Top storyline for each Week 15 NFL game

By Vincent Frank
Courtesy of Mark L. Baer, USA Today Sports

It’s pretty crazy that with three weeks remaining in the regular season over two-thirds of the teams around the NFL have a legitimate shot at earning a playoff spot.

With this comes some pretty dramatic action as the regular season winds down.

This week will see the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts vie for control of the AFC South, both with backup quarterbacks under center.

It will also see the red-hot Arizona Cardinals travel to Philadelphia to take on an Eagles team that’s tied for first place in the mediocre NFC East.

Such is the nature of the beast in a league that has been defined by mediocrity this season — mediocrity that makes pretty much every game from here on out boast playoff implications.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at St. Louis Rams: Last game for Rams in St. Louis?

By now, you already know the story. Three teams are vying for an opportunity to play in Los Angeles next season. With the NFL-imposed deadline for cities to make their pitches set for later this month and a league-wide vote on relocation scheduled to take place in January, we are finally reaching the tipping point here.

Rams owner Stan Kroenke put forth the first of two stadium plans in the Los Angeles area earlier this year. He has a plot of land in Inglewood and is said to be willing to move the team without hesitation. In this, league approval would set into motion a relocation from St. Louis as early as next month.

With three games remaining in the season, things are also coming to a head on the football field for the five-win Rams. Their last home, Thursday night against Tampa Bay, could in fact be the team’s final game in St. Louis.

It will be interesting to hear the talk leading up to this otherwise meaningless late-season matchup.

New York Jets at Dallas Cowboys: Home team in unfamiliar position of playing spoiler

Two games out of the NFC East race with three left, the Cowboys are as good as done. The rest of the season will be about keeping players healthy and attempting to end the playoff aspirations of the opponents remaining on the schedule.

This starts Saturday night against an eight-win Jets team that’s hanging on to the final wild card spot in the AFC. Not only does New York need to win out to pretty much guarantee itself a playoff spot, it will need some help from other teams within the conference to earn that improbable trip to the postseason.

Such is the nature of the beast in a tightly contested AFC where tiebreakers may come into play.

Losing on the road to a hapless Cowboys team would likely end any thoughts of the Jets playing meaningful January football.

In this, Todd Bowles and Co. are going to have to come to play in Dallas. We know the Cowboys will not really be into this one. It’s now all about going through the motions and finishing out the season.

The Jets simply need to take advantage of that scenario by playing the same football that has them on the brink of earning a potential playoff spot.

This means continued excellent play from Ryan Fitzpatrick (nine touchdowns, zero picks last three games), and a bullying defensive mentality against a talent-stricken offense. If the Jets are able to do that, they will be just fine when all is said and done Saturday night.

Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens: Continued momentum for the Chiefs?

Courtesy of Jake Roth, USA Today Sports

Winners of seven in a row with an average scoring differential of 17.1, the Chiefs are playing the best football in the entire AFC. In fact, here’s a team that is yielding an average of just 12 points per game during this span.

Despite throwing his first interception since Week 3 in Kansas City’s win over the San Diego Chargers last Sunday, Alex Smith is playing at an extremely high level.

He has put up a 95.8 quarterback rating with 15 touchdowns compared to four picks. More than anything else on the offensive side of the ball, his ability to manage the game has been huge for this team.

However, it all starts on defense with Justin Houston and Tamba Hali acting as the best pass-rushing tandem in the NFL.

Taking on an injury-riddled Ravens team that has won just four games on the season and is coming off a 35-6 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, there’s no reason to believe the Chiefs won’t be able to continue their magical run.

It’s now all about maintaining that high level of play in a game it could easily overlook with a potential of a 10-game winning streak to close out the regular season.

Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts: Potential battle for AFC South crown

We know T.J. Yates is getting the start for the six-win Texans. We also know that it will either be Matt Hasselbeck or Charlie Whitehurst going for a Colts team that boasts the same record.

We also know that the winner of this game will be in the driver’s seat to take home the AFC South crown.

Talk about the perfect representation of mediocrity in a league that seems to be mired in it this season.

Houston and Indianapolis lost by a combined 56 points last week. They enter Sunday with exact 6-7 records. And in reality, neither is likely going to finish above .500 on the season.

We could look at specific matchups in this battle of AFC South “titans” as a way to figure out who has the advantage. Instead, it’s likely all going to come down to which team’s quarterback sucks less.

Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots: Playoff positioning for the Pats

Tom Brady could be throwing to the hologram of Don Hutson and still find a way to lead the Patriots to a win over the hapless Titans — a team that lost 30-8 to the New York Jets last week.

The issue here could be New England taking Marcus Mariota and Co. lightly, something that Bill Belichick has likely beaten into the squad throughout the past few days. If that were to happen, there’s a way the Titans stay close in this one.

More than this, pretty much everything is on the line for an 11-2 Pats squad that needs to win in order to maintain its status atop the AFC standings.

Any type of let down here could have wide-ranging ramifications as it relates to playoff seeding moving forward.

Buffalo Bills at Washington Redskins: Kirk Cousins and Co. looking to continue playoff push

Probably the most surprising playoff contender at this point has to be the Redskins. While the team’s job has been made easier playing in the NFC East, no one even expected Washington to win six games this season.

Now tied with Philadelphia and New York for first place, the Redskins have a prime opportunity to earn their first division title since 2012.

The better news here for Jay Gruden and Co. is that they are coming off that long-awaited first road win of the season after losing their first five away from D.C.

This has to give the team confidence heading into what will be a difficult home date with another team that’s right in the thick of the playoff race.

For his part, Cousins has performed exceptionally well in front of his home crowd. He boasts a 5-2 record with 12 touchdowns compared to two interceptions in seven home starts. In those seven games, the Redskins are averaging 24.4 points compared to 16.7 on the road.

With their final two games of the season coming on the road against Philadelphia and Dallas, the Redskins need to find a way to get the job done at home on Sunday.

Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings: Get right game for Minnesota?

Teddy Bridgewater

With three losses in their past four games after starting the season 7-2, the Vikings need to take care of business against an inferior divisional opponent on Sunday.

While Chicago has dropped consecutive games to average competition, it has remained competitive in every game since a Week 3 shutout loss to Seattle. In fact, the Bears’ last five losses have come by a combined 17 points.

That’s the key here. The Vikings simply can’t afford to just show up on Sunday and expect the game to be handed to them on a silver platter. Chicago is too good for that nonsense to unfold.

Instead, Teddy Bridgewater will have to bring his solid recent performance into Sunday’s game. He’s coming off a stellar 335-yard outing in a loss to the Arizona Cardinals last week.

In order to keep the onus off Adrian Peterson against a stacked box, this second-year quarterback will need to continue playing at a high level.

At 8-5 on the year, Minnesota is currently the sixth seed in the NFC, two games ahead of multiple six-win teams. While this means that the playoffs are a near lock, the Vikings can’t settle for backing their way into January. A loss to Chicago would be a representation of just that.

Carolina Panthers at New York Giants: Pursuit of perfection

If any team is able to end perfection, it’s Eli Manning and the Giants. Heck, just ask Tom Brady all about this. We are pretty sure he will be more than happy to open up about it.

The expectation that a contending Giants team might be able to put an end to the Panthers pursuit at history is one thing. Looking at the way both teams have played recently is a completely different thing.

Looked at by the mainstream as a pretender earlier in the season, Carolina has gotten better as the year has progressed.

Over the course of their past four games, the Panthers are averaging 37.3 points per outing. That’s up considerably from the first nine games (28.3 per outing).

This is a sign that Cam Newton and the cast of nobody’s he is working with on offense has found a way to mesh big time, which has to be a scary proposition to opposing NFC playoff teams.

As it relates to the Giants, mediocrity would be the best term to describe this team. Coming off a hard-fought 31-24 win over the lowly Miami Dolphins, Manning and Co. are performing far below their talent level.

They have lost four of their past six games, pretty much throwing away an opportunity to run the talent-stricken NFC East during that span.

Instead, the Giants now need to compete with two other six-win squads for a right to host a vastly superior team when the playoffs come calling next month.

A win against the undefeated Panthers would go a long way in cementing the Giants’ status as a true wild card in the NFC. Though, that seems like a remote possibility at this time.

Atlanta Falcons at Jacksonville Jaguars: Jags just continuing to hang around

While the Texans and Colts take on one another in a battle between mediocre backup quarterbacks, the Jaguars find themselves hanging in there just one game back and coming off a 51-point performance against Indianapolis.

Say what you want about Blake Bortles and his advanced stats. He likely doesn’t care too much for your opinion in the first place:

Instead, it’s all about the scoreboard and how the second-year quarterback is helping his team remain alive in the playoff race.

Jacksonville has won four of its past seven games after starting the season 1-5. During that seven-game span, the former first-round pick has put up 17 touchdowns compared to six interceptions.

Narrowing it down a bit further, Bortles has put up eight scores and zero picks while leading his team to an average of 45 points over the past two games.

No matter how disastrous the Jaguars defense might be, and it is, this type of production on offense will keep the team in most games.

Taking on a free-falling Falcons team that has lost six of seven, Jacksonville seems well equipped to take care of business on Sunday. If so, Gus Bradley and Co. will find themselves with a legitimate shot to capture the AFC South during the final two weeks of the season.

Green Bay Packers at Oakland Raiders: Another signature win for Jack Del Rio’s squad?

Courtesy of Jim Brown, USA Today Sports

On the verge of rendering itself moot in the AFC playoff race, Oakland pulled off one of its biggest upsets in recent franchise history last week against the Denver Broncos.

Being absolutely dominated at that half, the Raiders rebounded with a dominating performance themselves in the second half for a surprising 15-12 win over the division-leading Broncos.

Now returning home still in the mix for a playoff spot, Oakland has the pleasure of taking on another first-place team with Super Bowl aspirations. It does so as three-point underdogs against the Packers.

The key for Oakland will be to find a way to put consistent pressure on Aaron Rodgers. That will start with Khalil Mack going up against a right tackle in Don Barclay that has been among the worst players at his position in the NFL.

If the Raiders are able to do that, they might very well be able to pull off yet another upset win against an upper-echelon opponent, cementing their status as one of the most-surprising teams in the NFL this season.

Cleveland Browns at Seattle Seahawks: Just how good is Seattle’s offense?

Seattle will head into Sunday’s action with Christine Michael and Bryce Brown sharing the running back duties. Neither player was on the 53-man roster this time last week.

This would have spelled doom for the Seahawks run-based offensive attack in the past. Following Russell Wilson’s blistering hot four-game stretch, that is no longer the case.

During Seattle four-game winning streak, the team is averaging 35 points and 450 total yards per game. For Wilson’s part, he is completing over 70 percent of his passes for 1,171 yards with 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Taking on a Browns defense that ranks in the bottom seven in yards against and is yielding the third-most points in the NFL, Seattle should have its way here. It will all depend on Pete Carroll and Co. making sure they don’t overlook a bad team.

Cincinnati Bengals at San Francisco 49ers: A.J. McCarron’s chance to shine

Prior to suffering a broken thumb last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Andy Dalton was having himself a career year — something that was needed after yet another premature postseason exit.

Still, there are questions regarding Dalton’s ability to lead Cincinnati to a title. After all, he boasts a career 0-4 record with one touchdown and six interceptions in the playoffs.

While Dalton may be able to return for the postseason next month, McCarron will have an opportunity to help lead the Bengals to a first-round bye over the next few games.

It’s an opportunity that could also lead to the Bengals’ brass thinking long and hard about moving on from Dalton.

Due $79-plus million on his contract over the next five seasons, Dalton’s contract only has $7.2 million fully guaranteed after this season.

Depending on how well McCarron plays and whether Dalton is out for an extended period of time, this could be an important span of games for the former national champion at Alabama.

Denver Broncos at Pittsburgh Steelers: Playoff implications galore

Courtesy of USA Today Images

By virtue of its disastrous loss to the Raiders last week, Denver currently sits as the third seed in the AFC.

Taking a Dalton-less Bengals team out of the equation for a second, Denver can’t afford to lose another game if it wants to gain home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Simply put, New England’s schedule is too favorable for anyone to expect it to lose more than one of its final three games.

On the other side, Pittsburgh is currently tied for one of the two wild cards spots in the AFC. It would also hold the tiebreaker over the New York Jets should each team win their final three games.

That makes it incredibly important for Pittsburgh to take care of business moving forward.

Despite averaging over 35 points in the past five games, it will not be easy finding success against a No. 1 ranked Broncos defense.

Miami Dolphins at San Diego Chargers: How bad are the Chargers?

Tied for the worst record in the NFL, San Diego is in the midst of its worst season since 2000. Some of this has to do with myriad of injuries the team has suffered, but things just aren’t going right for Mike McCoy’s squad.

Potentially playing their last game in San Diego, the future couldn’t be more uncertain for the Chargers. They are coming off a two-game span that has seen them score a total of six points while racking up a total of 30 first downs. That’s simply not going to get it done.

The one certainty is that a recently-extended Philip Rivers will be under center. Outside of that, there isn’t much working in the Chargers’ favor. Starting this week, the remainder of the season will be spent figuring out what the team has in terms of young players and whether McCoy is the long-term solution as the head coach.

Arizona Cardinals at Philadelphia Eagles: Potential statement game for Chip Kelly and Co.

Philadelphia has won two consecutive since being absolutely blown out by Detroit on Thanksgiving day. This has helped the team get right back in the NFC East race with three games remaining.

Some will say that the Eagles win against New England earlier this month was a statement performance. That’s fine and dandy, but it’s worth noting that the Patriots were very limited by injuries in that game.

If Philadelphia is able to take out a Cardinals team that is riding a seven-game winning streak and boasts the second-best record in the NFL, that will be the statement Kelly has been attempting to make throughout his tenure in Philly.

More than this, the Eagles simply need to win in order to maintain its status as a legitimate contender in the mediocre NFC East.

Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints: Draft positioning

The NFL couldn’t have known that this would be a meaningless game when it was scheduled prior to the year. However, the over/under here has to be on fans actually getting holiday shopping done rather than watching this game.

Both Detroit and New Orleans is slated to pick somewhere near the top 10 in next year’s draft. With one win separating the two, this could be a big game when it comes to draft positioning.

Sorry folks, that’s all we got for you here.

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