Here's an early look at some of the key storylines in Week 15's biggest games:
South showdown highlights Saints road struggles
The NFC South comes down to Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium: It’s the rare situation where both teams control their own destinies for the division title, and the winner will have an excellent shot at the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
And it’s clear heading into Sunday’s game against the Panthers that they need to buck some serious road trends to feel good about their situation. Drew Brees doesn’t play as well away from home, the offensive line is far less sturdy and the defense can’t create pressure without blitzing. They make far fewer big plays on offense away from home, and they give up more big plays on the road.
The Panthers, meanwhile, are far stronger in their home digs. They are 6-1, with the one loss a Week 1 setback to the Seattle Seahawks by only five points. The Panthers have outscored opponents 190-83 at home and haven't allowed more than 20 points in a game. The Saints are 3-4 away from home and have been outscored 162-112.
That’s why Week 14’s 31-13 Saints whopping of the Panthers really means nothing now, and the Saints know it. Don’t be shocked if the Panthers put them back on their heels this weekend.
Colts, Chiefs meet in possible playoff preview
We will witness a possible first-round playoff matchup, albeit one that would occur on the other team’s turf: If the Indianapolis Colts, who have clinched the AFC South but might end up the 4-seed, and the Kansas City Chiefs, almost certainly the No. 5 seed, face each other in Round 1 it most certainly will be in Indy, not K.C.
Will that affect the way the teams play each other? This is always an interesting case study this late in the season, and we got a good example of this reverse osmosis in Week 15 last season as well.
You might remember: The tumult-ridden Baltimore Ravens hosted the Denver Broncos, and the game really was over at halftime, following Broncos corner Chris Harris’ pick-six return that made it 17-zip Broncos, and later 24-3 early in the third quarter. They never looked back. Peyton Manning was great, and Joe Flacco was awful.
Three weeks later (after the Ravens beat the Colts in Round 1), the Ravens had to go to Denver for the rematch. We know how that one panned out.
Could the same thing happen here? Interestingly, Andy Reid's Chiefs have looked fantastic the past few weeks after a mini-slide, and the Colts have been the shakier of the two teams, even with their throttling of the Houston Texans last week.
The takeaway is this: Don’t invest too much in this game. If one quarterback struggles, and for that matter if the other one shines, we can’t assume that pattern would carry forth in a potential rematch. Both teams will not empty the cupboards this weekend, and likely will hold some stuff back. But they won't hold back their effort, either.
Cowboys tested by backup quarterbacks
The Dallas Cowboys should be in the midst of a dream scenario. So why does it feel so much like a nightmare?
This schedule they have, and the circumstances behind their opponents, is heaven-sent. Since the bye, they have face the New York Giants, Oakland Raiders, Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. Incredibly, that means they have faced the NFL’s interception leader (Eli Manning, with a stunning 25 of them) along with three straight quarterbacks who did not start the season as their team’s starter.
That’s right. And what’s more: Their final two games almost certainly will come against teams with different quarterbacks than they set sail this season with, too. Sunday's opponent, the Washington Redskins, are starting Kirk Cousins, and the Philadelphia Eagles will start Nick Foles, unless he gets hurt before then.
Never mind that Cousins and Foles appear better than their predecessors. That might be an NFL record. But the Cowboys have lost two straight to Josh McCown (who was out of football a year ago) and Matt Flynn (who has been on three teams’ rosters this season), allowing a combined 92 points. Heck, Manning and the Raiders’ Matt McGloin even scored 21 and 24, respectively, against this Cowboys defense.
So for all the talk about the late-game failures of Tony Romo, the immaturity of Dez Bryant, the coaching of this staff or the team-building ineptitude of Jerry Jones — and believe me, there’s vacancy for all of those narratives — the storyline that needs more attention is the sheer awful quality of this defense if it’s not forcing turnovers.
If the Cowboys fail to make the postseason, let it be known that they blew the NFC East lead by losing to a string of five straight backup quarterbacks down the stretch. That would be a titanic failure.
Patriots, Ravens renew rivalry in Baltimore
The Ravens’ nail-chomping win Monday night was their sixth (out of eight victories) by one score. Their opponent Sunday, the New England Patriots, have won seven of their 10 games by a one-score margin.
The Ravens are heating up. The Patriots have come back down to earth a bit. The game is in Baltimore.
And these teams have quite a little recent history. Counting playoffs, five of the past eight matchups between the teams have come down to six points or fewer.
Doesn’t this just set up as another classic game between them? There’s a fierce rivalry and a dislike between the two sides, more than for your average non-division opponents.
The Ravens are last season’s champs, having knocked off the Patriots in New England on the way to the Super Bowl. The Patriots did the same thing the year before prior to losing the Bowl.
Their past two regular-season meetings have come down to last-second field goals. And who could forget Justin Tucker’s game-winning 29-yarder last season in a 31-30 victory that barely cleared the uprights (or did it?) and had Bill Belichick trying to open-field tackle any referee within his grasp. It feels like Tucker has nailed about 15 game-winners since then (only his second NFL game), including his Monday night six pack, capped with the 61-yarder to win it.
You just get the feeling that this game too will be a white-knuckler, too. And that it could foreshadow another possible Patriots-Ravens playoff meeting. Wouldn’t that be fun? Again?
Are Bears or Eagles playoff strong?
Because of the losses of the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions, respectively, the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears find themselves currently as the leaders of the NFC East and NFC North divisions heading into their matchup Sunday night at Lincoln Financial Field.
Avoiding any talk about whether either team is truly the third- or fourth-best team in the conference, we’ll instead veer this way: Can either win a home playoff game?
The Bears are 5-2 in Chicago, but four of those victories came by six points or fewer, and three of them came with some luck shining their way (the Bengals and Vikings shooting themselves in the feet late in Weeks 1 and 2, plus the weather-delay game against the Ravens).
The Eagles are a rather ignominious 3-4 in Philly, although they now have won three straight there heading into the Sunday nighter after dropping their first four home games — how odd. No other team currently in the playoff fold is worse than 5-2 at home.
These are strange times for both teams. The Eagles looked to be on the verge of breaking through prior to their rather stunning 48-30 loss to an Adrian Peterson-less Minnesota Vikings team. The Bears were able to beat the Cleveland Browns with the reintroduction of Jay Cutler into the lineup, but the debate will rage on about whether McCown should play if Cutler can’t carve up an Eagles secondary that was torched last week by Matt Cassel.
- - - - - - -