Lions-Ravens, Patriots-Dolphins among Week 15 must attend games
With three weeks left in the regular season, one division has three of its four teams still in the playoff hunt. That would be the NFC North, where only the Vikings have excused themselves from postseason contention.
The Lions and Bears are 7-6, while the pesky Packers are 6-6-1 and still with a pulse even though they have been without injured quarterback Aaron Rodgers (broken collarbone) since early in the first quarter of their Nov. 4 game against Chicago. With Detroit and Chicago two games behind Carolina and San Francisco for the two wild-card spots, and Green Bay two and a half games behind those two teams, it's unlikely any NFC North team but the winner will advance to the playoffs.
Here are the must-see games in Week 15.
Baltimore Ravens (7-6) at Detroit Lions (7-6)
Once 6-3 and seemingly in control of the division, the Lions have dropped three of their last four games -- they squandered fourth-quarter leads in all three of the defeats -- and let Chicago and Green Bay back into the race. Detroit, however, still has two big factors in its favor: It owns the tiebreaker over Chicago, having beaten the Bears twice, and its final three games will be in comfy, climate-controlled domes (two at home, one in Minnesota). So for the rest of the regular season, the Lions won't face any bitter elements, such as the eight inches of snow and swirling winds they played in last Sunday in Philadelphia.
Wide receiver Calvin Johnson (75 catches for 1,348 yards and 12 touchdowns) needs just seven yards to become the first player in NFL history to have 5,000 receiving yards in a three-season span, and quarterback Matthew Stafford (306 completions in 525 attempts for 3,973 yards, with 27 touchdowns and 14 interceptions) is closing in on his third consecutive 4,000-yard season.
But ball security has been a big part of the Lions' recent problems. In their last four games, they have committed 15 turnovers, including seven giveaways (five interceptions, two fumbles) by Stafford. That's a recipe for disaster, not success.
The defending Super Bowl champion Ravens have won four of their last five games, including three in a row, and currently have control of the sixth and final playoff seed in the AFC. Fans in Baltimore are used to seeing their team in the postseason; the Ravens have made five consecutive playoff appearances since coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco joined forces in 2008.
It won't be easy this time. Including Detroit, the Ravens face division leaders in each of their final three games. They'll host New England in Week 16 before finishing out the regular season at NFC North rival Cincinnati.
One of the keys to this game will be the Ravens' red zone defense vs. the Lions' red zone offense. Baltimore is tied with Carolina for the lead in defense inside its 20 (opponents have scored only 13 touchdowns on 33 possessions) while Detroit has the fifth-best offense inside the opposition's 20 (30 TDs on 49 series).
By the way, you might want to stay in your seat any time there's a kick return during this game. The Lions' Jeremy Ross returned both a kickoff (98 yards) and a punt (58 yards) for touchdowns in the Philadelphia mush last Sunday. And we all know what Baltimore's Jacoby Jones (28.7-yard average on kickoff returns, one touchdown) can do -- especially when anyone standing on the sideline doesn't get in his way.
Green Bay Packers (6-6-1) at Dallas Cowboys (7-6)
As much as the Packers would love to have Rodgers back on the field, it's unlikely he'll return for Sunday night's game. On his radio show this week, Rodgers revealed that he experienced pain in his left collarbone while making simple movements on the practice field last week. An injury like his generally takes eight to 10 weeks to heal, and you can bet that the team's medical staff is going to take a cautious approach.
Matt Flynn likely will be back under center for Green Bay this week. The third of three quarterbacks the Packers have used since Rodgers went down (Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien also took turns), Flynn completed 75 percent of his passes last Sunday against Atlanta as Green Bay came back from a 21-10 halftime deficit and won its first game since losing Rodgers. It has helped that rookie running back Eddie Lacy, who has rushed for a touchdown in six of the last eight games, has reduced some of the pressure on the passing game.
Dallas will need a much improved performance from its defense if it expects to stay in playoff contention. The Cowboys rank last in the league in both overall defense and passing defense. They have allowed 400-yard passing performances by Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Stafford. Even Bears backup Josh McCown, who was playing in place of the injured Jay Cutler, carved up Dallas' defense for 348 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-28 victory last Monday night.
The Cowboys, who trail Philadelphia (8-5) by one game in the NFC East, also face the Redskins (in Washington) before finishing up the regular season with a home game against the Eagles, whom they defeated in Week 7. So if those teams finish with identical records, Dallas would hold the tiebreaker.
New England Patriots (10-3) at Miami Dolphins (7-6)
Having recorded double-digit victories for the 11th year in a row, the Patriots can clinch their fifth consecutive AFC East championship with a win over Miami, a team they have beaten seven straight times. Coach Bill Belichick's bunch suddenly has become the NFL's comeback kids, having overcome halftime deficits of 10, 24 and 16 points to win each of their last three games. But they'll have to continue on without star tight end Rob Gronkowski, who suffered ACL and MCL tears during last week's game against Cleveland and has been lost for the rest of the season.
The Dolphins, who haven't had a winning record since 2008, trail Baltimore for the sixth and final seed in the AFC playoffs (plus the Ravens own the tiebreaker based on their Week 5 win over Miami). The Dolphins cracked the 30-point plateau for the first time this season when they beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh last week, a victory in which quarterback Ryan Tannehill (a season-high 95.5 passer rating) and tight end Charles Clay (seven receptions for 97 yards and two touchdowns) played key roles.
New York Jets (6-7) at Carolina Panthers (9-4)
Last week's loss to NFC South rival New Orleans dropped the Panthers one game behind the Saints in the division race and down to the fifth playoff seed in the NFC. They'll have a chance to avenge that defeat when they meet the Saints again next week at home. In the meantime, the Panthers need to take care of business against the Jets, especially with the (9-4) 49ers and (8-5) Cardinals breathing down their necks for a wild-card spot.
A New York victory would sustain the Jets' slim playoff hopes. A loss would pretty much eliminate them from the picture.