By Don Banks | December 14, 2017 12 pm PT
The Chargers and Chiefs have been going at it since the early days of the AFL, when those two franchises finished first and second in that league’s Western Division three times in the five-season span of 1960-64. The Rams and Seahawks, as Matt Hasselbeck reminded me this week, were bitter rivals from 2003-2006 when those two finished 1-2 in the NFC West each of those four years. And the Patriots and Steelers have had this heated non-divisional rivalry going since 2001, with New England and Pittsburgh being the AFC’s two perennial powerhouses this century.
We get all three of those monster matchups in Week 15, and the stakes couldn’t be much higher in terms of divisional supremacy, playoff seeding and even fighting for a postseason berth. Plus, with the college football season now headed for bowl season, the NFL returns to Saturday play the next two weeks, a sure indication the regular season is winding down and January’s Super Bowl tournament is in sight.
The NFC remains the most intriguing epicenter of the action, with no defined pecking order among the playoff contenders. The AFC is more familiar, with the Patriots, Steelers and Chiefs in the mix yet again. But don’t discount the surging Jaguars, with their dangerous defense, and how about the Titans and Bills being alive in the playoff race in mid-December for the first time in forever (or so it seems)?
* Last week’s picks: 8-8 (.500); Season: 21-11 (.656).
Denver at Indianapolis — The Broncos and Colts spent many years as staples of the AFC playoff field, even meeting three times in the postseason from 2003 on. But now they’re last-place teams playing out the string and hoping for rebounds in 2018. Can’t see it happening unless Andrew Luck returns strong in Indy and the Broncos some how find themselves a franchise-level arm in Denver. Winner: Indianapolis.
Chicago at Detroit — The Bears drubbed the Bengals in Cincinnati last week, with Mitchell Trubisky putting on his best showing yet as a rookie quarterback. But the Lions still have something to play for, albeit as NFC wild-card long shots. Another win perhaps also strengthens Detroit head coach Jim Caldwell’s case to return next season, although anything short of the playoffs and it still could be curtains for him. Winner: Detroit.
L.A. Chargers at Kansas City — The Chargers have been the AFC West’s best team for almost two months now, and they’re on a roll that should leave them ultra-confident headed into the challenging environs of Arrowhead Stadium. But still, seeing how easily the Chiefs dispatched the somnolent Raiders last week gave me the sense Kansas City hit bottom in their loss to the Jets and are now headed back up. The Chargers should win, but I think the Chiefs will find a way in this showdown that could decide the division. Winner: Kansas City.
Miami at Buffalo —- The Dolphins just played and won their Super Bowl at home against the vaunted Patriots. The Bills just played and won their Snow Bowl at home against the Colts. Buffalo’s bid for an eighth win and a non-losing season should be the added motivation it needs, not to mention the Bills are currently the No. 6 playoff seed in the AFC. Winner: Buffalo.
Green Bay at Carolina — I’d like to pick the Packers for the storybook tale potential of Aaron Rodgers’ return to the lineup. But the Panthers defense will flex just enough muscle to hold No. 12 to less-than-Superman status, and keep Carolina in the thick of the three-team NFC South race. — Winner: Carolina.
Baltimore at Cleveland — If be bumbling, bungling Browns couldn’t close the deal last week with a 14-point fourth-quarter lead on Green Bay, I can’t see them beating a Ravens team that has to win to stay alive in the AFC wild-card chase. I picked Hue Jackson’s team to win last week. I won’t make that mistake again. And it’s 0-16, here we come in Cleveland. Winner: Baltimore.
Houston at Jacksonville — Let’s see if the improved Jaguars have matured enough already this season to avoid a letdown performance against an injury-deterred Texans team going nowhere. T.J. Yates played fairly well in relief of the clearly concussed Tom Savage last week, but a full four quarters against this Jacksonville defense is no way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Winner: Jacksonville.
Cincinnati at Minnesota — The Vikings need to rebound after their streak-snapping loss at Carolina last week, and Mike Zimmer would love to beat a Bengals team he once worked for on Marvin Lewis’s coaching staff. These Vikings are too good and have too much at stake to get sloppy against the likes of Cincinnati. Winner: Minnesota.
N.Y. Jets at New Orleans — Okay, show us what you’ve got, Bryce Petty. The Jets have already surprised us plenty this season, but their lineup without Josh McCown at quarterback isn’t going into the Superdome and getting it done. Not with the Saints playing on extra rest and itching to get back to their winning ways after losing in Atlanta. Winner: New Orleans.
Philadelphia at N.Y. Giants — Nick Foles is no Carson Wentz, I’ll grant you that. But he’s no slappy, and he’ll keep the Eagles’ big green winning machine humming against the dismal Giants. The dream season in Philadelphia absorbed a gut punch, but it wasn’t a knockout blow, Eagles fans. Winner: Philadelphia.
Arizona at Washington — Two underachievers meet in Week 15 and the only thing compelling about this game is to ponder who might be playing quarterback in Arizona and Washington next year? For now, Kirk Cousins will remind everyone why he’s still the guy in D.C., and deserves to return after another hefty pay raise. Winner: Washington.
L.A. Rams at Seattle —- The Seahawks could not keep the momentum they built in beating the Eagles alive against Jacksonville last week, losing the game and then losing their cool in that ugly scene in the final minute. But Seattle will be ready for the Rams, and it will play just enough stout defense to squeak out a winner and take over first place in the NFC West with two weeks remaining. Winner: Seattle.
New England at Pittsburgh — Tom Brady and the Patriots have everyone right where they want them, wondering if Monday night’s meltdown in Miami was the first sign of serious trouble on the way? But until I see the Steelers handle the pressure of vanquishing their nemesis, my default setting will be the Patriots prevailing in a matchup of game plans and coaching wits. The Steelers defense is not the same without Ryan Shazier, and I think New England’s underneath passing game will consistently exploit that hole. Winner: New England.
Tennessee at San Francisco — I think Jimmy Garoppolo is the real deal and he’ll prove it once again in his 49ers home starting debut, improving to 3-0 since he took over for rookie C.J. Beathard. I think the Titans are in trouble, and they could see their 8-4, first-place standing of a week ago quickly dissolve into an 8-8 non-playoff showing by December’s end. The bleeding has started in Nashville and let’s see if Titans coach Mike Mularkey knows how to stop it. Winner: San Francisco.
Dallas at Oakland — The Raiders are missing something and it’s alarming how much Derek Carr has regressed after last season’s breakthrough performance. The Cowboys aren’t going to make the playoffs, but they’re going to come close, earning their eighth win in the last game of Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension. Winner: Dallas.
Atlanta at Tampa Bay — You can almost hear the car engines idling in the Tampa Bay players parking lot, that’s how ready the Bucs are for this miserable season to be over. While Dirk Koetter’s team stumbles toward the finish line, the Falcons still have every right to believe they can win the NFC South and possibly defend their NFC title. Winner: Atlanta