The NFL season has reached the midway point, and several teams seasons are effectively over. Teams thought of as contenders entering the season have woefully underachieved, creating parity across the league.
Heading into Week 9, unlikely contenders like Tampa Bay, Kansas City, and St. Louis are in position to make runs at playoff spots.
Let's take a look at what surprises are in store this week.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This young Buccaneers team is coming off consecutive wins for the second time this season. They have a huge game in Atlanta against a division foe. Thus far, the Bucs have sputtered against impressive competition, losing soundly to both the Saints and the Steelers.
But this is a rapidly maturing team. Raheem Morris's guys have bought into the system and the emergence of rookies LaGarrette Blount and Mike Williams gives quarterback Josh Freeman options on offense.
Coming out of a bye week, the Falcons should be well rested and ready to play at home. Matt Ryan is having the best season of his career thanks to the dominance of receiver Roddy White. Michael Turner is also producing at a higher level this season.
This Falcons team currently sits atop the NFC South and can further cement its position with a win Sunday.
Why the Bucs pull off the upset:
In theory, the Falcons should come out on fire after a week off. But, this season I've watched quite a few teams come off the bye week looking lethargic. Though they have time to get healthy, the Falcons week off will hurt them, as they will play flat early in this game.
If that happens, look for Josh Freeman and Mike Williams to hook up on a couple of deep balls. Freeman is good at getting out of the pocket and throwing from multiple platforms and Mike Williams is quickly becoming his favorite target. The Falcons will give up the big pass play (see the game against the Bengals) and the Bucs will look to exploit that.
On defense, things will be tricky, but the Bucs will do just enough to get a victory. They will add to their league leading interception total and disrupt Ryan just enough to allow the offense to prevail.
The Bears are reeling after having lost their last two, and three out of the last four. Jay Cutler has once again become an interception machine behind a sieve-like offensive line. He has been sacked a league leading 27 times.
The Bears will look to get the running game going to keep the heat off of Cutler. On the defensive side of the ball, look for Tommie Harris to be more aggressive. He only has four tackles this season, while Julius Peppers has managed just two sacks.
The Bills have been surprisingly competitive in the last several weeks. Though they still haven't won a game, there are certainly positive takeaways. Ryan Fitzpatrick has emerged as steady leader of this offense and has two solid targets in Steve Johnson and Lee Evans. Though his numbers weren't great last week, he has thrown for over 220 yards in each of his last three games, and recorded eight scores against only three interceptions.
He hasn't done this against terrible defenses either. He torched the Ravens and had a decent performance against the Chiefs. Look for him to continue that hot streak this week.
Why the Bills pull off the upset:
The Bills are due for a victory. They've put up solid performances against some of the leagues elite teams, challenging the Ravens and the Patriots. Their last two losses are in overtime. This week, at home, look for them to finally get over the hump.
Ryan Fitzpatrick should be able to take advantage of a secondary that ranks 15th against the pass.
Defensively, the Bills should be able to contain a weak Bears rushing attack. This season they've ranked sixth against the pass. Look for them to contain the Bears offense and walk away with a decisive first win of the season.
San Diego Chargers
Despite having the best passing offense in the league, and statistically, the best defense in terms of yards given up, the Chargers are a dismal 3-5.
Last week San Diego finally overcame their own miscues to notch a win over the Tennessee Titans. Look for the Chargers to continue those winning ways with the possible return of Malcolm Floyd. If the defense continues to play at a high level and the special teams doesn't give up blocked kicks, the Chargers could be poised to make a late run.
The Texans lost to the Colts in Indy, again. The Texans must be demoralized after being soundly beaten by their divisional foe. The woes in pass defense continued, despite facing a Colts team depleted by injury.
This week will be no different. The Chargers lean heavily on the passing game but are severely depleted at wide receiver.
On offense, Andre Johnson is still nursing a high ankle sprain and may miss some action this week because of the nagging injury.
Why the Chargers pull off the upset:
The Chargers are quite a bit better than their record would indicate. Statistically they've been one of the best teams in the league thus far, but have made mistakes that have cost them ball games.
This week, Philip Rivers, who has put up unbelievable numbers this season, will get to tee off against the league's worst pass defense. Expect the Chargers to put up points in bunches.
Defensively, the Chargers will shut down Arian Foster and roll coverage to Andre Johnson. This nagging ankle injury will keep Johnson from being effective and the Chargers will walk away with a big win on the road.
New York Giants
After starting 1-2, the Giants have reeled off four straight wins and look like the class of the NFC. Coming off a bye week, the Giants look to continue their winning streak.
Defensively, the Giants have terrorized quarterbacks and their safety play has been much improved. On offense, Manning has been efficient if not mistake free. The offensive line, so important in the Giants run to the Super Bowl, has been playing well and winning the battle on the line of scrimmage.
The Seahawks are coming off an embarrassing defeat to the Raiders and will be looking to redeem themselves.
Despite that loss, they are a surprising 4-3, and have a legitimate shot at a playoff berth. Playing the Giants, however, will be a stiff test.
Why the Seahawks pull off the upset:
Despite playing a hot Giants team, the Seahawks will not be intimidated at home. The Seahawks are 3-0 at home this season, and their stadium is notoriously difficult for opposing teams.
Additionally, the loss of Mathias Kiwanuka, will hurt the Giants pass rush. Generally, the Giants have covered for their flaws in the secondary with an intimidating pass rush. With this slightly depleted, look for the Seahawks to get the ball to Mike Williams, who is enjoying a career resurgence under Pete Carroll.
This game will be close, but the home field advantage will tip this game to the Seahawks
Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City is a surprise team this year. They are 5-2 after an overtime victory over the Bills. Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones lead the leagues best rushing attack, and both average close to 5 YPC.
Matt Cassel, however, hasn't been as effective as Chiefs fans hoped for originally. Thankfully the rushing attack and defense has insulated Cassel from losses and criticism.
Oakland is suddenly a hot team after getting off to a 1-3 start. They have won three of their last four and have blown out their last two opponents.
Darren McFadden has been electrifying since his return from injury and Jason Campbell has finally strung together a couple of solid games.
Defensively, Oakland has stymied their last three opponents, giving up no more than 17 points.
Why the Raiders pull off the upset:
The Raiders have won their last two games by a combined 75 points and are the hottest team in football. Their home crowd will be rejuvenated and will once again be an intimidating place to play.
Darren McFadden and Michael Bush will have a big day on the ground and Jason Campbell will be efficient enough to win the game.
This division rivalry game will actually mean something for the first time in recent memory, and the Raiders should get the win.