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Judge: NFL Peeks of Week 15

The SportsXchange

SUNDAY'S BEST

New England @ Miami

The time: 1 p.m., EST

The line: Even

The story: Suddenly, it's New England that controls the AFC board, with the Patriots gaining home-field advantage by running the table the last three weeks. A defeat of Miami not only clinches the AFC East, but it would move the Patriots a step closer toward gaining a first-round bye.

It also puts a potential speed bump behind them, and fasten your seat belts, people. This could be a bumpy ride.

Look at the betting line. There's a reason New England isn't favored. First of all, they've spent the past three weeks rallying from double-digit deficits. Sooner or later slow starts will bite them, and maybe this is that game. Second, Miami is hot, winning three of its last four and moving into the playoff picture, with a victory making it a legitimate postseason threat. Third, the Patriots are without tight end Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady's most reliable receiver, and don't pretend that his loss won't impair Brady and his teammates ... because it will.

But there's a fourth factor here worth noting. Since 2001, the Patriots are 47-6 in December, the best record in the NFL. But three of those losses? Yep, they've been to Miami.

Something to consider: The Patriots won 17 of their last 18 games in December.

THREE OTHER GAMES WORTH CHECKING OUT

Green Bay @ Dallas

The time: 4:25 p.m., EST

The line: Cowboys by 7

The story: If quarterback Josh McCown can rip holes in the Dallas defense, imagine what Aaron Rodgers does. Well, that's the problem. We can only imagine. Nobody knows if Rodgers suits up for this one, with the Packers playing it coy. For that matter, nobody knows if rookie running back Eddie Lacy suits up, either. He played through a sprained ankle last week, and the Packers will only say they're "cautiously optimistic" that he's available.

Now you know why the Cowboys are favored by a touchdown. Yes, their defense stinks; yes, they're unpredictable; and yes, quarterback Tony Romo usually finds coal in his stocking in December. The guy is 11-16 for the month, 12-17 for December and January and 13-20 once you include the playoffs.

None of that is exactly encouraging for a team chasing Philadelphia in the NFC East, but this is: Without Rodgers, the Packers are all but toast ... 1-3-1 since his departure, with the lone win a defeat of Atlanta.

Something to consider: Since 2009, the Packers have a 16-5 overall record in December and January, second only to New England (19-3).

New Orleans @ St. Louis

The time: 4:25 p.m., EST

The line: Saints by 6

The story: Remember the last time these two met here? You can bet the Saints do. That was in 2011 when the Rams -- at the time a winless team -- upset New Orleans, 31-21, and shut down Drew Brees. "We've talked about it," Brees said. They should. Because while the Saints are expected to win here, it will be no Big Easy.

It's not the Rams' offense that's the concern; it's their defense. They can rush the passer, as Brees found out the last time he played here, and they can ... and will ... force mistakes -- with only seven teams having more takeaways than St. Louis (24). But the Rams lost five of their last seven and failed to score more than 15 points in four of those contests. Moreover, they're quarterbacked by journeyman Kellen Clemens, and if Cam Newton can't solve these guys how does Clemens?

Ask Rob Ryan. If there's an intriguing back story to this game it's the Saints' defensive coordinator. He was ticketed to take the same job with St. Louis in the offseason, but the deal fell through and Ryan moved on to the Saints. Lucky for them. New Orleans is sixth in total defense, third against the pass and fifth in points allowed.

Something to consider: Rams' coach Jeff Fisher is 4-0 vs. New Orleans.

Cincinnati @ Pittsburgh

The time: 8:30 p.m., EST

The line: Bengals by 3

The story: Consider this another road test for Cincinnati which, if it's to make a deep run in the playoffs, must win somewhere other than Paul Brown Stadium. That, of course, is where the Bengals are most comfortable and where they haven't lost this season. But Cincinnati took a step forward two weeks ago when it won in San Diego, proving it can beat quality teams on the road.

Pittsburgh isn't exactly a quality team, but the Steelers are a tough out ... especially at home. In Mike Tomlin's tenure there, the Steelers have at least five home victories every season. They've won three of their last four at Heinz Field and barely missed out last weekend when a last-gasp razzle dazzle barely fell short when Antonio Brown stepped out of bounds.

But that's not all. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is playing the best football of the season, with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions his past four starts, and a graying defense has started to produce sacks and takeaways. Nevertheless, the Steelers will be hard pressed to hold off a surging Cincinnati team, which is setting itself up for what could be a deep playoff run -- provided, of course, it's road tested.

Something to consider: Marvin Lewis is 7-15 vs. the Steelers.

MONDAY NIGHT LIGHTS

Baltimore @ Detroit

The time: 8:40 p.m., EST

The line: Lions by 6

The story: Shame on Matt Elam. It wasn't just a rookie mistake the Ravens' safety committed this week; it was a downright stupid error, with Elam calling 28-year-old Calvin Johnson "old." Now Elam should know better: One thing you absolutely, positively, never do is take a jab at the NFL's best receiver. We saw what happened this season when Dallas' Dez Bryant challenged Megatron, saying, "I believe I can do whatever he can do."

Johnson responded with 14 catches for 329 yards. I can only imagine what happens Monday.

Baltimore is hot, winning its last three and four of its last five, and seems poised for another run to the playoffs under coach John Harbaugh. But this just in: The Ravens can't win outside of Baltimore. They're 1-5 there, with three of those defeats to losing opponents (Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo), and they allow an average of 25.16 points per game. And Detroit? Well, the Lions are at their best at Ford Field, winning four of six and averaging 31.7 per.

That explains the point spread. But nothing explains the Lions' unpredictable play. They're capable of producing lots of yards and points, but they're also capable of producing lots of mistakes ... and they have, with 20 turnovers the past six games.

Something to consider: Pittsburgh allows an average of 18.7 points per game at home, tied for second fewest in the AFC. Only Baltimore (18.6) is better.

CRUMMY GAME OF THE WEEK

Washington @ Atlanta

The time: 1 p.m., EST

The line: Falcons by 7

The story: So it's a bad game. It doesn't mean it's not without intrigue. Quarterback Kirk Cousins makes his first start of the season, and let's just say a lot of people will be paying attention. Then there's the Mike Shanahan saga and no need to explain there. And, of course, there's always draft positions, with St. Louis a very interested spectator. The more the Redskins lose, the better St. Louis looks. The Rams have Washington's first-round draft pick in 2014, thanks to ... you got it, that man who just sat down: quarterback Robert Griffin III.

Something to consider: Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez has a touchdown catch in three of four games vs. Washington.

FIVE GUYS IT'S GOOD TO BE

--1. Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith. He's 3-0 vs. Oakland, with five touchdowns and one interception.

--2. Dallas defensive end DeMarcus Ware. He has four sacks in four career games vs. Green Bay.

--3. New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. He has two or more touchdown passes in each of five career games vs. Seattle.

--4. Tampa Bay running back Bobby Rainey. He has five touchdowns in his last three home games, including an 80-yard touchdown run last weekend.

--5. Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck. He's 2-1 against Houston, but has seven touchdown passes and no interceptions.

BELIEVE IT ... OR DON'T

--1. Carolina has allowed 15 or fewer points in eight games this season, seven of which the Panthers won.

--2. The Philadelphia Eagles need just five plays of 20 or more yards to break the franchise record of most gains of 20 or more yards in a single season. They have 80. The record is 84, set in 2011.

--3. New Orleans has only 14 turnovers. If the Saints commit four or fewer the last three games they set a franchise record for fewest giveaways (19, set in 2011).

--4. Quarterback Jay Cutler is 2-0 vs. the Browns, throwing for 447 yards and three touchdowns in his only appearance at Cleveland.

--5. New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith has no touchdowns and seven interceptions in his last three road games -- all of them losses.

--6. Since 2011, the 49ers are 11-0 when running back Frank Gore rushes for 100 or more yards.

--7. In the past three games, New England's Tom Brady in the second half completed 75.8 percent of his passes for 849 yards, with six TDs, no interceptions and a rating of 127.0.

--8. Under coach John Harbaugh, Baltimore is 15-6 over the last four games of the season.

--9. No team gives up fewer second-half yards than Arizona, which allows an average of 130.4 yards in the last two quarters.

--10. Philadelphia running back LeSean McCoy is the only back in the NFL to rush for more than 150 yards more than once this season. He's done it four times.

TEN NUMBERS THAT MIGHT MEAN SOMETHING

--3 -- Rushing TDs allowed by Baltimore, a league best

--3-0 -- Arizona vs. the NFC South

--10 -- Games of 400 or more yards for Philadelphia's offense

--11 -- Straight seasons with 10-plus wins for New England

--11-0 -- Indianapolis vs. Houston at home

--14-6 -- Ben Roethlisberger vs. Cincinnati

--22.2 -- Riley Cooper's yards per catch over the past nine games

--27 -- Consecutive Justin Tucker field goals without a miss

--253 -- Consecutive games for Washington linebacker London Fletcher

--2,283 -- Combined receiving yards for Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall

-- Clark Judge, a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange, has covered pro football since 1982 and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selections Committee.
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