3-and-out: NFL’s best matchups of Week 15

It’s crunch time in the NFL playoff race and we highlight three matchups with big playoff implications.

Houston Texans (6-7) at Indianapolis Colts (6-7)

With a win over the Texans on Oct. 8, the Colts currently have the tie-breaker advantage over Houston, making this as close to a make-or-break game for the AFC South rivals.

The Texans got back into contention with a four-game winning streak in November, but two straight losses have them on the outside of the projected AFC playoff teams and realistically needing to win the division to make the postseason.

After Brian Hoyer helped lead the Texans back into contention, he has been ruled out against the Colts with a concussion, sending T.J. Yates into the spotlight. Yates has completed less than 50 percent of his passes this year for 302 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He’d be wise to look early and often for WR DeAndre Hopkins, who has 75 receptions for 1,070 yards and eight touchdowns and the second-most targets in NFL (158), and has 16 catches for 246 yards in the last two meetings between the teams.

But the Texans are mostly built on defense, where they are ranked seventh overall, giving up 330 yards per game, and third against the pass. J.J. Watt is back in contention for defensive player of the year with 13½ sacks, tied for second in the league. In his past 18 games, Watt has 24½ sacks and needs only 1½ more sacks to join Reggie White as the only players with 15 or more sacks in three of their first five seasons.

Watt could have a heyday with the Colts’ quarterback situation. Andrew Luck is on the mend but not expected to play yet this week. Matt Hasselbeck is hoping to be ready by Sunday and has had success against the Texans, throwing for 510 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in his last two starts against them. But if he can’t go, the Colts will turn to Charlie Whitehurst, whom the Colts claimed a month ago but hasn’t thrown a pass yet this season.

If the Colts turn to the running game with their uncertain quarterback situation, Frank Gore has at least provided solid outings in recent meetings with the Texans, going for 80 yards rushing or more in his last two games against them.

Denver Broncos (10-3) at Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5)

The Steelers could get back into the top six in the AFC with a win and a loss by either the New York Jets or Kansas City Chiefs, but they’ll have a tall task facing the Denver Broncos, who have won four of the last five meetings between the two teams. The Broncos did, however, take a three-point loss to the Raiders last week while the Steelers knocked off the Bengals 33-20.

Although Peyton Manning has begun practicing and reportedly looked good this week, he isn’t expected to start for Denver. That duty will continue to rest with Brock Osweiler, who has thrown only two touchdown passes and two interceptions over his last three games combined. According to NFL.com, the Broncos haven’t scored a touchdown in 23 drives. Despite that, Osweiler is 3-1 as a starter because of a solid running game with Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson and an imposing defense.

The Broncos are ranked first in overall defense, first in pass defense and third in run defense. Von Miller leads the team with 10 sacks, but Ben Roethlisberger knows how to handle a good defense.

Roethlisberger doesn’t have the gaudy numbers of some his seasons past, but he should hit 3,000 yards for the season in the first half of this game, has 15 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a 96.7 rating, despite missing four games this season. In the past three home games, Big Ben has more than 1,000 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions and is going for his sixth game in a row with more than 280 yards.

And, of course, he has Antonio Brown. The NFL’s leading receiver in 2014 is leading the AFC this year with 100 catches and 1,397 yards. That’s twice as many receiving yards as anyone else on the team, so the Broncos can be sure where Roethlisberger’s first look will be … if there was any question. Brown is tied for the NFL lead with 15 pass plays longer than 25 yards and is the third-most targeted (147) receiver in the NFL.

Arizona Cardinals (11-2) at Philadelphia Eagles (6-7) on Sunday night

Both teams are coming off 23-20 wins – the Cardinals against the Vikings and the Eagles against the Bills. While the Cardinals could use the win to put them one step closer to a first-round bye in the playoffs, the Eagles are looking to stay in the thick of the NFC East race with the Redskins and Giants, who also have 6-7 records. Currently, the Eagles are behind the Redskins in the tiebreaker for the division.

Carson Palmer has been on a roll with Arizona, winning seven in a row and 24 of his past 28 starts. He already has the single-season franchise record with 31 touchdown passes and is the only Cardinals quarterback with two 4,000-yard seasons (currently at 4,003). Last year, he threw for 329 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions against the Eagles, and he has one of the NFL’s deepest receiving corps with Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown to help lead the Cardinals to the top-ranked offense. This year, Palmer also has rookie RB David Johnson behind him. Johnson leads NFL rookies with nine touchdowns.

The Cardinals are no slouch on defense, either, ranked No. 4 overall and No. 5 against the run, in addition to 16 interceptions – nine of them coming from safeties Rashad Johnson (5) and Tyrann Mathieu (4).

The Eagles counter with a middling offense and the 27th-ranked defense. If they are going to make any waves they will need big nights from QB Sam Bradford, who has 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and won his past three starts against Arizona, and WR Jordan Matthews, who has 64 catches for 680 yards and four touchdowns, including two in his past three games.


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