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Cullen: Week 15 NFL Preview

Scott Cullen
12/13/2012 5:56:18 PM
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Playoff races are heating up, starting with the Bengals' bid on Thursday night.

Check out this week's Power Rankings for more of my takes on all 32 teams.

A look at the Week 15 matchups in the NFL:

CINCINNATI (-5.5) at PHILADELPHIA
Until late in the fourth quarter against Tampa Bay last week, Philadelphia looked to be much the same team that has been swirling the proverbial bowl for the last couple months, but rookie QB Nick Foles engineered two touchdown drives to give the Eagles their first win in forever, potentially making the Eagles a livelier underdog for this matchup against the Bengals, who suffered a crushing last-second loss to Dallas.

Cincinnati's BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Philadelphia's Bryce Brown both provide strong running games, but the Bengals have been more accomplished passers this season, with A.J.Green one of the game's elite wide receivers. At one time, it would have been fascinating to see Green matched up with Nnamdi Asomugha, who was a lockdown cover corner not so long ago, but the Eagles haven't had that kind of pass coverage this year.

For the Eagles, Foles' emergence gives Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper and Brent Celek more appeal, even against a Bengals defence that is 10th against the pass.

GREEN BAY (-3) at CHICAGO
The Packers haven't been overpowering, but the depth of their receiving corps figures to cause problems for the Bears, who are battling injuries in the secondary as CB Tim Jennings missed last week's game with a shoulder injury and CB Charles Tillman is playing with an injured foot.

So long as Jay Cutler is healthy, though, he gives the Bears a chance because he keeps feeding a steady diet of passes to WR Brandon Marshall and, as shaky as the Bears' offensive line has been, Green Bay's pass rush without Clay Matthews isn't strong enough to take real advantage of the situation. If the Bears can get big production out of RB Matt Forte, that could provide the difference in the game because RB Alex Green is little more than functional for Green Bay.

N.Y. GIANTS (+1.5) at ATLANTA
Coming off a big win against New Orleans, can the Giants duplicate the effort? In order to do that, they will need RB David Wilson to be a strong complement to Ahmad Bradshaw, who always seems to be nicked by injury, as they face a Falcons defence that is 23rd against the run. If the Giants can run, that will give Eli Manning better matchups down the field for wide receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks.

After losing to Carolina, the Falcons return home licking their wound. While the Giants have a fine wide receiver tandem, the Falcons don't have to take a back seat with Julio Jones and Roddy White (who is questionable). The issue for the Falcons lately has been the lack of production from RB Michael Turner, who has scored a touchdown in four straight games, but has rushed for a total of 175 yards in five games. White's health and whether Turner can get going against the Giants' 22nd-ranked run defence could determine how this game ultimately plays out.

TAMPA BAY (+3.5) at NEW ORLEANS
Both teams have lost three straight, pretty much ending (not officially, but realistically) playoff hopes.

Tampa Bay boasts the game's best run defence, which is fine for the Saints, who won't hesitate to eschew the running game and let QB Drew Brees go to work against the 32nd-ranked pass defence.

New Orleans' defence is an all-around disaster, ranking 30th against the pass and 32nd against the run, so this means favourable matchups for the Bucs. RB Doug Martin, QB Josh Freeman and wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams are all candidates for big games and even TE Dallas Clark could be a valuable target for Tampa Bay.

MINNESOTA (+2.5) at ST. LOUIS
The only thing the Vikings really have going for them these days is RB Adrian Peterson and even though opponents are geared up to stop him, Peterson needs 505 rushing yards in the last three games to break Eric Dickerson's all-time record. If the Rams can keep Peterson to a reasonable total (say, under 100 yards) that would end that bid and give the Rams a shot at their fourth straight win.

St. Louis hasn't been blessed with playmakers all year anyway so, with Danny Amendola out, they are looking to Chris Givens and Brandon Gibson down the field and RB Steven Jackson, who has been durable, but not very effective overall, averaging 3.9 yards per carry.

WASHINGTON (-1) at CLEVELAND
Redskins QB Robert Griffin III has been very positive about his chances of playing after suffering a sprained knee last week. The Redskins are looking to extend their four-game winning streak and stay in the NFC playoff picture. Pierre Garcon has been Griffin's favourite target, but the Browns have been getting some good pass coverage from corners Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown, which might make the ground the way to go for Washington.

The Browns have won three in a row, so they are much more lively than they were early in the year. Washington's big weakness has been pass defence, ranking 31st in the league, so there is an opportunity for QB Brandon Weeden and WR Josh Gordon to exploit Washington's secondary.

JACKSONVILLE (+7) at MIAMI
It's bad enough that the Jaguars are a two-win team, but they are a two-win team depleted by injuries, so it looks like Montell Owens will start again at running back, though there is some hope that WR Cecil Shorts could return from his concussion. If Shorts isn't back, that makes Justin Blackmon appealing, as the one potential playmaker in the lineup.

Jacksonville ranks 31st against the run, so Miami can limit the exposure for rookie QB Ryan Tannehill by giving running backs Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas prominent roles.

DENVER (-3) at BALTIMORE
The Broncos have won eight straight, and all by at least a touchdown, so it's not particularly surprising that they are road favourites against a 9-4 team. Baltimore has lost back-to-back games, and their defence has struggled all season, so they could be hard-pressed to keep Peyton Manning and the Broncos in check.

If there is a difference to note for the Ravens, it's that they fired offensive co-ordinator Cam Cameron. Perhaps that means more touches for RB Ray Rice, who isn't being used as much this season, but there isn't an easy way to go about attacking a Broncos defence that now ranks seventh against the pass and sixth against the run.

INDIANAPOLIS (+9) at HOUSTON
The Colts have won seven of eight yet come in as nearly double-digit underdogs against a team that lost by 28 at New England on Monday night. It should be noted that in three of the Colts' four losses this year, they lost by 20 points or more, so it's not inconceivable that the Texans could generate a bunch of pressure on QB Andrew Luck, force turnovers and run away from Indy.

However, Indianapolis' passing game has been evolving, giving the Colts a chance to rally even when they fall behind. With Donnie Avery and T.Y. Hilton as secondary options, they can put pressure on the Texans' secondary in coverage.

CAROLINA (+3) at SAN DIEGO
Nothing at stake in this game, but the Panthers, generally, and QB Cam Newton, specifically, have been playing better lately and the Chargers shocked the world with their win at Pittsburgh last week.

The result doesn't matter, but Newton has the chance to be a difference maker for those in fantasy playoffs, so that might provide some audience for a game that is otherwise a dog.

SEATTLE (-5.5) at BUFFALO (at TORONTO)
The Seahawks are coming off a 58-0 drubbing of Arizona and face a Bills team that effectively loses homefield advantage by playing at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.

In a battle of running backs, former Bill Marshawn Lynch has been a beast for Seattle, but the Bills counter with C.J. Spiller, who finally should see more carries now that Fred Jackson is on IR. If the running game plays to a draw, the Seahawks should have an advantage with rookie QB Russell Wilson facing Buffalo's secondary.

DETROIT (-6) at ARIZONA
The Lions have been losing a lot of close games even against good teams, so it does make some sense that they are favoured at Arizona, clearly not a good team.

With rookie QB Ryan Lindley starting again, the Cardinals' passing game is a total risk, so WR Larry Fitzgerald's effectiveness will continue to be limited. On the other side of the ball, the Lions have a bunch of injuries, but can at least count on Matthew Stafford throwing to Calvin Johnson. As great as Megatron is, it will be interesting to see if Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson, one of the league's better corners, can slow him down.

PITTSBURGH (-1.5) at DALLAS
Both teams are clawing for a playoff spot, so this game is more important than most on the schedule. Pittsburgh's getting healthier, with QB Ben Roethlisberger and WR Antonio Bryant returning in recent weeks, while the Cowboys are hoping that WR Dez Bryant can play through a finger injury suffered last week.

The Steelers have suspended RB Rashard Mendenhall, leaving the duo of Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redsman to split duties against Dallas and the Cowboys are shorthanded in the middle of their defensive line, with Josh Brent's legal trouble and Jay Ratliff on IR, so the interior is an area of concern.

KANSAS CITY (+3) at OAKLAND
Since beating the Chiefs 26-16 in Kansas City in Week Eight, the Raiders have lost six straight, by an average margin of 17.7 points, yet they are still favoured against a two-win Chiefs team that has been rocked by tragedy.

Both teams have playmakers in the backfield, Jamaal Charles for Kansas City and Darren McFadden for Oakland, but the Chiefs are without WR Dwayne Bowe and the Raiders haven't been getting consistent production from their wideouts lately either. This game may have more meaning for draft slot than anything else.

SAN FRANCISCO (+5) at NEW ENGLAND
A battle of the top two teams in the latest Power Rankings, with the 49ers bringing the best defence in the league to try and slow down New England's high-powered offence. The Niners will need OLB Aldon Smith to generate a consistent pass rush on Tom Brady, enough to keep him out of his comfort zone, because if Brady gets time, he will pick the Niners apart, especially using WR Wes Welker in the slot and TE Aaron Hernandez.

New England has a strong run defence, which can keep Frank Gore under wraps, but their primary concern will be QB Colin Kaepernick, who has shown that he can be a dynamic playmaker. If Kaepernick takes advantage of some weakness in the Patriots' secondary, maybe that will open up other opportunities and give the Niners a chance. It still feels like the Niners' D is going to have to be responsible for making the difference.

N.Y. JETS (+1.5) at TENNESSEE
Still clinging to playoff hope, the Jets are road underdogs, though that could change if Titans RB Chris Johnson (who has missed practice with injury) ends up not playing.

The Jets can't trust QB Mark Sanchez, so they have to pound on the ground with running backs Shonn Green and Bilal Powell -- a game-plan that worked last week. Of course, if Johnson plays for Tennessee, he won't mind the matchup against the Jets' 29th-ranked run defence, so maybe this will be a quick game with lots of running. Given the quality of the teams in this national game, one can only hope.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.



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