With parity running rampant and boggling the 2012 NFL playoff picture, games between division foes become more vital with every passing week.
Though obvious reasons like winning the division come to mind, tiebreaking procedures in the NFL are heavily based on inter-division records. Ties within the division and even wild-card situations can come down to these games with seemingly normal implications.
For teams on the fringes of playoff contention, that means division games hold even more weight than most expect. Win these games and you're not only looking better in the win-loss column, but also have some tiebreaker help down the line.
With a few critical inter-division games on the Week 12 slate, here is a look at a few fringe playoff contenders that will come away victorious.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (at Carolina Panthers)
Unquestionably one of the hottest teams in football, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have gone from left-for-dead to a possible Super Bowl sleeper in just three weeks.
Leading that surge is an offense that looked dormant in the season's infancy. Rookie running back Doug Martin has gotten all the headlines but Josh Freeman's rejuvenation has been arguably more important to the Bucs' cause.
The fourth-year quarterback was (deservedly) starting to get the "bust" word thrown around before a scintillating last five games. In those contests, Freeman has averaged 293.4 yards passing and has thrown 13 touchdowns against just one interception.
Meanwhile, the Carolina Panthers have been one of 2012's most disappointing teams. The team's only wins have come against the Washington Redskins and a flounderingNew Orleans Saints team early in the season, two squads that aren't (or weren't in the Saints' case) scaring anyone.
Going off recent trends alone, this should be a relatively easy win for the Bucs. I'm not sure what Greg Schiano did during the team's bye week, but whatever it is there's no sense in picking against Tampa until it wears off.
Score Prediction: Buccaneers 31, Panthers 16
Green Bay Packers (at Detroit Lions)
While the Bucs continued their torrid midseason resurgence last week, the Detroit Lions bungled what should have been a winnable game. Facing a struggling Christian Ponder and the Minnesota Vikings, the Lions defense reverted to 2011 form—costing the team a critical inter-division matchup.
I'll go out on a limb and say that if the Lions had trouble with Ponder, they'll have trouble with a red-hot Aaron Rodgers coming off a bye on Sunday. The defending MVP has thrown at least three touchdowns in five of his last six contests, atoning for his relative struggles during the Packers' first three games.
With Jordy Nelson also on track for a return, Green Bay's offense should get even more efficient,
Still, Green Bay's secondary hasn't been the most deft at stopping the pass this season, so it won't be a Texans-level blowout. Matthew Stafford should appease all of his fantasy owners and continue his quest for a second consecutive 5,000-yard campaign.
Nonetheless, the Packers are one of the five best teams in the NFL at this juncture. The Lions, well, are not. Bet the over hard in this game and look for Green Bay to come away with a two-score road victory.
Score Prediction: Packers 38, Lions 24
Pittsburgh Steelers (vs. Baltimore Ravens)
Though the doom-and-gloom talk has already started due to Ben Roethlisberger's injury situation, the Pittsburgh Steelers cannot be counted out on Sunday.
Against a vaunted Baltimore Ravens' defense of years past, backup Byron Leftwich would have trouble being effective. However, this Baltimore defense has been resting on name-value all season.
Coming into Week 11, the Ravens rank 26th in the league against both the run and pass, giving up 390.2 total yards per game. Debilitatinginjuries to Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb haven't helped, but Baltimore felt a step slower even with those stars in the lineup.
Obviously Leftwich won't be able to lead a complete destruction of the Ravens. After all, he is a backup for a reason. However, considering the way the Steelers' defense is playing, there won't be a massive points surge needed to win on Sunday.
Pittsburgh leads the NFL in total yards allowed on the season—it's not even that close. Through nine games, the Steelers have given up just 265.7 yards per game, which is nearly 16 yards less per contest than the second-place Texans.
With the Ravens' offensive efficiency wildly fluctuating from week to week, Pittsburgh could take advantage and come out ahead. Call it an upset special or whatever you like, but I'm taking Steelers to pull into a tie in the AFC North with a win on Sunday.
Score Prediction: Steelers 20, Ravens 17
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