If you want to watch the biggest games of the NFL Sunday card, be ready to go early, because there are four outstanding games with major playoff implications going in the 1 PM EST window. While the late afternoon game of Pittsburgh-Dallas is important and the prime-time battle of San Francisco-New England is a possible Super Bowl preview, TheSportsNotebook begins its NFL Week 15 coverage by focusing on two games from each conference. Denver-Baltimore & Indianapolis-Houston in the AFC, and Green Bay-Chicago & NY Giants-Atlanta in the NFC.
Denver-Baltimore: Most of the country will get this game, the first for the Ravens under new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell and the fact he’s going to be focused on getting Ray Rice the ball, rather than airing it out with Joe Flacco, makes Baltimore much tougher to beat on their homefield. But there are still matchup problems. The Ravens defense has struggled in pass coverage this year, as Ed Reed shows his age and corner Lardarius Webb was lost for the season early on. And if you haven’t noticed, Denver and Peyton Manning are clicking in the passing game right now. All things being equal, the Broncos are the better team.
But all things aren’t equal and it starts with the obvious of Baltimore being at home. The Ravens are also the desperate team, coming off losses to Pittsburgh & Washington—the two teams the fan base is going to be least tolerant of losses to, one for divisional reasons the other for geographic. This is still a team with a lot of veterans and while their talent level is clearly in decline, their pride is not. A win here keeps Baltimore in play for a bye and the #2 seed, while a loss potentially opens up the AFC North to Cincinnati, who won last night and would close to within a game if the Ravens lose. That’s why I think Baltimore meets the challenge and wins as a 2 ½ point home underdog.
Indianapolis-Houston: It’s hard not to pick Indy right now, with the team seemingly on a magic ride as they play inspirational football for head coach Chuck Pagano as he fights leukemia. And if you watched Houston play on Monday Night in New England—or earlier this season against Green Bay—you would be rightfully skeptical of their ability to compete against good teams and Indianapolis has become that.
But the Texans also won in Denver, and while the Colts have been doing a good job churning out wins, it’s not as though they’re beating a Murderer’s Row of opponents. While they’ve won six of seven, the wins are Jacksonville, Tennessee (twice), Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo, with all but one of those games being close. The loss came in New England by five touchdowns. Is there a reason we should expect Indianapolis to compete on the road as a nine-point underdog?
Compete, maybe and that’s a lot of points for teams separated in the standings by just two games, with Indy knowing a win sets them up to play the rematch back at home in Week 17 for the AFC South crown. But Houston’s just better and I look for them to get Arian Foster established, control the tempo and win this game.
Green Bay-Chicago: Fox sends the Joe Buck/Troy Aikman team to Soldier Field for the battle in the NFC North. The Packers are 9-4 and having already beaten the 8-5 Bears once, a win would clinch the division for Green Bay. The injury situation, a trouble spot for Mike McCarthy all year, takes a big step forward with the reports that outside linebacker Clay Matthews is likely to play, while Chicago might be without corner Tim Jennings, who’s listed as doubtful. To me, doubtful usually means they find a way to play, but after being wrong about Ben Roethlisberger in Baltimore a couple weeks ago, I’m going to be more circumspect.
Neither the Bears or Packers protect the quarterback, and both Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler have to stay alert in the pocket. That makes the return of Matthews all the more important, as the Packers now have the man who can best exploit this back on the field. The Bears’ run defense is also the more suspect part of their team and that’s an area of play-calling that McCarthy’s been good about sticking to in recent weeks.
On the Chicago side, Brandon Marshall is on a hot run right now at wide receiver and the Packer defense is still without strong safety Charles Woodson, the most likely playmaker. If something can be done to give Cutler some time, the Bears can get the ball down the field. Overall though, I stand by what I wrote about Chicago last week—they are what they are at this point in the season. And what they are is a team that can beat teams they’re supposed to beat, but not those that are on a par. It was proven against Seattle at home two weeks ago. And it’ll be proven again on Sunday. That’s why even Las Vegas posts the injury-riddled Packers as a three-point favorite on the road.
NY Giants-Atlanta: It’s a rematch of last year’s first-round playoff game in the Meadowlands, that epic 24-2 win by the Giants, and it’s a possible preview of another playoff game this January. I think one prediction is safe and it’s that this time the Atlanta offense will actually score.
Both offenses should score a lot in the climate-controlled haven of the Georgia Dome. New York has better run-pass balance and a better track record in big games. And this is an enormous game for the Giants, who know if they lose, both Washington & Dallas can pull even in the NFC East. It’s not quite as big for the Falcons, who are still in good shape for the #1 seed in the NFC, but they are coming off a terrible performance in Carolina last week and something tells me Atlanta would like to at least temporarily silence the critics who say they can’t be a good team.
Beyond the intangibles, the game dynamics favor Atlanta. The Giants are going to be missing corner Prince Amakumara and strong safety Kenny Phillips, making it likely that Matt Ryan has a big game throwing the ball to Julio Jones and Roddy White. It’s going to be a shootout and the Vegas over/under number of 50.5 will fall by late in the third quarter, but in the end it’s an Atlanta win.
LATER ON SUNDAY
Pittsburgh-Dallas (4:25 PM ET, CBS): Neither team runs the ball well and both throw it down the field effectively, so in terms of the general outline of each team, it’s a wash. But the Cowboys have lost Dez Bryant at receiver, while Troy Polamulu is back in the Pittsburgh secondary. And even without their playmaking strong safety, the Steelers had done a good job in playing pass coverage and keeping things underneath. Dallas, on the other hand, still has problems in coverage and they’re going to be heavily dependent on Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer to get pressure on Ben Roethlisberger throughout the game. I don’t doubt the Cowboy outside linebackers can do it, but I don’t see them doing it better than their counterparts on Pittsburgh do to Tony Romo.
And if this game comes down to which quarterback makes the big mistake first, who do you think’s more likely? There might be a lot of potential right answers for how this game unfolds, but there’s only right answer to that latter question. I think that’s what the game hinges on and it’s why Pittsburgh gets a win on the road.
The Steelers need to keep pace with Cincinnati in the wild-card race—and possibly pull closer to Baltimore for the division, pending a result they’ll know when they take in the field. Dallas has no room for error, as they’re tied with Washington and could move into a first-place tie with the Giants—as they will also know by the time kickoff arrives.
San Francisco-New England (8:20 PM ET, NBC): The 49ers are going to need a big road win to take the NFC West and either here or next week in Seattle are the two choices. The Patriots have control of the race for the #2 seed and first-round bye in the AFC, and only need a Houston loss to open the door for the top spot.
San Francisco is the more compelling team when you look at the overall stats. They’re strong in all phases of defense, they’re an elite team running the ball and the passing game is very efficient. While New England has made great strides defensively, the pass coverage is still problematic, at least for a Super Bowl hopeful. The running game is vastly improved, but still 19th in yards-per-carry. In short, while Tom Brady’s supporting cast is much better than last season, this is still a game that ultimately boils down to whether the transcendent skills of the Patriot quarterback and the tactical ingenuity of Bill Belichick can steal a win against a superior opponent.
I’m inclined to say yes—first of all, the performance of the New England defense on Monday night gives Patriot fans reasonable hope that everything is coming together at season’s end. I like the odds of Belichick finding a way to get a couple mistakes out of Colin Kaepernick. And in the end, I just wouldn’t bet against either of these teams on their homefield and the game happens to be in Foxboro.
THE REST OF NFL WEEK 15
NY Jets-Tennessee: This is the Monday Night game, and the playoff hopes of the 6-7 Jets took a blow with Cincinnati’s Thursday night win in Philly. At least the Bengals’ winning ensures that this MNF game is seen as the atrocious matchup it really as, rather than being disguised by all kinds of New York playoff talk.
Washington-Cleveland: RG3 has been downgraded to doubtful, and while I think Kirk Cousins can play and get it done for the ‘Skins, as a partisan fan, I feel nervous about Washington’s chances in the Dawg Pound. Cleveland’s been playing some good defense, they’ve played competitively at home most of the year and this one has spoiler alert written all over it. The good news? If Washington wins its final two games and gets to 9-7, they’d still take the NFC East if the Giants lose in Atlanta this week and in Baltimore next week. Maybe the fact I’m already mentally preparing for defeat tells you all you need to know.
Minnesota-St. Louis: It’s a de facto elimination game between a couple teams who have had nice seasons and hope to extend their playoff hopes a little longer. Minnesota’s 7-6 and on the fringe of the wild-card picture. The same goes for St. Louis at 6-6-1 who would likely make it if they ran the table. Both teams have good defensive fronts that can attack the quarterback. But Adrian Peterson is more effective at keeping a defense honest and even though it’s a road game for Minnesota, it’s indoors, which mitigates their disadvantage. I like the Vikes to extend their playoff chances one more week.
Seattle-Buffalo: Remember I wrote further up about San Francisco needing a road win to hold off Seattle? That doesn’t apply if the Seahawks don’t take care of business here and this is a danger spot. With corner Brandon Browner still serving his suspension and the game being played indoors at Toronto, it’s possible Ryan Fitzpatrick could open up and have a big game. Since Buffalo’s eliminated, it would be just the time for Fitzpatrick to come up huge. I still like Seattle to win and think in the right playoff situation they’re a Super Bowl threat, but I wouldn’t lay 5 ½ points to take them here.
Tampa Bay-New Orleans: I’m disgusted with Josh Freeman right now, and am ready to join most other observers in finally writing off any hope he’ll reclaim his 2010 form. The Buccaneer quarterback essentially wasted an overall team performance that was strong, as they lost to Philadelphia and blew their playoff hopes. I expect New Orleans to still have some pride playing on their homefield and to win.
Jacksonville-Miami: Any flickering hopes of a miracle realistically (though not mathematically) ended for Miami when the Bengals won on Thursday. The Fish are still significantly better than woeful Jacksonville.
Detroit-Arizona: The Cardinals are doing this year what Tampa Bay did last year and it’s essentially lying down to end the season. Detroit can do its usual round of penalties and dumb turnovers and still win by double digits in the desert.
Carolina-San Diego: In 2008, Ron Rivera came on as Norv Turner’s defensive coordinator midway through the season, helped save his job and got his career on a path that led him to the coaching post at Carolina. Now, Ron & Norv can meet at midfield and discuss where they might be employed next year.
Kansas City-Oakland: There’s really nothing to say here.