The weight that divisional games carry in the NFL is so significant that it can spark a turnaround for teams on the fringe of contention, boost a club whose prospects are rising or further fortify a leader's cushion.
Week 9 offers matchups that cater to all of those different instances and will create some of the most compelling storylines the league has to offer for the near future.
Some franchises are at the midway point with little to no hope to turn things around and will be in desperation mode at this juncture.
One team that fits that category is the Atlanta Falcons, who are in danger of dropping to 2-6 after going 13-3, winning the NFC South and advancing to the conference championship game last season.
That goes to show how much parity there is in pro football, which makes these heated division games all the more difficult to predict.
Read on to find out which teams will top their rivals in Week 9 and how it might unfold.
Atlanta Falcons (2-5) vs. Carolina Panthers (4-3)
Carolina is enjoying a three-game winning streak and has had extra time to prepare after playing on Thursday night in Week 8.
It's quite a different story for the Falcons, who lost to a flawed Arizona Cardinals team 27-13 last week and are in the midst of a second consecutive road trip.
With the NFL's worst rushing attack and a sudden dearth of playmakers outside of tight end Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas, quarterback Matt Ryan will have to prove he's worth every bit of the nine-figure extension he signed this offseason.
The task will be too tall against the Panthers' elite defense, though, as it is allowing just 13.7 points per game—second in the NFL.
Atlanta's unit pales in comparison, incapable of stopping either phase of the opposition's offense. That's bad news when facing a dual-threat QB like Cam Newton, who is playing the best football of his career at the moment.
When speaking with Kelli Bartik of WCCB Charlotte, the 2011 No. 1 overall pick emphasized how every game going forward is designed to establish the Panthers as a force to be reckoned with—and Bank of America Stadium as an intimidating environment:
As long as Newton doesn't make any critical errors in the face of what should be minimal pressure, he can lean on DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert and even the apparently returning Jonathan Stewart:
That three-headed monster in the backfield is bad news for Falcons fans, whose team will fall to 2-6 and 1-2 in the division Atlanta won by six games in 2012.
Prediction: Panthers 34, Falcons 24
Baltimore Ravens (3-4) vs. Cleveland Browns (3-5)
If Cleveland can even come close to replicating the type of pressure it got on Kansas City QB Alex Smith last week—sacking him six times—Ravens signal-caller Joe Flacco may be in for a long day.
The Ravens look like a shadow of the team that won Super Bowl XLVII and Flacco has suffered without Anquan Boldin to toss the ball up to in jump-ball situations.
To be fair, Baltimore's running game has been pitiful and its pass protection has been spotty at best. Flacco also hasn't had one of his favorite targets in Dennis Pitta all season, which partially explains his performance to this point.
However, this is a no-excuses league and a bottom-line business. John Harbaugh's bunch can either go into Cleveland and take care of business or be in danger of kissing the season goodbye.
This is really a crossroads game for both clubs. Jason Campbell flashed well at Arrowhead Stadium, so it will be interesting to see how he responds in the friendly environment of FirstEnergy Stadium.
When taking into account that the Browns lost to the Ravens back in Week 2 and are coming off a tough road loss to the Chiefs, the Dawg Pound should be fired up.
This AFC North tilt goes in Cleveland's favor, but in a low-scoring skirmish that will come down to Ray Horton's swarming Browns defense getting a stop when the team needs it most.
Prediction: Browns 16, Ravens 13
Indianapolis Colts (5-2) vs. Houston Texans (2-5)
With an extra week to prepare and after handing the Denver Broncos their first loss of the season, it seems the AFC South-leading Colts can do no wrong.
After all, Indianapolis beat Seattle and San Francisco early in the season.
This matchup is not good for Andrew Luck, though, because he's facing the league's No. 1 pass defense and will have reigning Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt screaming after him off the edge.
Even a player of Luck's underrated mobility will have trouble shaking that—especially when he can no longer throw the ball to Reggie Wayne, who tore his ACL in the win over the Broncos.
Trent Richardson has been an abject disappointment since joining the Colts in a high-profile trade, averaging three yards per carry.
The Texans' defense matches up very well with the Colts, who pride themselves on pounding the rock but haven't done it well enough. Plus, Houston has had a bye of its own to craft a game plan around new QB Case Keenum.
Running back Ben Tate is giving it his all to be on the gridiron, too, as George Bremer of The Herald Bulletin reports that Tate practiced with four broken ribs on Wednesday:
That gives an idea of how high the stakes are for this contest. It could pull the reeling Texans within two games of the lead with a tiebreaker win in tow.
With the Colts having to travel to Reliant Stadium, look for Houston to take this must-win affair in possibly the biggest upset of Week 9.
Prediction: Texans 20, Colts 17
Chicago Bears (4-3) vs. Green Bay Packers (5-2)
Some say records don't matter when it comes to divisional games because of their storied history, and that's true in many cases, but perhaps no more so than with this epic rivalry.
Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune notes how the Pack have seized control of the biannual scrum between these NFC North adversaries:
That trend should hold true in Week 9 in this Monday Night Football showcase.
Although the Bears are still forcing a ton of turnovers (18 takeaways), they are also conceding far too many yards and are now without their starting quarterback in Jay Cutler.
Backup Josh McCown filled in well against Washington when Cutler went down, but that was against arguably the worst defense in the league at the moment.
Lambeau Field is a tough place to win, and if nothing else is looked at in this blood-boiling affair, it should be the disparity in quarterback play.
Aaron Rodgers is simply one of the best in the game, and with punishing rookie running back Eddie Lacy emerging as a workhorse, he doesn't even need receivers like Randall Cobb and James Jones to be surgically precise.
Stopping Lacy and James Starks will prove even more difficult with the emotional leader of Chicago's front seven, Lance Briggs, out:
Barring some sort of sudden, drastic shoring-up of the Bears' secondary, Rodgers should have a field day and lead a romp to further fortify Green Bay's lead in the division.
Prediction: Packers 31, Bears 10
|Complete Week 9 NFL Picks|
|Away Team||Home Team||Winner|
|Cincinnati Bengals||Miami Dolphins||Bengals|
|Kansas City Chiefs||Buffalo Bills||Chiefs|
|Minnesota Vikings||Dallas Cowboys||Vikings|
|Tennessee Titans||St. Louis Rams||Titans|
|New Orleans Saints||New York Jets||Saints|
|San Diego Chargers||Washington Redskins||Redskins|
|Atlanta Falcons||Carolina Panthers||Panthers|
|Philadelphia Eagles||Oakland Raiders||Raiders|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Seattle Seahawks||Seahawks|
|Baltimore Ravens||Cleveland Browns||Browns|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||New England Patriots||Patriots|
|Indianapolis Colts||Houston Texans||Texans|
|Chicago Bears||Green Bay Packers||Packers|
|Picks are strictly opinion|