Heading into Week 15, a game or less separates the leader from the second-place team in four of the NFL's eight divisions. With so many close races and so little time to determine a champion, games are as crucial as ever.
This week's schedule has four hugely important games on tap and a handful of others with potential playoff implications.
The following table offers my predictions for every game on the schedule. Just below that is a closer look at the four games that could make or break at least one of the teams involved in each.
|Thursday, Dec. 12||Time||TV||Prediction|
|San Diego at Denver||8:25 PM||NFL||Denver|
|Sunday, Dec. 15||TIME (ET)||TV||Prediction|
|Washington at Atlanta||1 p.m.||Fox||Atlanta|
|Chicago at Cleveland||1 p.m.||Fox||Chicago|
|Houston at Indianapolis||1 p.m.||CBS||Indianapolis|
|New England at Miami||1 p.m.||CBS||New England|
|Philadelphia at Minnesota||1 p.m.||Fox||Philadelphia|
|Seattle at NY Giants||1 p.m.||Fox||NY Giants|
|San Francisco at Tampa Bay||1 p.m.||Fox||San Francisco|
|Buffalo at Jacksonville||1 p.m.||CBS||Jacksonville|
|Kansas City at Oakland||4:05 p.m.||CBS||Kansas City|
|NY Jets at Carolina||4:05 p.m.||CBS||Carolina|
|Green Bay at Dallas||4:25 p.m.||Fox||Dallas|
|Arizona at Tennessee||4:25 p.m.||Fox||Arizona|
|New Orleans at St. Louis||4:25 p.m.||Fox||New Orleans|
|Cincinnati at Pittsburgh||8:30 p.m.||NBC||Cincinnati|
|Monday, Dec. 16||TIME (ET)||TV||Prediction|
|Baltimore at Detroit||8:30 p.m.||ESPN||Baltimore|
Chicago Bears at Cleveland Browns
A month ago, that would have seemed like a no-brainer decision, but within Trestman's West Coast offense, Josh McCown has found his inner Joe Montana. Simply put, McCown has been better than Cutler this season. Take a look at the stat comparison:
|Jay Cutler||8||63 pct. (167-265)||1,908||13||8|
|Josh McCown||7||66.8 pct. (147-220)||1,809||13||1|
Potential quarterback controversy aside, the Bears likely have to win this game if they hope to have any chance of winning the division and making the playoffs.
It would appear that the teams finishing in second place in the NFC South and West will have an inside track on the conference's wild-card spots, so winning the North is the Bears' only realistic path to the postseason.
Whom should the Bears start for the remainder of the season?
Fortunately, the emergence of wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and free-agent tight end Martellus Bennett has given the Bears one of the premier group of skill players in the NFL.
In addition to that, the offensive line has improved expeditiously. Bears quarterbacks have been sacked just 22 times this season. Only the Denver Broncos and Detroit Lions have allowed fewer. That's a far cry from the 44 sacks the unit allowed in 2012.
Because of these factors, the man under center most likely won't determine the outcome of this game for the Bears.
All year long, Chicago's biggest issue has been on defense. Six straight featured backs have run for 100 or more yards against Chicago, and the team is ranked last in the NFL against the run.
The question in this matchup is, can the Browns take advantage of the Bears' weakness and score enough points to keep pace with Chicago's offense?
Cleveland will likely have its share of success in the ground game, but as good as Jason Campbell (391 yards and three touchdowns against New England on Sunday) and Josh Gordon (seven catches for 151 yards and one score against the Pats) have been of late, the Browns won't be able to score enough to beat the Bears.
Chicago's offense has to be considered one of the best in the NFL, and Cleveland hasn't scored 30 points in a game in 10 weeks. Look for the Bears to win another high-scoring affair, 40-24.
Philadelphia Eagles at Minnesota Vikings
The Dallas Cowboys' Monday night loss to the Bears was a big one. Not only is the team now a game behind the Eagles in the NFC East, but Dallas' red-hot rival is also headed into Minnesota to face a Vikings team that is likely to be without Adrian Peterson.
Peterson suffered a sprained foot in his team's 29-26 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 14. An MRI showed no ligament damage, but Ben Goessling of ESPN.com reports that Peterson is unlikely to play against the Eagles.
Removing the league's leading rusher and catalyst for the team's offense will only make this an easier matchup for the Eagles.
Philly's offense has taken off with Nick Foles as the starter. He's thrown 20 touchdowns and just one interception in 218 passing attempts this season. The Eagles also boast the league's top overall rushing attack behind LeSean McCoy.
Matt Cassel was decent for Minnesota against the Ravens, with 265 passing yards and two touchdowns, but without the dynamic A.P. brings to the offense, the Eagles will run away from Minnesota in Week 15.
Philly wins 38-17.
Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys
With Aaron Rodgers not yet medically cleared to return to action, Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is reporting that the Packers are proceeding as if Matt Flynn will remain the starter.
That's the only piece of good news the Cowboys have received in a week.
After being torched by the Bears on Monday night for 45 points and 490 total yards, it will be great for the Cowboys to miss out on Rodgers' potential return; Flynn is a much easier assignment for the woeful Cowboys defense.
As bad as Dallas' defense has been (last in the NFL), its offense has often been good enough to keep it in games. For a stretch in the second and third quarters on Monday night, however, the Bears did well to slow Dallas' attack.
As well as the Bears' talented skill players and McCown played, the Cowboys seemingly had more issues with the frigid temperature at Soldier Field. Playing away from the blustery Midwest cold against the Packers will also be a factor.
With this game taking place in Cowboys Stadium and more than likely without Rodgers under center for Green Bay, the Cowboys should rebound with a win.
The seventh loss of the season for the Packers will probably also lead to an official announcement that Rodgers is shut down for the remainder of the season.
Baltimore Ravens at Detroit Lions
Don't look now, but the defending champions are on a three-game winning streak and applying a little pressure to the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals. Cincy has maintained a two-game lead by winning three straight itself, but one loss could set up an epic season finale between the two teams at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Ravens more than likely will have to win out to capture their division title, though they are currently in a decent position to grab the last wild-card spot in the AFC.
Detroit's loss to the Eagles in the snow on Sunday made the team vulnerable, and the Bears took advantage with their win over the Cowboys. That said, the Lions still own the tiebreaker based on their head-to-head sweep, but another loss would give the Bears a chance to pass them with a win in Cleveland.
The key to the Ravens' surge is an improving run game. Baltimore's rushing total has improved in each game over the last three weeks and will be crucial if the team is going to win in Detroit.
For the Lions, taking care of the ball is essential. The team has 15 turnovers in the past four weeks. It's no wonder its record is 1-3 in that time and has opened the door for the Bears to catch up.
Both teams' late-season identities are beginning to shine through. Over the last two years, the Ravens are 8-5 in the second half of the season whereas the Lions are 2-11.
On Monday night, both trends will continue, as the Ravens keep the heat on the Bengals with a 30-20 win over the Lions.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.