We have officially reached the halfway point of the 2011 NFL season, and there are quite a few questions left to be answered.
The most important question concerns the playoffs and how they will shake out.
Right now, out of the eight divisions in the NFL, two have a three-way tie (The AFC East and AFC West), one has two teams within half of a game of each other (the NFC South) and one division has three teams within one game of each other (AFC North).
Only two divisions have two or more games separating first and second place (NFC East and NFC West).
Now let's look at Week 10, where we have a buffet of games that will go toward shaping divisional and playoff races this season.
Six of these games are between divisional rivals, with three of them coming between that division's first and second place teams.
One of the other division-rival matchups will decide who's the front runner for a Wild Card spot. Another is between a first place and third place team separated by one game and will decide who's still in the race and who will be knocked out.
On top of that, you have two games in which one of the teams has to win to stay in the hunt, an inter-conference game between two teams that will be a must-win for both to stay in the race, and another game that could possibly determine home-field advantage come playoff time.
From the looks of it, this is the best NFL weekend yet, and I say weekend because one of those games will be on Thursday (which could be tonight or last night depending on when you're reading this—and if you are reading this the night after the Thursday night game, instead of a preview you will get a quick recap).
Here's a look at the 10 games this week that will shape this season's playoff picture.
Last season, the Chargers and Raiders found themselves on the outside of the playoffs looking in.
For San Diego, this came despite finishing first in total offense and total defense, which was only good enough for a 9-7 2010 campaign.
For the Raiders, this was despite going 6-0 against the AFC West. A 2-8 record against the rest of the NFL doesn't exactly announce to the world that you're playoff-ready.
But it's 2011, and Oakland has lost their last two AFC West games to Kansas City and Denver, both losses coming at home. Oakland is 1-2 in the AFC West, with their lone win coming on opening night in Denver.
San Diego, meanwhile, would hold the tiebreaker over the rest of the AFC West if the playoffs started today, as they have a 2-1 division record. Their lone loss came in Week 8 to the Chiefs at Arrowhead.
A win on Thursday would put the Chargers at 3-1 within the division and put them in the driver's seat for their fifth AFC West title in the last six years.
The two teams will meet again in Oakland on New Year's Day, but if the Chargers get the victory over the Raiders at home on Thursday, that game could very likely become irrelevant.
The last time the Bears and Lions met, it was the Lions who picked up the 24-13 victory in Detroit, thanks in part to 163 yards rushing and a touchdown from Jahvid Best, five catches for 130 yards and a touchdown from Calvin Johnson, six Bears false-start penalties in the first half and three sacks on Jay Cutler.
Detroit will need a similar performance on Sunday in order to beat the Bears in Chicago.
Since that game, the Lions have gone 1-2, while the Bears haven't lost another game since.
Chicago, however, is 1-2 against the NFC North, while the Lions are 2-0.
A win for the Lions, and they will take the front seat in the NFC Wild Card race and put them in a great position in the race for the NFC North title, as they'll have two games left against Green Bay.
The Bears, however, would also become front-runners in the NFC Wild Card race with a win.
They have a favorable schedule going forward—a four-game stretch against the putrid AFC West starting with a home game against the Chargers, a trip to Oakland, home against Kansas City and on the road against Denver, followed by a home game against Seattle before finishing in Green Bay and in Minnesota.
With the NFC as tough as it is this season, this game is a must-win, and the loser could find themselves on the outside looking in for the playoffs.
Brace yourselves for this, but if the playoffs started today, the Cincinnati Bengals would not only be AFC North champions, but also have home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
Wrap your head around that.
Did you faint? Are you OK? Can you continue reading?
Good, because here comes the reality check.
The Bengals have gone 6-2. However, their record in the AFC North is 1-0. Their lone division game was a victory over the Browns.
But these next four weeks will tell us whether the Bengals are for real or just one of those nice stories to start the season.
Next week, the Bengals will travel to Baltimore for their first game against the Ravens, followed by a trip to Cleveland and then Pittsburgh.
Since it's this week, we'll talk about their home game against the Steelers.
Pittsburgh is coming off of a heartbreaking home loss to Baltimore that puts them at 0-2 within the AFC North. Already behind the Ravens via the head-to-head tie-breaker, this Bengals game is a must-win for Pittsburgh.
For Cincinnati, a win ensures that the Bengals are for real this year. They'll move to 7-2 and further tighten their grip on the top seed in the AFC.
Did you just faint again?
Thanks to the free-fall that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers seem to have taken (this is important because the Bucs are 1-1 against New Orleans and 1-0 against Atlanta), the Falcons and Saints both find themselves atop the NFC South.
The Saints are half a game up on Atlanta and are 2-1 within the division, with their victories coming against Carolina and Tampa Bay.
A win for New Orleans will move them to a game-and-a-half up on Atlanta as well as owning the tie-breaker.
Meanwhile for Atlanta, who got off to a slow start, a win puts them back in the driver's seat, as they'll move to being half a game up on New Orleans as well as controlling the tie-breaker.
One game remains after this one between these two teams, but so much more is at stake.
Much like in the NFC North, it's possible that one of these teams will find themselves outside of the playoffs at the end, so a win for either team will help cushion them away from that possibility.
Tebow haters take note—Denver is one game out of the AFC West race.
You hear that? The Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos could find themselves hosting a playoff game this season.
The first step to this would be for the Broncos to go into Kansas City and defeat the Chiefs.
This will be a tall order, but it's worth noting that last week a winless team did just that. Not only did they defeat the Chiefs, they dominated them.
However, for Kansas City, a win will keep them at least tied for the AFC West lead. They would move up to 3-1 in the AFC West, which would be good enough to put them on top.
With a Denver win, the Broncos will be 4-5—still a game back, but they'll be 2-2 in the AFC West, which means it will still be an uphill climb.
But the uphill climb will be better than the alternative—1-3 in the division and two games back, practically eliminated from the race.
This game is only important for one participant, because let's face it, the Cardinals won't be a playoff team for a while.
But if Philadelphia loses the game against their former starting quarterback, they won't be a playoff team this season, either.
It's a tough NFC, and right now the Giants look like they'll run away with the NFC East, so Philadelphia needs every win they can get.
While on paper Cardinals at Eagles should be an easy Eagles win, we know better with this Eagles team. We know that they can be prone to brain farts, and we know that this is looking like their season from hell.
So, Philly, the pressure is on you.
Win and still stay relevant, lose and Andy Reid should prepare his resignation letter and start cleaning out his office.
No pressure, right?
The Buffalo Bills are tied for first in the AFC East, while the Dallas Cowboys are two games out of first in the NFC East with two games remaining against the division-leading New York Giants.
With the Jets and Patriots facing off on Sunday night, it will be important for the Bills to defeat the Cowboys in Dallas in order to keep pace with whichever team wins.
If it's the Jets, the Bills are behind in the tiebreaker, while if its the Patriots, the Bills will lead the division based off of the tiebreaker.
For Dallas, a win is important, as with a victory at worst they'll keep pace with New York, while at best (a Giants loss in San Francisco) they'll gain a game on the Giants.
One of only two big inter-conference games this week, Cowboys-Bills should be a monumental game for both teams, who are attempting to stay in their respective division races.
For the Cowboys, winning the NFC East will likely be their only road into the playoffs, so if I were to choose which team this game is more important for, it would be Dallas by a hair.
This game clearly means more to the Buccaneers than it does to the Texans.
Houston stands at 6-3, including 3-0 in the AFC South.
They would be the No. 2 seed in the AFC if the playoffs started today. But more importantly, the Texans seem to be as assured of a playoff berth as the 49ers, Giants and Packers, thanks to an easy schedule down the stretch and a terrible division.
On the other side you have the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. For them, this game is a must-win.
Tampa Bay is 2-1 in the NFC South and already owns the tiebreaker over Atlanta with one game against the Falcons left in the season. That's the good news.
The bad news is that this inconsistent team stands at 4-4.
Thanks to a loss to New Orleans last week, which followed a bad loss to the Bears in London, Tampa Bay would be on the outside of the playoffs if they were to start this week.
Keeping pace with Atlanta and New Orleans (as well as Chicago and Detroit, two teams whom the Bucs have already lost to) makes this game against the Texans a must-win.
If they can't beat Houston, forget about the Bucs going to the postseason.
Two of the safest playoff teams competing for very high stakes. Sounds great.
Barring an epic collapse by the 49ers as well as the Cowboys catching up to the Giants, these two teams will be playing the second or third week of January—and it's likely that they'll be playing each other.
This game will answer the question as to where the game will be played.
Right now, the 49ers (7-1) have full control of the NFC's second seed, and with a victory will not only move up to 8-1, but also move their magic number for clinching the NFC West to two.
The Giants still have someone on their tail in their division, but a win puts them further ahead of Dallas and Philadelphia.
But again, this game is important because these two teams will likely meet in the postseason. Simply put, the winner will likely host that January rematch and who will have the first-round bye.
For the 49ers, they would love the opportunity to face the Giants after they have to travel across the country on a short week. The Giants would love the same thing.
For New York, it's simple—they have to beat San Francisco now so that they won't have to go back again.
For the 49ers, it's just as simple—beat the Giants now so that they won't make another visit to the East Coast (even though the 49ers have gone undefeated in their previous four trips out east and have one more trip to make against the Ravens on Thanksgiving, I'm pretty sure they're tired of all of the traveling).
The last time the Patriots won in the Meadowlands came in 2008.
The last time the Patriots lost three in a row was in 2002.
Here we have two trends that New England must end on Sunday in order to keep pace in the AFC East.
The Jets are 2-1 in the division, but the last time these two teams met, the Patriots defeated the Jets 30-21. Since that first meeting on October 9th, the Jets have won three straight, while the Patriots have lost two out of their last three.
Now both teams are tied (along with Buffalo) for first in the AFC East.
The winner of this game takes full control. With a New England victory, the Pats will have a division record of 3-1 and own the tiebreaker with the Jets.
However, a Jets victory would tie the season series with New England with a victory over Buffalo already in the bank (something that the Patriots don't have), and with another meeting with the Bills coming up at home in just two weeks.
New York is undefeated at home this season, while the Patriots are already 2-2 on the road. A road loss will only make matters worse with the Patriots.
Pats-Jets is the game of the week, and a fitting end to a weekend that will see great football between teams in must-win situations.