This is a defining point in the NFL season for many teams entering Week 15's action, with significant, make-or-break games at every turn on the slate.
But four games on Sunday stand out as the most vital to shaping the postseason landscape, two of which featuring clashes between division rivals and the rest between some of the league's elite in 2012.
Here is a breakdown of those marquee matchups, including picks with final scores at the end of each.
Green Bay Packers (9-4) at Chicago Bears (8-5)
If the Pack wins, they clinch the NFC North title. If not, it's suddenly a tie ballgame, both in the head-to-head season series and atop the division.
The road will be difficult without Brian Urlacher on the field for the Bears' stout defense. Clearly this is one of the more storied rivalries in the league with plenty of frosty tensions—and not because of the cooling weather.
Urlacher's absence inspired Green Bay TE Jermichael Finley to suggest Chicago would be better without him since he's allegedly slower. That prompted the future Hall of Fame linebacker to fire back (h/t Chicago Sun Times):
Just like a couple of years ago, I think, [Finley] tore his ACL and the Packers were actually better without him. You know, they won the Super Bowl...I hope we can duplicate that as well because it won't hurt my feelings if we go on and win the Super Bowl without me like they did without him.
Those are as heated of words exchanged as you'll hear between players in the press. As if this game needed anything more to fuel the fire.
QB Jay Cutler continues to battle hard, and will courageously take the field again on Sunday behind a shaky offensive line (h/t ESPN). He and dynamic top target Brandon Marshall were shut down last time out, but things could be different in Chicago with the Packers still missing Charles Woodson in the secondary.
With the home Soldier Field crowd behind him and the offense, the Bears will have to score a lot of points to keep up with the Packers' attack led by reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers.
While the familiarity with the Packers' offense will allow the Bears to play their rivals close with the season on the line, the return of Clay Matthews will likely cause the Bears' protection to break down. Matthews is the x-factor that will ultimately cost Chicago in a very tight contest, and continue the team's downward spiral—possibly out of the playoff picture when all is said and done.
Final score: Packers 21, Bears 20
Indianapolis Colts (9-4) at Houston Texans (11-2)
Thanks to the Texans' epic flop on Monday Night Football against the New England Patriots, the 2012 Indianapolis Colts have an outside chance to win the AFC South division.
It's harder and harder to believe as the season winds down, but it's true. This game will go a long way in determining momentum for both teams for the remainder of the year. There is such a fine line in the AFC playoff picture. So much can change with these two teams squaring off in two of their last three games.
The Colts' Cinderella season could come to a grinding halt with a three-game skid to finish 9-7. However, if Indy can somehow pull out some magic on the road in Reliant Stadium, a 10-win season and a postseason berth would be all but guaranteed.
Such a fine line. Magic has happened all year long for the Colts, though.
Whether it's been a key stop by the defense, a rally orchestrated by No. 1 pick QB Andrew Luck—or simply the inspirational story of a resilient team playing on amidst its head coach's leukemia diagnosis—the turnaround in Indianapolis has been nothing short of remarkable.
A lot of wild speculation about playoff scenarios could be put to rest by a division-clinching victory by the host Texans.
But the Colts have had anything but a predictable year, and Houston has typically fallen flat on the biggest of stages. This Indianapolis team just keeps fighting, and has played with nothing to lose all year long.
The recent decline in the Texans' running game and the fact that Luck is desperately due for an all-around brilliant game in Bruce Aryans' pass-happy offense should combine to create a Colts upset.
Final score: Colts 34, Texans 31
Denver Broncos (10-3) at Baltimore Ravens (9-4)
Are we still sold on Joe Flacco as the long-term answer under center in Baltimore?
A lot more will be revealed about the Ravens' situation after oft-criticized offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was fired after the team's second consecutive loss last week. Perhaps new play-caller Jim Caldwell will wise up and give superstar RB Ray Rice more touches.
Flacco has not secured a long-term deal, and negotiations have been put on hold since September, as ESPN's Adam Schefter originally reported.
He may not be the long-term answer for the Broncos at QB, but Peyton Manning is as good as ever and well-deserving of an unprecedented fifth MVP award. For Flacco to go head-to-head and beat the arguably the greatest regular season quarterback ever—matched up against a superior Broncos defense—it would strongly make his case.
However, Manning will be too much for the thin, overrated Ravens' D that has been exposed in recent weeks. Even though Flacco has proven to be far better at home than on the road in his young career, Manning has too easy of a matchup.
On the other side, Flacco has to deal with the fearsome pass rush of Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. In the face of pressure, the Ravens QB wilts, and when the stakes get higher, his play dips.
In the groundbreaking situational statistic of Total QBR, Flacco is 21st among starters with a 51 rating out of 100. The 50 mark is considered an "average" quarterback.
Manning is No. 1 with an 82.4 rating.
The Sheriff will be in town in M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, and Baltimore's defense can no longer bail out its pedestrian QB. The Ravens will suffer their third consecutive loss in convincing fashion as they continue to back into the playoffs.
Final score: Broncos 31, Ravens 17
San Francisco 49ers (9-3-1) at New England Patriots (10-3)
This has to be the game of the year for Sunday Night Football—and it's mostly because of new Niners QB Colin Kaepernick. With his size, speed and agility, the second-year second-round pick out of Nevada ran effectively in spot duty to begin the 2012 season.
Then, the unfortunate concussion issue that plagues the NFL struck San Francisco, as starting quarterback Alex Smith was forced out of the lineup for a critical Week 11 showdown at home against the Chicago Bears.
Kaepernick then proved against one of the league's best defenses that he could throw pretty darn well, too. Since taking over the reins, Kaepernick is 3-1 and has a 97.5 passer rating for the year.
The guy on the other sideline is pretty good, though.
Tom Brady has the support of RB Stevan Ridley in the backfield to give the Patriots more balance than they've had in recent years. Ridley has already run for over 1,000 yards and 10 TDs in 2012. The return of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has produced an unstoppable New England attack once again despite a lengthy absence from phenomenal TE Rob Gronkowski.
The last time these two teams met in 2008, San Francisco started J.T. O'Sullivan at QB, and the Patriots had Matt Cassel under center. How times have changed.
This will truly be a clash to remember in Foxboro, since the Niners' defense will be the toughest test New England has encountered since its Week 6 loss at Seattle. The Patriots, by the way, haven't lost since that one-point defeat.
It's really hard to pick this game either way considering the small sample size on Kaepernick and the prowess of the San Fran defense. But it's nearly impossible to bet against Tom Brady in primetime at home—look no further than last week's dismantling of the AFC-leading Texans.
Final score: Patriots 27, 49ers 24
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