The Schein Nine

Bengals win North, J.J. Watt as DPOY among likely outcomes

The 2015 NFL season is ending in three weeks -- and very little has been decided.

Just three playoff spots have been locked up, with 23 teams still technically in the hunt.

So as we look forward to an exciting home stretch, let's do a little prognosticating -- Schein Nine style:

Who's more likely to ...

1) ... win the AFC North: the Steelers or Bengals?

The Bengals were dealt a major blow when Andy Dalton fractured his right thumbmaking a tackle after a pick in the first quarter of Sunday's loss to Pittsburgh, which dropped them to 10-3. Dalton had been having the season of a lifetime, posting career highs in completion percentage (66.1), touchdown-to-interception ratio (25:6) and passer rating (107.4) entering Week 14. Now the Bengals face the potential of finishing out the year behind backup A.J. McCarron, who had attempted four NFL passes before Sunday.

The Steelers, who improved to 8-5, are getting to 10 wins, with trips to the Ravensand Browns -- who have just seven wins combined -- on the horizon. The only question is whether they can beat the Broncosin Pittsburgh next week -- and I think they can. Still, even if the Steelers run the table, and even if the Bengals have to start McCarron the rest of the way, I'm giving the edge to Cincy. Call it a scheduling gift from Santa. The Bengals will lose behind McCarron in Denver -- but they have enough talent on the roster to beat the 49ers next week and the Ravens in Week 17, which, given their current two-game lead in the division, means Cincinnati will take the AFC North, no matter what Pittsburgh does.

2) ... finish with a better record: the winner of the AFC South or NFC East?

I think the NFC East will go to either the Eagles or Redskins, who are tied atop the division at 6-7 after Philly won the LeSean McCoy Bowl and Washington survived Chicago. Going forward, the Eagleshost the Cardinalsand Redskins, then visit the Giants, while Washington hosts the Bills, then visits the Eaglesand Cowboys. I think the Eagles capture this utterly terrible division and even get to .500 -- though I might just be feeling charitable, due to the holiday season.

The Texans, meanwhile, visit the Colts in Week 15 and the Titans in Week 16 before wrapping up with the Jags in Houston. With the way the Texans' defense is playing, having allowed just 15.3 points per game over their last six games, I think Houston runs the table to win the AFC South -- with a respectable record of 9-7.

3) ... have their streak end first: the Panthers (13W) or Falcons (6L)?

I'm losing my grip on my argument that the Panthers (who, of course, have won 17 straight regular-season games dating back to last season) will eventually lose. Next week, they get the overmatched Giants, then another shot at the Falcons, who I urged to fold the franchise and sell ice cream after they fell to Blaine Gabbert and the 49ersback in Week 9. Carolina looked like it was scrimmaging a Pop Warner team in Sunday's 38-0 trouncing of Atlanta, the Falcons' worst loss since a 56-10 defeat to the Chiefs in 2004. It was pathetic.

Atlanta will lose in Jacksonville next week and get smoked again by the Panthers. Which means it all comes down to Week 17, when Carolina faces the Buccaneers and Atlanta plays the Saints. And I think both streaks will end in the final week of the regular season.

The question for the Panthers is, will coach Ron Rivera want to rest his key starters in preparation for the playoffs? And as much as the Falcons have struggled, the Saints still have atrocious rankings in overall (31st in the NFL), passing (30th) and rushing defense (32nd).

That said, Carolina could still certainly go undefeated, and I could see New Orleans coach Sean Payton rallying his team one final time. (More on that later.)

4) ... pick first overall in the 2016 NFL Draft: Cleveland or Tennessee?

The 3-10 Brownswon Sunday, but they won't win again in 2015, considering their schedule the rest of the way: at Seattle, at Kansas City and vs. Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, the 3-10 Titans are positively dreadful and also have a tough schedule (at Patriots, vs. Texans, at Colts). So both teams could finish at 3-13. But ...

... the Browns beat the Titansback in Week 2. That will be the tie-breaker, and Tennessee will wind up with the top spot in the draft!

5) ... go further in the postseason: AJ McCarron or Brock Osweiler?

It's Brock. I don't want to hear that Sunday's disappointing loss to Oakland was Osweiler's fault. Vernon Davis and company couldn't catch a cold, the Broncos' O-line couldn't stop Khalil Mack (5.0 sacks) and Denver's run game was stuck in the mud (34 rushing yards). And please save me the spin that Peyton Manning needs to come back. Have you watched Manning this year?

The Bengals are balanced and talented, and I like them to hang on in their division, but we simply have a bigger sample size of what Osweiler and the Broncos can do, with Denver going 3-1 in his four starts thus far. We know the Broncos can win with Osweiler. For that matter, we know the Broncos can win with even sub-optimal quarterback play, as they've done several times this season. Cincinnati, on the other hand, hasn't started anyone at quarterback besides Andy Dalton since Dalton was drafted in 2011, a stretch of 77 games.

6) ... be the DPOY: J.J. Watt or the field?

The Patriots' Chandler Jones (10.5 sacks, one pick, three forced fumbles), the Cardinals' Tyrann Mathieu (84 tackles, 15 passes defensed, four picks), the Eagles' Fletcher Cox (50 tackles, 6.5 sacks, three forced fumbles), the Broncos' Aqib Talib (12 passes defensed, three picks, two pick-sixes) and several members of the Panthers' defense (Josh Norman, Luke Kuechly) are playing great -- but they're all vying for No. 2.

Give me Watt (62 tackles, 13.5 sacks, five passes defensed) to win his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award (and his third in four seasons). He's been that great and instrumental in single-handedly turning around the Texans' season. Simply put, he's the best defensive player in the sport.

7) ... return their coach in 2016: the Rams or Saints?

Um, neither?

You might think of Jeff Fisher as Mr. 8-8 -- but his Rams haven't even hit that mark in any of his three previous seasons, and they'll be hard-pressed to reach it in 2015. St. Louis has recycled offensive coordinators, but the head man is 25-35-1 with the Rams, and that's an issue, especially when you consider how many high draft picks the team has had during Fisher's tenure (11 first- or second-round selections over the past four drafts). It's time for a break between franchise and head coach.

As for Sean Payton, he should always get credit for leading the Saints to their first and (thus far) only title in Super Bowl XLIV. But that happened six seasons ago. Payton's Saints are currently on track for their second consecutive sub-.500 finish, with a defense that has ranked among the worst in the NFL. The program has been in a decline. Both sides need a fresh start -- and Payton could potentially get one with the Miami Dolphins.

8) ... finish with more total yards: Cam Newton or Russell Wilson?

Both quarterbacks are having truly monstrous seasons, with Newton accounting for 3,542 total yards (3,062 passing, 480 rushing) and Wilson putting up 3,745 (3,289 passing, 456 rushing). Both players have been knocked for not being pocket passers in the past -- but both are dominating from the pocket this year. Newton made the Falconslook silly on Sunday, one week after an epic five-touchdown game against the Saints. Wilson followed up his domination of Minnesota in Week 13 by destroying Baltimore in Week 14, throwing five touchdown passes of his own.

Cam is the MVP. But his Panthers have already locked up their third straight NFC South title and a first-round bye in the playoffs. Wilson's Seahawks, on the other hand, are still fighting to secure a playoff spot -- and just lost running back Thomas Rawls for the season. So while both players are incredible to watch, Wilson will have more total yards.

9) ... have playoff success: Seattle or Arizona?

All the Seahawks have done recently is lay the wood to opposing teams ... and all the Arizona Cardinals do is win and show off their amazing top-to-bottom talent. Rawls' injury curbs the enthusiasm for Seattle a tad. Yes, the Cardinals' suffered their own injury at running back, with Chris Johnsonlanding on injured reserve in Week 12 -- but rookie David Johnson has stepped up since, recording 90-plus rushing yards and 120-plus yards from scrimmage in each of Arizona's past two games. And the rest of the Cardinals' roster is simply stacked, 1-53. While I acknowledge Seattle is primed to make another strong run, it's clearly Arizona.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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