It’s Week 15, which means there are just three weeks left in the NFL season. In the AFC West, the Broncos are trying to position themselves for a playoff run, while the rest of the division is just trying to finish strong after disappointing seasons. Let’s take a closer look at this week’s games:
DENVER AT BALTIMORE
If the Broncos are going to earn a first-round bye in the playoffs this is a game they have to win. Denver is tied with New England at 10-3 for second place in the AFC, a game behind conference-leading Houston; however, Denver would lose a tiebreaker with both the Patriots and the Texans, so they must finish a game ahead of at least one of those teams to get the bye. Meanwhile, Baltimore is in the mix for a bye as well at 9-4, and they need to win this game just as much as the Broncos do, probably even more, as the Ravens are at risk of losing their hold on the division, especially with the Giants and Bengals left on their schedule after Sunday’s showdown with Denver.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
The Denver passing game vs. the Baltimore secondary. The Ravens haven’t been the same dominant team on defense this year that we’ve seen in the past. Denver may not be able to take advantage of that with their running game, but Peyton Manning and the passing game are fully capable of exploiting a pass defense that’s giving up close to 250 yards per game. Safety Ed Reed is still one of the best around the league and can take advantage if Manning makes a mistake throwing the ball, but if Manning is accurate with the football, Baltimore’s corners are in for a stiff challenge. The Broncos can stretch the field with Damaryius Thomas and Eric Decker or work the middle with Jacob Tamme and Brandon Stokley, so Baltimore’s corners better be at the top of their game, or else quarterback Joe Flacco might find himself in a shootout against Manning, and the only thing scarier than that is Denver’s pass rush.
The Broncos have won eight in a row, while the Ravens have lost their last two. In games like this, the team who needs it more usually has the edge, and the Ravens need this game just a little bit more. Baltimore’s defense won’t be able to stop Manning, but Flacco will come up one of his best performances of the year and remind everyone that Baltimore is a contender in the AFC as well. The home-field advantage will help put the Ravens over the top in this shoot out: Baltimore 34, Denver 31.
CAROLINA AT SAN DIEGO
It’s hard not to be impressed with San Diego’s win in Pittsburgh last week, but it also makes you wonder why they haven’t been able to play like that all year. Speaking of impressive victories, Carolina is fresh off a win over Atlanta, making them one of just two teams to beat the Falcons all season. Neither team has much to play for at this point in the season, although both head coaches appear to be on the hot seat, which means both teams should play with a lot of pride and a lot of intensity.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
The San Diego offense vs. the Carolina defense. It’s a homecoming of sorts for Carolina head coach Ron Rivera, who was the defensive coordinator in San Diego before getting his first head-coaching job with the Panthers. Rivera should be familiar with San Diego’s personal and their offensive philosophies, which could give Carolina an advantage. Stopping the Charger’s running game shouldn’t be much of a problem, even though the Panthers have struggled with that this year, but slowing down Philip Rivers and the passing game will be key. Danario Alexander has played at a very high level the last few weeks, and Rivers is looking for him more and more to create big plays. Rivera and the Panthers will need to find an answer for Alexander, especially coming off his two-touchdown performance against the Steelers last week. Look for Rivera to counter San Diego’s downfield passing attack with a lot of blitzing, which is the best way to attack the Charger’s biggest weakness: their offensive line.
The Panthers are riding high following their upset of Atlanta last week. After a long trip to San Diego, they’ll come back down pretty quickly as San Diego’s fierce defensive front punches Cam Newton and company in the mouth right from the start, causing the Panthers to start slow. Carolina will eventually make some plays, but just like last week the Chargers will build a comfortable lead in the first half and then do just enough to hang on the 4th quarter: San Diego 31, Carolina 23.
KANSAS CITY AT OAKLAND
This game will go a long way toward determining the order of the first three picks in next year’s draft. Both the Chiefs and Raiders are in contention for the first overall pick, and at this point neither is likely to pick any lower than third overall. The Raiders will be playing their final home game of the season on the heels of a six-game losing streak. The hometown fans have been treated to a 2-5 record in the Oakland Coliseum this year. Meanwhile, the Chiefs failed to harness any momentum following their win over Carolina two weeks ago, as they laid an egg against the Browns last weekend. Even with draft picks on the line and a long-running rivalry, this will likely be one of the least intriguing matchups on the NFL schedule all season, and sadly there’s no way of knowing if either team will come out and play with a lot of intensity, despite the fact that both head coaches are on the hot seat.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
The Oakland passing game vs. the Kansas City secondary. Throwing the ball is one of the only things that the Raiders do well, at least if you don’t consider turnovers. Carson Palmer is 7th in the NFL in passing yards and 8th in touchdowns with 22, so he’s capable of throwing the ball around when he has to, and he usually has to. On the other side, the Chiefs are a top-10 team in terms of passing yards surrendered, which makes this a matchup of strength vs. strength. The Chiefs have a good cornerback tandem with Brandon Flowers and Javier Arenas, and they should be able to get the better of Oakland’s wide receivers, so the pressure is on Palmer to throw his receivers open. Of course, the wildcard is tight end Brandon Myers, who is Oakland’s leading receiver this season and could be the great equalizer in the middle of the field, as he’s capable of creating mismatches for Kansas City’s defense.
This is a matchup between old-time AFC West rivals, so hopefully there’ll be some intensity on both sides. With Jamaal Charles being arguably Kansas City’s only offensive playmaker and Darren McFadden being back on the field, both teams will look to run the ball, in which case it’s advantage Chiefs. Charles will gash Oakland’s porous rush defense and carry the Chiefs to victory: Kansas City 20, Oakland 10.