NFL Week 15 Preview: 23 Teams Still Playoff Eligible

With three weeks remaining in the regular season, the suspense continues to build as teams make their final playoff push. So far, only one spot has been clinched as the New England Patriots have locked up a berth in the postseason. “There’s a long way to go,” says Patriots quarterback TOM BRADY. “I don’t think anything’s really been accomplished yet. We’re still working hard.”

That leaves 11 spots available and there are still 23 teams in contention for a playoff berth.

“From here on out, every game is huge,” says quarterback JAY CUTLER of the NFC North-leading Chicago Bears. “We’re in that final stretch when every game is important to whether or not you’re making the playoffs.”

For the first time since realignment in 2002, seven of the eight divisions have two teams either in or within one game of first place through the first 14 weeks of the season. “Everything in this league is about December and January,” says head coach JOHN HARBAUGH of the Baltimore Ravens, who are one game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North. “You want to be relevant in December and January. You want to make it important.”

Some of the key games this week:

(Thursday, NFLN, 8:00 PM ET)

Two teams that got off to slow starts find themselves in the thick of the playoff chase entering Week 15. The Chargers, who started 2-5, have won five of the past six and sit one game behind first-place Kansas City in the AFC West. The 49ers, who began the season with five consecutive losses, have won four of the past six and are one game out of first place in the NFC West.

“We have a group of resilient guys who really play together and believe in one another,” says Chargers quarterback PHILIP RIVERS, who ranks second in the NFL with 3,868 yards. “We weren’t going to let this thing get away from us. Now, we’re in the hunt.”

Both clubs had impressive victories last week. San Diego defeated Kansas City 31-0 and San Francisco recorded a 40-21 win over Seattle. “The season is truly a marathon,” says 49ers quarterback ALEX SMITH, who passed for three touchdowns in Week 14. “That’s the nature of this game. The teams that can ride out the ups and downs will keep the best mentality.”

(Sunday, FOX, 1:00 PM ET)

The defending Super Bowl champions will head to Baltimore to face the 9-4 Ravens. The Saints are 5-1 on the road and the Ravens are 5-1 at home. “We have a lot of respect for Baltimore,” says New Orleans head coach SEAN PAYTON. “The Ravens are one of those teams that has been an elite AFC team. They’re extremely physical on defense. Offensively, they have the ability to run and throw. It’s a real good challenge for us.”

The Saints defeated St. Louis 31-13 last week behind quarterback DREW BREES’ three touchdown passes. Since joining New Orleans in 2006, Brees has passed for 22,153 yards and 150 touchdowns and is the first QB in NFL history to pass for at least 20,000 yards and 150 touchdowns in the first five seasons with a new team. “They’re the defending champs,” says Baltimore linebacker RAY LEWIS about the Saints. “But we’ll be waiting for them.”

On Monday night, the Ravens won an overtime thriller in Houston when cornerback JOSH WILSON returned an interception 12 yards for the game-winning touchdown. It marked the 18th regular-season game-winning interception-return touchdown in overtime and the first since 2005 when the Bears’ CHARLES TILLMAN accomplished the feat.

“Our guys found a way to win,” says Ravens head coach JOHN HARBAUGH. “At this time in the season, you are what you are and you’ve got to find a way to win these games.”

(Sunday, CBS, 1:00 PM ET)

The top two teams in the AFC South will meet on Sunday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium. Jacksonville leads the division with an 8-5 record with Indianapolis just one game behind at 7-6. “You have to play your best football down the stretch and here we are in the middle of the stretch playing our best football,” says Jaguars head coach JACK DEL RIO, whose team has won five of the past six games and can clinch the AFC South with a win over Indianapolis.

In Week 14, Jacksonville running backs RASHAD JENNINGS (109 yards) and MAURICE JONES-DREW (101) each rushed for 100 yards in the team’s 38-31 victory over Oakland. Jennings averaged 21.8 yards per carry and became the sixth player in the past 50 years to average at least 20.0 yards per rush in a game (minimum five attempts).

The Colts won at Tennessee on Thursday night as quarterback PEYTON MANNING passed for 319 yards and two touchdowns. Manning reached 4,000 yards (4,028) for the fifth year in a row and is the only player in NFL history to throw for at least 4,000 yards in five consecutive seasons; he has accomplished the feat twice (1999-2004 and 2006-2010).

“They’re playing awfully well right now,” says Indianapolis head coach JIM CALDWELL about the Jaguars. “That’s our challenge. They are a very tough team. They’re going to give us all they’ve got.”

(Sunday, FOX, 1:00 PM ET)

First place in the NFC East will be on the line in this showdown between division rivals. The Eagles, who defeated New York in Week 11, have won five of their past six games and the Giants are 8-2 in their past 10.

Philadelphia has won 12 of its past 13 games in December, including a 30-27 win at Dallas last week. Running back LE SEAN MC COY rushed for 149 yards and wide receiver DE SEAN JACKSON had four catches for 210 yards, including a 91-yard touchdown. Jackson’s 210 yards are the most in NFL history by a player with four or fewer receptions in a game.

“We’re going to get the Giants’ best shot,” says Eagles head coach ANDY REID. “We know that.” A long weekend of traveling for the Giants ended on Monday night when the team defeated the Vikings 21-3 at Detroit’s Ford Field. Running backs BRANDON JACOBS (116 yards) and AHMAD BRADSHAW (103) recorded the second game in franchise history in which two players each rushed for at least 100 yards. The same duo accomplished the feat on December 23, 2007 at Buffalo (Bradshaw 151, Jacobs 143).

“We’re pleased with the win,” says head coach TOM COUGHLIN. “I was proud of the way our guys handled the changes that were made in the start time and location of the game. We’re 9-4 and we kept pace, so we’re excited about that.”

(Sunday, CBS, 4:15 PM ET)

Two playoff contenders will meet at Heinz Field when the 9-4 Jets visit the 10-3 Steelers. Pittsburgh has won four games in a row while New York has posted a 5-1 record on the road this season. “This is the home stretch in December,” says Jets wide receiver JERRICHO COTCHERY. “We’re talking about making a run and these are the games that you have to win.”

The Steelers got two defensive touchdowns last week and defeated Cincinnati 23-7. Safety TROY POLAMALU had a 45-yard interception-return TD and linebacker LA MARR WOODLEY took back an interception 14 yards for a score. “It’s that time of year when we need to start stacking up wins and start focusing on what you can do to be the best team,” says Pittsburgh quarterback BEN ROETHLISBERGER.

NFL FACTOID: The New England Patriots have not committed a turnover in five consecutive games, the longest streak in NFL history.