Top 10 storylines for NFL Week 15

By Vincent Frank
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

All but one game on the Week 15 NFL slate has playoff implications. This is the way the league likes it. Head into the stretch run with as many games as possible playing a role in the postseason chase.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will lead his first-place team up against a Denver Broncos squad in dire need of a win to remain in playoff positioning. How will the MVP candidate perform against the best pass defense in the NFL?

Meanwhile, over in the NFC, two young quarterbacks do battle on Sunday Night Football when Jameis Winston leads his Tampa Bay Buccaneers into Dallas to take on Dak Prescott and the Cowboys. What are the implications of this surprisingly great late-season game?

These are among the top-10 storylines for NFL Week 15.

1. Two surprising contenders meet in Jersey

The New York Giants will look to stake claim to the top wild card spot in the conference while attempting to remain alive in the NFC East. On the other hand, the suddenly charging Detroit Lions need a win here in order to inch closer to the NFC North title and the No. 2 seed in the NFC Playoffs. Needless to say, this is a huge battle between two of the most-surprising teams in the league.

The biggest key to this all-important late-season game will be just how well the Lions perform against Eli Manning, Odell Beckham Jr. and Co. Detroit has struggled throughout the vast majority of the season defending the pass. But with Pro Bowl candidate Darius Slay leading the way, this unit has performed exceptionally well in that aspect of the game recently.

Coming off a splendid performance against Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys, New York’s defense will also be looking to make a statement here. Surprisingly, the Giants have yielded the seventh-fewest points in the NFL this season. That comes on the heels of this unit ranking 30th in that category last season. How will this unit perform against surprise MVP candidate Matthew Stafford?

While Dallas and Seattle might be the two teams most are talking about in the NFC, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one of these two squads make a deep run in the playoffs. Whoever comes out on top Sunday will be in a better position to do just that.

2. Tom Brady’s toughest test of the season

Brady met a difficult test in the Baltimore Ravens’ top-10 pass defense last week. He passed with flying colors, throwing for over 400 yards and three touchdowns, further cementing his status as the top MVP candidate heading into Week 15.

In fact, a strong argument could be made that Brady is playing the best football of his career. He’s now thrown 22 touchdowns compared to two interceptions while completing nearly 69 percent of his passes in nine starts this season. Tasked with going up against an elite-level Broncos defense without Rob Gronkowski in the mix, this is Brady’s ultimate test of the year.

For the Broncos, it’s pretty much going to be all about snuffing out the Pats’ passing attack. Denver has wholesale issues on the offensive side of the ball and can’t be expected to keep up with Tom and the boys if this turns into a high-scoring affair.

That’s where the league’s top pass defense comes into play. Denver ranks first in the NFL in completion percentage allowed, first in passing yards allowed, first in quarterback rating and first in yards per attempt. Heck, this unit has allowed just 10 touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions in the season.

Whether it is Aqib Talib stepping up against his former team or Chris Harris doing a number on Julian Edelman, someone needs to stop Brady in the back end of Denver’s defense. Should that happen, the Broncos will have an opportunity to come out with a win and maintain their status as a playoff team.

If not, and depending on what happens with the Miami Dolphins, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Broncos on the outside looking in when Week 16 comes calling.

3. Titans’ defining moment

Courtesy of Derick E. Hingle, USA Today Sports

With six wins in their past nine games and coming off a tremendous team-wide performance against the defending champs, the Titans have already started to make noise in the AFC. Though, there is still no guarantee that this up-and-coming team will earn a surprising playoff spot with three games remaining in the regular season.

Tennessee’s Week 17 home game against the Houston Texans may very well decide the division. The issue here is that Houston has already beaten Tennessee and holds a pretty sizable tiebreaker for the division crown. This means that the Titans would be best served winning out and hoping Week 17 itself matters.

That starts Sunday against a 10-win Kansas City Chiefs squad that’s come out victorious in eight of their past nine games. It also comes in one of the most-hostile environments the NFL has to offer. Should the Titans find a way to beat Kansas City at Arrowhead, it would most definitely put the rest of the AFC on notice. More than that, it would set up a scenario in which the Titans could earn a playoff spot after winning a combined five games the previous two seasons.

The focus here is going to be on how Marcus Mariota handles a tough Chiefs defense on the road. Last week saw the second-year quarterback complete just 6-of-20 passes for 88 yards in a win over Denver. Surely, he’s going to have to play better here.

Though, the performance Tennessee gets from its running game will likely play as big of a role. Combined, DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry lead the league’s third-best rushing attack. If they are able to take pressure of Mariota here, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Tennessee go into Kansas City and come out with a win.

4. NFL’s worst team?

On the surface, most will conclude that the Cleveland Browns and their zero wins represent the worst the NFL has to offer this season. That’s hard to argue against. What’s also hard to argue against is the fact that the San Francisco 49ers have been equally as bad since Week 1. Chip Kelly’s squad blew a 17-0 lead to the lowly New York Jets at home last week and has now lost a franchise record 12 consecutive games.

This begs one simple question. Which of these two teams is the absolute worst in the NFL heading into Week 15? And why does it matter? Well, the latter question is the easiest to answer. The worst team should end up with the first pick. But in this case, that might not happen.

Colin KaepernickSure San Francisco defeated the Los Angeles Rams 28-0 in the season opener. Since then, there’s not another word that better describes the 49ers this season outside of “ugly.”

The team has lost 12 consecutive games by an average of 14.2 points per game. Cleveland’s average loss currently sits at 12.9. That’s a whole lot of bad right there.

Then, we have the whole level of competition to think about here. San Francisco’s opponents have put up a combined 83 wins. On the other hand, Cleveland’s opponents have won 94 games.

These two stats tell us a story of a 49ers team that’s been less competitive against competition that hasn’t been as good as what Cleveland has faced this season.

Interestingly, this all comes together in what each team might be looking at come draft time. Cleveland and San Francisco are both likely going to be in dire need of a quarterback when the draft itself comes calling.

If the Browns somehow find a way to finish the season without accumulating a win, they’ll have the first crack at that.

We’ve seen how this has played out in the past in drafts that included Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf as well as Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.

Sunday will see Cleveland take on a struggling Buffalo Bills team while the 49ers have to travel to take on the high-octane Falcons in Atlanta.

5. Must-win game in Minnesota

Both the Indianapolis Colts and Minnesota Vikings need a win on Sunday to maintain their status as a potential playoff team. The loser here will be all but done.

Indianapolis heads into Week 15 with a 6-7 record and one game behind both Tennessee and Houston in the AFC South. With the wild card already out of the equation, this is the Colts’ only real opportunity to make the playoffs. With the Titans and Texans set to take on one another in Week 17, the Colts can’t afford to be one game behind either when that comes calling.

This makes these next two games extra important. Unfortunately for Indy, it has Minnesota and Oakland on the road during this span.

On the other hand, Minnesota is still somewhat alive in the NFC North race. It is two games behind Detroit and loses the tiebreaker to the Lions after being swept by the division rival during the season. A Lions win coupled with a Minnesota loss to Indianapolis, and the Vikings will officially be eliminated from contention in the division.

Though, the Vikings likeliest path to the playoffs has to be considered the wild card. They are one game behind Tampa Bay and a half of game behind Washington in the race for the final spot. Meanwhile, the suddenly red-hot Green Bay Packers have tied Minnesota up at 7-6.

This is the long-form way of saying that both Indianapolis and Minnesota must win out in order to have a shot at the postseason. That makes Sunday’s outing an unofficial elimination game for both squads.

6. Re-evaluating NFL MVP race

Ezekiel Elliott

Over the course of the season, we have focused on both Derek Carr and Ezekiel Elliott as MVP candidates. This may ring true heading into Week 15, but a likely name seems to be taking over the top spot here. He goes by Tom Brady and he’s been having a heck of a season.

Following last week’s 400-plus yard performance against Baltimore, Brady has thrown for nearly 2,900 yards in nine starts. Yes, that’s an average of 320 yards per game. He’s also added 22 touchdowns compared to just two interceptions. In the process, New England boasts an 8-1 record and is averaging 30 points per game in his nine starts.

Short of some voters deciding that a player who found himself suspended for the first four games of the season doesn’t deserve the MVP, this appears to be Brady’s to lose.

Though, Elliott continues to make a name for himself as a solid alternative. He’s now put up 100-plus total yards in each of the past five games and in 10 of his last 11 outings. On pace for 2,109 total yards and 16 touchdowns, Elliott is also touching the ball on 40 percent of the Cowboys’ snaps this season.

What we learned last week is that both Dak Prescott and Derek Carr may have taken themselves out of this conversation with horrible performances. Meanwhile, Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford remains a dark-horse contender.

With Brady set to take on a dominating Broncos pass defense and Elliott set to go up against an equally impressive Buccaneers defensive line, it will surely be interesting to see how the MVP race evolves in Week 15.

7. Dak Prescott’s rookie wall

We knew it was coming. It was unavoidable. Every rookie quarterback in the history of ever has hit that rookie wall. More times than not, that’s where things go wrong and fail to get back until said players’ rookie season is over. Just look at Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz.

Though, Prescott is most definitely a different breed. Putting up the best rookie season for a quarterback since at least Russell Wilson, there’s no guarantee that Prescott will continue to flounder.

Sure he put up two interceptions in a 10-7 loss to the New York Giants last week, a number that matched his interception total from the first 12 games. Sure there’s already speculation that the Cowboys must now go back to Tony Romo. None of this really matters.

Prescott has been facing the pressure of leading America’s Team on the longest winning streak in franchise history. All the while, he’s continued to prove himself among the most capable quarterbacks in the NFL.

We have no real reason to expect Prescott to struggle come Sunday night against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That’s a viewpoint most of us could get behind if only we were talking about the rookie in a vacuum. Unfortunately for Dallas, it is tasked with taking on a red-hot Buccaneers team that’s won five consecutive and has shut down the likes of Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers and Drew Brees over the past three games.

It goes without saying that Prescott will be up against it at home Sunday night. In order to avoid more questions about his status as the starter and to help Dallas maintain its standing as the No. 1 seed, Prescott better be prepared to shake off last week’s horrendous performance and come through big time here.

8. Just some bad football games

It’s unfortunate we have to focus on this, but it’s’ also important to avoid some of the matchups that look less appealing this upcoming week. Who is really interested in watching a one-win San Francisco 49ers squad get destroyed by the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome? This could very well be a repeat of the Falcons’ blowout win over the Los Angeles Rams last week.

When we enter December, it should be all about meaningful football and competitive games. That obviously isn’t going to be one. Though, it surely does have playoff ramifications.

The same cannot be said for the Cleveland Browns taking on the Buffalo Bills. In reality, it’s brutal that fans for either team needs to sit through this one. All Cleveland has going for it is an opportunity to avoid becoming just the second team to go winless during a 16-game regular season. Meanwhile, Buffalo is playing out the stretch with the soon-to-be fired Rex Ryan calling the shots. Watching that game would be akin to self-masochism.

The good news here is that 15 of the 16 games on the Week 15 slate have playoff ramifications. This should enable us to avoid watching bottom-feeding teams play out the string while embarrassing themselves in front of minimal crowds.

9. Philip Rivers and Co. looking to play spoiler

Philip Rivers

The San Diego Chargers have nothing going for themselves. Head coach Mike McCoy will be fired shortly following the season, after which point the Chargers will likely relocate to Los Angeles. Maybe as a last parting gift to their loyal fans in San Diego, the Chargers can pull off an upset home win over the first-place Oakland Raiders.

It’s definitely asking for a lot considering just how poorly Rivers and Co. have played recently. San Diego has lost three of its past four with Rivers himself accounting for 13 turnovers during that span. He’s also going to be faced with going up against Khalil Mack while likely not having Melvin Gordon in the mix. Ouch.

But this is a division rivalry. It has presented us with some surprise finishes in the past. And in reality, the Chargers will likely find themselves pumped up to take on the Raiders in what will likely be their second-to-final game in San Diego.

10. Young NFC squad rising to the top

We’ve just about talked enough about the Dallas Cowboys. We get it. What their young players are doing is absolutely amazing. It’s one of the most astonishing performances we’ve seen from a team in recent regular season history. That’s cool.

What’s also cool is what we’ve seen from the Cowboys Week 15 opponent, Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Much like Tennessee over in the AFC, it’s been fun to watch a previously downtrodden team rebuild itself from the inside out.

It starts with second-year quarterback Jameis Winston, who has his team in a tie for first place in the NFC South and in the midst of a five-game winning streak. But the Buccaneers’ performance for the past two-plus months has involved the team in its entirety.

Winston wouldn’t be having such a tremendous season if it weren’t for star receiver Mike Evans. The third-year pass catcher has put up 80 receptions for 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns. There’s still three games left in the season.

Meanwhile, Tampa’s unheralded offensive line has done a stellar job protecting Winston. He’s gone down 26 times in 13 games this season. That’s on the heels of Winston being sacked just 27 times as a rookie. All said, Winston boasts a minuscule five percent sack rate in his young career.

Set to take on a Cowboys defense that’s struggled getting to the quarterback on the season, this seems to indicate Winston could be in for a big game come Sunday night. That’s magnified by the fact that Dallas ranks in the bottom five of the NFL against the pass.

Defensively, we focused on how dominating the Buccaneers have been against the pass in recent weeks. That also bodes well for the team’s ability to contain a rookie quarterback in Dak Prescott who is coming off a career-worst performance.

Tampa will have the spotlight on itself in front of a nationally televised audience Sunday night. Should it step up and hand the Cowboys just their third loss of the season, it might be time to take this up-and-coming team seriously in the NFC.