As we expected, the NFL has produced surprise teams, disappointing performances, and intriguing matchups so far this season.
Through Week 8, we've seen about everything the National Football League has to offer. As we gear towards the second half of the season, many teams are in limbo.
With nine weeks left in the season, here are each team's most difficult game left in the season.
Before the season started, who would have thought that the Bills-Pats game in New England on Jan. 1 would have major implications?
The Bills have put themselves in prime position to return to the playoffs and have been one of the feel-good stories so far this year. At 5-2, the Bills lead the AFC East due to their hard fought victory over the Patriots on Sept. 25.
Luckily for the Bills, the Patriots are far and away the best team they have left to play this season. Things could look a lot differently come Week 17, but if things remain how they are now, the Bills are in for a dog fight against the Pats.
The Patriots are really good at Gillette Stadium, especially later in the regular season. The winner of this game will most likely take the AFC East crown.
Stop me if you've read this before.
As usual, the season is halfway through, and the Patriots are in a good position to make the playoffs as they are every season. Like the Bills, they have some games left against weaker opponents in Miami and Denver.
If Peyton Manning were still around, the Colts might be New England's biggest test in Week 13 as the two teams always play hard-fought classics. Instead, they may be the easiest.
The game against the Bills at the end of the year will most likely determine a number of things for the Patriots. Tom Brady will be looking to improve from his four interceptions he threw against Buffalo in Week 3.
Even after all the mistakes, the Bills squeaked by, 34-31. Expect this to be a grueling game for both teams.
As the Jets know by now, to get to the playoffs in the AFC East, you're going to have to get through New England.
After defeating the Patriots in Foxboro in last year's divisional round, the Jets looked like they were ready to take control of the division. Inconsistency has plagued Rex Ryan's club so far this year, but they're still in good position at 4-3.
One of those losses came at the hands of hated New England, who took the Jets down 30-21 on Oct. 9. If the Jets want any chance of winning the East or even making the playoffs, they must get through teams like the Bills and Patriots. New York will play both teams in three of the next four weeks.
If the Jets can continue their magic in the Meadowlands (4-0 at home, 0-3 on road) against the Patriots, they would be on the right track for a third straight playoff appearance.
I know, I know, you're sick of hearing about the Patriots.
This was an extremely hard choice to make for two reasons: The Dolphins are terrible and their schedule the rest of the way is brutal.
They are 0-7 and still have to play a hot Kansas City on the road this week, the Cowboys on the road, the Raiders, Jets, Eagles and the Bills, twice. I looked at it the only way possible. Which game do they have absolutely no shot at winning?
After watching them lose 38-24 to the Patriots in Week 1, the answer became a little more clear. The Dec. 24 game in New England will be a cold, dreadful day for the Dolphins, even if the Patriots are in a position to sit most of their starters.
Look at the bright side, Dolphins fans. Every loss gets you one week closer to drafting Andrew Luck.
One of the most confusing teams this season has been the Chiefs. After looking dreadful starting out 0-3, they've won four in a row.
As it stands right now, they are tied for first in the AFC West with the Raiders and Chargers. Luckily for Kansas City, the Broncos and Dolphins are on schedule the next two weeks. The two games after that will prove to be the biggest tests.
They will play New England in Week 11 on "Monday Night Football" and then the Steelers the following Sunday night. If this past week's game against the Patriots has shown us anything, it's that Pittsburgh is the class of the AFC.
In order to win the AFC West for the second year in a row, the Chiefs must get past these tough opponents. Pittsburgh's defense is stout. The last time Kansas City played a comparable defense was in a Week 2 loss to the Lions, in which they were destroyed 48-3. If KC can manage to defeat Pittsburgh, they'd be in the driver's seat for the division title.
The Chargers, like rivals Kansas City and Oakland, have had us scratching our head all year long. Are they good or not?
We might have a good idea after this Sunday's game against Green Bay. The Packers have been absolutely unstoppable, storming to a 7-0 record with everything on point.
Even if the Chargers defeat the Packers, their workload for the rest of the season is unbelievably difficult. They still have the Bears, Bills, Ravens, Lions and Raiders (twice) on the schedule.
A victory over Green Bay would be a good start, but it's hard to count on anything with Philip Rivers' play so far this season.
Let's face it. Every team who goes against Green Bay this year is going to have a difficult time.
The story's no different for the Raiders, who are still trying to find their groove. By the time the game arrives, Carson Palmer should know the system quite well and should be on his way to his former self. Unfortunately for Oakland, it might take a career day for Palmer to get past the Packers.
He can't make the same mistakes like he did against the Chiefs when there's a guy like Charles Woodson in the secondary. The Raiders have proved us wrong before this season, though. A victory over Green Bay on the road would solidify them as a legitimate playoff contender.
The final two games of the season against San Diego and Kansas City will likely determine where Oakland ends up.
Looking at the Broncos schedule the rest of the way, it would be surprising for them to win more than one game. At 2-6, they've looked bad, and it could only get worse.
KC, Chicago, New England, Oakland, San Diego and Buffalo are awaiting the Broncos the rest of the year, but the toughest opponent for them will be New York.
Defensively, the Jets match up very well against a depleted Bronco offense. Darrelle Revis makes everyone look like a fool, especially inferior quarterbacks. Tim Tebow will be in for a long afternoon, should he still be starting at that point.
The battle of the best defenses in the AFC will prove to be the biggest test for the Pittsburgh Steelers as they prepare for another run to the Super Bowl.
After seeing what transpired in Week 1, it's easy to see why. The Ravens torched the elite Steelers defense en route to a 35-7 victory. Pittsburgh, however, has tightened up on defense and has gone 6-1 since.
With the Bengals on both Baltimore and Pittsburgh's heels, this game certainly won't decide the AFC North, but it will definitely have a big implication in who gets to the playoffs. Both teams play for blood against each other, and this game will be no different.
There's a reason this game is on here twice.
Over the past few years, these meetings have often determined who has won the AFC North, and in 2008 these teams met in the AFC Championship. Though Pittsburgh has prevailed more often before, Baltimore got the best of them so far this season.
The Ravens shouldn't expect to romp again like they did in Week 1, especially since this game is at Heinz Field. With all due respect to LSU and Alabama, this is the best football game this weekend.
Read these quotes from Terrell Suggs and you'll know why.
The surprising Cincinnati Bengals have been the talk of the league thus far in the 2011 season.
After losing Chad Ochocinco (he was good with them) and Carson Palmer, it looked like the Bengals were destined for a two- or three-win season. They've won five so far.
The Nov. 13 matchup with Pittsburgh will really prove if they're contenders or not. Though they play them on the road later in the season and Baltimore in Week 17, the first game against the Steelers will play a huge role in whether the Bengals continue their unexpected run.
Should they come out victorious, the AFC North race the end of the year will be one of the most exciting battles in recent memory between three solid football teams.
Poor Cleveland. They seem to be the only in the AFC North not fighting for a spot in the playoffs.
At 3-4, they're really not that bad, they're just not that good either. Of the five remaining division games for the Browns, the Nov. 27 matchup at Cincinnati might be the most difficult.
In Week 1, the Browns looked bad in a game many were expecting them to win, losing 27-17. Cincinnati and Cleveland always bring a little something extra for their in-state rivals. Unfortunately for the Browns, they might be on the wrong side of the battle again, especially if Peyton Hillis fails to return to the player he was last year.
If you would've asked me to pick a game for the Texans a few weeks ago that would be the most difficult, I would have said the season finale against the Titans.
Houston won the first game 41-7 against Tennessee, leaving little doubt that they are the favorites in the AFC South. Luckily, the best team Houston has left to play is Atlanta, Matt Schaub's old squad.
Though Atlanta's offense hasn't been as good as last year's, they are still capable of putting points on the board whenever they want. The Texans will need to get pressure on Matt Ryan, which will be difficult with Mario Williams out for the season.
Even if Houston does lose this game, they still have Cleveland, Indianapolis, Carolina and Jacksonville left to play. They will get their victories, and likely a first playoff appearance.
Coming into the season, many people didn't know what to expect of the Tennessee Titans. Seven games in, we're still wondering.
At 4-3, the Titans looked good beating the Ravens and thrashing the Browns. They also have looked awful losing to the lowly Jaguars and getting destroyed by the Steelers and Texans. After all their confusing showings, the Titans still find themselves a half game back of Houston for first in the AFC South.
If the Titans want to prove that they are legitimate playoff threats, they are going to have to beat the good teams left on their schedule, including the New Orleans Saints.
It won't be an easy task for the Tennessee secondary, which has been picked apart by the likes of Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Schaub. Those quarterbacks are pretty good. Drew Brees is great. The Titans will need to stop him to have any chance of winning. The same goes for any opponent's QB if they look to make it back to the playoffs.
The Jaguars, as expected, haven't been anything special in 2011.
Blaine Gabbert hasn't shown that he's adjusting well to the game through eight weeks. The lone bright spot in a 2-6 season was when the Jaguar defense stifled the Ravens offense to just seven points on the Oct. 24 "Monday Night Football" game.
While their defense has been decent at points, the offense is bad. The most they've scored thus far is 20 points, in a game they lost, of course.
Jacksonville lost its first game against Houston 24-14 this past Sunday. When they meet again, expect Matt Schaub and Arian Foster to light it up. Good news though, Jags fans, you still have two games against the lowlier Colts.
I could really pick any game they have left to play. They're that bad.
Usually, this is the most anticipated game of the year. These two teams have been the best in the AFC for the past decade and always play some of the best games of the season.
This year will be a different story. If the Colts defense allowed 62 points against the Saints, they might break the century mark with the Patriots.
Though highly doubtful, a Peyton Manning return would level the playing field a bit. The Colts still wouldn't win, however. Don't press your Luck, Indianapolis.
At 5-2, the New York Giants are atop the NFC East, a place many didn't expect them to be at the start of the season.
They've played fundamentally sound football throughout and have taken care of business in the first part of their season. Now comes the hard part. I'm talking insanely difficult hard.
Look at their remaining schedule. At New England, at San Francisco, Eagles, at Saints, Packers, at Cowboys, Redskins, (at) Jets and Cowboys. Wow. The Giants would be hard pressed to find four victories left in their schedule.
San Francisco looks like the toughest game remaining for the Giants, because no one has yet to figure out the 49ers who have taken care of good teams with ease so far this season.
New York is going to need to take care of great teams to make it to the playoffs. Having a record as good as theirs is key going into this stretch of difficult opponents, as they are two games above everyone else in the NFC East as it stands right now.
The most talked about team before the season has failed to impress so far through seven games, but they're getting on the right track.
The Eagles have won two in a row after losing four straight and stand at 3-4 right now. One of those four losses came against rival New York in a 29-16 drubbing at home in Week 3.
If the Eagles want to win the division again this year, they're going to have to beat divisional opponents. Philadelphia looked good against Dallas this past Sunday, but the Giants are a little more proven than the Cowboys.
Though most would look at the Nov. 27 game against the Patriots as the toughest test, the biggest goal for the Eagles right now is winning the division, which starts with winning divisional games. If the Eagles can get past the Giants on Nov. 20, they'll have a good shot at overtaking them in the standings.
The Cowboys look a lot like their rivals in the Philadelphia Eagles. They are 3-4 as well and haven't impressed, though they've looked good at times.
Just one major difference. When they played each other, Dallas lost 34-7. Either way, the Cowboys are still in the playoff hunt and ultimately the battle for the NFC East.
The big game will be at the end of the year, should the Cowboys still be playing for something. The Giants have won five out of seven against Dallas and would love to keep them from playing further in January. The two also meet in Dallas on Dec. 11.
For the Cowboys to win against New York or any other team, they must have the good Tony Romo. If he can reach his full potential this season, the Cowboys would have a decent shot at making the postseason.
After starting 3-1, the Redskins, including former starting quarterback Rex Grossman, came down to earth. They have since lost three straight.
While they're 3-4 and in a tie for second place with Dallas and Philadelphia, the future doesn't look bright with John Beck at quarterback.
The Redskins play some quality opponents down the stretch, but none look more daunting than the New England Patriots. The Washington defense gave up 33 points to Cam Newton's Panthers, a decent passing team. Tom Brady's Patriots are elite.
Whether the Patriots put up points or the Redskins fail to, the game will be difficult for Washington. They're going to need to defeat the weaker teams in the Seahawks, Dolphins and Vikings to have any shot of making the playoffs.
I know you hear it every time someone brings them up, but who thought the 49ers would be 6-1 to start the season? I know I didn't.
One of the biggest reasons behind the resurgence of the famed franchise is the play of the much maligned quarterback, Alex Smith. He is finally showing why San Francisco picked him No. 1 in the 2005 draft with a QB rating this season of 95.7.
Something the 49ers have yet to play this season is a complete defense. Detroit is good, but they're strong primarily with the defensive line. The Ravens defense, however, is good from top to bottom.
In what will be the first-ever head coaching matchup between brothers, expect the older Harbaugh's Ravens to give Smith the toughest time he's had so far this season.
Should the 49ers beat teams like the Ravens and Steelers before the season ends, they'll be in a good position heading to the playoffs, where they seem destined to go once this regular season is done.
After letting Matt Hasselbeck leave for Tennessee this past offseason, the Seahawks decided to hand the keys over to Tarvaris Jackson, and their 2-5 record has reflected so.
With the 49ers all but having won the NFC West, the Seahawks have nothing but pride left to play for. They have opportunities to make themselves look good against divisional opponents in Arizona and St. Louis, but other than that, they will struggle to win more than a few ball games down the stretch.
The toughest game for them could be against Chicago. The Bears traditionally play the Seahawks well, though Seattle came out victorious in last year's game during the regular season. After the Seahawks won the NFC West with a 7-9 record and subsequently defeated the defending champion Saints in the playoffs, they were defeated 35-24 by the Bears in the divisional round.
Jackson always plays horribly against the Bears, going back to his days with the Minnesota Vikings. Should he get the start against Chicago over Charlie Whitehurst, expect Urlacher and Briggs to rekindle some old memories.
After a surprising season last year in which the Rams nearly made the playoffs, they have come back to the basement of the NFL.
Sam Bradford failed to build on a Rookie of the Year campaign and St. Louis lost its first six games of the season. After shocking New Orleans at home last week, their record stands at 1-6.
St. Louis clearly is going nowhere this year. The most they can do at this point is help Bradford progress into a great NFL quarterback that he is expected to be.
The offense is anemic and the defense is porous. Sam Bradford may not be able to do much when the Rams go to Pittsburgh on Dec. 24. At least St. Louis fans can still relish in their Cardinals' World Series title all winter long.
When the Cardinals traded for QB Kevin Kolb before the start of the season, many predicted the Kolb to Fitzgerald combo would result in an NFC West title for Arizona. They are far from playoff material.
After narrowly beating out the Panthers in Cam Newton's debut in Week 1, the Cardinals have lost six straight. Four of those losses have come by defeats of four points or less, but they show that the Cardinals failed when they needed to produce most.
Things won't get much better for Arizona. Especially considering the fact that they've yet to play the class of the NFC West, the San Francisco 49ers. Both games may be difficult for the Cardinals to win, especially in the 49ers very unique Candlestick Park.
The best idea for the Cardinals would be to stock up in next year's draft.
It sounds crazy saying this, but the Packers 7-0 record doesn't do them any justice. They're better than their record indicates, if that makes any sense.
The defending champions have stormed out of the gates and have left everyone in their dust. No one has even given them a challenge thus far.
The first team to do so, I think, will be the Detroit Lions. Green Bay has yet to play the resurgent Lions, who are 5-2 and in second in the NFC North.
Ford Field's atmosphere is sure to be raucous when Green Bay comes in town, but I don't know if anything can stop the Packers right now. Green Bay can only lose nowadays if they do it themselves.
If the Packers play this way the entire year they will be the second 16-0 team in history. Only this time, the undefeated team will win the big one.
The Detroit Lions are playing like the team many expected to re-surge in 2011.
Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson look like the most lethal combination in the NFL, and the defensive line is frightening. After starting off 5-0, they lost two in a row to the 49ers and Falcons before dismantling the Broncos. They're one of the best teams in the NFL, no doubt.
While I think their most difficult matchup will be against the Packers, I think it'll be a different game that will bring them more trouble. The season finale in Green Bay will be tough for the Lions more so than the game at home. If temperatures are higher than 40 for that game, I'd be shocked. Detroit's dome catered offense might not respond well in frigid Northeastern Wisconsin weather.
I think the game will be even more difficult for the Lions should something be on the line. If both are playing for a division title, expect the Packers to give everything they have and ultimately win. If the Packers have already wrapped up the division, the Lions will easily defeat the Green Bay backups.
It will be an interesting development, and I expect Detroit to keep their winning ways.
The Chicago Bears have followed up an NFC North title in 2010 with a 4-3 start to the 2011 campaign.
In typical Bears fashion, they have looked good and bad at times, leaving us to wonder who Chicago really is. If the playoffs were to end today, the Bears would advance, holding tiebreakers over the Falcons and Bucs.
A huge game down the stretch for Chicago will be in Green Bay on Christmas Day. The two met up earlier this season and in last year's NFC Championship Game, with Green Bay coming up victorious in both contests.
The Packers have rolled all year long, but the Bears are the only team that have made them look human dating back to when Green Bay beat Chicago during the last game of the regular season in 2010.
If the Bears are going to return to the playoffs, they're going to need to beat either the Lions or Packers—if not both—this season. Time will tell if they are up to the test.
Following up a disappointing 2010 season, the Vikings haven't been much better in 2011.
Donovan McNabb wasn't the solution at quarterback, and Minnesota has since turned to rookie Christian Ponder. Both have led the Vikings to an underwhelming 2-6 season thus far.
In determining whether the Lions or Packers game will give the Vikings more fits, I looked at Minnesota's previous performance against both teams. They played up to their opponents both times, but looked terrible in squandering a 20-point lead at home to the Lions.
I don't expect the Vikings to play much better than that when the two meet up later in the season. At least Ponder is getting in some good reps for the future. That's about all Minnesota has at this point.
Drew Brees and the Saints offense have been doing their business as usual, and New Orleans is 5-3 and leading the NFC South.
Their losses have been against the Packers on Opening Night in a game that nearly went to overtime, a hard fought loss to the Buccaneers and a hiccup against the winless Rams. Other than that, New Orleans looks solid.
That appearance may change come Nov. 13, when they head to the Georgia Dome to take on the Falcons, who are on their heels in second place. The Saints have yet to play Atlanta so far this season.
Last year, the teams won in each others building by three points a piece. Both made the playoffs, but the Falcons won the South over the defending champion Saints. This year, it looks like the difference between the teams may come when they go head to head.
Both games will be immensely important in shaping the division championship, but the first game in Atlanta will set the tone for how each team fairs the rest of the way.
The Falcons have been as inconsistent as any team in the NFL this year, and currently stand at 4-3.
They looked terrible against the Bears on opening day but then reminded us of last year's team in a win over Detroit at Ford Field.
However you want to look at it, the Falcons are very much alive in the NFC South. They're just a half game behind the Saints and still have two games left to play with them, as I alluded to in the previous slide.
While the game at home will be tough for Atlanta, it'll be even more difficult for them to go into New Orleans and win. The Saints have been flawless at home, where their offense rolls on every cylinder. Luckily for Atlanta, the two New Orleans games are by far the most difficult left on the season.
Should the Falcons win every game they are supposed to and steal one from New Orleans, they could be crashing the playoff party for the third time in four years.
The Buccaneers have kept us guessing from the beginning of the season.
Coming off a 10-win year in 2010, people expected good things from Tampa, but just what those good things were was left to be determined. Seven weeks later at a 4-3 record, the Buccaneers are still trying to figure out whether they want to be a great team.
They have looked good in the division, winning against both Atlanta and New Orleans thus far. They hold a tiebreaker over Atlanta so far for second, but that will almost certainly change by the time they meet again at the end of the year.
If the Buccaneers are going to prove they belong with the elite, they're going to have to beat the elite. No one is more at the top of their game than Green Bay right now. A Tampa victory in Wisconsin would prove their ready for the playoffs and will boost their confidence for the stretch run. That, however, is a tall order.
The Buccaneers are in a decent spot to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007; they just have to take care of business from here on out.
Cam Newton's tremendous rookie season has the Panthers hopeful that they will be among the NFL's great once again. That status won't be reached this season, though.
Carolina is 2-6, but only one of their losses has been by over seven points. Over time, Cam Newton will find a way to win those games as the team builds around him. What the Panthers need to do this year is continue to help Newton translate the college game to the NFL.
A big barometer of how successful Newton will be by the end of the year will come when the Panthers travel to Detroit to face the Lions on Nov. 20. Newton has played some solid defenses, but he hasn't played a line with the likes of Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch.
If he's able to find success in getting out of the hands of two of the fastest defensive linemen in football, Carolina should be very encouraged. Things look great for the future Panthers. They'll look even better if Newton is able to conquer a defense like Detroit's.