Week 15 NFL Preview

Three Weeks To Go. Let The Bedlam Begin! “People Remember What You Do In December.” So says head coach JOHN FOX of the Carolina Panthers about the crunch time that is now upon the NFL.

The final three weeks of the season are here, and aside from the division-winning Arizona Cardinals, New York Giants and Tennessee Titans, it’s a mad race for the nine remaining playoff spots among the 19 still-eligible clubs.

There’s sure to be some twists and turns in that race. Just look at last week. The Giants were sailing along at 11-1 and lose to the 6-5-1 Eagles. Warm-weather Houston goes into three-degree Green Bay and tops the Packers. The Steelers come back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Cowboys.

It all tightens the playoff pressure. “Nobody said this was going to be easy,” says head coach TONY SPARANO, who has taken the 1-15 Miami Dolphins of last year into a three-way tie (at 8-5) for first in the AFC East. “Not in this league.”

So as the final surge begins, here are some of the key Week 15 games:


NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (7-6) at CHICAGO BEARS (7-6) (Thursday night, NFL Network, 8:00 PM ET)


STORYLINE: Are they with the right teams?

It sure seems that PIERRE THOMAS of New Orleans and MATT FORTÉ of Chicago — who can play a main role on the ground this cold December night right by Lake Michigan — should be playing for the other team. Thomas – with the French first name — was born in Chicago, went to Illinois, was not drafted but signed as a rookie free agent with the Saints last year. He comes off his second career 100-yard rush game (102 yards and two TDs against Atlanta). His first? Last December 30 (105 yards) in Chicago. “He’s a great young talent,” says Saints FB MIKE KARNEY.


For Chicago? Their main guy is from – Louisiana. And he’s got that French last name. That’s rookie Forté, who was born in Slidell, Louisiana — a suburb of New Orleans — and went to Tulane. He is the second-leading rookie rusher in the league with 1,081 yards.


These ground games aside, the big question will be can QB DREW BREES and the Saints’ No. 1 NFL passing offense perform up to its fireworks level outdoors in the December night? New Orleans went to a more balanced run/pass attack last week in topping Atlanta.





STORYLINE: Protecting the leadand going for it.


That’s the story for this one Sunday. First-place Pittsburgh holds a one-game edge over Baltimore in the AFC North, so a win by the Ravens will tighten things even more.


“We want to be division champs,” says Ravens rookie head coach JOHN HARBAUGH, who has led the club from a 5-11






ESPN will broadcast its special documentary, “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” on the 1958 NFL Championship sudden-death overtime between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants this Saturday (December 13) at 9:00 PM ET.


What did it feel like to play in that game? Pro Football Hall of Famer RAYMOND BERRY, who caught 12 passes for 178 yards and one TD for the Colts in the epic, remembers: “It was the No. 1 thrill of my career. It was impossible to describe the feeling. You have to experience it to understand. Whether we were on the Colts or Giants, we were a very fortunate group of guys. To be a part of this game was the bonus that none of use could have thought would ever happen.”


finish last season to its 9-4 mark. “We’re not backing down from the fact that that’s our goal.”


Both teams are on streaks. The Ravens have won seven of their past eight with rookie QB JOE FLACCO throwing at least one TD pass in those games. The Steelers have won five of their last six, including their 10-point comeback thriller over Dallas last Sunday. The Ravens like this streak: Pittsburgh has lost its last five in Baltimore.


On paper, this should be one intense defensive battle. It’s a matchup between the first (Pittsburgh) and second-ranked defensive units in the NFL. And it’s also a meeting of two of the best safeties in the league – TROY POLAMALU of Pittsburgh (with a league-leading seven interceptions) and ED REED of Baltimore (tied for No. 2 with five pickoffs). “Reed is probably the best safety, him and Polamalu, that I’ve played against,” says Washington QB JASON CAMPBELL. “Those guys are relentless.”



DENVER BRONCOS (8-5) at CAROLINA PANTHERS (10-3) (Sunday, CBS, 4:15 PM ET)


STORYLINE: One’s good on the road, the other’s unbeaten at home. Plus, they’re first-place teams.


Should be quite an inter-conference battle. The Broncos have won three in a row on the road (and are 3-0 vs. the NFC South this year). The Panthers, coming off their 38-23 Monday night home win over Tampa Bay, have yet to lose at home this season (7-0). “We’re protecting our home,” says Carolina DE JULIUS PEPPERS. “That’s what we need to continue to do.”


It will be a battle of philosophies. Denver, with QB JAY CUTLER, tends to go to the air, and has the No. 3 pass offense in the league (Cutler has not been sacked in his past three games). Carolina, meanwhile, rebuilt its offensive line this offseason and drafted Oregon RB JONATHAN STEWART in the first round to pair up with DE ANGELO WILLIAMS.


Result? The No. 4 rush attack in the league, and the distinction of being the only team with two rushers in the league’s top-20 – Williams (1,141 yards) and Stewart (699). The duo became on Monday night the first teammates in history to each rush for 100 yards, score two rushing touchdowns and average 7.0 yards per carry.


NEW YORK GIANTS (11-2) at DALLAS COWBOYS (8-5) (Sunday night, NBC, 8:15 PM ET)


STORYLINE: Sailing along, thenwhoops!


That’s the story of these two, although a lot of teams wouldn’t mind having their records. There were the Giants zooming along with seven wins in a row until division-rival Philadelphia topped them 20-14 last Sunday. Turned out New York clinched the NFC East anyway because Dallas lost to Pittsburgh after winning three in a row.


So, where does that bring us? To a rouser Sunday night. With a win or other scenarios, the Giants earn a first-round bye. The Cowboys need to keep winning to insure a playoff berth.


New York wants to get back to its No. 1-ranked NFL ground game, led by BRANDON JACOBS, who rumbled for 117 yards against Dallas in Week 9. Philly limited the Giants to 88 yards. If RB MARION BARBER’s toe limits him, the national TV audience will get a look at rookie TASHARD CHOICE, who rushed for the most yards vs. Pittsburgh this year, 88, and added 78 receiving. Plus, there’s always QB TONY ROMO – third in the league in passer rating — just flinging it.


“There is not going to be any lack of motivation on either side and it is going to be a great game to be a part of,” says center SHAUN O’HARA of the Giants, who are 5-4 in their last nine games in Dallas, including the playoffs. “It is a Sunday night game, so everybody is going to be jacked up and it certainly does have other implications for both teams.”



CLEVELAND BROWNS (4-9) at PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (7-5-1) (Monday night, ESPN, 8:30 PM ET)


STORYLINE: Eagles are getting hot!


One of the best teams in the NFL in December with a 29-17 (.630) record the past 10 years, Philadelphia has won its last two to pull itself back into the playoff picture.


“It’s a long, long season,” says Eagles head coach ANDY REID. “Anything can happen. We’ve got three more games that we have to take care of business with. We have the Browns coming in here. They have four wins and three of those have been on the road. It’s not a time to sit back and relax.”


An interesting pairing to watch will be two Washington, DC-born playmakers – Philadelphia’s BRIAN WESTBROOK (age 29) and Cleveland’s JOSHUA CRIBBS (23). Like Cribbs does now, Westbrook returned kicks early in his career. They are both versatile as runners, receivers and in Cribbs’ case, even at QB (which he was at Kent State). The Browns are aiming to work him even more into the offense this week.


For what it’s worth: Cleveland and Philadelphia are the only teams to beat the Giants this year.


(Home team in CAPS)


Thursday, December 4

Sunday, December 7, Cont.’d.

SAN DIEGO 34, Oakland 7

Miami 16, BUFFALO 3 (Toronto)


DENVER 24, Kansas City 17

Sunday, December 7

SAN FRANCISCO 24, N.Y. Jets 14

CHICAGO 23, Jacksonville 10

New England 24, SEATTLE 21

Minnesota 20, DETROIT 16

ARIZONA 34, St. Louis 10

Houston 24, GREEN BAY 21

PITTSBURGH 20, Dallas 13

INDIANAPOLIS 35, Cincinnati 3

BALTIMORE 24, Washington 10

NEW ORLEANS 29, Atlanta 25


Philadelphia 20, N.Y. GIANTS 14

Monday, December 8

TENNESSEE 28, Cleveland 9

CAROLINA 38, Tampa Bay 23



(All times local)


Thursday, December 11

Sunday, December 14, Cont.’d.

New Orleans at Chicago, 7:00 PM (NFLN)

Buffalo at N.Y. Jets, 1:00 PM


Seattle at St. Louis, 12:00 PM

Sunday, December 14

Minnesota at Arizona, 2:05 PM

Tampa Bay at Atlanta, 1:00 PM

Pittsburgh at Baltimore, 4:15 PM

Washington at Cincinnati, 1:00 PM

Denver at Carolina, 4:15 PM

Tennessee at Houston, 12:00 PM

New England at Oakland, 1:15 PM

Detroit at Indianapolis, 1:00 PM

N.Y. Giants at Dallas, 8:15 PM (NBC)

Green Bay at Jacksonville, 1:00 PM


San Diego at Kansas City, 12:00 PM

Monday, December 15

San Francisco at Miami, 1:00 PM

Cleveland at Philadelphia, 8:30 PM (ESPN)