With parity running rampant throughout the NFL in 2012, nearly every game on the Week 9 slate has a bevy of long-term implications.
And, no, I'm not talking about the games that have "Torpedo for Geno" implications, either. Instead, we're going to focus on the NFL's best games of the week, ones that could decide playoff seeding or could torpedo a former contender's season.
Considering how close all of the league's teams are this season, all it could take is one game to completely change the outlook of the season. A win against an elite team could send a mediocre squad soaring toward playoff glory, while an upset could push pseudo-elite teams into a spiral.
With that in mind, here is a look at predictions for all of Sunday's marquee matchups.
Denver Broncos (4-3) at Cincinnati Bengals (3-4)
Of the early games, this contest carries the most intrigue because of what the result could mean for both sides.
If the Broncos win, they keep their relatively commanding hold over the AFC West, considering they have the tie-breaker over the San Diego Chargers. A loss, however, could create a three-way logjam atop the division.
Meanwhile, the Bengals received a bye week at the best possible time—following three straight losses. Sunday should be the difference between playoff contention and playing for a draft pick in Cincinnati.
Considering the abject dominance we've seen from the Broncos in recent weeks, the latter seems like a far likelier scenario on Sunday. Denver has won its past two contests by a combined score of 69-38, as Peyton Manning has put his stamp on the team and entered the MVP race.
No longer does he look hesitant and unsure of his arm strength and he now leads the NFL in total QBR at 82.5. Add Manning's prowess to a surging defense, and far too many matchups favor the Broncos on Sunday.
Quite frankly, I'm not even expecting this to be much of a game after halftime.
Final Score Prediction: Broncos 34, Bengals 17
Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3) at New York Giants (6-2)
A combined 7-1 in their last eight games, Sunday's battle between the Steelers and Giants will pit two of the NFL's hottest teams against each other.
Led by perhaps the most efficient play of Ben Roethlisberger's career, Pittsburgh's offense has survived a decimated running back situation to stay afloat in the AFC North.
Meanwhile, the Giants come into Week 9 as undoubtedly one of the five best teams in the NFL. Navigating a strong schedule, the defending Super Bowl champs have avoided any massive letdowns and have lost their two games by a mere nine points.
Coming into Sunday's action, there is little reason to think that the Giants' great play will stop on Sunday.
Though the Steelers have seemingly climbed out of their early season funk, nearly every metric points to them being the inferior team. The best use of overall team efficiency that we have, Football Outsiders' weighted DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), ranks the Giants as the fourth-best team and Pittsburgh No. 12.
Obviously, we can't look at just one metric, pick the Giants and move on with our day. However, if we couple that with the fact that New York's receivers match up extremely well against Pittsburgh's cornerbacks and that Sunday is the Steelers' most difficult game of the season thus far, it becomes hard to pick the road team.
If Roethlisberger can make some headway against a questionable Giants secondary, the Steelers could pull it out. But look for Manning and Co. to get another banner win heading into their bye week.
Final Score Prediction: Giants 24, Steelers 20
Dallas Cowboys (3-4) at Atlanta Falcons (7-0)
The folks at NBC have a captivating contest on Sunday Night Football, as the Cowboys and Falcons come into Week 9 with two diametrically opposite mindsets.
Doomsday scenarios are boundless in Dallas, where quarterback Tony Romo is in the midst of his worst season. The three-time Pro Bowler leads the NFL with 13 interceptions, having thrown an astounding nine of those in games against the Giants and Chicago Bears.
Also facing a ton of scorn is head coach Jason Garrett, who hasn't exactly done his quarterback any favors in terms of play-calling.
On the other side of the field, the Falcons are simply counting down the days until they clinch the NFC South title. Led by MVP candidate Matt Ryan, Atlanta has one of the best passing attacks in the NFL, ranking eighth in the NFL at 270.7 yards per game.
With that all factored in, it's no surprise that I'm taking the Falcons on Sunday night. They haven't shown much of an ability to blow opposing teams out; so, it will be close, but until they actually lose, it makes little sense to pick against Atlanta.
Final Score Prediction: Falcons 27, Cowboys 24