Week 15 NFC North predictions: Lions look to get back on track while rest of division fights for playoff lives

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The NFC North race is coming to a head with the entire division still mathematically alive for the postseason with four weeks remaining. Here are our Week 15 predictions: 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7) at Green Bay Packers (6-7): The Packers have 14 players in total on their injury report ahead of their matchup with the Buccaneers. However, injuries have hit one position group especially hard: wide receiver. With Dontayvion Wicks (ankle), Jayden Reed (ankle) and Christian Watson (hamstring) nursing injuries, the status of the Packers’ top three options at wideout is up in the air. The Packers and head coach Matt LaFleur aren’t using being short-handed as an excuse, though.

“That’s the nature of our business and you gotta get other guys ready to play,” LaFleur said via the Packers. “We’re not the only team that goes through that.”

While LaFleur’s comments are admirable, they don’t win football games. Being without their top three options at wideout puts the Packers at a distinct disadvantage against the Buccaneers’ 30th-ranked pass defense (264 YPG). If quarterback Jordan Love and the offense fail to find a rhythm or turn the ball over three times like they did a week ago in a loss to the lowly New York Giants, that would put more pressure on an inconsistent Packers defense. In their 24-22 loss to the Giants in Week 14, the unit couldn’t slow down QB Tommy DeVito when it mattered most. A matchup against scrappy veteran Baker Mayfield likely won’t provide much relief.

PREDICTION: Buccaneers, 26-23

Chicago Bears (5-8) at Cleveland Browns (8-5): Don’t look now, but the Bears are only game behind the Packers for the final playoff spot in the NFC. Furthermore, while the Bears are on the rise, they might be catching the Browns at the right time. 

The Browns salvaged a victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 14, but the magic can last only so long behind a fresh-off-his-couch 38-year-old Joe Flacco and a beat-up roster. The Browns have 14 players listed on their injury report and will be without several starters, including offensive tackles Jedrick Wills (knee) and Dawand Jones (knee), who are both done for the season.  

Defensively, the matchup is a good one for the Bears defense, which has allowed only 17 points on average while forcing 11 turnovers in their last four games. On the other side of the ball, QB Justin Fields is doing enough to help the Bears tie together two straight wins for the first time this season coming into their Week 15 matchup with the Browns. Since returning from a thumb injury in Week 11, Fields has completed 66.6 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and no interceptions while adding 221 rushing yards (5.26 YPA) and a score on the ground. 

The Browns defense is tough, ranked first in yards against. If the Bears can play mistake-free football, though, they have more than a decent chance of pulling off the upset. 

PREDICTION: Bears, 24-23 

Minnesota Vikings (7-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (7-6): The Vikings quarterback carousel continued in Week 14 when they benched Joshua Dobbs in favor of Nick Mullens, which paid off with a game-winning drive against the Las Vegas Raiders. He’ll get the start against the Bengals in a game with serious playoff implications. 

While Mullens isn’t likely to elicit fear into opposing defenses, he has an opportunity to do damage in Week 15. Not only will he have star wideout Justin Jefferson in the lineup, but he’s going up against a Bengals defense that’s allowed more explosive plays (96) than any other team in the league, per Arjun Menon of Pro Football Focus. Conversely, the Vikings have given up the least amount, with 17. 

On the defensive side, the Vikings take on another backup in Jake Browning, who has led the team to two straight wins. The Vikings defense has thrived under DC Brian Flores, holding six of their last eight opponents to under 20 points while giving up only 12 combined in the previous two games. 

PREDICTION: Vikings, 19-16

Denver Broncos (7-6) at Detroit Lions (9-4): The Broncos and Lions enter Week 15 headed in opposite directions. Once the league’s laughingstock, the Broncos have won six-of-seven after beginning the year 1-5, while the Lions have dropped two of their last three following an 8-2 start. The Broncos need a win and the Lions could be ripe for the picking. 

Earlier in the week, Lions head coach Dan Campbell warned that Sean Payton and the Broncos will look to embarrass his team. They’ll need the offense to find itself again and their defense to step things up to avoid that fate. 

QB Jared Goff has gone cold leading the Lions offense, averaging 187 passing yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions over the last two weeks. The 29-year-old signal-caller averaged 279 yards with 18 TDs and eight interceptions over the first 11 games of the year. Goff and company have struggled as of late but can take advantage of an improving but still exploitable pass defense. Meanwhile, even accounting for their blowout against the Miami Dolphins in Week 3, the Broncos are still giving up the 10th most rushing yards this season, also an area the Lions could attack. 

The Lions’ defense has allowed 26 points or more in six straight games while forcing only four turnovers over that stretch. However, they’ll be up against QB Russell Wilson, who’s taken the fourth-most sacks (38) in the NFL. 

PREDICTION: Lions, 37-30

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