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NFL 2011 Season – Week 15 Preview

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Doug Pensinger, Getty Images

Five division titles are yet to be determined as the 2011 NFL schedule enters its final weeks. Three AFC teams have an opportunity to join the Houston Texans by clinching a playoff spot with a victory this week. Meanwhile, the Green Bay Packers can clinch home-field advantage through the NFC title game with a win. Here’s a preview of all of this week’s remaining games:

Saturday, Dec. 17

Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 8:20 PM

Dallas (7-6) has lost its last two games in the closing seconds because of failed field goals. The Cowboys also lost rookie running back DeMarco Murray for the year after he suffered a broken ankle in the Sunday night loss to the Giants last week. Original starting RB Felix Jones will replace Murray. With the sixth-best offense in the NFL, Dallas should be able to score often on the Buccaneers, who give up an average of 28.5 points per game, next-to-worst in the league. Tampa Bay (4-9) must be better on offense than it was in committing seven turnovers in last week’s 41-14 drubbing at the hands of Jacksonville. Tampa quarterback Josh Freeman will have opportunities to throw against a weak Dallas secondary that is ranked 24th against the pass.

Sunday, Dec. 18

Carolina Panthers at Houston Texans – 1:00 PM

Having clinched its first playoff berth in franchise history, Houston (10-3) now looks to win out in an attempt to secure a first-round bye. Texans’ rookie quarterback T.J. Yates guides the NFL’s fifth-highest scoring offense against a Panthers defense which allows an average of 27.4 points per game, 29th in the league. Carolina (4-9) rookie quarterback Cam Newton, who has 13 rushing touchdowns, needs to find a way to score on the NFL’s top-ranked defense. He’ll look to Steve Smith, ranked second in the league with 1,217 receiving yards, for help.

Washington Redskins at New York Giants – 1:00 PM

After breaking a four-game losing streak with a win over Dallas, New York (7-6) hopes to take another step toward the playoffs this week. Giants receiver Victor Cruz has played at near All-Pro level. His 1,150 receiving yards are third-best in the NFL. The Redskins defense must get pressure on New York quarterback Eli Manning, like they did in a 28-14 victory over the Giants in the opening week of the season. Washington (4-9) would like rookie running back Roy Helu to continue his three-game streak of 100-yard rushing games. If the Redskins have to pass often, the New York defensive line, led by Jason Pierre-Paul, could create havoc for Washington’s patchwork offensive line.

Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills – 1:00 PM

After firing head coach Tony Sparano, Miami (4-9) will be directed by assistant coach Todd Bowles on an interim basis. Bowles may not have quarterback Matt Moore, who missed the end of last week’s loss to Philadelphia with a concussion. J.P. Losman will start if Moore can’t play. Count on him to use running back Reggie Bush against a Bills defense that surrenders 26.2 points per game, 26th in the NFL. Buffalo (5-8) must play better on offense than it did in a 35-8 loss to Miami in week 11. Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has passed for six touchdowns and nine interceptions during Buffalo’s six-game losing skid. The Dolphins have the third-best run defense in the league, giving up an average of just 89.9 rushing yards per game. Miami should be able to contain Buffalo running back C.J. Spiller.

Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears – 1:00 PM

Seattle (6-7) tries to keep its slim playoff hopes alive by turning running back Marshawn Lynch loose against the Bears defense. Lynch is the NFL’s seventh-leading rusher, running for more than 100 yards in five of his last six games. Chicago (7-6) has lost three games in a row since losing quarterback Jay Cutler to a broken thumb. Backup quarterback Caleb Hanie has thrown six interceptions in his three starts, while being sacked 15 times. The Seahawks defense is tied for fifth in interceptions with 17. Bears running back Matt Forte is still out with a knee injury and his replacement, Marion Barber, will try to bounce back after a mistake-filled game last week in the loss to Denver.

New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings – 1:00 PM

New Orleans (10-3) hopes to take a step closer to an NFC South title and a first-round playoff bye while exposing the Vikings terrible secondary. Saints quarterback Drew Brees leads the NFL with 4,368 passing yards. He’ll guide the NFL’s top-ranked offense against a Vikings defense that gives up an average of 28 points per game, 30th in the league. Minnesota (2-11) will start rookie quarterback Christian Ponder, who was pulled for his back-up, Joe Webb, after committing four turnovers against Detroit last week. Running back Adrian Peterson may return from a sprained ankle for Minnesota. The Vikings need a strong running game to control the clock and keep Brees off the field.

Cincinnati Bengals at St. Louis Rams – 1:00 PM

Cincinnati (7-6) has lost four of its last five games. If the Bengals want to keep their playoff hopes alive, they need to win every week. Running back Cedric Benson should see plenty of carries against a Rams defense that gives up 156.8 yards per game, the worst average in the league. St. Louis (2-11) may be without quarterback Sam Bradford, who is bothered by a high ankle sprain. Kellen Clemens will start, if Bradford isn’t ready. The Rams have allowed 46 sacks on their quarterbacks. Their offense averages a league-worst 11.8 points per game. That doesn’t bode well for them against a Bengals’ defense ranked seventh in the NFL.

Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts – 1:00 PM

After Houston clinched the AFC South last week, Tennessee (7-6) can only hope for a wild-card playoff spot. The Titans may be without quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who left last week’s loss to the Saints with a calf injury. If Hasselbeck hasn’t recovered, rookie Jake Locker will start against a Colts defense that gives up 29.4 points per game, most in the league. Indianapolis (0-13) starts Dan Orlovsky at quarterback. He has been sacked eight times in his two starts. If the Colts can’t keep the Titans defense off-balance with a running game, they will look to target Orlovsky and disrupt drives.

Green Bay Packers at Kansas City Chiefs – 1:00 PM

Green Bay (13-0) aims to wrap up home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs with a win. Averaging an NFL-best 35.8 points per game, the Packers will rely on quarterback Aaron Rodgers to continue his near-perfect performance this season. Green Bay receiver Greg Jennings and leading rusher James Starks are both injured and may not play against the Chiefs. Romeo Crennel takes over as head coach for Kansas City (5-8), which fired Todd Haley earlier this week. If former Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton is healthy, he’ll get his first start as a Chief this week. Orton has already faced the Packers this year, a 49-23 loss to them in week 4 while he was with Denver. He threw three interceptions then and can’t afford to do the same this Sunday.

Detroit Lions at Oakland Raiders – 4:05 PM

Currently in position for an NFC wild-card spot, Detroit (8-5) wants to keep control of its own destiny. The Lions face a Raiders defense that gives up 27.2 points per game, 28th in the league. Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford will look to use the running game to set up his downfield passes. Oakland (7-6) needs to win and get help from other teams to make the playoffs. The Raiders have to get better play from quarterback Carson Palmer, who has thrown 13 interceptions in six and one-half games with the team. A more potent running game could help keep the aggressive Lions pass rush from taking advantage of the less-than mobile Palmer.

New England Patriots at Denver Broncos – 4:15 PM

New England (10-3) can clinch the AFC East title with a win. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will look to sustain long, efficient drives for touchdowns against a defense that has given up 14 or fewer points in four of its last five games. Brady must also avoid the Broncos pass rush, which is tied for fourth in the NFL with 37 sacks. Denver (8-5) is 7-1 with Tim Tebow starting at quarterback. Tebow averages 5.5 yards per carry, but his arm may be counted on for a big game this week against a Patriots defense that gives up an NFL-worst 308.7 passing yards per game. New England must close out the game if it has a late lead and not give Tebow the chance to rally.

New York Jets at Philadelphia Eagles – 4:15 PM

New York (8-5) looks to keep itself in the AFC playoff picture and continue its three-game win streak. Averaging just under 100 yards rushing per game during the streak, Jets running back Shonn Greene will look to exploit the Eagles’ inconsistent run defense. New York quarterback Mark Sanchez faces a defense that has recorded an NFC-best 42 sacks. Philadelphia (5-8) is still alive in the NFC East race, but needs to win all of its games and get help. Eagles quarterback Michael Vick will be challenged by the Jets’ veteran cornerbacks and the league’s sixth-best pass defense. NFL touchdown leader, and second-leading rusher, LeSean McCoy can help take attention off Vick and his receivers.

Cleveland Browns at Arizona Cardinals – 4:15 PM

Cleveland (4-9) may be without quarterback Colt McCoy, who suffered a concussion in last week’s loss to Pittsburgh. If McCoy doesn’t recover in time, Seneca Wallace will start. Browns running backs Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty are both finally healthy and will carry the ball often to control the clock. Arizona (6-7) quarterback Kevin Kolb is also dealing with a concussion he suffered last week. John Skelton would replace Kolb. Expect the Cardinals to use running back Beanie Wells to move the ball on the ground, since the Browns have the league’s second-ranked pass defense.

Baltimore Ravens at San Diego Chargers – 8:20 PM

Baltimore (10-3) can clinch a playoff spot with a win. Expect the Ravens to use running back Ray Rice often against the Chargers 24th-ranked run defense. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco must continue to limit his mistakes. San Diego (6-7) has won two games in a row, but neither against a defense as fierce as Baltimore’s, which is ranked third in the NFL. Chargers running back Ryan Mathews may be key to the game plan. If Mathews can keep the Ravens linebackers occupied, they won’t be as focused on rushing at San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers or punishing his receivers.

Monday, Dec. 19

Pittsburgh Steelers at San Francisco 49ers – 8:30 PM

Pittsburgh (10-3) can secure a playoff berth with a victory. The Steelers will be well rested after last playing on Dec. 8. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger should play, but the left ankle injury he suffered in his last game may make him less mobile. Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon are ready to back up Roethlisberger, if necessary. The Steelers may have to run more often against a 49ers defense that holds opponents to 70.5 rushing yards and 14 points per game, both NFL-bests. San Francisco (10-3) wants to use running back Frank Gore, the league’s fourth-leading rusher, against a Steelers run defense that’s ranked sixth in the NFL. Pittsburgh hopes to pressure 49ers quarterback Alex Smith and force turnovers. They will be without linebacker James Harrison, who is serving a one-game suspension for a helmet-to-helmet hit against Colt McCoy of Cleveland last week.

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