I can't remember an NFL weekend that featured as many intriguing games with playoff implications as Week 15.
Six games in particular just jump off the schedule. I studied all of the individual matchups in those contests and identified the one-on-one battles that could determine the outcome of each game.
Here are my six key matchups to follow for Week 15:
Peyton Manning vs. Ed Reed
It doesn't get any better than two future Hall of Fame players squaring off in a potential playoff preview. Manning and Reed are two veterans who continue to play at a very high level; Manning has the most touchdown passes of all active players, while Reed has more interceptions than any current defender.
Manning and Reed have faced one another on several occasions, including in a few playoff matchups. Manning is a master at manipulating safeties with his eyes, but he will have a tough time fooling the instinctive Reed on Sunday afternoon.
Edge: Manning. I expect Manning to be safe with the football and avoid forcing passes into the middle of the field.
Andrew Luck vs. J.J. Watt
It's very rare that a quarterback and a defensive lineman engage in an individual matchup, but that is what I expect will take place in this key AFC South battle. Luck has been the driving force behind the Colts' resurgence this season. Aside from his passing yardage, Luck's numbers aren't eye-popping, but he has played his best football in high-pressure circumstances. He has excelled on key third downs and he's been outstanding in late-game situations.
Watt is the favorite to be named the defensive player of the year. He has collected 16.5 sacks, 64 tackles and 15 pass deflections. He has completely taken over games and neutralized quarterbacks with his ability to create pressure and bat down balls. He is, without question, the top interior pass rusher in the NFL.
David Wilson vs. Sean Weatherspoon
Wilson had his coming out party last Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, rushing for 100 yards on just 13 carries and producing two touchdown runs. He provided an explosive element to the Giants' rushing attack that had previously been non-existent. With Ahmad Bradshaw's status for this game in doubt, Wilson will likely be relied upon to duplicate last week's performance.
Weatherspoon is one of the top linebackers in the NFL. Despite missing some time due to injury, he has racked up 69 tackles and three sacks while leading the Falcons' defense. Among the fastest in the league at his position, Weatherspoon will be tasked with cutting Wilson off before he can turn the corner on the perimeter.
Edge: Weatherspoon. The Falcons' defense is better equipped to deal with a speed back than it is to handle a power runner. Weatherspoon should be able to limit the explosive perimeter runs from Wilson.
Bears' offensive line vs. Packers' pass rush
This game will go a long way toward deciding who wins the NFC North. The Packers won the teams' first meeting this season in large part because of their ability to rush the quarterback, racking up seven sacks in that Week 2 victory. Green Bay is currently sixth in the NFL with 35 sacks, and they should get a huge boost from Clay Matthews' return to the lineup this weekend. Despite missing the previous four contests, Matthews still leads the team with nine sacks.
The Bears have allowed 37 sacks this season but just three in their past three games. The individual talent level of Chicago's linemen is below average, but there are times where the unit plays well as a group. The Bears can alleviate some of the pressure on the offensive line by generating a solid rushing attack.
Tony Romo vs. Dick LeBeau
This game features several intriguing matchups, but the battle between the Cowboys' quarterback and the Steelers' defensive coordinator tops my list. Romo has led the Cowboys to four wins in their last five games, punctuated with last week's late comeback victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. During that five-game stretch, he tossed 10 touchdowns and just three interceptions. His ability to avoid sacks, extend plays and improvise has been instrumental in turning the Cowboys' season around.
LeBeau and his Pittsburgh defense struggled in last week's surprising loss to the San Diego Chargers. The Steelers allowed Philip Rivers to toss three touchdown passes, while the Chargers converted 12 of 22 third-down opportunities. Despite that poor performance, the Steelers' defense is still ranked No. 1 in total yards allowed and passing yards allowed. LeBeau is a master at designing unique blitz looks, and he will certainly throw the kitchen sink at the Cowboys' quarterback this week.
Patrick Willis vs. Tom Brady
I can't wait for this game and this individual matchup. Willis and Brady are, arguably, the top linebacker and quarterback, respectively, in the entire NFL, and they are both the emotional leaders of their squads. Brady leads the NFL's top scoring offense, while Willis leads the NFL's top scoring defense. This game is a potential Super Bowl preview.
Willis will be the key defender for the 49ers. Brady loves to change up his tempo; Willis will need to keep his troops mentally locked in for four quarters. Brady also loves to manipulate linebackers with his eyes, opening up windows for his talented tight end, Aaron Hernandez. The chess match between Willis and Brady will be a fascinating one to follow Sunday night.
Edge: Willis. Brady has been on fire, but I don't see his unit producing as usual against Willis and Co. The San Francisco offense is the wild-card element in this game; I think Willis will keep the score within reach for his offensive mates.