By Brandon Burnett
Cold, Hard Football Facts Wizard of the NFC West (@B_Burnett49er)
The mother of all tests awaits the NFC West-leading San Francisco 49ers in Foxborough Sunday night. The Patriots are on fire, fresh off a 42-14 dismantling of the previously 11-1 Houston Texans. Colin Kaepernick will be making his fifth career start as quarterback of the Niners and has yet to face a team with a winning record on the road.
Now he'll square off against one that hasn't lost at home in the month of December in its last 20 games.
The main beneficiary of a 49ers loss to the holiday immortals would be the Seattle Seahawks. At 8-5, the 'Hawks are just one and a half games behind SF with three to play, and the two teams have yet to cross paths at CenturyLink Field.
Should the Niners lose and Seattle win in Buffalo this weekend, the two-team race for the NFC West title will be full of life when these divisional heavyweights duke it out in Week 16.
Meanwhile, St. Louis will host Minnesota as it tries to crawl back into the playoff picture. The Rams have won three straight and, at 6-6-1, have found their way back to .500 for the first time since Week 6.
Here are five things to watch for in Week 15.
1. Sunday Night Football is a matchup of the Scoreability kings vs. the Bendability kings (49ers vs. Patriots)
Led by the sack master Aldon Smith (19.5 through 13 games), the 49ers are keeping opponents from lighting up the scoreboard like it's nobody's business. SF is allowing a league-low 14.2 points per game and amazingly aren't breaking much more on the road (14.3 PPG) than at home.
In fact, the 49ers are No. 1 in Bendability with 19.47 yards per point allowed.
But Tom Brady and the Pats are equally adept at overpowering defenses and throwing up points in a hurry. They recently had a 35-point second half in a 59-24 win over a surprisingly solid (9-4) Colts team. The next week, NE dropped 35 in the second quarter alone against the Jets.
It should come as no surprise that the Pats are No. 1 in Scoreability with 11.72 yards per point scored.
New England is dominant at home and scores more efficiently than any team in the NFL. San Fran is no slouch on the road, at least defensively.
But will Bill Belichick and the Pats be able to confuse and frustrate the explosive Kaepernick? Can the 49ers impose their will on the ground with Frank Gore and rookie LaMichael James (made his NFL debut in Week 14) so there is less pressure on the young signal-caller?
The entire nation will find out Sunday night.
2. The Seahawks have come too far to lose such a winnable game. (Seahawks vs. Bills)
After Seattle upset the Bears on the road in Week 13 and then did a number on ever-worsening Cardinals, taking out the Bills should seem like an effortless task.
Buffalo (5-8) has not a single win against a quality team in 2012. Why would the Bills start now? They were slaughtered by the 49ers 45-3 in Week 5. The five teams they did beat have a combined record of 18-47.
The Bills are slowly fading in Scoreability, now at No. 17. Running back Fred Jackson just hit the injured reserve, but C.J. Spiller is always a dangerous threat out of the backfield. Seattle is just behind San Fran in Bendability at No. 2. What may be more impressive is that the Seahawks are No. 3 in Passer Rating Differential. 44 of 72 NFL champs since 1940 finished in the Top 3 in PRD.
Even though Seattle is really starting to resemble a playoff contender, we must remember that this team is still just 2-5 on the road this season and will be without cornerback Brandon Browner for the remainder of it. Browner is serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's performance enhancing drug policy.
We didn't expect the Cardinals to be able to take advantage, but there is a chance Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bills can.
3. Can the Rams improve their slim playoff chances while ruining Minnesota's? (Vikings vs. Rams)
There's no doubt St. Louis' main enemy this Sunday will be Adrian Peterson. He's ran for at least 100 yards in Minnesota's last seven games and went over 150 in five of them. What was once a promising season for QB Christian Ponder went south in a hurry, but AP has single-handedly kept the Vikes in the playoff hunt.
Now, the Rams can take them out of it.
Minnesota may be 6-1 at home this year, but it's only 1-5 on the road. With a win, the Rams will jump a half-game ahead of the Vikings and potentially hop past Redskins and Cowboys should they lose in Week 15.
Washington travels to Cleveland, while Dallas hosts the Steelers.
It's easy to see how St. Louis has been winning, and it isn't with offense. The Rams used two Janoris Jenkins pick-sixes against Arizona in Week 12 to pull out a 31-17 victory. The 16-13 OT win over SF included a Jenkins' fumble recovery for TD and a safety.
Just last week, the Rams' 15-12 win over the Bills wouldn't have been possible if not for stout defensive play highlighted by two turnovers. St. Louis has jumped to No. 4 in our Defensive Hog Index in recent weeks.
Stay tuned, Rams' fans. Week 15 could be huge for this team's slim playoff hopes should it come up big at home.
4. Can the Cardinals even show up? (Lions vs. Cardinals)
How exactly do you respond from losing 58-0 to a division rival, one you beat in the season opener?
There's really no solution for Arizona's porous offense, not one that can be found this year anyway. Nonetheless, Ken Whisenhunt is placing rookie sixth-round pick Ryan Lindley under center again this week after running with John Skelton to start the loss to Seattle.
Only Skelton was pulled after throwing 22 passes, four of which were intercepted. Whiz can't even go a full game without rotating QB's, but who can blame him? It's not as if he can rotate his offensive line. There's no depth left.
Luckily, Detroit is nowhere near as skilled defensively as the Seahawks, though its D will likely feel that way after it leaves University of Phoenix Stadium Sunday. The Lions are on a nice little slide of their own having dropped five straight. But the majority of their losses have come in heartbreaking fashion, not historic blowouts.
Outside of Scoreability, Arizona is dead last in every Quality Stat we've got. Detroit isn't great in much of anything, either. But the Lions at least have a QB in Matt Stafford that can get Calvin Johnson the ball, something you can expect a lot of.
5. Predicting Post-Week 15 NFCW Standings (4-0 last week)
1. San Francisco 49ers (9-4-1) - The 49ers typically play their best in big games (outside of the Giants in Week 6), but the Patriots in December are no joke. Luckily, if these two were to meet in the playoffs, it'd be in New Orleans. Aldon Smith is three sacks shy of tying Michael Strahan's single-season record, but he'll be hard-pressed to get his paws on Brady Sunday night. Then again, not much has stopped him to this point. Really, nothing has.
2. Seattle Seahawks (9-5) - It's hard to imagine Seattle missing out on the playoffs should it defeat the Bills, which I think does happen. But the 'Hawks sights should be on an NFC West title to avoid playing on the road in the wild card round. That said, overlooking Buffalo would kill the momentum this team has done so much to build.
3. St. Louis Rams (7-6-1) - Things are getting interesting in St. Louis, and they could get downright exciting if the Rams pull out a fourth straight win. Jeff Fisher has his squad playing good ball defensively, but the O needs to pick up the pace. The Vikings are just No. 22 in Defensive Passer Rating, and Sam Bradford has to take advantage.
4. Arizona Cardinals (4-10) - I don't know that I'll take the Cards to win another game this season. Can you blame me? I don't trust Detroit, but have no faith whatsoever in Arizona. I wouldn't be shocked to see the Cards' D bounce back and shut down the Lions for much of the game, but unless they score a defensive TD or three, it doesn't look good.