The Patriots look to undress one of the league’s best defenses in Foxborough on primetime for the second straight week, the Chargers look to win another one for Norv, and the Cardinals look to just score an offensive touchdown. The Steelers and Cowboys square off in a “must-win” battle for both teams, the Giants head down to Atlanta for a potential playoff preview, and the Bears attempt to stop the bleeding of two consecutive bad losses in the unfriendly confines of Lambeau Field. Here are Peter Schrager's Week 15 storylines.
The AFC South title hasn’t been locked up just yet
Coming off of Monday night’s embarrassing blowout loss in New England, it’s hard to have much confidence in saying the Houston Texans are the top team in the AFC heading into the season’s final three weeks. It will be even tougher if they fall to the Colts at home on Sunday. Consider this — if Indianapolis beats Houston, Kansas City, and then beats the Texans again at Lucas Oil in Week 17, the Colts — not the Texans — will be AFC South champions. Houston’s been cruising right along all season and back in August, it looked like games against the Colts — a team that went 2-14 a season ago — in two of the final three weeks of the season, would be an awfully pleasant treat come December. Not the case whatsoever. Indy’s red-hot. Beat Houston on Sunday and the AFC South is suddenly wide open.
Ben vs. Tony in a must-win for both
The Steelers and Cowboys have played in three Super Bowls and countless regular-season matchups. They have arguably the two biggest fan bases in the entire country. But the last time these two teams squared off in a game with as much at stake for both franchises may have been the Super Bowl back in 1995. Tony Romo’s been under the spotlight his entire career. This may be his biggest national spotlight game of the past three seasons, though. He’s been fantastic since Thanksgiving. Big Ben’s starting his second game since returning to the lineup and it’s a must-win. The drama’s all there. Both teams are desperate for victories. You can save all the Lynn Swann and Jackie Smith and Larry Brown highlight packages. There will be enough riding on the game on the field to make this one as entertaining a matchup as there is this weekend.
Gronk: To play or not to play?
There’s lots of buzz this week out of New England around whether Rob Gronkowski — less than four weeks removed from a broken forearm — will be back on the field come Sunday. Why push it? New England hasn’t lost a game since Gronkowski went down, their offense is humming along just fine, and they’ve got tiebreakers over both Denver and Houston in the AFC playoff picture. I questioned why Gronkowski was on the field for an extra point in a 51-24 game. I’d be even more puzzled if he suited up for Sunday night’s matchup vs. the 49ers. Give it one more week, come out against the Jaguars, and get it going for that January stretch. "Gronk is far more valuable to New England in the playoffs than he is in mid-December. Day-to-day,” Bill Belichick said of Gronkowski on Wednesday. “Hopefully today is better than yesterday. Hopefully tomorrow will be better than today.” Thanks, coach.
Aldon Smith’s chase for 22.5
Our guy Michael Strahan’s record of 22.5 sacks in a single season has stood for nearly a decade. It is in serious danger this year. Aldon Smith, San Francisco’s outstanding second-year linebacker, recorded two more sacks last Sunday vs. Miami, boosting his season total to 19 on the year. He needs just 3.5 over the season’s final three games to top Strahan. The Patriots are going to pass the ball and they’re going to pass the ball a lot. What’s that mean? More opportunities for Aldon Smith to get to Tom Brady. He has 15 sacks in his past seven games. Expect a few more on Sunday night.
Adrian Peterson vs. Eric Dickerson
It’s on. While appearing on Showtime’s “Inside the NFL” on Wednesday, Adrian Peterson made it loud and clear that he’s not only focused on the playoffs and a 2,000-yard season. No, he wants Eric Dickerson’s single-season record of 2,105, too. “You know, you hear a lot of people talking about 2,000 yards and you know in my mind, I’m reaching past that. I’m always looking at the bigger picture, the bigger goal to accomplish. That would be to edge over Eric Dickerson. It’s something that I feel like is right there and in our grasp, we can get it.” Peterson needs 506 yards in the Vikings’ final 3 games. St. Louis poses a challenge this weekend. The Rams are giving up just 110.3 yards per game on the ground.
The Chargers look to win another one for Norv
Though the fans have seen enough and the Twitter nation has spoken with a “#FireNorv” hashtag on Sundays, the Chargers players are still in Norv Turner’s corner and they sure played like it last Sunday vs. the Steelers in Pittsburgh. Presented with a game ball after San Diego’s 34-24 win, Turner gets back to work this weekend against the Carolina Panthers. Multiple reports have said that both Turner and A.J. Smith will be relieved of their duties at the end of the year, but the Chargers have done anything but given up just yet. Ten years from now, we may look back on this 2012 Bolts team and just wonder “What could have been?” They’re 5-8 on the year, but have outscored their opponents by 11 points.
The crumbling Ravens take on the Sheriff
Peyton Manning started his career off with an 0-2 record vs. the Baltimore Ravens. He’s 8-0, including two playoff games, since. Nicknamed “The Sheriff,” Manning owned the Ravens when he was an Indianapolis Colt. This Broncos squad can be even better than those Indy teams. Though they’ve won 15 of their last 16 at home, the cards are stacked against the Ravens on Sunday. Cam Cameron was fired after Sunday’s loss in Washington, his replacement — Jim Caldwell — has never called plays for an NFL team, and the defense is in shambles. Though they have a two-game cushion in the AFC North standings, these are desperate times for the Baltimore Ravens.
The Falcons and their critics
The headline says “their critics”, but I really mean everyone. Is there anyone without a 404-area code cell phone number who actually thinks the Falcons are going to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this year? Sure, they’re 11-2, and yes, they haven’t lost at home all season — but with an 0-3 postseason record all-time under Mike Smith, it’s going to take a lot more than 3-point wins over Oakland and nail-biters over Tampa Bay to silence the doubters. Atlanta has a chance to beat one of the league’s premier teams — something they haven’t done since Week 2 vs. Denver — on Sunday. The Giants come into the Georgia Dome with wins over the Packers and 49ers already under their belts. If the Falcons can defend their home field and knock them off, they’ll have a little less cynicism around them as they head into January.
Red hot … Brandon Weeden? Yes. Seriously.
Lost in all the talk of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson’s recent heroics are the games that Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden has strung together over the past three weeks. Cleveland’s won three in a row and Weeden’s looked like an entirely different quarterback than he was at the season’s midway point. In his last two games, Weeden’s thrown completions of 34 and 54 yards and his QB rating has been above 75 in his last four efforts. All eyes will be on the Washington quarterback situation in this weekend’s Browns-Redskins game, but pay some attention to Cleveland’s. The Browns may finally have a franchise quarterback in the building, after all.
Calvin Johnson vs. Larry Fitzgerald — what could have been?
It’s tough to not imagine “What if?” when looking at this weekend’s Cardinals-Lions matchup. What if Larry Fitzgerald had a real NFL quarterback throwing him passes? What if the Lions could actually hold on to a fourth quarter lead? What if the Cardinals defense was paired with an even somewhat respectable offense? What if Detroit’s defensive line wasn’t so vastly overrated? Cardinals-Lions won’t be the most-watched game this weekend, but who knows what it could have been had either team gotten its act together this season.