The Thinking Man's Guide: NFL Week 15 Predictions

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The Thinking Man's Guide: NFL Week 15 Predictions
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Let’s look past the underwhelming Thursday night game (Bengals/Eagles) to start the week and ignore the abomination (Jets/Titans) that will end it on Monday night. Sunday is going to be an incredible day of football.

Six games between teams with winning records will take place. Even if it has been a season of duds for the marquee matchups, six chances mean there should be at least a few great ones.

If you learned anything from Texans/Patriots, it should be to appreciate the great games that live up to the hype. Too often, they fail to do so.

 

Broncos at Ravens: Peyton’s two 8-0 streaks

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The nemesis returns to Baltimore.

If they want a first-round bye, then Denver has to keep two streaks alive.

Denver has won eight games in a row this season, and Peyton Manning has won his last eight starts against the Baltimore Ravens.

While “Manning was Manning,” a key to the streak had been the Colts defense playing so well against the usually subpar Baltimore offense. They held the Ravens to 10.5 points per game. In Joe Flacco’s three starts, Baltimore failed to find the end zone.

This Denver defense is as good as just about any defense Manning had in Indianapolis, ranking No. 7 in points per drive allowed (1.60). The Broncos will be playing a Baltimore offense with former Indianapolis coach Jim Caldwell taking over as offensive coordinator for the fired Cam Cameron.

John Harbaugh will want to have a good showing after the bold move, and also because this is a huge game for his team, losers of two straight. Baltimore rarely loses at home, but it did just drop a key game to the Steelers.

Now with a nemesis in Manning coming to town, followed by Eli Manning the next week, things are getting serious for the Ravens and their playoff chances.

Much is of course made of the “chess match” between Manning and Ray Lewis, but Manning has been winning that battle for years against this defense, which is still missing Lewis along with Terrell Suggs and Lardarius Webb. Sure, Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed are still there, but it’s not the same.

Denver has the better offense and better defense, but you can say the Broncos have not played a good team since losing to New England in Week 5.

This is the last of the big AFC matchups with division leaders in the regular season, and you can see things have been very one-sided, which should make for an interesting postseason (or a lousy one).

Home field has determined the last four outcomes, and the only truly close game was Baltimore against New England. The Broncos had to try a 20-point comeback to make it close with Houston back in Week 3.

Here’s hoping for a good game and not another rout. Here’s picking the Broncos to make it nine in a row—overall, and for Manning against the Ravens.

 

Giants at Falcons: Atlanta, wake up before the playoffs turn into dust

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"We're going to lose by this much."

Was that a wake-up call for the Falcons in Carolina, getting smacked around to a 23-0 deficit, or are they really just not that good?

A lot of the “they win too many close games!” criticisms are unjustified. They do that every year under Mike Smith and Matt Ryan. They are very good at situational football, just like this week’s opponent has been. It has resulted in two Super Bowls for the Giants, so why complain?

But against a bad opponent, you really just need to stomp them, and the Falcons have not done that too well this season. It should be noted that three of their biggest struggles were division games (both Carolina games and the loss in New Orleans).

Now they have to face the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year, holding the offense to a shutout in a 24-2 defeat in the Wild Card Round in New York.

Has Atlanta learned enough from that game? The Falcons could use a rebound after last week’s horrific performance, but the Giants have been very impressive in two of their last three games, beating Green Bay and New Orleans.

We know all about Ryan’s great home record (32-5 including playoffs), but what about his struggles in the Georgia Dome this season?

  • Home: Ryan is 6-0 but has completed 63.3 percent of his passes, 7 TD, 9 INT and a 78.9 passer rating.
  • Road: Ryan is 5-2 but has completed 71.2 percent of his passes, 17 TD, 5 INT and a 107.4 passer rating.

When you throw five interceptions against Arizona and three against Oakland the way Ryan did, that will certainly skew the numbers. But the question is, why are you throwing eight interceptions at home and barely getting by two of the worst teams in the league?

Ryan’s counterpart, Eli Manning, has a much lesser touchdown-to-interception ratio (5:4) on the road compared to at home (5:3) this season.

Neither team is one you can count on to blow someone out, so this should be a great game in terms of the fourth quarter. When they met in 2009, Ryan led a 14-point comeback to force overtime before the Giants won 34-31.

Expect something closer to that than the baffling 24-2 from last year.

But don’t expect a pretty display of offensive fireworks, or an Atlanta win. Yes, I am going with the Giants to hand the Falcons a rare home loss and cast more doubt on their playoff chances.

Because as much as Atlanta will want to get back on track, the Giants are in a dogfight for their division title, and there is no team better when backed into a corner.

 

Packers at Bears: Brandon Marshall’s talking; Packers don’t hear a word he’s saying

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"This is my second chance for first place"

According to Chicago Bears receiver Brandon Marshall, Sunday’s game against the Packers is the biggest of his career, and while he does not hate them, he really dislikes the Packers and their players.

Not to be silent, Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley mentioned that Brian Urlacher is a “little slow,” and that the Bears may be better off without him.

For a rivalry I feel is one of the most overrated in the league, this could make things interesting. Though, this one had a lot more shine to it weeks ago; the Bears have fallen off a bit.

It could just be another precursor to a stomping by the Packers as they look to close out the NFC North and send the Bears to a 1-5 record in their last six games.

Really, it’s just good to see a game between these teams that still has some meaning. Such an old rivalry, but did you know this is shaping up to be only the fifth season since the 1970 merger that both the Bears and Packers had a winning record?

The first four times were in 1994, 1995, 2001 and 2010. Before that, it had not happened since 1967. Likewise, there have only been four seasons since 1940 in which both teams made the playoffs (1941, 1994, 2001 and 2010).

That is my beef with this “great rivalry.” It does not produce a lot of great, memorable and/or important games.

Part of that is Chicago lacking the franchise quarterback over the years. Sid Luckman still holds many of the meaningful passing records, and he retired in 1950. Johnny Unitas was just wrapping up high school if you needed a further reference to how long ago we are talking here.

Chicago thought it was getting that kind of player when trading for Jay Cutler in 2009, but one of Cutler’s biggest obstacles has been beating out Green Bay in the NFC North. The contrast in how he has played at Lambeau vs. at home is massive, though one thing still stands out: losing.

Cutler is just 1-6 against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, and he only averages 13.3 points per game in those contests. Even that number is generous, as Caleb Hanie led the Bears to a touchdown in the 2010 NFC Championship after Cutler left with injury.

Also, in Cutler’s lone win (2010), the Packers committed an absurd 18 penalties and Devin Hester returned a punt for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. That is the only time the Bears scored 20 points, and the offense only had 13 that night.

It could not have been much worse for Cutler than early this season in Green Bay, when the Bears lost 23-10. He tossed four interceptions, and the offense looked very incompetent.

They have not looked very good in recent weeks, and Cutler is dealing with yet another injury after taking a brutal high-low shot on Sunday in Minnesota.

The only good news is Chicago’s defense usually slows down Green Bay, and the Packers have been slowed down a good bit throughout this season. For Chicago to win, it may have to take a 20-17 final again.

But I like the Packers to wrap up the NFC North on Sunday.

 

49ers at Patriots: Can we please get a good game this time?

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It was said we would learn a lot about the New England Patriots, Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers in a span of one week in December this year.

Both the Texans and 49ers can trace their recent success back to 2011. They'll note the hiring of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips in Houston and head coach Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco as reasons for the respective turnarounds.

Both teams have been strong defensively, led by a second-year player (J.J. Watt and Aldon Smith), but they have also shown a lot of cracks against the better offenses in the league.

After the Patriots piled up 42 points on Houston, that makes it 40 points to Drew Brees and the Saints (2011), 42 points to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, 34 points to Matthew Stafford and the Lions and even a shocking 37 points to Chad Henne and the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Houston has a real problem with its pass defense, and pass-happy teams can take advantage of it. New England had little problem with the Texans on Monday, and now the Pats will try and have another outstanding performance in prime time against a quality San Francisco defense.

Of course, having home-field advantage, with which the Patriots have lucked out so far this year, is a big factor. San Francisco has to make the long trip over, but at least it has a defense better suited to slow down the Patriots than Houston did.

But it is not a perfect, shutdown defense either, and the good quarterbacks generally find ways to move the ball against them.

It is just a matter of putting more points on the board, which is partially why those quarterbacks went 2-5. No one is scoring better than the Patriots. Their 36.3 points per game lead the league. San Francisco allows 14.2 points per game to lead the league in team scoring defense, so we have a top matchup here.

There have not been many good quarterbacks on the 49ers’ schedule this season. They have already lost and tied with St. Louis’ Sam Bradford, and they even lost in Minnesota to Christian Ponder of all people.

Going on the road to play Tom Brady in December could be an eye-opening test for this San Francisco defense. I trust Harbaugh a bit more than Gary Kubiak to have a better plan, and the blowout on Monday may actually help sharpen the preparation for the 49ers so as not to get embarrassed in a similar fashion.

But at this point, how do you even think to bet against New England at home? Colin Kaepernick does a lot of good things, but he has his work cut out for him this week.

With their improving defense, the Patriots are reaching a juggernaut level, and they can only beat themselves right now.

 

Hurry-up predictions

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For the record, my season picks stand at 134-73-1 (.647).

Bengals over Eagles – Nick Foles was very impressive in his comeback win over the Buccaneers on Sunday. The Bengals were victims of a nine-point comeback by Tony Romo and the Cowboys. It is a short travel week for Cincinnati, but the Bengals are still the better team. Their defense should offer more of a challenge to Foles, as the Bengals have allowed 62 points in their last five games (12.4 PPG). Andy Dalton currently has a career record of 13-3 against teams without a winning record. Cincinnati (7-6) must treat this as a playoff game, as it has Pittsburgh and Baltimore to finish the season.

Saints over Buccaneers – The 52-27 blowout loss to the Giants might be a sign to stop picking the Saints (5-8) this year. Once 5-5, Drew Brees has tossed nine interceptions the last three games. While the Saints are slumping, they have company as Tampa Bay (6-7) is also on a three-game losing streak. Expect points to be scored again, as these two played a 35-28 game that the Saints won in Tampa Bay. One thing to keep an eye on: Tampa Bay only has 12 giveaways all season compared to 23 for New Orleans. Still, I am rolling with the Saints to complete the sweep.

Texans over Colts – Thanks to New England’s rout of Houston, expect a much better Texans team this week. They have a lot of advantages against the Colts defense, and their defense will surely cause some havoc against the battered offensive line that is struggling to protect Andrew Luck right now. While it is amazing the Colts control their own destiny in the AFC South, the Texans are well above their level right now. Still, Houston better not give them a fighting chance, because the Colts are 8-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer, which is tied for the second-best record ever (min. eight games). Houston needs to establish control early, which is what has happened to the Colts on the road this year in blowout losses.

Dolphins over Jaguars – “Chad Henne: The Revenge” sounds about as scary as Brady Quinn in Cleveland last week. He had a great game off the bench in Houston, but the Jacksonville offense has reverted to form ever since. Sure, Miami’s offense is floundering as well, but it should be able to pull out this win at home thanks to a superior defense.

Redskins over Browns – They were 3-6, but the Redskins have won four in a row. All eyes will be on whether Robert Griffin III can start, but Kirk Cousins is coming off a game where he finished the comeback win over Baltimore. Cleveland is playing fairly well, but even though Brandon Weeden is the more experienced player, the Redskins have a better team. This game should be better than expected.

Vikings over Rams Adrian Peterson (1,600 rushing yards) is on a mission to break the rushing record, win some awards and get the Vikings (7-6) to the playoffs. He should be dominant once again, which means the game will still rest on Christian Ponder and whether he could break 100 yards passing without a bonehead pick. Gut just leans towards the Vikings here, but no one expected these teams to have 13 wins combined. Or is it 13.5?  

Lions over Cardinals – While the Lions have been blowing it in the fourth quarter the last month, Arizona hasn’t won a game or scored 20 points since September ended. The Cardinals cannot do any worse than 58-0 again, but this should still be another loss. If not, then Jim Schwartz may be joining Ken Whisenhunt on that hot seat.  

Chargers over Panthers – This could be one fascinating fourth quarter as Norv Turner and Ron Rivera try to out-choke each other. It seems destined for a close game, but we will see. Both teams are coming off impressive wins over winning teams. San Diego really shocked the world with its dominance in Pittsburgh. The Chargers have a track record of playing well late in the year, so I will cautiously stay with them at home here. They have a better defense than Carolina.

Seahawks over Bills – Whether he is in Buffalo or Toronto, Ryan Fitzpatrick should have a hard time with this pass defense, and Russell Wilson keeps finding big plays while Marshawn Lynch provides the rushing offense. The Seahawks cannot overlook this game to San Francisco, and chances are they won’t. Every game is important when you have a chance for a first-round bye.

Raiders over Chiefs – AFC WEST RIVALRY! Well, the teams are 5-21 combined coming in, but these fanbases are probably used to that by now. Maybe this is the week Oakland actually scores a first-quarter touchdown. All this game really does is sort out the top of the 2013 draft.

Steelers over Cowboys – Here we have two 7-6 teams that are extremely hard to figure out on a week-to-week basis. Sounds like a tough game to pick, right? Actually, it just makes it easy. The Steelers were shockingly awful at home against San Diego, while the Cowboys gutted out an emotional win in Cincinnati. Flip the script this week; go with the Steelers to rebound. While Dallas has some advantages on offense with its skill players, keep in mind the Cowboys are only 15th in points per drive (1.98) this season.

Titans over Jets – Had to flip a coin on this one, and it landed in the trash can again. Just because I really do not want to hear about the Jets making the playoffs, I will pick them to lose on the road. Besides, it’s not like they are consistent enough to win three games in a row. At least they should not trail 3-0 at halftime for the third straight game.

But really, this stinker on Monday night just gives us more time to reflect on what should be an amazing Sunday. If the game’s really that bad, then just re-watch the season finale of Dexter or Homeland.

Like I said, great Sunday coming our way.

 

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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