The Schein Nine  

 

NFL contenders/pretenders: Bills, Rams are for real; Falcons off

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The NFL's always a week-to-week league. And that's certainly the case in 2017. In fact, this season seems more erratic than ever before. Who's for real? Which teams appear fraudulent? The answers change with each passing Sunday.

So, at the midway point of the '17 campaign, let's separate contenders from pretenders, Schein Nine style:

CONTENDERS

Buffalo Bills (5-2)

For more than a month now, I've been broadcasting my feelings on these guys across all media platforms: The Bills are for real! Sean McDermott could be the Coach of the Year favorite. The first-year head man has brilliantly put his stamp on this team. There's accountability and toughness. The clown show under Rex Ryan feels like a lifetime ago.

These Bills have truly earned their 5-2 record with great play in crunch time. Heck, this team's just a few plays away from being 7-0. Remember the Zay Jones drop late in Week 2, and the four-point loss at Cincinnati in Week 5? Simply put: This team's no fluke.

And these Bills are winning while keeping an eye on the future, shedding salaries and non-essential veterans. Credit LeSean McCoy and Tyrod Taylor for their play and leadership. Buffalo doesn't ooze talent right now, but there's no lack of professionalism on this roster. Last week's 20-point beatdown of the Raiders was noteworthy -- and it improved the Bills to 4-0 at home this season.

I think Buffalo hits 10 wins and snaps the 17-year playoff drought, finally rewarding the amazing, long-suffering fans in Western New York.

Los Angeles Rams (5-2)

My respect for Sean McVay is well-documented. I love McVay's attitude, Xs-and-Os savvy, swagger and all-star coaching staff. Clearly, all of that rubs off on his players. Jared Goff has turned a corner, while Todd Gurley is back to being a force. Consequently, the Rams rank second in points per game at 30.3. (Shout-out to Andrew Whitworth, too. When discussing this offense's improvement, the left tackle's addition cannot be overlooked.)

Meanwhile, Wade Phillips' defense is only getting better. After a slow start under the new DC, the Rams have yielded just 11.0 points per game over their last three contests. The schedule going forward looks quite manageable. And the Rams are really, truly good.

This is a great story. Los Angeles will have a playoff team this season -- just not the one many people anticipated in the preseason. Amazing what a real coach can do.

Seattle Seahawks (5-2)

The Duane Brown deal was a gem. Seattle's offensive line -- and particularly the left tackle spot -- has been terrible for years. Brown has nine years' staring experience and three Pro Bowl appearances under his belt. Russell Wilson's blind side is no longer a turnstile. This is huge because, while I still don't believe in Seattle's run game, Wilson has carried this team. The guy's an absolute game changer when his O-linemen give him a chance -- and even sometimes when they don't.

And don't let Deshaun Watson's Herculean effort on Sunday cloud your judgement: Seattle still has a good defense. It's a battle-tested unit that knows how to perform when the stakes are highest.

While I'm not ready to crown the Seahawks as division champs (the team listed just above will have something to say about that), they will obviously make the playoffs and have a chance to make noise in January.

Jacksonville Jaguars (4-3)

Talked to Doug Marrone during the Jaguars' Week 8 bye on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports." He would NOT take the cheese on Jacksonville accomplishing anything yet. That's vintage Marrone. But the head coach did tell me that he really likes this team.

Free-agent acquisition Calais Campbell has been the most impactful defensive player in the NFL this season. Marrone acutely values the 31-year-old's domination and leadership -- and why wouldn't he? Just seven games into his Jaguars career, Campbell's already set a career high for sacks in a season (10). He's a humble giant, too. In the studio with us on CBS Sports Network during his bye week, Campbell heaped praise on the Jags' secondary and called Jalen Ramsey the Defensive Player of the Year. I think Ramsey and A.J. Bouye comprise the best corner combo in the league today. All in all, the Jaguars' defense is superb. And consider the offensive lines they'll match up with over the next eight games: Bengals, Chargers, Browns, Cardinals, Colts, Seahawks, Texans and Niners. Sacksonville indeed!

Yes, Blake Bortles scares me. He's just not very good at football. But so far, the Jags have minimized his impact on the game, thanks in large part to bell-cow rookie Leonard Fournette. Despite missing Jacksonville's Week 7 game with an ankle injury, the bruising back is still tied for the NFL lead with six rushing touchdowns -- and averaging a robust 4.6 yards a pop.

When you play defense and run the ball like this -- and are this well-coached -- you are for real.

Houston Texans (3-4)

Houston's defense is seriously compromised with J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus out for the year, though picking up Jeremy Lane in the Duane Brown deal should help at corner. (However, not having Brown hurts the beleaguered offensive line.)

Still, I count Houston as a contender solely because of Deshaun Watson. He's majestic. He's special. He's a franchise-changing player. Yes, the rookie mistakes are there, but the big plays he makes are becoming frighteningly routine.

Bill O'Brien has hurt the Texans in three games this year. He didn't start Watson in Week 1. He botched the New England game with poor clock management. And he inexcusably took the ball out of Watson's hands on Houston's final third down during Sunday's game of the year in Seattle.

The Texans have issues. Watson makes them a contender. He's the Offensive Rookie of the Year -- and currently, a top-five candidate for league MVP.

PRETENDERS

Carolina Panthers (5-3)

Cam Newton is throwing passes to the wrong team -- tied with DeShone Kizer for the NFL lead in interceptions (11) -- and creating distractions for his own team. Newton just doesn't get it when it comes to handling the fifth quarter and showing professionalism at press conferences. He constantly makes life more difficult for himself by not acting like a franchise quarterback. And for the second straight year, Cam's passer rating is sitting in the 70s.

Carolina's defense has bounced back in 2017, currently ranking second in total defense and fifth in scoring D. But the offense is just so maddeningly inconsistent from week to week.

I don't trust the quarterback. I don't trust the O-line. I don't trust the coach. The remaining schedule isn't easy. Oh, and the Saints are legit. Bad brew.

Atlanta Falcons (4-3)

This was my NFC Super Bowl pick, and I'm angry. Everyone -- from Arthur Blank to Thomas Dimitroff to Matt Ryan -- told me on SiriusXM Radio that there would be no Super Bowl hangover. I bought in -- and truthfully thought the team was better on paper than last season's edition. Not quite ...

Blowing a 17-0 lead to Jay Cutler and the Dolphins is illegal in the state of Georgia. And following that up with a no-show against the Patriots on "Sunday Night Football" was very telling.

The offense is way off. New coordinator Steve Sarkisian takes the heat, but I don't think head coach Dan Quinn is acquitting himself very well in 2017. Dimitroff assembled a great team. I still think a run is possible, but I'm waiting for the Falcons to look like a real football team. And time's running thin.

Dallas Cowboys (4-3)

Ezekiel Elliott is a star. But now he's back on the sideline (at least for now). This defense cannot be counted on to overcome a loss like that. And look at the remaining schedule:

Nov. 5: vs. Chiefs
Nov. 12: at Falcons
Nov. 19: vs. Eagles
Nov. 23: vs. Chargers
Nov. 30: vs. Redskins
Dec. 10: at Giants
Dec. 17: at Raiders
Dec. 24: vs. Seahawks
Dec. 31: at Eagles

How many more wins do you see there? Not enough to make the playoffs -- especially without No. 21 in the backfield for six weeks.

Detroit Lions (3-4)

I still can't believe Jim Caldwell got a contract extension. Beyond Matthew Stafford, Detroit is untrustworthy. And even the quarterback is encountering some struggles this season.

While the schedule is favorable over the next three weeks -- at Green Bay, vs. Cleveland, at Chicago -- Detroit seems incapable of taking advantage of an Aaron Rodgers-free NFC North and winning a division title for the first time since 1993. What a waste.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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