Week 14 of the NFL schedule is technically underway with the conclusion of the Thursday night game, and that means that some teams have their backs against the wall as the season draws to a close.
Only a handful of teams are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, so parity has truly ruled the day in the NFL this season. As we enter the home stretch of the season, the next few weeks should separate the contenders and the pretenders.
Pressure tends to weed out the teams that aren't quite ready to compete in the playoffs, as the more prepared teams start to peak at this time of the year. These are the teams that will rise to the occasion in must-win scenarios.
Cincinnati Bengals over Dallas Cowboys
Both the Cincinnati Bengals and Dallas Cowboys find themselves in must-win situations.
At 7-5 the Bengals are tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for second place in the AFC North and are currently behind Pittsburgh for a wild-card spot due to their tiebreaker based on head-to-head win percentage. The Steelers are getting Ben Roethlisberger back, so they will be even more difficult to unseat. The Bengals really can't afford to give up a game in the playoff picture right now.
Fortunately, the Bengals have been scorching hot lately. After starting off 3-5, Cincinnati has won four games in a row to get to 7-5. Six of their seven wins on the season have come outside of the division.
The Bengals are playing their best football of the season, while the Cowboys are coming off of a good performance in an otherwise inconsistent season. The Cowboys need this win too, but Cincinnati is at home and playing too well right now to lose to Dallas.
Washington Redskins over Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens play the role of the cagy veteran team to the Redskins' youthful resurgence here, but the new school will rule the day in this matchup.
The 'Skins find themselves just one game out of first place in the NFC East after beating the first-place Giants on Monday Night Football. Many speculated that the team needed a win then to save the season.
An argument could be made that this game is just as important.
Beating the Giants was big, sure, but it won't mean much if the Redskins can't capitalize on the win. Washington has won three games in a row over NFC East opponents but must continue that success against opponents outside the division.
The Giants don't have the easiest road ahead with New Orleans and Atlanta coming up, so this week is a huge opportunity for the Redskins to draw even closer to the Giants in the division. The Redskins own the No. 1 rushing attack in the league and should have a field day against a Ravens run defense that has underperformed all season.
New England Patriots over Houston Texans
This isn't a must-win for a playoff berth—the Patriots and Texans should win their respective divisions easily.
However, this game is huge for seeding and momentum heading into the postseason. At 9-3, the Patriots are a half game behind the Denver Broncos for the No. 2 seed in the playoffs and two games behind the Texans. A win for the Patriots would tie them with the Broncos and draw within one game of the Texans.
The Patriots have quietly went on a six-game run and are still one of the best teams in the AFC. Earning one of those coveted bye weeks in the playoffs would be a huge boost to their Super Bowl chances, but that has to start with a win over Houston.
The Patriots still possess one of the NFL's most dangerous offenses, even with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski in and out of the lineup. Earlier in the season, the Packers were able to outgun the Texans through the air.
Tom Brady should be able to do similar things against a Texans team that may not have the offensive firepower to keep up in a shootout.