Depending on the sport, being a "fringe playoff contender" carries wildly different connotations.
In the NBA, the middle is essentially a death sentence, a place where teams go when they're too bad to actually compete but too good to tank for the top players. It's essentially the league's version of the Bermuda Triangle.
However, in the NFL, the middle brings unbridled hope. It seems like every year there is a wild-card team that turns its season around late in the year and continues that momentum to Super Bowl glory.
As parity continues to run rampant through the 2012 NFL season, there are seemingly more teams than ever facing that possibility.
Luckily, Week 9 will help sort that out, as certain key matchups between those contenders will help make the picture clearer.
Which teams will win those contests? Here's a look at my predictions for Sunday's games between fringe playoff teams.
Miami Dolphins (4-3) vs. Indianapolis Colts (4-3)
Somehow swept under the radar, Sunday's matchup between Ryan Tannehill and Andrew Luck would make history as the first meeting of rookie quarterbacks drafted in the top 10 with winning records, per NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal.
Even without that fact, this matchup is one of the more intriguing of this weekend.
The Dolphins come into Week 9 having found an identity as one of the best defensive teams in the NFL. Though one could point to Miami ranking 27th in passing yards against to disprove that, advanced metrics don't back up the counting stats here.
According to Football Outsiders' weighted DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) metric, the Dolphins actually have the eighth-best pass defense in the league, allowing 3.6 percent less production than a replacement-level defense would.
Meanwhile, those same metrics don't favor the Colts whatsoever. DVOA ranks Indianapolis 31st against both the run and the pass.
Considering that both teams are relatively equal offensively, it's pretty safe bet to go with the better defense.
So, yes. I'm stat-geeking out here and picking the Dolphins almost solely based on advanced metrics. If you'll excuse me, I have to go line my pocket protector and feed my imaginary friend dinner now.
Score Prediction: Dolphins 24, Colts 17
Minnesota Vikings (5-3) vs. Seattle Seahawks (4-4)
After looking like one of the NFL's most efficient quarterbacks to start the season, something in the calibration of the Vikings' Christian Ponder has looked off the past two weeks.
Though he threw for 251 yards and a touchdown last Thursday, nearly all of his yardage came in garbage time after Minnesota fell out of the game. That came after throwing for an abysmal 58 yards and two interceptions in Week 7.
Considering that Adrian Peterson is rounding back into form as the NFL's best running back, this is the absolute worst time for Ponder to revert to 2011 form.
On the other side of the field, Seattle continues to play contests that go down to the very last minute. In fact, only one time have the Seahawks been involved with a game where the two teams finished more than a score apart—Week 2's 27-7 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
That means you can almost bet your life on a close contest. As for the winner? Ponder's struggles will be even more glaring against the Seattle secondary, and the Seahawks are a completely different team at CenturyLink Field.
I'll stick with the home team here.
Score Prediction: Seahawks 20, Vikings 14
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-4) vs. Oakland Raiders (3-4)
While the Buccaneers and Raiders come into Week 9 with losing records, both teams have looked vastly improved of late, leaving the playoff door wide open.
Nonetheless, a loss on Sunday would be crippling to both sides—especially Tampa Bay. The NFC looks like a 10-6 record will be the bare minimum for a postseason ticket, meaning sitting at 3-5 is a worst-case scenario for Tampa.
Fortunately for the Bucs, a quick look at the matchups shows they should come away victorious and keep their playoff hopes intact.
Quarterback Josh Freeman has been an absolute sensation in the past few weeks, throwing three touchdowns in each of the past three games. With a matchup against the questionable Raiders secondary on tap, there seems to be no reason the good times will stop now.
Granted, Carson Palmer hasn't been much of a slouch this season, either. However, the Bucs offense has a balance that the Raiders are seemingly unable to find, which should allow Tampa to make the necessary adjustments to win.
It won't be a blowout, but look for Tampa to win with some comfort.
Score Prediction: Buccaneers 27, Raiders 17