Week 15 began with a game only a defensive coordinator could love, as the Cardinals outlasted the Rams in a slog of a 12-6 win on Thursday night. The ugly result served as a reminder that the NFL's serious playoff contenders will take wins any way they can get them this time of year, when injuries take their toll and teams in the middle of the pack save their best shots for the most important matchups and rivalries. In this week's Cover-Two, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar discuss Johnny Manziel's chances of coming away with a win in his first career start, playoff contenders who are at risk of a critical slip-up against inferior competition and the team that needs a win most this weekend.
True or false: Johnny Manziel will lead the Browns to a win in his starting debut
Chris Burke: True, but this is as much about the Cincinnati-Cleveland matchup in general as it is about Manziel. Let's not forget that the Browns already demolished the Bengals earlier this year by forcing Andy Dalton into a nightmare of a game (10-of-33 for 86 yards and three interceptions).
Dalton should be better Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox) -- his offense is operating at a higher level than it was a month ago -- but this remains a Cleveland defense capable of causing problems. Even in losing to the Colts last week, the Browns forced three Andrew Luck turnovers and scored a pair of defensive touchdowns.
Manziel will be tricky for the Cincinnati defense because there just isn't much NFL tape on him, aside from the preseason. The Bengals almost have to prepare blindly for a quarterback that can hurt defenses multiple ways. And Manziel will test the Vontaze Burfict-less linebacking corps with his mobility, even if he defaults to the run a bit too often.
Count on a decent rushing day from Manziel, a big gain or two through the air and an all-around solid performance.
Doug Farrar: True, though it won't be all about him. When the Browns and Bengals last met, Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton turned in what may be the worst single-game performance any NFL quarterback has put up in the last 30 years. Cleveland's defense is even better now than it was during the Browns' 24-3 win on Nov. 6 -- in fact, they are playing team defense about as well as anyone right now. Factor in Manziel's mobility and the fact that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has a history of putting running quarterbacks in positions to succeed, and Manziel could go off against a Bengals defense that's faced just one truly mobile quarterback this season: Carolina's Cam Newton, in a 37-37 tie in October. In that game, Newton completed 29 of 46 passes for 284 yards, two touchdowns and a pick, but he was most effective on the ground, running 17 times for 107 yards and another score. Manziel will make his share of mistakes, but this is a pretty good setup for his starting debut.
Which team should be on upset watch in Week 15?
Burke: Detroit. The Lions won rather handily in Minnesota in Week 6. The Vikings are playing with more resolve than they were back then, winning four of their last six games with a near-upset of Green Bay mixed in there.
The Vikings' offense probably won't scare Detroit all that much. After all, Teddy Bridgewater was dropped for eight sacks in the first matchup. It's the Vikings' defense that could be the driving force behind a shocking Sunday result (4:25 p.m., Fox). Minnesota is sitting third in the league in sacks right now with 38, and the teams that have unraveled Detroit did so by generating constant pressure on Matthew Stafford. The Lions have taken strides offensively the past two weeks, scoring 34 points in each outing, but how much of that was merely a result of playing Chicago and Tampa Bay?
"I'm trying to be honest: That's not the kind of performance that I want to have," Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said after a Week 14 win over the Jets. "My expectations are way higher than that performance."
The defensive effort it would take to steal a victory in Detroit might be closer to what Zimmer has in mind.
Farrar: Pittsburgh. The Steelers travel to the Georgia Dome this week (1 p.m., CBS), and their underwhelming pass defense (ranked 31st in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics; only the Redskins are worse) will go up against Falcons wideout Julio Jones, who has been virtually unstoppable of late. Jones torched the Cardinals' estimable defense for 12 catches and 189 yards two weeks ago and followed that up on Monday with an 18-catch, 259-yard shredding of the Packers' defense. The Falcons' pass defense will have problems of their own when Ben Roethlisberger throws to Antonio Brown and his fellow receivers (they rank 30th in those same metrics), but if Jones is healthy and ready to go (he suffered a hip injury against Green Bay), the Steelers' AFC North chances could be in trouble.
Must-win watch: Team most in need of a victory in Week 15
Burke: Houston. Sunday's trip to take on the Colts (1 p.m., CBS) is really it for the Texans. With a win they would maintain an outside shot at the AFC South title and also bump their record to 8-6 with two winnable home games (Baltimore, Jacksonville) left on the schedule. They still may need a little help at that point to get into the postseason, but pretty much everything would be on the table in Weeks 16 and 17.
With a loss, well ... see you in 2015. Indianapolis would lock up the division with a victory, and even a 9-7 mark probably isn't getting an AFC team into wild-card position.
Off that grisly 2-14 campaign last season, the Texans already should be chalking this year up as a relative success. But they're also right here, knocking on the playoff door, so it would be a shame to miss the opportunity.
Farrar: Seattle. It's a bit strange to say that perhaps the hottest team in the NFL right now is in a must-win situation, but at 9-4, the Seahawks aren't quite entrenched in the playoff picture just yet. They're currently the five-seed, but the 11-3 Cardinals held serve in the division with an ugly win over the Rams on Thursday night. The good news for Pete Carroll's team is that it welcomes the San Francisco 49ers and their ailing offense to CenturyLink Field, a place that has historically been a house of horrors for Colin Kaepernick. If Seattle can pull it off on Sunday (4:25 p.m., Fox), they face the Cardinals next week with control of the NFC West on the line. If not, they will be teetering on the edge, with Dallas (currently seventh in the NFC) holding a head-to-head advantage and the same current record.