NFL Week 15 rundown
That was something else, wasn’t it? No, not the Baltimore-Minnesota ending, the winter wonderland in the City of Brotherly Love, the Browns doing Browns things or the Steelers coming this close to pulling off the greatest football ending since, well, two Saturdays ago in Auburn. I’m, of course, referring to the action emitting from the Big Apple. That’s right, Geno Smith only turned the ball over once! The NFL, she is an unpredictable muse.
A rundown of the Week 15 slate:
Washington Redskins at Atlanta Falcons
The Lowdown: For you Seinfeld fans out there, Mike Shanahan’s acts are eerily reminiscent of George Costanza’s ploy to get fired by the Yankees. Given the amplified nature of the Shanahan-Dan Snyder feud, wouldn’t be surprised if Shanahan begins dragging the organization’s Lombardi Trophies behind his Buick Regal.
I’m all for sitting Robert Griffin III the final three weeks of the season. Not the way it was handled - that rodeo’s been mismanaged since last January – but clearly RG3’s development has stagnated, even regressed, this campaign, so might as well cut your losses. One possible upshot (well, you know, besides alienating your franchise player) to this move: removing the veil off Kirk Cousins, only to discover that he’s not all that and a bag of chips.
Washington’s hoping that Cousins can land a high draft pick, with the team’s personal stock depleted thanks to the trade that brought Griffin to D.C. in the first place. Unfortunately, not a big stretch to see Cousins struggling behind a weak offensive line, negating his trade worth, forcing the team to bring back the Michigan State product for another year and creating more tension for RG3. Washington football…good times!
I should probably mention something about the Falcons at this juncture, but when you lose to Matt Flynn, he of four teams in the past 16 months, you forfeit your right to be discussed in earnest terms.
Line: Atlanta -7, 50.5 points
Fantasy Impact: Tony Gonzalez looks like an intriguing option in the ensuing chaos of Rob Gronkowski’s absence, especially against a Washington defense allowing 256.7 passing yards per game (27th in the league). Alas, the venerable tight end has surpassed the 45-yard barrier only twice in the past eight games, and with Roddy White back in the saddle for Atlanta, Gonzalez is the third option in the Falcons passing attack. Only for the desperate is Gonzalez a viable play.
TV: FOX – 1:00 PM EST
The Falcons win if… Steven Jackson continues his recent tear (218 yards last three games), Matt Ryan takes advantage of Washington’s 27th-ranked pass defense.
The Fightin’ Shanahans win if… Seriously, the Falcons lost to MATT FLYNN last week. Keeping this in mind…
Prediction: Fightin’ Shanahans 23, Falcons 20
Chicago Bears at Cleveland Browns
The Lowdown: Going back to Jay Cutler is the right move. Well, maybe not for Chicago’s playoff chances, but for the fans at home? Gold! I can’t wait for Cutler’s first mistake, followed by the looming sideline shot of the petulant quarterback sitting by himself on the bench while Josh McCown looks aimlessly at the field.
In a related note, while kudos go to Marc Trestman for the job he’s done this season, can we drop the “quarterback whisperer” label? McCown has been solid, but here are Trestman’s past pupils: Brandon Weeden, Jimmy Clausen, Tim Tebow, Jason Campbell and Brock Osweiler. Hell of a stable, let me tell you. Plus, not like Cutler was lighting the world on fire before he went down. Pump the brakes on the hyperbole, that’s all I’m asking.
In truth, Chicago’s play from under center may not matter if the team’s defensive front doesn’t fix its holes. The Bears are allowing a league-high 157 rushing yards per game. It’s easy to foresee an opponent controlling the clock with the ground game, keeping Cutler/McCown on the sidelines. Look for this to become a focal point in the final three weeks.
As for the Browns…is there a more Browns-like ending to a game than last weekend’s events at Foxborough? Coaching incompetence, players shrinking in the moment, bad luck, a botched call from the zebras…God bless ‘em. Actually, most would argue the exact opposite, unless you consider Cleveland modern-day Nineveh. (Told you my history minor would someday be utilized, mom!)
Line: Chicago -1, 45.5 points
Fantasy Impact: This idea of benching the Chicago arms did not sit well in Tuesday’s chat. Judging by the fervor emitting from the readers, you would have thought I kidnapped Kris Kringle or, worse, championed Ohio State as still worthy of a National Championship bid.
Is it really that outlandish of a claim? The Browns have been knocked around as of late, but still possess one of the best corners in the game in Joe Haden. Moreover, the early forecast for Sunday’s game in Cleveland is calling for snow. In deeper leagues I can fathom the play, but in standard formats, keep this duo on the pine.
TV: FOX – 1:00 PM EST
The Bears win if… Cutler keeps the turnovers to a minimum, the Chicago defense feasts on Campbell.
The Browns win if… In spite of its 4-9 record, the Cleveland resistance ranks seventh in total defense. Moreover, a powerful offensive line could spell trouble for the Bears. Might seem like a bit of a reach, but…
Prediction: Browns 28, Bears 17
Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts
The Lowdown: Luckily the Colts have clinched the division because the Horseshoes are a team in freefall. Granted, the club is .500 since All-Pro Reggie Wayne was shelved, but a) two of those wins have come against the 5-8 Titans, with the other victory against the lowly Texans and b) the Colts have been hammered in their three losses, evidenced in a 120-47 scoring margin. That’s…that’s not good.
For the Colts to overcome Wayne’s absence, LaVon Brazil and Da’Rick Rogers will need to shine out of the receiving corps. It appears Indianapolis has finally come to the conclusion on Darrius Heyward-Bey that the rest of the NFL realized three years ago: the dude can’t catch, somewhat of a problem given his position. DHB’s demotion has given a platform for Brazil (a speedster out of Ohio) and Rogers (a physical wideout from Tennessee Tech), greenhorns who made the most of this opportunity against the Bengals last week. Coupled with T.Y. Hilton and Coby Fleener, Andrew Luck has enough weapons at his disposal to keep this squad afloat until January.
I was never the biggest proponent of Gary Kubiak, but anyone else think his ouster was cold-blooded? Man just collapsed on the sideline a month ago, and what do you expect from a team helmed by Pick-Six Schaub and Case Keenum? The only rationale for the move: Houston realized the No. 1 overall pick was in its grasp and didn’t want to chance Kubiak accidentally winning meaningless December games. So who do you bring in when you want to fall short? That’s right…Wade Phillips! I change my tune; well played, Houston. Well played.
Line: Indianapolis -5.5, 45.5 points
Fantasy Impact: I know, I know, it’s the Texans. The fact that Phillips is now guiding this sinking ship doesn’t help, either. In defense of the, um, defense, Houston is holding opponents to a conference-low 183.6 passing yards per game. Luck’s damage in the box score last week was mostly had in garbage time, as Luck and the Colts again struggled without Wayne. If you’re looking for an upset this week, the Texans could be your defensive pick.
TV: CBS – 1:00 PM EST
The Texans win if… Ben Tate goes nuts on a Colts front seven giving up 130.6 yards per game (fourth-highest in league), Luck and the offense remain stuck in neutral.
The Colts win if… Keenum is still the Texans quarterback, right? Right…
Prediction: Colts 24, Texans 14
New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins
The Lowdown: Denver’s Thursday night loss puts extra gravitas on this showdown, as the Pats are now in the driver’s seat for home-field advantage in the AFC. And while most of the attention will be on New England, this contest has ample importance for Miami, who is neck-and-neck with Baltimore for the conference’s final Wild Card spot.
One has to wonder if the Patriots have enough fuel to finish this journey. New England was already operating on parsimonious resources, with season-ending injuries to Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly putting the defense in a vulnerable state (135.8 rushing yards per tilt, second-most in the league). Now with Gronk down for the count after tearing his MCL and ACL last Sunday, the Pats are running on E. If anyone can get it done with a rag-tag band, it would be the combo of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Alas, even for this vaunted duo, the task may be too tall.
Following a seven-week stretch featuring a lonely win, the Dolphins have regained their mojo, notching three Ws in the past four games. Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline and Charles Clay are quietly one of the more effective receiving trios in the league, and though their overall figures are below the cusp, running backs Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas (4.3 yards per attempt, fifth-best in the conference) have been proficient as of late. As long as the Dolphins can avoid another hit to their line in the off-the-field discourse of center Mike Pouncey, expect Miami to stay relevant in the final weeks.
Line: New England -2, 45.5 points
Fantasy Impact: Lost in the hoopla of New England’s comeback/Cleveland’s collapse/Dyrol Prioleau’s bogus pass interference call was the performance of Shane Vereen, who hauled in 12 receptions off a ridiculous 17 targets for 153 yards against the Brownies. Vereen also added a six-yard trip to pay dirt on the ground to cement a sound fantasy outing.
LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley notched more rushing attempts, but make no mistake – Vereen is the primary Pats back going forward. With Rob Gronkowski done for the year, look for Vereen’s receiving prowess to become a bigger part of New England’s game plan. The Dolphins are ranked 26th in fantasy points against backfields, making Vereen a must-play.
TV: CBS – 1:00 PM EST
The Dolphins win if… Ryan Tannehill makes work of a Patriots unit ranked 24th in total defense, Miller and Thomas keep Brady off the field.
The Patriots win if… I know New England is limping in, but going against Brady and Belichick is a meaningful December game? Like spitting into the wind or dropping $48.5 million on a geriatric guard with deteriorating knees…
Prediction: Patriots 30, Dolphins 27
Philadelphia Eagles at Minnesota Vikings
The Lowdown: Let me be the 1,443rd media member to transcribe how a white blanket engulfing the gridiron enhances the NFL experience. Which leads me to this: if it’s universally agreed this is the case, why is a vocal contingent complaining about potential cold weather for the Super Bowl? So what if it’s uncomfortable for the 70,000 in attendance? The majority of those people are fat cats or indifferent patrons strictly there to be seen. Given 100 or so million watch the event, think we can all agree that the Utilitarianism view says let it snow, baby.
Why aren’t more people hopping on the Nick Foles bandwagon? Seems farcical to state that a field general with 23 touchdowns versus two turnovers is underrated, especially playing in a market like Philadelphia, but I get the sense that America is not bestowing this cat the proper love. Is it a lack of charisma? Do people think he’s a byproduct of a system? That he looks like a college sophomore who overslept biology? Because, with all admiration to Peyton Manning, Foles gets my imaginary MVP vote.
This perspective has earmarks of a sports-radio/contrarian-for-being-contrarian view, but swear it comes in sincerity: if he declares himself good to go, should the Vikings take the precautionary measure of sitting Adrian Peterson? What benefit can come from rolling with the banged-up back at this interval of the season? That he accumulates some stats in the record books? The Vikings are a decent quarterback and Harrison Smith return from respectability in 2014. Jeopardizing that hope by letting Peterson play in these final few weeks is borderline irresponsible.
Line: Philadelphia -4.5, 51.5 points
Fantasy Impact: Toby Gerhart is available in 97.4 percent of leagues. I say this not just for Week 15 filler, or even as a ROS replacement. Additionally, I’m prefacing this with a gigantic asterisk. Keeping this in mind, I have a hunch that Peterson won’t be suiting up in purple in 2014, putting Gerhart as the de facto primary back in Minnesota.
For those in dynasty or keeper leagues, snagging the fourth-year back out of Stanford, who’s been strong in AP relief at 7.9 yards per carry in 36 attempts, is imperative. Coach Leslie Frazier mentioned that Gerhart tweaked his hamstring Sunday, and the extent of the injury is unknown. If Gerhart is unable to go against the Eagles this week, look to Matt Asiata to ascend the backfield throne for the Vikings.
TV: FOX – 1:00 PM EST
The Vikings win if… Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings and Jerome Simpson exploit a Philly secondary giving up 285.5 passing yards per game (second-highest in the league), Foles has his first stink-bomb.
The Eagles win if… LeSean McCoy does LeSean McCoy things (NFL-best 100.4 rushing yards per game), Matt Cassel does Matt Cassel things (self-explanatory).
Prediction: Eagles 33, Vikings 21
Seattle Seahawks at New York Giants
The Lowdown: Think how overtly critical, myself included, our sporting culture is. Even for the greatest athletes, coaches, figureheads, etc., their peccadillos or perceived bugaboos are amplified and professed to be shortcomings. Which makes Russell Wilson that much more impressive. The Seattle quarterback seems to be part of a small group, along with Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, that’s above reproach, amazing considering his ball-security woes (nine fumbles, five lost). Pair his magnetism with Foles’ performance? Forget the MVP; he’d be a gridiron deity with the capability of bringing peace to the Middle East, ending poverty and, most miraculously, winning to Cleveland. (What about Brady and Manning in the aforementioned group, you say? Easy – Cassel’s success in Brady’s absence, and subsequent fallout in other cities, lends credibility to the “He’s only good because of Belichick” argument, while Manning has the playoff troubles, cold-weather issues and “Manning Face.” Not saying I’m endorsing or believe in these arguments, just that they could be made.)
Even with last week’s loss, Seattle and New Orleans remain the NFC favorites. One thing to monitor: the Seahawks defense with the suspensions of Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond. The defensive pressure remains stout, and you’re not going to count out a secondary featuring Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas. Nevertheless, at this time of the calendar, depth becomes an integral component, one the Emerald City now finds itself lacking in.
For the G-Men…actually, I’ll let my friend Gene, a resident of the Gotham City, take it away:
“You (write) about the Giants for this week? Don’t write anything in honor for their no-show against the Chargers.”
Done. Anytime I can rip a team while not actually doing work gets a thumbs-up by me.
Line: Seattle -7, 41.5 points
Fantasy Impact: My esteemed colleague John Halpin brought up this point in our Friday podcast: why is Golden Tate held in high regard whereas Doug Baldwin is an afterthought? My astute analysis: “Golden Tate” sounds like the hot-shot recruit in a B-movie about California high school football, versus “Doug Baldwin” who evokes a non-threatening, nice fellow who’s dating one of your ex-girlfriends. Um…either way, against the Giants defense, keep both these receivers on the pine.
TV: FOX – 1:00 PM EST
The Giants win if… Eli Manning utilizes a dink-and-dunk approach, Wilson has a case of the Butterfingers.
The Sehawks win if… Manning forces a few ill-advised throws, Marshawn Lynch busts out against a strong Giants defense (105.4 rushing yards per game, 11th in the NFL).
Prediction: Seahawks 24, Giants 14
San Francisco 49ers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Lowdown: I hate the “must-win” designation, although the Niners needed that victory against the Seahawks in the worst of ways. Until last weekend’s victory, San Francisco had gorged on feeble opponents but fallen short against formidable teams like the Colts, Seahawks, Panthers and Saints. Perhaps this acumen is exaggerated; after all, the Niners are the defending conference champions. Nonetheless, Jim Harbaugh has to be fairly relieved. Well, relatively speaking.
What will put Harbaugh in a better place is consistent effort from his quarterback. Colin Kaepernick experienced a mercurial stretch, boasting five scores against nine turnovers in a five-game span. Since, Kaepernick has been better, going seven outings without a fumble. The Niners signal caller needs to improve his completion percentage, and his yards per touch are exponentially down. But make no mistake, with Frank Gore showing signs of rust, Kaepernick must be the catalyst for San Francisco to succeed.
Those that are marking this as a potential blowout have clearly ignored the exertions of the Buccaneers in the past month. Tampa has won four of its past five games, anchored by a sound defensive front and the performance of Bobby Rainey in relief of Doug Martin and Mike James. Though he’s had back-to-back shaky starts, rookie signal caller Mike Glennon has shown signs of talent since taking the reins from Josh Freeman. The Bucs need a few pieces on the offensive line, and saying the jury’s still out on Greg Schiano is putting it nicely. However, don’t be surprised if Tampa returns to relevancy in 2014.
Line: San Francisco -5, 41.5 points
Fantasy Impact: Following a stumble out of the gate, the San Francisco secondary has regained its mojo, ranking fourth in pass defense at 204 yards per game. Although Vincent Jackson continued his strong showing in 2013 with 70 yards and a touchdown last week, the Pro Bowl wideout’s explosiveness is clearly encumbered by a hamstring injury. Plus, Glennon versus the Niners? No thanks. Jackson’s performance this year almost merits a start no matter the opponent, but lower the bar in terms of expectations.
TV: FOX – 1:00 PM EST
The Buccaneers win if… Rainey delivers another pat-on-the-back display, Kaepernick struggles against a daunting Tampa secondary.
The 49ers win if… San Francisco keeps it on the ground, Glennon can’t get going over the middle.
Prediction: 49ers 17, Buccaneers 12
Buffalo Bills at Jacksonville Jaguars
The Lowdown: The 4-9 Bills! The 4-9 Jaguars! This is why the proposal of an 18-game schedule is moronic. Last thing we need is more pointless football.
It’s been mentioned in this space a few times this fall, but it bears repeating: this Bills roster is not far off from playoff contention. One glaring issue: the play under center. We’ll give EJ Manuel a pass this season (pun intended) with injuries impeding his development, but man needs to make a leap over the winter. In his limited appearances, Manuel has been mechanical in his delivery, and his instincts have led him astray. He has enough artillery around him to make noise, and Doug Marrone seems to be instilling a good foundation in Buffalo. However, don’t be surprised if Buffalo snatches a quarterback in the second or third round this April just to be safe.
The Jaguars have won four of their past five, albeit against the Titans, Browns and Texans (twice). No single unit has been particularly impressive, but considering this lineup was discussed in historically-awful tones a month ago, nice bounce-back performance from Gus Bradley’s crew. And since I have nothing else to add, let me use this space to rail against Christmas parties that don’t play Christmas music. These celebrations are supposed to be a sanctuary from all the madness in the world, a congregation to remember the good that’s found in your fellow man. It’s hard to foster such sentiments, however, when Katy Perry, Pitbull, Ke$ha and Taylor Swift are assaulting your ears. If the song isn’t found in the Home Alone soundtrack, it shouldn’t be on your holiday playlist.
Line: Buffalo -1, 43 points
Fantasy Impact: Let’s go with Buffalo’s Scott Chandler. Understand that putting conviction in Manuel, he of four interceptions and seven sacks last week, could be problematic. However, the Jaguars are giving up the second-most points to tight ends this year, and with the rest of the Bills receiving corps in shambles, Chandler is the last man standing.
TV: CBS – 1:00 PM EST
The Bills win if… C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson capitalize on a Jaguars defense conceding 126.8 yards per game (27th), Manuel cuts down on the passes to the wrong team.
The Jaguars win if… Sorry, Manuel’s mistakes are too fresh in my mind…
Prediction: Jaguars 27, Bills 20
Kansas City Chiefs at Oakland Raiders
The Lowdown: The Raiders have lost five of their past six, with the lone triumph coming against the Texans. Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin have been equally inept at quarterback. Darren McFadden – hope you’re sitting down – has been hurt most of the season. The defense was torched last week by GENO SMITH. The Black Hole, indeed.
On the other side of the spectrum sits the Chiefs, righting the ship last week following three straight defeats. Although Denver owns the tiebreaker, Kansas City is back in the mix for the division title, and could even find its way into a first-round bye. The final three-week itinerary is favorable, taking on the Raiders, the struggling Colts and a .500 Chargers team. If the Chiefs take care of business, the AFC road could go through Kansas City. Playoff football in Arrowhead? That has the makings of an instant NFL Films classic.
To achieve this aspiration, Kansas City will need an enhanced showing from its defense. The resistance racked up impressive figures against the likes of Jeff Tuel, Case Keenum, Jason Campbell, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Pryor, but was on the business end of beatdowns by Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers. Sounds absurd, but at this moment, you have to view Kansas City’s D as more bark than bite. These final three weeks will bequeath the opportunity to amend this outlook.
Line: Kansas City -4.5, 41.5 points
Fantasy Impact: The Chiefs’ offensive game plan is predicated on the ground, making Alex Smith and the aerial attack not particularly conducive to the fantasy realm. At least, that was the tale in the first half of the season. In the past four weeks? Not necessarily the case, evidenced in Smith’s nine touchdowns in this span, an elevated figure given his two scores in the previous five contests.
Imagine this prosperity to continue this weekend versus a Raiders defense surrendering the fifth-most points to quarterbacks this season. How bad has Oakland been this campaign? Forget the seven-touchdown conquest of Nick Foles in Week 9. The Silver and Black allowed 37 points to the Jets last Sunday. THAT bad. Insert Smith into the starting lineup in deeper leagues or two-QB formats.
TV: CBS – 4:05 PM EST
The Chiefs win if… Jamaal Charles is not curbed by Raiders defensive line, Smith’s “game manager” persona shines through.
The Raiders win if… Maybe Rashad Jennings goes n…aw, who are we kidding…
Prediction: Chiefs 35, Raiders 20
New York Jets at Carolina Panthers
The Lowdown: Good chance this one is closer than imagined, and with a visit from the Saints in Week 16, don’t be surprised if we’re inundated with a host of, “Are the Panthers LEGIT???” commentary heading into January.
Concededly, I am a bit dubious of the weapons, or lack thereof, in Cam Newton’s arsenal. Bless ‘em, but Steve Smith and Greg Olsen should not be a team’s primary targets in 2013. The absence of explosiveness from Smith is especially disconcerting. Newton has looked the 34-year-old’s way 102 times this fall, but Smith has hauled in a meager 60 balls. Some of the blame could be pointed at Newton’s accuracy, although Smith’s inability to create separation is a major factor in this equation. The Panthers defense is second to none, and Newton is getting close to that territory where, surroundings be damned, he’ll find a way to win. Just beware of the potential hardships coming Carolina’s way if its ancillary parts don’t pick up the pace.
If Gang Green can somehow steal a victory in Charlotte, the remaining slate features dates with the Browns and Dolphins. Not totally inconceivable to see the Jets dancing in January, right? What’s that? Sure, let me check…yes, Geno Smith is still at quarterba…I know, but…it’s just that…hey, at least he’s not Mark Sanchez, right?
Line: Carolina -11, 40.5 points
Fantasy Impact: Someone has to be on the receiving end, other than a host of Panthers, of Geno Smith’s air forays, right? Returning from a month-long sabbatical due to an ailing elbow, Jeremy Kerley proved to be that bull’s-eye, grabbing four balls off seven targets for 41 yards and a touchdown last weekend. Not a stretch of the imagination to see Gang Green behind early in this one, forcing the Jets to the sky. If and when this circumstance manifests, expect Kerley to cash in.
TV: CBS – 4:05 PM EST
The Jets win if… Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell limit Newton’s opportunities, New York’s rushing defense (82.6 yards per game, second-best in the NFL) keeps Carolina contained.
The Panthers win if… Geno Smith against the Panthers defense. I’m not one to condone gambling, but if someone is venturing down this path, picking Carolina could provide its share of dividends.
Prediction: Panthers 16, Jets 10
Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys
The Lowdown: No matter who is under center for the Green and Yellow, envision the Packers to rely heavily on the run. Since dealing with a concussion early in the fall, Eddie Lacy has lived up to his preeminent billing, averaging 83.6 yards per contest in his last 10 games. Even if Rodgers is able to go, it's highly unlikely he'll flaunt his celebrated aerial prowess off the bat, making the dependence on the rooking running back all the more imperative.
One problem: Lacy is dealing with an ankle injury, one that will keep him out of practice until Friday and places a questionable tag on his weekend availability. Enter James Starks, he of early September success before cut down by a knee malady. Starks does offer versatility out of the backfield, a threat the Packers will utilize to keep the Cowboys on their toes. Though Dallas’ struggles against the pass are well documented, the defensive unit has been just has bad versus the run, relinquishing 128.4 yards per game (fifth-highest in the league) and 4.8 yards per attempt (tied for second-most in the NFL). With the secondary in a hopeless state, the Cowboys’ only hope is halting Green Bay’s soil endeavors, heightening the magnitude of this engagement.
Line: Dallas -7, 49 points
Fantasy Impact: Josh McCown, the 34-year-old journeyman who until this season had 40 touchdowns versus 58 turnovers, just dropped 348 passing yards and five end-zone excursions in sub-zero weather on the Cowboys. It could be Rodgers, Flynn or Tecmo Super Bowl legend Don Majikowski. Whoever is under center for the Pack will tear this Dallas secondary to shreds. Proprietors of Cheesehead receivers should act accordingly.
TV: FOX – 4:25 PM EST
The Packers win if… The Green Bay passing game carves up the Dallas secondary, the Packers front seven contains DeMarco Murray, Tony Romo accidentally thinks its January and posts a “deer in the headlights” performance.
The Cowboys win if… Romo stays safe with the rock, Dallas employs a bend-but-don’t-break defensive approach, Matt Flynn’s Matt Flynn-ness emerges…
Prediction: Cowboys 27, Packers 23
Arizona Cardinals at Tennessee Titans
The Lowdown: Classifying this as a must-win for Arizona would be a misnomer. More like a Cold Stone Creamery “GOTTA HAVE IT” win for the Cards, as the final two weeks feature rendezvouses with rivals Seattle and San Francisco.
The Cards enter with a wounded wing, as rookie playmaker Tyrann Mathieu is out for the season with an ACL and LCL injury. A shame, too, as the Arizona defense has been arguably the most ferocious unit in the NFL since All-Pro linebacker Daryl Washington returned from his steroid sabbatical. The defense endures as a stalwart force, Bruce Arians has proved himself as one of the more capable minds in the coaching ranks and the Larry Fitzgerald-Michael Floyd combo is transforming into a dynamic one-two punch. Alas, the wind has been taken out of the Cards’ sails, and it’s tough to predict Arizona conjuring enough momentum to wreak havoc come January.
At least Arizona faces the prospect of playoff football. The Titans were a September surprise, surmounting a 3-1 start under the direction of Jake Locker. Since then? Not the brightest of skies over Nashville, with Locker sidelined for the season with a foot injury, correlating to just two victories in the past 10 weeks. I’ve never proclaimed to be a numbers virtuoso, but anytime you record two wins in 10 weeks, I don’t like your postseason odds. Look for the Titans’ struggles to endure in Week 15.
Line: Arizona -3, 41.5 points
Fantasy Impact: Chris Johnson, perhaps the most maddening fantasy player in his era, against a Cardinals team ranking third against ground endeavors at 84.5 yards per contest. In the fantasy playoffs. Call me crazy, but keep the Tennessee back on the bench.
TV: FOX – 4:25 PM EST
The Titans win if… Fitzpatrick and his talented receiving corps exploit Mathieu’s absence, Carson Palmer’s turnover ways (17 interceptions, third-most in the league) emerge.
The Cardinals win if… Rashard Mendenhall and Andre Ellington alleviate some of the offensive responsibility from Palmer, Fitzgerald and Floyd pick apart the Tennessee secondary.
Prediction: Cardinals 28, Titans 17
New Orleans Saints at St. Louis Rams
The Lowdown: Drew Brees hit the 50,000-yard milestone on Sunday night, joining Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Dan Marino and John Elway. Manning was the fastest to accomplish this feat in 191 games. Brees did it in 183. That’s getting it DONE, son.
Marques Colston’s Sunday night conquest (nine receptions, 125 yards, two touchdowns) feels like an aberration, and there’s no denying that, statistically, Colston is having the worst season since entering the league in 2006. In truth, aside from a rough autumn stretch (44 yards in three games), the Saints receiver hasn’t been that bad, averaging 75.2 yards per outing in non-October tilts. Moreover, Week 14’s feats marked the third time in five games that Colston crossed the 80-yard barrier. New Orleans doesn’t have the easiest of itineraries in the final three weeks, yet few can derail Brees’ aerial assault. (Before you fire off the comments, Seattle fans, take a look at last week’s scoreboard.) With Colston back on track and the defense firing on all cylinders, hard to picture the Saints falling short of the Meadowlands come February.
The Rams…well, they’re hosting a campaign to get their punter into the Pro Bowl. So that’s how their season is going.
Line: New Orleans -5.5, 47.5 points
Fantasy Impact: Few own the ceiling of Tavon Austin, and in leagues that account for special teams, the rookie out of West Virginia merits a start. But this is playoff time, and you want to ride your studs at this interval. Unfortunately, that leaves Austin on the outs in most standard formats. A matchup versus a Saints defense surrendering the third-fewest passing yards won’t help matters.
TV: FOX – 4:25 PM EST
The Saints win if… New Orleans can put the clamps on Zac Stacy, the Saints running game keeps up its strong showing.
The Rams win if… Drew Brees misses the flight to St. Louis.
Prediction: Saints 31, Rams 21
Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers
The Lowdown: Good gravy, is Gio Bernard fun to watch. He possesses the LeSean McCoy ability of busting out on every play, and his diminutive size makes it that more aesthetically-pleasing when he goes the distance. Also, given his relief duty of the solid-but-sluggish BenJarvus Green-Ellis, dude looks like a flash.
The Who-Deys have hung tough in the face of season-ending injuries to Geno Atkins and Leon Hall, but overcoming the loss of cornerback Terence Newman might be a bridge too far for the Bengals. I’m also in the minority of folks who don’t envision the Steelers throwing in the towel on Sunday night, making Cincinnati a dangerous dice roll this weekend.
Speaking of Pittsburgh, what’s that adage about karma? For whatever reason, the last part of that adage is slipping my mind. Believe it applies to Mike Tomlin at the moment. Forget docking the Steelers a draft pick. The gridiron gods’ punishment for Tomlin’s do-si-do on Jacoby Jones – causing Antonio Brown to step on the sideline, negating a walk-off win for the Steel City – was a bigger kick in the groin than any reprimand from the league office.
Line: Cincinnati -3, 41.5 points
Fantasy Impact: Don’t get enticed by Andy Dalton’s Week 14 works (275 passing yards, four total trips to pay dirt) as a possible play this weekend. After stumbling out of the gate, the Steelers have been a top-10 unit against the pass. Plus, Dalton on the national stage in the Steel City? This seems like a job for Agent Orange, not the Red Rifle. You’re playing with fire by inserting Dalton in your lineup.
TV: NBC – 8:30 PM EST
The Bengals win if… The Law Firm and Gio run wild on a Pittsburgh defense relinquishing 120.2 yards per game (24th), Cincinnati contains Le’Veon Bell.
The Steelers win if… Big Ben’s recent prosperity (16 touchdowns, three turnovers) endures; again, Dalton on national TV? No way, Jose (or whatever your real name is)…
Prediction: Steelers 21, Bengals 20
Baltimore Ravens at Detroit Lions
The Lowdown: Baltimore’s becoming a trendy pick to do some damage in the postseason, with five of the team’s six losses coming by six points or less. Alright, I guess I can dance to that beat. However, let me play devil’s advocate: four of the team’s last five victories have come by three points or less. So yeah, feel free to say the Ravens could be 11-2. In that same breath, they could easily be 2-11.
Jim Schwartz is on the hot seat again, as the team’s recent sputter (dropping three of the past four) has allowed the Bears and Packers back in the division hunt. Sure, I can understand why those in Motown are upset at the prospect of another disappointing season despite a plethora of talent. But as football fans, we should be thankful for Schwartz’s, um, “efforts.” Can you imagine the chaos if Matt Flynn or Josh McCown are leading a playoff team? Even my grandma would be racing to her bank account to drop coin on that action. Burn him at the stake all you want, Schwartz is a hero in my book.
Line: Detroit -6, 48.5 points
Fantasy Impact: Baltimore ranks eighth against the run, and subtracting Week 1’s beatdown by the Broncos, is suffocating challengers to 17.6 points per tilt. Reggie Bush is listed day-to-day with a calf injury, and Joique Bell had two fumbles in Week 13. Nothing to see here, move along…
TV: ESPN – 8:30 PM EST
The Ravens win if… Joe Flacco can stay steady against a fearsome Detroit front, Baltimore minimizes Megatron’s damage.
The Lions win if… Matthew Stafford reduces his recent trend of turnovers (12 turnovers in the last six games), Ray Rice and the Baltimore running game can’t get going.
Prediction: Ravens 28, Lions 24
Joel Beall is a writer for FOXSports.com and WhatIfSports.com. He lives with a Golden Tee machine and a jump shot that’s currently broken. Reach Joel on Twitter @FOXSportsBeall