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:
» Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears, 1 p.m. ET, FOX
» Denver Broncos at Baltimore Ravens, 1 p.m. ET, CBS
» Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans, 1 p.m. ET, CBS
» New York Giants at Atlanta Falcons, 1 p.m. ET, FOX
» Pittsburgh Steelers at Dallas Cowboys, 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS
» San Francisco 49ers at New England Patriots, 8:20 p.m. ET, NBC
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
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 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
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
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.
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
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.
7) Colin Kaepernick
8) Knowshon Moreno
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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
This is why the pass rush, once again, will mean everything for New York.