By this point of the season, we’ve got a pretty good idea about who the contenders and pretenders are. But NFL Week 15 gives a chance to thin the herd even more.
What teams really need a win?
How much trouble is the loser of the Colts vs. Vikings game in? Did the Monday night loss really put the Ravens in desperation mode? Would a loss spell doom for the champions in Denver?
Several teams enter NFL Week 15 with clinching scenarios, which you can read about here. But what teams are on the opposite end of the spectrum? Which teams are most desperate heading into NFL Week 15?
With three games to play, the Colts are one back of both the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans in the AFC South. Indianapolis has the tiebreaker on Tennessee, while Houston breaks a tie with the Colts.
The Texans play the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 15. Normally speaking, we can’t say that any team with Brock Osweiler under center is a guarantee to win any game. But when the opposing quarterback is Blake Bortles, it’s a little easier to project.
— NFL (@NFL) December 4, 2016
An Indianapolis loss, coupled with a win from Houston and Tennessee would officially knock the Colts out of the AFC South race. That would put both teams two games up with two to play. Given that the Texans and Titans play each other in Week 17, at least one would be assured of beating Indianapolis outright.
That would relegate the Colts to the Wild Card race, which isn’t exactly a happy place for them. The Broncos enter the week as the No. 6 seed, two ahead of Indianapolis, with a head-to-head win. With a loss, the Colts could do no better than tie the Broncos and would come up short in the tiebreaker.
Should Indianapolis lose in Minnesota, it still may be possible to make the playoffs, but the chances would be slim to none. The Colts need to beat the Vikings, and every other team on their schedule.
Unfortunately for Indianapolis, it will be facing a similarly desperate team in Minnesota. The once 5-0 Vikings are now teetering on the brink of playoff contention.
Should the Vikings lose or the Detroit Lions win, Minnesota’s chances at the NFC North would be gone. That would put the Lions two games up on the Vikings, with the tiebreaker. Realistically, a playoff appearance from Minnesota will come via the wild card.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers currently occupy the last Wild Card spot. The Bucs enter Week 15 with a one-game lead on Minnesota and while it’s not official, would likely break the tie because of a superior conference record. A Vikings loss, even coupled with a loss from Tampa, would put Minnesota in a precarious spot — one game back with two to play.
The Bucs’ remaining two games are against the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers, who both sport losing records.
The Vikings, meanwhile, finish at home against the Chicago Bears, but not before a trip to Lambeau Field against a suddenly resurgent Packers team.
Realistically, Minnesota can’t fail to gain ground this week. Obviously, the Vikings have no say in what happens with Tampa, but Minnesota has to do its job and win.
Like the Colts, a loss may not eliminate the Vikings. But the writing will be on the wall.
Green Bay Packers
Green Bay is in a similar position to Minnesota, with a few exceptions.
One, the Packers have gotten steadily better while the Vikings have gotten steadily worse.
Two, Green Bay already has a win over Detroit and plays the Lions again. So, although it’d still be a tall order, the NFC North is more in play.
Three, working against the Packers is that the Vikings currently hold the tiebreaker. So, Green Bay is below Minnesota in the standings. The two do play again in Week 16.
The Packers are playing against a Bears team in a game that should be a fairly easy win. But make no mistake, Green Bay’s back is firmly against the wall.
Much like the Vikings and Colts, the Packers have virtually zero margin for error if they’re going to make the playoffs.
The situation for Baltimore might not seem quite as desperate. But while the Ravens can make the playoffs with another loss, it’s not recommended.
Steelers No. 3 seed in AFC
— Steelers Depot 🎄 (@Steelersdepot) December 13, 2016
In addition to being a game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore is a game behind both the Broncos and Miami Dolphins, who are tied for the final wild card spot.
With only three weeks remaining, there’s virtually no leeway in Baltimore. A Ravens win in Week 15 puts them no worse than a game behind Pittsburgh with a Christmas Day showdown between the two lingering in Week 16. If Baltimore won that game, it’d have the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Steelers.
If the Ravens lose, however, they’ll need to beat Pittsburgh in Week 16 and hope that the Steelers lose to both the Bengals and Browns. Otherwise, Baltimore will be relegated into a crowded wild card race where it will be, at best, one game behind two teams with two to play.
A Week 15 game against the Philadelphia Eagles certainly benefits the Ravens. That’s good for Baltimore, because it’s an absolute must win.
A look at the standings may not suggest that Week 15 is a must win game for the Broncos. But a look at the remaining schedule, which is absolutely brutal, shows how desperate things are in Denver.
They'll just play all three 10-win teams in the conference, no big deal right?
— Maurice Moton (@MoeMoton) December 11, 2016
Per Nick Groke of The Denver Post, no team since 1978 has finished it’s season against three teams that already had 10 or more wins. Going 2-1 against that group will be tough. But even that may not do it for the Broncos.
Miami is presently tied with Denver for the final playoff spot. The Broncos currently hold the tiebreaker, but if they finish at 2-1 and the Dolphins go 3-0, Miami gets the playoff spot. The Dolphins are beaten up, but finish on the road against the Jets and Bills in Weeks 15 and 16, then come home against the New England Patriots — who may have everything clinched in Week 17. The schedule favors the Dolphins.
The Titans also linger. Tennessee is only a game behind Miami and Denver, and has the head-to-head tiebreaker with both. So, if the Titans are better than the Broncos over the final three games, Denver will not have a chance to defend its championship.
Mathematically, a 2-1 finish may not even get the job done. Realistically, nothing worse than 2-1 will make the playoffs. If the Broncos can’t beat the Patriots, there’s no reason to think they’ll beat the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders (who have both beaten Denver already) to finish the year.