It's Week 15 of the 2013 NFL schedule, and playoff races are hitting the home stretch with just three weeks remaining. Fourteen games will be played Sunday, and nearly all of them have serious postseason implications.
Unfortunately, however, the majority of games are being played between playoff-hopefuls and non-playoff hopefuls. Matchups like Seattle Seahawks-New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles-Minnesota Vikings and Kansas City Chiefs-Oakland Raiders don't exactly promise competitive balance. Some of the notable exceptions are New England Patriots-Miami Dolphins and Green Bay Packers-Dallas Cowboys.
Here's what you should be watching for in each of Sunday's games:
Rumors about Mike Shanahan's strained relationship with Robert Griffin III and team owner Dan Snyder are flying left and right, and the drama took a new plot turn earlier this week when the Washington Redskins coach announced he was benching RGIII for the remainder of the season. In fairness to Shanahan, he cited the pounding the quarterback has taken over the past month and the importance of RGIII being healthy heading into the offseason, but it's looking more and more like Shanahan won't be around for said offseason.
At 3-10, both teams are in the hunt for the top pick in the 2014 draft, and unfortunately, someone's going to have to win this one. The race to the bottom is on!
49ers vs. Buccaneers (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
The San Francisco 49ers are closing in on an NFC Wild Card spot and could theoretically clinch a playoff berth this week with a win and some help. The Niners have been inconsistent at times this season, but made a statement last week by dispatching the NFC-leading Seahawks in a defensive showdown.
Beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won't be as easy as it would have been back in October. After starting 0-8, the suddenly-hot Bucs have charged back to win four of their last five games. Nobody gave head coach Greg Schiano a chance to make it through this season with his job, but a win over San Fran and a strong finish could be enough to force the team's management to reconsider.
Seahawks vs. Giants (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
Seattle is smarting from a two-point loss at the hands of the division-rival 49ers and will look to exact some revenge on the struggling Giants. The Seahawks can clinch the NFC West and a first-round bye with a win and a San Francisco loss. Russell Wilson has played his way into the MVP discussion and will have a prime opportunity to bolster his case against a shaky Giants secondary.
New York's midseason swell has come crashing back down, culminating in an ugly 37-14 loss to the San Diego Chargers last week. Playing against the league's best secondary, Eli Manning is sure to hand out plenty of turnovers, so you should watch this one for Manningface alone.
Eagles vs. Vikings (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
Ever wonder how bad the Vikings would be without Adrian Peterson? Now's your chance to find out! The reigning MVP's foot injury wasn't as bad as initially feared, but it seems unlikely he'll suit up against the Eagles on Sunday.
There's no way this week's Eagles game could possibly be as entertaining as last week's snow-palooza, but it's still worth watching for the postseason implications. Both Philly and Dallas sit at 7-6 atop the NFC East, and with a massive game between the two looming in Week 17, this race should be fun to watch down the stretch.
Patriots vs. Dolphins (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
Last week, Tom Brady threw two touchdowns in the final minute to finish off an improbable one-point win over the Cleveland Browns. The Dolphins looked as though they had lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers on an insane Stanford-band-on-the-field-esque lateral play, only to win after the runner was ruled out of bounds just yards from the endzone. If Week 15 is anything like Week 14 for these two teams, this one should be entertaining.
Oh, and New England can clinch the AFC East with a win or a tie, while Miami is fighting for the conference's final wild card spot.
Bills vs. Jaguars (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
I'd like to make dumpster fire jokes here, but the Jacksonville Jaguars have been surprisingly competent as of late. Mirroring the Bucs, they've won four of their last five following a 0-8 start. Sure, two of their last three wins were over the Houston Texans and the third over the Cleveland Browns, so there's no need to get too excited. But Sunday doesn't get much more difficult against a Buffalo Bills team that got crushed 27-6 in Tampa Bay last week.
Texans vs. Colts (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
The Indianapolis Colts have been flat-out bad over the last month and a half. They got handled by the Cincinnati Bengals 42-28 last week despite a 326-yard, four-touchdown day from Andrew Luck. The question is, how bad can the Colts get? Surely not bad enough to lose to the Texans, who just fired Gary Kubiak after losing 11 consecutive games.
Bears vs. Browns (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
The Chicago Bears looked like world-beaters against the Cowboys on Monday night, though that could have just been the result of Ditka-fueled euphoria. They're locked in a tight battle with the Detroit Lions for the NFC North, but the real story line here is the play of Josh McCown and what it means for Jay Cutler. McCown has been brilliant filling in for an injured Cutler, brilliant enough even for folks in Chicago to start questioning if the team should re-sign Cutler after his contract runs out after the season.
McCown and Cleveland quarterback Jason Campbell combined for 739 yards and seven touchdowns last week against the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, so this one could be an unexpected shootout. The Browns' Josh Gordon is on a historic pace, averaging an absurd 194 receiving yards per game and scoring five touchdowns over his last four contests.
Chiefs vs. Raiders (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS)
I'm not going to try to convince you that the Raiders are worth watching at this point, but the Chiefs certainly are. They put on a show against the Redskins last week, scoring on the ground, through the air, on a kick return, and on a punt return en route to a 45-10 blowout. They can clinch a playoff berth with a win Sunday, and after losing three consecutive prior to beating the Redskins, they'll want to do so in emphatic fashion.
Jets vs. Panthers (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS)
The Jekyll & Hyde New York Jets snapped a three-game losing skid last week with a 27-17 win over the Raiders, and despite their 6-7 record, are still in the hunt for the last AFC wild card. That goal becomes a lot less realistic with a loss to the 9-4 Carolina Panthers. Geno Smith could be in for a long day against
the Kraken Greg Hardy and a dominant Carolina defense bent on shaking off an 18-point loss to the Saints in Week 14.
Packers vs. Cowboys (4:25 p.m. ET, FOX)
And just like that, the Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers are back in the playoff race. After their first win in over a month and since losing Rodgers to a collarbone fracture, the 6-6-1 Packers sit just behind the 7-6 Lions and Bears in the NFC North with three weeks remaining. Unfortunately for them, it doesn't appear Rodgers will be ready to go by Sunday, though he has been more active in practice this week.
It's December, and the Cowboys are losing. While much has been made this season over the validity of the Tony-Romo-is-a-choker theory, the fact is that Dallas' ugly loss in Chicago last week drops his career record in December to 11-16. With the Cowboys locked in a dead-heat with the Eagles for the NFC East, it will be interesting to see whether the team can shake off its historical late-season issues.
Cardinals vs. Titans (4:25 p.m. ET, FOX)
The 8-5 Arizona Cardinals are tied for the sixth-best record in the NFC, but unfortunately for them are in third place in the brutal NFC West. They're on the outside looking in on the playoffs at the moment, but thanks to five wins in their last six games, have pulled to within one game of the 9-4 Panthers and 49ers. They have a monster showdown against San Francisco to close the season, and can't afford to fall behind between now and then.
The Tennessee Titans are caught in a football purgatory. At 5-8, they likely aren't good enough to make the playoffs (technically they're still alive), but not bad enough to earn a top draft choice.
Saints vs. Rams (4:25 p.m. ET, FOX)
New Orleans has regained control of the NFC South for now, but still has to face the Panthers once more this season. Drew Brees and Co. can't let off the gas against a St. Louis Rams team that, while only 5-8, has notched wins over Arizona, Indianapolis and Chicago this season. The Rams defense is just 22nd in the league against the pass this year, so Brees should have an easy day finding Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and the rest of his receiving corps.
Bengals vs. Steelers (8:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
The 9-4 Bengals are hoping to catch the Patriots for the No. 2 seed in the AFC and have beaten the Steelers once already this season. On that day back in Week 2, Cincinnati piled up 127 rushing yards and Giovanni Bernard scored twice. Bernard had 99 yards against the Colts last week and will look to exploit a weak Pittsburgh front that is allowing a season average of 120 yard on the ground.
The Bengals can clinch the AFC North with a win and a Baltimore loss or tie.