The Big Five: Week 15

Week 15, with the most games in a single week between team with winning records (6), will be one of the most crucial weeks of the season in figuring out who the contenders and fakers are in the playoff hunt. We already know that the Bears are falling fast, the Steelers are no better than the Falcons, who do not appear to be a threat to any team in the league with playoff hopes despite their 11-2 record. 

But at the same time, New England is steamrolling people into the parking lot outside of Gillette Stadium and, unless my eyes are deceiving me, Peyton Manning is 80 years old and playing like a college player vying for the Heisman Trophy (props to John Manziel on becoming the first freshman in the award’s history to win it). Let’s take a look at what we should be paying attention to this week:

The Big Five Things to Look Out For

1) The Pats-Texans game last week was no thriller. The Pats-Niners game, though, now looks like the match up of the year. 

With Tom Brady flexing his 35 year old muscles in another MVP campaign this season, the San Francisco has their work cut out for them. The best offense in the league against the second-rated defense in the league will be huge and could give us a prime view at what an unstoppable force can do against an immovable object. Brady and the Patriots played a Seattle team in Week 6 that, at the time, was the first-ranked defense in the league, and they lost a heartbreaker by one point. If that’s in any way telling, then San Francisco might have a shot at overthrowing the reign of terror New England has started.

Colin Kaepernick should fair well against a defense better known for producing turnovers than consistently holding opponents to three-and-outs. His deep ball might suffer, but with Michael Crabtree, Frank Gore, and Vernon Davis having the ability to effectively run the underneath and short routes, Kaepernick has the ability to be efficient. This is a game that will not only show us Kaepernick’s ability to keep pace with the best quarterback in the league, but also gives Jim Harbaugh a chance to either bask in the glory of his choice to start him over Alex Smith, or hide away in regret over it.

For the 49ers to be successful, DE Aldon Smith has to apply pressure on the offensive line to open up holes for Justin Smith and the other linemen. He doesn’t need to look for sacks, but do enough to push Brady out of the pocket. Sacks would be nice, but they’re not as vital as breaking Tommy Gun’s rhythm. Their cornerbacks may need to resort to jamming Wes Welker and the other receivers at the line of scrimmage to additionally disrupt Brady’s timing with the offense.

The 49ers are in a must-win situation with the Seattle Seahawks keeping pace with San Francisco in the NFC West. The division rivals play each other in Seattle in Week 16, and CenturyLink Field is already one of the worst places for visitors to play a game, let alone a division game. That crowd is also a reason why Seattle was able to come back and win against New England 24-23. The Niners need to be in top form on Sunday.

2) With the Bears still very much alive in the NFC North race, Green Bay is in a must-win position in Chicago. 

The Packer machine is in high gear right now, hitting all eight cylinders. Aaron Rodgers is back in action since their 2-3 start, looking like the MVP he was last year, and it only helps the Packers’ cause for the division crown.

On the other hand, the Chicago has lost three of their last four, including a division loss to the Vikings in Minnesota that might hurt them in the standings going forward. Jay Cutler and the offense need to generate some points early and often to keep up with the Packers. It doesn’t help that they have 11 players ruled out of Sunday’s game, and that Green Bay has some key players such as Clay Matthews returning from injury for the first time this season.

With LB Brian Urlacher out, the Bears’ defense has to reignite the fire that made them a fearsome defense in the middle of the season. Turnovers are going to be crucial in this game (that’s always true in every game, but I’ll go with a mainstream factor here, oppa Hipster Style). If the Bears can force a couple of takeaways from Green Bay’s offense, and capitalize on them quickly, then Chicago may have a chance to get back on track in the playoff race.

Right now, the NFC North is the most competitive division in football. It’s the only division besides the NFC East with three teams in the group still in the playoff hunt (the NFC East records are not as good as the former’s), including the Vikings. This game could either result in two NFC North teams being in the playoffs, or just one, with Chicago coach Lovie Smith possibly losing traction in vying for an extension at the end of his contract in 2013.

3) With Cam Cameron out as offensive coordinator in Baltimore, look to see how replacement Jim Caldwell, who coached the quarterbacks on both teams, runs the O. 

What is crazy, and should work in his favor, is that Caldwell worked with Peyton Manning in their Colts days. He should be able to give a heads up to the Baltimore defense on Manning’s mannerisms, audible tendencies, and weaknesses (not that he has any, because he’s like Chuck Norris for football).

The one huge criticism of Cam Cameron’s offensive play-calling was the fact the Ray Rice wasn’t being involved as much as he should. As of right now, Rice is at a career low in attempts at 107. In their loss at home to Pittsburgh, Rice rushed the ball only 12 times for 78 yards. Last week, however, Rice took the ball 20 times for 121 yards in a much more competitive game in Washington against the Redskins.

For Caldwell to get an as-of-late sputtering offense to start the engine, Ray Rice needs to get at least 25 touches to not only wear down a stalwart Denver defense, but keep them true to alleviate the pressure on Joe Flacco. Flacco has struggled in Baltimore’s last four games and needs to get back to tossing the deep ball with more success, the way he was doing it at the start of the season.

For Caldwell, this not a great match up on paper against the Broncos, but if he can get the offense to have success in both dimensions, then Baltimore may actually have a shot at ending Denver’s current nine-game winning streak and put them in a position to finally lock up that pesky AFC North crown.

4) The Giants silenced the Falcons in the wild card round last year, 24-2. If ever there was a time for Atlanta to bring it, it’s in this rematch in the Georgia Dome. 

It’s a well-known fact that Atlanta, since 2008, has been one of the best teams in the league playing at home, having won 33 of their last 38 home games for an .868 winning percentage. That includes six home games this season so far, all wins for the Falcons.

Hold the phone, though…they’re 2-2 in their last four games, and they lost to a too-late-to-call-good team in the Panthers last week 30-20. Matt Ryan, initially in the thick of the MVP race in the first half of the season, has become more of a liability than an asset to the offense (something that’s causing me to lose a fantasy game too many with Julio Jones. #NoFantasyLuckThisYear). It doesn’t help that RB Michael Turner is churning out worm-short numbers game after game.

The Giants flattened the Saints, who ended the Falcons’ undefeated streak not too many weeks ago, into Holy Mush last week, 52-27. New York is fighting to keep its one-game division lead intact, so it has a much more motivating incentive to win than Atlanta, who are simply trying to keep up the wins for home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

Atlanta recently has not looked like the Super Bowl Contender that it looked like early in the season. But, a win against New York in the Georgia Dome would gain the Red Birdies some much-needed confidence going forward. If they go one-and-done again in the playoffs, then Ryan and the Falcons will be perennial pretenders for as long as they all shall play.

5) Indianapolis will win the division if they win out with AFC South leader Houston up twice on their schedule this week and in Week 17. 

Somehow, we smart people had Houston running away with what looked like one of the worst divisions in the league at the start of the year. We suck. Who would have guessed that Andrew Luck would potentially lead the Colts to an 11-5, maybe 12-4 season with a possible first-round bye in his rookie year? *Crickets chirp*. NO ONE could have possible predicted such success for the young, unbalanced team.

Yet here we are, in Week 15, contemplating the possibility that Indianapolis, who won two games all of last season, could potentially ruin the Houston Texans perfect year. Houston is one of the most complete teams in football, but an embarrassing loss to the New England Patriots last Monday night exposed some serious holes in Wade Philips’ defense. No, Andrew Luck is not Tom Brady, but he’s looking like a seasoned veteran in the pocket, and he’s still improving. Plus, the Colts scored ten more points on New England than Houston did (Indy scored 24, while Houston mustered up 14).

Indy can win this game by giving Luck enough time in the pocket against a frightening Houston defensive line with J.J. Watt. The offensive line is going to struggle, of course, but Luck is a much more mobile quarterback than Brady and can make plays with his feet when the play breaks down. On the other side, the defense for the Colts will have to force turnovers wherever they can against a strong Texans rushing attack led by Arian Foster. Houston’s offense is too good to try to force them into three-and-outs, though New England was able to do it. Regardless, Indy will need to be aggressive in their secondary play and up front with Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, both of whom will need to generate pressure on Matt Schaub and hold the running game down effectively.

If the Colts can win on Sunday in Reliant Stadium, then there’s a very good chance that they can steal the division away from Houston in Week 17 when they play them at home at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Who would have thunk it?

Enjoy Week 15!

Make sure to check out yesterday’s article on Consistency in the NFL and comment or tweet us @aceing82!

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