NFL Week 15: Fans Cross High-Stakes Games off Gift List

Dec 10, 2023; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Quarterback Josh Allen (17) and his Buffalo Bills are set to host the red-hot Dallas Cowboys Sunday at Orchard Park. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 10, 2023; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Quarterback Josh Allen (17) and his Buffalo Bills are set to host the red-hot Dallas Cowboys Sunday at Orchard Park. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

What a difference a week makes. 


Or so says Brandon Staley, whom the Chargers fired Friday, along with Los Angeles GM Tom Telesco, just hours after his former team's thoroughly embarrassing loss to the Las Vegas Raiders


While "what a difference..." can be said about pretty much any week of action in pro football, it seems particularly apropos when discussing how rapidly (and dramatically) the outlooks for teams battling for a playoff spot can change as the sun sets on an NFL regular season.


Houston was feeling good about things heading into its game versus New York last week. After seeing their team dismantled by the Jets and rookie sensation C.J. Stroud knocked from the game, Texans faithful can be forgiven for looking nervously at Sunday's road tilt at Tennessee. Likewise, Pittsburgh fans must think their particulate-saturated sky is falling after home losses to two of the league’s worst teams. Yet a win in Indianapolis Saturday instantly brightens the drudgery of last-minute holiday shopping, even in Pittsburgh.


Denver faithful this week donned rose-colored glasses after their team’s big Week 14 road win. Meanwhile, the first-place Lions — or at least their followers — had a miserable week. A win by Detroit over the Broncos Saturday turns the perceptions of their respective fanbases 180 degrees.


And both Buffalo and Dallas — and their fanbases — are riding a wave of positivity into this week's highest-profile matchup. One will still be feeling pretty good about life Sunday evening. The other will not. 


The urgency felt by teams and their fans heading into last weekend ratchets up yet another notch. Here’s a look at Week 15’s crucial set of games. 



Minnesota (7-6) at Cincinnati (7-6), Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, NFL Network


The Vikings make a change at quarterback this week as backup Nick Mullens replaces Josh Dobbs. Mullens is the Vikes’ fourth starting quarterback this season, which should make Kevin O’Connell a candidate for Coach of the Year.


Minnesota welcomed back Justin Jefferson against the Raiders, but the brilliant WR left the game with a chest injury. There’s a “good chance” Jefferson plays Saturday against a Cincinnati defense that gives up big plays by the bushel.


Meanwhile, Cincinnati's Jake Browning takes the reins for this third straight start. Brilliant in the first two, Browning faces what might be his stiffest test against a Vikings defense that held the Raiders scoreless Sunday. Expect Minnesota’s aggressive defensive coordinator, Brian Flores, to chuck the playbook at Browning in an effort to force the QB into a couple of game-changing mistakes.


A huge game for both teams in the thick of their respective wild-card hunts. But Browning and the Bengals, playing at home, are just too hot. Cincinnati 28, Minnesota 20.



Pittsburgh (7-6) at Indianapolis (7-6), Saturday 4:30 p.m. ET, NFL Network


Another matchup with enormous AFC playoffs implications. The Steelers come off the worst two-game home losing streak in recent memory. The Colts got mauled in Cincinnati but won five in row before that setback. 


With Mitch Trubisky at quarterback, Pittsburgh’s offense could not look more incapable than it did in the losses to Arizona and New England. Against the Colts, expect the Steelers offense to turn to backs Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren, who in recent weeks fueled an improved running game.


For Indianapolis, star RB Jonathan Taylor will miss his third straight game. In Cincinnati, Taylor’s replacement, Zach Moss, did not do much, which means quarterback Gardner Minshew and the Colts passing game will need to pick up the slack against a mediocre Pittsburgh pass defense.


We bet on that happening and take the Colts by double digits at home. Indianapolis 26, Pittsburgh 10



Denver (7-6) at Detroit (9-4), Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, NFL Network


What looked a rout a few weeks now shapes up as maybe the most compelling game of the weekend. And the most intriguing matchup within is the revitalized Denver defense taking on Jared Goff and a scuffling Lions offense. 


Of his 10 interceptions this season, Goff threw five of them against the Bears. Denver’s defense is more opportunistic than Chicago’s, as the 24 turnovers they forced tops the NFL. (The Broncos are plus-6 in turnover differential on the season; the Lions minus-6.) Detroit will look to establish the run with backs David Montgomery and the elusive rookie Jahmyr Gibbs. Look for Goff to exploit receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown in his matchup with Denver star corner Patrick Surtain II, who was limited in practice this week because of an injury. 


On the other side of the ball, Denver receivers Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton can be a tough pair to contend with, and the Lions’ pass defense is in the bottom half the league. Look for quarterback Russell Wilson to try to work deep against the Detroit secondary, but not without some risk — after going five weeks without throwing a pick, Wilson threw four in the last two games. 


Key mistakes from the vet signal-caller on the road against a tough Lions team will prove to be the difference. Detroit 20, Denver 17.



Bears (5-8) at Cleveland (8-5), Sunday 1 p.m. ET


As they did Week 14, the Bears look to damage a team’s playoffs hopes when they visit the Browns Saturday.


Quarterback Justin Fields and the Chicago offense face an uphill battle against a fearsome Cleveland pass defense. Chicago WR DJ Moore, who who came up big in the Bears win over Detroit, missed practice this week because of an ankle injury. His status is uncertain. If he is unable to go, Fields may rely even more on tight end Cole Kmet, who is emerging as one of the NFL’s better tight ends.


For Cleveland, injuries to significant players keep piling up. While Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward mend from their shoulder issues, pass rusher Ogbo Okoronkwo suffered a pectoral injury against Jacksonville Sunday and may be placed on IR. 


On offense, the aging QB Joe Flacco again starts for Cleveland in what may become one of the better human-interest storylines to finish the season. Cleveland will not run the ball effectively against the Bears’ run defense, ranked No. 2 in the NFL, so expect Flacco to attack downfield with wideout Amari Cooper and tight end David Njoku against an improving but still susceptible Chicago secondary. 


We think the Browns are too banged up, and Flacco will resort to his “Turnover Joe” tendencies — you know, the habits the NFL wants ignored for fear of mucking up a perfectly marketable holiday narrative. The Bears will knock off the second North power in as many weeks. Chicago 20, Cleveland 10.



Tampa Bay (6-7) at Green Bay (6-7), 1 p.m. ET


Former divisional rivals face off in this crucial game at Lambeau. The Bucs have their eyes on the NFC South lead with a win, while the Packers look to rekindle the momentum they enjoyed in recent weeks before the Giants derailed them Monday night.


The Giants gashed the Packers run defense for 200+ yards, which limited the number of possessions for Love and the offense. Tampa Bay’s RB Rachaad White put up 102 yards on the ground against at Atlanta, so it makes sense for the Bucs to feature him. Even more troubling for Green Bay’s defense on Monday was their inability to mount pressure against the worst offensive line in football. By contrast, the Bucs OL has allowed a respectable 28 sacks on the year.


If Tampa both can run the ball and protect quarterback Baker Mayfield, then that puts more pressure on Green Bay’s Jordan Love to maximize Green Bay’s possessions. Mayfield may be without receiver Chris Godwin, who sat out practice with a bothersome knee. Love will be missing a weapon as well: the blossoming receiver Christian Watson will sit out the Bucs game with a hamstring injury, the second game in a row he will sidelined. Rookie wideout Jayden Reed posted a career-best eight catches against New York and could be asked to make an even contribution in this huge Week 15 game.


The Bucs rank 30th in the NFL in stopping the pass, so, even minus Watson, we think the Green Bay passing game does enough to win the battle of the bays. Green Bay 26, Tampa Bay 17.



New York Jets (5-8) at Miami (9-4), 1 p.m. ET


Another matchup that appeared one-sided when the calendar turned to December, the Jets come off their most impressive win of the season. They catch Miami on a short week, a few days removed from its shocking late-game collapse against Tennessee.


Though the tone and feel of this game suddenly feels different, the key matchup in this game remains the Jets street-hassle pass defense against Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins’ high-flying passing game. Unfortunately, for Miami, the most important piece in its arsenal, WR Tyreek Hill, was injured (knee) against the Titans. Additionally, the short week means less time to rehabilitate the knee, and head coach Mike McDaniels’ “we’re going to make sure…he’s not at risk of further injury to himself” comment does not sound all that encouraging for Hill’s return. Which means fans will be deprived of a potential Cheetah v. Sauce matchup. Sauce Gardner and fellow Jets corner D.J. Reed were terrific Sunday in locking down Nico Collins and the Texans’ passing attack. 


(Update: The knee injury and possibly disappointing fans might be the least of Hill’s concerns right now, as the star wideout is the subject of two paternity suits filed Thursday.)


On the other side of ball, the Dolphins defense had to deal all week with the fallout of its monumental fourth-quarter collapse. Before Week 14, Jets quarterback Zach Wilson would have been the tonic, but the former No. 2 overall pick enjoyed far and away his best performance of 2023 against Houston, throwing for 301 yards and posting a 117.9 quarterback rating. The Jets scored 30 points in the second half alone. Garrett Wilson made plays against Houston and a Wilson-Jaylen Ramsey matchup will be every bit as fun to watch as Hill against Gardner.


Are you thinking that we are leaning towards the Jets for the upset? You are right. New York 24, Miami 20. 



Kansas City (8-5) at New England (3-10), 1 p.m. ET


Yet another game the complexion of which looks so much different now than it did even just two weeks ago. Last Thursday, the Patriots snapped a five-game skid, in Pittsburgh, while Kansas City and its wayward offense managed only 17 points at home against Buffalo.


We keep expecting the game’s premier QB and the Chiefs passing game to stop grinding gears. So far that has not transpired, and a Bill Belichick defense is the last thing you want to see when desperately trying to find an offensive rhythm. Do not be shocked if Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, ready to dodge the sink that Belichick tosses his way, devises a game plan that simplifies things and relies on the tough, physical running of Isiah Pacheco and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. 


Bailey Zappe will again take the helm for New England’s offense. New England will miss the mammoth injured tackle Trent Brown, likely out with an assortment of injuries and ailments, who would draw the unpleasant assignment of checking Kansas City’s All-Pro end Chris Jones. The Pats might also miss injured running back Rhamondre Stevenson, but fellow back Ezekiel Elliott played maybe his best all-purpose game of the season against Pittsburgh. If he can summon 2019 Ezekiel (a big “if,” we get it), he then vecomes ideal asset for moving the chains and controlling the clock.


If New England quarterback Bailey Zappe channels his second quarter against the Steelers, the Patriots, with three days extra to rest, will beat the defending champs. Something tells us that will not happen. No, we are not predicting Kansas locates his offensive mojo, but they will score enough to escape Foxboro with their ninth win. Kansas City 23, New England 14. 




New York Giants (5-8) at New England (6-7), 1 p.m. ET


The Giants ride into the Crescent City on a three-game win streak, getting their most impressive win of the season last Monday night against Green Bay. The Saints are locked in a three-way chase for the NFC South title. 


An aggressive, pressure-intent defense going up against the Giants’ offensive line seems like a mismatch, but the unit assigned to protect quarterback Tommy DeVito pitched a shutout, remarkably, against the Packers. Remarkable in that the Giants gave up an eye-popping 69 sacks in the first 12 games of the season. They might be able to repeat that performance against a Saints pass rush that mustered on 23 sacks in 12 games (same as Giants defense), but we would advise Giants fans against expecting that.


An interesting matchup will be the Giants’ talented back Saquon Barkley against a New Orleans run defense that is one of the best in the NFL. 


The Saints misfiring offense is set for another go at home, where the fanbase’s attitude toward high-priced QB Derek Carr is Big but not so Easy. After a midseason streak that saw him throw for 300 or more yards in the three straight games, Carr has hit that milestone just once in the last five outings, and he threw a pick in each of the last three games. As always, a key for New Orleans moving the ball and scoring in the red zone will be igniting RB Alvin Kamara, whose up-and-down individual play this season reflects that of his team. 


As compelling as New York fandom’s embrace of DeVito is becoming, we see the Giants’ streak halting this Sunday, with the Saints winning handily. New Orleans 22, New York Giants 9.



Houston (7-5) at Tennessee (5-8), 1 p.m. ET


Once more, two teams coming into Week 15 in possibly very different head space. The Texans look to rebound from their most disappointing performance of the season. The titans hope to build off their most exhilarating.


It might also be a matchup of the year’s two top rookie quarterbacks. Tennessee's Will Levis fashioned a near-miraculous comeback against a quality team in prime time. That it might be a matchup depends on the availability of Houston’s C.J. Stroud, who is still in concussion protocol as of Friday, and the Texans talk as if they are ready for backup Davis Mills to start.


But, should Stroud play, the comparisons between him and Tennessee’s Will Levis will be a focal point. The No. 2 overall pick was shorthanded against New York, having neither Tank Dell (season-ending injury, Week 13) or his favorite target, Nico Collins, who left the Jets game early with a hamstring injury. Collins' availability against the Titans is also very much in doubt. When Collins missed time earlier this season, fellow wideout Noah Brown put together huge games in his stead. Brown will need to do so again — especially if Stroud’s backup, Davis Mills, is tapped to start — against a Tennessee pass defense that held its own against Miami.


Levis’ play this season has, at times, jolted to life a franchise on the verge of phoning it in for 2023. His comeback against Miami was special. The Texans are bottom third of the NFL in pass defense, so look for Levis to once again push the ball downfield to the DeAndre Hopkins, who is still a mismatch waiting to happen. 


While Houston can only play better than did last week, Stroud’s injury status is a concern. Also, Tennessee and Levis feel primed to go on a season-ending roll. It started in Miami, and continues in Week 15. Tennessee 27, Houston 23. 



San Francisco (10-3) at Arizona (3-10), 4:05 p.m. ET


Winners of five straight, the 49ers are playing the best of any team in the NFL. Brock Purdy is the unquestioned conductor of an absolutely loaded offense and perhaps his chief weapon, running back Christian McCaffrey, is the NFL’s best skill-position player (with all due respect to Tyreek Hill). Right now, Purdy is in sync with all his weapons and Kyle Shanahan’s offense if humming.


Back from injury for a month now, Arizona QB Kyler Murray seems reacclimated to playing against NFL defenses. Whether his penchant for bedeviling pass rushers works against San Francisco’s front seven will bear watching — the 49ers are doing a better job in recent games at maintaining their rush lanes, as was evidenced by how well they contained Jalen Hurts and the Eagles.


Watch for tough-running RB James Conner to build on his 105-yard effort against his old Steelers team in last week’s win. The 49ers D-line will be without tackles Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead, which will test the unit's depth, and LB Dre Greenlaw is questionable. Also, a telltale sign of a disengaged Niners’ defense is poor tackling, and Conner is the kind physical back who can take advantage of that lack of focus and energy.


The records of the two teams scream rout. But the Cardinals are still flush from their buoyant road win at Pittsburgh, and human nature informs us that San Francisco will be peaking ahead to their big Xmas showdown at home against the Ravens. The Cardinals will beat the spread, but we still have to go with the vastly superior team. San Francisco 28, Arizona 24.




Washington (4-9) at Los Angeles Rams (6-7), 4:05 ET


There’s no time for the Rams to wallow in the stinging loss to Baltimore in overtime or to feel shame at sharing the same playing field with the Chargers. With their remaining schedule setting up favorably, this game represents a huge opportunity for the Rams to get back into the NFC wild-card race. 


The Rams’ offense is starting to gel. Quarterback Matthew Stafford and the LA offensive line are playing their best of the season, as demonstrated by putting up 30+ points against the league’s top pass defenses in back-to-back games. The emergence of rookie RB Kyren Williams — averaging a robust 125 yards per game in his last four outings — is turbocharging the Rams attack. 


There’s nothing in the play of Washington’s defense of late to suggest they will offer much resistance. The Commanders are last in the NFL in total yards and passing yards allowed. On offense, they could still be a threat Sunday if the Sam Howell-to-Terry McLaurin connection is on, which has happened this season. Or, instead, Aaron Donald could tear through Washington’s flimsy offensive line and make Howell’s afternoon a living hell. 


This one could get ugly in a hurry. Coach Ron Rivera talking about being “at peace” with his job situation is unlikely to inspire a tenacious effort from his team, especially on the road. Los Angeles 42, Washington 17.




Dallas (10-3) at Buffalo (7-6), 4:25 ET


Don’t let the the records fool you, this is the marquee matchup of Week 15. 


Each team comes off a huge win and needs this game, though the stakes may be a bit more urgent for Buffalo, looking make it as a wild card. The Bills’ offense became more balanced in recent weeks thanks to production of running back James Cook, who is third in the NFL with 1,180 scrimmage yards. The improved running game discourages Josh Allen from trying to be Superman on every play, though the quarterback’s penchant for putting the ball into hairy spots will be especially dangerous with DaRon “Pick-Six” Bland and former Buffalo standout Stephon Gilmore lurking in the Dallas secondary. 


The Cowboys’ offense is now a threat to score every time it touches the ball. Dak Prescott is playing at an MVP level (despite the idiocy Cam Newton spouts). He expertly directs a passing attack that becomes more diversified seemingly every week; WR Brandin Cooks and tight end Jake Ferguson (11 catches the last two games) have elevated their presence in recent weeks to help out Dallas’ top playmaker, CeeDee Lamb. 


Buffalo fields the league’s No. 9 pass defense and is third in sacks with 42 despite not having a player with double digits in quarterback takedowns. A big shoutout goes to Buffalo defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who has used a gum-and-baling-wire approach to overcome injuries and put a viable product on the field. The chess match between him and Prescott/Mike McCarthy will be worthy of tuning in.


Our heads and hearts are not aligned on this one. Reason suggests the Cowboys, the better and hotter team, will come into Buffalo and control the game. But Orchard Park can be a magical place for a Bills team in need of a win. Buffalo 28, Dallas 25.



Baltimore (10-3) at Jacksonville (8-5), 8:20 p.m. ET, NBC


With the tail wind from a thrilling OT victory guiding them, the Ravens land in Jacksonville looking to keep leads both in the AFC North and the conference. Quarterback Lamar Jackson played like an MVP against the Rams, showcasing the dual-threat dazzle that landed him the award in 2019. A must-see matchup will be Jackson’s elusiveness against the athleticism and high motor of Jags star defensive end Josh Allen. 


In the past, the Ravens sometimes relied too much on Jackson’s legs to move the offense. Part of his maturation this season under new OC Todd Monken is to throw from the pocket and distribute the ball to his playmakers. Jacksonville can not focus just on containing Jackson and slowing down the Ravens’ powerful running game; rookie wideout Zay Flowers (64 catches) vet Odell Beckham Jr. are emerging as reliable, big-play targets for Jackson when defenses crowd the line of scrimmage.


Jacksonville quarterback Trevor Lawrence gutted it out last on a bad knee and the results were a decidedly mixed bag — three touchdown passes, three interceptions in the Week 14 loss to Cleveland. Still a bit hobbled, Lawrence this week goes up against the other great pass defense in the AFC North, one that is bristling at being picked apart at home, in the rain, by the Rams’ Matthew Stafford. 


Lawrence no doubt misses receiver Christian Kirk, out 6–8 weeks with a core injury. The multipurpose back Travis Etienne Jr. is an obvious choice as a key figure in this game, but the man we like to play a huge role is Evan Engram, who Lawrence has gone to a lot in the wake of Kirk's injury. The lethally athletic Engram followed up a nine-catch week with 11 grabs and two TD catches against the Browns, and will no doubt be on the radar of Baltimore defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald this week.


The Ravens are the most complete team in the AFC. Though at home, the Jaguars have the look and feel of a .500 team posing as a conference power. This Sunday night they get exposed. Baltimore 31, Jacksonville 16.



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