Week 15 of the NFL starts with a battle between the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers on Thursday Night Football—with the Baltimore Ravens and Detroit Lions closing it out on Monday Night Football.
Once Week 15 finishes, there will be just two games left for each team that's either fighting for playoff seeding, a final Wild Card berth or draft picks. Somewhat paradoxically, this is the time of the season when each game feels more important than any other but each game still carries the same value as any regular season game.
Drama is what makes these games so much more tantalising. Like any good marathon or sprint, it's not the first 90 percent of the race that we tune into, it's the last 10. With only three games to go, we are approaching that point.
Therefore, once again we can't leave any team out for the biggest matchups of the week. Every single game is important for determining this year's Super Bowl winner or for determining what will happen in the offseason.
Toby Gerhart vs. the Philadelphia Eagles' Run Defense
Adrian Peterson looks set to miss out this week after injuring his ankle against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 14. After avoiding Reggie Bush last week, the Eagles won't be able to believe their luck that they get to avoid Peterson this week. However, if the Eagles underestimate Gerhart, then they could be in real trouble.
Gerhart was the 51st pick of the 2010 NFL draft. He immediately assumed the backup role behind Peterson, meaning that he has just 276 rushing attempts during his four year career so far. On those attempts, Gerhart is averaging a very impressive 4.7 yards per carry.
Furthermore, during his only extended spell in the field back in 2011, he averaged 4.9 yards per carry on 109 attempts with a long of 67 yards.
Even though we have only seen flashes of it since he was drafted out of Stanford, Gerhart does have a lot of talent. He is set to become a free agent after this year and at 26 years of age he still has time to earn one sizable contract as a starter elsewhere. For that reason, Gerhart should be very motivated to seize this opportunity on the field.
When he came in for Peterson last week, he carried the ball 15 times for 89 yards and a touchdown. He had fumbled earlier in the game, but the replay suggests that his knee was down before the ball came loose and the officiating crew mistakenly didn't change the call on the field.
Fumbling is Gerhart's biggest concern. On just 353 touches, he has six fumbles if you discount last week's. He has all the ability to be one of the best runners in the league and he is dangerous as a receiver coming out of the backfield, but without Peterson he has to prove he can carry the load at this level.
In treacherous conditions last week, Detroit Lions running back Joique Bell averaged three yards per carry and had two fumbles in relief of Bush. With the Eagles traveling to Minnesota to play in the dome, Gerhart won't have any weather concerns.
Even though Gerhart can't replicate what Peterson does on the field, he has to be effective to give the Vikings a chance at winning the game. Big plays to keep up with the Eagles' firepower on offense will be vital.
Although Gerhart had a 41 yard run late in the fourth quarter last week, his most impressive play came in the second quarter and only went for 21 yards.
On 1st-and-10 at the Vikings 39-yard line, the Ravens came out with just six defenders in the box. Cornerback Lardarius Webb is lined up just outside of the above image across from the slot receiver, while safety Matt Elam is 10 yards deep across from the left tackle. That is why the linebackers are shifted to the left of the defense.
As Gerhart gets the handoff, there are three immediate running lanes to choose from.
The yellow lane outside is blocked off by the defender enclosed in the yellow circle. The red lane between the right tackle and the centre, with the right guard already carrying out his assignment on the second level, could give him a big run into the secondary but the defensive tackle circled in red has position on the center to stop him at the line of scrimmage. The green running lane to the left of the center is being filled by the linebacker who is identified by the green circle.
Gerhart doesn't force the play. He shows patience and excellent vision to find a running lane between his fullback and his left guard after cutting back towards the middle of the field. Both blockers are in perfect position to give Gerhart a clean route into the second level.
Once into the secondary, Gerhart is immediately hit from the side by a linebacker coming off his block. With his power, he is able to quickly knock the linebacker off of him before continuing downfield. Once in space, he accelerates between two defensive backs who hit him at the same time. Both players connect with him, but they can only slow him down rather than stop him.
Gerhart is eventually brought down after a 21-yard gain. His vision and patience combined with his speed and power isn't on Peterson's level, but it is very impressive.
Corey Liuget vs. Peyton Manning
Last week it was Jurrell Casey and this week it's Liuget. Casey couldn't come up with enough interior pressure that is vital to stopping Manning. The likely MVP of the league wasn't sacked once and Casey was held at bay by a line that focused on stopping him.
The San Diego Chargers Liuget isn't having as impressive a season as Casey is, but he has enough talent to come up big in prime time. Manning will be working without Wes Welker, so he may feel pressured into holding the ball longer than he normally does.
Michael Crabtree vs. Darrelle Revis
The San Francisco 49ers' top wide receiver has had a rough return to the field this season. He missed most of the year with a torn Achilles tendon before returning in Week 13 against the St. Louis Rams. The Rams cornerbacks are not overly intimidating for a receiver of Crabtree's stature, so he was immediately able to make a positive impact on the game.
However, last week he struggled against Richard Sherman and the Seattle Seahawks' cornerbacks, finishing with just four receptions and 40 yards. This week things don't get much better, as he will spend some portion of his day fighting off the attention of Darrelle Revis.
Russell Wilson vs. the New York Giants Defensive Line
This matchup should feature the Giants' coaching staff against the Seahawks' ability to create pressure without blitzing, but we know that the Giants won't alter their game plan to take pressure off of Eli Manning. Instead, the Giants defense will be under major pressure to try to contain Wilson.
Wilson is a clear MVP candidate this year even if Peyton is set to win it convincingly.
Calais Campbell vs. Chance Warmack
The Tennessee Titans couldn't take advantage of some early success against the Denver Broncos last week. In fact, outside of the first quarter the team was simply outclassed. Much of the Titans' issues came because Ryan Fitzpatrick played very poorly and his offensive line couldn't give him a huge amount of help.
Even though the Titans aren't facing Peyton Manning this week, they may have a tougher test on offense because of the abundance of talent on the Arizona Cardinals defense.
A torn ACL for Tyrann Mathieu robbed us of one matchup between two of the best young players in the NFL at their respective positions. If Mathieu was on the field, he would have spent a lot of time covering wide receiver Kendall Wright.
Wright didn't see the ball much against the Broncos, which is rare, but he should feature heavily against the Cardinals—that is because the Titans will be forced to get rid of the ball quickly in the passing game.
Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, John Abraham, Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington are the most important pieces on the Cardinals defense. Each of those players plays on the defensive front. In particular, Campbell and Dockett will be expected to have big games against the Titans in order to slow down the running game.
The Titans haven't run the ball as well as they expected to this season, but they have still been a good running team. Chris Johnson is a disciplined, if limited running back, while Shonn Greene has impressed in short stretches on the field.
Chance Warmack and Andy Levitre were added in the offseason to be focal points of the running game. Levitre and Michael Roos have combined to create an outstanding left side of the line, but Warmack has struggled during his rookie season.
Unfortunately for the young right guard, he plays in a division with J.J. Watt, so he is guaranteed to be tested to his limit at least twice each season. However, this year he also gets to face-off against the second toughest test for an interior offensive lineman in the NFL—Campbell.
Campbell has six sacks, six pass deflections and one forced fumble this season. His relentless motor, incredible strength and impressive quickness allow him to consistently disrupt quarterbacks by repeatedly beating inferior offensive linemen. Campbell is the type of player who will expose any flaw in your game and magnify the impact as much as possible.
The Buffalo Bills' Defensive Line vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars' Offensive Line
Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew may miss this game. At the very least, it appears that he will be limited because of a hamstring injury suffered in Week 14. It won't matter whether Jordan Todman is an adequate replacement for Jones-Drew unless the Jaguars' offensive line can stand up to the Bills' defensive line.
The Bills' defensive line has been dominant this year. Even though the Jaguars' line has inexplicably improved as the season has gone on, this is their toughest test in some time and will likely decide the outcome of this game.
J.J. Watt vs. Andrew Luck
Two of the very best players in the NFL, not just young players, will decide the outcome of this game. Watt has been dominant all season even though his teammates around him have consistently failed to deliver. Luck is in a similar situation as he has very few weapons and is playing behind arguably the worst offensive line in football.
Even if the Indianapolis Colts commit two or more defenders to Watt throughout this game, Luck will still have to make plays to avoid him more than once.
Josh Gordon vs. Tim Jennings/Zachary Bowman
Although Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall will be facing off against Joe Haden, that matchup is less important because Haden can't cover both receivers at the same time. If the Chicago Bears can stop Gordon, then the Cleveland Browns have little chance of winning the game.
Gordon torched Aqib Talib last week, but New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick did little to help his cornerback. The Bears will likely give Gordon extra attention and try to take him out of the game. Without Charles Tillman, Jennings will likely spend a lot of time on Gordon but Bowman will need to play him at times too.
Kirk Cousins vs. the Atlanta Falcons Pass Defense
Amidst all of the drama in Washington this week, there is still a game that needs to be played on Sunday. Cousins is expected to start against the Falcons, while former starter Robert Griffin III is expected to be inactive.
Although Griffin is supposedly being benched to protect his health moving forward, he didn't do much against the Kansas City Chiefs last week to suggest that he deserves to start. Griffin looked like he has all season, hesitant and inaccurate.
When he found his receivers, they were able to make some big plays, but he missed too many throws with many of his passes going completely off-target or arriving too high. The Chiefs' defense is one of the toughest to play against for any quarterback, but Griffin can't use that as an excuse because he didn't make the plays that were available to be made.
Cousins came in for the fourth quarter, but he didn't perform much better than Griffin did. It's tougher to criticise Cousins for his play, because it's always difficult to come off the bench without the week of preparation that is so valuable to the position.
While Griffin's accuracy was off and he looked too hesitant in the pocket, most of Cousins' struggles came because he looked uncomfortable in the offense. Twice he threw to receivers who either ran different routes or weren't looking for the ball, while he checked down too early more than once. He was fortunate not to be intercepted on a wayward pass over the middle of the field.
A week of preparation will be massive for Cousins, but the drawback is the negative attention that he receives during the buildup to the game. While the media is essentially irrelevant for determining the outcome of games, it can be draining for a player if he has to constantly address the situation.
The Falcons defense is one of the worst in the league—they lack any consistent pass-rush and can be picked apart in the secondary because of that. According to Football Outsiders, they currently have the third worst defense in the NFL and second worst pass defense for the season as a whole.
While the Falcons are playing terrible football and have been for some time, there is enough talent on the roster to come up with one big display in the right setting. If Cousins gives the Falcons reasons to believe in themselves early in the game, the results could be fatal.
Cousins may feel compelled to avoid cornerback Desmond Trufant, who has played well during his rookie season, but that could lead him to Asante Samuel who is always dangerous regardless of how his season has gone. Samuel played sparingly last week, so it's unclear how much he will feature against Cousins.
Similarly, the Falcons have dangerous players on their defensive line in Osi Umenyiora, Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters. Umenyiora in particular has been a massive disappointment for the Falcons as a free-agent signing, but he still has the ability to beat left tackle Trent Williams on any given snap.
While Cousins will be eager to impress to try and entice a trade during the offseason, he must also control his own excitement. If he lacks composure, the Falcons could easily turn inaccurate passes into interceptions or careless moments in the pocket to fumbles.
Matt McGloin vs. Bob Sutton
Griffin III and Cousins didn't help themselves last week against the Chiefs defense, but Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton did play a role. Sutton has proven to be an outstanding play-caller and game-planner since moving to Kansas City with head coach Andy Reid. His ability to disguise pressure and make quarterbacks hesitate with play designs is very impressive.
For younger quarterbacks, it is much tougher to handle Suttons' approach because it stresses the mental aspects of the game. McGloin is a younger quarterback who has shown the poise of a veteran, but so had Terrelle Pryor before he faced the Chiefs defense earlier this season. He was sacked nine times, with one later being marked off as a running play.
Steve Smith vs. Antonio Cromartie
Two veteran players who have struggled this season. Smith hasn't looked like the same explosive receiver that he has been throughout his career, while Cromartie has consistently given up big plays against lesser players.
Because the New York Jets will likely be able to contain the Carolina Panthers' rushing attack, the focus will be shifted onto Cam Newton and the passing game. Smith is still a major part of that.
Matt Flynn vs. the Dallas Cowboys Secondary
Aaron Rodgers doesn't look set to return any time soon, so the Green Bay Packers are expected to move forward with Matt Flynn. After what backup quarterback Josh McCown did to the Cowboys secondary last week, Flynn has no excuses to not perform this week.
Packers wide receivers Jordy Nelson and James Jones may not be producing like Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall right now, but both have overwhelming talent. Nelson in particular is one of the best receivers in the NFL, while Jones has a home-run hitting ability that has been bottled up too often this season.
Antonio Brown vs. Adam Jones/Dre Kirkpatrick
The Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers met back in Week 2, but both sides have endured significant changes since then.
The Bengals have suffered a number of crippling injuries since that time, with both Leon Hall and Geno Atkins landing on IR before Terence Newman was lost for a few weeks. The Steelers offense is going in the opposite direction, as they have a fully healthy LeVeon Bell and Heath Miller for this matchup, something they didn't have in Week 2.
Even though Miller and Bell should have big impacts on this game, it's Antonio Brown who really stands out as a potential difference-maker.
Brown was inches away from stealing a victory last week on the final play of the game. It would have been just another big play in a season full of big plays for the diminutive receiver. Brown has played like an All-Pro for most of this season, but when these sides last met he was very frustrated with how the Steelers were running their offense.
After the Week 2 matchup with the Bengals, Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley altered his approach on offense. Instead of asking Roethlisberger to carry the offense with throws down the field, Haley focused his offense around Bell's running ability and shorter passes to Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.
This new approach perfectly suited Brown's ability to create yards after the catch. He has flourished on screen passes and quick slants, but he has also shown the ability to consistently beat cornerbacks down the field when asked to.
Stopping Brown isn't enough to stop the Steelers offense as a whole, but it goes a long way to slowing it down. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer doesn't move his cornerbacks around to adjust to different receivers, but it wouldn't matter even if he did this week because he is missing his two best cover cornerbacks.
Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick are set to spend a lot of time trying to cover Brown. For Jones, that's not a major issue because he has extensive experience on the field at this point. For Kirkpatrick, it could prove to be the toughest test of his very short career so far.
Michael Brockers vs. Drew Brees
Brees and the New Orleans Saints rebounded from their loss in Seattle as well as anyone could have expected them to. Now they face a St. Louis Rams defense that has been unreliable this season. At times the Rams have shown up and taken over games, but often against the better run offenses their lack of discipline has shown.
Rams defensive end Robert Quinn has consistently been penetrating the pocket this season, but he won't be the focus in this game. In order to stop Brees, the Rams will need lots of interior pressure from Brockers. Even if the defensive tackle simply makes it tough for Brees to survey the field, he will have done a lot to help his team win.
Lardarius Webb/Jimmy Smith vs. Calvin Johnson
In spite of what Baltimore Ravens safety Matt Elam has to say about Johnson and his age, the Ravens will be desperate to try and contain him this week. The fast track in Detroit should actually aid the Ravens defensive backs opposed to the snow and sleet that they endured in Baltimore last week against the Minnesota Vikings.
It won't be Elam who faces off against Johnson on a regular basis, but he will see him a lot while giving him to his cornerbacks. Webb is one of the best cover corners in the NFL, but he's better at handling smaller players. Smith is big and physically talented, but he doesn't have the same coverage ability as Webb. Regardless of who lines up over him, the Ravens will need to give help in man coverage and disguise their zones.
Cameron Wake vs. Will Svitek
The Cleveland Browns almost beat the New England Patriots last week. Although they eventually lost late to a Patriots score, the Browns exposed the Patriots' inability to protect the passer throughout the game.
Brady was sacked four times in total, while throwing one interception and losing one fumble.
Most of the Patriots' issues came from the right side, where Will Svitek was unable to contain the different rushers that Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton sent his way. Svitek is the third starter at right tackle that the Patriots have had this season. First-choice Sebastien Vollmer was placed on IR with a broken leg earlier in the season, before Marcus Cannon took his spot.
Svitek became the starter three weeks ago and played well during his first two outings.
Then he gave up two sacks against the Browns and was beaten on a number of other occasions. Importantly, both of Svitek's sacks came when the defender used his speed to attack his outside shoulder before working back across his inside shoulder for the sack.
An inability to handle speed is a major problem for an offensive tackle in the NFL. It can be fatal against a defensive lineman such as Cameron Wake.
Wake and the Miami Dolphins are the Patriots' opponents in Week 15 so Svitek has no time to worry about his performance last week. He has to rebound if the Patriots are to earn a victory over their division rivals and seal another AFC East crown.
It's unlikely that the Dolphins can catch the Patriots either way, because it would require the Dolphins to win every game and the Patriots to lose every game. In spite of that, the earlier Bill Belichick can lock up a playoff spot the earlier he can start preparing his side for a post-season run that won't feature many of his star players.
Wake had one sack of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger when the Dolphins faced the Pittsburgh Steelers last week.
He showed off that speed that had been absent at times during this season when he burst off the edge of the defensive line. He got on top of right tackle Marcus Gilbert very quickly, before shaking him past his outside shoulder to close in on Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger attempted to scramble forward and away from Wake, but that only allowed the All-Pro caliber player to swat the ball out of his hand from behind.
Wake has just 7.5 sacks in 12 games this season because he hasn't been at 100 percent. His talent is clearly still there though, so Svitek won't feel comfortable trying to contain him on Sunday. Most importantly, the Dolphins have enough talent around Wake to prevent the Patriots from focusing more than one blocker on him throughout the game.