Six storylines that I find intriguing about Week 15:
Eli Manning came into last weekend with the best fourth-quarter production in the NFL and he didn't disappoint with a come-from-behind win on the road over the Cowboys. Manning's fourth-quarter numbers? He's completed 102 of 153 passes (66.7 percent) with 14 touchdowns to just four interceptions and a 117 passer rating.
Tim Tebow barely shows up in the first three quarters of games but when the fourth quarter starts he comes alive, going from a 39 percent completion rate to 61 percent. He has led his team to come-from-behind victories four weeks in a row, and he's sure to get another chance this weekend when Tom Brady and the Patriots come to Denver.
Hot seat could get hotter
Gone are Jack Del Rio, Todd Haley and Tony Sparano, which is a real shame. I always believed you let the head coach finish the season unless he did something horrific, which none of these men did this year. Now the focus turns to Jim Caldwell, Raheem Morris and maybe even a wild card. Getting an early jump on recruiting a new head coach seems to be the rationale for the in-season terminations, but no one can hire a new coach with an interim head coach in place anyway. Owners should be watching to see if the coach has lost the locker room. Unless that's the case, they should wait until the season is over to make a decision.
Spoiler will do for now
The Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks won their respective divisions last year and had high hopes for 2011. Things didn't work out the way they planned, but now they can play the spoiler role if they're up to it.
The Eagles play host to the Jets, who have never beaten the Eagles and must win this week to hold onto the last AFC wild-card spot. Mark Sanchez has improved the past few weeks and already has the most touchdown passes in his career (21) with three games to play. The Eagles have a very good pass rush with 42 sacks and will get after Sanchez. For the Eagles, Michael Vick has to play better late in games. Vick has one touchdown pass in the fourth quarter all year. He also has to run more. Last year, Vick had nine rushing touchdowns; this year he has none. No Jim Leonhard for the Jets, which means the pressure calls by Rex Ryan will not be as effective.
Seattle has become a dangerous team, winning four of its last five behind solid defense and the great running of Marshawn Lynch. The Bears can stop the Seattle run game, especially with three backups on the Seattle offensive line, meaning this game could come down to Seattle QB Tarvaris Jackson. The Bears offense disappeared when Jay Cutler and Matt Forte went down with injuries, averaging just 11 points a game in the past three weeks. I would not be surprised if the Eagles and Seahawks spoil the playoff hopes of the Jets and Bears.
The loser's in trouble
Detroit is currently sitting in the No. 6 spot and would be in the playoffs if they started today. The Raiders are sitting in the No. 9 spot but are hoping for a Broncos loss to the Patriots and a win over the Lions. Detroit and Oakland have waited years to return to the playoffs and one of them is going to push the other out of the picture on Sunday. Matt Stafford's play at QB is hiding a beat-up Lions run game; in the last four weeks he has thrown for 1,246 yards and nine touchdowns. No team has thrown for 300 yards on the Raiders in the last eight games, and they have 37 sacks. Raiders QB Carson Palmer has thrown 11 interceptions in his four losses under center. Ndamukong Suh is back off his two-week suspension and will be a terror on the inside for the Lions defensive line. Also of note: These are two of the most penalized teams in the NFL with 235 penalties between them. Which team finally shows the discipline to win a big game?
This weekend features three divisional rematches, and all three teams that won the first time are now on the road in an attempt to sweep the series. The Redskins beat the Giants on opening day, 28-14, but limp into New York having lost eight of their last nine. The Dolphins stuck it to the Buffalo Bills, 35-8, earlier this year and the Bills haven't won a game since then. The Dolphins lost left tackle Jake Long last week and immediately their QB was under siege, taking nine sacks. Finally, the Colts get a home game against the Titans, who beat them 27-10 earlier, in their continuing effort to avoid an 0-16 season. Mark my words -- two of these rematch games are going to the team that lost the first time.
Two big races continue
Individual records are secondary in the ultimate team sport. Nonetheless, four quarterbacks are chasing Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record, and three pass rushers are chasing Michael Strahan's single-season sack record.
The race for Marino's record is led by Drew Brees, who faces the No. 31 pass defense indoors in Minnesota. He could have his 11th 300-yard passing day of the season. Then he'd need less than 200 yards a game in the final two weeks. Brady needs to average 271 yards a game to beat Marino, and he faces the No. 29 pass defense in Denver. I expect a 300-yard day for him as well. Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning need at least 325-yard days this week to stay in the race and they may just get it done.
As for the sack race, Jared Allen got to the QB 3.5 times last week to reach 17.5 sacks and take the lead over DeMarcus Ware and Jason Babin, both at 15. Allen faces Brees at home and he should see 35-40 pass plays. Ware gets after Josh Freeman and Babin faces Mark Sanchez. I think all three men get at least one sack, but can they close in on Strahan's 22.5?