NFL

NFL 10 Big Things: Week 15

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Each week, we’ll give you 10 things to keep an eye on during the upcoming games. From one-on-one matchups to players on the mend, we’ll talk about 10 things that could have an impact on your favorite team, or your fantasy team.

1. Can the Arizona Cardinals score enough points to beat the red-hot St. Louis Rams’ defense? There probably wasn’t a time this season where you would have called the Arizona offense explosive, but it’s really seemed to hit the skids since Carson Palmer’s second injury of the season. The Cardinals still average 21 points per game on the season, but they’ve averaged just 13 ppg. since Week 11 when Drew Stanton took over for the injured Palmer. This Sunday, the Cardinals take their hobbled offense, now also without leading rusher Andre Ellington into St. Louis to play the league’s hottest defense. If you’re unsure if the Rams defense missed Chris Long, just take a look at the numbers. The Rams have piled up 13 sacks over the last two games after recording 22 sacks during the first 11 games of the season. With Long back alongside his three fellow first-rounders across the Rams defensive line, the team has been ferocious getting to the Oakland Raiders Derek Carr six times in the Rams 52-0 shutout in Week 13, and sacking Colt McCoy and Robert Griffin III seven times when the Rams shutout the Redskins a week ago. The Cardinals have to keep winning to stay in the playoff chase, but considering the way these teams are headed in opposite directions, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if the 6-7 Rams toppled the 10-3 Cardinals on Sunday in St. Louis.

2. The NFC South will likely have champion with a losing record: It’s amazing that one of the teams in the NFC South will be hosting a playoff game come January. Better yet, it won’t be a surprise if the South winner is a home dog in a playoff game come playoff time. This Sunday the 5-8 Atlanta Falcons host the Pittsburgh Steelers in a match-up of teams that have looked fantastic at one point or another this season, and abysmal at others. It wouldn’t be surprising to see this game go down to the wire, and it wouldn’t be surprising if either of these teams blew out the other. The Saints will travel to Chicago to take on the Bears at Soldier field Monday night. Like the Steelers – Falcons game, the Bears and Saints is another match-up of wildly inconsistent, and wildly ineffective teams. If the Falcons and Saints both manage to lose their games this week, it will guarantee the NFC South champion will finish no better than 7-9.

3. Kansas City looks to avenge loss to Raiders in must win game: The Kansas City Chiefs were one of the hottest teams in football, winners of five straight, and coming off of an impressive 24-20 victory over the Seattle Seahawks when they ran into the buzz-saw that was the then winless Oakland Raiders during the teams’ Week 12 Thursday night affair. The Raiders’ defense held Jamaal Charles to just 80 yards rushing and walked away with the 24-20 victory, their first of the season, despite not causing a turnover against the Chiefs. At 7-6, the Chiefs would likely need to win out, and to get a bunch of help to find themselves in the playoffs, but before they can even think about January, they’re going to have to beat a Raiders team which has won two of their last three, and has a rookie quarterback in Derek Carr who’s playing his best ball of the season. Carr had his best game of the season a week ago against the San Francisco 49ers, throwing for 254 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. The Chiefs are absolutely the better football team, but they’re going to have to go out and prove it on Sunday, or their season will be toast.

4. The Indianapolis Colts can clinch the AFC South and bury the Houston Texans: At 7-6, the Texans best and likely only hope to make the playoffs is to steal the AFC South from the Colts. With a two-game lead on Houston, Indianapolis can clinch the division on Sunday if they can beat the Texans at home, a place where Houston has never won. The Texans are a pretty good football team, with a pretty bad quarterback, and while they’ve managed to win one more than they’ve lost this season, they don’t have many impressive victories under their belts, as they’ve picked up four victories over teams with 3-10 or 2-11 records. Houston has lost most of their games against the league’s top playoff contenders, including losing their first meeting with Indianapolis at home in Week 6. The Texans played the Colts tight nine weeks ago behind a solid performance from Ryan Fitzpatrick and a 109-yard, two-touchdown showing from Arian Foster, as the team lost 33-28. Andrew Luck was his usual brilliant self that Sunday, throwing for 370 yards and three touchdowns. If the Texans want to win this game and hold onto any hope of sneaking this division out, J.J. Watt and company are going to have to find a way to slow down the Colts’ MVP candidate.

5. While the Denver Broncos can clinch, their match-up with San Diego is much more important to Chargers: Let’s face it, while the Broncos want to keep pace with the Patriots in securing a first round bye in the AFC playoffs and they can clinch the AFC West on Sunday, it’s San Diego who desperately needs to win their match-up. The Broncos are going to win the AFC West. It would take a shocking turn of events that frankly just aren’t going to happen for them not to win the division, but the Chargers know if they can’t pull off an upset over Denver Sunday, they’re going to land directly on the playoff bubble. With eight teams at either 8-5 or 7-6, and the Cincinnati Bengals are 8-4-1, every game is critical for the teams within that group. There are only six playoff spots in each conference, and the AFC has the Patriots, Broncos and Colts with control of their divisions. That means the AFC North winner and two wild card spots will be sorted out amongst those nine teams with all kinds of fun tie breakers. An upset victory over Denver Sunday would put the Chargers in a very good position to be a wild card team, but a loss would put them in a lot of trouble.

6. Derek Anderson looks to lead Carolina Panthers to victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, again: Way back in Week 1 when the NFC South was still rife with optimism, Derek Anderson got the Panthers season off to a solid start as he led Carolina to a compelling 20-14 victory over the Buccaneers. Ok, I lied about the compelling part. The game was boring, like Tennessee Titans boring, but Anderson performed well, completing 24 of 34 passes for 230 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Each team had their rookie receivers have nice debuts as Mike Evans had five catches for 37 yards, and Kelvin Benjamin finished with six catches for 92 yards and a touchdown. While Benjamin immediately became the number one, and best receiving option for an underwhelming Panthers receiving unit, it’s been a steady ascension for Mike Evans who has surpassed former pro-bowl receiver Vincent Jackson as the team’s top pass catcher. In the Buccaneers 34-17 loss to the Detroit Lions on Sunday, Evans became the first Buccaneer in history to have three multiple touchdown games in a single season. As absurd as it is, the Panthers are still in contention in the NFC South, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Panthers right in the thick of things to the bitter end if Anderson can get the Panthers over the hump against Tampa bay for the second time this season.

7. Battle of Ohio bigger than it’s been in years: It seemed like a big deal when the Cincinnati Bengals and Browns met with both of them having winning records in Week 10, but here we are heading into Week 15, and not only do they both have winning records, but they’re both even mathematically alive in the playoff hunt. Yes, it would take a Christmas miracle for the Browns to make the playoffs, but many Clevelanders would have told you that winning seven or eight games this year would be a miracle when the team named Mike Pettine as their next head coach. “Mike Pettine, who? Mike Pettine?” Remember that? Well, Mike Pettine has the Browns playing much better football than anyone expected, and Sunday the team will try to keep their slim playoff hopes alive when it hosts a Bengals team that needs the game every bit as much. The Bengals are trying to hold onto their slim AFC North lead for dear life, and with games against the Broncos and a Steelers team who dominated them in Cincinnati a week ago left on the schedule, Sunday’s game is one the Bengals absolutely need.

8. San Francisco 49ers relegated to playing spoiler against Seattle Seahawks: Yes, the 49ers are still mathematically alive, and I just made that sound pretty special for Cleveland, but the standards are set a little higher when you’ve played in three consecutive NFC title games. After finding a way to lose to the Oakland Raiders, the 49ers find themselves in a spot where the prospect of playing in January is extremely unlikely, even if they can find a way to beat Seattle this week. While they’ll hold onto hope and say all the right things publicly, deep down, the players know they don’t have much of a chance after their loss last week. The scenario brings with it some interesting questions. Will a 49ers team that’s been through everything this team has on and off the field, with the nonsense that’s surrounded the Jim Harbaugh situation, have the will to fight tooth and nail with a Seahawks team that firing on all cylinders? Is San Francisco even good enough to beat Seattle even if they could mentally block out the funk that seems to be permeating over the locker room?

9. Dallas Cowboys try to avenge Thanksgiving blowout against Philadelphia Eagles: Right now the Dallas Cowboys are the seventh seed in a six seed dance, and the prospects of sliding into the top six won’t be good if they can’t find a way to take down the Eagles in Philadelphia on Sunday night. The Dallas Cowboys need this game as much in the wild card hunt as they do in the NFC East, but there’s nothing they did against the Eagles on Thanksgiving, or against the Chicago Bears last Thursday that suggests they have a shot against the Eagles. The Dallas Cowboys have succeeded this season on defense by keeping things very simple, but it was the simplicity of the Eagles motion offense that seemed to confuse the Cowboys on Thanksgiving. If the Cowboys can’t find a way to slow down Mark Sanchez and LeSean McCoy when the teams meet this time around, the Cowboys are going to be on the verge of elimination with the Indianapolis Colts coming to Cowboys Stadium next week.

10. Johnny Football: Go ahead, roll your eyes. Pretend that you couldn’t care less that Johnny Manziel will make his first career start for the Browns at home against Cincinnati on Sunday, but you know if you don’t watch the game on Sunday, you’ll at least take a peek at the box score on Monday to see how the kid did. It’s ok, you can admit it, it’s human nature. As sports fans we can’t wait to see how a guy with all that hype can perform at the next level. There’s a huge contingency of people just hoping the kid falls flat on his face, while there’s a camp probably equally as large who hopes he’s amazing, just to spite the first group. Regardless what anyone thinks of Manziel, the biggest question regarding his future in the league is probably his style of play and not his play away from the field.


About Pat Donovan

Pat Donovan

Pat Donovan has covered the NFL for almost a decade and is a host and producer for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers radio flagship 620WDAE/95.3FM. Pat covers the NFC South and NFC East for Football Insiders. Follow him on Twitter, @PatDonovanNFL.