Week fifteen proved a hard one to predict. We went 8-8, only our second none winning week this season. Few could have envisaged the Rams beating the Saints, the Chargers beating the Broncos or the Vikings beating the Eagles and even wins for Miami and Pittsburgh ranked minor upsets.
Still just four playoff spots are guaranteed with two games to go, the other eight are up for grabs. Division titles, wildcards, homefield advantage, first round byes, so much is still up in the air and this week will be absolutely critical to the aspirations of so many teams, we can’t wait!
Minnesota Vikings @ Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals are making hard work of finishing off the job in the AFC North but they end the regular season with back to back home games, whatever happens this week they would win the division with a win over the Ravens next week. The Vikings without MVP Adrian Peterson got just their fourth win last week against the red hot Eagles.
The Bengals put in an abject offensive display in Pittsburgh last week. The Steelers completely shut down their run game and Andy Dalton struggled to string together completions. Ben Roethlisberger meanwhile was able to pick apart the Bengals with relative ease, completing 21 of 25 passes as Pittsburgh scored thirty which equalled the season high conceded by Cincinnati.
The Bengals certainly won’t find the Vikings 31st ranked defense such a struggle. Minnesota have given up thirty or more points seven times and even in their shock win last week they allowed thirty points and almost 500 yards of offense to Philadelphia. Their offense, the league’s 13th best saw a near 400 yard day from backup passer Matt Cassel and saw Matt Asiata who nobody had heard of until a week ago run in three touchdowns. Peterson and backup Toby Gerhart should both be back this week so Asiata likely will see a vastly reduced role but the key is can Matt Cassel replicate? None of the three quarterbacks who have started this year have been anywhere near good enough and it will be interesting to see how the Vikings approach the position in the offseason considering the desperate needs of their defense.
The Bengals really should win this game. Their 10th ranked offense and particularly A.J. Green should have their way with the Vikings woeful defense and their 6th ranked defense will be a different proposition for Minnesota to the 30th ranked Eagles unit which they had their way with latest. Minnesota are 0-7 on the road and it’s impossible to see a lone road win of the season coming here.
ATPF Prediction– Bengals keep the pressure on the Ravens, win by fourteen.
Miami Dolphins @ Buffalo Bills
The Dolphins have blown hot and cold this year. They started well, cooled off and looked to be falling away only to win three straight. Their latest win means they can still win the AFC East although it’s hugely unlikely but they are only tie breakers away from a wild card spot. AFC East rivals Buffalo beat the lowly Jags last week but a 5-9 record is about par for the course for them.
The Dolphins latest win over the East leading Patriots saw their sophomore quarterback Ryan Tannehill have maybe his best game to date. Tannehill passed for over 300 yards and three touchdowns, he didn’t throw an interception all game and it was Tom Brady who threw the backbreaking, ultimately game deciding fourth quarter pick. Tannehill and big money recruit Mike Wallace have belatedly got on the same page and the result has been that at last the Dolphins can really stretch the field. Their defense features a strong front seven but a young, thin secondary.
The Bills chances hinge on rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel. He threw four interceptions against Tampa Bay in week 14 but completed 17 of 23 passes for a couple of touchdowns and ran one in against Jacksonville last week. The Bills offense centres on their running game and their duo C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson both had success against the Jags. Buffalo’s defense like Miami’s is held back by a below par secondary but does have a strong front seven.
This is no gimme for the Dolphins. As much as Miami need this and want this game the Bills would love to beat them and end their playoff charge. The Bills will take heart from having beaten the Dolphins already this season and there are reasons to fancy them here. Their defensive line should have success against a poor offensive line and their run game always demands respect. The Dolphins will prioritise stopping the Bills run game and even with their secondary they will fancy taking on E.J. Manuel. We are scared to death by the inconsistent Manuel but Tannehill is becoming a quarterback you can trust so we are just favouring the Dolphins.
ATPF Prediction– Miami win by a touchdown.
Indianapolis Colts @ Kansas City Chiefs
The 9-5 Colts visit the 11-3 Chiefs here with both safely into the playoffs but both looking to improve their position ahead of the postseason.
After losing three straight the Chiefs have clawed their way back level with the Broncos but unfortunately for them Denver has two easy games to finish off the job in the AFC West. The Chiefs have won by 35 and 25 in their last two and they are great at finding weaknesses in opponents and exploiting them. Running back Jamaal Charles is the star of the show in KC and has 370 yards from scrimmage and 7 touchdowns in his last two starts, staggering numbers. Accurate passer Alex Smith completed seventeen of twenty last week as he simply let Charles go to work. The Chiefs defense slid down the rankings in their three game skid with injuries really hurting them but they have Tamba Hali and Justin Houston back now and they are one of the league’s best pair of pass rushers.
The Colts have lost in the last three even numbered weeks but win in the last four odd numbered weeks. Such a record is only coincidental yet shows the lack of consistency that has blighted the Colts so far this season. In their three losses since their bye week Indianapolis opponents have scored 42, 40 and 38. Their defense which converted to a 3-4 alignment two years ago still looks short in too many areas although Robert Mathis is even better as a stand up outside linebacker. The Colts offense has missed veteran Reggie Wayne since his injury but T.Y. Hilton continues to produce and Trent Richardson had a decent game last week albeit against the lowly Texans.
The Chiefs continue to just win football games and they look to have the edge in a few key matchups here. The Colts defense is reliant on turnovers and sacks to get off the field but Kansas’ quick release west coast style of attack limits the opportunities for both and obviously stopping Jamaal Charles is a very tall order. The Colts are inconsistent at running the football and if they get one dimensional they could find the Chiefs Arrowhead inspired pass rush hard to handle.
ATPF Prediction– Kansas win a twelfth game this season, do so by two scores.
Tennessee Titans @ Jacksonville Jaguars
The 4-10 Jaguars who have won four of their last six host AFC South rivals Tennessee who are just a game ahead having lost eight of their last ten games.
Things have gotten ugly in Tennessee after a promising start to the season. Their offense has struggled since Ryan Fitzpatrick took over for the injured Jake Locker. Fitzpatrick has thrown ten interceptions whereas Locker for his faults was really looking after the ball well. Chris Johnson continues to be a shadow of his former self and could be in his last year in Tennessee as the team desperately needs an offensive facelift. The Titans defense is ranked 14th overall but doesn’t make enough big game changing plays.
The Jags are feeling pretty good about themselves right now as long as they don’t watch too much game footage of likely first overall pick Teddy Bridgwater anyway. Their defense has found a way to create turnovers of late with two or more in their last four games which has at least offset some of the deficiencies of the 28th ranked unit. Their offense is finally off the bottom of the rankings but they gave up four turnovers last week in a loss to the Bills.
Two teams whose season is long over here but the Jags seem fired up of late whereas the Titans have given up on their season. The Titans defense is their best chance of pulling the upset but we are going with the team with forward momentum.
ATPF Prediction– Jacksonville win their fifth game with a narrow three point victory.
Cleveland Browns @ New York Jets
Two more teams out of the playoff race here with the 4-10 Browns visiting the 6-8 Jets.
The Jets have lost four of their five games since their bye week with rookie quarterback Geno Smith wildly inconsistent and clearly overmatched at times. The Jets rank 30th offensively and 31st in passing and Smith has thrown a crippling 21 interceptions. The defense of Gang Green has been solid, they are just outside the top ten overall but the team has given up too many points off turnovers.
The Browns may be in even worse form than the Jets. They have lost their last five and eight of their last nine. Their defense, a strength of the team early in the season has allowed 27 points or more in each of their last five including 38 to the Bears last week. Cleveland’s offense has seen a whole host of different quarterbacks but none are starting material. Josh Gordon has emerged as one of the best young receivers in the game and he and sophomore tight end Jordan Cameron are two good players for their next quarterback to target.
Two more out of form teams you couldn’t meet. The Jets have won five times at home and Smith seems considerably better in the confines of MetLife Stadium. When Smith hasn’t turned the ball over the Jets have looked a decent team and here we see him leading them to victory.
ATPF Prediction– New York win by a touchdown.
New Orleans Saints @ Carolina Panthers
The game which should decide not only the NFC South but also the NFC’s second seed which of course carries a first round bye. The Saints won pretty easily in the Superdome two weeks ago but a surprise loss to St. Louis last week has set this up as the likely decider.
The Saints are a totally different team on the road; they were beaten last week, completely outplayed in Seattle and also lost in New England and New York. Narrow road wins over the lowly Bucs and Falcons don’t dispel that notion either. They had three turnovers in St. Louis and the Rams did a great job of taking both Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles away. Rob Ryan’s defense was brilliant in the last meeting of the two but couldn’t contain running back Zac Stacy last week and they must toughen up against the run.
The Panthers did what they had to do against the Jets but must have had one eye on the prevailing upset in the gateway to the West. They need to learn from that first defeat and from what happened to the Saints last week. They have to establish the run to wear down the Saints and keep Brees on the sidelines. Cam Newton tried to go toe to toe with Drew Brees last time but he can’t win that fight. The Panthers need to be better at getting pressure too, Brees picked them apart from the pocket last time and he will again if they can’t get him moving around.
Watching the first game you can’t see past the Saints but they are a different team at home. Their last two road performances have been poor and with Bank Of America Stadium likely to be as loud as it’s ever been and with the Panthers knowing this is their biggest game in many a year we think it will be too much for New Orleans.
ATPF Prediction– In a game that goes to the last second Carolina cling on and win by six.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ St. Louis Rams
Neither of these teams has ever been in playoff contention but both have improved hugely as the season has gone on.
The hosts got their biggest win of the year last week when beating the Saints and have won four times at home this season. Sam Bradford’s season ending injury thrust Kellen Clemens into the starting lineup and the veteran has had his struggles. The Rams struggled to find a running game post Steven Jackson but Zac Stacy has been a revelation since midseason. The rookie is closing on 1000 yards and has six touchdowns. St. Louis’s defense has been a disappointment collectively but Robert Quinn is our defensive player of the year and the unit got three turnovers off the Saints last week.
The Bucs have won four of their last six after an 0-8 start. Their defense has been playing well of late but was worn down last week as the 49ers had almost 40 minutes of possession. Rookie quarterback Mike Glennon has done ok since coming in midseason. He has good arm strength and looks after the ball well and has a top class receiver in Vincent Jackson.
The Bucs can’t be underestimated; only the Panthers and 49ers have beaten them in their last six but St. Louis at home are a strong team. They will look to copy San Francisco’s ground and pound style here with Zac Stacy.
ATPF Prediction– The Rams win by a field goal.
Dallas Cowboys @ Washington Redskins
The Cowboys had one of their legendary late game, late season collapses against the Packers last week, luckily for them the Eagles lost too but they must presume it will take back to back wins now to win the NFC East. Washington have lost six straight and are a team in turmoil but they may be able to put their differences aside against their hated rivals.
The Redskins will once again have Kirk Cousins under center after benching RG3 for the year. Head coach Mike Shanahan could be facing the axe from inpatient owner Dan Snyder after a catastrophic season. Shanahan’s decision with RG3 was controversial and it appears there are real differences there. Cousins led the Redskins to what should have been a game tying drive as time expired in Atlanta but Shanahan went for two points and the win, it failed and the Redskins lost by one. Washington had seven turnovers in Atlanta so to come so close was miraculous. The Redskins defense actually played well in Atlanta and has improved of late.
The Cowboys should be two or three ahead in the NFC East but there unmatched magnetism for catastrophe has seen three games slip away where they looked home and dry. A twenty three point half time lead meant nothing last week as journeyman backup Matt Flynn and rookie running back Eddie Lacy tore the Cowboys league worst defense apart in the second half. We waited patiently for Tony Romo’s fourth quarter meltdown and sure enough it came with two late interceptions. Dallas have finished 8-8 for two straight years and behind a horrendous defense, awful offensive play calling and quarterback incapable of keeping his nerve when it matters they look unlikely to better that in 2013.
The Redskins are still a team with ability. They despise the Cowboys and would love to knock them out of the playoff race here. Dallas can’t stop the run so Alfred Morris could have a field day here and Cousins will find the Cowboys secondary very much in the Christmas spirit of good will to all quarterbacks.
ATPF Prediction– Washington beat the suicidal Cowboys by a touchdown.
Denver Broncos @ Houston Texans
The league’s worst team host one of the league’s best here. Denver must win their last two to guarantee the first seed in the AFC; Houston must lose their last two to guarantee the first pick in the NFL draft.
It’s hard to find anything that has gone right in Houston this year. They have lost their last twelve games. Coach Gary Kubiak was sacked, quarterback Matt Schaub was benched, running back Arian Foster ended up on IR and their defense can’t turn production into big plays. The Texans new head coach will almost certainly draft a quarterback first, presumably Teddy Bridgwater and from there Houston will start again.
The Broncos don’t quite look the same irresistible force that they did earlier in the year and they were shocked at home by the Chargers last week. The Chiefs are keeping the pressure on but the Broncos will be massive favourites in their last two games. For the Broncos it is just about doing a professional job here and avoiding injuries.
ATPF Prediction– Broncos win by between two and three turnovers.
New York Giants @ Detroit Lions
After a great performance on Thanksgiving the Lions have lost back to back games and are now third in the NFC North, they have to win their last two to have any chance and Jim Schwartz’s job depends on it. The Giants fought back into the NFC East race but since their chance slipped away they look to have downed tools and were shutout at home last week.
The Lions are so dynamic offensively at their best and while week 14 could be forgiven due to the blizzard they faced in Philadelphia last week was all on Matt Stafford. Stafford threw three interceptions and completed barely half of his passes as the Ravens rode six Justin Tucker field goals to victory. Detroit need more from their defense too, they can look pretty dominant at times (see Thanksgiving win) yet can also be the architects of their own downfall like last week. They were able to hold Baltimore to no touchdowns but had eight penalties for 89 yards and time and again these led to field goals.
Eli Manning has matched his 2010 total of 25 interceptions and should ‘better’ it by season end. In 2010 Eli threw 31 touchdowns, this season he has sixteen in easily the worst season of his career. Last week things went to new levels as he was picked off five time against the Seahawks who shutout the Giants and Tom Coughlin must be considering benching him for this one. New York threatened a defensive revival but their once formidable pass rush is now quite ordinary and their secondary is an easy target.
The Lions have to win this one but couldn’t wish for a much better matchup. Their defense needs to cut down on the Christmas gifts because they could have a field day here if they do. Stafford is under pressure but should have success here and the Giants have nobody who you can see containing Calvin Johnson.
ATPF Prediction– Struggling Lions stay alive with a ten point win.
Arizona Cardinals @ Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks are absolutely relentless, they have a great chance to clinch the NFC’s top seed here and in doing so end Arizona’s brave bid for the postseason.
The Seahawks response to defeat in San Francisco was emphatic; they shutout the Giants, grabbing five interceptions along the way. Their defense is the league’s best and suspensions have had little impact; they have depth to go with quality. Offensively their quarterback is mentioned in MVP terms and their running back is also a certainty for a pro bowl selection.
Arizona have far outperformed expectations to be 9-5 but they face quite possibly the best two teams in the NFC back to back to end the season. The Cardinals have five or six superstars on defense and their seventh ranked unit can compete with the very best. It is offensively where they are still a notch or two off the best, quarterback Carson Palmer is a stop gap and you would expect a new addition under center next year. Still, in Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd they have a couple of fine receivers so this is still a dangerous team.
The Seahawks are the only team to win in Arizona all year. The Cardinals aren’t the same force on the road and Seattle themselves are better at home with their infamous twelfth man so it’s hard to see Arizona upsetting the Seahawks.
ATPF Prediction– Seattle clinches the top seed with a ten point win.
Oakland Raiders @ San Diego Chargers
The Chargers have had ten days to prepare for this after their brilliant win in Denver. The Raiders have lost four straight and are limping to the end of the season.
San Diego have won in Denver and Kansas this year but at 7-7 look unlikely to make the playoffs this year; they may be the best team who doesn’t get in. Their offense has been fantastic, they are sixth ranked in the league and Phil Rivers has rolled back the years, he already has over 4000 yards and will get his thirtieth touchdown pass before his tenth interception. The Chargers need to add to their rebuilt defense next year but defensive ends Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes are good building blocks.
The Raiders need to decide whether either of Matt McGloin or Terrelle Pryor is good enough to start next year or whether they need to continue their seemingly endless pursuit of a franchise quarterback. McGloin will likely start again here but his four picks against the Chiefs last week marked his worst performance to date. Oakland have been better defensively but have been overwhelmed a couple of times and they are lacking talent on this side of the ball.
The Chargers need a ton of help to make the playoffs but should at least keep their side of the bargain with a win here. Their offense should have few problems and the Raiders usually gift wrap a present or two on offense themselves.
ATPF Prediction– The Chargers are two touchdowns too good for the Raiders.
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Green Bay Packers
Two of the most storied franchises in football face off here with the loser out of the playoff race, the Steelers need a minor miracle anyway.
Pittsburgh have been playing catch up all year after an 0-4 start. A big win over the AFC North leading Bengals last week kept them alive just but it all looks too little too late. Their defense was really good against Cincinnati but their inability to stop the Dolphins in the snow the week before is still a painful memory. Offensively the Steelers have been hurt by a lack of options. Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders have all had decent seasons but there has been little else and rookie running back Le’Veon Bell averages less than 3.5 yards per carry.
The Packers looked dead and buried in Dallas last Sunday but Mike McCarthy’s team showed great heart and took advantage as the Cowboys basically beat themselves in the fourth quarter. Aaron Rodgers loss has been softened slightly since Matt Flynn returned and Flynn looks likely to be in action again in this must week game. Rookie Eddie Lacy looks a certain rookie of the year but will face a battery of hits by the physical Steelers. The Packers defense has been hurt by a lack of turnovers this year but found just the tonic in Tony Romo and they will hope to carry that momentum forward here.
This game could go either way with both absolutely desperate. We think that Pittsburgh can edge it, Ben Roethlisberger is as clutch as they come and in complete contrast to last week’s opponent we see him guiding his team to a game winning drive.
ATPF Prediction– The Steelers prevail by three or four points.
New England Patriots @ Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens have shown exactly what sort of team they are, they have won four straight but must keep it going with Miami just behind on tiebreakers and only one of the two can get the sixth spot. Miami will be watching this game closely and are in a no lose situation because if the Patriots lose they can still beat them to the AFC East crown, a Pats win however clinches the division and a playoff spot.
Tom Brady couldn’t get the ball into the end zone against the Dolphins to win it with four attempts last week and the lack of Rob Gronkowski was huge. Brady and the Patriots will have to find a way to get by without the superstar tight end if they are going to play deep into January but with Wes Welker and of course Aaron Hernandez not about the receiving corps are a shadow of what we are used to in New England. The Patriots defense has similarly been hit by a crucial injury. Vince Wilfork has proved just how important he is for this defense as the unit which was playing so well early in the year has capitulated in his absence and given up over twenty points in every game since he was injured.
Baltimore are a proud team as Sueprbowl Champions and have battled back from the brink to now have destiny in their own hands. It will take a tough team to deny them now. They couldn’t manage a single touchdown in Detroit but they did what they do, found a way, that way was six Justin Tucker field goals. They must find a way to convert drives and forgotten running back Ray Rice could play a major part for them, there is surely more in the tank than we’ve seen from him. Their defense picked Matt Stafford off three times in Detroit and such big plays can so often be the difference in a game.
These two know each other so very well and the last two years they have played out the AFC championship between them. Neither has reached such heights this year yet this game is no less important. Tom Brady very rarely loses back to back games but the Ravens can take advantage of the Patriots key injuries and inflict back to back losses on them.
ATPF Prediction– Ravens win by a touchdown.
Chicago Bears @ Philadelphia Eagles
The Bears have battled back to the top of the NFC North and the Eagles despite seeing their five game streak ended last week lead the NFC East also.
The Bears got fantastic performances from their backup quarterback Josh McCown in Jay Cutler’s absence but Cutler returned last week and led his team to 38 points and the win against the Browns. Cutler has often been criticised for not winning the big one but he has the weapons too now. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery may be the best receiving tandem in football; Matt Forte is an outstanding every down back and late developing tight end Martellus Bennett is a huge target. Cutler finally has a solid line infront of him and his huge arm could really take the Bears to the next level. Chicago unusually however have been poor defensively, they rank 27th in the league and haven’t been able to stop the run in Lance Briggs’s absence, Briggs has a chance to play here and the Bears could really do with him.
One of the reasons Briggs could be so important is the Eagles reliance on Shady McCoy, the NFC’s best running back this year. McCoy is devastating behind a big, athletic line which can pull defensive linemen all over the field and open up cut back lanes for him. McCoy has been ably assisted too by Nick Foles who has been sensational since getting the start midseason. Foles has thrown 23 touchdowns to just 2 interceptions and has outstanding deep accuracy. What let the Eagles down last week was their 30th ranked defense which allowed the paltry Vikings offense minus Adrian Peterson to score 48 points and rack up over 450 yards. Previous to that the Eagles hadn’t given up over 21 points since week four and they have to make sure last week was just a blip on the radar.
Offenses should dominate here. The Eagles 2nd ranked offense look too much of a match for the Bears 27th ranked defense but Chicago’s seventh ranked offense equally looks too much of a match for the Eagles 30th ranked defense. It’s hard to find an angle where one team has a clear edge here so we are going with the obvious one, home field advantage.
ATPF Prediction– The Eagles may clinch the NFC East with a three point win.
Atlanta Falcons @ San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers look like being the sixth seed in the NFC which spells bad news for the third seeds, currently Philadelphia. Atlanta got their fourth win of a hugely disappointing season last week as the Redskins failed on a two point conversion for the win.
The Falcons needed all seven Washington turnovers and that controversial failed two pointer to get the win. Their offense is slightly healthier than it has been most of the season but without Julio Jones there is no one to stretch the field and the Falcons aren’t making any big plays. Their defense grabbed seven turnovers last week but it was something of a one off for a team ranked 29th on defense.
San Francisco have the league’s third best defense and the unit has only once given up over twenty points in their last eight games. Offensively they love to run the ball and keep opposition offenses off the field. They will need a little more from the passing game in the playoffs but Michael Crabtree’s return should help. Colin Kaepernick has more weapons now and needs to use them and keep his dynamic running back as a surprise play for their opposition.
The 49ers look head and shoulders better than Atlanta and we expect a very easy win.
ATPF Prediction– 49ers win by nearly twenty points.