5 Playoff-Picture Games to Watch in Week 15: Making Sense of the AFC North Race

The AFC North is crazy, and this week's slate of games will be crucial in determining the winner.

The 2014 NFL season has not disappointed us at all from an entertainment standpoint, as several teams will battle for their playoff lives over the final three weeks of the season, and some seriously good football players will be left sitting at home in January.

Oh, and there's likely to be a 9- or 10-loss team in the playoffs. Which is either incredibly interesting or ridiculously frustrating, depending on your perspective.

We've also reached that point of the season when clinching divisions and playoff berths becomes a weekly exercise. But the best games are usually not the ones centered around clinching playoff spots, but the ones that feature teams battling for the last spots in the top six. This week features plenty of games with those sorts of stakes.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Atlanta Falcons

The Steelers are currently in the awkward position of sitting a half of a game behind the Bengals for first place in the AFC North thanks to Cincinnati's tie. This means they're unlikely to wind up in any tiebreakers with the Bengals, and just have to focus on winding up ahead of their division rivals in win percentage.

That starts this week against the Falcons, who are in a playoff chase of their own as they fight to be the leader of the NFL's minor league, the NFC South. They're currently a few games worse than the Steelers in the win column, but are very close according to our team rankings, which makes this an interesting contest under the dome in the ATL.

The Falcons are 16th in the NFL at the moment, according to our data, while the Steelers are 13th. The Falcons are held up by a top-five offense when judged by Net Expected Points (NEP), but dragged down by the second-worst defense in the league. The Steelers are similarly good on offense and bad on defense, but their metrics balance out a bit better and earned them a higher overall ranking.

This is a tough test for the Steelers, who really need a win in the ultra-competitive playoff picture in the AFC. The Bengals have a tough test of their own this weekend, meaning Pittsburgh could leap into the division lead with a win. But the Falcons will be poised to match the Steelers point for point in what should be a fun, high-scoring game.

Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns

The Bengals are stumbling their way through this season as the leader of the AFC North, and face in-state and division rivals Cleveland in Week 15. So a matchup with the 7-6 Browns would seem like a pretty tough task for the Bengals, right?

Not according to our NEP data. The Falcons are actually a tougher opponent right now than the Browns when considering numberFire's team rankings. Cleveland has a strong pass defense, but is inefficient in the run game, doesn't throw the ball well at all, and aren't that great at stopping the run, leading to a ranking of 22nd overall.

The problem for Cincinnati is that they're actually one spot behind their neighbors to the north, 23rd in our overall standings. Marvin Lewis' team has the third-worst run defense in the league, and aren't particularly good at any other aspect of the game, dragging them down into the realm of teams like the Giants and Vikings.

The Browns love to run the ball, and will start a rushing quarterback in his first career start this week. Can Johnny Manziel and the Browns spoil the Bengals' playoff hopes? If Baltimore defeats the Jaguars, and the Steelers go on the road to defeat Atlanta, Cincinnati could be on the outside looking in after this week is over with a loss on Sunday.

Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots

Miami is one of the best teams in the league, according to our data, ranking 10th overall in the league. But a loss last week to Baltimore has dropped them into ninth in the AFC playoff picture, tied with Houston, Kansas City and others at 7-6. The numbers that fuel our rankings believe the Fins should be one of the AFC's playoff teams based on merit, but give them only a 13.5% chance of making the dance based on their current situation.

They'll need to pull off a massive upset to get a much needed win this week, as the top-rated Patriots host Miami. The Dolphins did knock off New England to start the season, but New England has morphed into a machine on offense since then, and also boasts the league's best pass defense, per our data.

Can Ryan Tannehill and company move the ball against the top-ranked New England secondary? If not, the Dolphins will almost certainly be outscored by the Patriots and fall to 7-7 despite performing at a high level for most of the season. It's a shame that the Dolphins aren't in the NFC South, because they'd make a much better playoff representative than any team from that division.

With a win, the Patriots would clinch the AFC East, and move one step closer to home-field advantage in the playoffs and a first-round bye. Thanks to their win over Denver, the Patriots only need to match the Broncos win-for-win from here on out, and have a game against the Jets on the road before hosting the Bills to end the season. Three wins is almost a certainty for New England based on their upcoming schedule.

Denver Broncos at San Diego Chargers

The Dolphins would be thankful for a Broncos win in this game, as San Diego is one of the teams Miami is chasing for a wild-card spot. The Chargers host Denver on the west coast this week in another game that will go a long way toward determining who will emerge as the top six in the AFC.

The Broncos need a win to lock up the AFC West, and are on track to being one of the two teams with a first-round bye for the playoffs along with the Patriots. They're the second-best team in the league, according to our data, and overshadow the Chargers by a wide margin in this matchup. So how does San Diego compete?

John Fox's team ranks 16th against the pass, so Philip Rivers and company will have to have the game of their life through the air to have a chance to win. They've done that already this year against the Seahawks, so it's certainly not out of the question.

Peyton Manning has been relatively quiet lately, and if he bounces back and plays at his normal level, San Diego may not be able to put up enough points to match the points allowed by their leaky secondary. The Bolts have games against San Francisco and Kansas City on the horizon, so they need to find a win wherever they can over these last three weeks, and that may mean an upset win against Denver is a requirement for postseason positioning.

Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles

The NFC is significantly less exciting than the AFC, with only three teams truly fighting for a wild-card spot. The Lions and Seahawks are both in the hunt for the final two playoff spots, and they'll the fighting with the loser of this game, who will be trailing the NFC East race with only two games to go.

The winner of this contest will be 10-4, in the lead in the East, and looking like a surefire playoff team. Our numbers prefer the Eagles, the 12th-ranked team in the league, over the number-15 Cowboys, and Philly's home-field advantage gives them even more of an edge.

But if the Eagles can't break out of their season-long funk in terms of running the ball, they may struggle to emerge victorious. The Cowboys are in the bottom half of the league in run defense, according to NEP, but the Eagles are a bottom-10 rushing team this season.

The running game will be important when Dallas has the ball as well, as the Cowboys sixth-ranked rushing attack goes head-to-head with the number-two run defense of the Eagles. Philadelphia has been better than anyone could have anticipated on defense this season, and that may earn them a victory over their division rivals and put them in the driver's seat for a spot in the playoffs.