The high-stakes aura is in the air.
Watching the replay of Ravens at Chiefs on NFL Network the other night, you could feel the weight of the game through the TV. It was an entertaining affair that featured a stacked defense going toe-to-toe with the most prolific sophomore QB since Dan Marino in 1984. Yet, the undercurrent of a fiercely contested AFC battle was the feel of playoff football -- this game mattered. Every blitz mattered. Every audible mattered. This is the time of year where regular-season drama morphs into playoff drama, as the postseason Rubik's Cube works itself out over Saturday and Sunday. Which leads to ...
Saturday pro football. Love it, much.
With so many games on the NFL slate carrying postseason weight, spreading the wealth makes plenty of sense. It also provides the chance to contextualize what you are seeing, as opposed to being bombarded with innumerable early games on Sunday with nary a chance to sort everything out. Thus, this week feels like being able to catch a wicked movie on the Thursday night of its debut weekend. (I saw "Terminator 2" at midnight on a Thursday in a packed house.) It's getting in a day early on Banana Republic's 50 percent off (no exclusions!) Friends & Family sale.
So, enjoy it. Enjoy the early foray into the "playoffs," with an earlier entry on Saturday. Everything matters. Everyone cares ... even about offensive line play:
Now, let's get to it!
Elliot Harrison went 10-6 on his predictions for Week 14, bringing his record for the season to 138-68-2. How will he fare in Week 15? His picks are below.
SUNDAY, DEC. 16
1 p.m. ET (FOX) | Soldier Field (Chicago)
Here's another huge game in the playoff race ... The Bears are trying to stay ahead of the Vikings -- with a Week 17 showdown between Minnesota and Chicago looming -- while eyeing an outside chance of securing a playoff bye, though either the Saints or Rams would have to stumble over these last three weeks of the season for that to happen. As for the Packers, last week's win pushed their record to 5-7-1, and the momentum needle is pointing up. It's probably going to take only eight wins to capture that last NFC wild-card spot, with Green Bay owning a tiny advantage thanks to the little "-1" they're sporting, reflecting the tie against Minnesota back in September. For you non-math majors, 8-7-1 > 8-8. No need for tiebreakers. (Well, unless it's between the Pack and Mike Zimmer's boys.)
This weekend's game sparks memories of Rodgers delivering a deep ball to Randall Cobb to best Chicago in Week 17 of the 2013 season, ushering the Pack into the postseason. Yeah, well, Matt Nagy's outfit ain't thoseBears. The 2018 Chicago defense made the Rams' tandem of Jared Goff and Sean McVay look very Sam Bradford/Jeff Fisher-ish last Sunday night. I'm not seeing any Rodgers magic this time, as the Bears front seven shuts down Aaron Jones, winning a tight classic.
1 p.m. ET (FOX) | New Era Field (Orchard Park, N.Y.)
Oh, boy. You want to write this blurb? This looks like a tough watch for anyone who's not a Lions or Bills fan -- I'm not sure even the members of those fan bases want to read the following. Detroit rode its defense to a win last week. Now that's a surprising sentence if you've followed this team through the years. Actually, though, that side of the ball has performed better than the offense overall this season. Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter is under fire in Detroit, as the Lions have limped to 20.8 points per game, 25th in the league. (Don't forget that part of their scintillating point total of 17 in Arizona was delivered by cornerback Darius Slay on a pick-six.) The Bills' defense has been a strong point for much of the year, often left on the field by an offense that is even worse than Detroit's. Sean McDermott's fellas feast off turnovers and sacks -- though unlike in 2017, Buffalo's defense hasn't manufactured enough to compensate for the sluggish offense. Think the Bills will force two to three giveaways from Matthew Stafford this week and pull to 5-9.
1 p.m. ET (FOX) | M&T Bank Stadium (Baltimore)
The Bucs' playoff hopes are hanging by a thread. The Ravens are in a far better position: tied for the lead among the wild-card bubble teams and only a half-game back of the Steelers in the AFC North standings. If Baltimore can prevent Jameis Winston from getting into a rhythm, it should be in good shape, matchup-wise, against Tampa's offense. The Bucs are 27th in rushing, but make up for it by ranking 30th in yards per carry. It's been a problem all year, solved by neither the rookie draft class nor veteran depth. With Lamar Jackson manning the helm, the Ravens' run game has been fuel-injected with that crap Doc Brown was dumping into his DeLorean. Their rushing marks the last four weeks with Jackson at QB read like passing numbers: 267, 242, 207 and 198 yards. With Tampa allowing 6.6 yards per play on first down, "Action" Jackson should be in favorable conditions all day. Like Carl Weathers. Well, maybe not Carl Weathers in "Predator."
1 p.m. ET (FOX) | Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Atlanta)
If the Cardinals are to avoid flying off into the sunset with their 11th loss of the season, they must develop some semblance of a ground game. It's awfully difficult to evaluate Josh Rosen when he's asked to convert on third-and-long all day. Arizona owns a top-five tailback in terms of ability, yet the team ranks 31st in the league in running the football. That destroyed the Cardinals' chances against the Lions last week, when the Arizona defense allowed just 10 points (Rosen provided the other seven on a pick-six). It's a lot easier for defenses -- even struggling units, like the Falcons' -- to produce pick-sixes when they know a team can't walk a yard, much less run for one. The Cardinals average 14.9 first downs per game. The rest of the league? 20.8. That's brutal.
1 p.m. ET (CBS) | Paul Brown Stadium (Cincinnati)
This is one of the games this weekend that carries no postseason juice. Frankly, it doesn't carry much in the way of draft-positioning stakes, either. That's because the Raiders, as Derek Carr said he wanted, aren't playing like a team seeking a top draft choice. Oakland has played much better of late, winning two of its last four games while giving the Chiefsall they could handle in Week 13. Carr, in particular, was excellent in the upset win over the Steelers. The Bengals' solid play at the start of the season is why they sit at 5-8 and are not candidates for a top draft pick. This is a game that they should win for pride, something Marvin Lewis' group displayed against the Chargers last week. Cincy gave Joe Mixon the kind of workload this space has been asking for, resulting in the Bengals limiting the Bolts' time of possession to just 27:22. That won't be as necessary against a Raiders offense boasting considerably fewer weapons than the Chargers' attack, but it will provide Jeff Driskel with play-action opportunities. The kid has completed 68.8 percent of his passes off play-action so far, per Pro Football Focus. Not bad.
1 p.m. ET (CBS) | MetLife Stadium (East Rutherford, N.J.)
If either team is to make hay in the postseason race, or be relevant down the stretch, this is must-win territory. Well, for the Titans it's "territory." For the Giants, this weekend's interconference game is absolutely a must-win. The good news is that Odell Beckham Jr., dealing with a quad injury that kept him out of last week's game, said as early as Monday that he was feeling better (he was limited in practice on Wednesday). The bad news is, uh, Thursday practice was a no-go. (UPDATE: Giants coach Pat Shurmur said Beckham will not play this Sunday.)Eli Manning fared just fine without his WR1 in Washington, but game situation and Saquon Barkley going Tecmo on the Redskins were significant reasons why Manning was viable. When Tennessee's defense is on, it can thwart any offense, like the Patriots' last month. That game was at home, though. Prior to last week's win over the Jaguars, Mike Vrabel's defense got clobbered against the run for three straight weeks. And these Titans have been an abomination away from home: 2-5, averaging 16.4 points per game. That's why I am going with the Giants.
1 p.m. ET (CBS) | U.S. Bank Stadium (Minneapolis)
Another game that will cause repercussions to be felt throughout the playoff field. The Dolphins sit at 7-6, hoping that the Bucs upset the Ravens in Baltimore and that the Colts struggle against a top-level Cowboys defense. Miami must play well offensively, which will be a stiff challenge against a defense that matches up with the Dolphins everywhere. On the other hand, if the Vikings, who are in a verifiable mosh pit on the playoff bubble, forget Dalvin Cook is on their team and throw every down, then Miami has a real chance. The Vikes have scored a grand total of 17 points the last two weeks, with their lone touchdown in Seattle coming in garbage time. Though they fared better last week against New England, the Fins feature the 29th-best run defense in the league. If Cook doesn't get the football this week, then Minnesota should hire Les Steckel again.
1 p.m. ET (CBS) | TIAA Bank Field (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Who knows with these Redskins. Who knows with these Jaguars. In the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Predator," this game is one ugly m-----------. The 'Skins will be starting journeyman Josh Johnson under center, thus making them a wild card, which is apropos given that they are still firmly in the wild-card race at 6-7. Well, Washington is the definition of being mathematically in the running, and only mathematically. As poorly as the Jaguars played (tackled) last week, it's easier to trust Cody Kessler in this, his third start of the season. Man, Josh Johnson vs. Cody Kessler. Could we get, like, a game of 21-on-21 and have Mark Brunell be all-time QB, since he played for both teams? It would make for a much more entertaining game. Adrian Peterson: 30 carries on Sunday.
1 p.m. ET (FOX) | Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis)
What a fascinating matchup between a couple of teams peaking at the right time. Last they played, the Colts were getting blown out in Dallas in 2014. Yet, the Cowboys visiting Indy brings back memories of 2010, when a relatively unknown linebacker named Sean Lee picked off Peyton Manning twice, Dallas benefited from a rare leverage call on a field goal and the 'Boys escaped Lucas Oil Stadium with an overtime win. That was Manning's last healthy year in Indy. The Cowboys were trotting Jon Kitna out there for an injured Tony Romo. Now it's Andrew Luck versus Dak Prescott, with the advantage going toward the former (although Prescott has shown flashes lately). Thus, the Cowboys' secondary must play at its zenith. The Dallas pass rush is formidable, but few teams have protected their QB as well as the Colts. While they've allowed six sacks in the last three games, Luck has also thrown 130 passes in those games. Every team in the league will take that ratio. This is a tight uni match, man.
4:05 p.m. ET (FOX) | Levi's Stadium (Santa Clara, Calif.)
Just like old times, Seahawks at 49ers will affect the playoff race. For one team, that is. Seattle enters the Big Blue Jean with an opportunity to sock away a wild-card spot. The most educated guess would be that eight wins will secure the NFC's sixth seed, so if the Seahawks do prevail, they will be sitting pretty at 9-5 and in firm control of their destiny. Seattle and San Francisco teed it up two weeks ago, with Pete Carroll's group clobbering the 49ers by 27 points. Nick Mullens competed till the bitter end, tallying 414 passing yards and two touchdowns, yet San Francisco could not pay off drives when it mattered. A fumble, a stalled drive and an interception ruined a handful of long marches, while the Seahawks ran the rock all day. It will be incumbent on the 49ers' front seven to stop Seattle on the ground. Kyle Shanahan's defense performed admirably against Phillip Lindsay and the Broncos last week. Let's see if the Niners can string together two strong showings.
4:25 p.m. ET (CBS) | Heinz Field (Pittsburgh)
The Jesse James revenge game. You remember last year, when James' catch vs. New England late in the fourth quarter, initially ruled a touchdown, was overturned after review in the did-he-secure-the-catch-nebula. The controversy marred what was a Patriots-Steelers contest for the ages, or at least since Y2K -- and a game that helped New England secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Now Pittsburgh is merely trying to hold on to its postseason reservation. The Steelers were thought to be a sure thing a month ago. After dropping three straight games, including two on the road to lesser opponents, they're clinging to a half-game lead in the AFC North. If they lose this home match versus Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, they could be done. New Orleans pops up next on the Steelers' schedule, with it quite possible that the Colts and Dolphins pass them in that maelstrom for the AFC's sixth seed. Taking Pittsburgh over New England, solely because the Steelers are at home and in desperation mode. They can't fall behind early, though, because after last week, Brady and the Pats' defense won't be in any mood for blowing leads.
8:20 p.m. ET (NBC) | Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (Los Angeles)
Last season's Eagles-Rams matchup played a huge role in Philadelphia's march to Super Bowl LII. Carson Wentz hurt his knee in Los Angeles, forcing Nick Foles to enter the game in the fourth quarter. Foles did his part, connecting with Nelson Agholor on a key third down to salt away the clock and ultimately earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs for the Eagles. They are hanging on by a wing this year, with Sunday's contest at the Coliseum a must-win and Wentz not expected to play with a back injury. Sean McVay's group doesn't face such dire straits, but is coming off its worst performance of the season. Perhaps this is a week that McVay eschews going play-action constantly to set up the air game, and hands the ball off to Todd Gurley 25 times instead. Keep that Eagles front four at bay. The Cowboys did the same thing last week, though Jared Goff is more likely to make Philadelphia's secondary pay downfield than Dak Prescott. Eagles DC Jim Schwartz must find creative ways to help his corners, without showing his hand too quickly. You know, the same crappy homework assignment Schwartz has wrestled with all season. Goff rebounds this week. Mark it down.
MONDAY, DEC. 17
8:15 p.m. ET (ESPN) | Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte, N.C.)
The Saints inch closer toward securing home-field advantage, helped in part by the Bears shutting down the Greatest Show on Grass last week. That sounds weird. (Maybe the Rams were suffering from the munchies?) New Orleans sometimes starts slowly on the road, leading critics to say they are a different team away from their home. News flash: That's true for the vast majority of the NFL's membership (although the Saints have just as many losses on the road as they do at home this season -- one). The takeaway here is that the Saints just find ways to win, as much as that sounds like a sports cliche. Not because that's some mysterious football adage that's been overused for decades, but because New Orleans has so many tools at its disposal. The Saints can win by relying on Drew Brees, targeting the most reliable WR1 in the business, or they can win by alternating 35 touches between Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Or the special teams can wreak havoc at the most opportune time, a la Taysom Hill last week. The Panthers could quell another New Orleans uprising by getting Cam Newton in rhythm early with short throws, then leaning on Christian McCaffrey on the ground (and on some of those short passes). That is, if Ron Rivera's secondary can hold the fort. Ooohh, yeaaah ...
8:20 p.m. ET (FOX/NFL Network/Prime Video) | Arrowhead Stadium (Kansas City, Mo.)
Although these two proud franchises have been going at it for 59 seasons, all the way back to the early days of the AFL, I don't think any of their previous 117 matchups carried this much weight. The only instance that would even come close: a 1992 wild-card game that the Bolts won going away. That Dave Krieg-quarterbacked Kansas City team couldn't produce any points against Junior Seau and friends. The Chiefs' quarterback of today is a unique talent. While Krieg was a streaky player, Patrick Mahomes seems to be stuck in a hot streak defenses can't pull him out of. Even the Ravens' formidable defense couldn't hold Mahomes down in Week 14. With Austin Ekeler out and Melvin Gordon questionable, rookie back Justin Jackson might have to be a hoss for the Chargers. The rookie did rack up 139 yards from scrimmage in Weeks 12 and 13 (8.7 yards per touch), but was comparatively quiet in Week 14 (12 rushing yards on seven carries, with two catches for 23 yards). Chiefs back Spencer Ware was banged up last week, which might translate to Mahomes throwing at least 40 times. Thus, the key for K.C. will be getting Joey Bosa (another sack last week) and Melvin Ingram blocked. Crowd noise will be a factor for the other quarterback. In case you are wondering, Philip Rivers has lost his last four starts at Arrowhead, with the Chargers scoring 50 points. Total. Now that is a stat.
4:30 p.m. ET (NFL Network) | MetLife Stadium (East Rutherford, N.J.)
So ... I don't like the Jets this week, but I'm not seeing a blowout. The Texans have only been able to string together two really strong offensive showings in a row this season (vs. Titans and Browns in Weeks 12-13), with a defense that has been clutch for most of the year often mitigating some of that offensive inconsistency. Last week, however, the defense struggled to hold the Colts down in the red zone, as Andrew Luck engineered three touchdowns in three trips inside the Houston 20. Luckily for the Texans, that is the precise area where the Jets have sucked all season. (Those struggles added a dose of irony to the fact that New York won last week on a fourth-and-goal plunge.) If the Jets are to have a chance, it will be because of the right arm of Sam Darnold. Trying to run against the Texans -- who rank fifth in rushing yards allowed, second in rushing touchdowns allowed and second in yards-per-carry allowed -- will be tough sledding.
This matchup is as unpredictable as any of this weekend's games. If you were basing this decision on the way the Browns and Broncos played last week, you would go with Cleveland. Nick Mullensshredded Denver in Week 14, proving that the Broncos are a totally different team away from their Stadium at Mile High, and that they are allergic to covering the tight end. A penny -- or nine million -- for Browns tight end David Njoku's thoughts while watching George Kittle's 210-yard game tape against Vance Joseph's group. On the other hand, this will be Baker Mayfield's first go in the cold, thin air of Denver. That can affect a player, as well as a young team like the Browns. The Broncos are playing for that last wild-card spot in the AFC, jostling with the pesky Colts, the fortunate Dolphins and -- their toughest competition -- the built-for-the-postseason Ravens. If the Broncos are to take home a W, it will be up to their defense, which has been super-consistent ... about being mediocre. Oddly, Denver allows 21.9 points per game on the road and 21.5 at home. Not the same advantage as in years past.