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Most interesting storylines for NFL Week 15

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Crunch time in the 2018 NFL season

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We’re now getting down to crunch time in the 2018 NFL season. Week 15 brings a whole lot of games that could decide who is playing meaningful January football as only a half dozen teams are officially eliminated from playoff contention.

It starts Thursday night with the Los Angeles Chargers heading to Arrowhead to take on the first-place Kansas City Chiefs. Can Patrick Mahomes and Co. wrap up the division with a home win on prime time television?

We’re also highly intrigued to see how Dak Prescott and the Cowboys will do on the road against a playoff-contending Indianapolis Colts team. Dallas can clinch the NFC East with a win here.

These are among the most interesting storylines for NFL Week 15.

 

Statement game for Chargers at Arrowhead

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

One game behind Kansas City in the AFC West, Los Angeles has an opportunity to tie things up at Arrowhead on Thursday Night Football. To say this is a statement game for Philip Rivers and Co. would be an understatement.

The Chargers boast a 3-2 record against winning teams with losses to the Chiefs and Rams in the process. They are 7-1 against losing teams on the season. More so than remaining alive in the AFC West race, Los Angeles must make a statement here. That includes defeating Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs on prime time television.

 

The hot seat in Hotlanta

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

It’s readily apparent that both Dan Quinn of the Atlanta Falcons and first-year Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks are on the hot seat heading into Week 15. Atlanta has now lost five consecutive games, including defeats at the hands of the Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers. Regression is real in Atlanta, and Quinn could end up being the fall guy.

In Arizona, it’s become clear that Wilks is in over his head. The Cardinals boast a 3-10 record heading into Week 15 and have scored the fewest points in the NFL. While a Week 15 game between two bottom feeders won’t play a paramount role in deciding who is fired, the loser here could very well be out of a job by the time the clock hits Monday.

 

Are the Browns actual playoff contenders?

Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

On the surface, it seems to be ridiculous to believe that a 5-7-1 team has a shot at the playoffs. That’s until we realize that the Baltimore Ravens — at 7-6 on the season — boast the AFC’s final wildcard spot. Realistically speaking, Cleveland could have a chance at earning that last postseason position should the team win out.

Having come out on top in three of their past four games, the Browns are playing the best football we’ve seen in over a decade. They take on a Denver Broncos team this weekend that lost to San Francisco in Week 14. After that, the Browns go up against Cincinnati and Baltimore. Yeah, Baker Mayfield and Co. are viable on the league stage for the first time in a while. A win over Denver would only magnify this.

 

Bears look to go hadouken on the Packers

Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Surprisingly, Green Bay heads into Week 15 just one game behind the Minnesota Vikings in the race for a wildcard spot in the NFC. It’s rare that a team fires a head coach while still in the midst of a playoff race. But that’s what we saw following Green Bay’s Week 13 loss to the lowly Arizona Cardinals.

With Joe Philbin running the ship on an interim basis, Green Bay took out Atlanta last week. If the team is able to come out on top in its final three games, we could be looking at a playoff appearance for Green Bay. This week’s game against the Bears and their dominating defense will be the Packers’ biggest test. After that, they close out the season against the last-place Jets and Lions. It won’t matter if Chicago is able to go Street Fighter on the Packers this week like they did against the Rams this past Sunday night.

 

Texans looking to get back on track in Jersey

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Deshaun Watson and the Texans saw their nine-game winning streak snapped last week by the division-rival Indianapolis Colts. Given the team is still two games up in the AFC South, that’s not a big deal. In fact, Houston can wrap up the division this week in a game against the lowly New York Jets.

The larger question here is whether Houston can outlast New England for the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the AFC Playoffs. The teams are tied at 9-4 on the season, but the Patriots boast the head-to-head tiebreaker. A loss against the Jets this Saturday would pretty much force Houston into playing during Wildcard Weekend.

 

Saquon Barkley’s excellence

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

At 5-8 on the season and having won four of their past five, the Giants might want to believe they’re still alive in the NFC Playoff race. That’s a foolhardy belief at this point in the season.

Right now, it’ all about the performance of Saquon Barkley in New Jersey. He’s coming off a 197-yard outing in a win over Washington last week and has put up 637 total yards over the past four games. That’s just ridiculous. And now, heading into Week 15, the rookie has gained 1,753 total yards and 13 touchdowns. We’re intrigued to see how he’ll perform against a stout Tennessee Titans defense on Sunday.

 

It’s Lamar Jackson’s world in Maryland

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

It’s official. This rookie quarterback has earned the full-time gig over veteran and former Super Bowl winner Joe Flacco. This comes after Jackson led Baltimore to three wins in his first four career stats. The only loss came in overtime against the AFC’s best squad in Kansas City last week.

Now at 7-6 on the season, Baltimore is holding on to the final wildcard spot in the conference. It’s also just a half game behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North. This week’s game against the Buccaneers should provide Jackson with yet another opportunity to excel under center. Tampa Bay ranks 27th in the NFL against the pass and has yielded a league-high 112.1 quarterback rating on the season.

 

Ending Cam Newton’s holiday dreams

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Despite losing their past five games, the Panthers are just a half game behind a reeling Vikings team in the race for the NFC’s final wildcard spot. None of that will matter if Carolina can’t get off the snide at home against the first-place New Orleans Saints this weekend.

It’s the first of two games against New Orleans in the final three weeks of the season. Needless to say, it’s going to be an uphill climb for Carolina, especially given that Drew Brees and the Saints are still in the running for the No. 1 seed. It’s now all on Cam to up his game big time this weekend.

 

Big Ben and Co. must break from recent skid

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

It’s certainly not going to be easy for the Steelers to come out on top this week against a Patriots team that’s going to be fuming after last week’s drama-filled loss to the Miami Dolphins. Pittsburgh has lost three consecutive games — two coming against losing teams. It’s now just 7-5-1 on the season and a half game ahead of Baltimore in the AFC North.

The good news? Pittsburgh hosts New England Sunday afternoon. Tom Brady and Co. have been outscored by a combined 12 points on the road this season. The bad news? Pittsburgh is an uncharacteristic 3-3 at home thus far this year.

 

Battle brewing in Indianapolis

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Two of the NFL’s hottest teams take to Indiana this week in a game that could have wide-ranging playoff implications. Winners of five consecutive, the Dallas Cowboys are two games ahead in the NFC East race. They can clinch this weekend with a win over Indianapolis or losses by both the Eagles and Redskins. More importantly, Dallas is in the running for the No. 3 seed in the conference. That’s big because it would allow the team to avoid a red-hot Seahawks squad in the wildcard round.

For the Colts, it’s a much different story. They are 7-6 on the season after a win over the Houston Texans last week. Though, the team loses the tiebreaker to Baltimore for the No. 6 seed. With Miami and Tennessee also 7-6 on the season, Andrew Luck and Co. would be best off winning out. That wouldn’t guarantee the team a playoff spot, but it would come darn close.

 

Rams control their own destiny

Former Rams head coach Mike Martz is not inspired by Sean McVay's hire.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Even after last week’s loss to Chicago, Sean McVay and the Rams control their own destiny for the No. 1 seed in the NFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The better news? Two of Los Angeles’ final three games come against the three-win Cardinals and 49ers.

The better news? This week’s matchup against the reeling Eagles comes against backup Nick Foles with starter Carson Wentz sidelined. There’s absolutely no reason to believe Los Angeles won’t rebound this week. Then again, the Eagles are clearly in desperation mode. What that will mean this weekend remains to be seen.

 

Seahawks can wrap up playoff spot in Santa Clara

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

It’s rather obvious that Seattle will be playing postseason football in January. Winners of four consecutive and coming off a blowout victory over the Vikings, Russell Wilson and Co. can make that a reality with a win over the hapless 49ers at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday. If so, they’d be locked into the No. 5 seed with nothing to play for over the final two weeks of the season.

Though, it’s not going to be a walk in the park for Seattle here. Sure the 49ers have lost 10 games this season. But they are coming off a solid win over Denver last week and backup quarterback Nick Mullens is averaging 300 passing yards per start this season. A loss here, and Seattle would fall back to the pack in the race for one of the NFC’s two wildcard spots.

 

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