The playoffs are drawing near, and so much is at stake in what appears to be a tremendous slate of games in Week 15. Here are the biggest story lines in the week's action, which really boils down to one outstanding day:
1. Might want to skip the holiday shopping this Sunday. Few weeks in the NFL season — in any season — feature this much drama, this many story lines. The Thursday- and Monday-night games are nothing to get lathered up about (speaking of which: Ladies, shaving goods are always welcome gifts for the guys this time of year), but Sunday is as packed a slate as we can remember on one day of football from start to finish. You’ve got division rivals facing off (Packers-Bears and Colts-Texans), historical rivals (Steelers-Cowboys, who just happen to be fighting for their playoff lives), important seeding conference games (Falcons-Giants and Ravens-Broncos) and a potential Super Bowl preview (49ers-Patriots). You also have two fascinating injury stories — whether or not the Redskins’ Robert Griffin III and the Ravens’ Ray Lewis, two iconic players, will play — that will dominate the headlines. Wow. We also have a bad game in a once-proud rivalry — Chiefs at Raiders — that will have a big say on the first few picks of the 2013 NFL draft. That’s not must-see TV, but there is plenty of viewing pleasure elsewhere. Clear your schedule, folks. This is a round-the-clocker TV day if there ever was one. The gifts can come later. The playoff landscape will be altered dramatically in one calendar day.
2. Here are the updated playoff scenarios. The Patriots and Broncos have clinched their divisions and the Texans have locked up a playoff spot in the AFC. Only the Falcons, NFC South champs, are assured a bid in the other conference. To clinch the AFC South, the Texans must win — that’s it. To earn a first-round bye, they must win and have the Patriots lose or tie and the Broncos lose. The Ravens can take the North with a win or other permutations involving losses or ties by the Steelers or Bengals and can make the playoffs even without a win. If the Colts beat the Texans, they’re in the postseason; they also can get there with other complex happenings, but it’s looking good either way. The Falcons can get their bye with a win and a loss by either the Packers or 49ers, while losses by both and a Falcons win would clinch home-field advantage for Atlanta. If the Niners win and the Seahawks lose, their Week 16 meeting will be moot as far as the NFC West is concerned because the division will belong to San Fran. The Niners are likely to get in the playoffs regardless of what they do. Win and the Packers are in the postseason, champs of the North. They still can get in this weekend with a tie and a bunch of other teams losing.
3. The Packers are a game up on the Bears in the NFC North. Panic has set in Chicago, where the Bears have lost four of five games and suddenly seem to be vulnerable. Lovie Smith, Brian Urlacher, Jay Cutler … none of their futures are certain with the team. "I think every day I've been here, each day I think all of us come to work, we're going to do the best job we possibly can," Smith said. "All of our futures are tied. It's all based on wins and losses, really, and I'm OK with that." Forget rivalries for a minute — this game, at Soldier Field, is about self-preservation. Although the Packers were thumped by the Giants a few weeks ago, they have won seven of eight games, are getting healthier and appear to be entering playoff mode. They might not blow teams out like last season, but the sheer number of close games they’ve been in (six decided by one score) might help them in playoff time.
4. Turnovers are certain to play a major role in Packers-Bears. The Bears outgained the Vikings in Week 14 by a 438-248 count but scored only 14 points in the loss. They forced only one turnover in the game and have only seven takeaways in the past five contests. That’s way down from the 28 (!) they forced in the season’s first eight games, during which they were 7-1. In the past eight games, the Packers are plus-8 on turnovers. In the first meeting with the Bears back in Week Two, they held on for a 23-10 win after picking Cutler off four times. The Packers’ DBs spoke after the game about how Cutler tended to force the ball into Brandon Marshall in key situations. That’s still true: He has been targeted an incredible 50 times the past three games. The Bears also lost one of their more trusted offensive weapons this week when they were forced to put PK Robbie Gould on I.R., signing Olindo Mare in his place. The Bears are trying to hang on for dear life at this point.
5. The Texans are two up on the Colts with three to play, but they face each other again in Week 17. An odd scheduling quirk, but J.J. Watt and Co. have to rebound in a short week and get ready for Andrew Luck and his barnstorming Colts in a big game. For years, the Colts had the Texans’ number with Peyton Manning. Last season, the tide turned with a win in Houston in Week One and a division title, although the Colts did upset them in Week 16. Everything has changed, however. The Colts struck gold with Luck, and though his turnovers on the road (13 INTs, four fumbles lost) are reaching Def-Con 4, he and the Colts have found a way to pull most games out. Luck’s six game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime this season are the most by a rookie QB since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.
5. The Texans have lost twice this season, but both in convincing fashion against some of the NFL’s better teams — by 18 (and it wasn’t that close) to the Packers and by 28 (ditto) to the Patriots. Monday night was an equal-opportunity loss, with the defense putting them in an early 21-0 hole (it later became 28-0) and the offense unable to dig them out while the “D” leveled off. Still, the defense has to do more around Watt. The Texans’ pass defense now has been roasted in four straight games. If Luck — who went to junior high and high school in the Houston area — can avoid mistakes, the Colts will have a shot. The last rookie hometown boy to come into town in a big game, the Bengals’ Andy Dalton in the wild-card game last season, rode out a loser.
6. The Falcons appear to be tailing off, the least-respected 11-2 team in recent memory. The Giants appear to be getting hot at the right time, perhaps the most dangerous 8-5 club in the league. This, of course, is a rematch of the very telling playoff game a year ago up in New York. The Falcons were outclassed in every way in the 24-2 loss that felt much larger than that. And now they face similar identity problems — can’t run the ball (or don’t choose to, as the case might be) and can’t stop elite quarterbacks if they are not forcing turnovers. Third downs also are proving to be a killer. The Falcons were 2-of-8 against the Panthers and 1-of-11 the week prior against the Saints, for a 15.8-percent conversion rate (ouch) offensively in two games. In addition, the Falcons allowed the Panthers to convert 9-of-15 of their third downs and the Saints 7-of-14. The Giants have been money offensively on their third downs in recent games: 5-of-11 vs. the Saints, 9-of-15 vs. the Redskins and 6-of-12 vs. the Packers.
7. The Giants are far from perfect. Their secondary is vulnerable, and suddenly the run defense is a semi-mess. Would this not be the perfect time for the Falcons to wake up their mostly dormant ground game? They have won all their games at home this season but have won only one of their six games there by more than six points and have yet to rush for more than 124 yards in Atlanta. The Giants appear to have no such issues at this moment. Even though RB Ahmad Bradshaw has three or four injuries at any given time, the breakout of first-rounder David Wilson — 13-100-2 rushing and a kick-return touchdown in Week 14 — has them feeling good about a late-season boost to the run game. Still, the game at some point will come down to the play of QBs Eli Manning and Matt Ryan, and Manning clearly has been the sharper of the two of late.
8. The Ravens, like the Falcons, need to start trending upwards. They fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron on Monday and need more than Lewis’ return to boost them. The Broncos are as hot as anyone, winners of eight straight. The game in Baltimore has been touted as a matchup of Jim Caldwell, Cameron’s replacement, versus Peyton Manning, although they obviously won’t have much to do with each other between their pregame chat and their postgame hug. In fact, the man in the spotlight might actually be the other quarterback. Joe Flacco has been disappointing this season, despite the Ravens’ 9-4 mark. He and Cameron clearly didn’t establish a level of trust, but it’s said that Caldwell and Flacco are close. They need to mesh quickly. The Ravens might have concerns on both sides of the ball, but getting their passing game in order is objective No. 1. Doing so against a tough Broncos pass rush and secondary will be a tough obstacle, no question.
9. As of this writing, Lewis remains on the injured reserve-designated to return list with his surgically repaired right triceps but was expected to come off this week. OLB Terrell Suggs wasn’t able to play against the Redskins but could be available for this game, as could ILB Jameel McClain. That’s crucial. Manning is a handful, although if we’re nitpicking — and that’s what Manning does — the Broncos’ red-zone offense has sagged in recent games, even in their Thursday victory over the Raiders. And guess what? Even with all of their problems, the Ravens rank first in red-zone defense, just as they did last season. "It'll be a good measuring stick of where we are," said the Broncos’ John Fox, who is riding the longest win streak of his head-coaching career.
10. We know this much about the Harbaughs: They are not afraid to shake things up late in the season. While other teams are trying to ride the waves, the Harbaughs are making them. In Baltimore, John fires his OC. In San Fran, Jim benches his starting quarterback and suspends a running back (Brandon Jacobs) for the remainder of the season. So what will the 49ers have in store for their big Sunday-night test against the Patriots, fresh off a 28-point thumping of the Texans? Who knows, but you can be sure that Jim will be fired up. The 49ers are undefeated in four prime-time games this season, but they have had two somewhat sluggish performances back-to-back coming into this one so we could find out a lot about this team with games against the Patriots and Seahawks these two weeks. “I really believe it’s about this next game,” Harbaugh said, not wanting to look ahead. “We don’t take anything for granted. Nothing is secured until it’s secured in terms of being in the playoffs. We’ll give this game the respect it deserves and prepare for it like it’s the most important game on the schedule.”
11. The Patriots allowed only one sack but several quarterback hits (six per NFL stats, but it might have been more) on Tom Brady against the Texans. The 49ers might have even more weapons up front, including NFL sack leader Aldon Smith, who has 19½ and has Michael Strahan’s 22½ in his sights with three games to go. Patriots OLT Nate Solder had a few hiccups against the Texans, but you can be sure he will get the type of team help that was afforded to the linemen who had to battle Watt in Week 14. Consider the Patriots aware of the problems the 49ers’ front seven presents. “Obviously, long yardage is not where you want to be against this team with their pass rush and multiples of zone, man, blitz, zone pressure, man pressure,” Patriots head coach Bill “Don’t call me Bob” Belichick said. These will have been the two toughest tests, the Texans and 49ers, the Patriots have faced in back-to-back games this season, and really, the timing couldn’t have worked out better with the playoffs not far off. Oh, and Randy Moss returning to Foxborough? It’s a side note, but it’s extra fun.
12. There will be plenty of trips down memory lane and debates about the Steelers-Cowboys all-time rivalry, but there’s a sense of urgency for both teams that has everything to do with winning Sunday and nothing to do with history. For the host Cowboys, they have problems near and far. WR Dez Bryant’s broken finger likely needs surgery after the season, and though he likely will try to play Sunday, you have to figure he’ll be limited in catching the ball cleanly. The way he and Tony Romo are connecting lately, it would be a big loss if Bryant is hobbled, especially facing the No. 1-ranked pass defense statistically in the Steelers. The Cowboys also have to find a way not to grant teams double-digit first-half leads at home. The Steelers come in embroiled in a three-way race for the AFC’s two wild-card spots, with an outside chance at the division. Their problem is they tend to play down to their competition, so they should be up for this one in a battle of 7-6 teams. Interesting stat: The Steelers are 3-0 against NFC teams this season and have won 28 of their past 35 matchups against NFC teams dating back to 2004.
13. The Vikings staved off execution — again. The Rams are still breathing at 6-6-1 and have lost just one game since October. Both were pegged as last-place teams entering this season, and it’s almost certain that the loser of this game will be out of the playoff mix. In fact both teams likely have to win three straight to have any chance at all. The Rams know what’s coming: Adrian Peterson, with a number or two in mind. He’s chasing 2,000 and 2,105 — hallowed rushing-yardage marks in the NFL annals — and he appears highly motivated. Although he slowed down after the first quarter, tallying only 50 rushing yards on his final 19 carries, he was outstanding in the first quarter in Week 14 with 104 yards. The Rams’ run defense has been barreled a little bit by the run games of the 49ers, Patriots and Seahawks, so another 150-yard game isn’t out of the question for Peterson.
14. Raiders-Chiefs was once a proud rivalry. Now it has been reduced to a game of “which team is worse?” Draft status — including the No. 1 pick in April’s draft — is the consolation prize here. The loser has a great shot at it. That’s all we’ll say about this sad contest. Let us hope that the rivalry is renewed. Soon.
15. The two non-Sunday prime-time games deserve some love. After all, the Bengals and Jets remain in the postseason hunt and both must go on the road to continue on that path. The Bengals were stung with a home loss by the Cowboys and now must head to Philly on a short turnaround against an Eagles team that appears to have found a quarterback. Nick Foles was outstanding in winning his first game, and the Bengals are only 2-2 against rookie quarterbacks this season. The Jets head to Nashville on Monday night with the playoff hopes still somehow flickering. They basically need the Steelers (who beat the Jets and thus hold the head-to-head tiebreaker) to lose two or more games, but Rex Ryan isn’t playing the what-if game. "I'm not worried about anything else but finding a way to beat Tennessee," Ryan said Monday. "Our position is simple: We have to beat Tennessee, so I'm not really focused on anything else." Isn’t that nice?