With eight regular season weeks before and eight regular season weeks remaining, Week 9 in the NFL is effectively the hump of the season. Nearly every team in the AFC is still in Wild Card contention except for the Jaguars, while the NFC boasts tight races in every division.
Gearing up for the second half of the season, every game is critical. Here is a quick look at what to watch for in Sunday's games for Week 9.
Kansas City is looking to keep its perfect record intact this week in Buffalo, but the Chiefs have found themselves tested over the last two weeks more than one might have expected against the Texans and Browns. The Chiefs won five of their first six games by nine points or more, but they've won their last two games, both at home, by a combined seven points. Can they get it back on track in Buffalo?
The Bills hope not, but they're missing their quarterback, even if E.J. Manuel is still just a rookie. He will remain out this week with a knee injury. Buffalo has scrambled to add players to avoid playing undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel as much as possible, but Matt Flynn doesn't inspire much confidence as a backup to Thad Lewis, another player that found himself in harm's way behind the Bills offensive line. At 3-5, the Bills will need to pull off this upset to remain in the hunt for the second Wild Card berth.
Looking to be in the driver's seat for that last remaining AFC playoff berth (assuming that the Chiefs and Broncos stay well ahead of the field) is first-year head coach Mike McCoy and the Chargers. Coming off of a bye week, San Diego has won two straight games and the team will hope to improve to 5-3 if it can pull off a win in Washington.
The Redskins had to win their last seven games of the regular season in 2012 in order to win the NFC East, and if they drop this game to the Chargers, they might need to do even better than that to repeat as division champions. Washington has yet to recover from an 0-3 start and quarterback Robert Griffin III is clearly not back to being where he was before his ACL injury in the playoffs. Still, this is the NFC East and the Cowboys lead it at 4-4 -- it's far from over for every team in the division, including the Redskins and Giants.
Vikings vs. Cowboys (1 P.M. ET, FOX)
The Vikings are another 2012 playoff team that doesn't look at all like the success they were a year ago. Instead, Minnesota could be picking in the top three again, just as it did two years ago when it traded down and selected tackle Matt Kalil. Despite solid players like Kalil, Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen and Chad Greenway, the Vikings sit at 1-6 and are looking ahead to next season.
Dallas comes into this game wondering why it's .500 instead of 5-3 or better. The Cowboys fell apart at the end of their Week 8 game against the Lions, losing 31-30. Three weeks earlier, it was a late interception by Tony Romo against the Broncos that sealed their fate. In Week 2, Dallas was unable to stop Jamaal Charles and the Chiefs at the end of the game and ultimately ended up losing 17-16. The Cowboys are on the cusp of looking really good, but they haven't been able to finish games. Can they do so this week against the Vikings?
The Titans were one of the surprises of the first month of the year, starting 3-1 behind the improvement of quarterback Jake Locker. Unfortunately, Locker was hurt at the wrong time and Tennessee had to start backup Ryan Fitzpatrick against two of the best defenses in the NFL, the Chiefs and Seahawks. The Titans lost both of those games and then a third straight against the 49ers when Locker returned in Week 7. At 3-4, it's not too late to turn it around, and they've got some winnable games coming up.
The Rams had a surprisingly winnable game on Monday night against Seattle, but with five opportunities to score on a goal-to-go situation in the final minute, St. Louis fell short on every attempt. Quarterback Kellen Clemens has started just 13 games in his career, but he's possibly still got eight more to go this year for the Rams. That is, if he can hold onto it. A win against Tennessee would go a long way towards being able to do that.
Falcons vs. Panthers (1 P.M. ET, FOX)
The Atlanta Falcons retained tight end Tony Gonzalez for this season with the belief that their window for winning was still wide open. It has not gone that way at all. The Falcons are 2-5, have lost star receiver Julio Jones for the year and are dead last in the league in rushing. Rather than being able to get by on a passing attack that seemed to be as talented as any in the league, it looks instead like Atlanta has more holes to fill on the 53-man roster than most teams.
Meanwhile, the Panthers might quietly be one of the most complete teams in the NFL. Carolina has won three in a row after a 1-3 start and is second in the league in scoring defense. When Cam Newton is on his game, the Panthers could be unstoppable. They're still looking for their first signature win of the year and getting a victory over a division rival like Atlanta would be a step in the right direction.
One team in the NFC South that has had very few problems this season is the one team that was riddled with issues a year ago. However, the Saints got back head coach Sean Payton from a one-year suspension, added defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and are off to a 6-1 start. That's a major turnaround for a team that was 2-5 at this point last year and finished last in the league in yards allowed. New Orleans is currently 12th in total defense and fourth in points allowed.
That could be bad for Geno Smith and the Jets, 27th in scoring and coming off of their worst performance of the season. Rob Ryan's brother Rex has led New York to alternating wins and losses and a 4-4 record midway through the season, but the Jets could really use a win to stay near the front of the line in the AFC Wild Card race. Smith was replaced during a 49-9 blowout to the Bengals last week by Matt Simms and the leash might be shorter this week against the Saints.
Buccaneers vs. Seahawks (4:05 P.M. ET, FOX)
The Bucs are perhaps the most disappointing team this season, overshadowing even the Falcons' follies in the South. After adding Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson, Tampa Bay was expected to compete for a playoff berth, if not the division championship, but instead it has kicked out its starting quarterback and the head coach might not be far behind. Could the Bucs possibly pull off the upset in Seattle?
The Rams weren't far away from beating the NFC-leading Seahawks last week, so anything is possible. It might just be very improbable, however, as Seattle hasn't lost at home since Christmas Eve of 2011 against the 49ers. Quarterback Russell Wilson is 11-0 at home in his career and the Seahawks would love to win this game and stay out in front of the Saints and 49ers in the hunt for the important No. 1 seed.
Eagles vs. Raiders (4:05 P.M. ET, FOX)
The Philadelphia Eagles could be in a much different position than they are right now, but Chip Kelly's high-powered offense to open the year has apparently run out of juice. The Eagles were among the league-leaders in scoring but they have put up just 10 points combined in the last two games, losses to the Cowboys and Giants. Had they won those games, the Eagles would be 5-3 and safely in control in the East. Instead, they're fighting for position like everyone else. Getting back Nick Foles or Michael Vick to replace Matt Barkley will be very important.
The Raiders have faced a very difficult schedule and still stand at 3-4. Dennis Allen's team has lost games to the Colts, Broncos, Redskins and Chiefs, but Oakland has many winnable games ahead, including this week at home against Philadelphia. Could the AFC West produce both Wild Card berths this season?
Pittsburgh is in the unfamiliar position of not leading any playoff races midway through the year. The Steelers' 2-5 start is not something that they're used to, especially since the addition of Ben Roethlisberger nearly 10 years ago, but if they're going to make the playoffs this season they're going to need to start winning now. Beating the Patriots in New England could be too tall of an order.
Then again, the Patriots' 2013 season has been somewhat unfamiliar. Quarterback Tom Brady is having perhaps the worst statistical season of his career as he adjusts to a host of new names and faces on offense. With Rob Gronkowski only returning two weeks ago and Danny Amendola missing half of the season so far, Brady has had to make do with unknown and undrafted players. And yet, the Pats are 6-2 thanks to one of the top defenses in the league. They resemble the 2001 Super Bowl team a lot more than the 2007 team that went 16-0. Maybe that's a good thing.
Ravens vs. Browns (4:25 P.M. ET, CBS)
The Baltimore Ravens don't really look like a team that won the Super Bowl last year, and in many ways they aren't. The 3-4 Ravens parted ways with big names like Anquan Boldin, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, and it seems like that could at least partly be having an effect on them. Ray Rice is averaging only 2.8 yards per carry and while Joe Flacco parlayed his impressive playoff run into a record-breaking contract, he has just eight touchdowns against eight interceptions on the season.
While the Ravens appear to be a team on the way down from their time on the top of the mountain, the Browns look like a team on the way up, even if they have lost three straight. Cleveland was 3-0 under Brian Hoyer but is 0-5 in all the games with anyone else at quarterback. Jason Campbell makes his second start of the season and while he looked good against the Chiefs in Week 8, he might need to be great if the Browns stand any chance of ending their playoff drought.
Colts vs. Texans (8:30 P.M. ET, NBC)
The Colts have made great strides in 2013 under second-year head coach Chuck Pagano and second-year quarterback Andrew Luck, and with the Texans collapsing it only seems inevitable that they will take back their AFC South division crown. No team boasts better signature wins this year than Indianapolis's trio of victories over the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos. However, the Colts also lost games to the Dolphins and Chargers. Winning a division rivalry game in Houston may not be as easy as it looks.
The Houston Texans certainly hope not, but nothing that they've hoped for lately has seemed to work out. The Texans have dropped five straight games and benched Matt Schaub for undrafted free agent Case Keenum. He will be making his second career start after an admirable effort two weeks ago against the Chiefs going into a bye, but can he pull off the big upset over Indianapolis on national television? If he can't, the Texans' season is likely over. If he and Houston manage to do it, there might be hope left yet.