Is everyone ready for a week that may significantly shape the N.F.L. playoff picture? Twenty-six teams still have a mathematical chance of making the playoffs, but several spots are likely to be settled this week despite few must-see matchups.
The week will start out strong on Thursday night with an A.F.C. West battle between the Chargers and the Chiefs. On Sunday, the surging Cowboys and the Colts will face off in Indianapolis, and the Packers will travel to Chicago in hopes of knocking down the mighty Bears.
Here’s a look at N.F.L. Week 15, with all picks made against the point spread.
Last week’s record: 11-5
Overall record: 116-87-4
Sunday’s Best Games
Cowboys at Colts, 1 p.m., Fox
Everyone piles on Jerry Jones when things go wrong — it’s fun! — but fair is fair, and the Cowboys’ owner absolutely nailed the decision to trade a first-round pick for Amari Cooper.
Jones, who has made some bizarre transactions, identified what his team needed most (a No. 1 wide receiver) and paid a high price to get it. And he did not waver when the world told him he’d made yet another blunder.
The Cooper era started with a loss, which came only a few days after he joined the team, but then blossomed into a thing of beauty, with the Cowboys (8-5) reeling off five consecutive wins and taking a two-game lead in the N.F.C. East.
Cooper hasn’t been a part of the solution, he has been the total solution. In six games, he has 40 receptions for 642 yards and five touchdowns. Last week, he beat the Eagles almost single-handedly. Somehow, his 75-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter was not his best play of the day. In overtime, he snagged a tipped ball out of the air for the game-winning touchdown.
Now Dallas heads to Indianapolis for a game in which it can clinch a division title with a win. The Colts (7-6) are mild favorites, owed to home-field advantage and their string of six wins in seven games, but the Dallas secondary is capable of limiting Andrew Luck, and the balance of the Dallas offense — a balance created with Cooper’s acquisition — should be enough to get the Cowboys a win and a division crown. Pick: Cowboys +3
Packers at Bears, 1 p.m., Fox
How about those Bears? Chicago smothered the mighty Rams last week, with the team’s defense making Jared Goff and Todd Gurley simply disappear. There are still plenty of questions about the team’s offense, but the Bears (9-4) are not only winning with defense, but also doing it in style, with Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and Eddie Jackson as worthy heirs to the great Chicago defenses of the 1980s.
A win over the Packers (5-7-1) would give the Bears their first division title since 2010, but Green Bay should be taken seriously as an opponent after looking energized in its first game with Coach Joe Philbin last week. Pick: Bears -6
Patriots at Steelers, 4:25 p.m., CBS
Just imagine how mad Coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are after the Patriots (9-4) lost ground in the race for home-field advantage in the A.F.C. playoffs by having the Dolphins execute a miracle play in the closing seconds of last week’s game. All of that fury should pour out against the Steelers (7-5-1), who appear to be in free-fall after a nice middle part to the season.
New England can clinch a playoff spot by beating Pittsburgh and having Tennessee lose to the Giants, and can clinch the A.F.C. East if it wins or ties in combination with a loss by Miami. Pick: Patriots -2
Eagles at Rams, 8:20 p.m., NBC
It was just one loss, but when the Rams (11-2) fell to Chicago last week, they not only lost their pole position for home-field advantage throughout the N.F.C. playoffs, but they also put their chance of a first-round bye in jeopardy. Now they host the Eagles (6-7), who have had a rough season, but who have desperation on their side.
Getting the N.F.C.’s top spot back would involve some help from New Orleans, but the Rams can at least secure the bye for themselves by continuing to win; should Chicago lose to Green Bay, the Rams would clinch the bye by beating or tying Philadelphia.
Carson Wentz is unlikely to play for the Eagles, but Nick Foles, last year’s Super Bowl M.V.P., is still around to fill in. A Rams win is likely, but the Eagles, in a fight for a wild-card spot, should be motivated enough to at least make it a close game. Pick: Eagles +11
Chargers at Chiefs, 8:20 p.m., Fox
The injury report alone makes this matchup fascinating. The Chargers (10-3) will be short-handed at running back, with Austin Ekeler out and Melvin Gordon a game-time decision. The Chiefs (11-2) are in even worse shape at that position, with Kareem Hunt released two weeks ago and Spencer Ware listed as doubtful, which leaves Damien Williams and Charcandrick West to split the carries.
A bigger concern for Kansas City is the status of Tyreek Hill, the team’s fleet-footed wide receiver, who is dealing with heel and wrist injuries. Hill torched the Chargers in Week 1, and while the Chiefs can move the ball without him, they need his versatility to make up for their depleted running game. The belief is that he will play, and if so, it is hard to believe Kansas City will lose at home, especially with the talented defensive back Eric Berry expected to play for the first time since Sept. 7, 2017. Pick: Chiefs -3.5
Texans at Jets, 4:30 p.m., NFL Network
The Texans (9-4) had won nine consecutive games before last week’s letdown against the Colts. They should be able to get their groove back, and then some, against the Jets (4-9), whose only win in their last seven games came against Buffalo. Pick: Texans -6
Browns at Broncos, 8:20 p.m., NFL Network
The Browns (5-7-1) have already had what can be considered a successful season. They have more wins than they mustered in any of the previous three years and they absolutely scored in the draft by landing Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb and Denzel Ward. They also appear to have reinvigorated a fan base that had sunk to a depth so low that there was a parade after last season to celebrate (bemoan?) the team going 0-16. Winning the final three games of this season, which would clinch the team’s first winning record since 2007, would go a long way toward building enthusiasm for next year, but having to go into Denver to face the Broncos (6-7) is a significant roadblock to that goal. Pick: Broncos -3
Sunday’s Other Games
Dolphins at Vikings, 1 p.m., CBS
Neither of these teams has inspired a great deal of confidence this season — Miami, at least, pulled off what will undoubtedly be the play of the season — but both are fighting for playoff spots. The Vikings (6-6-1) are in line for the N.F.C.’s second wild card, but they have to fend off challenges from Philadelphia and a resurgent Green Bay. The Dolphins (7-6) are on the outside looking in, as tiebreakers have them behind Baltimore and Indianapolis in a four-team fight, which also includes Tennessee, for the A.F.C.’s second wild card. Favoring the Vikings at home seems correct, but their recent play on offense does not justify such a large point spread. Pick: Dolphins +7
Buccaneers at Ravens, 1 p.m., Fox
The whole “you don’t lose your job to injury” line has been outdated for a while, but it’s officially not a thing in Baltimore: Lamar Jackson has replaced Joe Flacco as the quarterback of the Ravens (7-6). The reasons are apparent to anyone who has watched the rookie in four thrilling performances in which he ran (and occasionally threw) his team to three straight wins and then made Kansas City fight to beat him in overtime last week.
The Buccaneers (5-8) are ranked 20th in the N.F.L. against the rush, allowing 119.4 yards a game. There is a chance Gus Edwards, Jackson and the Ravens’ other runners may go for double that this week, but Baltimore’s style is prone to close games, so being the favorite by more than a touchdown seems incorrect. Pick: Buccaneers +7.5
Seahawks at 49ers, 4:05 p.m., Fox
The Seahawks (8-5) crushed the 49ers (3-10) just two weeks ago, and even with the game being held in Santa Clara, there is little reason to expect anything different this week. As a bonus, Seattle would clinch a playoff spot with a win, and could even get one with a tie, provided they get some help from other results. Pick: Seahawks -4.5
Redskins at Jaguars, 1 p.m., CBS
Last week, Josh Johnson threw his first pass since 2011. This week, he’ll start for the Redskins (6-7) in a road game against the Jaguars (4-9). The one thing Jacksonville has retained from last season’s run to the A.F.C. championship game is the ability to defend the pass, so expecting a repeat of Johnson’s decent performance against the Giants last week would be unwise. Las Vegas is asking for a lot by making the Jaguars 7-point favorites, but if Jalen Ramsey and the rest of the Jacksonville secondary are properly motivated, they could accomplish that with a (mostly unwatchable) 7-0 win. Pick: Jaguars -7
Titans at Giants, 1 p.m., CBS
Last week’s offensive outburst by Derrick Henry of the Titans (7-6) was surprising only to people who did not see him run in high school (where he had more than 12,000 yards) or college (where he won the Heisman and rushed for 200 or more yards in a game four times in one season). That being said, the inevitable regression to the mean is coming, and when you consider that his 238 yards were more than he had in his previous six games combined (234), and the fact that Tennessee will be without its starting right tackle, Jack Conklin, the drop could be dramatic.
The Titans, though, are still in the playoff hunt, and Henry’s efforts were the most exciting thing the team’s offense has mustered all season. So this game against the resurgent Giants (5-8) could turn into an interesting battle between Henry and the Giants’ star rookie, Saquon Barkley. Pick: Titans +3
Cardinals at Falcons, 1 p.m., Fox
The Falcons (4-9) have three terrific wide receivers in Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu. They have a versatile running back in Tevin Coleman. And they have a quarterback putting up All-Pro numbers in Matt Ryan. None of that matters when your defense gives up 28.2 points a game. A win over the Cardinals (3-10) should be easy enough, but for a team that came into the year with (admittedly far-fetched) dreams of playing a Super Bowl at home, this season can’t end fast enough. Pick: Falcons (off)
Lions at Bills, 1 p.m., Fox
Matthew Stafford has often been unfairly maligned in his productive career, but his Lions (5-8) are in a stretch of games in which they have gone 2-5 while averaging 16 points a game, so despite his team having trouble keeping wide receivers healthy, and despite his own back issues, the burden of this season’s disappointment should seemingly fall on his shoulders. Worse news for one of the highest paid players in the N.F.L. is that it is likely to get worse with a loss to the Bills (4-9) this week. Pick: Bills -2.5
Raiders at Bengals, 1 p.m., CBS
Much of the season’s struggles for the Raiders (3-10) were explained away as the team obviously tanking for draft position. They traded away two of their most prominent players, they lost games to lowly opponents and they got more headlines for their squabbles with the city of Oakland than they did for their play on the field. They even fired their general manager, Reggie McKenzie, during the week, ending a power struggle between him and Coach Jon Gruden.
It all makes sense until you consider them having played hard throughout a shocking comeback win over Pittsburgh last week.
So what can reasonably be expected of them this week? Their offense should have no trouble moving the ball against the hapless Bengals (5-8), but Jeff Driskel and the Cincinnati offense have shown they can put points on the board as well. A motivated Raiders team, if such a thing can exist two weeks in a row, is capable of an upset in a game that should have a lot of points and relatively few viewers. Pick: Raiders +3
Saints at Panthers, 8:15 p.m., ESPN
The Saints (11-2) have looked a lot less like a juggernaut in the past two weeks, but thanks to a comeback win over Tampa Bay last week, and the Rams’ loss to Chicago, New Orleans is currently in line for home-field advantage throughout the N.F.C. playoffs. To stay in that spot will likely require a road win over the Panthers (6-7), who have fallen apart after a strong start. The Saints play Carolina twice over the final three weeks of the season, and there is no doubt that the Panthers would love to play spoiler against their division rival. But with Dennis Allen having shaped the New Orleans defense into something worthy of the team’s offense, there is a strong likelihood of Carolina losing a sixth consecutive game.
If Chicago loses or ties against Green Bay on Sunday, and New Orleans wins in Carolina, the Saints will clinch a first-round bye. Pick: Saints -6.
All times are Eastern.
Benjamin Hoffman is a senior staff editor and regular contributor to the Keeping Score column in sports. He joined The Times in 2005. @BenHoffmanNYT • Facebook
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