Now it gets interesting. Week 15 is when the finish line first comes into sight, the playoffs seem tantalizingly close, and at least a handful of matchups grow massive in their implications. The biggies this week are easy to spot:
• Carolina puts its perfect season on the line against the Goliath-slaying Giants, who can’t afford a loss in the equally ugly NFC East. Whose dance wins out, Cam’s or Odell’s?
• And streaking Arizona heads cross-country for a primetime encounter with a resurgent Philadelphia team that may be in the process of vindicating Chip Kelly’s methods after all. Angry Birds, indeed.
The real fun has just begun. Now on to this week’s picks...
• Last week: 11–5; Season: 13375 (.639).
• Best pick in Week 14: Tie, Philadelphia 27, Buffalo 20 (Actual score: Eagles 23–20); N.Y. Giants 20, Miami 17 (Actual score: Giants 31–24).
• Worst pick in Week 14: San Francisco 20, Cleveland 16 (Actual score: Browns 24-10).
And here was my pick for the Tampa Bay-St. Louis Thursday night game.
I’m old enough to grow a little nostalgic for when the NFL always played a pair of day games on the first two December Saturdays after the annual Army-Navy game closed out the college football regular season and the Heisman got awarded. That won’t ever happen again because the league got addicted to primetime TV ratings and won’t break that habit when there’s bigger money to be made. So a Saturday night game in Weeks 15 and 16 it is. We’ll take it, but a Saturday triple-header for two straight weeks wouldn’t be a bad development whatsoever: 1 p.m,, 4:30 p.m., and 8 p.m.
As for this game, I love that Todd Bowles’s club is making a real run at the playoffs and maybe keeping that streak alive of Jets head coaches reaching the postseason in their first year on the job (Herm Edwards, Eric Mangini, Rex Ryan and counting?). As for Dallas, the Cowboys are an abysmal 1–5 at home this season and just 2–8 in their own monstrous ballpark since the midpoint of last year. Be careful what you wish for, Jerry Jones. Texas Stadium looks better all the time.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh spent all those years on Andy Reid’s staff in Philadelphia and then went and earned a Super Bowl ring in his fifth season of running his own show in Baltimore. Reid is still chasing that elusive piece of jewelry, now in his 17th season as an NFL head coach. But at least his red-hot Kansas City club is back in the running for Santa Clara after that miserable 1≠5 start the Chiefs endured. The Ravens, in a rare off year in Baltimore, started badly and got worse. It might have something to do with the Ravens having close to $55 million worth of 2015 salary idling on injured reserve at this point.
One of these sputtering teams is probably going to represent the AFC South in the playoffs, and while I know most signs logically point to it finally being the Texans’ turn to win in Indianapolis, the Colts are like one of those characters that refuses to be killed off in a scary movie. Every time I think they’re finally out of chances, they muster up just enough life to keep moving forward. Indy’s Matt Hasselbeck basically needs to be put back together each week like the Scarecrow after the flying monkeys got through with him, but I’m expecting to see him scrape together one more victory for the Colts and put Chuck Pagano’s team on the path yet again to the playoffs.
Earlier this season, it looked like Atlanta hired the right former Seattle defensive coordinator as head coach in Dan Quinn while Jacksonville had swung and missed with former Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley as its head coach. But if you just wait a few weeks, everything you thought you had figured out about the NFL changes. For the record, I think both of these clubs got the right guy for the job, but it sure doesn’t feel that way in Atlanta as the season ebbs. The Falcons are on fumes, and it can’t be easy to get Atlantans excited about Arthur Blank’s pricey new stadium these days.
With big tests against the visiting Giants and at Green Bay looming in the final two weeks, this is a taking-care-of-business type of game for Mike Zimmer’s team. Minnesota has effectively handled those kinds of encounters all season long. It’s the spotlight games that have given the Vikings fits. No big stage here, so Minnesota grinds out its ninth victory, its highest win total since that surprise 10–6 finish in 2012.
The last time Tennessee ventured into Foxboro, the Patriots beat the Titans 59–0 in the snow in 2009, and that wasn’t even one of New England’s better teams of recent vintage (it finished 10–6 to win the AFC East but lost badly at home to Baltimore in the first round of the playoffs). It won’t be nearly that ugly this time around, but that doesn’t mean Tennessee has a prayer.
I know I’m taking a risky shot here, and I’m not confident at all about this scenario actually playing out. But the law of averages say the Panthers are eventually going to endure a bad day where the breaks go against them, and the Giants are due one of those rare home games where they play like a Super Bowl contender. New York under Tom Coughlin has repeatedly displayed a knack for getting up for its biggest challenges, and they don’t come much larger than facing the 13–0 Panthers, who have earned their juggernaut status in recent weeks. Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. will put on a show that even Cam Newton and Ted Ginn Jr. can’t match.
The Bills have proven themselves just good enough to lose close this season, and Washington has largely shown itself capable of defending its home turf. I’m rolling with the home teams in the NFC East playoff chase this week, so I might as well keep right on rolling. Buffalo and former NFC East running back LeSean “Nothing to Say’ McCoy has already lost to the Giants and the Eagles this season, and now he gets a shot at Washington and Dallas in the next two weeks.
No, all the problems in Green Bay didn’t get solved when coach Mike McCarthy took back the offensive play-calling duties from associate head coach Tom Clements. But it was a very positive step in the right direction for the Packers returning to offensive form, and that progress will continue to show itself this week on the road against a plucky Raiders team that won its sixth game last week at Denver to become bowl eligible. Uh, I mean, barely remain in AFC wild-card contention.
You’re not playing at home against the sad-sack 49ers this week, Johnny Manziel. This is the Seahawks, in CenturyLink Field. So, good luck to you. This isn’t exactly like Alabama scheduling that one November cream-puff opponent every season, but it’s close by NFL standards.
In order for Denver to keep this game close, it’s going to have to rekindle a running game that averaged 161 yards rushing in Brock Osweiler’s first three starts before producing a measly 34 yards on 21 carries in last week’s home loss to the Raiders. Osweiler didn’t play badly last week, throwing for more than 300 yards on 35 completions despite having Khalil Mack in his facemask all game long. But Denver asked him to carry too much of the load, and that wound up contributing to the Broncos’ red-zone difficulties, with the offense scoring just four field goals in the 15–12 loss. That’s not going to cut it against the Steelers, who have scored at least 30 points in five consecutive games and can’t afford to incur a sixth loss if they’re going to make the AFC playoffs. This is the win that ultimately should get Pittsburgh in, because Mike Tomlin’s club finishes at Baltimore and at Cleveland.
Maybe, as a fitting tribute in what will likely be their final game ever in San Diego, the Chargers should just put up a big screen at Qualcomm Stadium and show the broadcast of that classic San Diego playoff overtime win at Miami after the 1981 season. They could even let Kellen Winslow and Dan Fouts narrate. This game means little, but I’m not sending the Chargers out a loser in their last home game after a 55-season stay in San Diego.
Okay, A.J. McCarron, let’s see what’ve you got. The Bengals get to take a test run on the field they hope to play on again in early February, but if their backup-turned-starting-quarterback can’t keep the chains moving this week against the 49ers, any shot of returning to Santa Clara is going to dwindle dramatically. Hey, I just figured out the 49ers are 4–9. So it’s the Four-and-Niners.
I know. I know. Taking both the Giants and Eagles at home this week probably equates to needlessly giving games away, because Carolina and Arizona are the NFC’s top two teams and the favorites to meet in the conference title game in five weeks. But there’s always a few twists and turns we don’t really expect in December, and I think Chip Kelly’s team is playing with a season-high level of confidence coming off those big wins against New England and Buffalo. After seven consecutive wins, the Cardinals hit a minor speed bump in a primetime showdown on the East Coast. Arizona is 4–0 in night games this season, and going unbeaten in five games under the bright lights is no easy lift.
Maybe some day the NFL will try its hand at late-season flexible scheduling on Monday nights. It can’t come soon enough. This ho-hum matchup makes it four weeks in a row where both teams take losing records into their Monday night meeting. At least there should be some offensive fireworks in the Superdome. And are we seeing one of the final games in the coaching tenures of both the Saints’ Sean Payton and the Lions’ Jim Caldwell? Quite possibly.