Saturday NFL Preview, Week 15: Division leaders hope to hold serve in three crucial late-season clashes

Jan 2, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) reacts to a touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons during the second half at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday NFL Preview, Week 15: Division leaders hope to hold serve in three crucial late-season clashes

As the college football season winds down with only bowl games remaining, the NFL will begin taking advantage of Saturdays during the season’s final few weeks. That starts with three matchups in Week 15, starting at noon central time and continuing into the night.

Indianapolis Colts (4-8-1) at Minnesota Vikings (10-3)

Time/TV: noon CT/NFL Network

The Minnesota Vikings enter Saturday afternoon’s matinee with the Indianapolis Colts on the verge of clinching the NFC North, needing just a win or a loss by the Detroit Lions to finish the job and ensure a home playoff game. In theory, Sunday’s matchup with the 4-8-1 Colts is a golden opportunity for Minnesota – but with its defense struggling mightily of late, nothing is a given. The Vikings have allowed more than 30 points per game on average over their last four, including a 34-23 loss at Detroit last weekend in which the Lions gained 464 yards and never turned the football over.

Indianapolis has been in a free fall for the last two months, losing six of seven games while falling almost completely out of the AFC playoff hunt. Any chance Indianapolis has of miraculously reaching the postseason hangs in the balance Saturday in Minneapolis. The Colts’ punchless offense averages 16.1 points per game, second-worst in the NFL. With the bevy of weapons at quarterback Kirk Cousins’ disposal on the other side, Indianapolis will have to solve its offensive woes in a hurry to stay competitive Saturday afternoon. Minnesota is allowing more yards than any team in the NFL (403.7 per game), so Matt Ryan and the Colts will be out of excuses if they continue their offensive woes.

Baltimore Ravens (9-4) at Cleveland Browns (5-8)

Time/TV: 3:30 p.m. CT/NFL Network

Saturday’s middle matchup is a divisional clash between the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns, a rematch of Week 7’s 23-20 win for Baltimore. Cleveland has gone 3-3 since and can hardly afford another loss if it is going to push back into the playoff race down the stretch. Quarterback Deshaun Watson has hardly been the savior Browns’ fans hoped he would be since returning to the field in Week 13, struggling in Cleveland’s win at Houston and looking hapless in its loss in Cincinnati last Sunday. Watson’s rusty play is understandable, given the lack of game action for the quarterback in the previous two years, but the Browns can hardly afford to wait for him to figure it out. Saturday’s trip to Baltimore won’t be any easier, as the Browns battle a Ravens’ defense that has allowed more than 14 points just once in the last five games.

For Baltimore, defensive dominance has been a necessity. The Ravens sit at 9-4 despite an injury to quarterback Lamar Jackson two weeks ago versus Denver, having defeated the Steelers and Broncos by a combined three points in those two games. Baltimore scored a total of 26 points in the two victories. Despite concussion concerns from last Sunday’s game, backup quarterback Tyler Huntley is off the injury report and in line to make his second straight start for the Ravens. Huntley went 27-for-38 for 270 yards passing while adding 45 yards rushing against the Browns last season, leading an impressive comeback that fell just short after taking over for Jackson. With how well the Cincinnati Bengals are playing, Baltimore knows it needs Saturday’s game like blood if it wants to stay atop the AFC North until Lamar Jackson is cleared to return.

Miami Dolphins (8-5) at Buffalo Bills (10-3)

Time/TV: 7:15 p.m. CT/NFL Network

The Buffalo Bills’ revenge tour welcomes the Miami Dolphins to town in Week 15, Buffalo’s second straight divisional opponent it gets another crack at after losing earlier in the season. The weather forecast looks less than ideal for the warm-weather Dolphins, with blowing snow expected to bury the Orchard Park, New York region throughout the weekend. It doesn’t help the Dolphins that they’re on the road Saturday for a third consecutive week following two losses on the west coast, and Buffalo is likely to be the least forgiving of the three environments. Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa struggled mightily with accuracy last Sunday night in Los Angeles, completing just 10 of 28 passes against the Chargers in the 23-17 loss. The Dolphins mustered just 219 yards on the night and struggled to remain competitive with a Los Angeles team that entered the night 6-6. 

Buffalo’s offensive performance in Week 14 left plenty to be desired as well. The Bills punted on their first four drives of the day and only mustered 232 yards all afternoon against the stingy New York Jets defense. Instead, it was Buffalo’s defense that led the way, forcing two turnovers while repeatedly delivering crushing blows to Jets’ quarterbacks Mike White and Joe Flacco. The Bills undoubtedly view their Week 3 loss to Miami as a fluke. The 21-19 defeat saw Buffalo outgain the Dolphins 497 yards to just 212 while controlling the football for more than 40 minutes and picking up 31 first downs to Miami’s 15. Buffalo hurt itself with seven penalties and a crucial lost fumble in that game, mistakes it will hope to rectify in front of its home crowd. The Bills can clinch their fourth straight playoff appearance with a win Saturday and would put themselves on the precipice of an AFC East title.

Several Dolphins, including wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, have spoken this week about having never played in snow before. If the Highmark Stadium crowd has any say in the matter, they won’t enjoy their first such experience.

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