Skip to main content

Game Preview

Presented By

2023 NFL season, Week 15: Six things to watch for in Vikings-Bengals, Steelers-Colts, Broncos-Lions on NFL Network

There currently are seven NFL teams with 7-6 records, all flirting with the playoffs as we hit the home stretch. Five of those teams will be in action on Saturday in NFL Network's tripleheader (also available to stream on NFL+) and all three games will help shape the eventual playoff field in a major way.

The Vikings and Bengals, both of whom were left for dead not long ago, kick off the action at 1 p.m. ET with the first of two all-backup QB games. It would have been hard to imagine a Nick Mullens-Jake Browning matchup carrying so much weight -- or happening at all, for that matter -- but here we are.

There also will be a lot on the line in Indianapolis, where the Colts host the Steelers in the middle game. They sit at seventh and sixth, respectively, in the AFC playoff field, but the loser could tumble considering the glut of teams with matching records.

Then to cap off the night, it's a meeting of former coworkers as Dan Campbell's Lions host Sean Payton's Broncos at 8:15 p.m. ET. Campbell was an assistant on Payton's Saints teams, but their current clubs are headed in opposite directions -- with the Broncos hot and the Lions hoping to stop the bleeding.

These three games will set the table for another loaded week of action in Week 15, with playoff spots on the line.

Here are six things to watch for when NFL Network brings you three critical games this Saturday:

Minnesota Vikings
2023 · 7-6-0
Cincinnati Bengals
2023 · 7-6-0
  • WHERE: Paycor Stadium (Cincinnati)
  • WHEN: 1 p.m. ET | NFL Network, NFL+

  1. Vikings hope Nick Mullens can keep them alive. Mullens will earn his first start since the 2021 season on Saturday, replacing Joshua Dobbs, as the Vikings try to hang on and sneak in the playoffs. In Sunday’s 3-0 win over the Raiders, Mullens did enough in fourth-quarter relief (9 of 13, 83 yards) to deliver a must-win game. He faces another on Saturday. The Vikings have accustomed to life without Kirk Cousins, but Mullens (minus-3 career rush yards) must win in a different way than Dobbs did. The Vikings have gained 125-plus rush yards in four of five games, but Dobbs was a big part of that. Alexander Mattison has averaged 5.2 ypc the past three games, and Ty Chandler has had moments, but both must step up. Wide receiver Justin Jefferson said earlier this week he'll play, which helps immensely. He lasted only 13 plays in his comeback last week before suffering a chest injury that sent him to the hospital for precautionary reasons. Dobbs targeted him on three of his first four passes against the Raiders, and it would be shocking if Mullens doesn’t look for Jefferson often. The Bengals defense have been raked over the coals a bit, but Sunday’s effort against the Colts was perhaps their best since before their Week 7 bye.
  2. Jake Browning tries to stay hot for Bengals. Browning has stepped in for the injured Joe Burrow and done a terrific job running virtually the same offense -- sans as much shotgun formation -- that Burrow did this season. In three starts, Browning has completed a wild 79.3% of his passes with an even wilder 9.8 yards per attempt. His two INTs have hurt, both leading to opponent TDs. But his scrambling (12-78-2 rushing) has been a boon, and Browning has improved his pocket feel since taking over. He has two elite targets in Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins he seems to trust in tight-window situations, but the Bengals also can use their backs as screen targets, which was a big development in last week's win over Indy. The Vikings defense has been playing at a borderline elite level since a loss to the Chiefs in Week 5. Brian Flores is overseeing a masterful turnaround from a year ago, blitzing everyone from everywhere and holding seven of the past eight opponents to 21 points or fewer. Can Browning and the Bengals’ offensive line hold up? He’s taken six sacks in three starts, with five coming against tackles Orlando Brown and Jonah Williams. Both of them must be mindful of Danielle Hunter, who leads Minnesota with 13.5 sacks, 57 QB pressures and four forced fumbles.

Please enable Javascript to view this content
Pittsburgh Steelers
2023 · 7-6-0
Indianapolis Colts
2023 · 7-6-0
  • WHERE: Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis)
  • WHEN: 4:30 p.m. ET | NFL Network, NFL+

  1. Steelers stick with Mitch Trubisky, but his leash might be short. Kenny Pickett (ankle) remains sidelined, and Mike Tomlin said this week he’ll stick with Trubisky for now. Waiting in the wings is Mason Rudolph, who could take over. But Trubisky will look to keep him planted on the bench, which likely will require a faster start than he had last Thursday against New England, throwing for more yards in the fourth quarter (96) than he did in the first three combined (94). Trubisky’s early INT deep in his own end set up a Patriots touchdown and brought out the boo birds, although he won’t have to worry about that on the road. Trubisky has been less INT-prone away from Pittsburgh the past two seasons, albeit with less passing heft. He needs to play well or Tomlin could make a switch. It doesn’t help that Steelers wideouts George Pickens and Diontae Johnson have been distractions at times this season, including Pickens on Thursday. Tight end Pat Freiermuth can help provide a steady option in the middle if the receivers aren’t open, as Indianapolis could get cornerback Julius Brents back from injury. Pittsburgh also figures to ride running backs Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren against a Colts defense that has struggled to contain quality backs this season, although last week’s return of DT Grover Stewart helps.
  2. Colts must find some run-game options to balance out offense. Jonathan Taylor remains out following thumb surgery, and the Colts expect him to return at some point this season. The Colts haven’t done anything on the ground the past two games without Taylor. Zack Moss has nearly as many rush yards (751) this season as the Bengals’ starter, Joe Mixon (768), does -- on 28 fewer carries. But in recent games, it has been tough sledding. Moss has 79 yards and zero TDs on 32 carries in the past two games. Colts right tackle Braden Smith didn’t practice early in the week will not play Saturday, which obviously hurts because he might be their best run-blocking offensive lineman. Indianapolis’ passing game has been able to offset that at times, but the more they throw, the more turnover-prone the offense becomes. All 14 Colts turnovers since Week 6 have come on passing plays: nine interceptions and five Gardner Minshew fumbles. WR Michael Pittman Jr. is having a career season, with Josh Downs and Alec Pierce supplying big plays, but the law of diminishing returns applies when the Colts throw the ball. Pittsburgh has had issues at linebacker but has generally done a good job stopping the run in recent games, especially with the return of Cameron Heyward. Also, T.J. Watt has been removed from concussion protocol, so he looks to be available. 

Denver Broncos
2023 · 7-6-0
Detroit Lions
2023 · 9-4-0
  • WHERE: Ford Field (Detroit)
  • WHEN: 8:15 p.m. ET | NFL Network, NFL+

  1. Broncos defense has conducted an incredible in-season turnaround. One of the truly impressive improvements throughout the course of the season has been from the play of the Denver defense. Vance Joseph was being pilloried by Broncos Nation after allowing 181 points in the first five games, but they’ve stunningly allowed just 124 in the eight games since. A few lineup tweaks and the return of Baron Browning have helped, but turnovers have been the biggest reason. After forcing five turnovers in the first five games, they’ve taken the ball away 19 times since. This has to be concerning for a Lions offense that took care of the ball well most of the season but has three three-turnover games and one four-TO showing in the past six outings. Jared Goff has been at the center of those issues in that span, with three lost fumbles and six interceptions. The Broncos have been more willing to send blitzes at opponents, so the Lions’ pass protection must be on point. Center Frank Ragnow missed last week and is questionable to play Saturday, and left tackle Taylor Decker had a rough game while dealing with a back injury and also is questionable. The Lions have a creative, potent and diverse offense, but it’s predicated on staying ahead of the sticks, and the recent blocking has been a problem. Denver can bring waves of rushers from the exterior (Nik Bonitto, Jonathon Cooper and Browning) and interior (Zach Allen and D.J. Jones). 
  2. Lions can’t let Russell Wilson be the latest mobile QB to burn them. The problem was bigger last season, but the Lions still appear to have a weakness against mobile quarterbacks. In two of the past three games, Bears QB Justin Fields has stung Detroit with his ability to create on the move -- either as a runner or passer. The Lions barely survived the first meeting but lost the second. They also were carved up by Geno Smith and Lamar Jackson earlier in the season, and Taysom Hill and Jordan Love in more recent games. Against this type of QB, the Lions tend to play more passively and more reactively. They’ve mushed their rushes, used more zone coverage and struggled to maintain coverage on extended plays. Now Wilson is coming to town playing some good football, even though he can take sacks and turn the ball over in spots. Wilson’s passing numbers haven’t been gaudy, but he’s been effective getting outside the pocket and buying time for big-play opportunities, mostly to Courtland Sutton (10 TDs) and Jerry Jeudy. According to Next Gen Stats, Wilson has had 26.2% of his dropbacks finish outside the tackle box this season, the highest rate in the league. He’s also thrown a league-high eight TDs on extended dropbacks (4-plus seconds time to throw). This really puts the onus on the Lions’ secondary to stick with their coverage, but also on the front seven to keep Wilson caged up in the pocket as best as possible. 

Related Content