Alphabet NFL Preview: Week 15 MORE: Pats vs. 49ers: The Pick

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Alphabet NFL Preview: Week 15 MORE: Pats vs. 49ers: The Pick

There are only three games left on the NFL regular season, but still so much left to be decided divisions, conferences, seeds, records, awards, draft picks, jobs, careers. And this weekend it will all unfold in dramatic Scott Hanson-fueled fashion.

Let the alphabet be your guide to all that lies ahead.

Seriously, let it.

A is for AFC SHOWDOWN: Denver at Baltimore

The Broncos have won eight straight games, and head into Sundays battle in Baltimore as one of the undisputed favorites in the AFC. But while their record might look pretty, Denvers still looking for that season-defining, statement-making victory. Something along the lines of what the Pats pulled off on Monday night.

Truth is: Denvers eight straight wins have come at San Diego, vs. New Orleans, at Cincinnati, at Carolina, vs. San Diego (again), at Kansas City, vs. Tampa Bay and at Oakland. To this point, their only three losses have come in their only three games against the NFLs elite: Atlanta, Houston, and New England.

Fresh off two straight losses, the Ravens have certainly seen better days, but they still present Peyton and the Broncos with an important opportunity to put a stamp on their legitimacy (before finishing the season with home games against Cleveland and KC).

Meanwhile, the Ravens just need a win. It's been more than a month since they put forth a quality performance, and now, their formerly assumed division title is hanging in the balance. After this week, the Ravens have another tough match-up against the Giants, and unless they can win of these next two, it's likely that their Week 17 trip to Cincinnati will become the de facto AFC North Championship Game.

Good news for Ravens fans, though: Jim Caldwell!

B is for BEST OF THE NFC: GIANTS AT FALCONS

In terms of rivalry and pure playoff implications, PackersBears is probably the biggest game on the NFC schedule. But come on, the Bears are toast. Instead, GiantsFalcons is where it's at. "It" being the game that will tell us the most about what we should expect come playoff time.

If the Falcons lose, things are going to get weird down in Atlanta. They'll become the most ridiculed and disrespected 11-3 team in NFL history. With a win, the Giants transformation will be complete. They'll have gone from defending champs to total disaster to NFC favorites. Regardless of record, they'll be the team that everyone fears.

Did you know that the Giants are the only NFC team that Matt Ryan has never beaten?

Do you realize that we'll be able to say the same exact thing come Monday morning?
C is for CLINGING TO HOPE

Last night's Bengals win delivered another hit to the Jets' already slim playoff hopes. But somehow these guys are still alive, so unfortunately we still have to talk about it.

Bottom line is that the Jets have three relatively easy games remaining on the season (Monday night in Tennessee, vs. San Diego, at Buffalo) and if they win out, New York will finished the year with a 9-7 record. Meanwhile, the Bengals are currently 8-6, but still have games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore; they could easily end up at 8-8. The Steelers are 7-6, with a big game this week in Dallas, followed by two home games against the Bengals and Browns.

So basically, in order to make the playoffs, the Jets will need to win out, have the Bengals finish 0-2 and have Pittsburgh lose in Dallas, beat the Bengals and then lose to the Browns.

Unlikely? Maybe, but far more realistic than you ever would have imagined. And anyway, wouldn't sneaking into the playoffs like that just be a very Jets thing to do?

(Yup. Followed by Tim Tebow leading them to the Super Bowl and then losing his virginity to Skip Bayless.)

D is for DADDY KNOWS BEST

Mike Shanahan tried to keep a lid on Robert Griffin's status for Sunday in Cleveland, but instead he learned an important lesson: You can't stop RGII!.

Griffin III is still technically a game-time decision, but count on him to be under center on Sunday, as Rob Parker sits at home on the couch, soaking in all his newfound free time.

E is for EXPANSION

In a transparent attempt to take attention away from all the BountyGate talk, Roger Goodell announced this week that the league will consider expanding the NFL playoffs by an additional two (or even four) teams.

I hate to even bring up, because that would mean that Goodell has succeeded. Also, because everyone knows that this is a ridiculous idea. First, because the playoffs don't need changing. There's nothing wrong with the current system. Second, do you realize that under the proposed expansion, both the Bills and Chargers would currently be one game out of the playoffs? Bleh.

And finally: BountyGate BountyGate BountyGate BountyGate Goodell you blew it BountyGate BountyGate BountyGate Tagliabue put you in your place BountyGate BountyGate BountyGate Free Sean Payton BountyGate BountyGate BountyGate You're worse than Selig BountyGate

F is for FANTASY FREE FOR ALL

Thanks to a combined six straight losses, the Saints and Bucs have rendered Sunday's game pretty useless. In the real world, at least. In fantasy land, this could be the most explosive high scoring game of the season, and just in time for the playoffs.

In Week 7 at Tampa, the two teams combined for 63 points and 972 totals yards. When you convert that onto the Superdome turf? That's 95 points and 1315 yards! Seriously, it's science. And this one's going to be wild.

G is for GASPING

The once mighty Bears have now lost four of their last five games, and will host the Packers this week WITH THEIR SEASON ON THE LINE.

Or that's the narrative that everyone's rolling with. Personally, I still think the Bear are postseason bound. Even if they lose this game to the Packers, Chicago wraps things up with favorable match-ups against Arizona and Detroit. Those two wins would bring them to 10-6, which should be enough to sneak into the playoffs and get trounced by the Giants in the opening round.

And how about the Packers? With a win, they'll clinch their first back-to-back division title since 2004. AND HOW ABOUT AARON RODGERS? I don't know if it's because he's not putting up the same ridiculous numbers he did last year, or if it has something to do with Peyton's resurgence, Brady's continued dominance and a crop of headline stealing rookie QBs, but Aaron Rodgers has been somewhat under the radar. In the meantime, he lost his running back for the year in Week 5 . . . he's played most of the season without Greg Jennings or a healthy Jordy Nelson . . . his defense has been decimated by injury . . . he had a win literally stolen from him on that Monday night in Seattle . . . yet Rodgers has kept Green Bay afloat. And now, just in time for the playoffs, the rest of the team is slowly reforming around him.

H is for HOMECOMING

Technically, a road game against Buffalo isn't a homecoming for Marshawn Lynch, because Mr. Skittles actually grew up in Oakland (where, I just learned, he played on the same high school basketball team as Leon Powe). But either way, this Sunday certainly doesn't count as a homecoming because the Seahawks and Bills are playing in Toronto.

So, why use the Homecoming headline? I needed an excuse to talk about Lynch, who (in the shadow of Adrian Peterson) has spent this season in permanent Beast Mode.

Heading into Sunday's game against his former team, Lynch is on pace for 1558 yards (which would be the third best rushing total in Seahawks history, behind Shaun Alexander's two seasons on the moon) and with one more touchdown, he'll join Peterson and Arian Foster as one of three back to have double digit TDs in the each of the last two years.

In related news, the Bills rush defense ranks 28th in the league, and has allowed an NFL-high 18 touchdowns on the ground. Taste the rainbow.

I is for INJURED INDEX

Dez Bryant broke his index finger in last week's win over the Bengals, but vows that he'll will be on the field this Sunday against the Steelers.

And I believe. After all, he caught a touchdown on Sunday AFTER suffering the injury, and with a week to mentally prepare should be able to handle whatever pain he has in store. Worst case scenario: Dez Bryant playing with one hand, is still better than most guys playing with two.

J is for JUDGMENT DAY

In the NFL, every week is the most important week. That is, until you get to next week. We spend every Sunday talking about how much we're going to learn and every Monday claiming that we haven't learned a thing. But this time, it's for REAL. This week really IS the most important week. At least for the Steelers and Cowboys who meet in Dallas on Sunday.

The Steelers need a win to keep pace with the Bengals, and show that there's any life after a pathetic home loss to the Chargers. Meanwhile, the Cowboys have won four of five, but NEEEED to win or else get lost behind the Giants and Redskins.

Actually, that's not true.

The Steelers could lose on Sunday, but then beat the Bengals next week to get right back in the race. The Cowboys could lose this week, but also see the Giants fall to the Falcons, the Skins fall to the Browns and find themselves in the same place they are right now.

Who am I kidding? Nothing is real! (Except for Jerry Jones' cheek bones)

K is for KILLER INSTINCT

The Texans are 8.5 point favorites against the Colts on Sunday, but the buzz around the league would make you think that they're eight-point underdogs. And I get it. Houston was undressed on national TV. They were left exposed. And as usual, everyone's lining up to take shots, kick them while they're down and claim the end of Houston's time as a legitimate contender.

But a win on Sunday will change that. It will essentially clinch the division, the No. 1 seed, and put the Texans back on the immediate track to the AFC title game.

At which point they'll get to re-live a nightmare. This time at home!

L is for LOSERS

With a 4-9 record, and a dissapointing five game losing streak, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything positive to say about the Detroit Lions. But I'll give them this: They're really, really good at blowing enormous leads.

In fact, last Sunday against the Packers, Detroit tied an NFL record by blowing a double-digit lead for the third straight week.

This week, they'll go for history, but their lead-blowing skills will face the ultimate test against the 4-9 Arizona Cardinals.
M is for MEANINGLESS MILESTONE

Chris Johnson continues to rack up numbers from the depths of Titans hell. Last Sunday, he became the eighth running back in NFL history (joining Barry Sanders, Curtis Martin, Eric Dickerson, Tony Dorsett, Corey Dillon, Eddie George and LaDanian Tomlinson) to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first five seasons.

And that's pretty cool, but I'd say the bigger concern is that the Titans have only made the playoffs once in those five seasons, and things aren't exactly looking up. This week, Johnson and the Titans will make a brief return to the NFL spotlight with a Monday night game against the Jets. Though something tells me that the Titans won't be the story.

N is for NORV = GENIUS

We're down to three games left on the Norv Turner Era in San Diego, and it looks like Norv (and AJ Smith) will leave the roster in shambles.

But at the very least, there's Danario Alexander.

Picking up DA from the wide receiver scrap heap back in October is the unquestionable highlight of the Chargers season. And at only 24 years old, Alexander (who has 33 catches for 555 yards and five touchdown in only seven games) is lined up to become the No. 1 receiver of the future.

Speaking to the media this weak, Norv admitted that other teams haven't quite figured out Alexander yet. However, he added that he'd be willing to reveal all the secrets in exchange for a new set of golf clubs, a gift certificate to Arby's and an offensive coordinator job in 2013.

O is for OUTSPOKEN

The Vikings have a huge game this week on the road in St. Louis, and the coaching staff is unhappy with their punter.

As you know, Minnesota's Chris Kluwe is one of the most outspoken players in the NFL. He's the guy who called a bunch of his fellow players "douchebags" during the lockout. He's the guy who's been extremely vocal on the issue of gay marriage. He's guy who was recently fined by the NFL for wearing a "Vote Ray Guy" patch on his uniform last week.

"I don't even want to talk about that," Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said on Thursday. "Those distractions are getting old for me, to be quite honest with you . . .
He's got to focus on punting and holding."

OK, I understand how Kluwe's act might get annoying. But really, how many hours a day can a guy really spend focused on "punting and holding"? Even if it's six hours, that feels like a lot.

Anyway, if Adrian Peterson has anything to say about it, there won't be much need for Kluwe this week in St. Louis. If Christian Ponder has anything to say about it? They better hope that Kluwe's focused.

P is for POPPIN BOTTLES

The 1972 Miami Dolphins celebrated the 40th anniversary of their undefeated season last night with a special dinner at Don Shula's house.

Shula told reporters that they all had a great time, but that it was "was a little weird" when Mercury Morris showed up with his own camera crew.

(This was written in lieu of forcing something about Sunday's DoplhinsJaguars game. I stand by my decision)

Q is for QUALIFIED

NFL running backs need 750 career carries in order to qualify for the all-time record books. Only then, will various statistics like yard per carry, yards per game or any kind of average be considered among the greats in NFL history.

Well, with 11 more carries, the Chiefs Jamaal Charles will officially hit 750, and immediately become the NFL's all-time leader in yards per carry.

R is for REUNION

Heres a cool story about Alfred Morris and Trent Richardson, two childhood friends who'll face off this Sunday in Cleveland.

Best part of the story: Morris still drives a 1991 Mazda.

Craziest part of the story: That Mazda only has 125,000 miles on it! How's that even possible?

Video related to Morris driving a Mazda: I drive a DODGE STRATUS!

S is for SILVER LINING

For all the greatness that this week's schedule brings, there are a few real clunkers out there: Jacksonville at Miami. Kansas City at Oakland. Carolina at San Diego. The aforementioned Detroit at Arizona.

But if there's one saving grace for that last one, it's an amazing individual match-up between two of the most talented and entertaining players in the world: Lions right end Kyle Vanden Bosch vs. rookie left tackle Nate Potter.

Nah, I mean Calvin Johnson and Patrick Peterson, who'll be going one-on-one for most of the afternoon. How much better would the broadcast be if the FOX cameras just stayed on those two for the entire day? It would be so much more entertaining than the actual game. Maybe NFL Network can send down an extra cameraman and just live stream the footage online?

I don't imagine they'd be breaking more than three or four laws

T is for TURNOVER TROUBLES

The Colts are probably all set for the playoffs (at least in terms of getting there), but they can still build on their expectations with a big performance this week in Houston.

First step: Hold on to the ball.

Of the Colts 26 turnovers this season, 19 of them have come on the road. Of the 16 teams in the AFC, only New England has forced more turnovers than the Texans. That's a bad combo for Andrew Luck. Like, how you say, lamb and tuna feesh.

U is for UPSET SPECIAL

Big win last week with the Panthers taking down the Falcons, but this week won't be so easy. That's because with all the even match-ups, there aren't that many upsets to be had.

But if forced to choose, I'll go with the Browns over the Redskins. Washington is barely favored (-1) but it feels like more than that. Shanahan's boys have much more to play for. Then again, with the new regime taking over in Cleveland, the Browns are playing for their jobs. And they've been competitive for most of this year. Throw in a gimpy RGIII and you've got my Upset Special.

Final Score: Browns 26, Redskins 21

V is for VENDETTA

There's a lot of hate flowing through trenches during your average NFL game, but the Packers and Bears have something special brewing for this Sunday.

First, Jermichael Finley told reporters this week that the Bears might be better off without injured linebacker Brian Urlacher: "Urlacher is at the end of his career right now; he's playing a little slow out there," Finley said. "I don't think they're losing too much if he's out. Putting another guy in might help them a little."

Now that I think about it, that's actually more of a compliment to the Bears, but they didn't take it that way.

"He's an idiot," linebacker Briggs said about Finley. "Just suit up and play ball. His comments aren't going to change the outcome of the game. They're not going to help him or anybody play better. So it doesn't really matter."

Asked for comment, Greg Jennings responded: "Uhhh, cool with you guys if I sit this one out?"

W is for WAY TOO LATE

When it's all said and done, Cam Newton's numbers will probably look pretty good this season. In fact, he's on pace to finish with only one fewer touchdown pass than he did last season, but also throw fewer interceptions, have a better passer rating and pick up more yards on the ground.

But it's obviously too late. According to STATS, Newton has compiled 1,363 yards of offense and 11 total touchdowns in the last four weeks, and hasn't committed a turnover. But that's compared to the first seven weeks of the season, when he had only eight touchdowns, committed 11 turnovers and helped sabotage things before they even got started. (Speaking of sabotage, Cam and the Panthers visit Norv and the Chargers on Sunday)

On this bright side, Newton's turnaround bodes well for next year, although by then that little kid might already be nipping at his heels.

X is for EXTINGUISHER
(Yeah, I know. But X is a killer)

Did you see there was a fire at Lambeau Field this week?

There was only one reported (minor) injury, and about 5,000 of damage. But thankfully, 4500 of that was in the form of Clay Matthews' hair products.

Y is for YOU CAN'T STOP THE RAMS

With last weeks win over Buffalo, the Rams have won three straight games for the first time since 2006. If they can beat the Vikings on Sunday, it will be their first four-game winning streak since 2003. But even crazier than the fact that the Rams are actually winning, is how they're winning. From behind.

They've trailed at halftime in each of their last three games! They're the anti-Detroit Lions. (That's an analogy that I'd like to tease out further, but for now the only other comparison that works is "Megatron vs. Danny Amendola").

Z is for ZERO DARK 30

Looks like it will be a great movie.

But that's also the name of that play that calls for Mark Sanchez to ram his head up a lineman butt.

And that's all for this week.

Enjoy the games.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Friday Bag: What’s the Patriots' future at running back look like?

Friday Bag: What’s the Patriots' future at running back look like?

Every Friday Tom E. Curran, Mike Giardi and Phil Perry will take your Patriots questions (Curran is sitting this one out) on Twitter and answer them as a joint mailbag -- or a Friday Bag, as they call it. 

Got questions? Tweet the guys using the hashtag #FridayBag.

MG: Q leading off my portion of the always popular, always exciting, always (occasionally?) informative #FridayBag. I think it would be easy to think that way from the outside looking in, or knowing how callous some organizations can be, but I just don’t believe that to be the case here. Players talk. Agents talk. Hell, coaches talk. If the Pats were to operate that way, it would get around the league in a heartbeat. Then why would someone want to play here knowing they’ll be treated even more like a disposable commodity then normal? The flip side to this is actually protecting the player from himself. Guys in the last year of a deal sometimes feel compelled to play through every damn thing so they can at least say “look at me, I’m a warrior!” And on that note, I’d sit Marty Bennett next week in Denver and probably the following week against the Jets if that will help the ankle and whatever else is ailing him heal to the point where he’s a hell of a lot more effective than what we just saw versus the Rams (He was awful). Bennett’s too valuable going forward. 

MG: Lisa, my understanding is teams nominate their player and then it goes to a panel (one that includes the NFL Commish) to decide who wins for the league (It was Anquan Boldin in 2015). Can’t quibble with Rob Gronkowski being the team’s nominee this year. People have no idea how much he does for the community. Heck, we don’t even know the extent of it, but the great Don Rodman of Rodman Car Dealer fame and one of the most incredibly charitable individuals to ever grace this area said that there are few if any athletes who devote more time and effort to charitable works/foundations. I hope he wins. It would mean a lot to Gronk.

MG: You never figured you’d have to worry about the offense, did you Steve? But the season-ending injury to Gronk and now the injury to Danny Amendola does concern me. Both of those guys are incredibly reliable 3rd down targets, and in Gronk’s case, he’s usually the first or second option on 3rd down. Bennett hasn’t been able to pick up the slack because he’s clearly not healthy either. That means the Pats and Josh McDaniels will be going through a trial and error period here to best determine how to improve that number and become more efficient. I suspect more will fall on Julian Edelman, but also look for the continued evolution of the two back set with James White and Dion Lewis.

MG: Ambrose, the Pats have remained incredibly committed to the run because they don’t want to find themselves in the same spot they were a year ago, when the run game was so pathetic that neither Miami in the regular season finale nor Denver in the AFC title game paid it one mind. That means rushers pinning their ears back and smashing into Tom Brady at rates no one is comfortable with. So while I won’t be surprise if Brady throws it 45 times, I don’t think they shelve the ground game, at least in the first half. 

MG: Ok Bunk, I stole a comment of yours for the mailbag. Trying to make you famous…yes, I stand by my tweet in which I stated the Ravens and Broncos are bigger threats than the Chiefs or Raiders. Oakland’s defense would give up 40 to Brady. 45 if the Pats needed it. Or 50. I’m dead serious. As for the Chiefs, Alex Smith is not coming into Foxboro and beating this team, even with some of it’s defensive issues. And Belichick will make damn sure that rookie Hill doesn’t get many cracks at touching the football in the return game. Oh, and now the Chiefs best linebacker, Johnson, is out for the year with an Achilles. Should I continue???

MG: History tells us no, David. Brady would throw a fit and argue that he needs to play to remain sharp or iron out this problem or that problem. There’s also the possibility of a bye week looming, meaning he’d go 3 weeks without actually playing in a game. Seems like a good idea in the sense that you don’t risk a 39-year old to a blindside shot, but neither he nor Belichick would ever go for it.

PP: The running back position might be the toughest to project moving forward because there are so many injuries there and there are so many backs who come from nowhere to earn significant roles. I'll say this though: The backs they have on the roster -- not including Brandon Bolden, who has turned into strictly a special teamer after having a difficult time holding onto the football this year -- don't seem to be slowing down. LeGarrette Blount just turned 30 but is in the middle of his best season. Dion Lewis looks strong after two surgeries. James White has taken his game to a new level in his third season. I could see the same group coming back next season, but given the volatility of the position, you know the Patriots will always be scouring for talent there. 

PP: Tom E. touched on this yesterday, Big Wally. Brandon Pettigrew, who was released by the Lions on Friday, might make sense. Otherwise, there's not a whole lot out there. Zach Sudfeld? He's available. Would be an unlikely reunion, but desperate times . . . I think the Patriots will continue to roll out Martellus Bennett at less than 100 percent. I think Matt Lengel could see more work as a blocking tight end as he becomes more familiar with the system. I think we'll see more Cameron Fleming, and we could see more two-back sets with no tight ends. In my opinion, Bennett could use a rest, but I don't think it's coming any time soon. As far as Sarge's question about the hurry-up, I'm not sure we'll start to see more that. It's possible, but one of the benefits with the hurry-up is to keep a defense from substituting to shift matchups in its favor. With Gronkowski or Bennett on the field in a hurry-up situation would have even further highlighted the matchup issues they present. If either one found himself with a slow linebacker on him, the Patriots could have rushed to the line and continued...to exploit...that matchup. Without Gronkowski and without Bennett at full strength, the advantage of the no-huddle is somewhat sapped.  

PP: It's so late into the season, I'm not sure there's much in the way of opportunity for a breakout game this week, Paul. I guess the obvious choice would be Griff Whalen. If he can give the Patriots a pair of sure hands as a punt-returner, that would be a significant enough add that I might qualify it as a "breakout." Bill Belichick made it clear this morning that the team views him as more than just a returner, though, so he could see some offensive snaps in four-receiver sets and provide the Patriots with a presence in the slot. I'd deem a four-catch, 50-yard performance as a "breakout" as well. To me, that's the range of his ceiling for this week. One other name as a potential "breakout" candidate? Justin Coleman. He could be used defensively after being inactive for the last three weeks due to Eric Rowe's hamstring injury. If he's able to help slow down the combination of Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman and Steve Smith, that'd be a breakout in my book. 

PP: The combined record of opponents they've beaten is actually 26-57-1, including the Browns 0-12 mark twice, but now it's out there. 'Preciate you, Dave!

PP:  There's still so much up for grabs in the AFC West that it's hard to determine the likelihood of Patriots playoff matchups and where those games will be. However, without getting into the nitty gritty details, I'll just point out that it's still possible that the Patriots end up on the road in either of these cities in the postseason. On the road, Denver is the tougher matchup. Always has been a brutal place for the Patriots to play, and Denver's defense is still good enough to cause them problems. At home? I'd say, of these two teams, Kansas City would be the one that would provide the Patriots with a slightly tougher test. In my mind, they're a little more balanced and I have more faith in Alex Smith to make plays than I do Trevor Siemien.

Friday's Patriots-Ravens practice report: Richards returns to the field

Friday's Patriots-Ravens practice report: Richards returns to the field

Friday's practice participation/injury report for Monday night's Patriots-Ravens game:

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

DID NOT PARTICIPATE
WR Danny Amendola (ankle)

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
TE Martellus Bennett (ankle/shoulder)
DB Jordan Richards (knee)
LB Elandon Roberts (hamstring)
DB Eric Rowe (hamstring)
WR/SpT Matthew Slater (foot)

BALTIMORE RAVENS

DID NOT PARTICIPATE
TE Crockett Gilmore (thigh)
LB Terrell Suggs (not injury related)
RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (thigh)
C Jeremy Zuttah (not injury related)

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
G Alex Lewis (ankle)

FULL PARTICIPATION
G Marshal Yanda (shoulder)