The final quarter of the 2014 NFL season is upon us.
And playoff spots aren't the only things at stake as this wild, intense and amazing campaign wraps up. The last bunch of regular-season games on the slate can go a long way toward determining the futures of individual players, too.
Let's examine what figures to be a pretty big stretch for some significant players, "Schein Nine" style:
Mike Pettine must have read Monday's "Schein Nine," in which I explained why Johnny Manziel wouldn't be able to lead Cleveland to the playoffs. Sticking with Hoyer as the starter was, to borrow a term from Jay Glazer's report on how Browns players reacted to Wednesday's news, a "no-brainer." Yes, Hoyer's been dreadful over the past two weeks, but you can't pull the plug yet; 7-5 is 7-5. The wins count for something.
That said, there was a reason Hoyer was benched in the first place last Sunday, a reason why Manziel was even an option at this point: the aforementioned bad play by Hoyer against Atlantaand Buffalo. I don't think the Browns will spend to re-sign Hoyer after his contract runs out this season -- nor should they, based on his slump and the team's investment in Manziel.
But Hoyer has time to change the script. Specifically, Hoyer must continue to prove he should be a starter next year. Because if (or when) Hoyer plays poorly, it'll be Johnny Football time. It's inevitable, and it should happen if Cleveland starts significantly lagging behind Indy on Sunday.
This has been a dreadful season for Cutler, who hasn't lived up to the hype (or my expectations) for Year 2 in coach Marc Trestman's system. The bad decisions, the bad body language, the failure to compete in games against the Patriots and -- most especially -- thePackers; all of it comprises an ugly picture of a campaign that's gone up in smoke.
The Bears won't make the playoffs, but Cutler still needs to show something over the final few weeks. It's very important. He needs to play well and play smarter, to give Chicago's brass and fans alike some hope.
I've always believed in Cutler's upside, and I thought he would thrive under Trestman. But it's been a flop. The quarterback, the coach and general manager Phil Emery are all attached at the hip. It's in everyone's best interests for Cutler to demonstrate signs of major improvement. Unfortunately, his good-not-great performance Thursday night won't scatter the dark clouds looming over Chicago.
It might seem funny to list Murray, who's been superb -- the best back in the NFL, bar none -- during a brilliant campaign. The league's leading rusher gained more than 100 yards in 10 of Dallas' first 11 games this year. It's remarkable and special. But the Cowboys' playoff dreams depend largely on what he does over the next month. Fairly or unfairly, if they are to reach the postseason -- and I think they will -- Murray will have to keep playing at this clip.
And there's this extra little issue of Murray being in the final year of his contract. He must continue to prove his value to the Cowboys, especially with receiver Dez Bryant also in need of a new deal after 2014. The knock on the running back in the past has been related to an inability to stay healthy. Finishing out the first 16-game season of his career would enable him to launch Dallas into the postseason -- and help him fatten up his wallet with a new mega-bucks deal.
It simply hasn't worked in Indy for the third overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft. I certainly bought into the notion that we would see Richardson play better this year, with the back getting some time to adjust to his new team after being traded in stunning fashion from Cleveland in September 2013. Now, though, someone named Dan Herron has clearly eclipsed Richardson as the Colts' best running back.
The timing of Richardson's inclusion in this piece -- as he prepares to face the Browns on Sunday as what is basically an afterthought on Indy's roster -- is purposeful, and the irony of the situation isn't lost. And it is not hyperbolic to say Richardson is playing for his future, not just with the Colts but in the NFL.
Before I get nasty comments and tweets and calls to my radio show from Steelers Nation, let me make this clear: I think the world of what Polamalu has accomplished in his amazing 12-year career in Pittsburgh.
But does he have anything significant left in the tank? Can he stay healthy? Is he consistent enough now? Can he make a game-altering splash play or two for the 7-5 Steelers down the stretch? Should he be part of Pittsburgh's plans for 2015?
I'd answer "no" right now to every one of those questions.
In reality, I find Baltimore to be better than Miami and Wallace to be unreliable. I cautioned Dolphins fans when the team signed Wallace after the 2012 season that the Steelers rightly let him go because of his chronic case of the yips. If Miami misses the playoffs and changes coaches, will Wallace run out of goodwill on South Beach?
Is Gore's time in San Francisco coming to a close? If he isn't re-signed by the Niners following the season, is there a place for him in the NFL as a starter, or are his best days behind him? A good final four games can help change the conversation.
The Titans won't pass on Marcus Mariota if he's available to them in the 2015 NFL Draft; the quarterback prospect is special. But what if Mariota's not there? Does Tennessee still need to find a young quarterback, or does Mettenberger satisfy that need? You assume the Titans will bring in a veteran to replace bust Jake Locker at some point in the offseason, but will they want that vet to start, compete for a job, or simply be a backup?
The rookie has been solid, but there are questions as to whether he's good enough to be entrenched as the guy. I always liked what he did on the field at the collegiate level, and I thought that, with his arm, the sixth-rounder would've been picked higher in the draft. He landed in a good spot with Ken Whisenhunt in Tennessee. But Mettenberger has more to prove, and the next four weeks are vital.
Has JPP made a play since the Giants won Super Bowl XLVI? It doesn't feel that way. If I'm the Giants -- and I'm staying very consistent here -- under no circumstance do I bring him back next year. Yes, he's dealt with various injuries, but Pierre-Paul has not performed for three seasons now. He'll need to register some sacks down the stretch if he wants to boost his free agency stock. The Giants won't get fooled, right?