Week 15 of the NFL season is special for several reasons: it is the first weekend the NFL has games on Saturday, the byes are over and all 32 teams play, and the Prime Time games on Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday Night Football all carry significant playoff implications. This article will cover Thursday Night’s matchup between the Chiefs and Chargers, the Saturday Night game between the Patriots and Colts, and Sunday afternoon games between the Packers and Ravens and the Bengals at the Broncos, while the second article in The Professor’s Games of the week will analyze the Football Team at the Eagles, the Titans at the Steelers, the Seahawks and Rams, and the Saints at the Buccaneers. All spreads and totals are provided by DraftKings.
Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers (KC -3, Total 52)
Thursday Night’s NFL matchup is a showdown for the AFC West; if the Chiefs win, they would hold a two-game lead with three games to play with a win, while the Chargers would tie Kansas City’s record and lead the AFC West by the head-to-head tiebreaker with a win.
Both quarterbacks come into this game off of strong performances; Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes lit up the Raiders for the second time in a month, while Justin Herbert put his name in contention for the throw of the year with his bomb to receiver Jalen Guyton just before the half against the Giants. New York’s overall ineptitude meant that Herbert did not have to top the 300-yard passing mark, but it was the first time in four games he has not hit that number; given that Herbert threw for 8.9 yards per attempt, he would have topped 300 if game circumstances had forced his hand.
Kansas City’s offense has the potential to match Herbert score-for-score, but the bigger disparity is between the defenses. The Chiefs may be without star defensive tackle Chris Jones, who is currently on the COVID list, but they will get a dynamic player back as cornerback L’Jarius Sneed is set to return after missing last week’s game due to a family tragedy. Life would be easier for Herbert if Jones is unable to play, but even without their star lineman, the Chiefs’ defense is significantly improved from the unit that Herbert lit up for four touchdowns and zero interceptions in September.
The MVP race has focused on Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, but Herbert has an opportunity to put himself in that conversation down the stretch if he shines in the Prime Time matchup and the Chargers get the win. Mahomes’ inconsistent play throughout the NFL season has him out of the MVP discussion, but if Kansas City’s offense plays to their ceiling in this game, they will have a case to move to the front of the pack as the favorite to win the AFC.
New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts (IND -2.5, Total 45)
In 2018, coach Frank Reich led an Andrew Luck-quarterbacked Colts team back from a 1-5 start to make the NFL playoffs and pick up a win against the Texans before Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs knocked them off. Three years later, Reich is poised to pull off a similar feat with Carson Wentz at quarterback, as the Colts have rallied from a 1-4 start to a 7-6 record that would put them in the AFC playoffs if the NFL’s tournament started today.
Indianapolis finishes with the Raiders and Jaguars, teams that are likely to continue to unravel until the Colts play them in early January, but Indianapolis will be in a far better position entering the last two weeks if they beat the Patriots this week or the Cardinals next week. Both are formidable opponents and this week’s matchup is particularly interesting, as New England’s defensive front may be the rare unit that can slow down Colts running back Jonathan Taylor, who leads the NFL in rushing by over 300 yards.
If the Patriots do contain Taylor, it will be interesting to see how Colts quarterback Carson Wentz responds. Wentz has had some memorable turnovers this season, but he has only thrown five interceptions and fumbled three times through 13 games, which sets him up to post career bests in both categories, and he is also on track to start every game for what would be the third time in his NFL career. Wentz is 15th in passing yards and 10th in passing touchdowns, which reflects the fact that Taylor’s presence in the ground game limits how much the Colts ask Wentz to do, but if Wentz puts together a quality performance in this spotlight matchup, the trade that the Colts made for him will look fantastic, particularly given the lukewarm reviews on the crop of quarterbacks available in the upcoming NFL Draft.
The Patriots could use this win in the race for home-field advantage, but New England has established that they will be a difficult out in the NFL Playoffs regardless of how this game goes. Indianapolis has an impressive win over Buffalo, but few signature victories to point to besides that; this week is an opportunity to show they could be a team to be reckoned with when the NFL Playoffs kick-off.
Green Bay Packers at Baltimore Ravens (GB -5, Total 43.5)
In most weeks, the story for this game would be about the overall quarterback matchup between two former MVPs in Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, but the focus is far more specific this week as NFL fans monitor the status of Rodgers’ toe and Jackson’s ankle.
This game had Green Bay at -2 on the DraftKings look-ahead lines, a number that seemed off even before Jackson injured his ankle in Sunday’s loss to the Browns. The number got as high as Green Bay -8 on DraftKings before the news broke that the Ravens expect Jackson to be back on the field this week, which caused the line to settle at Green Bay -5.
Baltimore is optimistic about the outlook for Jackson, but it is difficult to imagine that he will be his usual dynamic self running the ball on an ankle injury that forced him out of a critical division game last weekend. Jackson had not played particularly well against Cleveland before the injury, which was a continuation of issues that have persisted for much of the NFL season. The dominant run game the Ravens established in 2019 and 2020 had dried up, and their increased reliance on the passing game has exposed their offensive line, particularly on the edges, where left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and the revolving cast of players at right tackle struggled in pass protection in critical moments. Baltimore’s run-heavy scheme was once as offensive line-friendly as any in the NFL and allowed them to protect less capable players by limiting the snaps where they had to drop back in pass protection, but it has not played out that way during this NFL season.
Rodgers is in a markedly different situation; despite his toe injury, the Packers quarterback is playing as well as anyone in the NFL. Baltimore’s injuries continue to pile up when star defensive lineman Calais Campbell exited the game against the Browns after six snaps. Campbell may not be available for this matchup, which puts more stress on a depleted secondary that will have to be more aggressive rolling down to tackle massive running back A.J. Dillon if Campbell can’t go. The Ravens should be the more desperate team in this game, but outside of that and their home-field advantage, there are not many reasons to favor Baltimore in this game.
Cincinnati Bengals at Denver Broncos (DEN -2.5, Total 44.5)
It got lost in the shuffle because of Cincinnati’s remarkable comeback and the gravity-defying touchdown Brandon Aiyuk scored to get the 49ers the win in overtime, but the Bengals’ issues in this game stemmed from two muffed punts in the first half that kept the ball out of quarterback Joe Burrow’s hands and led to 10 points for the 49ers.
San Francisco is a good team and would have kept it competitive, but it is difficult to imagine they could have beaten the Bengals without those special teams’ miscues on a day where Burrow was dropping dimes all over the field. Cincinnati’s line needs to improve for the offense to become an elite unit, but when Burrow is in rhythm with receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, it is hard to point to a better group of skill players in the NFL. Consistency has been an issue, but Chase and Higgins are as talented as any receiver tandem in the NFL, tight end C.J. Uzomah has capitalized when his number is called, and Tyler Boyd is one of the more reliable slot receivers in the league. Throw in running back Joe Mixon, who is second in the NFL in rushing, and Burrow has plenty of options as he continues his push for his first playoff berth.
Denver has a similarly talented collection of skill players, but Teddy Bridgewater is not Joe Burrow. The Broncos put a beating on a Lions team battling the dreaded “one-win” hangover, but their passing game was atrocious in their loss to the Chiefs two weeks ago. Denver’s secondary has the talent to challenge Cincinnati’s offense, but they have not been a shutdown unit; to avoid losing as a favorite this week, Denver will likely need Bridgewater to create some big plays in the passing game.
This article previewed four prominent NFL matchups for the coming week. For more content from The Professor, including the rest of his game previews and his fantasy content, check out The Professor on BeerLife Sports!
Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.