Three-quarters of the 2015 NFL season are history, folks. Week 14 means each team has just four games left on the docket—four chances to claim division titles, wild cards or, for those at the bottom of the standings, appease downtrodden fans with a late-season win or two.
From the three-way battle between the New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos for the top overall seed in the AFC to the tire fire that is the race for the NFC East crown, there are plenty of playoff storylines to keep fans intrigued down the final stretch of the season.
December is a proving ground for many squads, but it's nothing like playing in January.
Here's a look at the schedule and odds for Week 14 with predictions for each game. Odds are courtesy of Odds Shark and updated as of Thursday, December 10 at 7 a.m. ET.
|Thursday, December 10|
|8:25 p.m.||Minnesota Vikings||Arizona Cardinals (-9)||46||ARI 27-14 MIN|
|Sunday, December 13|
|1 p.m.||Atlanta Falcons||Carolina Panthers (-8.5)||46.5||CAR 31-23 ATL|
|1 p.m.||Washington Redskins||Chicago Bears (-3.5)||43.5||CHI 20-13 WAS|
|1 p.m.||Pittsburgh Steelers||Cincinnati Bengals (-2.5)||49.5||PIT 24-21 CIN|
|1 p.m.||San Francisco 49ers||Cleveland Browns (-1)||41||CLE 20-19 SF|
|1 p.m.||Indianapolis Colts||Jacksonville Jaguars||N/A||JAX 33-27 IND|
|1 p.m.||San Diego Chargers||Kansas City Chiefs (-11.5)||45||KC 24-14 SD|
|1 p.m.||Tennessee Titans||New York Jets (-7.5)||43||NYJ 27-23 TEN|
|1 p.m.||Buffalo Bills (even)||Philadelphia Eagles (even)||47||BUF 28-24 PHI|
|1 p.m.||Detroit Lions (even)||St. Louis Rams (even)||40.5||STL 17-16 DET|
|1 p.m.||New Orleans Saints||Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-3.5)||50.5||TB 26-20 NO|
|1 p.m.||Seattle Seahawks||Baltimore Ravens||N/A||SEA 30-20 BAL|
|4:05 p.m.||Oakland Raiders||Denver Broncos (-8.5)||43.5||DEN 23-19 OAK|
|4:25 p.m.||Dallas Cowboys||Green Bay Packers (-7.5)||43||GB 31-20 DAL|
|8:30 p.m.||New England Patriots (-3)||Houston Texans||44.5||NE 24-20 HOU|
|Monday, December 14|
|8:30 p.m.||New York Giants (even)||Miami Dolphins (even)||47||NYG 31-21 MIA|
Top AFC Contenders in Week 14
Oakland (5-7) vs. Denver (10-2)
As Peyton Manning returns to health, Brock Osweiler may only have a few games left to showcase his skills and convince the team he's one for the future, to say nothing of leading Denver to a bye week in the postseason. Oakland played Denver mighty tough in a 16-10 home loss on October 11, holding Manning to no touchdowns while picking him off twice.
As strange as it is to say it, Osweiler should provide the Broncos a better chance to win against Oakland so long as he's a bit more dynamic than he was in his last game.
Osweiler was hardly convincing against the San Diego Chargers' porous defense in Week 13. Sure, Denver still got the win thanks to another crushing performance from the defense, but Osweiler struggled against the Bolts, throwing for 166 passing yards, one touchdown and one pick. As ESPN's Jeff Legwold notes, the Chargers did well to get pressure on the lanky QB:
The Chargers, aggressive in the defensive front, handled the Broncos’ rollouts and bootlegs with more efficiency than the previous three teams Osweiler had faced this season. That’s not to say Osweiler didn’t have the room to make some plays—it’s just the Chargers were able to get a rusher in his face more.
Oakland certainly has the players in place to harass Osweiler; Khalil Mack has been one of the league's best pass-rushers this year with nine sacks while linebacker Malcolm Smith has chipped in with four, one of which came against Denver. The Broncos offensive line will find it tough to contain Mack, meaning Osweiler has to do a better job of finding Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders downfield.
A bounce-back game from running back Ronnie Hillman would certainly come in handy for Denver. He averaged just 2.9 yards per rush against the Chargers' horrid run defense. Hillman adds speed to a backfield that's seeing increased production from C.J. Anderson.
Getting both of these guys into a groove against an Oakland defense giving up 4.4 yards per carry, per ESPN, would go a long way toward taking the pressure off Osweiler. Neither player had success against the Raiders last time around, but both are in better form at this point in the year, especially Anderson.
Philip Rivers managed just three points against Denver's elite defense in Week 13. Can Derek Carr do any better?
The second-year QB has been a bit up and down over the past month or so. Against the Kansas City Chiefs last time out, he tossed a season-high three interceptions. Carr threw just one pick against Denver back in October.
Aqib Talib and Chris Harris form perhaps the best cornerback tandem in the league and have combined for five interceptions, while linebacker Von Miller is all too capable of forcing Carr into some panicked throws. Wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper are both fine targets for Carr but could struggle against the Broncos' elite secondary.
Latavius Murray put in a solid effort against Kansas City after two poor performances, rushing 20 times for 86 yards and a touchdown. He did struggle against Denver earlier this season, so don't expect him to carry the load in this one.
So long as Osweiler keeps the mistakes to a minimum, Denver should win this home game by a field goal.
Pittsburgh (7-5) vs. Cincinnati (10-2)
One can only hope this contest between AFC North rivals is more entertaining and less destructive than their last go-around. Cincinnati picked up a 16-10 road win against Pittsburgh on Nov. 1, with Ben Roethlisberger throwing an uncharacteristic three interceptions to doom his mostly productive offense's chances. The Steelers also lost running back Le'Veon Bell to a season-ending knee injury in the contest.
As ESPN's Coley Harvey wrote, it was a bruising contest for both teams:
Several hard hits were dealt in the early-November game, including one on Jones and another that ended Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell's season. Both of those tackles had players on both teams tweeting or speaking to the media to vent their frustrations about the opposing squad.
One player in particular, Steelers linebacker Vince Williams, tweeted his intentions to pay back Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict following the tackle that left Bell injured. Such postgame chatter was an early indication of the animosity that was expected to show up this week.
Despite losing one of the league's best in Bell, Big Ben and company have been on a tear since that game. The Steelers are 3-1 in their last four games with 143 points scored. Roethlisberger's thrown 10 touchdowns against four picks in that span, and DeAngelo Williams has done a fine job taking over lead back duties from Bell.
The Steelers gained 356 yards against the Bengals in that first meeting, but Roethlisberger’s longest pass play was a 25-yarder to tight end Heath Miller. Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant were both held below 50 receiving yards.
The Bengals played their safeties deep, limiting deep passes to Steelers big-play receivers. It’s a defensive philosophy the Steelers should see again.
The Steelers might have a way to flood the Bengals secondary in this one, as they've done well to bring along Markus Wheaton this year. The 24-year-old has come on strong over the past two weeks, catching 12 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns. With Cincinnati now having to account for him on offense, the Steelers might be able to open things up for both Brown and Bryant on the edge.
Then again, Wheaton might not be enough to be a difference-maker in this contest—he had just one catch for five yards against the Bengals.
Cincinnati has held opponents to 10 points or less in four of its five outings since playing Pittsburgh. The defensive brilliance starts up front with pressure from Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins. Atkins has four sacks in his last six outings, while Dunlap ranks fourth in the league with 9.5 sacks overall.
NFL.com's Marc Sessler and the Cincinnati Enquirer's Jim Owczarski noted Atkins' excellent play against the Browns in Week 13.
Assuming the Bengals don't crater on offense, this game should provide a few more fireworks than their last outing—if not in hits, then in the box score. The Bengals do have the home advantage this time around, but Roethlisberger isn't going to throw three interceptions again. Look for Pittsburgh to score a minor upset in this one.
New England (10-2) vs. Houston (6-6)
New England was on top of the world two weeks ago, undefeated and looking to cruise to the top seed in the AFC. Now, they're the third seed after two straight losses, the second a shocking 35-28 upset at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Tom Brady has seen a number of his targets in the passing game lost to injuries, none more important than tight end Rob Gronkowski. While Scott Chandler scored a touchdown against the Eagles as his replacement, Brady was forced to look more to his wide receivers, who failed him as a group, per NFL.com's Chris Wesseling:
In one of the season's least productive pass-catching exhibits, Danny Amendola, Brandon LaFell and Keshawn Martin turned 30 targets into 14 receptions for 134 yards against a reeling Eagles secondary that was torched for 10 touchdowns over the previous two weeks.
Per Next Gen Stats, outside receivers Martin and LaFell traveled 1,943 and 1,826 yards from scrimmage, respectively, the two highest distances by any players in Week 13. Opportunity was not a problem.
That's not hyperbole. Brady's passer rating is 113.5 on throws to Edelman, 111.6 on throws to Amendola and just 56.7 on throws to LaFell, per Pro Football Focus.
With Gronk missing from practice on Wednesday, per his team's official site, Brady is likely going to have to make do with this same group of pass-catchers against the Houston Texans. J.J. Watt figures to keep Brady from setting up the deep pass when he wants to, which means he could again be forced to checkdown to James White a bit more often than he might like.
Houston has been fairly tough on opposing passers this year, allowing the third-fewest yards per game and an overall 86.4 quarterback rating, per ESPN.
Now would certainly be a fine time for LeGarrette Blount to get back to his bruising ways. He's managed just 203 rushing yards on 57 carries in the past four games, and hasn't scored since Week 10 against the New York Giants.
The Houston Texans should provide a stiff challenge for the Patriots. The Texans put up quite the fight on the road against the Buffalo Bills in Week 13 but saw their win streak end at four games with a 30-21 loss. Quarterback Brian Hoyer was excellent yet again in that game, throwing for 293 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.
Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler has perhaps his toughest test of the season in DeAndre Hopkins, who has scored in four of his last five games.
Houston turned to running back Chris Polk as the lead ball-carrier in Week 13, and he responded with 61 yards on just 12 carries. The Texans may still mix in Alfred Blue and Jonathan Grimes, but Polk deserves a chance to shine as a lead back. The Patriots defense is tougher now Jamie Collins is back from a mysterious illness, but there are points to be had for this Texans team.
It seems inconceivable for Brady and company to lose three straight games. Don't bet on it. The Pats will win a close one.