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Week 15 NFL schedule: Top storylines and rooting guide

We break down the big story lines in Week 15, and what to make of Sunday and Monday's schedule. New to Niners Nation? Sign up here and join the discussion!

Maddie Meyer

Week 15 is upon us, and as we come down the home stretch, teams are starting. The Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts have all clinched playoff spots thus far. Week 15 provides the 49ers with their first opportunity to clinch a playoff spot, although they will need some help to do it.

The 49ers can clinch a playoff berth today with a win, and then losses by the Arizona Cardinals and either the Philadelphia Eagles or Dallas Cowboys. All four teams are favored in their matchups, so we'll see if things fall the 49ers way. For now, here are the pertinent games for Sunday and Monday, ranked again in order of importance as I see them.

1a. Cardinals @ Titans
1b. Eagles @ Vikings
1c. Packers @ Cowboys

Well, of course we're going to include these three together. Whether the 49ers win or lose (not that they'll lose!), they are rooting against these three teams.

The Cardinals travel to face the Titans, and are slim three point favorites. The Titans have had their moments this season, but they've never really been able to put everything together. Jake Locker got off to a strong start, but injuries short-circuited his season. Meanwhile, the Cardinals are on a roll. They've won five of six, and had their chances for six straight but couldn't complete the comeback against the Eagles.

The Eagles travel to face the Vikings, and are six points favorites. The Vikings have struggled this season, and are evaluating their situation for next season. They are starting Matt Cassel even though Christian Ponder is off the injury list. That can't bode well for Ponder's future. Additionally, Adrian Peterson is dealing with a foot injury, and Toby Gerhart is dealing with a hamstring injury. It's kind of a mess.

The Cowboys host the Packers, and are 6 1/2 point favorites. The Packers will be without Aaron Rodgers, which means Matt Flynn gets another chance to impress folks and somehow work his way into yet another overpriced contract. I'd like to think NFL teams won't fall for it, but I have little faith in that.

Rooting interest: Go Titans, Vikings, Packers! The 49ers and Eagles will be wrapped up in the morning, so we'll see what these games mean come 1:25 p.m.

2. Jets @ Panthers

I thought about placing the Seahawks second on this list, but I am considering this from a more realistic perspective. I think the Panthers are more likely to drop a single game over the next three weeks than the Seahawks are to drop two. If the Seahawks lose to the Giants I'll happily move their importance up in the Week 16 rooting guide, but for now, this game has more immediate importance to the 49ers.

The 49ers are tied with the Panthers, but lose the head-to-head tiebreaker, so they need one more Panthers loss. If the Panthers drop behind the 49ers, it improves the team's chances of not having to face Seattle in the second round (assuming a wildcard win of their own).

The Panthers are 11-point favorites in this one, and given how awful the Jets have been at times this season, I wouldn't hold my breath for this to be that one loss. The Panthers host the Saints next week, then travel to Atlanta the week after, so opportunities could arise.

Rooting interest: Go J-E-T-S! JETS! JETS! JETS!

3. Seahawks @ Giants

The Seahawks loss to the 49ers dropped them to two games up in the division with three to go. The 49ers could still claim the division, but they're going to need a whole lot of help. It starts Sunday when the Seahawks play the New York Giants in their final road game.

The Giants have been eliminated from playoff contention, so it doesn't feel quite as dirty rooting for them to beat the Seahawks. Of course, even if they were still alive for a playoff spot, I wouldn't have trouble rooting for them against the Seahawks! Seattle is a seven point favorite, but they have shown enough inconsistency on the road that maybe they can pull it off.

Rooting interest: Go Giants!

4. Saints @ Rams

The Saints are a game ahead of the 49ers and hold the tiebreaker, and a game back of the Seahawks and don't hold the tiebreaker. For our purposes, there are two relevant possibilities: 1) The 49ers leapfrog the Seahawks and the Saints stumble, meaning the 49ers claim the top seed, and 2) The Saints win out, the Seahawks lose two, the 49ers get to the playoffs but don't win out, the Saints get the top seed, the Seahawks get the number two seed.

The Rams are out of the playoff picture, so even if it ends up not impacting the playoff standings, I'm down for rooting them on against New Orleans. The Saints are seven point favorites, but the Rams can be a tough team to beat at home. I really think they could spring the upset.

Rooting interest: Go Rams!

5a. Ravens @ Lions
5b. Bears @ Browns

If the playoffs started today, the 49ers would travel to face the Eagles, while the Panthers would travel to face the Lions. A Lions loss won't exactly change things necessarily, but it will create greater chaos in the NFC North. I don't really know what I want to see at this point, other than chaos. If the Packers beat the Cowboys, and the Lions and Bears both lose, the Packers actually move into first place in the division. They've bought Aaron Rodgers all sorts of time, and if he can return in time for the playoffs, I really have no interest in seeing the 49ers have to potentially travel to Lambeau Field in January for a playoff game.

Rooting interest: Go Bears and Lions!