One week into the NFL's December calendar, we still have little idea as to how the playoff picture in both conferences will shake out.
Week 14 did little to help. AFC titans such as Denver (11-2) and Kansas City (10-3) notched wins to remain neck-and-neck. Playoff hopefuls such as Baltimore (7-6) and Miami (7-6) scored nail-biting victories to remain in the hunt.
It was the same story in the NFC. Seattle (11-2) lost to San Francisco (9-4) but still leads the hunt in the NFC West and for the No. 1 seed in the conference, but the wild-card race is a murky affair. Carolina (9-4) holds the same record as San Francisco after a loss to New Orleans (10-3), and the Arizona Cardinals are right behind at 8-5.
Something has to give in Week 15. Contests with major playoff implications line the schedule, so we will know much more about the contenders and pretenders when the dust settles. Here are some early predictions for all 16 games this week.
|Denver Broncos 38, San Diego Chargers 30||See Below|
|Atlanta Falcons 27, Washington Redskins 13||Washington is a complete mess and has lost five straight. Atlanta is in the same position but will pull through at home.|
|Chicago Bears 21, Cleveland Browns 17||The Browns return home after an exhausting one-point loss to New England, only to encounter a playoff hopeful in Chicago. Bad recipe.|
|Indianapolis Colts 28, Houston Texans 20||The Texans have lost 11 in a row and twice to Jacksonville. They also previously lost to Indianapolis in Week 9. Indianapolis desperately needs the win for playoff seeding purposes.|
|Miami Dolphins 17, New England Patriots 14||A hobbled Patriots squad on the road after almost being upset by Cleveland the week prior is vulnerable. At home, Olivier Vernon (11.5 sacks) and the Dolphins play better in a defensive battle.|
|Philadelphia Eagles 27, Minnesota Vikings 20||1-1-1 in its last three, Minnesota's woeful defense will have no answer for Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles, not to mention running back LeSean McCoy (217 yards and two scores in Week 14).|
|Seattle Seahawks 41, New York Giants 10||New York had a mini midseason run against weaker teams, but things will be far from fun against Seattle. Eli Manning will turn the ball over several times against Seattle's elite defense.|
|San Francisco 49ers 17, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 14||This one will divulge into a defensive battle, where San Francisco will pull through thanks to a sense of playoff urgency. Tampa Bay rookie quarterback Mike Glennon typically falters against elite defenses.|
|Jacksonville Jaguars 34, Buffalo Bills 27||Well, someone has to win. Maurice Jones-Drew has been hot for Jacksonville during its three straight wins. He'll have a major day at home against a defense that ranks in the bottom 10 against the rush.|
|Kansas City Chiefs 38, Oakland Raiders 20||Oakland simply cannot figure out what to do at quarterback, which is bad news against Andy Reid's offense. The losing streak extends to four here against a Kansas City team in the thick of the playoff race.|
|Carolina Panthers 34, New York Jets 3||Cam Newton and Carolina will be red hot after a 31-13 loss to New Orleans the week prior. New York has no chance given its quarterback situation against one of the NFL's best defenses.|
|Dallas Cowboys 33, Green Bay Packers 30||Dallas has lost one game at home this year—to Denver. Both defenses are laughably bad, but the Cowboys get the nod with Green Bay having zero answer for receiver Dez Bryant.|
|Tennessee Titans 24, Arizona Cardinals 21||Trap game! Tennessee is a talented squad with an elite pass defense. Arizona is a very good team, but not so much away from the desert. The Cardinals have won two road games this year—against Tampa Bay and Jacksonville.|
|New Orleans Saints 30, St. Louis Rams 14||New Orleans is on a roll after posting 31 on Carolina's elite defense the week prior. An offense led by Kellen Clemens won't be able to keep pace.|
|Cincinnati Bengals 24, Pittsburgh Steelers 23||See Below|
|Detroit Lions 28, Baltimore Ravens 23||See Below|
Denver Broncos Over San Diego Chargers
Thursday Night Football is known for being sloppy. But that is to be expected with players and coaches asked to make such a quick turnaround when they are accustomed to a week of recuperation and preparation for their next opponent.
One player who won't be impacted by the league's antics? Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
He leads the NFL in yards (4,522) and touchdowns (45) and has just nine interceptions while completing 67.9 percent of his passes.
Suffice to say, the Chargers and a bottom-five pass defense that allows an average of 267 yards per game are in trouble when they make the trip to Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
This is not to suggest the Broncos are any better defensively. Denver is actually worse defending the pass with an average of 274 yards allowed, but the unit ranks in the top 10 against the rush.
These two met in Week 10, when Denver escaped with a 28-20 victory behind 330 yards and four touchdowns from Manning. At home, where the Broncos have yet to lose this season, Manning will ensure the Chargers cannot keep up.
Cincinnati Bengals Over Pittsburgh Steelers
Prime time and the Pittsburgh Steelers is a mixture that has worked well this season for the surging Cincinnati Bengals.
Cincinnati scored a 20-10 victory over Pittsburgh in Week 2 on Monday Night Football. Quarterback Andy Dalton threw for 280 yards and one touchdown, while rookie running back Giovani Bernard accounted for 65 total yards and two touchdowns.
Tony Dungy on NBC tonight: “I have bought into the Bengals. They’ve got sights on the two spot.”— Joe Reedy (@joereedy) December 9, 2013
This time, the two AFC North foes will meet in Pittsburgh on Sunday Night Football. The Bengals control the division at 9-4, but 5-8 Pittsburgh would love nothing more than to play the spoiler.
Which game is most exciting in Week 15?
The Steelers have lost two in a row, coincidentally to Baltimore and Miami, the two teams that defeated Cincinnati in consecutive overtime affairs starting in Week 9. Since then, the Bengals have won three straight.
Dalton is still a liability and continues to be coddled by the coaching staff, but the aforementioned Bernard has wreaked havoc in recent weeks. He had the best rushing game of his career against Indianapolis as he gained 99 yards on 12 carries.
Bernard will once again hurt Pittsburgh, owner of a bottom-10 rush defense that allows an average of 120 yards per game. Behind another strong performance from the North Carolina product, Cincinnati will escape Pittsburgh with a win and complete the season sweep.
Detroit Lions Over Baltimore Ravens
Monday Night Football can be classified as an intriguing affair when the 7-6 Baltimore Ravens travel to Ford Field for a date with the Detroit Lions, owners of an identical record and playoff aspirations in the opposite conference.
These two had wildly different results in Week 14. Detroit was blown out in a snowstorm by Philadelphia, 34-20. Baltimore, meanwhile, mounted a furious 22-point fourth-quarter performance to beat Minnesota, 29-26.
Something is very wrong there. Baltimore in no way should need that type of performance to move past 3-9-1 Minnesota—especially not at home, and especially with Adrian Peterson leaving the game in the first half.
Now the Ravens hit the road, where they have won just a single game in six attempts this season.
In an already bad situation based on recent trends, the Ravens will have to somehow stop Calvin Johnson (75 receptions, 1,348 yards and 12 touchdowns). That is a tall order, and an anemic Baltimore offense that averages just 21.4 points per contest will simply be unable to keep up.