Week 15 of the NFL season presents us with a ton of spectacular individual matchups. These battles will largely dictate how the week and the remainder of the season itself plays out.
Over in the AFC, the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos renew their long rivalry in a game with wide-ranging playoff ramifications. How will Tom Brady perform against the league’s top pass defense? Can his offensive line hold up opposite Von Miller and Co.? These are two big questions heading into that specific game.
In what could be a battle for NFC supremacy, the red-hot Tampa Bay Buccaneers look to hand the Dallas Cowboys their second consecutive loss. How will the Buccaneers’ defensive line perform against a Cowboys offensive line that’s the best in the game?
While these two games represent half the top matchups this week, here’s a look at some other top-end individual battles set to take place during Week 15 of the NFL season.
Tom Brady vs Broncos pass defense
Monday night saw Brady absolutely light up a stellar Baltimore Ravens pass defense to the tune of 406 yards and three touchdowns. This helped the New England Patriots take a one-game advantage in the race for home-field advantage in the AFC.
It really was an astonishing performance, especially considering Baltimore headed into Week 14 yielding the sixth-fewest passing yards in the NFL. In fact, the Ravens had yielded less than 200 passing yards in nearly half their games prior to last week.
Now set to take on a Broncos defense that’s No. 1 in the NFL against the pass and has yielded a 67.4 quarterback rating on the season, Brady is in for yet another epic battle in a game with wide-ranging playoff ramifications.
The matchup itself brings a whole bunch of different stories to the table here. Chris Harris has proven himself capable of shutting down Julian Edelman in the past (more on that later).
Meanwhile, Aqib Talib will likely act the part of a rover in the defensive backfield, potentially set to cover anyone from Chris Hogan to Martellus Bennett. He also seems to be pretty jacked up over this matchup against his former team (more on that here).
If Brady is able to even come close to his performance against Baltimore, New England will inch closer to the first seed in the AFC. On the other hand, Denver finds itself currently tied with the Miami Dolphins for the sixth seed. With all three of its games coming against 10-plus win teams, Denver is most definitely in a must-win situation here.
2. Dak Prescott vs Jameis Winston
Two of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL going up against one another in a huge nationally televised game with wide-ranging playoff ramifications. What’s not to like about this matchup between the first-place Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers? After all, there’s a reason the NFL flexed this to Sunday Night Football.
Prescott and his Boys are coming off a horrendous offensive showing in a 10-7 loss to the New York Giants this past Sunday. It was by far Prescott’s worst showing of his rookie campaign. The young quarterback matched his interception total from the first 12 games with two picks in the three-point loss. He also led a Cowboys offense that converted on 1-of-15 third-down opportunities.
But we have to look at all this in context. Dallas headed into Week 14 with an opportunity to clinch the NFC East. It still has that opportunity with three games remaining. And by virtue of the Seattle Seahawks’ blowout loss to Green Bay, Dallas is in the driver’s seat for home-field advantage. With that said, it is still going to need a much better performance from Prescott moving forward.
None of us should really be surprised by Prescott’s struggles this past week. He headed into the game failing to throw for as much as 200 yards in each of the past two weeks. He’s hit that rookie wall, something that most of us figured would happen at some point.
As it relates to Winston and the Buccaneers, there most definitely aren’t any sophomore struggles in play here. Tampa Bay heads into Week 15 with an 8-5 record and tied with Atlanta for first place in the NFC South. It is also currently the sixth seed in the NFC. That’s in no small part due to the mistake-free football we’ve seen from Winston over the past two-plus months.
Since starting out the season with eight touchdowns and eight picks in his first four starts, Winston has thrown 15 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions in his past nine outings. It’s not a coincidence that the Bucs boast a 7-2 record during that span and are in the midst of a five-game winning streak.
If Winston were to outperform Prescott come Sunday night, it would most definitely put the rest of the NFC on notice. If it came during the Buccaneers’ sixth consecutive win, that would be magnified even more.
3. Marcus Cannon vs Von Miller
Cannon and the New England Patriots held their own against a pretty good Ravens pass rush this past Monday night, allowing Tom Brady to be sacked just once in the game. Though, Brady himself was under more duress than we’re accustomed to seeing. Whether that was a case of him holding on to the ball too long or a breakdown in pass protection is really left up for the individual eye.
For his part, Cannon allowed just one quarterback hit throughout the game. That’s a big deal with him set to take on a beast of a pass rusher in Von Miller come Sunday. Needless to say, part of the reason for Denver’s success against the pass has been the Miller-led pass rush.
He enters Week 15 leading the NFL with 13.5 sacks and ranks among the top-three players in the entire league in quarterback hurries. Should Miller put consistent pressure on Brady, it could force the MVP front runner to make an uncharacteristic mistake or two. That’s what Denver and its fledgling offense needs to stay competitive in this must-win game.
4. Jack Conklin vs Justin Houston
This may seem somewhat like a mismatch in the Kansas City Chiefs’ favor. It could very well still be, but that’s based more on name recognition than anything else. Conklin, a top-10 pick from Michigan State, has been among the best rookies in the NFL thus far this season. Last week alone, the Titans’ right tackle absolutely dominated reigning Super Bowl MVP Von Miller.
— Chris Baker (@cbake26) December 12, 2016
Think about that for a second. Miller is a player that headed into Week 14 having put up four sacks in two games. Heck, despite his doughnut last week, Miller still leads the NFL with 13.5 sacks. Talk about a rookie stepping up at a time when his young quarterback needed it.
Conklin sure did receive some help in protection of Marcus Mariota last week. That’s likely going to take hold again come Week 15. Though, it will be interesting to see if Tennessee decides to put him out there on an island in an attempt to open its passing game up. After all, Mariota completed just 6-of-20 passes for 88 yards against the Broncos last week.
For his part, Houston has been bullying opponents since returning from injury. Over the course of his first four games, the All Pro has put up 4.5 sacks and a dozen quarterback pressures. Those are elite-level numbers right there.
In a game that pits two of the hottest teams in the NFL against one another, it’s this one matchup that will help dictate the outcome. Kansas City finds itself at 10-3 and in first place in the AFC West. Meanwhile, the Titans have won six of nine and are tied for first in the South.
5. Cowboys offensive line vs Buccaneers defensive line
We wanted to focus on specific matchups for this titanic NFC tilt, but there’s just too many to choose from when it comes to the trenches. Dallas Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith has been the single most dominating blindside protector in the NFL this season. It’s one of the primary reasons the Cowboys head into Week 15 with an 11-2 record and boasting a strong opportunity for home-field advantage.
On the other hand, Smith will surely have his hands full against the likes of Robert Ayers and youngster Noah Spence come Sunday night. The two have combined for 11 sacks and continue to show themselves to be a tremendous force on Tampa’s surprising defense.
Though, this might not be the most intriguing matchup of the evening. Instead, that comes in the form of All Pro Gerald McCoy being tasked with stopping Ezekiel Elliott and one of the top rushing attacks in the NFL. McCoy will butt heads with Cowboys right guard Zack Martin, who continues to be one of the most-dominating run blockers in the game.
Adding even more intrigue here, it will definitely be telling to see how Ronald Leary matches up against an underrated Buccaneers defensive tackle in Clinton McDonald. That matchup in and of itself might play a huge role in this game.
So there you have it. Two EDGE players taking on one of the top left tackles in the NFL, players the Buccaneers need to put pressure on Prescott in order to contain the Cowboys passing attack. In the meantime, the trench warfare along the interior of the lines will play a huge role in how Elliott performs.
6. Odell Beckham Jr. vs Darius Slay
Slay has been slaying it as of late for the Lions. That laughable pun aside, the recently extended corner has been dominating on what must be considered a vastly improved pass defense.
Remember, it was just a few short weeks ago that the Lions were yielding a 75 percent completion rate and 106-plus quarterback rating. Following tremendous outings against Sam Bradford, Drew Brees and Matt Barkley, that’s just not the case anymore.
Lions pass defense.
First 10 games: 22 TD, 6 INT, 106.7 rating.
Past 3 games: 1 TD, 4 INT, 79.5 rating pic.twitter.com/RHimo1DiML
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) December 13, 2016
The primary reason for this success has been the All Pro level performance of Slay.
Darius Slay yards allowed in each game since returning from injury: 14, 12, 14, 31
— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) December 12, 2016
This has had a direct correlation with the continued excellence of a Lions squad that enters Week 15 boasting a 9-4 record and in the midst of eight wins in its past nine games.
On the other hand, Beckham Jr. has broken out of his early-season funk. Here’s a guy that’s put up 90-plus yards in four of his past five games after reaching that plateau just twice in his first eight games. While the success rate between OBJ and Eli Manning (59 percent completion) might not be there, this electric third-year receiver is making the big plays. We know, that’s a shocker.
With New York holding on to the first wild card spot in the NFC and still looking to cling to hope of an NFC East title, it needs a win here to improve its standing.
On the other hand, Detroit can clinch the NFC North title with a win and a Green Bay Packers loss. More than that, it currently holds the No. 2 seed in the conference. Simply put, the Lions can’t afford to fall back here. That’s where Slay’s performance against Beckham Jr. comes into play.
7. Joe Barksdale vs Khalil Mack
This is seemingly a matchup made in heaven for Mack and the Oakland Raiders. Not only is Philip Rivers on pace to be sacked more than each of the previous three seasons, he’s been turning the ball over at a clip that would make Ryan Fitzpatrick proud.
In his past four starts, Rivers has turned the ball over a whopping 13 times. To put this into perspective, seven teams have committed less turnovers on the season.
Needless to say, Mack will be drooling at the opportunity to get to Rivers and force a couple more mistakes in what seems to be a lopsided AFC West battle.
So why is this one of the top matchups on the week’s slate?
Most of the pressure Rivers has faced thus far this season has come from the right side of the line, where Barksdale is tasked with holding up his end of the bargain. Entering Week 15, he grades out as one of the 10 worst pass protecting offensive tackles in the game.
If he can’t hold off a player in Mack that’s recorded 10 sacks in the past eight games, the Chargers’ upset hopes will pretty much be dead.
8. Julian Edelman vs Chris Harris
Edelman is coming off a horrible performance against the Baltimore Ravens this past Monday night. He caught just 7-of-15 targets with three drops. It was so bad that Tom Brady pretty much threw a temper-tantrum on the field. Really, he did.
Not to pile on Edelman too much here, but he doesn’t necessarily have a tremendous matchup against Harris and the Denver Broncos. He has caught 71 percent of the passes thrown in his direction in his past four games against Denver. That’s awesome. Unfortunately, Edelman is averaging an absurdly low 6.9 yards per target during that span.
With Rob Gronkowski lost for the season, New England simply needs to find someone to stretch the field. And no, one big catch from Chris Hogan isn’t going to solve this issue.
In fact, Brady’s inability to push the ball down the field was somewhat of an issue in the games prior to Baltimore absolutely failing to cover anyone in Week 14.
That’s going to be the biggest key here. Can Brady take advantage of what he sees pre snap, much like what we saw last week? If so, will he be able to beat a dominating Broncos pass defense over the top? That’s where the matchup between Edelman and Harris comes into play.
9. Le’Veon Bell vs Bengals run defense
Three games out in the win column in the AFC Playoff race, the Cincinnati Bengals are as good as done. They will have to win out and get a bunch of help just to sniff the postseason. This, despite the fact that Marvin Lewis’ squad is riding a two-game winning streak heading into Sunday’s home date with the first-place Pittsburgh Steelers.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to conclude that Cincinnati’s playoff hopes rest squarely on its ability to stop Bell on the ground. And really, good luck with that. Bell put up 297 total yards in last week’s win over the Buffalo Bills. All said, the suddenly viable MVP candidate has tallied an otherworldly 823 total yards over the past four games. Let that resonate for a second.
And then, understand this.
Cincinnati has yielded the eighth-most rushing yards in the NFL this season. Heck, it’s also given up nearly 500 receiving yards to running backs on the season.
While we expect the Bengals to do whatever they can to stop Bell, we also have to realize that the likes of Antonio Brown and Ladarius Green present matchup concerns in the passing game. That’s where the Bengals are between a rock and a hard place. Should they not figure this thing out, there’s no reason to believe this team will remain alive in the playoff race following Sunday’s action.
10. Redskins offensive line vs Panthers defensive line
With Trent Williams now back in the mix after serving a four-game suspension, one would think that Washington’s pass protection might improve even more. That wasn’t the case in the Redskins’ win over Philadelphia last week.
Cousins was sacked twice in just 23 drop backs and saw himself face pressure over a quarter of the time. In fact, this represented the second consecutive game that Cousins has been sacked twice after he went down a grand total of 14 times in the first 11 games.
Now that Williams has one game under his belt, maybe he will help this offensive line get back to the dominating status it saw itself playing at earlier in the year.
Though, that’s most definitely going to be a difficult task against a Carolina Panthers defense that has actually surpassed Denver for the most sacks in the NFL (39).
Even more so than Williams taking on the duo of Wes Horton and Mario Addision (eight combined sacks), this game could come down to how the interior of Washington’s offensive line performs Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei. This is the best pass-rushing defensive line tandem in the NFL. It’s also in this that Brandon Scherff and Shawn Lauvao will have to come up big.
Cousins tends to struggle with pressure up the middle more than he does when faced with EDGE pass rushers. If Short and Lotulelei come up big here, the Redskins’ playoff hopes might take a major hit. They currently sit at 7-5-1 and a half game behind Tampa Bay for the final wild card spot in the NFC.