Week 15 has a playoff look and feel
By: By Barry Wilner, AP Pro Football Writer, Superior Telegram
This might be even better than the playoffs.
Week 15 sure looks like a playoff round with so many matchups between contenders. From Foxborough to Baltimore to Atlanta, from Chicago to Houston to Dallas. Maybe even throw in St. Louis. It feels like the postseason because of the importance of those games for all involved.
"I think for us it's an important football game because we've got a lot of stuff in front of us that we want to finish off with this season," said Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who could have been speaking for every team still in the playoff races.
And especially for those facing opponents in the same position this weekend, including Ryan's Falcons against the NFC East-leading New York Giants.
Also San Francisco is at AFC East winner New England, AFC West champion Denver at AFC North leader Baltimore, NFC North leader Green Bay at Chicago, Indianapolis at AFC South leader Houston, Pittsburgh at Dallas, and Minnesota at St. Louis.
Elsewhere Sunday, it's Seattle against Buffalo in Toronto; Washington at Cleveland, Tampa Bay at New Orleans; Jacksonville at Miami; Carolina at San Diego; Detroit at Arizona; and Kansas City at Oakland.
On Monday night, the New York Jets are at Tennessee.
The action began on Thursday night when the Bengals won 34-13 at the Philadelphia Eagles (4-10). Andy Dalton threw a touchdown pass and ran for another score for Cincinnati (8-6).
San Francisco (9-3-1) at New England (10-3)
Six days after exposing the Texans in a prime-time rout, the Patriots take on another likely division winner with Super Bowl aspirations. Should New England, which has won 20 in a row at home in December and has not lost in the second half of the schedule in 21 games, do the same to the 49ers on Sunday night, well, nobody will doubt the Patriots have earned the favorite's role.
The Patriots, winners of seven in a row, tend to live up to such challenges.
"This week it's the 49ers," said Tom Brady, who threw for four touchdowns against Houston. "It's not the weather, it's not the rest, it's not the crowd — it's the 49ers. I think as long as you stay focused on them and you focus on what you need to do against them, then you let those other things really take care of themselves. The more you waste energy worrying about a plane flight or weather conditions, it's really a waste of time. You've got to focus on your opponent because whatever you're dealing with, they're dealing with the same stuff."
Even with the No. 2 defense in the league, the 49ers are dealing with some special stuff as the Patriots take aim on several NFL offensive records.
"Multiple strengths: a really good scheme, really good play calling and then great individual effort at each position, the great ability they have to play as a team," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said of the Patriots. "You could talk for hours about how good they are."
Denver (10-3) at Baltimore (9-4)
The AFC West champion Broncos have won eight straight as their defense has become staunch. That gives them an edge in that area over the sputtering Ravens, which says a lot in itself considering how good Baltimore's defense usually is.
Then there's the comfort level Peyton Manning has gained with his playmates on offense. In contrast, the Ravens fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron this week, replacing him with Jim Caldwell — coincidentally, Manning's last coach in Indianapolis before the four-time MVP headed to Denver.
"Jim Caldwell had a tremendous influence on me as my quarterbacks coach," Manning said. "He was very organized, very detail-oriented, which I'm a fan of that philosophy ... I really felt he took my game to another level. He's also been a tremendous friend to me and mentor. I miss being around him every day and I miss his friendship every day. That's how I feel about Jim."
New York Giants (8-5) at Atlanta (11-2)
Although the Falcons own the NFC South and have the best record in the conference, they've looked vulnerable for more than a month. One of two undefeated teams at home — Seattle is the other — Atlanta needs to re-establish some momentum after a weak performance in a loss at Carolina.
What better way than against the Super Bowl champions?
"When you set out at the beginning of the year, you want to win every game that you play," Ryan said. "You can't worry about what everybody else is doing and what that means in terms of your playoff picture. I think we just played poorly last week and that's something we can't do again this week."
The Giants also have been up and down and have only a one-game lead in the NFC East, where Dallas and Washington have better divisional records.
Green Bay (9-4) at Chicago (8-5)
A Packers victory ends the suspense in the NFC North, and the way Chicago is hurting, the Bears might need to start worrying about just getting into the postseason if they fall at Soldier Field.
The latest injury is to kicker Robbie Gould's left calf, and he is done for the season; veteran Olindo Mare was signed this week. Defensive leader Brian Urlacher (hamstring) and outstanding cornerback Tim Jennings (shoulder) also have missed time, and QB Jay Cutler hurt his neck in last week's loss to the Vikings, but expects to go.
Green Bay is beginning to show some balance on both sides of the ball, yet Aaron Rodgers has not had a huge game in a while. That could be coming against the limping Bears in the 186th match of the NFL's longest series.
Indianapolis (9-4) at Houston (11-2)
The division race is over if the Texans win, and they also are very aware that another loss could force them to return to Foxborough in the playoffs.
Indianapolis has put together quite a story, going from the NFL's worst in 2012 to a victory of at least an AFC wild-card spot. Win out and the Colts, led by top overall draft choice QB Andrew Luck, take the South crown. Win here and they are in the playoffs.
Houston needs to rediscover the defensive power and stinginess that helped it surge to the top of the standings. Indy is 3-3 on the road, but the victims weren't in the Texans' class: the Titans, Jaguars and Lions.
Pittsburgh (7-6) at Dallas (7-6)
Both clubs are alive in division races, but more realistic might be pursuing a wild card. The loser here will be at a big disadvantage in that chase — unless the other contenders also lose, which is highly possible in this wide-open scramble.
For the Steelers, a more comfortable Ben Roethlisberger in his second game back from shoulder and rib problems is a must. Pittsburgh failed at home against San Diego for the first time in the regular season last Sunday, but got help from Dallas when it rallied to knock off Cincinnati.
The Cowboys showed against the Bengals the kind of fortitude many have said they lack. They'll need more of it Sunday, and they're hardly unbeatable at their palace, going 3-3 this year.
Minnesota (7-6) at St. Louis (6-6-1)
Adrian Peterson has his eyes on more than reaching 2,000 yards rushing in his comeback from major left knee surgery 11 months ago. He's thinking about Eric Dickerson's league record of 2,105 set in 1984.
Considering how unproductive Minnesota's passing attack has been with struggling second-year quarterback Christian Ponder — and without star receiver Percy Harvin — expect the Rams to load up against the run.
"I take that as a challenge and I love to see it," said Peterson, who ran through and around a better defense last week in a win over Chicago, gaining 154 yards and scoring twice.
The Rams have won three in a row and this is the first of three games against other wild-card chasers; they finish at Tampa Bay and Seattle.
Seattle (8-5) vs. Buffalo (5-8) at Toronto
Coming off its biggest road win two weeks ago at Chicago, the Seahawks should have no fear of visiting the Bills and dealing with the Western New York elements ... oh, wait.
Not much home-field advantage in the Toronto dome for the Bills, who are just 3-3 at Orchard Park, anyway.
Seattle still has a shot at taking the NFC West, but needs help to catch San Francisco. The indoor setting plays right into the hands of athletic rookie QB Russell Wilson, and facing the team that got rid of him will surely inspire RB Marshawn Lynch.
Washington (7-6) at Cleveland (5-8)
A pair of teams on a roll, with Washington chasing the postseason and Cleveland perhaps saving coach Pat Shurmur's job with its perseverance and hard work despite all the earlier defeats.
So much of the Redskins' fortunes depend on how quickly QB Robert Griffin III recovers from the knee sprain he suffered last Sunday. The sensational rookie was replaced by another freshman, Kirk Cousins, who completed the rally to beat the Ravens.
But Cousins hardly is the same threat as RG3, which might mean even more carries for yet another rookie, running back Alfred Morris. He already has 1,228 yards rushing with seven TDs.
Tampa Bay (6-7) at New Orleans (5-8)
Look for lots of points at the Superdome. Only the Giants have scored more in the NFC than the Bucs' 354 and the Saints' 348.
With playoff hopes squashed, New Orleans' players might be looking to increase their individual numbers against a defense that fell apart against Philly late last week. The Bucs are last defending the pass, and Drew Brees isn't exactly a novice at picking apart weak units.
But the Saints have the league's worst run defense, which could mean a huge day for Bucs rookie Doug Martin.
New York Jets (6-7) at Tennessee (4-9), Monday night
Somehow, even with all the turmoil surrounding Mark Sanchez, Rex Ryan and the Jets, they remain in playoff contention. Sure, they beat weaklings Arizona and Jacksonville, and not convincingly, in the last two weeks. And after this prime-time affair with another also-ran, they finish against San Diego and Buffalo. So 9-7 and a wild-card spot isn't inconceivable.
The Titans have lost three straight and five of six, stamping them among the biggest disappointments of the season.
Jacksonville (2-11) at Miami (5-8)
North Florida vs. South Florida. This might be more interesting if it was the Seminoles against the Hurricanes.
The Dolphins dumped Chad Henne and he now has replaced injured — and often inept — Blaine Gabbert as quarterback of the Jaguars. That and Jacksonville's pursuit of the NFL's worst record and top pick in the draft give this game at least some flavor.
Carolina (4-9) at San Diego (5-8)
It's become fun to watch Cam Newton again. What he did last week against Atlanta surely has been noticed by a San Diego team that snapped a four-game slide with a shocker at Pittsburgh.
The Chargers have an effective run defense and actually could win this one on the ground.
Detroit (4-9) at Arizona (4-9)
Two of the biggest flops in the league collide.
It's impossible to believe the Cardinals can be any more wretched than in that 58-0 debacle last Sunday at Seattle. If they have any fight left, they will at least show up against the Lions, who look more like the team that spent a decade near the bottom of the standings than the one that broke a playoff drought a year ago.
Kansas City (2-11) at Oakland (3-10)
Last time these bitter rivals met, the Raiders were 2-4 and the Chiefs 1-5. Not much has changed, a sad commentary considering where these franchises once were.