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

Sunday is set up to be an NFL fan’s dream for all-day viewing, with playoff-relevant teams squaring off in each of the three viewing slots – early afternoon, late afternoon and evening.

DETROIT LIONS (9-4)
AT NEW YORK GIANTS (9-4)

Both the Detroit Lions and New York Giants have plenty of playoff credibility riding on their early afternoon matchup. Detroit would clinch the NFC North if they win and Green Bay loses and would put itself in a solid position to secure a first-round bye. The Giants would clinch a playoff spot with a win and losses by Washington, Minnesota and Green Bay.

Only two teams in the NFC are undefeated in their last five games and the Lions are one of them. Only two teams in the conference are 4-1 in their last five and the Giants are one of them. That could be an indication of how closely matched these two teams are, along with their offensive and defensive rankings – where neither of them ranks particularly high in any of the six major offensive and defensive categories.

Instead, they just find ways to win, and no team represents that more than the Detroit Lions, who have pulled off one win after another in the fourth quarter this year. One reason is the increased efficiency of QB Matthew Stafford, who has a 106.5 rating, 17 touchdowns and four interceptions in his last eight road games, and top target Golden Tate has is averaging 112 yards and a touchdown in his last two on the road. But how well will Stafford perform after dislocating the middle finger on his throwing hand?

Neither team has much of a running game – Detroit is 29th in rushing and New York 31st – but, like Stafford, Eli Manning has been fairly efficient, averaging 291 yards in his past seven home games. His top target, Odell Beckham Jr., is flashier than Tate and is a touchdown machine, tied for most in the league (34) since he came to the NFL, and has six touchdowns in his last five home games.

Both teams need a win to either keep or improve their playoff seeding and this should be a close one and perhaps a prelude to a playoff meeting.

  LIONS GIANTS
SERIES LEADER 21-20-1  
STREAKS   3 of past 4
COACHES VS. OPP. Jim Caldwell: 2-0 Ben McAdoo: 0-0
LAST WEEK W 20-17 vs. Chicago W 10-7 vs. Dallas
LAST GAME 9/8/14: Giants 14 at Lions 35. Detroit QB Matthew Stafford passes for 346 yards & has 3 TDs (2 passing, 1 rushing). Lions WR Calvin Johnson has 7 catches for 164 yards & 2 TDs.
LAST GAME AT SITE 10/17/10: Giants 28, Lions 20. New York Giants QB Eli Manning passes for 177 yards & 2 TDs for 104.4 rating. Giants DE Osi Umenyiora has 2 sacks & 2 FFs.
REFEREE Tony Corrente
BROADCAST FOX (1:00 PM ET): Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews (Field reporter). SIRIUS: 135 (Det), 82 (NYG). XM: 381 (Det), 82 (NYG).
STATS
PASSING Matthew Stafford: 312-468-3447-22-7-97.8 Eli Manning: 302-480-3290-23-13-87.8
RUSHING Theo Riddick: 92-357-3.9-1 Rashad Jennings: 136-459-3.4-2
RECEIVING Golden Tate: 71-820-11.5-3 Odell Beckham Jr.: 79-1109-14.0-9
OFFENSE 336.2 322.2
TAKE/GIVE 4 -5
DEFENSE 350.2 349.3
SACKS Kerry Hyder: 8 Olivier Vernon: 8
INTs 4 tied: 2 Landon Collins: 5 (T2L)
PUNTING Sam Martin: 48.7 (2L) Brad Wing: 46.5
KICKING Matt Prater: 109 (25/27 PAT; 28/31 FG) Robbie Gould: 25 (16/19 PAT; 3/3 FG)

LIONS

QB MATTHEW STAFFORD has 2,290 pass yards (286.3 per game) with 17 TDs & 4 INTs for 106.5 rating in past 8 on road. Passed for 346 yards & had 3 TDs (2 pass, 1 rush) in last meeting...RB THEO RIDDICK leads NFL RBs with 5 rec. TDs & ranks 3rd with 53 receptions...WR GOLDEN TATE has 224 rec. yards (112 per game) & 2 TD catches in past 2 on road. Had 6 receptions for 93 yards in last meeting. WR ANQUAN BOLDIN had 8 receptions for 107 yards & TD in last meeting (10/11/15 with SF). Since entering NFL in 2003, ranks 3rd with 13,676 rec. yards…DE EZEKIEL ANSAH has 1.5 sacks in 2 career meetings. DE KERRY HYDER has 6 sacks in past 6 on road. LB TAHIR WHITEHEAD leads team with career-high 107 tackles. Since 2013, S GLOVER QUIN ranks 2nd among NFL safeties with 16 INTs. S TAVON WILSONhas INT in 2 of past 4.

GIANTS

QB ELI MANNING had 2 TD passes & 104.4 rating in last home meeting. Is averaging 291.1 pass yards per game in past 7 at home…RB RASHAD JENNINGS had rush TD in last meeting. Has 295 scrimmage yards (98.3 per game) & TD in past 3 at home…WR ODELL BECKHAM JR. has 34 TD catches since entering NFL in 2014, tied for most in league. Has 6 rec. TDs in past 5 at home. Rookie WR STERLING SHEPARD has TD catch in 4 of past 5. Ranks 3rd among NFL rookies in receptions (51) & rec. yards (536) & ties for 2nd with 6 rec. TDs…DE OLIVIER VERNONhas 7 sacks in past 6. DT DAMON HARRISON leads NFL DTs with 76 tackles. Rookie DE ROMEO OKWARA had 1st career sack last week. LB JONATHAN CASILLAS has 13 tackles, sack & FF in past 2.  CB JANORIS JENKINS had INT & FF in Week 14. Had INT in only career meeting (9/9/12 with Rams). S LANDON COLLINS is only player in NFL with 3+ sacks (3) & 5+ INTs (5). Leads NFL safeties with 100 tackles.     

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (11-2)
AT DENVER BRONCOS (8-5)

While the Giants and Lions battle for positioning in the AFC, the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos are both trying to improve their standing in the AFC. The Patriots would clinch the AFC with a win or tie or a Miami loss or tie. Taking it a step further, the Patriots would clinch a first-round bye with a win or a tie or loss or ties by Miami and Pittsburgh or with a Miami loss or tie and a win by Kansas City.

Got that? Good. Because things are much simpler for the Broncos. They can’t clinch anything for the playoffs yet this weekend with both the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs holding a two-game lead over the Broncos in the AFC West, but Denver currently is still hanging onto the sixth seed in the AFC.

The Patriots and Broncos are two of the best teams in the AFC over the last several years, representing the last two Super Bowl winners and the AFC representative in three of the last five years, and the Broncos beat the Patriots 20-18 in last season’s AFC Championship.

The Patriots have the edge in this one, however, when it comes to the rankings. They are top five in overall offense, rushing offense, passing offense, overall defense and rushing defense, and 15th in passing defense. The Broncos, meanwhile, are in the bottom half of the rankings in the offensive categories but third in total defense and first in pass defense.

Normally, it might be tough for Denver’s offense to keep pace with New England’s – and that still might be the case – but the Patriots not having TE Rob Gronkowski could help level the playing field, both in defending the Patriots’ pass and in being able to get to QB Tom Brady quicker, as Gronkowski is also considered a formidable blocker.

Still, the Patriots have a decided advantage at quarterback, where Brady has an incredible touchdown-to-interceptions ratio of 22-to-2, a 113.6 rating (best in the league) and the Patriots have the lowest interception percentage in the NFL. The Broncos, meanwhile, counter with Trevor Siemian, a developing youngster with 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions who will have to navigate the labyrinth of a Bill Belichick defense.

  PATRIOTS BRONCOS
SERIES LEADER   26-20
STREAKS 4 of past 5  
COACHES VS. OPP. Bill Belichick: 7-10 Gary Kubiak: 2-3
LAST WEEK W 30-23 vs. Baltimore L 13-10 at Tennessee
LAST GAME 11/29/15: Patriots 24 at Broncos 30 (OT). Denver QB Brock Osweiler passes for 270 yards & TD. Broncos RB C.J. Anderson rushes for 113 yards & 2 TDs, incl. GW 48-yard TD in OT.
LAST GAME AT SITE 11/29/15
REFEREE Walt Anderson
BROADCAST CBS (4:25 PM ET): Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson (Field reporter). SIRIUS: 93 (NE), 82 (Den). XM: 228 (NE), 82 (Den).
STATS
PASSING Tom Brady: 233-340-2876-22-2-113.6 (1L) Trevor Siemian: 230-376-2730-16-7-89.7
RUSHING LeGarrette Blount: 248-1029-4.1-14 (1L) Devontae Booker (R): 149-511-3.4-3
RECEIVING Julian Edelman: 79-791-10.0-2 Demaryius Thomas: 76-925-12.2-5
OFFENSE 395.8 328.1
TAKE/GIVE 3 5
DEFENSE 338.1 310.7 (3L)
SACKS Trey Flowers: 5 Von Miller: 13.5 (T1L)
INTs Malcolm Butler: 2 Darian Stewart, Aqib Talib: 3
PUNTING Ryan Allen: 44.3 Riley Dixon (R): 45.6
KICKING Stephen Gostkowski: 97 (37/40 PAT; 20/24 FG) Brandon McManus: 106 (28/29 PAT; 26/30 FG)

PATRIOTS

Aim for 5th win in row…In past 10 vs. Den., QB TOM BRADY has 2,814 pass yards (281.4 per game) with 21 TDs vs. 2 INTs for 96.0 rating. Has 2,876 pass yards, 22 pass TDs vs. 2 INTs for 113.6 rating in 9 games this season…RB LE GARRETTE BLOUNT leads NFL with 14 rush TDs. Is team’s 1st 1,000-yard rusher (1,029) since 2012. Since 2015, RB JAMES WHITE ties for lead among NFL RBs with 8 rec. TDs…WR JULIAN EDELMAN has 199 rec. yards (99.5 per game) & 3 TDs in past 2 vs. Den. Aims for 6th in row with 7+ catches. Rookie WR MALCOLM MITCHELL has 4 rec. TDs in past 4. WR CHRIS HOGAN had 129 rec. yards, incl. 79-yard TD, last week…S DEVIN MC COURTY had INT last week. LB ROB NINKOVICH has 4 sacks, 2 FFs, FR & INT in past 6 meetings. DT MALCOM BROWN had sack in last meeting. CB LOGAN RYAN had 4 PD in last game vs. Den.

BRONCOS

QB TREVOR SIEMIEN has 15 TDs vs. 4 INTs in past 9. Aims for 3rd in row with 300+ pass yards & 0 INTs…Rookie RB DEVONTAE BOOKER has rush TD in 2 of past 3 at home. RB JUSTIN FORSETT rushed for 129 yards in last game vs. NE (1/10/15, AFC Div. with Bal.)…WR DEMARYIUS THOMAS has 100+ rec. yards in 3 of past 5 vs. NE. Led team with 126 rec. yards last week. Since 2012, ranks 2nd in NFL with 478 catches. Is 1 of 4 in NFL with 5+ rec. TDs in each of past 5 seasons. WR EMMANUEL SANDERS has 362 rec. yards (120.7 per game) in past 3 meetings. Had 11 catches for 100 yards & TD last week…LB VON MILLER has 7.5 sacks, 10 TFL, 2 FFs, FR & INT in past 5 vs. NE (incl. playoffs). Had 2.5 sacks & INT in 2015 AFC CG. Has 18.5 sacks, 14 TFL, 4 FFs & INT in past 15 (incl. playoffs). Ties for NFL lead with 13.5 sacks. DE DEREK WOLFE had 9 tackles, 2 TFL & sack in last meeting. LB

 

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (8-5)
AT DALLAS COWBOYS (11-2)

Back to the NFC for a Sunday night game, the Dallas Cowboys hold the catbird seat with a two-game lead over the Lions, who are currently holding the second spot in the playoff seedings. The Cowboys would clinch the NFC East with a win and a Giants loss or tie, or a tie and a Giants loss. Dallas could also clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a win and a tie between the Giants and Lions.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, on the other hand, aren’t in position to clinch anything yet, but they are in a tight race with the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South. Both of those teams are 8-5, but because of the tiebreakers the Falcons hold the fourth seed right now and the Bucs are on the bubble as the sixth seed. A win by the Bucs and loss by the Falcons would allow Tampa Bay to control its own destiny.

The question is whether the Giants have created a lasting or only a temporary concern in Dallas. The Cowboys lost only their second game of the season last week, 10-7, but both of those losses came to the Giants. It was the second straight week that the highly praised Cowboys offense was held under 20 points as questions arise there whether QB Dak Prescott has reached the famed rookie wall. But can they lean any more heavily on rookie back Ezekiel Elliott, who already leads the league in rushing yards? The Cowboys have the second-ranked rushing offense, but their passing attack is 20th.

The Bucs can counter with a pretty balanced offensive attack in which Jameis Winston is averaging 274.8 yards and a 100.2 passer rating in his past four road games. Mike Evans presents a big target that the Cowboys’ 28th-ranked pass defense will have to smother (he’s third in the NFL with 10 touchdown receptions) and he is the most targeted receiver in the NFL. Doug Martin provides backfield support with a 101.7 average in scrimmage yards in his last 13 road games.

A good slate of Sunday afternoon games is met with a promising Sunday nighter, too.

  BUCCANEERS COWBOYS
SERIES LEADER   11-4
STREAKS   5 of past 6
COACHES VS. OPP. Dirk Koetter: 0-0 Jason Garrett: 2-1
LAST WEEK W 16-11 vs. New Orleans L 10-7 at New York Giants
LAST GAME 11/15/15: Cowboys 6 at Buccaneers 10. Tampa Bay QB Jameis Winston passes for 264 yards & rushes for GW TD with 0:54 remaining. Buccaneers WR Mike Evans has 126 rec. yards.
LAST GAME AT SITE 9/23/12: Cowboys 16, Buccaneers 10. Dallas RB DeMarco Murray rushes for TD. Cowboys DE DeMarcus Ware has 2 sacks & 2 FFs.
REFEREE Terry McAulay
BROADCAST NBC (8:30 PM ET): Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya (Field reporter). Westwood One: Kevin Kugler, James Lofton. SIRIUS: 88 (WW1), 119 (TB), 81 (Dal). XM: 88 (WW1), 226 (TB), 225 (Dal).
STATS
PASSING Jameis Winston: 285-462-3364-23-12-89.6 Dak Prescott (R): 260-395-3139-20-4-102.7 (3L)
RUSHING Doug Martin: 128-379-3.0-3 Ezekiel Elliott (R): 287-1392 (1L)-4.9-12 (T2L)
RECEIVING Mike Evans: 80 (3L)-1100-13.8-10 (3L) Cole Beasley: 64-711-11.1-5
OFFENSE 355.2 385.2
TAKE/GIVE 6 2
DEFENSE 360.5 350.9
SACKS Gerald McCoy: 7 Tyrone Crawford: 4.5
INTs Brent Grimes: 3 Barry Church: 2
PUNTING Bryan Anger: 45.9 Chris Jones: 45.7
KICKING Roberto Aguayo (R): 79 (25/27 PAT; 18/25 FG) Dan Bailey: 100 (37/37 PAT; 21/24 FG)

BUCCANEERS

QB JAMEIS WINSTON has 1,099 pass yards (274.8 per game) & 6 TDs with 2 INTs for 100.2 rating in past 4 on road. Has 90+ rating in 5 of past 6...RB DOUG MARTIN aims for 3rd in row with rush TD. Is averaging 101.7 scrimmage yards per game in past 13 on road…WR MIKE EVANS ranks 3rd in NFL with 10 TD catches. Has 25 rec. TDs since entering league in 2014, tied for 2nd-most in NFC. TE CAMERON BRATE has 6 TD catches, tied for most among NFL TEs…DT GERALD MC COY has 6 sacks & 2 FFs in past 9. Has 33.5 sacks since 2013, most among NFL DTs. DE ROBERT AYERS aims for 4th in row with sack. Rookie CB VERNON HARGREAVES had 1st career INT last week. CB BRENT GRIMES ties for 2nd in NFL with 17 PD.

COWBOYS

Have clinched playoff berth…QB DAK PRESCOTT leads NFL rookies in pass TDs (20) & rating (102.7). Has 100+ rating in 10 of 13 career starts. Has 8 TDs vs. 1 INT for 100.3 rating in 6 career home games…Rookie RB EZEKIEL ELLIOTT leads NFL with 1,392 rush yards & leads NFC with 12 rush TDs. Rushed for 107 yards last week, his 6th 100-yard rush game. Aims for 6th in row with 100+ scrimmage yards…WR DEZ BRYANT has 4 TD catches in past 4 at home. Since 2012, leads NFL with 50 rec. TDs. WR TERRANCE WILLIAMShad 5 receptions for 76 yards & TD last week. TE JASON WITTEN ranks 2nd all-time among TEs with 1,076 receptions & 11,794 rec. yards…DE BENSON MAYOWA has 2 sacks & FF in past 2. LB SEAN LEE had 18 tackles in Week 14. Has 258 tackles since 2015, most in NFL. Rookie CB ANTHONY BROWN had INT last week.

 

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