As the second half of the season gets underway, it's time to start looking at teams that are setting themselves up for long playoff runs. There are no shortage of contenders from the undefeated Atlanta Falcons to the rapidly improving Denver Broncos.
While it's taken longer than normal for these top-tier squads to emerge from the pack due to increased parity throughout the NFL, the cream is finally starting to rise to the top. And the defending champion New York Giants are in the mix once again.
Week 9 should continue the trend of elites standing out from the crowd. Also, the margin for error for underperforming teams becomes increasingly thin with each passing week, meaning the Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints get a move on.
There are clearly no shortage of storylines heading into this week's action. Here's a look at the Sunday afternoon coverage information followed by a breakdown of a couple intriguing matchups.
Week 9 Coverage Info
Maps are courtesy of the506.com.
CBS Early Games
CBS Late Game
All FOX Games
| Miami at Indianapolis ||1 p.m.||CBS|| Kevin Harlan, Solomon Wilcots
| Buffalo at Houston ||1 p.m.||CBS|| Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts
| Baltimore at Cleveland ||1 p.m.||CBS|| Marv Albert, Rich Gannon
| Denver at Cincinnati ||1 p.m.||CBS|| Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf
| Arizona at Green Bay ||1 p.m.||FOX|| Joe Buck, Troy Aikman
|Carolina at Washington||1 p.m.||FOX||Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston|
| Chicago at Tennessee ||1 p.m.||FOX|| Thom Brennaman, Brian Billick
| Detroit at Jacksonville ||1 p.m.||FOX|| Ron Pitts, Mike Martz
| Tampa Bay at Oakland ||4:05 p.m.||FOX|| Dick Stockton, John Lynch
| Minnesota at Seattle ||4:05 p.m.||FOX|| Chris Myers, Tim Ryan
| Pittsburgh at NY Giants ||4:25 p.m.||CBS|| Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
All times Eastern.
Matchup of the Week: Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants
Any time two perennial contenders like the Steelers and Giants meet, football fans are treated to a terrific game. These teams are filled with veterans that understand what it takes to win, and it's something that tends to shine through on a weekly basis.
Even though the Giants have the better record at 6-2, a troublesome trend is starting to develop on defense. They have become heavily reliant on turnovers and actually rank in the bottom half of the league in yards allowed.
Which contender is in better shape?
While it's not impossible to maintain that type of opportunistic defense for an entire season, as the New Orleans Saints showed during their Super Bowl run, it's definitely a challenge. New York should be focused on improving that side of the ball in the second half.
The Giants offense is in great shape. Eli Manning and his myriad of weapons have been able to move the ball at will, ranking third at just under 29 points per game. They face a tough test this week against the always stout Steelers defense, though.
Pittsburgh has had to fight off injuries and Father Time, yet still ranks second in yards allowed. The Steelers also find a way to slow down Robert Griffin III, a task few teams have had success with during the first half.
The biggest concern for the Steelers has been the lack of a running game. Rashard Mendenhall has been banged up and his backups had struggled to fill the void until recently. Jonathan Dwyer has put together two straight strong performances, and might be the answer they have waited for.
All told, these teams are both on a playoff track and this should serve as a terrific measuring stick game for both sides. It will show them both what they need to work on before the regular season comes to a close.
Underrated Matchup of the Week: Miami Dolphins at Indianapolis Colts
Two teams that were expected to sink have managed to swim with the sharks throughout the first half. Now that expectations are beginning to rise in both Miami and Indianapolis, it will be interesting to see how the squads handle the added pressure.
The common thread between the two sides is their rookie quarterbacks. Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill, who's status for this week's game remains up in the air, have both stepped right in the lineup and not looked out of place.
Which team will win this underrated matchup?
Teams have become increasingly willing to throw their first-year QBs right into the fire in recent years, and more often than not it's proven to be the right decision.
Although both teams have their sights on the postseason after 4-3 starts, the playoff landscape really only has enough room for one of them to contend since the AFC North is likely to have two representatives make it.
That means this game could have a lasting impact on the race for the final wild card spot if the Dolphins and Colts keep playing at an unexpectedly high level. The winner will be 5-3 and clearly in the playoff race.
The Colts have played with an unmatched level of intensity ever since head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia. They have rallied around their ailing coach, using the phrase "Chuck Strong" as a rallying cry of sorts.
When you combine that with home-field advantage, the Colts have a slight edge in the matchup. However, it's really a toss-up game.