Before we get into the Week 15 TV previews, I need to open with a huge gripe against CBS. How is it, with three weeks to go in the season and a doubleheader week on your hands that you decide to deliver Cincinnati-St. Louis to most of the nation in the early time slot? On the surface it makes sense when you see Tennessee-Indianapolis and Miami-Buffalo as the only other options. But why was the Jets-Eagles game in Philadelphia moved back to 4:15 EST? Put it back in the early slot where it belongs and then you’ve got a full day of AFC East action, starting with that game and then going to New England-Denver for the late game. That’s my gripe of the week. Now let’s dive into the games…
SATURDAY NIGHT: Dallas-Tampa Bay (8:15 ET, NFL)
The rumor mills are swirling around Tampa head coach Raheem Morris, who looks to join Miami’s Tony Sparano and Jacksonville’s Jack Del Rio in making a clean Florida sweep of coaches getting fired before the season is over. Whatever happens the next three weeks, Morris almost certainly won’t be back in 2012 and unless Dallas still has a hangover from the loss to the Giants, it’s tough to see how they win here. Josh Freeman hasn’t gotten it together throwing the ball this year and the Buc passing offense languishes near the bottom of the league in yards-per-attempt. When you consider the Tampa pass defense also rates very poorly, it spells trouble. Tony Romo should get a lot of time to throw against a front four that’s banged up and doesn’t rush the passer well anyway, and from there to spread the ball around to Dez Bryant, Austin Miles and Jason Witten. If that happens, Tampa can’t keep up. The only thing that give one pause about this game are natural respect that has to be afforded a home team in the NFL and a lingering possibility that Freeman could find last year’s touch and make this a game. Possible, but a week reed to grab onto in Week 15.
Cincinnati-St. Louis (CBS)
Can we just concede the win to the Bengals and have these two cities play baseball instead? The only way the Rams can win is if they first establish Stephen Jackson running the ball, and the Bengal rush defense is excellent. The pass defense is beatable, but Sam Bradford is banged up, struggling and coming off a bad game on Monday Night in Seattle. He may not even play and it’s unlikely to matter. I can see St. Louis causing some problems defensively if they can get Chris Long and James Hall loose on the edges to pressure the pocket. If that happens, the rookie Andy Dalton could give them some mistakes. What’s more likely is that Marvin Lewis plays it safe, runs the ball with Cedric Benson against a soft rush defense and then lets his own D close out the game.
Washington-NY Giants (Fox)
As a Redskins fan this game is the painful reminder of how far things have fallen since a 28-14 Week 1 win over the Giants infused September with such hope. It’s the only good game Washington’s played all year and New York now smells the NFC East title after their comeback in Dallas on Sunday night. Where Washington does match up well here is defending the run and they can force the game into Eli Manning’s hands. The Giant quarterback has answered that challenge ably this year, and the Washington secondary is beatable. The X-factor in this game, as if often is in Washington games, is the play of Rex Grossman. The Giant pass defense is far from unstoppable and if Grossman doesn’t self-destruct he can get into a passing race with Manning and make this a game. But even that requires the ‘Skins to get Jason Pierre-St. Paul blocked on the outside and that’s not something they haven’t done well. I’m not feeling good about the game on Sunday, which is as close as I’ll come in a public venue to picking against my own team.
Green Bay-Kansas City (Fox)
This game will go to most people between the Mississippi River and California as the Packers chase history. There’s nothing suggesting that the knee injury to Greg Jennings suffered last week is going to slow Green Bay’s determination to get to 16-0, nor should it. Jennings will be ready for the playoffs and the Packer receiving corps is deep enough to say “next man up.” Keys to watch will be how Green Bay does in protecting Aaron Rodgers. Not because it will matter for this game, but because if the Chief defense, currently ranked 13th in the AFC in sacks, can get to the Packer quarterback, then anyone can. I’m inclined to think that anyone can and it’s the biggest factor that makes Green Bay’s coming playoff run still interesting. As for Sunday, Kyle Orton is supposed to make his first start as a Chief, and I would imagine several turnovers are going to be produced by the aggressive Packer defense and even if you’re a betting man and give (-14) to take Green Bay, you should be comfortable in the second half.
Other games include…
New Orleans-Minnesota: New Orleans is even with San Francisco for the #2 seed and first-round bye in the NFC playoffs and they won’t let up here. Drew Brees in a dome is too much for the Viking defense to stop, even allowing Jared Allen his moments rushing the passer. Adrian Peterson is listed as questionable, which I take to mean he will probably play. If he has a good game, Allen gets a couple sacks and they force Brees into some mistakes, an upset is possible. That’s not an unrealistic scenario but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Seattle-Chicago: Can someone explain to me why the Seahawks are (+3.5) against a team without its quarterback, without its running back and just showed a phenomenal ability to play their way out of a road win last week in Denver? Apparently someone in Las Vegas misses the memo that Seattle’s starting to play some good football. They beat the Bears in Soldier Field.
Carolina-Houston: The inability of the Panther defense to hold a lead last week against Atlanta was disheartening. The ability of Cam Newton to put up points makes this a good game and possible upset spot, but I don’t see them stopping the Texans’ ground game and if they don’t control tempo, they don’t win on the road.
Tennessee-Indianapolis: I wouldn’t be shocked if the Colts finally come up with a win here. I can see Dan Orlovksy playing well and if Matt Hasselbeck’s not sharp and it stays close, the home team can steal one. If Indy’s going to win a game, this is a good spot to pick them—and they can afford to win at least one and still get Andrew Luck.
Miami-Buffalo: Normally I’d have taken the Dolphins, but firing Tony Sparano leaves one unsure what to think as far as the Dolphins’ mindset. Regardless, a nothing game in the AFC East.
New England-Denver (4:15 ET, CBS)
Is it going over the top to say that this is Tom Brady’s chance to prove he’s in a class with Tim Tebow? Yeah, I thought so. I’m inclined to take the conventional view that this is where Tebow’s magic ride comes to an end and we see that for all his real strengths as a quarterback, he’s not ready to get into a real passing battle with anyone, much less Brady. But the Denver defense has some matchup edges that could keep this one close. Von Miller is a terrific pass rusher on the outside and Brady can be forced into mistakes. The Patriot running game is mostly non-existent and both Tebow and Willis McGahee should be able to get some rush yardage of their own. I suspect New England is able to gradually open up some distance in the third quarter, but if it’s within a score in the fourth quarter, does anyone still want to doubt Tebow?
Other games include…
NY Jets-Philadelphia: I know the Eagles finally got a win last week, but I like the way the Jets are coming together right now and look for Shonn Greene to have a good game running the ball, the defense to get some turnovers and Rex Ryan’s team to keep their lead for the last spot in the AFC wild-card race.
Detroit-Oakland: Good game in Oakland, with both teams facing must-win spots. I’m willing to write off Oakland’s hideous showing last week in Lambeau as being more about the Packers, although no NFL team should ever play quite that badly. Detroit lacks a rush game, while Oakland has one and that, along with homefield advantage tips the balance.
Cleveland-Arizona: Instead of complaining about getting the Cincy-St. Louis game in the early slot I guess I should be grateful I don’t have to see this one.
SUNDAY NIGHT: Baltimore-San Diego (8:20 ET, NBC)
This game, along with a Week 17 trip to Cincinnati, are Baltimore’s big hurdles to wrapping up a long-sought AFC North title, probable first-round bye and possible #1 seed in the AFC playoffs. Philip Rivers and the San Diego offense have been back on track the past couple weeks, but doing it against Buffalo and Jacksonville aren’t the same as doing it against the Ravens. I’m looking for Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs to get a couple sacks and generally make Rivers’ life miserable in the pocket, and if Ryan Matthews can’t keep Baltimore honest by running the ball, it’s going to be tough to generate much offense. Baltimore’s rush defense is the best in the AFC if you’re curious. I respect San Diego enough to think this will be a good game at home, but I do expect the oft-unfocused Ravens to bring their A game to Qualcomm Stadium and the only way they’ll lose is if they get too cute offensively. Ray Rice is capable of running it down the throats of a soft Charger run defense, and it’s imperative Baltimore stick with that and not be tempted to exploit an equally susceptible pass defense by having Joe Flacco throw 40 times and turn it into a finesse game against Rivers. San Diego can win that battle and it’s up to John Harbaugh and his coaching staff not to strategize themselves out of a win.