By Rick Brown
It has been a fun and exciting 2016 NFL season and there are several key AFC contests in Week 15 that have far-reaching playoff implications. To begin with, the division-leading Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5) will play the Cincinnati Bengals on the road in an AFC North showdown. With the Baltimore Ravens one game back of the Steelers, it’s imperative for Pittsburgh to beat their division rival in order to remain in the driver’s seat in the AFC North.
Next, the division-leading New England Patriots (11-2) will be traveling to play the Denver Broncos (8-5). Shockingly, the Super Bowl 50-champion Broncos are holding on for dear life in their pursuit of the postseason. Going into Sunday’s matchup, the team sits in the sixth and final AFC playoff slot with several teams in the conference trying to meander their way into that final position.
Finally, a divisional game for the Oakland Raiders (10-3) and San Diego Chargers (5-8) will be one to watch, as the Raiders’ offense tries to bounce back from its loss to the Kansas City Chiefs (10-3). Can Derek Carr regain his mid-season, MVP form, or will the Chargers seize the opportunity and pull off an upset?
Here is NFL Hall of Famer and NFL ON CBS Analyst Dan Fouts — who will be calling the Steelers-Bengals game for CBS along with Ian Eagle (play-by-play) and Evan Washburn (sideline reporter) — to take a closer look at these three key AFC divisional games.
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Cincinnati Bengals – Dec. 13, 1:00 p.m. ET
CBS Local Sports: What has been the biggest problem during this disappointing season for the Bengals?
Dan Fouts: It started slowly for them because of the team’s inability to run the ball. They are also getting used to the play-calling of new offensive coordinator, Ken Zampese. There have been some difficulties getting into the end zone. The team’s red zone offense, earlier in the season, was pitiful and has really led to the poor record.
CBS Local Sports: Le’Veon Bell has truly proven himself as a primary back for the Steelers this season, but is their passing game good enough to contend in the AFC?
Dan Fouts: No question. The team has Ben Roethlisberger, even though he had an off day last time out. Plus, the Steelers have Bell, who is the most versatile running back in the game right now. We saw what he did on the ground and what he does through the air. He creates mismatches that you love as a quarterback because he catches the ball and runs routes like a wide receiver. Bell is difficult to defend when you have Antonio Brown out there and Sammy Coates and all that speed. Roesthlisberger has a lot of weapons.
New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos – Dec. 13, 4:25 p.m. ET
CBS Local Sports: Could special teams cause even bigger problems for the Patriots in the playoffs?
Dan Fouts: Well, special teams is always going to be a concern in the playoffs because weather plays a factor and there are more fumbles and muffed punts. The Patriots rarely make mistakes. I think what happened Monday, is really more of an anomaly than anything.
CBS Local Sports: Denver has one of the hardest remaining schedules in the NFL with three 10-win teams left in their path to the playoffs. How much more can Von Miller and the third-ranked defense do to keep the struggling offense in games and pull out three straight wins?
Dan Fouts: If the Broncos don’t run the ball any better than they did last week against Tennessee, there is nothing Von Miller can do in that defense. The Broncos are hurting at the running back position and there is no question, it is going to be difficult.
Oakland Raiders @ San Diego Chargers – Dec. 13, 4:25 p.m. ET
CBS Local Sports: Do you feel as though Derek Carr is the leading candidate for this year’s MVP award?
Dan Fouts: I think he took a hit there last week against Kansas City and I don’t think this is the time of year to be taking hits for MVP candidacy.
CBS Local Sports: The Chargers are in the middle of another season where the team is filled with talent, but underachieved. What are they missing?
Dan Fouts: They are missing a bunch of playmakers. The team has lost Stevie Johnson, Danny Woodhead and Antonio Gates has been in and out of the line up. Defensively, the team has lost just as many player makers. It has been a strange year injury-wise and it seems the last couple of years the team has had to suffer through a lot of key injuries. This year the team had a lot of injuries early in the season.