Week 14 of the NFL season has kicked off, and many teams are fighting for prime position for pro football's postseason.
With the playoff picture still in flux and plenty of teams contending for wild-card spots, the last month of the regular season is set up for a dramatic conclusion. The slate is highlighted by a marquee matchup on Monday Night Football, but other nail-biters are sure to tide fans over until then.
Here is a breakdown of the three most important games of Week 14, with final score predictions at the end.
Baltimore Ravens (9-3) at Washington Redskins (6-6)
No. 2 overall pick Robert Griffin III justified the hype last Monday night in taking down the New York Giants to exact revenge in an NFC East rematch.
But it was the Redskins defense that was rather impressive, stiffening in the scoring zone and playing a bend-but-don't-break style against Giants QB Eli Manning.
Unfortunately, the hits to the secondary keep on coming in Washington, as cornerback Cedric Griffin has been suspended for the final four regular-season games. Mark Maske of the Washington Post reports that Griffin's suspension is related to Adderall use.
The pass-happy Baltimore Ravens, led by Joe Flacco, come to FedEx Field this weekend, and the 'Skins' defensive backfield should be under siege for much of the afternoon.
That said, the Ravens would be better off handing the ball to Ray Rice frequently but continue to refuse to do so.
Meanwhile, Griffin and fellow rookie Alfred Morris continue to shred defenses with an unstoppable rushing attack that ranks No. 1 in the league, averaging just over 167 yards per game.
The pistol formation installed by play-caller Kyle Shanahan has given opposing defensive coordinators a headache. Since the Ravens' defense isn't what it once was, the Redskins shouldn't have much trouble running the ball once again.
Baltimore had trouble with Pittsburgh's third-string QB Charlie Batch last week. How will the defense fare against Griffin and Co.?
Forcing Flacco into obvious passing situations may produce relatively gaudy numbers, but he will have to get it done in the red zone. It's an area where the Ravens have struggled mightily over the past three games, scoring touchdowns just 16.7 percent of the time (h/t TeamRankings.com).
Expect Griffin and Morris to control the clock—and for Flacco to make enough mistakes to cost Baltimore its second game in a row, putting the Ravens in further danger of losing the AFC North lead.
Prediction: Redskins 34, Ravens 23
Chicago Bears (8-4) at Minnesota Vikings (6-6)
With Percy Harvin placed on injured reserve (h/t ESPN), the Vikings offense may suffer from becoming increasingly one-dimensional.
Thankfully, superstar RB Adrian Peterson made an unbelievably speedy recovery from a major knee injury at the end of 2011 to lead the league in rushing with a whopping 1,560 yards this year.
That has largely masked the shortcomings of second-year QB Christian Ponder. As the No. 12 overall pick of two drafts ago, it looked as though Ponder was coming into his own to start off his second year.
However, despite being the last starting signal-caller to throw an interception, the early-season momentum hasn't carried on.
Harvin's absence won't help, and neither will a showdown with Chicago's elite defense.
The Bears will be eager to jump back into the NFC North lead against their divisional foe while trying to virtually eliminate the Vikings from playoff contention in the process. Ponder averaged a measly 3.7 yards per attempt in a 28-10 loss at Soldier Field last month, as Peterson's 100-yard effort wasn't enough.
However, star LB Brian Urlacher will miss the game with a hamstring, also per ESPN's injury report, which will tighten the ultimate outcome and allow Peterson to get looser than he typically would.
The Metrodome is definitely not an easy place to play, and Bears QB Jay Cutler has bore the unfortunate brunt of poor pass protection for much of 2012. With the likes of Jared Allen bearing down on him, Cutler may be susceptible to more big hits, and Chicago clearly can't afford to lose him.
Other than a Week 3 victory over San Francisco, the Vikings haven't beaten a winning team all year.
Expect that trend to continue on Sunday and for the Bears' running game, led by Matt Forte, to get back on track. Minnesota will be officially exposed as pretenders, and Chicago will get back on course for a playoff run.
Prediction: Bears 27, Vikings 17
Houston Texans (11-1) at New England Patriots (9-3)
Here is the one that everyone is waiting for. Potential No. 1-seed implications in the AFC will be at the forefront of this faceoff in Foxboro.
The Pats have the best offense in the NFL, led by the sensational Tom Brady, who has reunited with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels—the man who called the shots during New England's undefeated 2007 campaign.
Not to be outdone, Houston scores the second-most points per game in the league and have an extremely balanced attack thanks to the health of QB Matt Schaub and the continued success of running back Arian Foster.
Armed with the second-ranked rush defense in football, the Texans will make it difficult for the Patriots to establish the running game with RB Stevan Ridley.
That will leave it up to Brady, who may be without several of his go-to options on Monday night. Receivers Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker are listed as questionable, as is versatile tight end Aaron Hernandez (h/t ESPN). Rob Gronkowski continues to sit with an ankle injury and has been ruled out for Week 14.
A lack of weapons on the outside and a stingy opposing front seven led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate J.J. Watt creates a nearly insurmountable matchup for Brady.
If anyone can overcome long odds, it would be the former sixth-round pick turned three-time Super Bowl champion.
With the home crowd behind him in Gillette Stadium and at least one of the aforementioned playmakers likely to suit up for such a significant game, Brady will pull off just enough magic to push the Pats to a hard-fought home victory.
Prediction: Patriots 24, Texans 20