Is another QB's streak in jeopardy?
Playoff run is on the line for Peyton Manning, who is 18-2 at home vs. AFC South
Week 15 might be the most dramatic and important week of the season. A few weeks ago, many of the playoff contenders separated themselves from the pretenders in this season of parity. This weekend could be a time of closure for some of the playoff spots.
2. Cool Brees blowing into Baltimore: Drew Brees played his college ball at Purdue, but his pro career has been played in balmy San Diego and in the comforts of the Superdome. With the East Coast in freeze mode, Brees heads to Baltimore with some warm experiences in cold-weather games. He usually only gets one cold game a season, but he warms to the conditions. Two weeks ago in Cincinnati, Brees was 24-for-29 for 313 yards and two touchdowns. In December 2009, he was 35-for-49 for 419 yards against the Washington Redskins. But those games were against inferior competition. Two years ago, Brees lost a 27-24 road game in chilly Chicago. He completed 24 of 43 passes for 232 yards and was sacked six times. The Ravens' defense will bring the heat, particularly after its embarrassing second-half performance Monday night against the Texans. Baltimore's secondary was helpless and tired trying to stop Matt Schaub in the second half. The Ravens have lost eight fourth-quarter leads this season.
5. Two playoff teams in the "Show Me" State? The Kansas City Chiefs entered the season figuring they were a six-win team that might win eight or more if they got a few breaks. They are 8-5 and lead the AFC West. The Rams thought they were a four-win team that might get a few breaks to get six wins. The Rams are tied for the lead in the NFC West. The lesson learned by both franchises is the value of a quarterback who is functioning at a high level. The Rams vaulted to six wins with Sam Bradford, the odds-on favorite to win offensive rookie of the year honors. He has passed for 2,884 yards and will join Manning and Matt Ryan as the only rookie quarterbacks to throw for more than 3,000 yards. With offensive playmakers who can make plays after the catch this season, Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel has gone from a quarterback who threw a touchdown and an interception a game last season to one this season who has 23 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. Cassel missed last Sunday's game against the Chargers because of an appendectomy, and the Chiefs were shut out with Brodie Croyle behind center. Cassel returned to practice this week.
7. Andre Johnson-Cortland Finnegan, Round 2: Three weeks ago, Texans receiver Johnson grew tired of constant jabs by Titans cornerback Finnegan, and the best fight of the year broke out. Each player was fined $25,000. Those attending Sunday's game in Nashville will get the rematch, which could be the most interesting part of this game. Despite a nagging ankle injury, Johnson is having his usual Pro Bowl season, with 80 catches for 1,158 yards and seven touchdowns. Finnegan has been overly busy this season. Receivers have grabbed 52 of 84 passes thrown on him for 698 yards. He's the fourth-most-targeted defender in football. "Retaliation is for the birds," Finnegan told reporters Wednesday. The game itself means little for the teams but a lot for the coaches. Jeff Fisher of the Titans and Gary Kubiak of the Texans are 5-8, and their futures with their teams will be reviewed at the end of the season.
8. NFC South symbol: The NFC South may have the Falcons as a member, but the official bird for the South should be a vulture. The NFC South has feasted on the NFC West this season with a 10-3 record. The Bucs, Saints and Falcons have combined to go 9-1 against NFC West roadkill. The Falcons go cross-country to face the 6-7 Seahawks. The Panthers have a home game against the Arizona Cardinals. The Falcons definitely can't afford to lose the Seahawks game, because wins against the Seahawks this week and the Panthers in Week 17 guarantee they will win the division. The Panthers may not want to win the Cardinals game because it could cost them the top pick in the draft and the chance to select Andrew Luck if he turns pro. The Bucs are the ultimate NFC South vultures. They host the Detroit Lions on Sunday, and if they beat the Lions and the Seahawks in Week 16, they will be 10-0 against teams with losing records.
10. Bottom Feeders: The most interesting part of these three games -- Arizona-Carolina, Cleveland-Cincinnati and Buffalo-Miami -- is the return of rookie quarterback Colt McCoy to the Browns' starting lineup. McCoy was 2-3 before suffering a high ankle sprain, but he completed 63.8 percent of his passes and averaged 22.8 points a game in his starts. If McCoy beats Carson Palmer, it may force the Bengals to look at Luck at quarterback in the draft if they get the first pick. The Cardinals-Panthers game features two rookie quarterbacks -- John Skelton of the Cardinals and Jimmy Clausen of the Panthers. Six rookie quarterbacks have started this season. The Dolphins can keep their faint playoff hopes alive if they can win a home game against the 3-10 Bills.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
NFL WEEK 15 PREVIEW