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Milt Northrop’s Playbook: Motivations can be a mystery this time of year

Dead or alive? Awake or asleep?

When the NFL season hits mid-December it’s tricky trying to discern which NFL teams still have a pulse. Who will show up and play hard with no shot at the playoffs or with a coaching change looming? Who will mail it in or run for the bus? Or who, with nothing to play for, will man up and have fun playing the spoiler’s role? Who, with a playoff berth assured, will dig down a play hard for a more advantageous seeding?

For example, a month ago, the Philadelphia Eagles looked like a demoralized team. Two wins later, they are back in the race to win the NFC East. The Houston Texans were 2-5 after an embarrassing 44-26 loss at Miami. Sunday, they can take the lead in the AFC South with a win over the Colts in Indianapolis.

These questions and others are about to be answered between now and Jan. 3. Here’s a capsule look at remainder of the Week 15 NFL schedule:

Game of the day

Broncos (10-3) at Steelers (8-5)

TV: Ch. 4, 4:25 p.m.

The line: Steelers (-7).

The scoop: Peyton Manning is practicing but Brock Osweiler will start at QB again for Broncos. With Osweiler, Broncos have scored 17 points or less four of their last five games, two of them losses within AFC West. They managed just four first-half FGs in home loss to Raiders last Sunday. ... Denver can clinch division title with a win and Chiefs loss and can clinch playoff spot with a win. ... Steelers have won four of last five with loss in shootout with Seattle. Pittsburgh is second in league in total offense and only 23rd on defense. ... Antonio Brown of Steelers had 100 catches for 1,297 yards and seven TDs. De Angelo Williams given Steelers a ground game in the absence of LeVeon Bell.

Outlook: Pittsburgh, the more desperate team, has too much firepower. Steelers, 24-13.

Top attractions

Texans (6-7) at Colts (6-7)

TV: Ch. 4, 1 p.m.

The line: Colts (-1)

The scoop: First place at stake in AFC South in this one. ... Brian Hoyer (concussion) is out so C.J. Yates starts for Houston. Matt Hasselbeck is questionable so Indy may have to go with third-stringer Charlie Whitehurst at QB. Whoever it is will face Houston pass rushers JJ Watt (13½ sacks) and Jadeveon Clowney, who has come on in last six games. ... Indy has been outscored, 96-26, last two games.

Outlook: Colts were competitive every game until last two weeks. They may be waiting for Irsay to lower boom on coach Chuck Pagano after season. Texans, 27-24.

Panthers (5-8) at Giants (6-7)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Panthers (-4½).

The scoop: Panthers clinch home field throughout NFC playoffs with a win and Cardinals loss. Carolina won, 38-0, last time teams met but that was in Charlotte in 2013. Cam Newton has 17 TD passes, two INTS and 119.6 rating in last six games. Panthers will be without RB Jonathan Stewart. ... Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr., coming of huge game in Miami, now has 85 catches for 1,320 yards and 12 TDS. His matchup againsts Carolina CB Josh Norman will be fun to watch. Also Panthers S Kurt Coleman leads NFC with 7 INTs.

Outlook: Giants have history of spoiling unbeaten seasons. Carolina is due for a letup with division clinched. New York, 30-27.

Packers (9-4) at Raiders (6-7)

Kickoff: 4:05 p.m.

The line: Packers (-3½).

The scoop: Packers clinch playoff spot with win or a loss by Redskins. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy took back play-calling duties and offense seems to have come out of its funk. Ground game chewed up Cowboys last week. That makes Aaron Rodgers that much more dangerous even with a mediocre receiving group. ... Derek Carr has thrown for 28 TDs for Raiders. ... Oakland was routed in its season opener but Raiders have been very competitive in all but one game (30-14 home loss to Vikings) since.

Outlook: Packers have held four of last five opponents under 20. Green Bay, 27-17.

Cardinals (11-2) at Eagles (6-7)

TV: Ch. 2, 8:30 p.m.

The line: Cardinals (-3½).

The scoop: Eagles are only team among the old-line NFL teams that Cardinals own an advantage (56-54-5) over. ... Cardinals clinch NFC West with win or Seahawks loss and clinch first-round playoff bye with win and Packers loss. ... How Eagles lost to Dolphins and Buccaneers at home and then were routed at Detroit should be investigated. Was is just the Mark Sanchez Factor?

Outlook: Sam Bradford not great but Eagles are much better with him at QB as Bills found out. Still, Arizona, 30-20.

Bills (6-7) at Redskins (6-7)

TV: Ch. 29, 1 p.m.

The line: Bills (-2).

The scoop: How Redskins win is mystery. They rank in bottom quarter of league in both offensive and defensive stats against a weak schedule. They have faced only two teams with winning records and were routed by both, Jets and Panthers. Washington is 5-2 at home and won first road game last weekend at Chicago. ... Bills always make enough mistakes to leave themselves vulnerable to big play or blown call such as Eagles’ pick play last week.

Outlook: With chance at division title within their grasp, Redskins will have more will and mental toughness than Bills. Washington, 24-16.

Best of the rest

Chiefs (8-5) at Ravens (4-9)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Chiefs (-6½).

The scoop: Chiefs have won seven in a row since starting 1-5, holding seven of last nine opponents under 20 points. KC is eighth in league in total defense. ... Ravens were close in every game until they were down to third-string QB and were routed last week by red-hot Seahawks. ... Chiefs nearly were upset by Chargers at home last week.

Outlook: Before last week, all Ravens home games decided by six or less. Chiefs, 20-17.

Falcons (6-7) at Jaguars (5-8)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Jaguars (-3).

The scoop: Head coaches Dan Quinn of Falcons and Gus Bradley of Jags were hired after impressive work at defensive coordinators for Seattle. They are a combined 18-40 as head coaches. ... Atlanta has turned in Flop of Year in NFL after 5-0 start which was supposed to put them on path to Super Bowl. Falcons’ QB Matt Ryan having disappointing year, 17 TDs-14 INTs, despite NFL receiving leader Julius Jones (109 catches, 1,426 yards). ... Blake Bortles of Jaguars has thrown for 30 TDs with 13 INTs.

Outlook: Falcons have to wake up some time. Atlanta, 35-30.

Bears (5-8) at Vikings (8-5)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Vikings (-5½).

The scoop: Vikings can clinch playoff spot with a win and help. Minnesota won first meeting of NFC North rivals, 23-20, at Soldier Field. Usually reliable Robby Gould missed long field goals at end of last two games and Bears lost both. ... Vikings have lost three of last four but opposition was Packers, Seahawks and Cardinals. ... Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson leads NFL with 1,251 rushing yards and nine TDs. He’s averaged 135.2 yards in last five games against Bears.

Outlook: Bears five-game road win streak ends, 27-20.

Titans (3-10) at Patriots (11-2)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Patriots (-13½).

The scoop: Patriots will clinch first-round bye with win. ... New England keeps losing players, running backs in particular, to injury. With LeGarrette Blount out, they have to count on James White and newly-signed Montee Ball. ... Titans rookie Marcus Mariota had 19 TD passses, 10 INTS and 91.9 rating. TE Delanie Walker has 74 receptions for 11.8 average. With all the injuries on offense, Patriots relying on defense, which ranks sixth in league.

Outlook: Before Brady, Belichick made his reputation as defensive tactician. Titans have trouble scoring against most defenses. Patriots, 24-10.

Browns (3-10) at Seahawks (8-5)

Kickoff: 4:05 p.m.

The line: Seahawks (-14½).

The scoop: Seahawks clinch playoff spot with a win and help from others. ... Seattle QB Russell Wilson is on a tear with with 16 TD passes and no INTs and 145.9 rating in last four games. Also he is now leading rusher among healthy Seahawks with 456 yards. WR Doug Baldwin has eight TDs in last three games. ... With Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls out, ex-Bill Bryce Brown starts at RB for Seahawks. ... Johnny Manziel led Browns to win that snapped seven-game losing streak against Niners (24-10) last week.

Outlook: Seahawks have been best team in league last four weeks, averaging 34.5 ppg. Seattle, 26-13.

Bengals (10-3) at 49ers (4-9)

Kickoff: 4:25 p.m.

The line: Bengals (-5½).

The scoop: Bengals clinch AFC North with a win or Steelers loss. ... A.J. McCarron makes first NFL start at QB for Cincy in place of Andy Dalton (right thumb). McCarron completed 22 of 32 with two TDs in relief last week. ... Niners are 3-3 at home with losses to Packers, Seahawks and Cardinals.

Outlook: Niners are competitive at home. Bengals, 17-16.

Lions (4-9) at Saints (5-8)

TV: ESPN, Monday, 8:30 p.m.

The line: Saints (-2½).

The scoop: After blowing chance to sweep Green Bay, Lions had hangover last week and lost to Rams in St. Louis. Tough year for Saints but Drew Brees still producing with 25 TDs for 3,974 yards and 97.9 rating.

Outlook: Saints’ defense is bad, but not that bad. New Orleans, 30-14.

Dog of the day

Dolphins (5-8) at Chargers (3-10)

Kickoff: 4:25 p.m.

The line: Chargers (-1).

The scoop: Sadly, this could be Chargers’ final game at Qualcomm Stadium, formerly Jack Murphy Stadium. ...San Diego has not reached end zone in three of last four games including both losses to Kansas City. Chargers are eighth in league in total offense but only 29th in scoring. However, Dolphins are 30th in rushing defense and 26th in pass defense.

Outlook: Both teams destined for coaching changes. Chargers, 20-17.

Last week’s results: 10-5 straight up; 8-7 versus spread.

Season’s record: 117-74 straight up; 99-87-5 versus spread.

email: mnorthrop@buffnews.com