The Schein Nine

Packers, J.J. Watt, Johnny Manziel among hot-button topics

After another fascinating week in the NFL, opinions are flowing. With just four weeks remaining in the regular season, let's separate fact from fiction on some of the biggest emerging storylines ...

1) Seattle will overtake Arizona in the NFC West.

Last week, I detailed the Seahawks' dangerous potential, explaining why the reigning champs are poised to make noise down the stretch and in the playoffs. And obviously, I believe this even more after watching them smash the 49ers -- in San Francisco -- on Thanksgiving night. The "Legion of Boom" is back. Bobby Wagner is healthy, which is gigantic for this defense. Marshawn Lynch is powerful. Russell Wilson is clutch. Seattle has experience.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals have sputtered in the past two weeks, losing 19-3 in Seattle and then inexplicably getting beaten up by the Falcons in Atlanta.

But still, I consider this to be FICTION.

Remember, while it is appropriate to point out how Drew Stanton has come back to Earth and done a poor job protecting the football of late, the Larry Fitzgerald injury has really hurt this team. The quarterback will benefit greatly from No. 11's return.

Arizona is a game up in the NFC West standings. The Cardinals' schedule is very tough down the stretch: vs. Kansas City, at St. Louis, vs. Seattle, at San Francisco.

Of course, December's no cake walk for Seattle, either: at Philadelphia, vs. San Francisco, at Arizona, vs. St. Louis.

While Arizona's defensive showing on Sunday was troubling -- and now there are injuries to monitor -- this team is too talented and too well coached to tank.

2) J.J. Watt is an MVP candidate.

Watt is a bona fide star. He's a special talent who's en route to his second Defensive Player of the Year award in three seasons. And Watt has expanded his electrifying play to the offensive side of the ball, too, as evidenced by his third touchdown reception of the season on Sunday. Regardless, this statement is FICTION.

Remember, in The Associated Press' NFL awards -- in which I'm proud to take part -- you vote for just one player in each category. It isn't like the MLB or NBA, where you rank a number of players and the award goes to the guy with the highest combined point total in a weighted system. If that were the system in the NFL, I could see Watt finishing second or third on many ballots. I mean, just look at his performance in Sunday's 45-21 win over the Titans: In addition to the touchdown grab, he racked up two sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and six quarterback hits. Eye-popping stuff, which is the norm with this guy. I can't get enough.

But the league MVP, unless something unforeseen occurs in the final four weeks, is Aaron Rodgers.

3) The Packers and Patriots will meet again.

No need to beat around the bush: This is a FACT.

Sunday's showdown at Lambeau Field was as fun as it was competitive. It felt truly big. The game lived up to the hype because the Packers and Patriots are as good as advertised, with the better team winning.

I'm looking forward to the rematch in Arizona for the Lombardi Trophy. The Pack will win that one, too. I think this is the best offensive line -- and the best defense -- Rodgers has enjoyed in Green Bay.

4) The NFC South champion will win more than seven games.

With the Saintsand Falcons both winning on Sunday -- and thus improving to 5-7 -- this will become a FACT.

New Orleans earned a huge win in Pittsburgh. The Saints will beat the inept Panthers in the Superdome this week. Then they finish up with the Bears (road), Falcons (home) and Bucs (road). The Saints should -- and will -- win three of their final four games, getting them to an even 8-8.

Atlanta's remaining schedule is more challenging, with roadies against the Packers and Saints, and home contests vs. the Steelers and Panthers. I think the Falcons' upside is to win seven.

5) Johnny Manziel will lead the Browns to the playoffs.

What a story this would be. Certainly a tempting tale to write, but it would be FICTION.

Cleveland had to beat Buffalo on Sunday. It will be very difficult for the Browns to outscore the Coltsthis week, regardless of who's running the offense. And before you know it, the playoff dreams will slip away.

I do think, whether the change occurs this week or next, Manziel will play more than Brian Hoyer down the stretch. Hoyer has regressed significantly over the last three weeks, with one touchdown pass, six interceptions and a 55.7 QB rating over that span.

6) The Oakland Raiders will net the No. 1 overall pick.

This is FACT. Boy, I didn't realize the Raiders won the Super Bowlagainst Kansas City and apparently thought the season was over. The fact that they mailed it in after winning just one game is pretty pathetic. They looked grotesque and inept in St. Louis, getting whacked52-0.

Oakland won't win again, and then the real drama will begin. Interim coach Tony Sparano won't be leading this team beyond December, but will Reggie McKenzie stay or go? I think the Raiders desperately need a new general manager. Do they draft a quarterback with the top overall pick? Or trust Derek Carr and trade down for a bushel of picks?

7) Dallas will be playing for a playoff spot in Week 17.

This is also FACT.

Dallas was embarrassed -- at home -- by the rival Eagleson Thanksgiving Day. Fortunately, the Cowboys have a golden opportunity to bounce back against the Bearsthis Thursday night. And they will.

I am staying consistent. I think Philly wins the division and Dallas plays for a wild-card spot in Week 17. And I think the 'Boys can get it, despite last week's 23-point loss.

8) The AFC West will boast three playoff teams.

Denver will win the division. San Diego had a brilliant comeback win in Baltimore to improve to 8-4 -- just one game behind the Broncos -- but the Chargers' schedule is impossible down the stretch. Kansas City lost at home to the Broncos on Sunday night to fall to 7-5. And that Week 12 loss to the lowly Raiders feels like a potential killer for the Chiefs' playoff hopes.

While it is far from impossible, when the dust settles, this will be FICTION. The competition is still great for the wild card, between the Bills, Dolphins and all the teams in the AFC North.

9) San Francisco is cooked.

Last Wednesday, I wrote: "I won't believe San Francisco's dead until you show me the body." That's how much respect I have for Jim Harbaugh.

But this team just isn't the same as it's been in the past few years. The defense isn't as good. And Colin Kaepernick has been anything but the "great" quarterback Harbaugh has described him as being.

The Niners won't give in. But they're 7-5, and despite San Francisco still having a game left against the Raiders, I think the odds are too long and the competition (Detroit, Dallas, Arizona, Seattle) is too great. This team is not making the playoffs. That's FACT.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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