It's already Week 11 of the NFL season and the playoff picture is coming more into focus with the upcoming schedule fostering huge postseason ramifications.
A couple of divisional battles will go a long way in determining how their respective clusters will play out for the remainder of the year, while two other clashes feature teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.
Let's take an early look at the most important games on tap, followed by a complete list of predicted winners for the NFL's upcoming action.
Cleveland Browns vs. Cincinnati Bengals
Relying heavily on quarterback Andy Dalton has backfired in the past two weeks, as the third-year signal-caller has thrown three interceptions in each of the past two games—both losses.
It doesn't help that Cincinnati is depleted on defense and is now clinging to a 1.5-game lead in the AFC North with the Browns coming to town fresh off a bye week.
Cleveland's defense is excellent and has played at a playoff-caliber level all season when receiving competent quarterback play as a complement. Jason Campbell won AFC Offensive Player of the Week in Week 9, throwing three touchdowns in the Browns' victory over the Baltimore Ravens.
If the Browns are able to pull this one out in Paul Brown Stadium, they will move within a half-game of first place in the division.
This is a young but fiery Cleveland bunch that has played aggressive football all season long. Although the lack of a running game is a concern, the defense is good enough to keep the team competitive as long as Campbell and Co. take care of the football.
Now that fullback Chris Ogbonnaya is set to get more carries, look for Cleveland to fare better on the ground en route to a hard-fought win on Sunday.
Prediction: Browns 24, Bengals 17
San Francisco 49ers vs. New Orleans Saints
Life doesn't get any easier for the San Francisco 49ers, who are in danger of their second two-game losing streak under head coach Jim Harbaugh in Week 11's road trip to New Orleans.
Drew Brees put on a passing clinic in a blowout victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 10, throwing for 392 yards and four touchdowns in the Superdome—even with TE Jimmy Graham seeing limited action.
The Niners offer a far stiffer challenge than the Cowboys' horrendous defense, but Brees at home is nearly unbeatable.
Colin Kaepernick, Brees' counterpart, struggled mightily without Davis for the majority of his most recent start, but San Francisco will rely on the Frank Gore-driven ground game to exploit the Saints' 25th-ranked rush defense.
It won't matter, though, because Brees is far more trustworthy to make a late play than Kaepernick is at the moment. With the uncertainty surrounding Davis, the Niners' lack of balance on offense will likely be their downfall in what should be a close game.
Prediction: Saints 31, 49ers 27
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Denver Broncos
"Just win, baby," is a motto the late, great Al Davis carried with him in his days at the helm of the Oakland Raiders' front office. That mantra is being carried out within Oakland's AFC West division by the two teams at the top.
Although they get it done in quite different ways, Chiefs QB Alex Smith and the legendary Peyton Manning are as good as anyone has been in producing results since 2011:
Peyton Manning is 21-4 (.840) and Alex Smith is 28-5-1 (.838) since the start of 2011(the 2 highest win percentages in NFL)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 12, 2013
Smith has the luxury of leaning on the league's No. 1 scoring defense and a rushing attack spearheaded by speedster Jamaal Charles, who also leads Kansas City with 47 receptions.
B/R's Mike Freeman believes Bowe won't miss a snap, though:
Dwayne Bowe won't miss a damn snap, people. Andy Reid is gonna play the let the courts decide card.— mike freeman (@mikefreemanNFL) November 12, 2013
Bowe is coming off a season-high seven receptions for 67 yards against the Buffalo Bills and could be deployed as a more prominent option in the Chiefs' attack if he plays.
Unfortunately, Manning has a high ankle sprain, but it won't prevent him from playing:
Peyton Manning aggravated right high ankle sprain he originally suffered against Jacksonville. Expected to play.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) November 11, 2013
As long as Manning can stand and be his typical lethal self from the pocket, the Broncos should be fine.
The Chiefs have played horrendous competition—none of their previous opponents have a winning record—and this will finally be the game that blemishes their perfect 9-0 record.
5 of the 10 QBs the Chiefs have faced started the season on the bench— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 12, 2013
Even a hobbled Manning is easily the best quarterback Kansas City has faced all year. The Sheriff's slew of weapons in Demaryius and Julius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker will be too much for the Chiefs to handle on the road.
Prediction: Broncos 34, Chiefs 20
New England Patriots vs. Carolina Panthers
The bye couldn't have come at a better time for New England ahead of a matchup with this physical Panthers bunch who beat the 49ers at their own game this past weekend.
Which division leader is likelier to win on the road?
This is dangerous for New England, though, because Carolina is playing with incredible confidence and have a top 10 rushing attack, and are also No. 2 defending the run. Quarterback Cam Newton is always a threat to run, and the Panthers are so deep in the backfield with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert.
If there were any doubts about how legitimate Carolina is, they were extinguished at Candlestick Park in Week 10.
Luke Kuechly (11 tackles, 1 huge pass breakup) and that Carolina D just made a resounding national statement.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) November 11, 2013
Luke Kuechly is one of the rare linebackers who can at least slow down a playmaker like Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in coverage, and he can also blitz in exotic pressure looks to confuse Brady.
Look for the Panthers to run it down New England's throat, pressure Brady with the likes of Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy off the edge and keep pace with the Saints in remaining one game behind in the NFC South.
Prediction: Panthers 23, Patriots 17
|Away Team||Home Team||Winner|
|Indianapolis Colts||Tennessee Titans||Colts|
|New York Jets||Buffalo Bills||Bills|
|Baltimore Ravens||Chicago Bears||Bears|
|Cleveland Browns||Cincinnati Bengals||Browns|
|Washington Redskins||Philadelphia Eagles||Redskins|
|Detroit Lions||Pittsburgh Steelers||Lions|
|Atlanta Falcons||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Buccaneers|
|Arizona Cardinals||Jacksonville Jaguars||Cardinals|
|Oakland Raiders||Houston Texans||Texans|
|San Diego Chargers||Miami Dolphins||Chargers|
|San Francisco 49ers||New Orleans Saints||Saints|
|Green Bay Packers||New York Giants||Giants|
|Minnesota Vikings||Seattle Seahawks||Seahawks|
|Kansas City Chiefs||Denver Broncos||Broncos|
|New England Patriots||Carolina Panthers||Panthers|
Picks are personal opinion