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Week 15 Lookahead: Playoff picture hazy in final weeks

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It took no more than 10 minutes last Sunday afternoon for the NFL playoff picture to make a dramatic turn. In that span, Andy Dalton dove to make a tackle, Thomas Rawls took a handoff and two of the most dangerous teams in the NFL took hits that could alter their seasons. A few hours later came a blow that might have just as lasting an impact, when the Denver Broncos lost at home to the Oakland Raiders.

And just like that, the postseason forecast was thrown into tumult with three weeks to go in the regular season. The fractured thumb on Dalton's throwing hand did not just contribute to the Bengals' loss to the Steelers. It cost them, for now, the No. 1 seed in the AFC and, incredibly, could imperil their chance to win the AFC North. Rawls' broken ankle puts even more of the onus on Russell Wilson to provide Seattle's offense, which had been so effective in the last month that they are the team nobody in the NFC will want to face in the playoffs. And the Broncos' loss, and the growing somnolence of their offense, has not merely weakened their hold on the AFC West and helped open the door to the New England Patriots having homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. It also created the very real and awkward possibility that Gary Kubiak will have a quarterback controversy to manage just as his team enters the stretch run.

So goes another week in this odd NFL season, where the headline-making, game-altering storylines have often been about failures. Failure to kick extra points (the longer extra point has dropped the conversion rate from more than 99 percent to just 94 percent). Failure to avoid penalties (through Week 14, there were 2,981 accepted penalties, the third most at this point since 1970). And, most importantly, the failure to keep the starting quarterback in one piece (16 teams have had to start backup quarterbacks because of injury, and five teams have started three different quarterbacks). When the Bengals start AJ McCarron against the San Francisco 49ers this Sunday, they will become the 17th team -- more than half the league -- to start a backup quarterback because of injury. And in Cincinnati's case, it happened to be a quarterback who was having an MVP-caliber season.

"There are a bunch of people," Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said of all the teams working with backup quarterbacks. "We're not the only ones pregnant right now. I feel very fortunate that we've got Matt Hasselbeck. Need to keep him healthy. Need to keep him upright. Got to protect him, do a better job of that. It wasn't just a couple weeks ago. I think it was big bold letters, '4-0 at 40' or '40 and 4-0,' whatever it was, so he's won games. He can play at a winning level, and he will play again at a winning level. Just a little banged up right now."

Hasselbeck is 4-2 in place of Andrew Luck, giving him the most wins by a backup this season. Hasselbeck has kept the Colts in the race, but Pagano admitted the Colts will also be readying Charlie Whitehurst in case Hasselbeck cannot play against T.J. Yates. Entering Week 15, backup quarterbacks had gone 15-26, with just four of the backups accounting for 11 of those victories. But as much as the battering might have caused a decline in the level of play for many teams, it has also created close games and tight playoff races. Through Week 14, 108 of 208 games had been decided by seven points or fewer. That's the most through 14 weeks in NFL history. Two divisions -- the AFC South and the NFC East -- are deadlocked with three games to play. Just one game separates the Packers and Vikings in the NFC North. And two divisions that appeared to be all but decided -- the AFC North and the AFC West -- are back in play, separated by just two games, because of the losses by the Bengals and Broncos last Sunday.

Even the NFC West, where the Cardinals have a three-game lead over the Seahawks and have already clinched a playoff spot, is not entirely settled because the Cardinals have a much more difficult closing schedule (at Philadelphia, then home against Green Bay and Seattle) than the Seahawks (home against Cleveland and St. Louis, and finishing at Arizona). Seattle coach Pete Carroll, though, must grapple with what to do at running back with Rawls lost for the season and Marshawn Lynch not yet ready to return from his own injury.

"We're going to figure that out," Carroll said. "You guys will find out on game day, and we will, too."

Just two divisions have been clinched -- the AFC East and the NFC South -- and it's possible that as the season enters its final weeks, only the Panthers' Ron Rivera will have to wrestle with whether to rest players before the playoffs begin.

Rivera has not yet publicly committed to how he will manage the Panthers if they remain undefeated into the final weeks. But this week, Rivera, whose Panthers play the Giants, reflected on how much the Giants' dire straits -- a losing record, clinging to hopes of making the playoffs -- are similar to the ones the Panthers traversed last year.

"This is the fortunes of the game. He's got a young football team, he's had to endure a lot of injuries, and a lot of the things that the Giants are going through mirrored us last year," Rivera said of the Giants and coach Tom Coughlin. "It's the same thing with the Colts. What the Colts are going through mirrored us last year with the injuries, with the quarterback injuries. I think people have to really take a step back and take a deep breath. This is a cycle, it goes up and down. Shoot, about every three or four years, Coach Coughlin wins a Super Bowl. Well, that's pretty good. The hot seat thing kind of bothers me because it's unfair because some people don't look at the whole picture, or look at everything that coaches go through. If I had gotten let go last year in the middle of the year because I was on the hot seat, we may have never gotten where we are today. I just think sometimes people have to take a deep breath, think about the big picture, and then make decisions."

And this year, the big picture changed in just one day.

Three more things to watch around the NFL in Week 15:

1) There's a lot on the line in Pittsburgh. In the only game of the weekend that features two teams with winning records, the Broncos and Steelers will also present a classic matchup: the most productive offense on a yards-per-play basis (the Steelers, at 6.4 yards per play) against the most productive defense (the Broncos, allowing just 4.3 yards per play). The Steelers are trying to get into a playoff spot -- currently on the outside looking in -- but the Broncos face a significant question for their big-picture playoff hopes: The offense has stalled, scoring just one touchdown in the last two games. Peyton Manning has begun to practice and if Brock Osweiler cannot get the offense back on track against the Steelers, coach Gary Kubiak could face a vexing decision about who his starter is heading into January.

2) Maybe you imagined the AFC South title coming down to a game between the Texans and Colts. You did not imagine it like this. It appears possible that this game will pit the Texans' T.J. Yates against ... well, we don't know who the Colts quarterback will be. It won't be Andrew Luck, but Matt Hasselbeck is also banged up and Chuck Pagano said while he expects Hasselbeck to play, he'll have Charlie Whitehurst ready to go. Neither offense is averaging even 5 yards per play, ranking the Texans last and the Colts 30th in the league. Keys to the game: Can the problematic Colts' offensive line protect whoever is under center from J.J. Watt, who has not recorded a sack and has just one quarterback hit in two straight games? And can the problematic Colts' defense, which has given up 96 points in the last two games, stop whatever semblance of an offense the Texans put together?

3) The Giants are trying to keep their playoff hopes alive. The Panthers are trying to keep a perfect season going and the premier matchup that could determine who gets their wish is receiver Odell Beckham Jr. -- arguably the only real offensive weapon the Giants have -- versus cornerback Josh Norman, arguably the best at his position in the league. Beckham has had six straight 100-yard receiving games, but Norman has been matched up on five top receivers this season, with startling success. When facing DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, T.Y. Hilton, Dez Bryant and Julio Jones, Norman allowed just nine completions (in 25 targets) for a total of 89 yards. The quarterbacks who targeted those five receivers when covered by Norman recorded a combined passer rating of 46.9 on those throws. Eli Manning was candid when he said this week that the Giants will have to be smart about how they get Beckham the ball -- and he's right. Look for them to move him around to try to keep him away from Norman.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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