NFL Preview 2012: Analyzing the Most Important Game for Every NFL Team in 2012
The NFL is usually viewed as a game of inches, and in most cases one game can make a monumental difference in a team's season.
With the playoff race expecting to be more exciting and competitive than 2011, each team has crucial games on its schedule and must capitalize on most of the opportunities.
However, there is one game for each NFL team that can potentially make an impact on their season. Here is a preview of the most crucial game for every NFL team.
1. Arizona Cardinals: Week 8 vs San Francisco 49ers
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The Arizona Cardinals do have the potential to wreck havoc within the NFC West if the quarterback situation is resolved by week one. The potential explosive offense involving Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd along with an emerging young defense could lead to surprise success for the Cardinals.
If the Cardinals manage to compete in the difficult NFC playoff race, they will need to take care of business at the halfway point of the season against the San Francisco 49ers.
There isn't a better opportunity out there for the Cardinals. They could enter the game with a potential 5-2 record, or they could be on the brink of crumbling before a difficult second half stretch.
Regardless of the future outcome, this will be the best opportunity to win a division game against the defending NFC West champions. They will face the 49ers on their home turf and in prime time, setting up a showdown in the desert that will attract plenty of interest across the country.
2. Atlanta Falcons: Week 12 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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The Atlanta Falcons will enter the upcoming season as the favorite to win the NFC South. With improvements in personnel made on both offense and defense, the Falcons are determined to finally become a legitimate contender in the NFC.
A sign of a contender wins games in November and December, especially against their own division foes. They will begin a difficult six week stretch on the road against the revamped Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
3. Baltimore Ravens: Week 17 @ Cincinnati Bengals
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The Baltimore Ravens enter the upcoming season with a difficult schedule after finishing 12-4 in 2011. With the absence of Terrell Suggs and the departure of Ben Grubbs, there are plenty of questions waiting to be answered during the course of the season.
Last season, the AFC North had three teams represent the division in the postseason. It will be no surprise to discover that these three teams will be competing once again for the six playoff spots available in the AFC.
The most likely scenario is that the division can potentially be decided in the final week of the season. The Ravens will face their most difficult test of the year playing against the Cincinnati Bengals on the road in week 17.
This game will likely be crucial for both teams, but especially the Ravens. Due to their success at M&T Bank Stadium in recent years, the Ravens need to secure the division crown and guarantee themselves at least one home playoff game.
4. Buffalo Bills: Week 10 @ New England Patriots
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They will be up for a challenge as they will be two weeks removed from the bye and will have just faced a difficult Texans team on the road.
With every proceeding game likely in the Bills favor, a road victory over the defending AFC champions could lead to a division crown for Buffalo this season.
5. Carolina Panthers: Week 14 vs Atlanta Falcons
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The Carolina Panthers have been labeled as the potential surprise team in 2012 after the Detroit Lions rose to relevancy the previous season. With the improvements made on both sides of the football, the Panthers will be a difficult task for any team in December.
If the Panthers manage to stay in contention in the playoff race, they must take advantage of winning a home game against the Atlanta Falcons.
The Falcons will be entering this game having played two straight games against divisional foe. Cam Newton clearly was more comfortable playing on their home turf, and could ultimately change the outcome of the playoff seeding with a win against Matt Ryan and company.
6. Chicago Bears: Week 15 vs Green Bay Packers
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The schedule is set up nicely for the Bears, who are likely to still be contention for a division title and possibly a first round bye. While a win would give the Bears an opportunity to keep pace with the Packers, a loss would eventually lead to this team fighting in the final two weeks for a wild card spot.
7. Cincinnati Bengals: Week 16 @ Pittsburgh Steelers
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The Cincinnati Bengals have been led by two of their most valuable assets in Andy Dalton and AJ Green. If this surging Bengals teams wishes to return to the playoffs for the second straight season, a division win on the road late in the season is what head coach Marvin Lewis wants to see.
The Bengals cannot afford to add more pressure on themselves in the final week of the season against the Ravens by losing a game on the road that could easily be in their grasp.
If the Bengals wish to seriously emerge as a threat in the postseason, they must begin finding success against playoff quality team on the road.
8. Cleveland Browns: Week 6 vs Cincinnati Bengals
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The Cleveland Browns have a very difficult schedule in 2012, and it could spiral out of control if they are unable to upset the Cincinnati Bengals at home.
They will certainly be up for the challenge after facing five difficult foes in the previous weeks and will not have many opportunities to win games before the bye week.
Could the Browns catch a young Bengals team off guard? It will be a difficult task, and a potential 0-6 start could be devastating for a franchise that is trying to turn the corner after plenty of losing seasons over the years.
9. Dallas Cowboys: Week 8 vs New York Giants
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The Dallas Cowboys failed to win the division last season after losing twice in a month span to the eventual Super Bowl champions. In fact, the Giants actually gained momentum after their unremarkable come from behind victory on the road against the Cowboys.
In week eight, the Cowboys will be in the middle of a very difficult time in their schedule. They will return to Dallas after playing in two straight road games, and will return to the road for two more weeks after their divisional match up against the Giants.
Ultimately, the Cowboys need to improve their success against NFC East opponents this season if they want to avoid missing the playoffs for three straight seasons.
10. Denver Broncos: Week 5 @ New England Patriots
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This is a crucial game for the Broncos, who certainly have high hopes to finish as a high seed in the postseason.
In the past, Brady has always been at his best against Manning when playing in Foxboro. Now that Manning has switched teams, will the result be any different?
11. Detroit Lions: Week 11 vs Green Bay Packers
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The Detroit Lions are determined to continue their recent success and return to the playoffs for the second straight season. However, it will be a difficult task to accomplish, especially with the Chicago Bears emerging as a threat in the NFC.
Last season, the Lions were unable to defeat the Green Bay Packers with both Aaron Rodgers and Matt Flynn starting a game each against their divisional rival.
In order to build on last season's surprise appearance to the postseason, the Lions will eventually need to defeat the Packers at least once during the course of the season.
There isn't a better opportunity for the Lions to do it than to defeat the defending division champs on their home turf, as they typically perform at a higher level when at Ford Field.
12. Green Bay Packers: Week 12 @ New York Giants
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The Green Bay Packers watched their fantastic regular season come to an abrupt end in the playoffs after the disappointing loss to the New York Giants at Lambeau Field.
Fortunately, the Packers will look to return the favor this year at Metlife Stadium against a team that will be competing with them for the top seed in the NFC.
With a late season that includes four division games, the Packers need to take care of the opportunities presented to them outside of the NFC North.
13. Houston Texans: Week 14 @ New England Patriots
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The Houston Texans took a major step in 2011 by appearing the postseason for the first time in franchise history. However, the expectations have been set high for a team that has arguably the most talented roster in the NFL.
If they want to have a realistic opportunity to appear in the Super Bowl for the first time, a potential win over the New England Patriots in Foxboro could lead to a potential number one seed in the AFC.
Certainly, this game was the most notable on the Patriots late in the season. Can the Texans prove to defeat Tom Brady on his home turf?
14. Indianapolis Colts: Week 8 @ Tennessee Titans
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The Indianapolis Colts begin a new era with Andrew Luck at the helm, and are hoping to stay competitive throughout season while also scaring potential playoff contenders late in the season.
Despite the emergence of the Houston Texans, there appears to be no threat to the defending division champions. Will the Tennessee Titans hand the offense over to Jake Locker, or will Matt Hasselbeck take the reigns for the second straight season?
Andrew Luck has looked impressive early on in preseason, and could alter the playoff picture with an upset over a young Titans squad.
15. Jacksonville Jaguars: Week 17 @ Tennessee Titans
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The Jacksonville Jaguars won't have a legitimate chance to make the postseason, which makes them a very dangerous team that could spoil the playoff chances of another AFC opponent.
Despite the questions at the quarterback position, the Tennessee Titans could be a surprise playoff threat especially if Kenny Britt is healthy around October.
The Jaguars produced a quality defense last season and should be the bright spot for this rebuilding franchise once again.
There wouldn't be a better feeling in the world than to knock the Titans out of the playoffs, marking the second straight year the Titans would be eliminated from the playoffs on the final week of the season.
16. Kansas City Chiefs: Week 7 @ Denver Broncos
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The Kansas City Chiefs are ready to take control of the AFC West after a 7-9 season that included losing three valuable starters.
It is very likely for the division to be decided in the final week, when the Chiefs visit the Broncos in Denver to fight for both a division title and possibly the only opportunity at a playoff appearance.
17. Miami Dolphins: Week 13 vs New England Patriots
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Could the Miami Dolphins be the leagues biggest surprise in 2012? With a favorable schedule, and a bit of luck, the Dolphins could enter their week 13 match up with the New England Patriots as competitors for a potential playoff seeding.
Realistically, if the Dolphins were to complete a magical season, they would need to have a winning record in the division in order to have a realistic chance.
The most likely opportunity for the Dolphins to win games within the division is by taking advantage on their home turf, which is where the Patriots come to town in week 13.
18. Minnesota Vikings: Week 15 @ St. Louis Rams
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The Minnesota Vikings will face a very difficult season ahead, especially by playing in a division that could potentially have three teams represent in the postseason.
Luckily, the good news is the rebuilding plan can continue in Minnesota, and they will compete for the number one overall pick once again.
19. New England Patriots: Week 3 @ Baltimore Ravens
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The New England Patriots had the last laugh during the 2011 season after defeating the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship.
This time, Tom Brady and company head to Baltimore and face a team looking to seek revenge for last year's loss while also making an impact on the chase for the top seed in the AFC.
Although a potential loss to the Ravens would only be in week three, the Patriots could eventually lose out on home field advantage throughout the playoffs due to their first road loss of the season.
20. New York Giants: Week 17 vs Philadelphia Eagles
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The New York Giants faced uncertainty heading into the final week of the regular season in 2011, and yet carried the momentum into the playoffs after defeating the Dallas Cowboys in week 17.
If history is any indication, the NFC East will be decided in the final week of the season once again. The Philadelphia Eagles will return to contender status after an extremely disappointing 2011 season.
With the division likely on the line, the Giants need to take care of business on their home field.
21. New York Jets: Week 6 vs Indianapolis Colts
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An 0-5 start isn't out of the question for the Jets, and the Colts will hope for a low scoring game that will eventually keep the game close.
A loss at home against the rebuilding Colts would only be the beginning of the drama that the Jets will likely encounter this season.
22. New Orleans Saints: Week 13 @ Atlanta Falcons
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The New Orleans Saints enter the 2012 season without a handful of veteran players along with head coach Sean Payton.
Will that affect their chances of repeating as division champs? The Saints will be a threat, but a win on the road against the Atlanta Falcons could be the ultimate difference maker for the defending NFC South champions.
The Falcons will be the favorite to win the division this year, and the Saints will look to keep the result the same from a season ago.
23. Oakland Raiders: Week 14 vs Denver Broncos
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The Oakland Raiders to compete for a division crown despite changes being made throughout the front office and coaching staff.
Last season, the Raiders defense struggled mightily due to injuries along with starters departing for free agency.
With Peyton Manning joining the Denver Broncos in the offseason, the Raiders will need to continue their success against divisional rivals in 2012. This includes winning a home game late in the season against a potential division winner.
24. Philadelphia Eagles: Week 13 @ Dallas Cowboys
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The Philadelphia Eagles are primed for a return to the postseason after a disappointing 8-8 finish in 2012. They can make their playoff chances much easier with a win on the road against the Dallas Cowboys.
Despite the variety of injuries, there is no reason to question that the Cowboys will pose a threat to the Eagles for either the NFC East crown or a wild card spot.
25. Pittsburgh Steelers: Week 11 vs Baltimore Ravens
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The Pittsburgh Steelers were completely shocked by their performances against the Baltimore Ravens, losing two games to their bitter AFC North foe.
In order to guarantee themselves another playoff appearance, the Steelers will need to even the score against a Ravens team undergoing transition on both sides of the football.
Over the years, the Steelers have proven to come out on top against the Ravens while at Heinz field. There's no reason why this monumental home game in week 11 could make a difference on their season.
26. San Diego Chargers: Week 6 vs Denver Broncos
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The San Diego Chargers are eager to avoid missing the postseason for three straight seasons. In order to avoid another disappointing season, Philip Rivers will need to elevate his game with the addition of Peyton Manning to the AFC West.
In week six, the Chargers will play a crucial home game in prime time against the Denver Broncos. With a bye week proceeding this game, the Chargers need to end the grueling first half schedule with an early win in the division.
This will be the difference in this team making the postseason or finishing with around eight or nine wins.
27. San Francisco 49ers: Week 11 vs Chicago Bears
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The San Francisco 49ers were a muffed punt away from an appearance in the Super Bowl. In the off season, they wasted no time upgrading the receivers around offense and improving the special teams.
Will the 49ers find the same amount of success compared to their surprising year in 2011? A win against the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football might do the trick.
The Bears will be in competition for a division title along with a first round bye, which is crucial to the 49ers success in the postseason.
28. Seattle Seahawks: Week 7 @ San Francisco 49ers
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Are the Seattle Seahawks a legitimate threat to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC West? In the offseason, they signed Matt Flynn and a determined Terrell Owens to upgrade an offense that can keep the pace with its emerging defense.
Eventually, the Seahawks will need to defeat the 49ers in a crucial division game. There isn't a better opportunity for the Seahawks to earn a huge road victory against the defending NFC West champions after playing the New England Patriots four days before this highly anticipated game.
29. St. Louis Rams: Week 16 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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The St. Louis Rams are continuing to rebuild a very weak roster and are heading in the right direction under Jeff Fisher.
In the past, Fisher's teams have always been known for playing hard each week and eventually cause trouble for teams trying to secure a playoff spot.
Luckily, the Rams will have the opportunity to ruin the Tampa Bay Buccaneers playoff chances in 2012.
As the Rams move forward into the future with Sam Bradford as the quarterback, an upset of the Buccaneers would carry a lot of momentum into the offseason for the Rams.
30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Week 17 @ Atlanta Falcons
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After a major spending spree by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the offseason, the expectations have been raised as this team expects to compete for a playoff appearance in the much improved NFC.
In order to ensure themselves of a potential wild card spot, the Buccaneers will have to travel on the road and defeat their division rival in the Atlanta Falcons.
The Falcons will also have plenty of reason to win this game, as both a division crown and a first round bye could be on the line.
Clearly, there could be plenty at stake for a few of the NFC South's teams.
31. Tennessee Titans: Week 13 vs Houston Texans
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The Tennessee Titans could emerge as a surprise threat in the AFC if the right quarterback decision is made and Kenny Britt returns at full strength after his ACL injury.
Last season, the Titans were unable to guarantee themselves a playoff appearance due to a heartbreaking loss against the Houston Texans.
The task is quite simple. In order to make a legitimate push at a first place finish in the AFC South, the Titans need to defeat a division rival late in the season.
32. Washington Redskins: Week 13 vs New York Giants
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The Washington Redskins could make the NFC East a four team race with the additions on offense, most notably rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III.
If the Redskins are in fact relevant this late in the season, they need to defeat the defending champions and the likely division favorite in the New York Giants.
With a home game on Monday Night Football, there isn't a more perfect opportunity for the Redskins to become a legitimate threat in the division than winning a major game in prime time during the second half of the season.
Matt Miselis is an NFL Featured Columnist for BleacherReport.com. Follow me on twitter.