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Previewing the most important NFL games in Week 15

Of the 16 games on the schedule this week, 14 of them have major playoff implications. Danny Kelly previews everything on the line this week.

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Week 15 is upon us and you have to hand it to the NFL for their scheduling prescience. This week's slate features 16 games and only two of them are inconsequential to the playoff race. While fantasy players might be checking in on the Jets-Titans game or looking at the boxscore for Washington at New York, the 14 other games hold heavy implications for how this year's postseason will set up.

Here's a quick look at each big game this weekend, and I've listed teams along with their records and their spot in our weekly Power Rankings. In almost every division, a game of musical chairs is reaching its crescendo, and teams are jockeying for position so they're not left standing when it stops.

The AFC North and NFC South

Gotta love these two divisions. The nature in which the standings have shaken out in both dictates that every game going forward has major repercussions for the Playoffs.

No. 13 Bengals (8-4-1) vs. No. 20 Browns (7-6)

This is a huge game for the Bengals, who were blown out at home last week to the division rival Steelers. While Cincy is still technically in first place in the NFC North, a lot of oddsmakers see Baltimore as a better bet at this point due to the inconsistency of the Bengals' offense, coupled with a defense that folded late last week. The Browns are more or less on the outside looking in at this point but for Cincinnati, a very strong defense stands in their way. Cleveland stymied Andrew Luck most of last week but with very little help from their offense, the Colts were able to make a comeback. Bottom line? The Bengals need to show up for four quarters this week or their playoff hopes will take a huge hit.

Football Outsiders currently has Cincy at 50.7 percent odds for the postseason, using their DVOA metric. Five Thirty Eight's ELO metric is slightly more confident, giving the Bengals 61.2 percent odds for a berth to the playoffs. If the Bengals can't dispatch the Johnny Manziel* led Browns, those odds drop precipitously to 39.7 percent.


However, if the Bengals can harass and get after Manziel, make him uncomfortable in his first NFL start and force some turnovers, they'll have given themselves a real shot. With a win, Cincy's playoff odds jump to 80.2 percent.

Note: ELO's Playoff Odds will change slightly based on the outcomes of other games as well.

No. 10 Ravens (8-5) vs. No. 29 Jaguars (2-11)

The Ravens are well liked as a team by both Football Outsiders' DVOA efficiency rating (fifth ranked team in the NFL and 80.5 percent odds for the playoffs) and Five Thirty Eight's ELO rating (fifth overall team, 74.5 percent postseason odds). This is a good squad this year per advanced statistics, but of course, they'll have to take care of their business this weekend at Jacksonville. A loss would be disastrous for the Ravens, as they are set up well to potentially grab a share of the lead in the division with a win and a Bengals loss. Their odds, per ELO, would drop 36 points, all the way down to 38 percent, if they stumble,

However, it seems unlikely. The Ravens are 3-1 in their last four and are on the heels of a huge win in Miami last week. Joe Flacco has completed 67 percent of his passes during the four-game stretch with six touchdowns, one interception, 7.88 yards per attempt, and a 105 quarterback rating. We've seen what can happen when Flacco heats up at the right time. Gus Bradley and his crew will do their best to stifle that.

No. 12 Steelers (8-5) vs. No. 22 Falcons (5-8)

This is a huge game for both teams and features two offenses that have the talent to make this a pretty exciting shootout. We saw the quick-strike ability of Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers last week and Big Ben put up 350 yards passing, with three touchdowns and no picks on the road. The way that the Falcons' offense has been playing of late, though, he might have to match that this week as well.

Matt Ryan's passed for 736 yards over the past two games at a nearly 68 percent completion rate and 9.2 yards per attempt, with six touchdowns to only one interception. The big question, of course, will be whether his No. 1 target in Julio Jones can suit up.

Regardless, the Falcons are still in the playoff hunt with that 5-8 record and a big win at home could do wonders for their chances at winning the division. Football Outsiders currently has them as the underdogs to the Saints to win the division at 37.5 percent odds compared to 49 percent for New Orleans. ELO gives them slightly better odds at 42 percent, but bottom line, it's just too late in the year to lose a big game like this at home.

No. 23 Saints (5-8) vs. No. 25 Bears (5-8)

Of course, odds are maybe a little meaningless when you're in the NFC South, where every week it seems that each team tries harder and harder to lose the lead on the division. The Saints squandered a great opportunity last week at home when they lost to the Panthers, and now sit three games under .500 right there with the Falcons.

They travel to Chicago this weekend, and this one could be interesting. The Saints had a bit of a shakeup this week while reportedly holding a set of meetings meant to straighten some things out. Meanwhile, the Bears' offensive coordinator admitted to the team that he was the source of some negative reports on Jay Cutler, so the fallout from that should be significant, I would expect. Add in the fact that both teams seem to be playing bad football of late, and this could be a sloppy one. Which makes this game kind of tough to pick. The Saints need it more, as the Bears are eliminated from playoff contention.

The Clinchers

There are several games this week that feature first place teams taking on second place teams, and the leaders will each have a shot at clinching their respective division titles.

No. 4 Broncos (10-3) vs. No. 11 Chargers (8-5)
No. 16 Texans (7-6) vs. No. 6 Colts (9-4)
No. 15 Dolphins (7-6) vs. No. 2 Patriots (10-2)

The Broncos, Colts, and Patriots can all clinch spots in the NFL playoffs with wins this weekend. They'll all have to go through good teams, though, and these games could feature some of the toughest battles on the slate this week.

The Chargers host Peyton Manning and the Broncos, who have struggled somewhat over the last few weeks with some key injuries and after adopting a much more balanced offensive attack of late. San Diego has backs to the wall after losing to the Patriots last week, and a loss here would severely cripple the Chargers' shot at playing in January, putting them somewhere around 15 percent per Five Thirty Eight. However, a win this week would boost San Diego up over the 50 percent mark for the playoffs and set them up for a run at it over the final two weeks.

The Texans, meanwhile, are a much longer shot at the postseason at this point but could, too, make a run at things if they get a big road win this week at Indianapolis. With a little help from some of the other AFC teams vying for wildcard Spots like the Chargers, Dolphins, Chiefs, and everyone in the AFC North, they'll stay in the conversation.

The Dolphins are in do-or-die mode. They can push their ELO playoff odds to over 50 percent with an upset win over the Patriots but will be all but finished if they falter.

The NFC tilts

No. 19 49ers (7-6) vs. No. 3 Seahawks (9-4)
No. 21 Vikings (6-7) vs. No. 9 Lions (9-4)
No. 1 Packers (10-3) vs. No. 18 Bills (7-6):

The Niners are looking to hold on to their playoff hopes with a win in Seattle but if the Seahawks can dispatch their main rivals on Sunday, their odds go up to over 93 percent and their odds at winning the NFC West swing to over 70 percent. With the Cardinals winning in St. Louis on Thursday night, the Seahawks really need to get this win so they can keep pace with Arizona, setting up a big game next weekend in the desert that could help decide who will win the division. A loss this week, though, well, that complicates things for the defending champs.

At the same time, the Lions have a chance to move their playoffs odds to over 90 percent with a win over the visiting Vikings. Detroit will move to 10 wins and stay within striking distance of a Packers team that has to travel to Buffalo to play a difficult defense on the road. A Green Bay win all but guarantees them a spot in the postseason but it also moves their shot at the No. 1 seed up toward the 70 percent range.

The Big Game

No. 8 Cowboys (9-4) vs. No. 5 Eagles (9-4):

The Cowboys get a chance at redemption this week, and a shot at flipping the script on what has looked like Philly's division to win. With a loss to the Seahawks, the Eagles suddenly look vulnerable with Mark Sanchez at quarterback, and Dallas has a real shot at sending Philly into a potential tailspin by beating them this week. However, a bounce-back win by Chip Kelly's crew would cement them as NFC East favorites and potentially change the complexion of the entire playoff picture.

As Five Thirty Eight writes, "The Cowboys' playoff chances climb to 84 percent with a road victory but drop to 36 percent with a loss. An Eagles victory would all but assure them a playoff berth, resulting in a 96 percent probability of both postseason play and a division title."

The three points that Vegas is giving the Cowboys on the road seems pretty appropriate right now because these are two teams that should match up well with each other. The run games for both teams have been clicking -- DeMarco Murray has 473 yards and two touchdowns at 4.98 yards per carry over his last four, while LeSean McCoy isn't too far behind at 427 yards, two touchdowns, and 4.97 yards per carry.

The good news for the Cowboys, though, is that over his last four games, Tony Romo is a 71 percent passer with 10 touchdowns to only two interceptions, hitting on 8.56 yards per pass and compiling a 120 rating. Sanchez, meanwhile, has connected on 63 percent of his passes while throwing six touchdowns to five interceptions, putting together an 83 rating. This Sunday night matchup should be exceptional.