The Schein Nine

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Tony Romo, Lovie Smith, Matt Ryan headline players on the spot

There's nothing quite like the stretch run in the NFL. The games are bigger. The pressure is on. Playoff lives/seeding and jobs are at stake.

Have you noticed how amazing and intense the storylines and games are this week?

We have a fantastic slate that includes six incredible contests on Sunday:

A ton is on the line for the coaches, players, executives and fans involved in those matchups.

The latest edition of The Schein Nine is built around who has the most to prove in an epic weekend of football, ranked in order:

1) Tony Romo

Perhaps this isn't fair. But it is fact. Forget that Rob Ryan is the most overrated defensive coordinator in the league. Forget that Cowboys coach Jason Garrett's game management is goofy. If Dallas loses to the Steelers, nobody will remember that Dez Bryant had a mangled finger.

History cares about the quarterback. The court of public opinion judges Tony Romo.

This is December. This is a big game. All eyes are on Romo; everyone wants to see if he's good enough to carry the Cowboys to victory. Great quarterbacks, like the one Romo is playing against Sunday, can mask areas of weakness during the big moments. The lack of production when it matters most is the stain on Romo's legacy.

The 7-6 Dallas Cowboys have a shot at both the NFC East and a wild-card spot, and are hosting a very beatable and flawed Steelers squad. If Romo can't win big games like these, nobody will care that he's thrown the most touchdown passes in Cowboys history.

The feel is that Romo is the third-best quarterback in the division, and one of the main reasons to think Dallas will fall short. I doubt he can prove the critics wrong.

2) Lovie Smith

Remember when the Bears were dominant? That feels like it was a lifetime ago.

Phil Emery was hired as the Bears' general manager after it had already been decided that Lovie would stay on. That decision seemed sound during a 7-1 start, but injuries and ineffective play have since derailed the Bears Express. Sound familiar? Yeah, same story last season. I don't think Lovie can survive yet another collapse.

The game against the rival Packers is spicier than ever, especially given the smack talk Bears receiver Brandon Marshall directed at Green Bay's defense. When he was introduced as Bears coach in 2004, Lovie talked about the importance of beating the Packers. Fittingly, he's now desperate to do just that.

3) Matt Ryan

The last time the Falcons faced the Giants was in the first round of the playoffs last season, when the big, bad Atlanta offense put up a whopping zero points.

The only thing at stake this week is the Falcons' credibility and confidence. No big deal.

I love Ryan. But he cannot be considered an upper-echelon player until he beats a team like the Giants and a quarterback like Eli Manning.

A win would propel the Falcons forward; a loss would deflate them, allowing the haters to criticize in unison while making Atlanta tight for January.

In theory, Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez match up well against the Giants' spotty secondary. They must deliver.

Ryan and the Falcons are akin to Big Foot -- I won't believe they're for real until I see some proof.

4) The Steelers' defense

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Mike Tomlin had no choice but to acknowledge the stunningly sporadic nature with which Pittsburgh has been getting to the quarterback when we talked Tuesday on the SiriusXM Blitz.

Pittsburgh was unable to bully a weak and inexperienced San Diego Chargers offensive line last Sunday, and the Bolts pulled off one of the most surprising upsets of the 2012 season. Dallas' offensive line is porous. Pittsburgh needs to play with the killer instinct it was lacking in Week 14.

5) Gary Kubiak

Kubiak deserves credit for getting Houston over the hump and into the playoffs this season and last. That is no small accomplishment, especially when you consider there were some (like me) doubting that he was capable after many seasons of underachievement and disappointing finishes.

Now, the pressure is on for Kubiak to prove he's the coach to take Houston to the promised land of the Super Bowl.

Kubiak was savvy enough to hire coordinator Wade Phillips in 2011 to fix the defense. And Phillips did just that -- until injuries hit.

Because of those injuries, we seem to have come full circle. Once again, Houston's hopes fall squarely on the shoulders of the head coach and play caller, as well as those of quarterback Matt Schaub; both must prove they are championship-worthy.

The Texans were embarrassed by the New England Patriots in Week 14, and they need to pick up the pieces. In theory, they match up very well with the Colts' defense. But Andrew Luck and his offense could say the same about Houston's D. The Texans weren't able to withstand punches from Aaron Rodgers in Week 6 and Tom Brady on Monday night. It's on Kubiak to make sure they don't struggle in a similar fashion against Luck.

6) Jim Caldwell

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Caldwell has called as many plays in the NFL as I have, and that's not good for the Baltimore Ravens. Yet, Cam Cameron was so bad and so pass-happy and so foolish (for failing to run the Ravens' offense through Ray Rice) that replacing him at offensive coordinator with Caldwell was not just a desperate move, but an easy one, too.

The Ravens have a bad vibe for a 9-4 team, and easily could lose out. Joe Flacco has been ordinary in a contract year. Coach John Harbaugh needs Caldwell to rescue his offense against the Broncos' solid defense and fierce pass rush.

Good luck.

7) Colin Kaepernick

The young pup has made big plays for the 49ers with his arm and his legs since taking over for Alex Smith.

Now, facing the Patriots, he has to beat a Bill Belichick defense and outscore Tom Brady.

Good luck.

I think the 49ers can win. I think San Francisco matches up very well; the Niners can stop the run, and they have the pass rush to get Brady out of the rocking chair his offensive line provides for him. The 49ers also have the tools on offense to make plays against New England's defense.

The question is, do the 49ers have a quarterback who can win in a possible Super Bowl preview? The entire world will find out.

8) Knowshon Moreno

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Did you notice Peyton Manningliterally moving Moreno to the right spot last Thursday in the Broncos' win over the Oakland Raiders?

Moreno, Denver's replacement for the injured Willis McGahee, gained valuable swagger in Week 14 after two pedestrian outings. The Ravens' run defense is not strong. Moreno must duplicate last week's performance, in which he rushed for 119 yards and a score, to prove to Manning and coach John Fox that they can count on him in the playoffs.

9) The Giants' pass rush

The Giants have a leaky defensive backfield. The Falcons' passing attack features big-time weapons. Clearly, Big Blue doesn't match up well here.

This is why the pass rush, once again, will mean everything for New York.

It's been a bit of a wacky campaign for Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck. Unlike a season ago, when defensive coordinator Perry Fewell's pass rush dominated opponents en route to the Giants' Super Bowl title, New York hasn't been super consistent in that aspect of the game.

As I wrote on Tuesday, the Giants are credible title contenders because of their coach (Tom Coughlin), quarterback (Manning) and pass rush. But it has to get better; the G-Men must get into the kind of quarterback-harassing groove that carried them last season.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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