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The First Fifteen: Week 15

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Posted Dec. 13, 2011 @ 3:20 p.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

Here are the top 15 story lines for Week 15, which couldn't possibly be as crazy as Week 14:

1. Typically in "The First Fifteen," for big matchups, you read one numeral from one team's perspective and another item from the view of the other club. But this week, we're taking three perspectives for Patriots-Broncos in Denver: from the view of the Patriots, from the home team's and from that of the TV networks. We start with the latter. The assumption is that the battle over whether this game would be flexed (to NBC and, hence, prime time on Sunday night) as opposed to playing in the afternoon (on CBS) was waged between owners: the Patriots' Robert Kraft and the Broncos' Pat Bowlen, two highly respected men in NFL circles, perhaps two future Hall of Famers and two central figures in the NFL's lockout this past offseason. The assumption is that Bowlen, who serves on the broadcast committee, fought for the bright lights of NBC and that Kraft, who became the symbol of owner sensibility and reason during the labor battle with the players, leaned on the league harder to keep the afternoon game and have his team avoid a red-eye plane ride home while most of America was asleep. It's likely not true, though. The spirit of the flex rule is to prevent dog games from ending up on NBC, a privilege the network paid handsomely for. Ravens-Chargers (more on that further down), is not, according to Hoyle, a dog game. The NFL made the just and fair call by keeping the Patriots-Broncos game on CBS, even though much of the country might not be able to see Tim Tebow vs. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. That is, until they cut over late. You know, for Tebow Time.

2. Technically speaking, Tebow's 10-point comeback was the sixth-best of Week 14, with five other teams — Atlanta (16 points), Jacksonville (14), Houston (13), Arizona (12) and the N.Y. Giants (12) — having trailed by greater margins. But reality and perception are not always great bedfellows, are they? We are all witnesses, of course, and for those who scold Bears LB Brian Urlacher for his saying Tebow "is a good running back," it's a cute sound bite, little more, but one in need of revision: He's a better, more clutch running back than the Bears' version, Marion Barber, who foolishly ran out of bounds late, stopping the clock, and then later added pain on top of misery by fumbling. Here at "TFF," we have stopped trying to classify or pigeonhole Tebow and have learned to love what he and the Broncos are accomplishing. You know that Belichick, both a historian and an innovator, deep down has to appreciate Tebow. There are a million connections between them, from the coach's roots as a Navy football fan (and its single-wing offense, which is in Tebow's DNA) to the Patriots famously being undressed by the "Wildcat" formation (by the Dolphins in 2008) to the coach's relationship with Urban Meyer (Belichick attends Florida's pro day nearly every year) and the Patriots' pre-draft courting of the QB/RB/whatever (a fancy Italian dinner in Boston's North End). The X's-and-O's geeks are salivating at the matchup. The question is: What will Belichick cook up defensively? Will he pressure (the Jets did and lost), spy Tebow (the Chargers did and lost), play cover-2 (the Vikings and Bears did, both losing)? Expect multiple coverages — and a few tricks Tebow hasn't seen — but the Patriots' secondary is clearly ripe for picking. The past four quarterbacks the Patriots have faced all were on their teams' respective benches at some point this season, yet they have averaged 308.8 yards passing against them.

3. More delicious irony with this matchup: It's hard to remember now, but we went through the same is-he-or-isn't-he debate with Brady about a decade ago. It started during the Patriots' run-up to Super Bowl XXXVI, continued through the shocking win over the Rams that was credited to the defense among other things, thrived when the Patriots struggled to 9-7 the next season and only ceased when Brady led the Patriots to a second ring two years after the first. The improvement Brady showed between Years One and Three gives hope to the Tebowphiles who say he will only get better, and you'd be hard-pressed to find two harder workers or two more determined and mentally stone-cold athletes. NFL matchups are not about quarterback vs. quarterback, but they make for fascinating theater. And Brady appears to be a fan. "Everyone says he struggles throwing the ball," Brady told Boston's WEEI Radio on Monday, "(but) he threw the ball extremely well when I was watching." The truth of the matter? Brady struggled nearly as badly in the first half Sunday with his accuracy (8-of-19 passing) as did Tebow (3-of-16 passing in the first three quarters) with his. The Broncos can chew up clock like no one, so this could be an eight-possession game for Brady and the Patriots. They won't waste time before getting the ball to matchup nightmare TE Rob Gronkowski, but keep an eye on the coin flip before the game. Seriously. If Belichick wins, he'll defer and play "D" first; better to have Tebow start the game on offense, when he's typically cold and John Fox tends to play way more conservatively, and give Brady an extra second-half possession.

4. If you're Mike Tomlin, do you play Ben Roethlisberger? Clearly, the Steelers need to keep winning, starting Monday night in San Francisco. They must finish a game ahead of the Ravens (both teams are 10-3) and can't let up, not with the potential to drop from the No. 2 or 3 seed vs. the No. 5 seed as the top wild-card team. And if they're the five, you know what that means: a likely game against Tim Tebow in Denver. Roethlisberger's Grade-1 ankle sprain is going to hurt a lot this week, and the biggest question Tomlin will have is whether playing on it will hurt his QB. The good news is that it appears C Maurkice Pouncey's sprained ankle doesn't appear to be as bad as the one he suffered in the AFC championship game last season, and he said he expects to play against the 49ers. (Of course, he also said he would play in the Super Bowl.) The bad news, however: No James Harrison. He was suspended for his fifth illegal hit against a quarterback in three seasons, which means 49ers QB Alex Smith (who suffered a concussion in Week Two) can rest easily. If Roethlisberger can't go, it will be Charlie Batch as the starter and Dennis Dixon as the backup. And if Cardinals QB John Skelton can beat the 49ers despite a three-turnover performance, why can't the Steelers' backups? This looked like a Super Bowl preview two weeks ago, and it still could happen, but worries are higher on both sides.

5. If you're Jim Harbaugh, how concerned are you after Sunday? You already were without ILB Patrick Willis, and then you lose OLT Joe Staley (the dreaded "head injury") and fall to the Cardinals. Yes, the hot Cardinals. But the concern is growing in San Fran. Now the Saints are breathing down the Niners' necks, tied with a 10-3 mark, in the pursuit of the NFC's second seed and the all-important bye that comes with it. The offensive problems are becoming alarming. The 49ers have become a field-goal offense (three TDs in the past 18 red-zone possessions), Braylon Edwards is nowhere to be found (one reception for five yards on nine targets the past three games) and the offensive line (without Staley, their best O-lineman) allowed five sacks of Smith on Sunday. All this when the Steelers' defense has become increasingly stingy the past four games, allowing 17, nine, seven and three points over that stretch. In fact, the only team that has really scored against the Steelers is the Ravens, who scored 58 points in the two matchups. The other 11 opponents have totaled only 140. Don't be shocked if Harbaugh breaks out a few gadget plays to jump-start this offense and the crowd. You know the Stillers fans will travel, pregame at Shanghai Kelly's in Nob Hill and be very loud at Candlestick.

6. The talk in the northwoods is whether this 2-11 team actually could be worse than Les Steckel's 3-13 nightmare season back in 1984. But it has been a dream ride lately for the Saints, who won in a playoff-like atmosphere outdoors and on the road against a feisty Titans team. The Saints have a wild-card berth locked up, but the next chores are winning the division and earning a first-round bye. Technically, the 49ers have the current edge with more conference victories. But the Saints beating the Vikings would cut that gap to one game, and this game features perhaps the greatest mismatch of the week leaguewide: Drew Brees vs. that wretched Vikings secondary. Brees currently leads Brady in passing yards, 4,368 to 4,273, and is going up against a defense that ranks 26th in passing yards allowed, 30th in points allowed and 31st in interception percentage. Brees is going to take his shots. If he's going to pass Dan Marino's all-time mark of 5,084 yards in a season (one he came within 15 yards of matching in 2008), Brees will want to crank it up Sunday around the 350 mark to give the option for a little rest in Week 17, if possible. Of course, one of the teams with a statistically worse pass "D" than the Vikings is the Saints. They let everyone throw on them, even Christian Ponder, if his hip pointer is healed. If not, it's Joe Webb again. He gave the Lions fits Sunday with his edge running speed.

7. You get the sneaking suspicion that the Lions are going to flame out in spectacular fashion this season or that they will go on one of those blessed, catch-as-catch-can runs (a la the 2009 Arizona Cardinals) en route to a Super Bowl. Nothing in between. Sunday's brow-wiping win over the Vikings can be blamed on not having DTs Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, S Louis Delmas and CB Chris Houston coming into the game and losing CBs Eric Wright and Aaron Berry and LB Justin Durant during the course of the game. The defensive playmaking (six turnovers, two defensive TDs, game-clinching strip-sack in the red zone) was impressive, but the lack of discipline on this team is startling at times. Suh, who was suspended two games, and the majority of those defensive players should be back, perhaps along with RB Kevin Smith. But the problems are bigger than health alone.

8. How perfect, then, that the Lions draw the Raiders, who are the one team that can make the Lions look like the paragon of restraint and control. The Raiders have self-destructed as their defensive line has disappeared, the running game has gone AWOL and the turnovers and penalties have caught up with them. Ah yes, the penalties. The record for a season is 158 by the 1998 Chiefs, who finished 7-9. If the Raiders, currently 7-6, keep playing like they are, they'll match the Chiefs' mark (they need 28 to tie, which is quite doable) and win-loss record. Both the Lions and Raiders figure to be in full-on desperation mode, of course, as playoff bids hang in the balance for each. Here's an idea for a fun drinking game during this one: Take a shot every time a yellow hankie hits the turf. You'll be pie-eyed by halftime.

9. Thursday football hits its penultimate week as all the games go to Sunday in Week 17. Great news that Falcons head coach Mike Smith is apparently OK. He spent time in a Charlotte hospital for chest pains, but it apparently was unrelated to his heart and he's back at work. Short week. Smith will lead his Falcons against his former team, the Jaguars, who are coming off a 41-14 lambasting of the Bucs. Smith's Falcons are still searching for a complete four quarters one of these days, but they will take a 16-point second-half comeback they achieved against the Panthers last Sunday. There will be a pretty good matchup of Mel Tucker's defense, which has been respectable all season, and the Falcons' offense, which is starting to spring up with the big plays. Rookies Julio Jones and Jacquizz Rodgers both provided some oomph in the Panthers win that came in handy. This is a matchup that matters because the Falcons remain in the driver's seat for a wild-card spot, and Tucker is trying to show his bosses in Jacksonville that he should be the head coach sans interim tag.

10. Saturday football! Raheem Morris' first game as Buccaneers coach was a 34-21 loss to the Cowboys in Tampa. Will his final game be a loss to the Cowboys in Tampa? Think of it this way: The Glazers could opt to fire Morris and leak the news right as the Sunday games are starting, easing the P.R. blow a bit. "Obviously, the only criticism I care about comes from people with (last) names that end with G," Morris said Monday, not quite right as Glazer clearly begins and not ends with G. "Next (in line), the criticism, his name would have to end with a D, and that would be (GM Mark) Dominik. Then it has to do with my coaching staff, and then it has to do with my players. So really, once we get together and we figure out what we need to do and do better, that's what we have to do. That's the only way you win football games." On the other sideline, Jason Garrett might not exactly have the greatest job security, and he looks petty for trying to explain to the media how he handled his timeouts in Week 13 and then privately telling the team that he erred. It's not just Garrett, either. Rob Ryan is taking heat for his defense's penchant for late-game breakdowns, and players have whispered that the scheme is too complex. But Garrett has to move past this and get his Cowboys team right after blowing a 12-point lead to the Giants with 5:41 remaining, especially against a Bucs team that has been outscored by 106 points in the seven straight losses. It's hard to believe this Bucs team opened 4-2.

11. Are we watching the Jets' season play out just like last year? Early slump, strong finish, Jim Leonhard season-ending injury. The script is remarkably familiar, no? So safeties Brodney Pool and the much-maligned Eric Smith get thrown into the fire right away, facing Eagles QB Michael Vick — the newly self-minted pocket passer who carved up the Dolphins' secondary Sunday — and his still-tender broken ribs. In addition to Vick and the deep passing game, the other thing the Eagles do really well is rush the passer. DE Jason Babin has 15 sacks and has been a terror this season. Say what you will about the linebackers, but the Eagles' defensive line has gotten after it this season with the rush. However, the Jets got a good screen game going Sunday against the Chiefs and are almost certain to employ it again against the somewhat undisciplined Eagles rushers. Although the Eagles remain in the NFC East race at 5-8, their chances are fairly dim. It's too bad when you consider that RB LeSean McCoy is having a season for the ages and should topple some franchise rushing marks. He has an NFL-best 17 touchdowns (14 rushing) and could win a rushing title.

12. The Giants are a dangerous, flawed team that you probably don't want to see come January. Eli Manning and his 14 fourth-quarter touchdown passes (tying an NFL record) come home to avenge the Week One loss to the Redskins, who have gone belly-up but remain competitive and who actually have improved offensively. You can't say that the Giants have gotten better defensively, really, given that they have allowed 49, 38 and 34 points the past three games, although those were to three of the top six offenses in the NFL with the Saints, Packers and Cowboys. Want to keep an eye on a tremendous mismatch? Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year in somewhat of an open field for that award, and he'll be plying his athletic craft against Redskins OLT Willie Smith, who probably will make his first NFL start, assuming the team doesn't go back to Sean Locklear. Smith played most of the game but labored through his first effort against Patriots DE (and former Redskin) Andre Carter. The Giants will want to make a statement here and win big. They'll have impressive rookie RB Roy Helu to contend with, and their own running game could use tweaking, but this is a game they have to win to keep command of the NFC East.

13. One way that Romeo Crennel can impress his bosses in his new role as Chiefs head coach is by beating the Packers. Have fun storming the castle! Actually this one is in Arrowhead, and it will be fascinating to see how much green and gold penetrates what typically is a fairly big sea of red. You just know that the timing of Todd Haley's Monday firing at least had the idea of giving the home crowd something to feel good about in a game in which they are heavy underdogs. The other factor, of course, is that the Chiefs looked absolutely miserable against the Jets. Sad. Pathetic. The efforts the previous few weeks had been admirable, but not this one. One thing going in Crennel's favor: no Greg Jennings. The Packers' receiver has a knee sprain and could miss the final three games of the regular season if the team plays things safely. They're going for a perfect record, and a win here would be the club's 20th straight (one short of the Patriots' all-time mark of 21). It also very likely will be the Packers' final road game of the season, with two at Lambeau to end the season, plus the expected home field throughout the playoffs that would take a complete disaster to lose. Their next game away from home from that point, assuming the streak continues, would be Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis.

14. Rookie quarterbacks square off in Houston as the AFC South champion Texans greet their fans for the first time since winning the division Sunday in dramatic fashion in Cincinnati. Expect the Houston fans, who have not witnessed playoff football since 1993 when the Oilers were in town, to give the Texans a hearty welcome. They remember Joe Montana, Marcus Allen and the Chiefs ending the Warren Moon "Run and Shoot" era in a 28-20 loss all those years ago all too well, but this year's Texans have been a tremendous story that still hasn't received its proper due leaguewide. Equally as captivating this season has been the play of Cam Newton — at times breathtaking, at times frustrating — who will provide this excellent Texans defense a look they have not had thus far this season. But the Panthers have had trouble playing defense this season, and if Texans QB T.J. Yates' first two games are any indication, the kid should be fine against this defense. Of course, he might not need the dramatic fourth-quarter game-winning drives he has had to engineer in his first two starts. The Panthers typically start hot and then slam into a wall in the third quarter, offensively and defensively.

15. Ravens-Chargers: OK, so it's not Tebow vs. Brady. But NBC has a decent game that the Steelers will be watching closely from their San Fran hotel rooms. The Ravens will lean heavily on their defense to challenge a revived Chargers offense, and it has been Terrell Suggs (three sacks, three forced fumbles on Sunday) filling the void with Ray Lewis out. It's still Lewis' and Ed Reed's defense, but Suggs is quickly joining Pierre-Paul in that DPOY discussion. With Lewis out four games, the Ravens have allowed a mere 50 points. Wow. Although the Chargers' last-gasp effort has been semi-admirable, you have to think it's a death rattle with too many obstacles to overcome in too short a time. They can thank their midseason wallow for the situation they are in. The Ravens' next two games after this one are in the division: vs. Cleveland and at Cincinnati. It would be a tough trip home from San Diego if they can't take care of business in this one.

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