsing 1,000 yards in each of his first two NFL campaigns, Lacy managed just 758 in 2015 -- as well as a career-low three TD runs.

He can change the narrative if he turns back the clock and runs with purpose and domination in the postseason, helping give Rodgers the balance he's lacked all year -- while simultaneously giving the Green Bay defense a breather.

Color me skeptical on Lacy getting it done. Just feels like a lost season.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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