The margin for error that existed when the NFL season began about four months ago is gone. Whether teams are chasing a first-round bye, a better playoff seed, or simply a spot in the postseason, any loss now is going to have a major impact.
Every team understands this heading into Week 15, and it makes defending home field crucial. The advantage a team gets from playing on home turf is debatable but, if they fall short of their goal, the home losses are the ones they will point to as reasons for their failure.
With that in mind, let's examine three teams that will pick up important home victories on Sunday. None of the wins are going to come easily, however. They will have to survive some fierce battles.
In emblematic Cowboys fashion, they waited until people started writing them off after an early November loss to the Atlanta Falcons before they started living up to their potential. They have won four of five games since.
To nobody's surprise, the improvement has come at the same time Tony Romo has cut down on his turnovers. He has 16 interceptions this season, but just three since the team's hot streak began. He must continue to protect the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers this week.
Luckily for Dallas, they are catching the Steelers at a good time. They have lost three of their last four, including a lackluster effort against the San Diego Chargers last week. Momentum is on the Cowboys' side and they will ride it to victory.
Which of these teams faces the toughest Week 15 game?
New England Patriots
The Patriots have been downright unstoppable over the past few months. During their seven-game winning streak, they have scored blowout wins over the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts, two fellow AFC contenders, and have averaged 40.6 points per game.
Facing the San Francisco 49ers, who are giving up just 14.2 PPG, will present a new challenge. The 49ers held the high-powered New Orleans Saints to 21 points a couple weeks ago and had similar success against the Green Bay Packers earlier in the season.
Yet, it's hard to imagine anybody slowing down Tom Brady right now. He has 19 touchdowns and just one interception since the win streak began, and the defense has done enough to make it hold up. The story should remain the same in Week 15.
In the first meeting between the Bears and the Green Bay Packers, a fake field goal in the first half turned the tide in favor of Green Bay and Chicago never recovered. You can bet the Bears will be better prepared for any trickery this time around.
This week's matchup between the longtime rivals should be extra special because they are battling for the NFC North lead. Since it should be a tightly-contested game throughout, it's likely one turnover will make the difference.
That's great news for the Bears, who lead the league in takeaways. However, Jay Cutler is averaging more than two interceptions per game against the Packers in his career. Expect him to do a better job of protecting the ball in a narrow Bears victory.