So far, four spots have been clinched – Green Bay (NFC North, first-round bye), San Francisco (NFC West), Houston (AFC South) and New Orleans (playoff spot).
“It’s an amazing feeling,” says Texans linebacker DE MECO RYANS about the franchise’s first ever division title and playoff berth. “It’s great to be in. For us, this is just the beginning. It’s a start for us. We still have another goal to reach.”
That leaves eight spots available and there are still 22 teams overall in contention for a trip to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis.
“We have to just keep playing, working hard and getting better,” says center MATT BIRK of the 10-3 Baltimore Ravens, who can clinch a playoff berth in Week 15. “We can get to where we want to go. All we have to do is focus on our opponents and work hard and get as good as we can.”
If the final three weeks are anything like the first 14, get ready for close games, exciting finishes and comeback victories. Last Sunday, five teams – Atlanta (16 points), Jacksonville (14), Houston (13), Arizona (12) and the New York Giants (12) – came back to win games in which they trailed by at least 12 points, the most in a single day in NFL history.
“Is it just me or have there been more dramatic, thrilling, unbelievable games in the NFL this season than any time I can remember?” says NBC’s AL MICHAELS.
The Packers keep rolling along as the club improved to 13-0 with a 46-16 win over Oakland. Green Bay is the second defending Super Bowl champion (1998 Denver) to start the following season 13-0 and the Packers have won 19 consecutive games (including the playoffs), the second-longest winning streak in NFL history (2003-04 New England, 21). With a win over Kansas City on Sunday, the Packers will be the fourth team in NFL history to start 14-0 (1972 Miami, 2007 New England, 2009 Indianapolis).
“There’s no other team that can say it’s 13-0 right now and on the precipice of doing something great,” says Green Bay linebacker CLAY MATTHEWS. “But there’s still a lot left that we need to accomplish.”
The Week 15 schedule starts with two primetime games on NFL Network as Atlanta hosts Jacksonville on Thursday night (8:00 PM ET) and Dallas visits Tampa Bay on Saturday night (8:00 PM ET). The Falcons (8-5) and Cowboys (7-6) find themselves in the middle of the NFC playoff hunt with three games to play. Some of the key games this week:
WASHINGTON REDSKINS (4-9) at NEW YORK GIANTS (7-6) (Sunday, FOX, 1:00 PM ET)
Two NFC East rivals meet as the Redskins try to sweep the season series and the Giants attempt to remain in first place.
Washington defeated the Giants 28-14 in Week 1. Last week, Redskins rookie running back ROY HELU rushed for a career-high 126 yards and became the first rookie in team history to rush for 100 yards in three consecutive games.
New York moved into first place with a 37-34 win on Sunday night at Dallas. The Giants scored 15 points in the game’s final minutes to erase a 12-point deficit and earn the victory. Defensive end JASON PIERRE-PAUL, who had two sacks, a forced fumble and a safety in the game, blocked the potential game-tying field goal with one-second remaining to seal the win.
“It was a big win, no doubt,” says New York quarterback ELI MANNING, who has tied Pro Football Hall of Famer JOHNNY UNITAS (1959) and his brother PEYTON (2002) for the most fourth-quarter touchdown passes in a season with 14. “But it won’t mean anything if we don’t go finish the season strong and win these next games. We can’t relax now.”
Manning passed for 400 yards in the win, his third 400-yard game this year. Manning and Pro Football Hall of Famer DAN MARINO are the only players in NFL history to have at least three 400-yard passing games in a season. Marino accomplished the feat twice, throwing for 400 yards four times in 1984 and three times in 1986.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (10-3) at DENVER BRONCOS (8-5) (Sunday, CBS, 4:15 PM ET)
Two division leaders meet in Denver when the AFC East leading Patriots visit the AFC West leading Broncos. New England has won five games in a row and Denver is riding a six-game winning streak.
The Patriots defeated Washington 34-27 last week to improve to 10-3. New England is the third team in NFL history to win at least 10 games in nine consecutive seasons, joining the 1983-98 49ers (16) and 2002-10 Colts (nine).
For the second time this season, a team overcame a 10+ point deficit in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter to win. Both times, the winning team was the TIM TEBOW-led Broncos. Last week, Denver scored 10 points in the final 2:08 and won in overtime on MATT PRATER’s 51-yard field goal.
In Tebow’s eight starts, Denver is 7-1 and has won an NFL-best five games in which it trailed in the fourth quarter.
“We’re getting closer to the end,” says Denver head coach JOHN FOX. “There are still three games left, including a very big game this week against the New England Patriots. It’s a one-game-at-a-time mentality and, at the end, if you’re fortunate enough to win your share and get into the playoffs, then you attack that season.”
BALTIMORE RAVENS (10-3) at SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (6-7) (Sunday, NBC & Telemundo, 8:20 PM ET)
The Ravens have won four in a row and tie for the best record in the AFC at 10-3. The Chargers have won two games in a row and have moved within two games of first place in the AFC West.
Baltimore linebacker TERRELL SUGGS had three sacks and three forced fumbles in last week’s 24-10 victory over Indianapolis, the only such performance in the NFL in the past three seasons.
San Diego quarterback PHILIP RIVERS threw three touchdown passes and improved to 22-2 (.917) as a starter in December, the best mark among QBs who began their careers in the Super Bowl era (minimum 15 starts).
“Until they say we’re done, there’s always a chance,” says Chargers safety ERIC WEDDLE.
In addition to NBC, the game will air on Telemundo in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco/San Jose and Washington, DC. This is the third of three simulcasts on Telemundo during the 2011 season through a production partnership with NBC Sports.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (10-3) at SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (10-3) (Monday, ESPN, 8:30 PM ET)
Two 10-win teams meet on Monday night. The Steelers are tied for the best record in the AFC while the 49ers have clinched the NFC West and are aiming for a first-round bye.
Pittsburgh defeated Cleveland 14-3 last Thursday night and the team has won eight of its past nine games. The Steelers enter Week 15 with the No. 2 ranked defense (276.1 yards per game) and the league’s top pass defense (179.1).
San Francisco has won five in a row at home. In their past two home games, the 49ers have outscored opponents by a combined score of 49-7.
Defensively, San Francisco has yet to allow a rushing touchdown, becoming the first team since the 1920 Decatur Staleys to not allow a rushing touchdown in its first 13 games to start a season.
“We’ve got three games left,” says 49ers head coach JIM HARBAUGH, “and we control our own destiny in terms of playoff positioning and momentum. That’s the best it can possibly be for us.”
For the first time in NFL history, there are four quarterbacks with at least 4,000 passing yards through Week 14: New Orleans’ DREW BREES (4,368), New England’s TOM BRADY(4,273), Green Bay’s AARON RODGERS (4,125) and the New York Giants’ ELI MANNING (4,105).