The NFC East will likely be decided on Sunday as Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles take on Eli Manning and the New York Giants at the New Meadowlands Stadium. Both teams come in at 9-4, with the Eagles having won their previous meeting. The Giants, however, have won all three games since their loss to Philly and enter the game confident they can get a critical win at home this week.
Theirs is not the only crucial intra-divisional matchup of Week 15. In fact, more than half of the NFL schedule for this week have serious playoff implications of one kind or another. 'Tis the season for helping one's neighbors, and the San Francisco 49ers can help their neighbors, the Oakland Raiders, in a huge way with a win Thursday night over the San Diego Chargers. 'Tis the season, too, for depending on one's neighbors, and the Green Bay Packers could surely use some help from the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night, when the Vikings take on the NFC North-leading Bears.
Unfortunately, it is also the season to pore over convoluted tie-breaking rules, and the interdependency of several games' outcomes on one another make the weekend more interesting but less accessible. Nonetheless, here are previews and predictions for the five biggest games of a great week of contests in the NFL.
Prediction: 31-20 Falcons
Kay Matchup: Tony Gonzalez vs. Earl Thomas
This game is critical on several fronts. For the Falcons, it is their last test before a Week 16 matchup with New Orleans that will determine which of the two wins the NFC South and (likely) homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. For the Seahawks, over whom the St. Louis Rams currently hold the tiebreaker for the NFC West, the game is an opportunity: A loss is expected, and a win would be monumental both in terms of team morale and in terms of playoff viability.
Unfortunately for Seattle, the Falcons are just too good. Despite the emergence of scrap-heap journeyman Chris Clemons as a great pass rusher (10 sacks and four balls batted down at the line this season), the Seahawks lack a strong presence along the front four when it comes to the ground game. That forces the linebacking corps to key on the run every down, and makes it nearly the sole job of free safety Earl Thomas to contain Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez.
The Falcons are smart, though, and they will have Gonzalez running square outs into open space all day. Thomas has been great in his rookie season, with 65 tackles and five interceptions, but Matt Ryan will make him look bad at least once on Sunday en route to victory.
Prediction: 26-14 Patriots
Key Matchup: Aaron Rodgers vs. his concussion
This game will make or break the Packers' season, as they stand a game back of Chicago with three to play. A Week 17 date with the Bears leaves plenty about which to be hopeful, but the Pack have to win at least one of the two tough games between now and then for it to mean much.
The Patriots embarrassed the Bears last week, so to beat Bill Belichick's squad would give Green Bay a huge confidence boost, not to mention a key win over a common opponent if the tiebreakers come into play. New England, meanwhile, has the conference all but sewn up but would love to lock down homefield advantage.
The crucial question that determines whether this will be a game or not will be answered on Saturday night, when Green Bay will decide whether quarterback Aaron Rodgers is ready to start after suffering his second concussion of the season. If he can go, the Packers have every reason to believe they can win this game. It seems unlikely that that will be the case though, so the Patriots will probably cruise to victory against a Packers team that (without Rodgers on the field) has no good vehicle through which to exploit its innumerable weapons.
Prediction: 28-7 Chargers
Key Matchup: Kevin Burnett vs. Mike Iupati
Thursday night brings a critical showdown this week, as the divisional races out west figure to get at least somewhat less confusing, if no less frustrating. San Diego sits a game back of the Kansas City Chiefs and can do themselves a huge favor with a win, while the 49ers need a victory just to stay in the hunt in the NFC: They trail the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks by a game. The Chargers enter the game feeling great after obliterating the Matt Cassel-less Chiefs 31-0 last week, a game in which San Diego eclipsed 200 yards on the ground.
San Francisco also got a big win Sunday, beating the Seahawks and scoring 40 points along the way. That was the first time the 49ers had scored 40 since 2003. Alex Smith looked comfortable and made good decisions. Seattle sacked him twice but otherwise he found his passing lanes open and had time to read the defense.
San Diego rarely gives opponents those luxuries, and the key to this game may be the ability of the 49ers line to keep Smith upright and poised. Inside linebacker Kevin Burnett is a huge part of the Chargers defense, making plays by dropping back into coverage on some downs while blitzing with incredible efficiency--he has five sacks on the year--on others.
The responsibility for keeping Burnett out of the backfield falls primarily to San Francisco left guard Mike Iupati, a second-round pick who has started all 13 games so far in his rookie season. Iupati cannot focus all his attention on Burnett, of course, because Burnett blitzes relatively infrequently. He needs to keep himself free to get to Burnett if the linebacker comes though, so the 49ers should formulate blocking schemes that allow Iupati to help out on one of the three down linemen without getting tied up.
This is a challenge uniquely presented by the Chargers, because it would usually be the outside linebacker on that side of the field threatening the quarterback most. In that case, everything is simpler: The left tackle has to stop that pass rusher. The Chargers though bring pressure from the outside on the other side of the field, with Shaun Phillips, and rely mostly on Burnett for pass rush on the offense's weak side. Therefore, Iupati has to be ready for his toughest test as a pro.
Prediction: 34-27 Colts
Key Matchup: Reggie Wayne vs. Rashean Mathis
This game will, in all likelihood, determine the eventual winner of the AFC South. In fact, the Jaguars would clinch the title if they win. If the Colts can get the victory though, they would draw even with two games to play, and something in Peyton Manning's brain would click on. One way or another, if the Colts win, they have every hope of running the table and taking the division with (if nothing else) the tiebreaker for record against common opponents.
For all that to happen, though, Peyton Manning will need to be his old self for a few more games. He carved the Titans fairly easily last Thursday night, but the Titans are so dreadful these days that it's hard to say how much encouragement Manning should derive from that. Before that game, Manning had thrown 11 interceptions in his previous three games, so he badly needed the confidence boost.
Manning's long time favorite target has been Reggie Wayne, and Wayne (who struggled for a long stretch of the season) has stepped up and made himself amply available of late. Over the past two games, he has caught 18 of Manning's passes for 306 yards. Because of injuries to every other key offensive contributor, Wayne is also the only player with whom Manning has seemed especially comfortable this year, so look for the tandem to hook up as many as 10 times again in this game.
The man tasked with stopping that from happening is Rashean Mathis. It is not as though Mathis and Wayne will be unfamiliar foes: Each has spent his entire career within the division, facing off twice per season. Mathis has not been healthy for a full season since 2006, when he was named an All-Pro cornerback, and though it's been clear this year that those days are gone, he still discourages opponents from throwing his way. He has picked Manning just once in his career, but a big play Sunday could be the spark the Jags need to sew up their first AFC South title.
Prediction: 28-27 Eagles
Key Matchup: LeSean McCoy vs. Jonathan Goff
This game could not be bigger for either side. A win virtually ensure the Eagles of a division title, since they would then lead by one game with two to play and have the tiebreaker over New York. The Giants, though, have the homefield advantage and will take control of their own fate if they get the victory.
Though the loser would still have an inside track to a Wild Card berth, there are no guarantees. The Eagles have already lost to the Green Bay Packers, and the Giants have to play them in Week 16, so both teams could feasibly lose the tiebreaker to Green Bay for the final Wild Card spot in the NFC. This game is for all the playoff marbles.
Last time the two teams met, Michael Vick and the Eagles came away with a 27-17 win that was not as comfortable as it sounds. It took a late touchdown by LeSean McCoy, who ran for 111 yards on only 14 carries, to seal the victory. McCoy torched the Cowboys with similar ease last Sunday night, running up 149 yards on 16 carries in a 30-27 win.
To beat Philadelphia this time, the Giants need to keep Michael Vick contained and controlled with their front four only, allowing their linebackers more leeway to pursue and contain McCoy. Last time, the team employed six of its front seven defensive players in the task of keeping Vick inside, but the Eagles responded by stacking the middle of the field with blockers gashing the Giants on the ground.
Jonathan Goff had only one tackle in that contest, and frequently looked bottled up in the center of the field. More room in which to operate and a better sense of how to bring down McCoy are key to Goff's performance in the rematch, and the success or failure of those efforts will go a long way toward determining the winner of the biggest game on the calendar for Week 15.