Big NFL Week 15 questions: Trouble for Dallas? Can the Niners keep rolling?

Sports

Week 15 of the NFL season started Thursday night when the Las Vegas Raiders crushed the Los Angeles Chargers 63-21 in what became Chargers coach Brandon Staley’s final game with the team (he, along with general manager Tom Telesco, was fired the following day).

On Saturday, the Cincinnati Bengals kept their playoff hopes alive with a thrilling 27-24 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in overtime. The Indianapolis Colts followed that by scoring 30 unanswered points in a 30-13 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Detroit Lions made easy work of the Denver Broncos is a 42-17 blowout to wrap up the slate.

Our NFL Nation reporters reacted to all the action, answering lingering questions coming out of each game and picking out who — or what — is rising and falling for every team. Let’s get to it.

Jump to a matchup:
LAC-LV | MIN-CIN | PIT-IND | DEN-DET

Saturday

Lions

Did the Lions’ offense get its swagger back? After a 13-point performance that Lions WR Amon-Ra St. Brown described as “disappointing” and “frustrating” during last week’s loss to the Chicago Bears, the Lions responded with a strong win at home over Denver with a solid output on both sides of the ball. St. Brown was coming off a season-low 21 receiving yards while veteran QB Jared Goff committed nine turnovers over a four-game stretch before facing the Broncos. They both stepped up as St. Brown registered 102 receiving yards with a TD while Goff threw five touchdowns without a turnover.

Stock up after the win: Sam LaPorta. The rookie tight end bounced back from a two-catch game at Chicago to set the franchise’s new mark for rookie tight ends with nine touchdowns on the season and three on the night.

Stock down after the win: Third quarters. The Lions continue trying to find ways to improve their third-quarter struggles as they were outscored 10-7 in the third for the third straight week. During the week, Goff said they needed to be better execution and focus coming out of halftime, and although it didn’t hurt them in this game, it’s still something to fix. — Eric Woodyard

Next game: at Vikings (Sunday, Dec. 24, 1 p.m. ET)


Broncos

Can a gassed Broncos team pick itself up — again — for one last playoff push? The Broncos played their third road game in 13 days and looked every bit travel-weary. The offense clustered three-and-outs early in a sluggish start while the defense, after holding the Lions scoreless in the first quarter, couldn’t maintain the momentum with a flurry of missed tackles and poor run fits that followed. It’s an NFC loss, so not too damaging in the wild-card hunt, but the Broncos need to find a finishing kick with two consecutive games at home and can’t lose again if they want a wild card.

Stock up after the loss: CB Pat Surtain II. Surtain continues to influence almost everything opponents do in the passing game. Where the Broncos put him in the formation usually pushes the ball elsewhere, and elsewhere Saturday night was five touchdown passes for Jared Goff, three of those to rookie tight end Sam LaPorta.

Stock down after the loss: Run defense. The Broncos didn’t surrender a rushing touchdown until the fourth quarter, but the pace of the game had long gotten away from them as Detroit pounded away for much of the second half against a Broncos rally. The Lions were the seventh team to top 130 yards rushing against the Broncos this season and the fourth to top 180. — Jeff Legwold

Next game: vs. Patriots (Sunday, Dec. 24, 8:15 p.m. ET)

Colts

Can the Colts’ offense finish the job despite mounting injuries? The Colts lost receiver Michael Pittman Jr. to a concussion and running back Zack Moss to an arm injury in this game, but their capable backups performed in a way that suggested they can overcome those losses. The Colts got some unexpected contributions from the likes of D.J. Montgomery (three career catches before Saturday) and Tyler Goodson (who had no carries entering the game). Even the absence of right tackle Braden Smith wasn’t enough to hold the Colts back, despite his backup — rookie Blake Freeland — having to contend with Steelers star edge rusher T.J. Watt.

Stock up after the win: Quarterback Gardner Minshew. Minshew had seven completions of 10 yards or longer, a good sign for a passer who has been a little on the lower end when it comes to yards per attempt this season. He surpassed his 6.7-yard average entering the game with a 7.7-yard effort against the Steelers. He also avoided any turnovers.

Stock down after the win: Kicker Matt Gay. Gay has had an uncharacteristically uneven performance in the past two games. He’s now missed a combined four kicks over two weeks, including an extra point against the Bengals and a 43-yard attempt that hit the right upright on Saturday. — Stephen Holder

Next game: at Falcons (Sunday, Dec. 24, 1 p.m. ET)


Steelers

Can the Steelers win another game this season? The Steelers have dropped three games in a row, and there’s not much from those performances to suggest this team can win another game this season — let alone make the playoffs. In the loss to the Colts, a short-handed Steelers defense was outplayed by a similarly short-handed Colts offense, unable to stop players elevated from the practice squad from getting into the end zone. With a three-game stretch to end the season against a surging Bengals team, a stout Seattle squad and an AFC-leading Ravens group, the Steelers have to do more than put up 216 yards of offense, while allowing 372 yards of offense — including 157 yards to third- and fourth-string running backs.

Stock up after the loss: Diontae Johnson. For the first time in his career, Johnson has touchdowns in three consecutive games. Against the Colts, he finished with four catches for 62 yards and a touchdown.

Stock down after the loss: George Pickens. The wide receiver lamented his lack of targets and running shallow routes prior to the Colts game, and yet, on his first deep target, a Colts cornerback was able to wrestle a 50/50 ball away from him. Afterward, quarterback Mitch Trubisky said Pickens took a different angle than he was expecting. On another play, Pickens gave no effort to block for Jaylen Warren, resulting in the running back being tackled near the goal line instead of scoring a touchdown. — Brooke Pryor

Next game: vs. Bengals (Saturday, Dec. 23, 4:30 p.m. ET)

Bengals

Are the Bengals too banged up to keep the magic rolling? Cincinnati suffered two massive injuries in Sunday’s win. Defensive tackle DJ Reader left the game with a lower-body injury, and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase was also knocked out with a right shoulder injury. The Bengals have been able to withstand the loss of quarterback Joe Burrow, but also being down a top defender and one of the league’s best wide receivers will complicate things further.

Stock up after the win: Defensive tackle BJ Hill. Hill now owns one of the more improbable stats of the NFL season: He has recorded an interception in back-to-back games.

Stock down after the win: Cornerback DJ Turner. The promising rookie cornerback allowed five catches on his first six targets as the nearest defender, plays that yielded 100 yards and a touchdown. — Ben Baby

Next game: at Steelers (Saturday, Dec. 23, 4:30 p.m. ET)


Vikings

Why does an otherwise great defense keep giving up late leads? Saturday marked the third time in four games the Vikings have lost after giving up the winning score with less than 2 minutes remaining in the game. They led 17-3 early in the fourth quarter and 24-17 with 3:48 remaining. Bengals receiver Tee Higgins deserves credit for an acrobatic effort to score with 39 seconds remaining, but the Vikings have proved vulnerable to deep dig routes. Bengals quarterback Jake Browning, in fact, completed 10 of 14 passes for 166 yards and two touchdowns to wide receivers on their final six drives.

Stock up after the loss: Running back Ty Chandler. In his first NFL start, Chandler produced a 132-yard effort, the Vikings’ first 100-yard game of the season.

Stock down after the loss: The Vikings’ “tush push.” Minnesota overthought its personnel on two failed quarterback sneaks in overtime, using receiver Brandon Powell as the pusher in hopes of keeping the Bengals out of their goal-line defense. — Kevin Seifert

Next game: vs. Lions (Sunday, Dec. 24, 1 p.m. ET)

Thursday

Raiders

How much did Raiders Antonio Pierce help his case to get the full-time gig? Probably as much as the 3-0 loss to the Vikings hurt his chances four days earlier. Each game is a season unto itself, but as more than one player said in the locker room after beating the Chargers they are playing for Pierce and interim general manager Champ Kelly. “Because we love both of them,” said right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor. Eight players scoring touchdowns and scoring a TD after all 5 takeaways helped. They next face the Chiefs on Christmas Day.

Stock up after the win: Interim offensive coordinator Bo Hardegree. Moved upstairs to the press box from the sidelines, Hardegree seemed to have a better feel for the game with his play calling. At least, he seemed more willing to call deeper passes for Aidan O’Connell, and the rookie quarterback responded, with aplomb, and a career-best 120.7 passer rating, while Hardegree authored a season-high 378-yard game on offense.

Stock down after the win: Pass coverage. OK, so we’re truly picking nits here, but if we have to find something negative from a blowout win, two blown coverages did result in a pair of TDs for the Chargers, from 79 yards to close out the third quarter, and from 13 yards, midway through the fourth quarter, respectively. — Paul Gutierrez

Next game: at Chiefs (Monday, Dec. 25, 1 p.m. ET)


Chargers

Will Dean and John Spanos finally make the right hires to turn this franchise around? Letdowns and mediocrity have been synonymous with this team. This tradition has stood partly because of the ownership’s failed hires. They kept general manager Tom Telesco for 11 seasons despite just two playoff wins; hired coach Brandon Staley after one year as a coordinator, and kept him into this season despite a historic playoff meltdown. This appears to be the perfect scenario to turn this franchise around finally, but there is no such thing as a perfect scenario for these Chargers.

Stock up after the loss: The Chargers’ draft pick. The Chargers are now projected to have the No. 5 pick in the draft. With a roster that is projected to be $34.8 million over the salary cap next season, according to ESPN’s Roster Management System, taking advantage of talented rookies on cheap deals will be paramount.

Stock down after the loss: The entire organization. Thursday night’s loss was one of the most embarrassing in NFL history. It reflected dysfunction at every level, from an ownership group that had waited too long to move on from a coach and general manager to the players, who seemed to have given up. Now that Staley and Tedesco have been let go, the franchise can embark on a new era. — Kris Rhim

Next game: vs. Bills (Saturday, Dec. 23, 8 p.m. ET)

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