Sunday Morning Under the Helmet: What to Watch for in NFL Week 15

Alex JohnsonCorrespondent IDecember 20, 2009

CINCINNATI - NOVEMBER 25:  Chris Henry #15 of the Cincinnati Bengals looks on during the NFL game against the Tennessee Titans on November 25, 2007 at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Week 15 has already seen two fantastic games come down to the final minutes.

On Thursday night, the Colts remained undefeated after making a comeback to beat the Jaguars 35-31.

Last night, the Saints fell to 13-1 when the Cowboys pulled off the upset, 24-17.

Sunday's slate of games could include some more classics!

Matchup of the Week: Cincinnati Bengals (9-4) at San Diego Chargers (10-3)

When the Bengals head to San Diego to play the Chargers they'll be doing so with heavy hearts.

Wide receiver Chris Henry died early Thursday morning after suffering injuries in an accident on Wednesday. Henry, 26, reportedly fell out of the back of a pickup truck after a domestic dispute with his fiancee.

This won't be the first time Cincinnati will be taking the field after a tragedy this season.

Earlier in the year, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's wife passed away unexpectedly. The Bengals beat the Ravens just days later.

The Bengals will wear a sticker on their helmets to remember Henry in today's game.

With the game dedicated to Henry, Cincy will attempt to take down the Chargers and clinch the AFC North division title with a win today.

Both teams are fighting for the No. 2 seed in the AFC and today's winner will have the upper hand in that race.

But to improve to 10-4, the Bengals will need to stop a San Diego team that has dominated in December games in recent seasons. The Chargers have won an NFL record 16 consecutive games in the year's final month. They'll look to continue that streak this afternoon.

The Bengals are coming off a 30-10 blowout loss to the Vikings in Minnesota last week.

In that loss, quarterback Carson Palmer was held to just 94 yards passing on 25 attempts. Palmer will need to play a lot better if his team is going to have any shot at winning today.

The offense for Cincy will also look to Cedric Benson quite often. Benson is enjoying his first 1,000 yard season since joining the NFL as a Chicago Bear in 2005.

Benson has racked up 1,065 yards this season and is averaging 4.1 yards per carry. He's also scored six touchdowns.

He could have another big game today against the Chargers' 21st ranked rush defense. The Bolts are allowing an average of 117.1 rushing yards per game.

For the San Diego offense, the Chargers will be all pass.

Phillip Rivers is having a great season, passing for 3,583 yards and 22 touchdowns through 14 games this year.

Rivers' favorite target, tight end Antonio Gates, will likely have a very productive game this afternoon. The middle of the Bengals' secondary has been weak at times this season which could allow Gates to run wild all day.

But if the Bengals can stop Rivers and the Chargers' passing attack, they've got a really good shot at collecting their 10th win of the season because the pass is all the Chargers have. They can't run the ball.

San Diego ranks 30th in rushing yards and are averaging just 87.5 yards per game and will likely struggle again today. The Bengals defensive line should be able to over power the Bolts' O-line and shut down L.T. and Darren Sproles all game long.

Keys to the game

-Antonio Gates vs. Bengals D

-Phillip Rivers vs. Bengals secondary

-Cedric Benson

-How do the Bengals react to the tragic loss of Chris Henry?

Prediction: Chargers win 38-34.

Small Names, Big Games

Here we will take a look at three non-superstars who will post big numbers in Week 15.

Lawrence Maroney (RB, New England)

When the Patriots head to Buffalo, their ability to run the ball will, likely, be the key to advancing to 9-5 and Lawrence Maroney will likely see the bulk of the carries.

Maroney has scored a career-high eight touchdowns so far this season. He has 654 rushing yards and has also caught 14 passes for 99 yards.

Maroney goes against the Bills' last ranked rush defense this afternoon so he could top 100 yards for the second time this year.

Evan Moore (TE, Cleveland)

Browns tight end Evan Moore was promoted from the practice squad just one day prior to Cleveland's Week 13 game against the Chargers.

In his two games since, and only two games of his career, Moore has eight catches for 114 yards including six for 80 yards in the game vs. San Diego.

Browns quarterback Brady Quinn has looked for Moore quite often over the last two games and expect nothing less this afternoon when Cleveland takes on the Chiefs.

Kansas City ranks 23rd against the pass so Moore could have another big game and perhaps find the endzone for his first touchdown.

Chris Jennings (RB, Cleveland)

With running back Jamaal Lewis out for the season with concussion symptoms, rookie Chris Jennings and Jerome Harrison have taken over the backfield duties in Cleveland.

Last week in the Browns' upset victory over the defending champs, Jennings carried the ball 20 times for 73 yards and a touchdown.

Today's opponent, Kansas City, ranks 28th against the run, so Jennings could top the century mark this afternoon.

To Watch: Matt Cassel (QB, Kansas City), Brady Quinn (QB, Cleveland), Fred Jackson (RB, Buffalo)

Upset Alert!: Buffalo (5-8) over New England (8-5)?

The New England Patriots have beaten the Buffalo Bills 12 consecutive times, including the season opener 25-24.

So what's different about this game?

The key to this game is the Patriots are going on the road to play Buffalo. The Pats have won just one road game this season, which came in Week Seven against the Tampa Bay Bucs in London.

All five of New England's losses (against New York Jets, Denver, Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Miami) have come on the road.

Since firing Dick Jauron as head coach and putting Perry Fewell in as the interim, the Bills are 2-2 and have been playing much better football.

To win today against New England, though, Buffalo will have to find a way to stop Tom Brady, Wes Welker, and Randy Moss in the Patriots passing offense.

The Pats rank second in the league in passing yards but the Bills rank fifth against the pass, so it's not unlikely that Buffalo will find a way to at least slow down New England's weapons.

Also in favor of the Bills is rookie safety Jarius Byrd. Byrd leads the league in interceptions with nine and is having a marvelous rookie campaign.

Byrd will look to get into double-digits in picks and will have a pretty good chance at doing so today because Brady has thrown an interception in six of his last seven games.

But it might not be the pass that will make the difference, the Pats' ability to run the ball could likely be the key to this game.

The Bills are last in the league against the run, giving up an average of 170 yards per game.

They'll have to stop the aforementioned Lawrence Maroney and Sammy Morris if they're going to have a chance to finally take down the monster of the AFC East.

On offense, the Bills will need a great performance out of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and will need receiver Terrell Owens to be on his game.

Both Fitzpatrick and T.O. have been inconsistent all season and their last three games are a perfect example of that inconsistency.

In his last two starts, Fitzpatrick has combined for just 184 yards passing, but in Week 12 alone he came just four yards shy of 250.

Owens has combined for just five catches for 46 yards in his last two games, but in Week 12 vs. Miami he caught five balls for 96 yards and one touchdown.

But just like on the New England side, the Bills run game will likely be the key to their offensive success.

Led by Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch, the Bills rank 17th in the NFL in rushing yards and have the potential to break out for a big game at any time. Today could be that day.

The Pats defensive line will be without both nose tackle Vince Wilfork and defensive end Ty Warren today. Both are great run stuffers. New England could really struggle without them.

Keys for BUF

-Run the ball well on offense, stop the run on defense

-Stop Welker underneath

-Shut down Moss early

-Fitzpatrick and T.O. MUST be at their best


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