There are five more Sundays left in the 2017 NFL season -- which makes this the perfect time to run some pressing questions by the ol' crystal ball, "Schein Nine" style, in an effort to determine what's MORE LIKELY to come to pass.
It should be a tie, because both quarterbacks should be starting next week. But given Chiefs coach Andy Reid's assertion (even if I don't believe it) that he isn't considering elevating Mahomes over Alex Smith, I'll throw my hat in with Garoppolo in San Francisco. I loved the Niners' Jimmy G heist -- it was a sensational move, plucking him from New England for a second-round pick. I understood keeping him in bubblewrap for a bit so he could learn the system, but it's go time. His brief appearance in the closing moments of Sunday's loss to Seattle -- 2 for 2 for 19 yards and a touchdown -- provided just a glimpse of what he can do. Garoppolo can inspire his teammates, coaches and the fan base. It also behooves the Niners to put Garoppolo through his paces before making an offseason commitment to the free-agent QB -- and once he shows his worth, Garoppolo can, and will, help attract other free agents. Finally, starter C.J. Beathardis headed for an MRI on Monday -- making it that much more likely Garoppolo gets the nod Sunday.
As for the Chiefs, their season of promise is slipping away, with the team dropping five of its last six games after a 5-0 start. That is hardly all Smith's fault. But the quarterback has struggled mightily, posting a pedestrian TD-to-INT ratio (4:4) and passer rating (78.7) over his past four contests, including the game-clinching pick in Sunday's 16-10 loss to Buffalo. Everything should be considered. I love Alex Smith. I know Reid declared Smith his "guy" on Monday. But this isn't the team that looked Super Bowl-bound in the first half. That was officially a lifetime ago. Sure, Mahomes is a rookie, but maybe his big arm could provide just the spark needed to reignite this Kansas City campaign. Of course, the Chiefs' problems now go beyond their own QB room, which brings me to my next projection ...
Gimme the field. Suddenly, the 5-6 Chargers and 5-6 Raiders are just a game back of Kansas City after Tyrod Taylor and the Bills marched into Arrowhead and dropped the Chiefs to 6-5. I said on our SiriusXM Radio show before the Chargers walloped the Cowboys on Thanksgiving -- and I stressed it again Sunday morning on CBS Sports Network -- that the Chargers are running the table.
The Bolts are making the playoffs, even if it's as a wild-card team, but I think Los Angeles can overtake the Chiefs in the division because frankly, right now, L.A. is better. The Chargers play better on defense, anchored by star pass-rushing duo Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram (19 combined sacks). I love Philip Rivers. Keenan Allen (averaging 11.5 receptions for 165.5 receiving yards in his last two games) is back. And the schedule down the stretch (which includes just one team -- the Chiefs, naturally -- with a winning record) does not look too bad. Don't forget about the Raiders, who are alive after beating the Broncos. Not that I'm going to back them, but it's that messy right now for the Chiefs, who must face each AFC West foe one more time before it's all said and done.
Lock it in: The NFC will go through Philadelphia, as I've been saying and writing for quite some time now. The 10-1 Eagles are the best team in the NFL, with Sunday's 31-3 pasting of the Bears showing they're solely focused on the prize -- "trap game" isn't in their vocabulary. Carson Wentz is a star leading a balanced offense (Philly ranks first in passing touchdowns and second in rushing yards), and the defense makes plays (ranking third in the NFL with 22 takeaways). Add it all up, and it's clear that Eagles fans are going to be treated to home playoff games, with the Vikings, Rams, Saints and everyone else in the NFC playing for second place.
Brady's been legendary, posting the second-best completion rate (68.4), second-best yards-per-game mark (306.7) and third-best passer rating (111.7) of his 18-year career while leading New England to a 9-2 start. But it's Wentz. He's been everything for the best team in the NFL, recording a league-high nine games with two-plus touchdown passes. And then there's this: Wentz is currently pacing the league in touchdown passes (28) while playing for the team with the top record. The last eight players to do that for the year went on to be named MVP. So, yeah, Wentz is getting my vote.
It's too bad one of these guys will likely have to miss out on a first-team All-Pro nod. Thielen (currently in third with 1,005 yards) has been everything for the Vikings and quarterback Case Keenum. The Falcons' Julio Jones (second with 1,039) is a freak, as we were reminded on Sunday (when he posted his third career game of 250-plus yards). But Brown (first with 1,195) is the best receiver in the NFL -- just look at his latest jaw-dropper -- and I'm backing him. It doesn't hurt that he's racking up a league-best 108.6 receiving yards per game. Brown also has a great chance to win the Offensive Player of the Year award.
It's Jacksonville, despite losing to Blaine Gabberton Sunday, which is illegal in most states (and which is especially painful for the Jaguars, for whom Gabbert ruined plenty of games while clad in teal and black). Yes, the current quarterback (Blake Bortles) is terrible at the forward pass. Yes, my guy, Doug Marrone, can be blamed for questionable game management down the stretch in Arizona, especially on second down. And yes, the Titans are technically in first in the division, due to tiebreakers.
But do you trust Tennessee? I don't. I like Marcus Mariota, but he's struggled recently, having reached a career-high interception total (12) in just 10 games this season. The Jags have a great defense, and the Titans, who have a point differential of minus-27, just aren't as reliable. I believe Week 12 was a blip. Jacksonville and Tennessee will both make the playoffs, but I will continue to back the Jaguars as the division champs.
The Patriots have won seven straight, and I think they'll win the rest of their games (at Bills, at Dolphins, at Steelers, vs. Bills, vs. Jets). The Browns have lost 11 straight, and I think they'll lose the rest of theirs (at Chargers, vs. Packers, vs. Ravens, at Bears, at Steelers). But I do think there's a slight chance Pittsburgh can knock off New England in Week 15 -- and it's a better chance than the Browns have of beating any of their opponents. So I guess what I'm saying is, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are MORE LIKELY TO LOSE in December than the Browns are to win a game in 2017. But then, anything is more likely than Cleveland winning.
It's New Orleans, followed by Atlanta and Carolina. New Orleans has the coach, quarterback, run game and defense. The only thing that scares me: the injuries in the defensive backfield, including to rising rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore. I love the way the Falcons have played the last three weeks, beating the Cowboys, Seahawksand Bucs while showing an impressive killer instinct after lackluster performances early in the season. As for the Panthers, give Luke Kuechly and Carolina credit for winning on Sunday, but the Jets handed them that game. I trust the Falcons more down the stretch and in the playoffs, and I see Atlanta in the postseason.
It's the Rams, and it's been the Rams for a long time. Seattle has Russell Wilson, but this team doesn't look like a vintage Seahawks team. For the past five seasons, the Seahawks have finished as a top-three scoring defense, but this year, they rank ninth. The run game, meanwhile, is a shadow of its former self, with Seattle posting 52.2 fewer yards per game from 2016 to '17 than it did from 2012 to '15. As for Los Angeles, I've been telling you all year to buy into the genius of coach Sean McVay, who is rapidly erasing memories of the sub-.500 Jeff Fisher era. The Rams rank second in scoring and seventh in scoring defense and, most crucially, hold a one-game advantage over the Seahawks, with one game between the two teams remaining.