Week 15 of the NFL season is jammed with heavy-hitting matchups. The one game that stands out as the proverbial possible Super Bowl preview is the San Francisco 49ers at the New England Patriots.
It is the second straight Super Bowl contender the Patriots will host at Foxboro Stadium. Judging by the way the team manhandled the Houston Texans on Monday night, the Patriots could leap to the top of most NFL power rankings with another win.
Tom Brady and company destroyed the Texans 42-14 on Monday night. The Texans didn't look ready to play in a huge December game against a top-notch NFL team, but the Niners aren't likely to be overwhelmed. Playoff experience, Jim Harbaugh's intensity and the Niners defense figure to ensure a more competitive game.
The question is: Can Colin Kaepernick deliver on what will be his first major stage?
My answer is no.
The way the Patriots offense is playing, the Niners can only hope to slow them. The Patriots are averaging 42.5 points per game in their last six games. We've seen them click like this before, and when they do, teams know they'll have to score more than three touchdowns to beat them.
The issue for the Niners will come in the area of balance.
The Niners are a good to great running team. LaMichael James proved he could be a valuable second option for Frank Gore against the Miami Dolphins. The rookie had 30 yards on eight carries, but he also had a 12-yard run called back on a penalty.
The Patriots have been good against the run all year (eighth against the run in the NFL), and you can expect to see them load up in the box to limit the Niners run game.
Kaepernick won't make the Patriots pay in the passing game—at least not enough to keep up with Brady.
The Patriots will win at home 35-20.
Green Bay Will Take Control of the NFC North
The Chicago Bears had a head start in the NFC North, but injuries, poor offensive line play and a lack of secondary offensive options have caused the Bears to slip.
As they've slipped, the Green Bay Packers have surged.
The Bears have lost their last two games and four of their last five. The Packers are on a two-game win streak, and they have won seven of eight.
They shut the Bears down in their Week 2 matchup, and even though the Bears are at home for the final game of the season series, there is no reason to believe the outcome will be different.
The Bears' already weak O-Line is mangled with injuries to Lance Louis and Chris Spencer, per Pro Football Talk. Jay Cutler may be less than 100 percent after a neck injury against the Vikings, per ESPN.
In addition to the injury issues, no receiver has asserted himself as a capable option besides Brandon Marshall.
In Week 2, the Packers took Marshall away—almost completely. He had only two receptions for 24 yards in that game. I don't see Alshon Jeffery—and certainly not Devin Hester—stepping up to make the Packers respect the rest of the Bears offense.
The Packers will take a full two-game lead in the division with a 21-9 victory.
Giants Will Further Expose Atlanta
The Atlanta Falcons are a good but not great team. That has been proven over the past five weeks of the season. They were thoroughly out-played by a mediocre Carolina Panthers team on Sunday, and they've struggled all season with teams that they should have beaten handily.
The Falcons have played nine games against opponents with a winning percentage of .385 or less. They have lost two of those games, and their point differential in the nine contests is only plus-6.44.
That doesn't scream elite team.
Even though the New York Giants can be an up-and-down group, they routinely get up for games against high-level NFC opponents. The Giants are 4-2 against NFC foes with a .500 winning percentage or better.
The Giants are getting stronger at the right time, while the Falcons are beginning to show cracks. David Wilson's three-touchdown explosion against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday gives the Giants a new weapon.
They will go into the Georgia Dome and defeat the Falcons 35-24.
Denver Will Make Its Biggest Statement of the Year
The Denver Broncos have wrapped up the AFC West, but they haven't tallied that signature win that really stamps their legitimacy. Their three losses have come to the best teams on their schedule: Atlanta, Houston and New England.
When they take on the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, they will grab their biggest win of the season. The Ravens defense is reeling a bit.
They gave up 23 points to a Steelers offense led by Charlie Batch in Week 13, and on Sunday, the Washington Redskins pounded them for 175 yards on the ground. The Ravens defense is ranked just 23rd and 25th against the pass and run, respectively.
That's bad news with Peyton Manning coming to town.
The Broncos will win big in Baltimore 30-10.
Texans Will Prove They Are Still Top Dogs in AFC South
Are the Texans vulnerable after the blowout loss to the Patriots? Not vulnerable enough to lose to the Indianapolis Colts.
The Colts are playing fairly well, having won three in a row, but Andrew Luck isn't quite ready to produce against the Texans' pass rush, and opportunistic secondary.
The rookie leads the league in interceptions, and the combination of J.J. Watt and a defense that already has 15 picks means Luck is liable to toss a couple more.
In addition to that dynamic, the Texans are at home. They will win this game 24-10.
Follow Brian Mazique and Franchiseplay on YouTube and Twitter for reactions, analysis and news from the world of sports and sports video games
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!