Saturday December 15, 2012

BARRY WILNER

AP Pro Football Writer

This might be even better than the playoffs.

Week 15 sure looks like a playoff round with so many matchups between contenders. From Foxborough to Baltimore to Atlanta, from Chicago to Houston to Dallas. Maybe even throw in St. Louis. It feels like the postseason because of the importance of those games for all involved.

"I think for us it's an important football game because we've got a lot of stuff in front of us that we want to finish off with this season," said Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who could have been speaking for every team still in the playoff races.

And especially for those facing opponents in the same position this weekend, including Ryan's Falcons against the NFC East-leading New York Giants.

San Francisco (9-3-1)
at New England (10-3)

Six days after exposing the Texans in a prime-time rout, the Patriots take on another likely division winner with Super Bowl aspirations. Should New England, which has won 20 in a row at home in December and has not lost in the second half of the schedule in 21 games, do the same to the 49ers on Sunday night, well, nobody will doubt the Patriots have earned the favorite's role. The Patriots, winners of seven in a row, tend to live up to such challenges.

Denver (10-3) at Baltimore (9-4)

The AFC West champion Broncos have won eight straight as their defense has become staunch. That gives them an edge in that area over the sputtering Ravens, which says a lot in itself considering how good Baltimore's defense usually is.

Then there's the comfort level Peyton Manning has gained with his playmates on offense. In contrast, the Ravens fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron this week, replacing him with Jim Caldwell -- coincidentally, Manning's last coach in Indianapolis before the four-time MVP headed to Denver.

New York Giants (8-5)
at Atlanta (11-2)

Although the Falcons own the NFC South and have the best record in the conference, they've looked vulnerable for more than a month. One of two undefeated teams at home -- Seattle is the other -- Atlanta needs to re-establish some momentum after a weak performance in a loss at Carolina.

The Giants also have been up and down and have only a one-game lead in the NFC East, where Dallas and Washington have better divisional records.

Green Bay (9-4) at Chicago (8-5)

A Packers victory ends the suspense in the NFC North, and the way Chicago is hurting, the Bears might need to start worrying about just getting into the postseason if they fall at Soldier Field.

The latest injury is to kicker Robbie Gould's left calf, and he is done for the season; veteran Olindo Mare was signed this week. Defensive leader Brian Urlacher (hamstring) and outstanding cornerback Tim Jennings (shoulder) also have missed time, and QB Jay Cutler hurt his neck in last week's loss to the Vikings, but expects to go.

Indianapolis (9-4) at Houston (11-2)

The division race is over if the Texans win, and they also are very aware that another loss could force them to return to Foxborough in the playoffs.

Indianapolis has put together quite a story, going from the NFL's worst in 2012 to a victory of at least an AFC wild-card spot. Win out and the Colts, led by top overall draft choice QB Andrew Luck, take the South crown. Win here and they are in the playoffs.

Pittsburgh (7-6) at Dallas (7-6)

Both clubs are alive in division races, but more realistic might be pursuing a wild card. The loser here will be at a big disadvantage in that chase -- unless the other contenders also lose, which is highly possible in this wide-open scramble.

For the Steelers, a more comfortable Ben Roethlisberger in his second game back from shoulder and rib problems is a must. Pittsburgh failed at home against San Diego for the first time in the regular season last Sunday, but got help from Dallas when it rallied to knock off Cincinnati.

Minnesota (7-6) at St. Louis (6-6-1)

Adrian Peterson has his eyes on more than reaching 2,000 yards rushing in his comeback from major left knee surgery 11 months ago. He's thinking about Eric Dickerson's league record of 2,105 set in 1984. Considering how unproductive Minnesota's passing attack has been with struggling second-year quarterback Christian Ponder -- and without star receiver Percy Harvin -- expect the Rams to load up against the run.

Seattle (8-5) vs. Buffalo (5-8)

Coming off its biggest road win two weeks ago at Chicago, the Seahawks should have no fear of visiting the Bills and dealing with the Western New York elements ... oh, wait. Not much home-field advantage in the Toronto dome for the Bills, who are just 3-3 at Orchard Park, anyway.

Washington (7-6) at Cleveland (5-8)

A pair of teams on a roll, with Washington chasing the postseason and Cleveland perhaps saving coach Pat Shurmur's job with its perseverance and hard work despite all the earlier defeats.

So much of the Redskins' fortunes depend on how quickly QB Robert Griffin III recovers from the knee sprain he suffered last Sunday. The sensational rookie was replaced by another freshman, Kirk Cousins, who completed the rally to beat the Ravens.

Tampa Bay (6-7)
at New Orleans (5-8)

Look for lots of points at the Superdome. Only the Giants have scored more in the NFC than the Bucs' 354 and the Saints' 348.

With playoff hopes squashed, New Orleans' players might be looking to increase their individual numbers against a defense that fell apart against Philly late last week. The Bucs are last defending the pass, and Drew Brees isn't exactly a novice at picking apart weak units.

Jets (6-7) at Tennessee (4-9)

Somehow, even with all the turmoil surrounding Mark Sanchez, Rex Ryan and the Jets, they remain in playoff contention. Sure, they beat weaklings Arizona and Jacksonville, and not convincingly, in the last two weeks. And after this prime-time affair with another also-ran, they finish against San Diego and Buffalo. So 9-7 and a wild-card spot isn't inconceivable.

Jacksonville (2-11) at Miami (5-8)

North Florida vs. South Florida. This might be more interesting if it was the Seminoles against the Hurricanes. The Dolphins dumped Chad Henne and he now has replaced injured -- and often inept -- Blaine Gabbert as quarterback of the Jaguars. That and Jacksonville's pursuit of the NFL's worst record and top pick in the draft give this game at least some flavor.

Carolina (4-9) at San Diego (5-8)

It's become fun to watch Cam Newton again. What he did last week against Atlanta surely has been noticed by a San Diego team that snapped a four-game slide with a shocker at Pittsburgh.

Detroit (4-9) at Arizona (4-9)

It's impossible to believe the Cardinals can be any more wretched than in that 58-0 debacle last Sunday at Seattle.

If they have any fight left, they will at least show up against the Lions, who look more like the team that spent a decade near the bottom of the standings than the one that broke a playoff drought a year ago.

Kansas City (2-11) at Oakland (3-10)

Last time these bitter rivals met, the Raiders were 2-4 and the Chiefs 1-5. Not much has changed, a sad commentary considering where these franchises once were.