The majority of Week 15's NFL action is about to take place on Sunday, and with much of the playoff picture still unclear, many teams will be battling for their respective seasons.
One franchise that managed to keep itself afloat is the San Diego Chargers, who traveled to Denver on Thursday and knocked off the AFC West rival Broncos on a short week. It was an impressive performance with little time to prepare, and as a result the Chargers still have a chance at a late charge.
Below are previews and predictions for the games on Sunday that have the biggest postseason ramifications, along with a complete list of picks against the spread.
New England Patriots (PK) over Miami Dolphins
Thanks to Denver's loss on Thursday, the Patriots suddenly control their own destiny in the quest for the AFC's No. 1 seed.
ESPN.com's Mike Reiss notes that if New England wins its final three games, it will have home-field advantage:
With Broncos' home loss to the Chargers, it opens door for Patriots to earn No. 1 playoff seed if they win remaining 3 games.— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) December 13, 2013
Despite the positivity that resulted from pulling off a miracle comeback last week against the Cleveland Browns, it became a Pyrrhic victory of epic proportions when superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski went down with a torn ACL and MCL:
Making matters worse, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport has indicated that rookie wideouts Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins won't be able to go on Sunday:
It appears Tom Brady will have to be especially terrific, but that would hardly be a surprise at this point. With about two-and-a-half minutes to go in Week 14, Brady trailed by 13 points and still found a way to win—facing a stout Cleveland defense at that.
The Dolphins don't strike fear into opponents with Ryan Tannehill at quarterback and a lackluster rushing attack that ranks 23rd in the league, and they probably won't be able to capitalize on the Pats' thinned front seven.
In a divisional clash that should be close at the end—hence the "pick" spread—Brady is a far trustworthier option than Tannehill to get it done in the clutch. According to the team's official Twitter account, history is certainly on the Pats' side in this AFC East affair:
A Patriots win today would clinch the AFC East for the 5th straight year & the 11th time in Belichick’s 14 seasons.— New England Patriots (@Patriots) December 15, 2013
In a trademark situation in which Brady and Bill Belichick somehow pull off a win on the road, New England will do so while further diminishing the Dolphins' playoff hopes in the process.
Prediction: Patriots 24, Dolphins 20
Carolina Panthers (-10) over New York Jets
With how hard the NFL is to predict on a weekly basis, it seems many leaped off the Panthers' bandwagon that seemed to be moving full steam ahead after an eight-game winning streak.
The wheels came off a bit in Week 14's Sunday night loss to the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton couldn't get much going, and the elite Panthers defense was picked apart by past Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees.
Be that as it may, it's not as though Carolina is incapable of bouncing back.
The Panthers are facing a rookie signal-caller in the Jets' Geno Smith, who described his play during the team's recent three-game losing streak as robotic when speaking with NFL Network's Kimberly Jones:
Geno Smith introspective today. Said he's playing "freely" after trying to be "perfect" during skid: "At times I was playing like a robot."— Kimberly Jones (@KimJonesSports) December 11, 2013
If Carolina's offense isn't good enough to be taken seriously, what can be said for that of the Jets?
Smith showed improvement and seemed more instinctual in beating Oakland at home, throwing for 219 yards on 8.8 yards per attempt and a touchdown. The encouraging sign was that his 87.3 QBR indicated better decision-making, awareness and understanding of situational football.
Geno Smith's Total QBR in yesterday's win over the Raiders was a 87.3. That's higher than his Total QBR in his previous 7 games COMBINED.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 9, 2013
Which of Week 15's biggest remaining underdogs is likeliest to cover?
However, the West Virginia product did throw his 20th interception of the season, tied with Eli Manning for the most in the league.
That proneness to turnovers may have dissipated to a large extent for one game, but the Panthers have the talent and schematic sophistication to cause it to surface again.
Credit Jets coach Rex Ryan for making his 6-7 bunch at least competitive, weathering the blunders Smith has made in his maiden pro campaign with an often brilliant defense.
This is the end of the road, though, as Carolina will cause Smith to commit multiple turnovers and Newton's athleticism will be the X-factor in beating Ryan's exotic pressure that can confuse other young QBs.
Ron Rivera's Panthers will have an emphatic answer for critics and win big in this one at MetLife Stadium.
Prediction: Panthers 31, Jets 17
Green Bay Packers (+7) over Dallas Cowboys
Flynn it to win it, baby! Yes, the Packers should still light it up through the air against Dallas' last-ranked pass defense and manage to keep things competitive against the Cowboys.
The spread is rather large, but B/R expert Aaron Nagler believes Flynn can thrive—if not win:
Matt Flynn and the Packers offense can absolutely score on a god-awful Cowboys defense. Not saying they'll win, but I like their chances.— Aaron Nagler (@Aaron_Nagler) December 13, 2013
NFL Network's Andrew Siciliano does an excellent job of accentuating the myriad of issues the Cowboys have defensively:
Cowboys defense has forced the fewest 3-and-outs, the fewest punts, allowed the most passing yards, and the most first downs.— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) December 15, 2013
America's Team also can't stop the run, ranking 28th in the league by yielding 122.8 yards per contest. That's bad news for defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's already maligned unit, and it will be compounded by the punishing running style of rookie Eddie Lacy.
It comes down to Flynn and Lacy protecting the football.
One of the few reasons the 7-6 Cowboys are hovering above .500 and still just one game back in the NFC East is their fortunate generation of 25 takeaways between all the yards they concede.
Lost in that is how well Tony Romo has played for Dallas under center this season. Romo and Co. are tied for the league low with 13 giveaways entering Sunday, and Romo has thrown 27 touchdowns to a mere seven interceptions.
Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated responded to a SportsCenter tweet that highlighted Romo's late-season record rather than the context of the specific situation after last week's loss in Chicago:
He threw 3TDs, no picks, and his defense was horrible. RT “@SportsCenter: Tony Romo now has a career record of 13-20 in December/January.”— SI_DougFarrar (@SI_DougFarrar) December 10, 2013
The Bears didn't have to punt all game. It wasn't pretty.
Dallas' encounter with the Packers should be a shootout of sorts, but the Cowboys' incompetence on the back end and inability to stop Lacy will give Green Bay an edge in time of possession. That will also allow the Pack to establish more physicality and set up play action for Flynn.
It will be enough to boost Mike McCarthy's team to cover the spread, win outright to improve to 7-6-1 and possibly reign atop the NFC North by Week 15's end.
Prediction: Packers 34, Cowboys 27
|Away Team||Home Team||Pick (Spread)|
|San Diego Chargers||Denver Broncos||Chargers (+10)|
|Washington Redskins||Atlanta Falcons||Falcons (-6)|
|San Francisco 49ers||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||49ers (-6)|
|Arizona Cardinals||Tennessee Titans||Cardinals (-3)|
|New Orleans Saints||St. Louis Rams||Saints (-7)|
|Seattle Seahawks||New York Giants||Seahawks (-7.5)|
|Chicago Bears||Cleveland Browns||Browns (+1.5)|
|Houston Texans||Indianapolis Colts||Texans (+6)|
|Buffalo Bills||Jacksonville Jaguars||Jaguars (+3)|
|New England Patriots||Miami Dolphins||Patriots (PK)|
|Philadelphia Eagles||Minnesota Vikings||Eagles (-7)|
|New York Jets||Carolina Panthers||Panthers (-10)|
|Kansas City Chiefs||Oakland Raiders||Chiefs (-6)|
|Green Bay Packers||Dallas Cowboys||Packers (+7)|
|Cincinnati Bengals||Pittsburgh Steelers||Bengals (-3)|
|Baltimore Ravens||Detroit Lions||Ravens (+6)|