NFL week 15: Preview

There's just three weeks until the play-offs - and still much to be determined

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The Independent Online

Three teams will clinch their respective divisions with wins in week 15. The New England Patriots will win the AFC East if they overcome the Miami Dolphins, Indianapolis need a win over the Houston Texans to seal the AFC South and the Denver Broncos will confirm top spot in the AFC West if they beat the San Diego Chargers.

For Bill Belichick’s Patriots, it’s an opportunity not just to ensure progression to the play-offs but to get revenge on the Dolphins, who handed the Patriots their first week 1 loss since 2003 when they won 33-20 in Miami in September.

The Dolphins’ play-off hopes were dealt a blow on Sunday when they lost at home to the Baltimore Ravens. It’s likely that Joe Philbin’s team will have to win their three remaining games to have a chance at making the post-season, but they haven’t won in New England since 2008 and Tom Brady and Co haven’t lost a regular season contest in Gillette Stadium since December 2012.

The Indianapolis Colts are 9-2 since starting the season with two straight losses and look set to reach the play-offs for a third successive year, although they needed an Andrew Luck touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton with 32 seconds remaining to defeat the Cleveland Browns 25-24 on Sunday. The win ensured the cushion ahead of this weekend’s opponents, the Houston Texans, remained at two games.

In the AFC West, Denver will wrap up the division if they beat San Diego, who will take inspiration from their 27-20 win at Sports Authority Field last season. They were the only team to win in Denver last season, but are reeling from a defeat to the Patriots in which they managed just 53 rushing yards and were shut out in three quarters.

The NFC Conference is not as clear-cut as the AFC. The Eagles and Cowboys, who share top spot in the NFC East with 9-4 records, meet for the second time in three weeks. The Eagles won that encounter but will be wary of the Cowboys’ unbeaten away record. That, and the fact that Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez completed just 10 passes and threw an interception in Sunday’s loss to the Seattle Seahawks, will give Jason Garrett’s team optimism.

He’s taken them to three straight NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl, but Jim Harbaugh’s reign in San Francisco is ending rather embarrassingly. On Sunday they lost to the Oakland Raiders, who had won just once all season, and face much stiffer opposition when they travel to Seattle. The Seahawks overcame the 49ers 19-3 two weeks ago, and another 49ers loss will officially rule them out of play-off contention.

Elsewhere in the NFC West, the St. Louis Rams host the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals ended a two-game losing streak with victory over the Kansas City Chiefs last weekend, but they face a Rams side who recorded their first back-to-back shutout since 1945, following up a 52-0 mauling of the Raiders with a 24-0 win against the Washington Redskins.

Three things to look out for:

1) The Johnny Manziel era begins

The Cleveland Browns vs Cincinnati Bengals may just attract the largest audience in the 6pm games, and not just because it’s a divisional matchup. When Browns head coach Mike Pettine confirmed Johnny Manziel will start for Cleveland, the only person who was disappointed with the news was Brian Hoyer. For the first time in a long time, all eyes will be on the Cleveland Browns come Sunday evening.

2) Can Buffalo's defensive front cause Aaron Rodgers problems?

What has allowed Aaron Rodgers to perform at the level he has, besides the ease at which he goes through his reads, identifies opposing defences and delivers pinpoint pass after pinpoint pass, is how good he is at finding space when the pocket breaks down.

That ability will be tested on Sunday against a Buffalo defensive front which leads the way in sacks, having knocked the quarterback over 48 times all season. The Bills’ best chance of winning will be if Mario Williams (12 sacks this season), Marcell Dareus (10) and Jerry Hughes (9.5) can get to Rodgers early and often.

3) How will the AFC North look after this week?

The AFC North is the only division in the NFL where every team has a winning record. Who will the win the division is anyone’s guess, but the Bengals currently hold the advantage at 8-4-1. They face the Browns (7-6), who prop up the division, while the Ravens (8-5) host the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Steelers (8-5) visit Atlanta. One thing that’s for certain; this division is going down to the wire.

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