Winning divisional games is of utmost importance in the NFL, and the stakes are even higher when playing in front of a national audience on Sunday Night Football.
This year's schedule is loaded with compelling matchups. This week, the Chicago Bears will travel to Heinz Field to face the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Rookie head coach Marc Trestman has his Bears playing well and has won both of his first two games.
Former Super Bowl champion Mike Tomlin, on the other hand, leads a 0-2 squad that appears to be in utter turmoil. But one victory could easily turn things around, and you can be sure Pittsburgh will play with appropriate intensity.
While circumstances change quickly in the NFL, every game on the schedule appears at this point to be must-see TV. Here's a look at the entire remaining Sunday Night Football schedule, followed by a closer look at some pivotal divisional games that could define the season for the teams involved.
Week 9: Indianapolis Colts vs. Houston Texans
This contest will likely be a crucial game that decides which of these two AFC South powerhouses will win the division. The Texans have won the AFC South two years in a row, but the Colts are nipping at their heels.
Houston edged Indianapolis by one game last year, posting an impressive record of 12-4 to Indy's 11-5, but the Colts managed to split the series 1-1.
Andrew Luck had a phenomenal season as a rookie, and he's looking even sharper in this, his second year.
He has excellent rapport with veteran receiver Reggie Wayne; now Coby Fleener is beginning to come on strong, and second-year receiver T.Y. Hilton is always a big-play threat.
Luck has weapons to work with that can stretch any defense now, and the recent arrival of running back Trent Richardson—who the team acquired from the Cleveland Browns for a first-round pick, as noted by ESPN's Adam Schefter—gives him an added dimension.
Richardson is a powerful runner who gives offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton the balance he desires. He'll have more room to run with the Colts than he ever did with the Browns, thanks to Luck's rocket arm and his corps of receivers.
But all these weapons won't mean anything if J.J. Watt and his defensive teammates can bring Luck to the turf on a regular basis.
Houston will likely attempt to beat Luck by keeping him off the field. Arian Foster and Ben Tate will receive a heavy workload against Indianapolis' revamped front line, and it's hard to imagine they won't succeed.
Week 13: New York Giants vs. Washington Redskins
The NFC East is a mess.
But it's a mess any of the four teams within the division can take advantage of.
Surprisingly, the Giants missed the playoffs in 2012, while rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III led the Redskins to a 10-6 season and the divisional crown.
Both teams started out the 2013 season poorly, however, losing their first two games.
By the time this game is played, the knee injury that hampered RG3 in his first couple of games should be well in his rear-view mirror. He'll be running at full speed, and New York's defense will be hard-pressed to keep up with the pace.
But Washington's defense has been a sieve—especially against the pass. Eli Manning and his talented group of receivers should feast, meaning this game has a high probability of turning into an offensive shootout.
The team that doesn't turn the ball over will win, which doesn't bode well for the Giants.
Week 15: Cincinnati Bengals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
After losing to the Steelers in his first three starts, Andy Dalton has led his Bengals to two straight wins against his divisional foe.
But Pittsburgh was playing without key players in both wins.
If the Steelers can get healthy and start playing well this year, then this team is more than capable of making a push for the divisional title.
However, it's a big "if."
The Steelers haven't been able to stay healthy for the past couple of years, and this is a team that needs to get younger and more athletic in a hurry.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cincinnati is a team that appears ready to lay claim to the AFC North, but this division won't be surrendered easily.
Dalton must play a turnover-free game at Heinz Field to secure the critical divisional win for his team. He's more than capable, but to this point in his career the third-year quarterback has proven to be an inconsistent performer—especially on the road.
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