KC (9-4) @ LAC (8-5) | THU 8:20 PM ET | FOX/NFL Network/Amazon
Chiefs-Chargers was one of the games of the year in their September matchup, and tonight will hopefully be just as good with first place in the AFC West on the line. Kansas City’s defense has fueled their six-game winning streak by allowing just 10.8 points per game, but Justin Herbert will test them all over the field if given time, so it will be interesting to see how the absence of rookie left tackle Rashawn Slater (COVID-19) impacts the offense. Still, Herbert’s ability to spread the ball around makes him extremely difficult to defend, and cornerback L’Jarius Sneed (personal) not playing puts more pressure on the rest of the secondary to stop Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and the complementary options. On offense, the Chiefs won’t be given the single-safety looks that were granted to them by the Raiders last week, but staying balanced—against a defense allowing the second-most rushing yards per game in the league (140.7)—is key for them to have success and basically put away the division. Right now, though, I have more faith in Herbert than I do Patrick Mahomes, and Brandon Staley’s aggressiveness could be the difference again.
Winner: Los Angeles Chargers
NE (9-4) @ IND (7-6) | SAT 8:15 PM ET | NFL Network
The masterful game plan of Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels in their win over the Bills prior to the bye was executed so well because they have top-level discipline as a team, and it’s a scary thought for the rest of the NFL that it took one sub-par year—while trying to replace the greatest player in league history—before New England was back atop the AFC. Saturday night might not have the feel of a Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning matchup, but it should still be a heavyweight bout between two legitimate contenders (as long as Indy continues feeding Jonathan Taylor, at least). In general, the Patriots highlight strengths and attack weaknesses better than anyone, so while running the ball will usually be emphasized with a rookie quarterback, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Mac Jones came out with a big night through the air against a Colts defense allowing the second-most passing touchdowns in the league (26). If Jones can avoid mistakes and Taylor doesn’t go crazy for Indianapolis, I like Belichick and the Pats to make it eight wins in a row.
Winner: New England Patriots
DAL (9-4) @ NYG (4-9) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
Jake Fromm said a couple of weeks ago that being thrown into the starting lineup for the Giants after just joining the team would be like “preparing for a final test where you didn’t show up for any of the classes,” but Mike Glennon clearly isn’t the answer, and Fromm has enough big-game experience from his days at Georgia to hope for lightning in a bottle as New York tries to build any kind of momentum to close out the season. I guess the concern would be an opportunistic defense for Dallas forcing sacks/turnovers that drain Fromm’s confidence, but as more of a gamer than a practice player, it makes sense to throw him in the fire with some more experience in the system now under his belt. Either way, emerging left tackle Andrew Thomas (who missed the first matchup with Dallas) versus rookie superstar Micah Parsons (when used on the edge) is one of the best individual battles of Week 15, and the Giants will ideally in a better spot for 2022 to help reignite the NFC East rivalry.
Winner: Dallas Cowboys
HOU (2-11) @ JAX (2-11) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
The Jaguars moving on from head coach Urban Meyer needed to be done to save Trevor Lawrence’s career before he was wasted for another season, and the franchise has to get the next hire right in terms of both head coach and general manager. There is blue-chip talent on the roster with Lawrence and Josh Allen leading the offense and defense, respectively, but the overall 2021 NFL Draft haul was questionable, and failing to take advantage of draft selections will have the franchise—which has let guys like Jalen Ramsey and Allen Robinson out the building—continuing to sit at the bottom of the standings with no signs of progress. For this week, the players might get a jolt from Meyer’s dismissal, and the Texans have really struggled on offense with 11.6 points per game since the start of November.
Winner: Jacksonville Jaguars
TEN (9-4) @ PIT (6-6-1) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger have been able to bounce back every time the doubters have counted them out this season, but they are running out of time, and a tie could end up costing them based on how crowded the AFC playoff races are. Defense is a major concern for Pittsburgh, so they are fortunate to not have to stop Derrick Henry (foot) on Sunday, and Tennessee isn’t a powerhouse without their monster runner or A.J. Brown (chest) in the lineup. I’m sure Tomlin—with a few extra days to prepare—will do what he can to get the run defense figured out, but coaching can only go so far, as Devin Bush and others have been a bit exposed without Stephon Tuitt (knee) helping Cameron Heyward plug holes on the defensive line. However, Roethlisberger has more weapons than Ryan Tannehill does at this point, and James Washington should remain a factor whether or not Chase Claypool is benched for his costly mistakes last Thursday night.
Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers
NYJ (3-10) @ MIA (6-7) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
Even before Tua Tagovailoa took an NFL snap, I cautioned that it might take some time for him to round into form at the next level because of his cerebral play style, and anyone that wrote him off clearly made a mistake with the lefty being 10-7 over his first 17 starts while showing more and more promise by the week. Although the team success hasn’t been there for the Jets, a similar situation is playing out with Zach Wilson, as his transition was always going to be a steep one due to his creative play style at BYU, so fans should be optimistic about the flashes shown by the rookie. I believe an increased role for Denzel Mims—particularly by dialing up a couple of back-shoulder throws that he and Wilson both had success with in college—should be a priority without Corey Davis (core) and Elijah Moore (quad), but New York’s coaching staff frankly hasn’t inspired much confidence in Year 1.
Winner: Miami Dolphins
ARI (10-3) @ DET (1-11-1) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
I’m not writing off the Cardinals following a loss to the Rams, but they need to get their issues winning at home figured out—and even if they end up finishing 9-0 on the road, I have a difficult time believing the team can go into Green Bay or Tampa Bay next month and come out with a victory. The loss of DeAndre Hopkins (knee) isn’t quite as important as it might be for other offenses losing a star wide receiver because of the depth Arizona has at the position, but it’d be awesome if they reached out to Larry Fitzgerald (who hasn’t retired) about coming back for another championship run as one of the best playoff performers in NFL history with 104.7 yards per game and ten touchdowns in nine postseason appearances. That said, the current group should be enough to take down the Lions this weekend.
Winner: Arizona Cardinals
CAR (5-8) @ BUF (7-6) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
The Bills must run the ball more to take the pressure off Josh Allen, but Sunday felt like a Super Bowl preview, and hopefully Allen earned some respect from those who continue to be doubters.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) December 14, 2021
Winner: Buffalo Bills
CIN (7-6) @ DEN (7-6) | SUN 4:05 PM ET | CBS
Cincinnati has had a few offensive explosions this season, but they’ve cooled off this month despite strong yardage numbers from Joe Burrow, and pass protection has failed to hold up with 11 sacks allowed over the past two games. Playing in winter weather was a minor concern for Burrow coming out of LSU, so while neither loss for the Bengals in December has been played in cold weather (and they’ll get another mild day on Sunday), it’d be nice to avoid 0-3 this month not only to have the inside track for a playoff spot, but also to build confidence ahead of prototypical cold-weather matchups versus Baltimore, Kansas City, and Cleveland down the stretch. Fortunately, Burrow gives Cincinnati the advantage at quarterback this week, and Joe Mixon continuing to be fed might lead to ripping off chunk gains if he hits the second level versus Denver’s linebackers. The Broncos are favored and can continue riding the backfield duo of Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams, but I like the Bengals to come through as road underdogs with more high-end firepower.
Winner: Cincinnati Bengals
ATL (6-7) @ SF (7-6) | SUN 4:05 PM ET | CBS
Operating a passing attack that runs through a returner/runner/receiver and a rookie tight end with Calvin Ridley (personal) not around, Matt Ryan isn’t getting enough credit for how well he’s playing, but Atlanta is right in the playoff race as Christmas closes in. Matty Ice was able to get the better of former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan a couple of years ago with a game-winning touchdown to Julio Jones in the final seconds (to complete a comeback down 19-10 with ten minutes to go)—and that was a December matchup when the Falcons were 4-9 and the Niners were 11-2 on their way to a Super Bowl appearance. Now, I think Ryan can pull off another upset if pass protection holds up like it did in Week 14 with zero sacks allowed versus Carolina, but can the Falcons stop Shanahan’s offense? In games where Jimmy Garoppolo, Deebo Samuel, and George Kittle are all healthy, San Francisco is 17-5, and I’m not sure Ryan has enough help to be responsible for two of those losses.
Winner: San Francisco 49ers
GB (10-3) @ BAL (8-5) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | FOX
It’s sounding like Lamar Jackson (ankle) won’t be able to play this week—a definite surprise with it not even being a high-ankle sprain—so asking Tyler Huntley to beat Aaron Rodgers is a very tall task. Baltimore’s backup has played very well in a couple of extended opportunities, though, and he definitely has some Jackson-like moves when he gets in open space, while Green Bay notably allowed Justin Fields to rush 15 times for 117 yards (7.8 YPC) in two matchups. But the game needs to be turned into a slugfest for the Ravens to have any chance, and I don’t see Aaron Rodgers slowing down with 344.3 yards per game and a 10:0 touchdown-interception ratio over his past three outings. Look for Davante Adams to stay hot and Marquez Valdes-Scantling to strike Baltimore for a deep ball if given single coverage.
Winner: Green Bay Packers
NO (6-7) @ TB (10-3) | SUN 8:20 PM ET | NBC
The Buccaneers were road warriors during last season’s Super Bowl run, but Tom Brady has unsurprisingly been dominant at home with fans back in 2021—going 6-0 with a 22:3 touchdown-interception ratio heading into Sunday night. Following Arizona’s loss in Week 14, the door is open for the No. 1 seed in the NFC if Green Bay slips up at some point, so TB12 will have his guys focused to get revenge (again) on the Saints. Antonio Brown (suspension) is still away from the team, but Chris Godwin and Rob Gronkowski—combined with the complementary options like Breshad Perriman stepping up—will allow Brady to move the ball if Mike Evans is taken away (without having to run himself if Bruce Arians gets his way). For the Tampa Bay defense, the group is starting to play up to their potential, but it’s interesting that Taysom Hill was three-of-three as a passer for 86 yards in two wins over them last season, and he’s gone 5-0 in five matchups with at least a minor offensive role in the rivalry.
Winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
LV (6-7) @ CLE (7-6) | MON 5:00 PM ET | NFL Network
COVID-19 issues for the Browns have the Raiders favored on the road this week, but that could be a mistake based on who Cleveland will have in the lineup—namely Nick Chubb as he hopes to do damage like he did in his only career matchup against the Silver and Black (three carries for 105 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie). While we obviously can’t expect him to have that kind of efficiency, Chubb should be given some running room after lanes were difficult to come by with back-to-back games versus Baltimore, and I don’t see Las Vegas being able to slow him down. Also, Myles Garrett will be available on the defensive line (barring a late-week positive test; Chubb notably is in the clear after recently having the virus), and Derek Carr could have a long day if he gets hit early for what feels like a team that’s finished following another blowout loss; perhaps I’ll be proven wrong with the Raiders having all playoff contenders on the schedule the rest of the way to potentially make a run (@ CLE, v DEN, @ IND, v LAC).
Winner: Cleveland Browns
MIN (6-7) @ CHI (4-9) | MON 8:15 PM ET | ESPN
It would have been the unofficial end of Kirk Cousins and the Vikings (both this season and as a pairing) if they would have allowed Pittsburgh to complete their comeback last Thursday night, but a win is a win, and the best thing for them is getting another primetime opportunity to put forth a more complete effort. However, Cousins is 1-5 against Chicago since signing with Minnesota, so the final four games (@ CHI, v LAR, @ GB, v CHI) may shape the direction of the franchise with one playoff win (and appearance) over the past three years. We know there will be change for the Bears following the season, and I’m still unsure what exactly the plan was based on some of the 2021 offseason moves made—including tying up a bunch of money in Allen Robinson and Jimmy Graham without having either guy be a significant part of the offense. All it’s resulting in is a whole new supporting cast that Justin Fields will have to build chemistry with in 2022, as Darnell Mooney and Cole Kmet are the only pass-catchers under contract, and the team better hope a slow start for rookie left tackle Teven Jenkins (including multiple penalties) isn’t a sign of things to come. I’ll take the team still hoping to play meaningful games next month.
Winner: Minnesota Vikings
WAS (6-7) @ PHI (6-7) | TUE 7:00 PM ET | FOX
Jalen Hurts (ankle) reportedly wanted to play in Week 13 and was thought to be good following the bye, so something feels off about the quarterback situation to me. There have been multiple reports about team owner Jeffrey Lurie wanting to be a pass-heavy team—so much so that he was apparently “unhappy” following a primetime win over Green Bay in 2019 because it was powered by Jordan Howard and the ground game—and Hurts is a better fit for the run-centric offense that has essentially allowed Philadelphia to turn their season around this year. If the franchise is suddenly smitten with Gardner Minshew following a strong performance against the Jets (in which players routinely ran free through the secondary), it could mean they never believed in Hurts to begin with as a potential selection by Doug Pederson. Connecting all the threads—Carson Wentz clearly being Howie Roseman’s guy, Pederson being fired in an attempt to appease the former quarterback, Nick Sirianni refusing to commit to Hurts as the starter, the team investing both Minshew and Joe Flacco this offseason, and the organizational philosophy to be a pass-first team—would seem to suggest Hurts might not be viewed as the answer. I think he can be, and we’ll see if he gets a chance to prove to with a string of NFC East matchups over the final four weeks.
Winner: Philadelphia Eagles
SEA (5-8) @ LAR (9-4) | TUE 7:00 PM ET | FOX
The Rams—even dating back to when they would give Seattle trouble under Jeff Fisher—are one of the only teams in the league to have Russell Wilson’s number (he’s 8-12, including playoffs), so Sunday will be a huge test for the Seahawks as they hope to remain in the playoff race. I would say Los Angeles might be in danger of a letdown following a Monday night win over Arizona that went down to the wire, but both sides of the ball for them seem to be coming together, and Seattle not having Tyler Lockett (COVID-19) is a significant part of their offense that won’t be on the field this week. Basically, the path to victory for the Seahawks might be increased usage as a runner for Wilson combined with the defense being able to force Matthew Stafford into mistakes; but Sean McVay unleashing Sony Michel changes the dynamic of the Rams as a whole into a more physical team, and it’s exactly what they needed to shed the “soft” label brought upon their struggles.
Winner: Los Angeles Rams