Six NFL games that matter most in Week 15

By Rachel Wold

The NFL playoffs are fast approaching, and some teams have already clinched a postseason berth.

On the other hand, recent upsets against teams such as the Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals opened the door for their divisional rivals to close the gap and possibly turn the tables over the next three games.

The Week 15 schedule offers fans various entertaining games. We’ve got backup quarterbacks fighting it out to lead their division, former teammates meeting face-to-face, and teams simply looking for a victory to spare further embarrassment. Sorting through it all, we’re looking at the most meaningful matchups to follow.

Houston Texans (6-7) vs. Indianapolis Colts (6-7)

Second and possibly third-string quarterbacks headline this AFC South divisional showdown that will either keep the Indianapolis Colts atop the division or shift the power to the Houston Texans in Week 15.

For the first time in the Andrew Luck/Chuck Pagano era that began in 2012, the Colts are hanging on to the divisional lead by a half-game over Houston. With Luck (ribs) out and Matt Hasselbeck (arm in a sling) questionable to play, the fate of the Colts could be in the hands of third-stringer Charlie Whitehurst this week if Hasselbeck suffers a setback.

For the Texans, T.J. Yates will get the start over Brian Hoyer who has been ruled out due to a concussion he sustained last week.

Courtesy of USA Today ImagesYates and stud receiver DeAndre Hopkins will surely be looking to blast more holes in Indy’s beaten down defense that has surrendered 96 points in its last two games. Meanwhile, whoever quarterbacks for the Colts will be scrambling to successfully complete passes while attempting to avoid J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Co.

It would have taken a peek into a crystal ball back in early September to have known that Luck and the Colts wouldn’t be dominating the division per the usual at this stage of the season.

While this divisional matchup means the world to the Colts and Texans, it is realistically a long-shot that either of these darkhorses will be making their way to Santa Clara come February.

Kansas City Chiefs (8-5) vs. Baltimore Ravens (4-9)

The Chiefs, who have been sneakily gaining on the Denver Broncos (10-3) in the AFC West, have the distinct pleasure of playing the Baltimore Ravens, who have been stuck in reverse nearly all season.

A team that most discounted at the beginning of the season due to a early 1-5 record, the Chiefs have since gotten their ducks in a row. Quarterback Alex Smith has the least interceptions (four) of all starting NFL quarterbacks and will face a lousy Ravens defense that has also managed only four interceptions this season.

Courtesy of Jake Roth, USA Today Sports

Talk about a perfect matchup.

A win for the Chiefs and a loss for the Denver Broncos would have the two teams only one game apart vying for the AFC West lead.

The Ravens, and more specifically pick-six machine Matt Schaub, will have to stop turning the ball over at the worst of times to register a win, which at this time is only meaningful to save face for their fans.

Let’s just say something terrible will have gone awry if Kansas City doesn’t earn the “W” in Week 15 — their eighth in a row.

Buffalo Bills (5-8) vs. Washington (6-7)

When both of these unpredictable teams duke it out on Sunday, Washington will be playing to retain its lead status in a discombobulated NFC East, while the Bills need a win plenty of help from teams ahead of them to gain headway in the AFC playoff standings.

A slip up for Kirk Cousins and Co. and a win for either or both the 6-7 Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants would have Washington surrendering its divisional lead.

And the hot/cold Bills must win the remainder of the season in order to inch closer to a playoff slot.

Cousins is 5-2 at home this season and has only thrown three picks since Week 9. He and his offense will be facing Buffalo’s 22nd-ranked pass defense, while Tyrod Taylor, Sammy Watkins and LeSean McCoy will face an equally unimpressive Washington defense.

This game has the makings for an offensive shootout with both teams looking at a must-win situation in Week 15.

Chicago Bears (5-8) vs. Minnesota Vikings (8-5)

Courtesy of Dale Zanine, USA Today Sports

The Minnesota Vikings have loads at stake when they face their divisional foe Chicago Bears in Week 15.

After briefly owning the top spot in the NFC North, two back-to-back losses caused the Vikings to fall behind the 9-4 Green Bay Packers. Therefore a Week 15 win and and a hopeful loss for the Packers, who play the Oakland Raiders, would be the ideal scenario for Minnesota.

Fortunately, the Vikings should beat Chicago. Though, the Bears can be sneaky-good sometimes, which was proven when they upset Green Bay on Thanksgiving Day. In order for Minnesota to thrive and gain an early lead, they’ll need a heavy dose of Adrian Peterson to thrash Chicago’s 26th-ranked rush defense.

Furthermore, a Vikings’ defense that has been lagging as of late and missing some key players will need to kick it into gear to shut down Matt Forte, Jeremy Langford and Alshon Jeffery.

After witnessing the Vikings stumble up the last couple of weeks, a victory is most certainly is not in the bag.

Denver Broncos (10-3) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5) 

Both AFC teams enter Week 15 with must-win scenarios in front of them, and Ben Roethlisberger and Emmanuel Sanders (hopefully drama-free) will finally meet up for the first time since the receiver left for Denver and said Peyton Manning was a better leader than Big Ben.

The high-scoring Steelers will be looking to run the table down the home stretch starting with the Broncos, while hoping that an Andy Dalton-less Cincinnati Bengals (10-3) remain stagnate in the AFC North.

Denver doesn’t score much and primarily relies on its defense, but the Broncos need a win in the worst way to keep the AFC West Chiefs (8-5) at bay.

With the Steelers averaging a whopping 404.8 yards and 26.5 points per game, it will be a tall order for Denver’s No. 1-ranked defense to put the kibosh on Big Ben’s finely tuned offense.

As for the Broncos middling offense led by Brock Osweiler, the team is averaging just 339.2 yards per game. However, the Broncos will have the opportunity to disrupt this stat against Pittsburgh’s generous secondary.

Whether this game winds up a low-scoring snoozer or a barn-burner, shifting divisional powers will be told soon enough.

Cincinnati Bengals (10-3) vs. San Francisco 49ers (4-9)

Geno Atkins

The Cincinnati Bengals were riding at the top of the AFC until Andy Dalton attempted a heroic tackle gone bad last Sunday, which resulted in the quarterback breaking his thumb and loss No. 3.

Now looking to possibly play the final three games without their starter, much of the fate of the team relies on the shoulders of backup A.J. McCarron, who definitely isn’t Dalton but who thinks he compares favorably to Tom Brady.

Blaine Gabbert and Co. could certainly pull a rabbit out of their hat and foil the Bengals in Week 15, but nobody should be holding their breath waiting for a miracle. San Francisco lost badly last week to the Cleveland Browns, and Gabbert will be attempting to restore the faith of his coaches after a mediocre output.

In this matchup, obviously the Bengals have the most on the line with their divisional foe Pittsburgh (8-5) facing a vulnerable Denver squad that is toothless on offense. Unfortunately, last Sunday’s loss helped close the gap leaving the door wide open for the red-hot Steelers to possibly supplant the Bengals over the next three games.

Should the Bengals roll over and play dead and let a struggling 49ers win on Sunday, then the team’s postseason success will definitely be in doubt.