Home-field advantage and injuries...
That's what this season has come down to, hasn't it? When the powerful teams of the NFL face off against one another, it's home field and injuries that seem to pick the winners and define how we talk about each and every one of them every single week.
Just a week ago, the Saints were "reeling." Now, they're on top of the world once more after they defeated the Carolina Panthers and get ready to face off against the St. Louis Rams. The Seahawks, unstoppable, now look for more answers on the road after losing in San Francisco. They'll head all the way to New Jersey to take on the New York Giants—a stadium they hope to play in following a playoff run.
The top matchup of the week, however, might be the AFC East matchup featuring the now-Rob Gronkowski-less New England Patriots against the playoff-hopeful Miami Dolphins. Will the Patriots still have the horses to match up with the suddenly resurgent Dolphins? Or will Tom Brady and Co. simply put them away?
Our Bleacher Report lead writers will pick all these games and more, just a few clicks ahead. Don't like our picks? Make yours in the comments below!
Name: Last Week; Overall
Consensus: 11-5; 119-65 (65 Percent)
Andrea Hangst: 13-3; 138-69
Brad Gagnon: 11-5; 134-73
Tyson Langland: 13-3; 134-73
Ty Schalter: 10-6; 133-74
Matt Bowen: 10-6; 131-76
Chris Hansen: 12-4; 131-76
Matt Miller: 12-4; 129-78
Zach Kruse: 11-5; 128-79
Erik Frenz: 11-5; 127-80
Michael Schottey: 11-5; 121-86
Mike Freeman: 8-8; 119-88
Knox Bardeen: 10-6; 117-90
To see how Bleacher Report's experts are faring against the best at other media outlets, check out Pickwatch.
B/R Consensus Pick: Broncos (12-0)
Bowen: Broncos, 37-24
The Broncos looked suspect on defense this past week in the win over the Titans. However, with Manning and this offense scoring almost 40 a game, expect another Denver win here.
Frenz: Broncos, 34-20
With or without Wes Welker, the Broncos simply have too much firepower. Manning should have no problem putting up four touchdowns on a pass defense that’s been one of the league’s worst all season.
Hansen: Broncos, 34-25
Philip Rivers will have to match Peyton Manning, but that could be tough to do in Denver. Don't expect much defense in this one, but if you have to trust one of them to get a late stop or make a big play, the team with Von Miller is a good bet.
Langland: Broncos, 38-28
The Chargers are playing inspired football on the offensive side of the ball, thanks in large part to rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen, but John Pagano’s defense can’t stop a nosebleed. His unit is currently the fifth worst in terms of total yardage allowed, which means Peyton Manning and Co. will have a heyday through the air.
Other Picks: Broncos (Unanimous)
B/R Consensus Pick: Jaguars (10-2)
Schalter: Bills, 24-17
As much as I love the Jaguars coming together and playing hard for Gus Bradley, I don't think they run the table. Bounce-back week for EJ Manuel.
Freeman: Jaguars, 20-13
What's happened in Jacksonville is pretty remarkable. Totally different team. Head coach deserves the credit. Has finally found way to spring MJD.
Hangst: Jaguars, 24-13
If the glass is half empty, the Jaguars' current, AFC-longest three-game win streak speaks to the weakness of the conference. If it's half full, then you're a Jaguars optimist who has seen a bad team turn its fortunes around significantly over the past five weeks. I'm opting for the latter this week against a Bills offense that was just abysmal in Tampa last contest.
Bardeen: Bills, 24-20
Yes, Jacksonville has won its last three games and four of its last five. No, that streak won’t be alive after Week 15. Both C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson averaged fewer than 2.5 yards per carry last week against Tampa Bay. Expect those averages to double against Jacksonville and for the Bills to get things done.
Other Picks: Jaguars (Schottey, Bowen, Miller, Frenz, Hansen, Gagnon, Langland, Kruse)
B/R Consensus Pick: Bears (8-4)
Schottey: Browns, 20-14
The Bears scored on every possession against a terrible Cowboys defense. Pro Tip: The Browns have a much better defense.
Miller: Bears, 31-17
The Chicago offense is rolling right now, and even when facing a tough Browns defense, they can outscore the Jason Campbell-led offense.
Hangst: Browns, 23-17
The Browns have an offense and defense capable of beating the New England Patriots—Bill Belichick admitted to being outplayed and outcoached by the Browns in Week 14 despite the Patriots ultimately winning the game.
The Bears offense is quite good, but their defense is nowhere near the level the Browns are playing at right now. Cleveland should be able to get meaningful yards on the ground against Chicago's league-worst run defense, setting things up nicely for another big game by Josh Gordon and, ultimately, a Browns win.
Kruse: Bears, 23-20
The Bears offense will function with either Josh McCown or Jay Cutler because of how well the playmakers are currently operating. The real question is the defense, which has allowed six straight running backs to break 100 yards. I think that streak comes to an end, as Chicago gets a huge road win late in the season.
Other Picks: Browns (Schalter, Frenz); Bears (Bowen, Freeman, Hansen, Gagnon, Langland, Bardeen)
B/R Consensus Pick: Colts (10-2)
Bowen: Colts, 26-19
I think the Texans defense will be ready to play under Wade Phillips, but can Case Keenum produce enough to knock off the Colts? I don't see it.
Schalter: Texans, 20-17
The Colts have very little to play for, and I've seen the "fired coach bounce" too many times. Wade Phillips knows what he's doing.
Bardeen: Colts, 24-22
Houston has dropped 11 games in a row and just canned its head coach. Indianapolis, after starting 6-2, has dropped three of its last five games. Ugly. The Colts are looking more and more average by the minute, but how can anyone with a clear conscience pick Houston to win a football game?
Kruse: Texans, 24-20
Indianapolis is stuck in neutral and the Texans are getting the interim-head-coach boost. Wade Phillips should have the Texans defense ready to compete. Crazier things have certainly happened.
Other Picks: Colts (Schottey, Freeman, Miller, Frenz, Hangst, Hansen, Gagnon, Langland)
B/R Consensus Pick: Patriots (8-4)
Schottey: Patriots, 24-16
Look, I spent months telling y'all to wait until Gronkowski's back to see the Patriots offense in its true glory. So I'm not going to sit here now and say that his loss isn't going to hurt their production. Still, they won a lot of games without him, so I trust that to happen here as well.
Freeman: Dolphins, 21-20
Rob Gronkowski's loss is devastating in any number of ways, and it keeps this game close. The Dolphins are dangerous now.
Frenz: Patriots, 28-24
The Patriots' next three games (and more, depending on the playoffs) just got a whole lot harder without Gronkowski, but they have the added "advantage" of having already worked without Gronk for much of the season. Ryan Tannehill has played some of the best football of his career of late, but if it comes down to a shootout, the Patriots should come out on top. The X-factor here is the Dolphins pass rush, and if it can get to Brady, this one could go either way.
Bardeen: Dolphins, 26-23
Ryan Tannehill seems to have started to figure things out of late, and Miami’s ground game has flourished its last two outings. These things go hand in hand. Each of New England’s three losses have come on the road, and the Dolphins are a real threat to hand the Pats a fourth defeat.
Other Picks: Dolphins (Gagnon, Kruse); Patriots (Bowen, Schalter, Miller, Hangst, Hansen, Langland)
B/R Consensus Pick: Eagles (12-0)
Schalter: Eagles, 28-21
It could be closer than most suspect given the way the Vikings are getting big plays at all the right times lately, but the Eagles are just too much better (and hotter).
Miller: Eagles, 35-20
Nick Foles and the Eagles are unstoppable right now. The Vikings, not so much, even though they are playing more inspired. I'll take Philly in this one all day.
Gagnon: Eagles, 35-13
The stars are aligning for the Eagles, who draw the Vikings in what is likely to be their first game without Adrian Peterson since 2011. That should make things a hell of a lot easier on Philly's red-hot defense. This team is mentally tough, so I don't think it's slipping up here.
Kruse: Eagles, 35-20
The Eagles offense is playing so efficiently under Nick Foles that it's difficult to envision the Vikings keeping Philadelphia out of the 30-point range. Can the Vikings keep pace if Adrian Peterson doesn't play? Bet on Minnesota finding another way to lose.
Other Picks: Eagles (Unanimous)
B/R Consensus Pick: Seahawks (12-0)
Schottey: Seahawks, 27-20
Am I a little worried about the Seahawks on the road? Sure. Am I worried about the Giants putting up that much of a fight against them, though? Not in the slightest.
Freeman: Seahawks, 28-17
The Giants flat-out quit in San Diego last week. Now comes Seattle, one of the most physical teams in football. This could get nasty.
Gagnon: Seahawks, 30-21
The Giants haven't beaten a decent team all year, and now they're just playing out the string. No way the Seahawks slip up for a second straight week. That secondary will feast on a mistake-prone offense.
Langland: Seahawks, 30-14
The Giants have made it a point to turn things around the second half of the season, but they still have a hard time competing with the best. Unfortunately for New York, the Seahawks are the best of the best in the NFC, which means you should expect them to make quick work of the Giants. Manning will turn the ball over like he’s accustomed to, and Russell Wilson will have a bounce-back game.
Other Picks: Seahawks (Unanimous)
B/R Consensus Pick: 49ers (11-1)
Schalter: Buccaneers, 20-19
My upset sense is tingling. Tampa Bay's 4-1 over the last five and hosting a 49ers team that hasn't been consistently impressive all season.
Miller: 49ers, 17-13
The Tampa defense is no joke, and the 49ers should be ready for a fight. But the difference will be the San Francisco defense against rookie Mike Glennon in a close one.
Bardeen: 49ers, 23-20
This is a very interesting game. Tampa Bay has won four of its last five games and is putting up a better-than-decent second half of the season. But none of the Bucs wins have come against a defense like the that of the 49ers. Expect San Francisco to win on the road, but this won’t be easy. Greg Schiano has a lot to gain with a win here (likely job security).
Langland: 49ers, 23-13
As good as the Buccaneers have been on the offensive side of the ball as of late, they haven’t had to square off against a defense as good as San Francisco’s. I have a hard time envisioning Mike Glennon putting up big numbers through the air. Tampa Bay’s inability to move the ball will prove to be the difference come Sunday.
Other Picks: 49ers (Hangst, Bowen, Freeman, Schottey, Gagnon, Frenz, Kruse, Hansen)
B/R Consensus Pick: Falcons (12-0)
Bowen: Falcons, 28-17
Washington looked disinterested in the loss to the Chiefs. Expect more of the same this week on the road versus Matt Ryan and the Falcons.
Hangst: Falcons, 23-10
Things are falling into place a bit for the Falcons. Players are getting healthier, and they've found ways to better compensate for those who are not. While this is a collapse from their almost-in-the-Super-Bowl 2012, it pales in comparison to what is happening in Washington. Whether it's RG3 or Kirk Cousins under center, Washington isn't going to fare well this week on the road.
Gagnon: Falcons, 28-21
Washington is in a free fall and traveling to a tough environment to play an Atlanta team that suddenly has a bit of life. If Washington gives it to Alfred Morris, it'll hang in against a mediocre run defense, but a win is highly unlikely, regardless of who starts at quarterback. I'm not even sure Washington is interested in getting the victory.
Bardeen: Falcons, 27-17
Both Washington and the Falcons have endured train-wreck seasons. Which disastrous situation lends itself more to a win Sunday? Robert Griffin III might not play in this one and Mike Shanahan might not coach past 2013. Washington has far bigger problems than the Falcons.
Other Picks: Falcons (Unanimous)
B/R Consensus Pick: Panthers (12-0)
Freeman: Panthers, 21-14
Close game determined by the Carolina defense. Geno Smith against that group is frightening for the Jets.
Miller: Panthers, 28-13
The Panthers ran into a brick wall on Sunday night, but they'll rebound at home against a New York offense that's maddeningly inconsistent.
Frenz: Panthers, 31-20
The Panthers may have been blown out by the Saints on national television, and you can bet Rob Ryan is sharing notes with his brother Rex, but will it be enough? Perhaps the Jets can keep it close if their defensive line holds strong against the run, but their secondary has been exposed more this season than usual. If the Jets don’t get some pressure on Cam Newton, they could watch the Panthers receivers run free through the secondary.
Bardeen: Panthers, 17-13
This game has all the feel of a trap game. What the Panthers have going for them, however, is that they know this. The Jets won’t sneak up on them. Carolina is going to have trouble running on the Jets, and I expect Rex Ryan to take a page from his brother’s playbook and dial up pressure on Cam Newton. But New York is going to have major problems moving the ball at all. Newton wins this game in the last minute for the Panthers…for the third time this season.
Other Picks: Panthers (Unanimous)
B/R Consensus Pick: Chiefs (11-1)
Bowen: Chiefs, 22-12
The Raiders were alternating quarterbacks during the loss to the Jets. That doesn't work in the pros. Take the Chiefs to win this one.
Schalter: Chiefs, 17-13
Whenever I pick the Raiders to win, they lose, and vice versa. Kansas City played the Broncos tough twice in three games and looked dominant against Washington. I'll take K.C.
Hansen: Raiders, 24-20
Dennis Allen is coaching for his job and desperately needs a win. The Chiefs need another win to lock up a playoff spot, but it would take a special scenario for them not to make it, so they may look past this one a bit.
Oakland's defense confused Alex Smith in their last meeting. If defensive coordinator Jason Tarver can do it again, the Raiders could pull off the upset win at home.
Langland: Chiefs, 35-20
To clinch a playoff spot, the Kansas City Chiefs have to do one thing: beat the Oakland Raiders. Based on the way Andy Reid’s club is playing heading into Week 15, the Chiefs should have no problem steamrolling a team that can’t decide who its starting quarterback is.
Other Picks: Chiefs (Schottey, Freeman, Miller, Frenz, Hangst, Bardeen, Gagnon, Kruse)
B/R Consensus Pick: Cowboys (11-1)
Miller: Cowboys, 21-17
Without Aaron Rodgers, it's impossible to pick the Packers to keep pace with a Dallas offense that will cause the Green Bay defense major headaches with the passing game.
Hangst: Cowboys, 33-20
Will Aaron Rodgers return to the field this week? We do not know the answer to that yet. But even if he does, the Cowboys still have the advantage here. Dallas plays better at home, and its quarterback, Tony Romo, isn't rusty like Rodgers will likely be, should he play. Dallas is still fighting for its playoff lives, so this Week 15 game heads into must-win territory.
Gagnon: Packers, 30-27
Can anyone stop anybody here? The Cowboys might truly have the worst defense in the league, and now they're facing Green Bay on short rest. But the Packers D has given up at least 26 points in seven of their last eight games. If Aaron Rodgers plays, this is obvious. But right now, I can see the Pack winning with Matt Flynn, who played pretty well against Atlanta. Dallas is just a mess in December.
Kruse: Cowboys, 30-23
The Cowboys defense is in obvious shambles, but I'm not sure the Packers can go on the road against a playoff-caliber team and win without Aaron Rodgers. If he doesn't play, the Cowboys should score enough points to escape. If he is cleared in time to play, the scores here flip and the Packers become favorites. The medical decision coming later this week will make all the difference.
Other Picks: Cowboys (Schottey, Bowen, Schalter, Freeman, Frenz, Hansen, Langland, Bardeen)
B/R Consensus Pick: Saints (12-0)
Freeman: Saints, 28-10
The Rams are just awful right now. Wouldn't be shocked if the Saints put up 50.
Langland: Saints, 28-14
The St. Louis Rams' inspired play, with Sam Bradford out, has finally started to wear off. We all knew it would eventually happen, yet we didn’t know exactly how long it would take. To be blunt, the New Orleans Saints are simply a better team in all three phases and have a more talented roster from top to bottom. Plus, there’s no way Kellen Clemens can keep pace with Drew Brees in a shootout.
Bardeen: Saints, 37-23
After what the Saints did to the Panthers last week, it’s hard to imagine them ever losing again. But think back to Week 13 and compare their huge win with their deflating defeat in Seattle. Land somewhere in the middle, and that’s what to expect when New Orleans faces St. Louis. The Rams don’t have what it takes to beat the Saints, but I bet Robert Quinn meets Drew Brees in the backfield a time or two.
Kruse: Saints, 35-20
I picked against Drew Brees in the Superdome last week. Not smart. Different dome here, but same result.
Other Picks: Saints (Unanimous)
B/R Consensus Pick: Cardinals (11-1)
Schottey: Cardinals, 24-13
The Titans aren't going to move the ball like they were able to against Denver. Meanwhile, their defense might be almost as vulnerable against a Cardinals scoring attack that is far greater than the sum of its parts.
Schalter: Cardinals, 24-10
The Titans are imploding, and the Cardinals need this win.
Hansen: Titans, 28-24
The Titans actually played the Denver Broncos tough in the first half. Carson Palmer is not Peyton Manning. If Ryan Fitzpatrick keeps playing solid football and Chris Johnson can break a long run, the Titans should win this one at home.
Langland: Cardinals, 27-24
Arizona needs to win its final three games if it hopes to punch a playoff ticket. The task won’t be easy because the Cardinals travel to Seattle and host the 49ers in Weeks 16 and 17, respectively, yet they can get things kick-started against a lousy Titans team this week. Tyrann Mathieu’s season-ending injury hurts, but the Gridbirds still have plenty of talent on defense to shut Ryan Fitzpatrick down.
Other Picks: Cardinals (Bowen, Freeman, Miller, Hangst, Frenz, Bardeen, Gagnon, Kruse)
B/R Consensus Pick: Bengals (11-1)
Bowen: Bengals, 19-16
This should be a classic AFC North game where special teams and defense play a major role in the outcome. I like the Bengals to get this win with a key fourth-quarter turnover on defense.
Freeman: Bengals, 20-13
Bengals still fighting for playoff positioning; Steelers fighting for beach chair positioning once the season ends.
Hangst: Bengals, 33-17
Let's see: The Bengals can pass the ball, run the ball and score on both defense and special teams, and they all but have the AFC North title on lockdown with three games left to play.
The Steelers? At this point, 8-8 is the best they can hope for, for the second straight season, and even if they had a run game, Todd Haley wouldn't let it do much. The passing game? It's fine, but the defense won't be able to handle the Bengals' myriad weapons. Talent and momentum both are in Cincinnati's favor.
Kruse: Steelers, 20-17
Desperate takes on talented in a prime-time AFC North fight. Almost every positional matchup favors the Bengals, but the Steelers know they have to win out to have a chance at the final playoff spot. I think Ben Roethlisberger rises to the occasion late.
Other Picks: Bengals (Schottey, Schalter, Miller, Frenz, Hansen, Gagnon, Bardeen, Langland)
B/R Consensus Pick: Lions (9-3)
Schalter: Lions, 28-10
The Lions have been maddeningly inconsistent, but Ford Field is a fortress in prime time.
Hangst: Lions, 31-27
The Lions can shoot themselves in the foot like no other team, but mercifully that's been at a minimum at home. The Ravens are nothing to scoff at right now, having possession of the AFC's sixth playoff berth, Ray Rice finally breaking the 100-yard mark in Week 14 and tight end Dennis Pitta finally back to help out Joe Flacco. This game will be close as a result, but home field gets it here. Just imagine how many Michael Oher false starts the crowd could cause on Monday night.
Bardeen: Lions, 31-21
Have the Ravens really snuck into the playoff picture? Yeah, as of right now, Baltimore is the AFC’s No. 6 seed. That won’t be the case after Detroit flexes its muscles Monday night. In the playoffs, Joe Flacco putting his team on his back and winning is an easy bet. But that’s not the case in the regular season, especially in 2013.
Kruse: Ravens, 27-23
This Lions team is so unpredictable week to week. And really, if you take away the blowout of Matt Flynn's Packers on Thanksgiving, Detroit hasn't played 60 minutes of good football in well over a month. The Ravens aren't world beaters, but they have won three straight games. Can the Lions rise to the challenge against a playoff-caliber team?
Other Picks: Lions (Schottey, Bowen, Miller, Frenz, Gagnon, Langland); Ravens (Freeman, Hansen)