After the gifts of New England at Green Bay and Seattle at Philadelphia as the centerpiece games on the schedule the past two weeks, there’s not a glamor matchup in Week 15 that features two near-certain playoff qualifiers this time around. Dallas at Philadelphia is the closest game to that, but the Cowboys could be the team without a chair in the playoffs when the music stops if they lose to the Eagles for the second time in 17 days and trail by what amounts to two games in the NFC East with two to play.
But if you like division battles, you’re in luck, because San Francisco at Seattle, Cincinnati at Cleveland, Denver at San Diego, Miami at New England, Houston at Indianapolis, Minnesota at Detroit, Oakland at Kansas City and Tampa Bay at Carolina are all of critical importance to at least one team, and in many cases, both. And when was the last time you could say that about a meeting between a 4-8-1 club (the Panthers) and a 2-11 team (the Bucs)? The correct answer is never.
Both the holidays and the playoffs are just around the corner, but between now and then, things are going to be busy, because there’s still a lot to be decided. Ready or not, here comes the year-end craziness.
• Last week: 8-8; Season: 138-69 (.666).
• Best pick in Week 14: Detroit 34, Tampa Bay 17 (Actual score: Lions 34-17).
• Worst pick in Week 14: New Orleans 33, Carolina 19 (Actual score: Panthers 41-10).
Below are my Week 15 picks. And here’s my pick for Thursday night’s game between Arizona and St. Louis.
The Steelers’ season-altering win at Cincinnati last week will only have its maximum effect if they keep it going as slight road favorites this week against the Falcons in the Georgia Dome. Pittsburgh has had all kinds of trouble against teams with losing records the past two years, but the Falcons are tied with the Saints for first place in the bedraggled NFC South, so maybe that helps offset the penchant of Mike Tomlin’s club to look past weaker opponents. The Falcons will win if they score like they did in the second half at Green Bay on Monday night, but consistency has not been the calling card of either of these teams this season.
So now Colt McCoy, who's limited in practice due to the effects of a neck sprain he suffered late in the shutout loss to St. Louis at home in Week 14, is deemed to be head coach Jay Gruden’s preferred starting quarterback option over Robert Griffin III. McCoy’s neck might be sore, but what to make of Griffin’s head at this point? He has got to be one confused and bewildered former franchise quarterback given the trajectory of his 2014 season. I suppose it’s only a small salve, but the Giants, having beaten Washington on the road in Week 4, can clinch third place in the NFC East with a win in the Meadowlands on Sunday, sentencing Daniel Snyder’s team to its second consecutive cellar-dwelling season and eighth in 11 years.
The Dolphins knocked off the Patriots in Week 1 in South Florida, but Miami simply does not sweep the Beast of the AFC East. New England hasn’t dropped both games to the Dolphins since 2000, when Tom Brady was a rookie third-string quarterback and Bill Belichick was a first-year Patriots coach scuffling to a 5-11 last-place finish. Once again, Miami’s playoff hopes will wilt and fade away in December, and once again, New England will reign over the division it utterly owns.
And to think I predicted Oakland would go 0-16 and join the 2008 Lions and 1976 Bucs in infamy. A thousand pardons, Raiders Nation. Tony Sparano’s team has beaten the seven-win Chiefs and the seven-win 49ers in recent weeks, but both of those wins came at home. The Raiders have won just two road games since the start of the 2012 season, with one coming in October 2012 at Kansas City and the other at Houston in mid-November 2013. The Chiefs have dropped three in a row and should be in survival mode at Arrowhead.
The Texans are 0-12 in Indianapolis and even found a way to lose there in the Colts’ brief but dreadful Dan Orlovsky starting era of 2011. If you can lose to Dan Orlovsky, there is no scenario I foresee in which Andrew Luck and Co. bend to your wishes -- especially not with a chance to wrap up another AFC South crown on the line.
The Ravens are getting considerably overlooked this season, but they’ve put a lot of pieces together that could prove very difficult to deal with in the playoffs, should they make it. Baltimore’s Justin Forsett-led running game and that linebacker-driven defense have been exceptional, and quarterback Joe Flacco is quietly posting career highs in a lot of key statistical categories. The Ravens were my preseason pick to win the AFC North and with games left against the Jaguars, Texans and Browns, 10 or 11 wins and the division title are well within reach. I know one potential AFC playoff foe that will be keeping a wary eye on Baltimore: We know what John Harbaugh’s tough-minded club has accomplished against New England in the postseason.
The Bills pass rush is entirely legit, giving Buffalo a chance to pull the upset if it can hurry and harass Aaron Rodgers into a mistake or two. But when’s the last time Rodgers was responsible for giving a game away? With Arizona finding a way to win in St. Louis, even when forced to play its fourth quarterback of the season in Ryan Lindley, the Packers have no margin for error in their quest for the NFC’s top seed. I’ll ride with Rodgers over the Bills’ Kyle Orton and sleep well at night.
Back in September, Carolina's backup QB Derek Anderson led the Panthers to a surprising Week 1 win at Tampa Bay’s Raymond James Stadium, filling in for Cam Newton after he sustained a hairline fracture in his ribs during the preseason. As the two teams meet for a second time, in Week 15, Anderson again will be in the lineup against Lovie Smith’s team, tasked with keeping the Panthers’ season alive, due to a back injury that Newton suffered in a car accident this week. And as unprecedented and crazy as it may seem, Carolina still has a viable path to the playoffs, despite winning exactly one game over an 11-week span of this season. If the postseason actually happens, talk about records that will never be broken.
Well this should be more entertaining than your average Battle of Ohio. Johnny Manziel’s starting debut is falling about three months later than many predicted, but at least it comes in a meaningful late-year setting, rather than with the Browns headed for another four- or five-win lost cause of a season. I think we’re in store for the full Manziel -- some good, some bad, some forehead-slapping, Brett Favre-conjuring ugly -- but I like the matchup for the rookie against an aggressive but poor-tackling Bengals defense. Manziel will give the Browns the offensive spark they have lacked of late under Brian Hoyer, and for a week at least, inspire questions of why Cleveland head coach Mike Pettine waited so long?
Tanking is such an ugly, loaded word. Jets and Titans fans prefer to think of it as taking more of a big-picture approach to this week’s battle of 2-11, last-place teams. Suck for the Duck, indeed. Alas, the Jets won’t be able to win for losing.
The Broncos take care of business in the AFC West, going a gaudy 16-1 against division foes since Peyton Manning got to town in 2012. But that lone loss was to the Chargers, in Denver in Week 15 of last season. San Diego’s brutal December will continue with another near-miss loss. The Chargers couldn’t quite get it done against Tom Brady last Sunday night at home, and Manning will follow roughly the same script, pulling out the victory with a second-half rally.
With few exceptions, the Lions have done a solid job this season of beating the teams they’re supposed to beat, and a home game against the improved but third-place Vikings definitely falls into that category. The Lions finish the season with three consecutive division games, but they don’t want to go into Week 17 needing to win at Green Bay (where they haven’t won since 1991) in order to clinch a playoff spot. That makes this week against the Vikings and next week at Chicago get-it-done time.
It’s last stand time for the bloodied and depleted Men of Harbaugh, and somehow it was fated to come down to San Francisco’s road trip to Seattle, where the intensity and significance of the games have always been at their highest point these past four seasons. The resurgent Seahawks will delight in bringing the curtain down on their rival’s playoff hopes, not to mention the likely end of the Jim Harbaugh-Pete Carroll coaching saga in the NFC West. Give us “What’s your deal?’’ one last time.
Now why did Cowboys EVP Stephen Jones feel the need to give Dallas head coach Jason Garrett the dreaded vote of confidence heading into the season’s most crucial game, at Philadelphia? (And for that matter, why does Jones refer to his father as "Jerry" in the media, as if that way we might forget they’re related?) Garrett has finally gotten his club to the nine-win level, but so what? The playoffs are not remotely assured, as they would have been had the 8-8 version of the Cowboys won one of those recent-year Week 17 NFC East showdowns they’re famous for losing. Troy Aikman had it right the other day in our Q&A; there’s a chance 10 or even 11 wins might not do it for Dallas in this year’s high-quality NFC playoff field. Wouldn’t that be a kick in the star on the helmet? The Eagles won’t run circles around the Cowboys like they did on Thanksgiving Day in Arlington, but the end result will still be a two-game Philly division lead with two to play. Unless of course you happen to put much stock in the fact that the road team has won five of the past six meetings between these two rivals.
Monday, Dec. 15
It’s 5-8 versus 5-8, but the first-place Saints somehow still have a division to win, while the last-place Bears try to make some sense of a season that came completely off the rails. For a pair of head coaches with elite offensive pedigrees, who are both known as quarterback gurus, Sean Payton and Marc Trestman aren’t looking all that savant-like these days. I’m taking the Saints because they’ve at least found a winning formula on the road of late, while the Bears still can’t win much at home, going 2-4 at Soldier Field this season.