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NFL Week 15 game picks: Panthers fall; Steelers top Broncos

Teeth-grinding time in the NFL. Wear your retainer.

We are heading into the final three-game stretch of the season, with teams fighting for playoff positioning and the fringe squads hoping to go on a miracle run ... and maybe get a little help along the way. The biggest matchups in terms of postseason relevance would have to be Broncos at Steelers, Chiefs at Ravens and Jets at Cowboys in the AFC. Speaking of Dallas, the NFC East has three important games to further sort out the Eagles, Giants and Redskins.

Not sure what to do with this.

Would you believe we received two votes for the St. Louis Cardinals? What are the chances?

As for the rest of the Week 15 slate, and teams that actually aren't defunct, see below. Feel free to let me know if I got it right or wrong as you see fit ... @HarrisonNFL is the place.

Now, let's get to it!

Elliot Harrison went 9-7 on his predictions for Week 14, giving him a record of 124-84 so far this season. How will he fare in Week 15? His picks are below.

Alex Smith knows his role, the defense continues to roll, Kansas City rolls over the Ravens. Now, we should warn you that Baltimore signed Ryan Mallett this week. OK, so back to the Chiefs. Look for the pass rush -- led by a refreshed Tamba Hali -- to make whoever plays at quarterback panic. Kansas City will look to surpass the 40-sack mark this weekend -- but one of the strengths of this struggling Ravens team has been pass protection (they've allowed just 20 sacks all season). Interesting, by the way, that people think of the Chiefs as a plodding offense. They might not have been prolific last Sunday, but overall they lead the NFL in points scored off quick-strike drives (those that take fewer than four plays). #KCvsBAL

Buffalo wins on the road in Washington. The Bills truly qualify as a desperate football team, and we expect the defense to show up. Last week, Rex Ryan's defense allowed the Eagles to convert 50 percent of their third downs. They will have to contain Kirk Cousins, who has been brilliant at home. In case you're wondering, Cousins has been steady on third down for the most part, tossing eight touchdowns against five interceptions. Last week, he killed the Bears on pro football's most important down, posting an exemplary 143.1 passer rating in those situations. As for Buffalo, Tyrod Taylor needs to use his mobility again, especially if he doesn't go through all of his reads. And instead of meekly running to his locker, sans handshakes, maybe LeSean McCoy can humbly run for 125 yards. That would be nice work. #BUFvsWAS

T.J. Yates delivers in Indy for a Houston team that is still better defensively than a Colts squad that has allowed 96 points the last two weeks. Sure, one of those scores came on a defensive touchdown off a Matt Hasselbeck turnover, and two came on punt returns -- but what about the other 76 points? In a matchup of backup quarterbacks, Yates is not necessarily the weak link. He completed a couple of big throws against the Jets in Week 11, the last time anyone was able to beat New York. Oh, and the week before that, Yates delivered a win with a huge red-zone pass to DeAndre Hopkins after being thrust into the lineup against the Bengals in Cincinnati. #HOUvsIND

Perhaps you ascertained from the final score that I don't see this as a trap game for New England. With a healthy Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, this Patriots offense can fire on almost cylinders. The team placed LeGarrette Blount on IR, meaning James White and Brandon Bolden must be load bearers. The latter should get plenty of carries. White, meanwhile, has had his Dion Lewis-esque moments in the passing game. While the Titans' defense was competitive earlier in the season, the unit has been ripped the last three weeks, allowing Derek Carr, Blake Bortles and Ryan Fitzpatrick to post passer ratings of 117.2, 134.5 and 108.9, respectively. Over the last seven games, opposing QBs have a combined passer rating of 114.5 against Tennessee. Now enter Tom Brady. #TENvsNE

The New York Football Giants win a very big game. It's obviously never easy picking against an undefeated team. The 13-0 Panthers have been the best squad in the NFL. The question is whether they can keep it up for the entire season. After playing several close games early on, Carolina has been blowing teams out as of late, winning their last five games with an average margin of victory of 21 points -- but that's not happening here. Though the precise way to go after the Giants is through the air, the strength of the Panthers' offense is not the passing attack. On the other hand, Odell Beckham -- New York's best player, at least outside of Eli Manning -- faces a premier corner in Josh Norman. Who gets the best of that battle might determine the outcome of this game.

The Giants have very quietly been running the rock, to the tune of 56 rushing attempts over the last two games. That opens up the field for Manning, who will most assuredly be looking at Reuben Randle and Dwayne Harris Sunday. Boy was Manning hot on Monday. With Bene' Benwikere out for the year, the Panthers' safety duo must play cohesively. Offensively, look for Carolina tight end Greg Olsen to be effective. Can't wait to watch this contest. #CARvsNYG

Minnesota puts a tight hold on the NFC's sixth seed while staying relevant in the NFC North. The defense should be enough against an up-and-down Bears offense, especially after getting some key defensive players back. Last time these two teams met, Stefon Diggs took advantage of single coverage to score a tying touchdown and set up a Vikings win. The Bears, on the other hand, failed to answer when Jeremy Langford dropped a key pass on the final Chicago possession. Minnesota can't hope for a repeat of the latter, but getting Diggs involved again makes a whole lot of sense. Diggs has posted a mere 65 receiving yards over the last three weeks. He hasn't had a 100-yard game since Week 7 and no touchdowns since that Week 8 score in Chicago. #CHIvsMIN

Jacksonville's offense is hot right now. It can't afford a letdown after putting up a 50-burger on the Colts. The Jaguars are in the thick of the AFC South race despite their less-than-sterling 5-8 record, following the Texans' loss last week. Meanwhile, the Falcons are the coldest team in pro football, particularly on offense, where they simply can't put any points on the board. Last week, they were shut out, but even in the previous six games, they struggled to get into the end zone. Far and away the biggest issue for Atlanta has been giveaways, of which the team has a whopping 26. You do not want to give the Jacksonville offense any short fields to work with, as Blake Bortles has made teams pay by way of Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns all season. Those two have combined for 20 touchdown receptions, with each averaging more than 16 yards per catch. #ATLvsJAX

Gorgeous uni matchup right here. Green Bay whites win the day over the classic Raiders black. This matchup harkens back to Super Bowl II, when these teams wore the same duds. More importantly (though uni talk is always relevant), it was the last game of the Vince Lombardi Packers. Green Bay took home its second Super Bowl title, while people were really doubting the AFL's viability. Oakland head coach John Rauch would last one more year, until Al Davis hired a 33-year-old John Madden to lead the team in 1969. The Silver and Black, and the NFL, would never be the same. Tell you what: Derek Carr and this year's Raiders -- who finished the first half of last week's win with -12 yards -- can ill-afford another sloooooow offensive start against Aaron Rodgers, especially with Mike McCarthy calling the plays. #thisain'tBrockLobster #orBrockofages #I'llstop #GBvsOAK

So, uh, Seattle wins ... big. It was wonderful to see Johnny Manziel out on the Browns' pitch, wheelin' and dealin', throwing passes late over the middle, getting acquainted with the Microsoft Surface, winning a football game. Enjoy the one-game win streak. The Seahawks' defense has turned it on over the last couple of weeks after getting embarrassed by the Steelers' passing attack (which has happened to plenty of teams). Most impressive is the 59 rushing yards combined that front seven allowed against the Vikes and Ravens. Not sure Isaiah Crowell is threatening Adrian Peterson's single-game rushing mark this week -- or threatening to crack 80 yards, for that matter. #CLEvsSEA

AJ to A.J. -- that's what we're looking for this weekend. It sounds better than A.J. Feeley to FredEx, I can tell you that. Can AJ McCarron run all the plays in Bengals coordinator Hue Jackson's offense? That is the question. We saw good and bad from the second-year pro when pressed into service after Cincinnati lost Andy Dalton last week. The smart thing to do here would be to pound Jeremy Hill, with plenty of Gio Bernard mixed in ... screen game, delayed draws, anything to keep McCarron from having to complete third-and-a-mile. By the way, Bernard is still averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Hill? 3.6. Granted, Hill gets the rock in more obvious running situations, but the contrast is stark. Looks like Blaine Gabbert isn't Tony Stark after all, as he not only couldn't get the 49er offense to take off last Sunday, but he couldn't get it to work, period. San Francisco posted 221 yards total, most of which came in garbage time. When it mattered, they were shut down by the Browns' defense time and again. That was the the Browns. #CINvsSF

There have been several classic football games between these franchises over the decades. The most recent meeting between these teams doesn't qualify. The ugliest contest of the Mike McCoy era to date -- and there have been plenty of stinkers this season -- came in Week 9 last year, a 37-zip drubbing at the hands of these Dolphins. The Chargers couldn't do jack offensively -- just like last week, when the Bolts managed to score all of three points at Arrowhead. Miami players had to be frustrated with all of the mistakes and abuse suffered at their own hands in the loss to the Giants on Monday night, which is a big reason they should rebound this week. Olivier Vernon will present an issue for the San Diego offensive line, and I would expect Dan Campbell to not let his offensive coordinator stray from Lamar Miller again. #MIAvsSD

The Steelers have an opportunity in front of them, as AFC North-leading Cincinnati will be without injured quarterback Andy Dalton. I don't see Pittsburgh screwing it up. The task for Ben Roethlisberger will be to take what the Broncos give him; he shouldn't force any throws on the Denver corners, and he should get Antonio Brown involved in the short passing game early and often. Brown is the consummate catch-and-run receiver -- and that will be the way to attack this stout secondary. Yes, the Broncos have the NFL's best passing defense, but consider that 51.3 percent of the passing yards Denver has allowed have been of the YAC variety -- the sixth highest percentage in the league. As for how you beat Mike Tomlin's team, well, you do it by attacking the secondary. Will Brock Osweiler -- who was sacked five times by Khalil Mack last week -- get the necessary time to do that? Pittsburgh has 38 sacks, fifth in the league. #DENvsPIT

Arizona wins its eighth in a row en route to clinching the NFC West. This Cardinals squad is the best group in franchise history, at least in terms of a sustained run, since the 1974-76 Don Coryell team. On the topic of history, I watched Cowboys at Eagles from 1991 while writing this column. (Who doesn't miss games at the Vet, home of the worst shag carpet in pro sports history? ... Every guy that had to play on it.) Any Philly fans who feel they have had enough of Sam Bradford this season, consider this: Jeff Kemp was the Eagles' starter that day. If this 2015 team could play even close to the standard of the '91 Eagles -- the top defense in franchise history -- there would be no stopping Philadelphia from winning a garbage division. Whoever plays best on that side of the ball should be the lone representative from the NFC East in January. Tall test this week versus the NFL's top-ranked offense. Nerd alert: This is a rematch of the 1947 and '48 NFL title games. They split. #AZvsPHI

Drew Brees engineers a late drive to avoid overtime in New Orleans' sixth win of the season. The Lions? They put up a better showing than they did in St. Louis, but ultimately this team falls to 4-10 in what amounts to a disappointing season on multiple fronts. That said, we should see life from the Detroit offense ... the only problem the Saints' defense has caused opponents is exhausting their repertoires of touchdown celebrations. Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson should enjoy a prolific day -- even if they don't stats-wise, Brandon Browner will spot them a couple of penalties. So that's nice. Detroit struggled against the run last week. Anticipate Tim Hightower and Co. getting 25 to 30 rush attempts to allow Brees the spacing on the back end to capitalize. #DETvsNO


I like Tampa Bay in this contest, though it's matchups like this one that have been so difficult to prognosticate in 2015. The Bucs and the Rams are technically still alive in the NFC wild-card race, but it appears it will take at least nine wins to earn a spot, meaning the Bucs would have to win out, while St. Louis would need a lot of help. The key for Tampa Bay will be stopping Todd Gurley, but where the Bucs really had problems versus the Saints in last week's loss was in the passing game. Can Nick Foles make Tampa Bay pay for miscommunication in the secondary? Doubtful. Doug Martin, who quietly had a fantastic day against New Orleans (7.4 yards per carry, one touchdown) despite limited touches, should maintain a larger workload on Thursday. The Bucs need to ride him. #TBvsSTL

New York is inching toward locking up a wild-card spot in the AFC. A win at JerryWorld would put the Jets, who are currently in line for the sixth seed, at 9-5, which would keep them even with the Chiefs and Steelers if everyone wins. Given that Pittsburgh is facing a tough matchup with the Broncos, a Cowboys team led by Matt Cassel must look to New York like a Christmas stocking full of peanut butter cups. White Cassel's red-zone interception at Lambeau last week was like a Christmas stocking full of bricks for Dallas. He must live to play another down and let the Cowboys' best player -- kicker Dan Bailey -- kick. Jets- Cowboys is an interesting matchup that doesn't come around too often. There was the Darrelle Revis game at MetLife in 2011 and the Kellen Clemens massacre on Turkey Day 2007. Boomer Esiason's Jets fell to the defending champs in '93, two weeks before Emmitt Smith's "shoulder" game against the Giants at the same venue. There was also a "scab" matchup in '87. And don't forget about one of the first games ever at Texas Stadium, featuring Joe Namath and Roger Staubach in '71. #history #NYJvsDAL

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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