NFL Week 15 game picks: Patriots > Steelers; Packers are back!

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Playoffs, playoffs, playoffs.

That's the logline of Week 15. Every game on the slate has playoff implications, save for Broncos at Colts, which carries serious draft weight. The other 15 matchups will influence postseason schematics, from major heavyweight bouts (Patriots at Steelers) to the, well, less relevant (Cardinals at Redskins). While it would take some combination of warp drive and the return of the Borg for the Cards to find their way into the playoffs, they can still technically transport their way to a sixth seed. Then there are all the important games in between, from the return of Aaron Rodgers in Carolina to keep the Packers in the mix, to the return of Nick Foles as a starting quarterback for the Eagles in New Jersey. Fun matchups, too, like Cowboys at Raiders, which we don't see often.

Besides the fact that Dallas and Oakland are still alive in the postseason race, their respective histories make this a faceoff of iconic brands. The ironic side of that is, despite all of the shared success, the Cowboys and Raiders have never shared a Super Bowl field. What really makes that (black) hole in league history fascinating is that each team was in its league/conference championship game in 1967, 1970, 1973, 1975, 1977 and 1980 -- and yet, not once did both franchises advance. That last season, Al Davis' Raiders won it all, but Dallas had taken them down in December.

You can read more below about Raiders-Cowboys regular-season history below, as well as how the teams' Sunday affair might play out. You'll also see who else will improve their January prospects this weekend. Your predictions are welcome right now: @HarrisonNFL is the place.

Now, let's get to it!

Elliot Harrison went 10-6 on his predictions for Week 14, giving him a record of 130-78 thus far this season. How will he fare in Week 15? His picks are below:

Lions
26
Pick
Bears
23
Saturday, Dec. 16 @ 4:30 PM ET
Matthew Stafford saves the Lions' playoff lives with a last-minute drive to win the game. Golden Tate crosses the plane before his knee hits the ground this time. Speaking of, how important could Tate's he-won-the-game-but-he-didn't play be in determining the sixth seed in the NFC, given that the Falcons -- whom the Lions lost to because of that fateful call -- currently hold that slot at 8-5, while 7-6 Detroit is on the outside looking in? The Bears have slowly put more on Mitchell Trubisky's plate. It would be nice if Ziggy Ansah could become a factor before the end of the fourth quarter, because methinks Chicago will not be afraid to let Trubisky attack this Lions secondary. Stafford, meanwhile, is enjoying his best season, at least in terms of passer rating (97.9) That's a solid number, but in this era of bloated passing stats, it does raise an eyebrow that Stafford -- whose career mark is 87.9 -- has never hit 100.

Chargers
27
Pick
Chiefs
24
Saturday, Dec. 16 @ 8:30 PM ET
Going with the road team. The Chargers are miles better defensively than the Chiefs right now. That said, Kansas City corner Marcus Peters should be quite motivated after being told to sit down last week -- Andy Reid himself said Peters is "ready to roll." The key for the Chiefs will be getting -- and keeping -- Kareem Hunt involved to slow down the Bolts' pass rush. Hunt posted his first 100-yard rushing game in nearly two months last week. For the Chiefs to win, they must pressure Philip Rivers into a few mistakes. On that front, the veteran quarterback is enjoying his best season, with a 23:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. His previous high-water mark was 28:9 in 2009, when the Bolts went 13-3.

Jaguars
28
Pick
Texans
10
Sunday, Dec. 17 @ 1 PM ET
How much hay can T.J. Yates make on the Jaguars' secondary? Russell Wilson made a few vertical throws on Jacksonville's back four last Sunday, including one play when Tyler Lockett busted the coverage on his way to a key late-fourth-quarter score. While Yates has performed admirably in a pinch for this franchise before, this is a very difficult road test for a backup quarterback. The defense he's facing paces the league in points allowed, takeaways and sacks. If the Jaguars keep it up, they will become the first team since the AFL-NFL merger to pull off that defensive triple crown. #Swaguars

Ravens
16
Pick
Browns
13
Sunday, Dec. 17 @ 1 PM ET
In what is sure to be a knuckleball of a game, the Ravens look to keep their playoff aspirations airborne. With an AFC North title out the window, Baltimore will lean on its defense in Cleveland. The overlooked Browns' defense, meanwhile, could stifle Joe Flacco repeatedly. It really depends on how Cleveland's front seven fares against Alex Collins, who rang up stout numbers (166 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown) for the Ravens last Sunday. Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' unit is sixth in the league in rushing yards allowed and No. 1 in yards per rush allowed. This could be win No. 1 for Cleveland. If not, Baltimore might win out. The Ravens' remaining opponents (including Cleveland) have a combined record of 8-31.

Packers
30
Pick
Panthers
24
Sunday, Dec. 17 @ 1 PM ET
What a difficult game to pick. I trust the newly healthy Aaron Rodgers more than the Carolina defense at this point. Even Panthers fans will tell you that group has been up and down from week to week and even quarter to quarter -- though Carolina still ranks 10th in points allowed for the season. Unfortunately, forcing takeaways has been problematic, as the Panthers sit down at 25th in that area. If Cam Newton runs for 80 yards, and thus makes the Packers' defense so mindful of him carrying the ball that Jonathan Stewart sees more lanes, Carolina can easily win. Another interesting note from @RealJackAndrade, on the rise of Jamaal Williams: Since Week 10, the Packers rookie ranks third in the NFL in carries (95) and sixth in rushing yards (352) and is tied for third in scrimmage touchdowns (five) and second in rushing first downs (19).

Bills
19
Pick
Dolphins
14
Sunday, Dec. 17 @ 1 PM ET
Call it troublesome -- or tiresome -- to put faith in either of these AFC East foes. The Dolphins are coming off their strongest showing of the season. If Jay Cutler regresses, it will be interesting to see whether running back Kenyan Drake can carry a heavy load for Miami again. The Bills are mired in the longest playoff drought in pro sports, but they still carry decent prospects of playing in January. Here's what Buffalo would like: the Chargers winning at Arrowhead; the Cowboys taking down the Raiders; the struggling Titans tripping up against the 49ers. All three outcomes are possible, if not probable. Next week in New England might be problematic, though.

Fun fact: LeSean McCoy is just 39 rushing yards shy of 10,000 for his career. I don't think most people realize he's that high up the rushing charts.

Vikings
30
Pick
Bengals
14
Sunday, Dec. 17 @ 1 PM ET
It would be so Bengals-y for them to go into Minnesota and win, then lose the rest of their games. Not seeing it. Running will be a problem against this Vikings front, for the following reasons:

A) The Vikings are surely pissed off about their performance in Carolina last week.
B) Andy Dalton is not the running threat that Cam Newton is. Thus, the Vikes can dedicate the numbers and attention to the tailback, be it Joe Mixon or Giovani Bernard.

A.J. Green will get a score, though. He's a beast, even for the likes of Minnesota corner Xavier Rhodes, to handle. Still, the bottom line is, Cincinnati will be facing an incentivized Vikings defense that has been especially stout on third down -- Minnesota is the first D to post a third-down conversion rate of sub-40 percent in each of its first 13-plus games since 1991.

Redskins
28
Pick
Cardinals
23
Sunday, Dec. 17 @ 1 PM ET
While I'm impressed with the manner in which the Cardinals have competed minus their nucleus, the Redskins will get back in the win column this week. Kirk Cousins, surprisingly, still has something to prove as he heads into an offseason full of questions. Last week's loss on the West Coast turned all the attention from the challenge of trying to salvage a winning season to the question of what's next. Arizona has almost zero hope for the postseason, despite being mathematically viable. I expect Bruce Arians to say, To hell with evaluating young players, and try to win out. Put another way: This might be the sneaky game of the week.

One final thought on Cousins: It should be noted that he's dealt with injuries on his offensive line, in the backfield and at tight end. Yet, when you look at his ability to create impactful plays juxtaposed with those that are negative, he's been pretty average. Cousins ranks 14th in net-positive-play percentage (the percent of qualifying snaps in which a quarterback produces scores and first downs, minus total turnovers). To give you an idea, Blake Bortles and Jameis Winston remain ahead of Cousins on this chart.

Eagles
26
Pick
Giants
10
Sunday, Dec. 17 @ 1 PM ET
Maybe Nick Foles won't light it up for the Eagles a la Norm Van Brocklin in 1960. I can also tell you that the Sam Huff-led Giants Van Brocklin faced were a totally different animal ... er, giant ... whatever ... than the current New York group. (What is a "giant" anyway? An ogre? Andre the Giant? Jared Lorenzen?) The real question mark in this NFC East contest is not Foles; rather, it's the quarterback on the other sideline. Eli Manning can play better, but multiple drops and little drips from the running game don't provide him much to work with, so the Eagles' defense wins this deal. It's not like that side of the ball hasn't held up its end of the bargain, as the Eagles are tied for fifth in points allowed and third in takeaways and rank fourth in yards allowed. Most importantly, Philly retains home-field advantage.

Saints
37
Pick
Jets
14
Sunday, Dec. 17 @ 1 PM ET
With Josh McCown out, this interconference deal could get real difficult for the Jets in the Big Easy this week. (See what I did there? You're welcome.) The onus will be on Gang Green's defense to force turnovers from Drew Brees. In order to do that, the Jets must bottle up Mark Ingram. Rookie Alvin Kamara -- who is on track to play after leaving last Thursday's game with a concussion -- is also a force, reflected in his robust 7.0 yards per carry. Then there is this note from @RealJackAndrade: Kamara is on pace to be the first running back to lead the NFL in yards per carry by over a full yard since Barry Sanders in 1994.

Rams
26
Pick
Seahawks
24
Sunday, Dec. 17 @ 4:05 PM ET
It's like the Rams have been living in a video game this season, as Los Angeles is averaging a plump 30.5 points per game. Can the Seahawks hold the Rams under 30? If the pass rush gets home, you bet. Both of Jared Goff's offensive tackles were banged-up in last week's draining affair with the Eagles. Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein are expected to go in Seattle -- and they had better. Going the other way, the Seahawks' offensive line has been such a turnstile that turnstiles are offended. If there was ever a game that Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald could win for their team, this is definitely it. Russell Wilson could be running all over the yard again. Quinn has yet to break out in Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' scheme. Now would be the time, as they say.

Fun fact: Goff and Wilson are a combined 7-0 after losses this season.

49ers
26
Pick
Titans
20
Sunday, Dec. 17 @ 4:25 PM ET
The 49ers win again with Jimmy Garoppolo under center, although the newly minted starting quarterback is not the sole reason the Niners are tasting success. The defense has played viably for a month. Over the last three games, the front seven has bottled up the run, allowing a miniscule 80.7 yards per game. That includes shutting down Jordan Howard and Lamar Miller. Thus, Marcus Mariota might have to throw for 300 yards without turning the ball over. He hasn't managed that level of productivity, minus turnovers, all season. Mariota's 10:14 TD-to-INT ratio is the worst among quarterbacks starting 10-plus games with a winning record since Mark Sanchez in 2009, his rookie year (12 touchdowns, 20 interceptions). This is the point where any other writer would type but no butt-fumbles for Mariota! Think I'm all butt-fumbled out.

Patriots
30
Pick
Steelers
24
Sunday, Dec. 17 @ 4:25 PM ET
Obviously, this is the second-best game of the weekend, one that everyone has circled on their calendar, right after Texans at Jags. So, we know the Patriots will have Rob Gronkowski, who is on everyone's $#$# list after the late, late hit he laid in the Bills game. If Tom Brady has time (he was made uncomfortable repeatedly in Miami), he should capitalize on the available windows in the Steelers' secondary that Joe Flacco couldn't, or didn't, take advantage of. That means Ben Roethlisberger will have to keep pace. Remember, though, that Pittsburgh couldn't feature Le'Veon Bell in last January's AFC Championship Game due to injury. Perhaps, with the Steelers looking to keep Brady off the field, Sunday's affair will develop into one of those Lev Bell 35-touch games.

Cowboys
28
Pick
Raiders
22
Sunday, Dec. 17 @ 8:30 PM ET
The Cowboys meet the Raiders in a classic matchup that features far more preseason history than regular-season history. That's because these two franchises have been playing in August for years. They used to scrimmage in the old days, too. Their first ever matchup that counted came in 1974 on Monday night. Oakland won behind MVP Ken Stabler's two touchdown passes and another from 47-year-old George Blanda. In 1980, Dallas upended the Raiders at their place. That Oakland team wouldn't lose another game all season, including the Super Bowl. In 1983, the 7-0 Cowboys hosted the Raiders at Texas Stadium, losing a wild game 40-38. Al Davis' team would win it all that year, as well. This year's outfit isn't going to the Super Bowl. Before we leave this blurb, remember that this Dallas team is heading into Oakland with a healthy Sean Lee. The Cowboys give up 16.9 points per game with him, 29.3 without him. That's incredible.

Falcons
25
Pick
Buccaneers
17
Monday, Dec. 18 @ 8:30 PM ET
The Falcons know what's in front of them, and come into this NFC South fracas on 10 days' rest. The concern for Dan Quinn's squad will be a potential letdown after the draining win over the Saints. Without that performance, the Falcons would have no chance at taking the division -- and would've allowed the NFC field to catch them in the wild-card race. They can ill-afford to look past the Bucs, which is precisely what happened Quinn's rookie year. Matt Ryan must also pick up his play. He's thrown two touchdown passes against three interceptions on the season when targeting Julio Jones. You've heard me discuss N3P before, which reveals the net percentage of big plays a quarterback produces when not handing off (SEE: the Cardinals- Redskins blurb above). Ryan's 35.9 figure this season is solid. It also happens to be slightly behind Jameis Winston's 36.1.

THURSDAY NIGHT'S GAME

Colts
23
Pick
Broncos
17
Thursday, Dec. 14 @ 8:25 PM ET
With the Broncos and Colts eyeing next year, this is almost certainly a game that'll only draw serious interest from fans of these teams. In fact, if said fans are being honest, some probably wouldn't mind if their team lost. Both organizations are potentially lining up for a top-five pick in 2018, and whichever team falls on Thursday night will have a more advantageous draft slot. When you get in that rarefied air, two spots apart in the top five or so translates to a lot of coin ... er, draft capital. Speaking of rarefied air, this game isn't in Denver. So, can Jacoby Brissett rebound in the friendly confines of Lucas Oil Stadium after a tough outing in a foot of powder?

Surprising note: The Broncos are ranked first in defense, yielding 280.5 yards per game allowed. The NFL doesn't go by points allowed. Odd, right?

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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