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NFL Week 15 Preview — Can Eli Manning Stop the Panthers’ Winning Streak?

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The 2015 NFL season heads into its final three weeks with just three of the league’s 12 playoff spots already claimed. This week’s key games will impact the postseason picture. Here’s a preview of the action:

Sunday, December 20

The Colts & Texans Both Stink, but One of Them Should Win the AFC South
Indianapolis Colts v Houston Texans
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Houston at Indianapolis | Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis; 1 p.m. (ET) on CBS

It’s almost as if the AFC South has watched how bad the teams in the NFC East have been this season and taken that middling level of football as a challenge: “We’ll suck worse!” Mission accomplished? Well… “stay on target.”

Indianapolis (6-7) and Houston (6-7) are just ahead of Jacksonville (5-8) at the top of the AFC’s worst division. The Colts — and suddenly “aging,” rather than “ageless” backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck — have lost two games in a row by 35 points. Each. The Texans have dropped their last two contests after a four-game win streak.

With Indy quarterback Andrew Luck still ruled out with a kidney laceration, Hasselbeck starts again this Sunday. It’s hard to imagine the 40-year-old QB eluding defenders J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney and guiding the Colts’ attack to a win. If Houston can figure out how to score this week, they should take a big step toward claiming the crown of this awful division. With the Titans and Jags left on the schedule, the Texans control their own fate.

Eli Manning vs. an Unbeaten Team … Sound Familiar?
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Carolina at N.Y. Giants | MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.; 1 p.m. (ET) on Fox

The unbeaten Panthers are having a lot of fun, but they should be worried: Eli Manning is waiting for them on Sunday. Yes, the same derpy Eli Manning who throws interceptions in bunches and has never seen a double-coverage he didn’t love. And, the Eli Manning who stopped the Patriots from completing a perfect season back in 2007-08. He can be very dangerous during a playoff march.

Carolina (13-0), whose defense ranks fifth in the NFL against the pass, should win this game easily. The in-game duel between Panthers cornerback Josh Norman and Giants’ receiver Odell Beckham Jr. should get plenty of screen time, but it’s hard to imagine New York (6-7) upsetting Carolina without a running attack. It’s even more unlikely the Giants’ defense, which has allowed an NFL-high 418.6 yards per game, can hold Cam Newton and the league’s highest scoring offense in check. A few turnovers and special teams plays might be Big Blue’s only hope.

The Panthers can clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a win and a Cardinals loss on Sunday.

Instant Classic: Broncos Defense vs. Steelers Offense
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Denver at Pittsburgh | Heinz Field, Pittsburgh; 4:25 p.m. (ET) on Fox

Forget about their inconsistent offense, the Broncos defense continues to establish itself as the NFL’s best unit, yielding the fewest total yards and points in the league. They are most responsible for the lofty position Denver (10-3) holds in the AFC.

The Broncos defense will be tested this week by a Steelers offense that has averaged 37 points per game while winning four of its last five contests. Pittsburgh (8-5) is still outside of the AFC playoff picture, and it needs a win to keep pace. The Steelers defense must keep Denver’s Brock Osweiler from sustaining drives and building a lead. This should be a classic battle.

The Broncos can clinch the AFC West with a win and a Chiefs loss; they can secure a playoff berth with a win or a Jets loss.

The Bengals Should Beat the 49ers
Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals
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Cincinnati at San Francisco | Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.; 4:25 p.m. (ET) on CBS

Before last Sunday’s loss and the devastating injury to starting quarterback Andy Dalton, Cincinnati (10-3) seemed like a bonafide AFC title contender. Now? The Bengals almost have to beat the 49ers on Sunday to assure themselves a playoff berth, especially with the Broncos and division rival Ravens lurking on their schedule in the next two weeks.

Cincy will entrust backup quarterback A.J. McCarron to guide the offense until Dalton’s thumb heals. McCarron’s collegiate experience at Alabama — he helped the school win back-to-back national titles — should help him against San Francisco (4-9); some of the nation’s best college teams would give the Niners a game. Expect running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill to see an increased workload.

The Bengals can clinch the AFC North with a win or a Steelers loss. Cincinnati wraps up a playoff spot with a win, or a loss by the Jets or Chiefs. This should be easy for the Bengals, especially facing San Francisco quarterback Blaine Gabbert… unless, of course, it’s a trap.

The Cardinals-Eagles Game Could Be a Shootout
Arizona Cardinals v San Francisco 49ers
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Arizona at Philadelphia | Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia; 8:30 p.m. (ET) on NBC

Maybe this Sunday night’s Cardinals-Eagles game won’t be anything special, but we’d much rather think it will be a shootout for the ages. Led by MVP candidate Carson Palmer, Arizona (11-2) has wrapped up a playoff spot and needs only a win or a Seahawks loss to clinch the NFC West. Palmer and the Cards talented offense puts relentless pressure on a defense until it cracks.

Hmmm. THAT sounds like the offense Chip Kelly was supposed to bring to Philadelphia (6-7). At times, the Eagles attack does wear down opponents, leading to easy touchdowns and piles of yards. It just doesn’t happen every game. Philly makes a lot of mistakes, which it needs to clean up if it wants to stay in the NFC East race. Whether this is a 17-6 snooze or a 48-44 track meet, this game will greatly affect two of the three NFC divisions still in play.

Other Games

Thursday, December 17
Tampa Bay at St. Louis | Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis; 8:25 p.m. (ET) on NFL Network

Saturday, December 19
N.Y. Jets at Dallas | AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas; 8:25 p.m. (ET) on NFL Network

Sunday, December 20
Chicago at Minnesota | TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis; 1 p.m. (ET) on Fox
Atlanta at Jacksonville | EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.; 1 p.m. (ET) on Fox
Tennessee at New England | Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.; 1 p.m. (ET) on CBS
Buffalo at Washington | FedEx Field, Landover, Md.; 1 p.m. (ET) on Fox
Kansas City at Baltimore | M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore; 1 p.m. (ET) on CBS
Cleveland at Seattle | CenturyLink Field, Seattle; 4:05 p.m. (ET) on Fox
Green Bay at Oakland | O.co Coliseum, Oakland, Calif.; 4:05 p.m. (ET) on Fox
Miami at San Diego | Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego; 4:25 p.m. (ET) on CBS

Monday, December 21
Detroit at New Orleans | Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans; 8:30 p.m. (ET) on ESPN

Full NFL Standings
Full NFL Stats
Week 15 Playoff Scenarios

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