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Season's second half features great games as playoff races heighten

With Week 9 finished and 130 of the NFL's 256-game regular season now in the books, we're almost exactly halfway through the story in 2011. The second half of the season shapes up as an intriguing and wide-open affair, with 20 of the league's 32 teams still playing .500-or-better ball, and 18 clubs either in first place or within two games of the lead in their division.

With so much having changed from our preseason preconceptions of what would constitute must-see games in the second half -- anything involving the Colts is to be missed, while who can tell how far upstarts like Cincinnati and San Francisco might go? -- it's time for a reframing of the glamour matchups that remain among the final 126 regular season games. The subplots shift on a weekly basis in the NFL, but here's a projection of the 25 games that will matter most:

Oakland at San Diego -- The four-team logjam in the mediocre AFC West has to start loosening up a bit on Thursday night in San Diego, when the reeling Raiders take on the stumbling Chargers. Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers have been interception machines of late (a combined 11 in their past two games each), so the over-under on this one will not be based on points for a change, just pickoffs.

New Orleans at Atlanta -- Separated by a mere half-game, the first-place Saints and second-place Falcons will renew their NFC South rivalry twice in the season's second half, with the rematch coming Week 16 in New Orleans. Their past three meetings have all been three-point games, and all have been won by the visiting team. Atlanta clearly needs Sunday's meeting even more than New Orleans does.

New York Giants at San Francisco -- They love their Giants in San Francisco, but not these Giants. You have to figure undefeated Green Bay will earn one of the NFC's first-round byes, but the other one could conceivably be settled by a tiebreaker based on the outcome of this game. The 49ers' only loss was at home to an NFC East team (Dallas), and New York happens to be playing its best ball of the year.

New England at New York Jets -- Since these two last met in Week 5, with the Patriots triumphing 30-21 in Foxboro, the AFC East has congealed into a three-team 5-3 clump consisting of the Jets, Bills and New England. But not all 5-3s are created equal, and New York looks like the team on the rise with three straight wins. If the Jets can defend their home turf, that long-awaited home playoff game might come to pass.

Pittsburgh at Cincinnati -- Clearly it's a glamour-filled Week 10 in the NFL, with one-fifth of our marquee games falling on the same weekend. But we can't overlook this matchup, because it's the Bengals' first chance to test themselves against the elite tier in the AFC North. These two meet again in just three short weeks, in Pittsburgh, but we're about to find out if surprising Cincinnati is ready for its close-up.

Philadelphia at New York Giants -- The Eagles' playoff hopes suffered a severe blow with that home loss to Chicago on Monday night, and that will make them a desperate team when they travel to MetLife Stadium for this Sunday night NFC East showdown. We know what Philadelphia and DeSean Jackson wrought the last time they were in East Rutherford, so could another Miracle of the Meadowlands be in the offing?

Cincinnati at Baltimore -- Having gotten their shot at the Steelers in Week 10, the Bengals get their first chance to face Baltimore, a team they have played very tough in recent years and match up well with. Cincinnati has won three out of the last four in the series, and lost narrowly in the fourth. Who knows, the winner might be able to head into the Week 17 rematch in Cincinnati with the inside track on the division crown.

Green Bay at Detroit -- It won't be the monstrous 10-0 vs. 10-0 pairing that we were dreaming of in mid-October, but Packers-Lions on Thanksgiving Day in Detroit has rarely held this much promise. Green Bay had its low point of last season in a 7-3 Week 14 loss at Ford Field, a game that marked the beginning of the Lions' year-ending turnaround. With the rematch scheduled for Week 17 at Lambeau Field, this figures to be the pivotal game in the NFC North this year.

San Francisco at Baltimore -- The Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh family feud on Thanksgiving night will inspire an onslaught of build up and hype, but the historic nature of the coaching matchup shouldn't be allowed to obscure the battle of what could be two elite, first-place teams. Prepare to hear the words "potential Super Bowl pairing'' tossed around before this one.

New York Giants at New Orleans -- The Monday-nighter in Week 12 is a fine way to put a wrap on the holiday weekend, with Eli Manning returning to the city in which he grew up, and Sean Payton coaching against one of his former teams, the Giants. New York and New Orleans both figure to be fighting for playoff positioning in late November, so this game has NFC seeding tiebreaker implications written all over it.

Atlanta at Houston -- The 2007 Matt Schaub trade between the Falcons and the Texans will probably get the pregame top billing, but the hope is that we get an interconference showdown between playoff contenders that feature two of the best running games in the league, with some pretty good passing games on display as well. An early-December shootout would be a fitting and fun way to kick off the NFL's playoff stretch drive.

Green Bay at the New York Giants -- If the Packers' quest for an undefeated season survives and reaches 11-0, we know just the team that has a little history with spoiling such attempts at perfection. Isn't that right, New England? Just an early hunch here, but I'd say Packers-Giants has a great chance to be flexed to the Sunday night slot, in place of the now Peyton-less Colts at Patriots matchup.

Detroit at New Orleans -- Both teams have tough games to face between now and Dec. 4, but the Lions and Saints are contenders who'll likely be in the thick of the NFC playoff race the entire way. The coaches in this one, Sean Payton and Jim Schwartz, don't lack for confidence in their teams, or offensive weapons at their disposal.

New York Giants at Dallas -- Talk about building up a little suspense. At the moment the Giants and Cowboys stand 1-2 in the NFC East, and yet they won't meet for the first time this season until two weeks before Christmas, at Jerry World. The rematch comes in Week 17's regular-season finale, at the Meadowlands. I seem to recall the season didn't start too well for Tony Romo and Dallas in that very same building, way back in Week 1.

Houston at Cincinnati -- Back in the day, when they shared a spot in the raucous old AFC Central, Houston and Cincinnati used to play some classic games, filled with bad blood and over-the-top emotions. Those were of course the Oilers of Jerry Glanville vs. the Bengals of Sam Wyche for the most part, but we can dream. The Texans and Bengals should both need this one to keep their playoff drives on track.

New York Jets at Philadelphia -- The two Team Greens get to go at it, and we'll see what comes of a showdown between the clubs that both took a Super Bowl-or-bust approach to the 2011 season. Philly, of course, has some winning to do between now and mid-December to make sure it's still relevant by then. But if nothing else, the Jets getting to test their passing game against Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha -- the one who got away -- should make for some compelling theater.

Pittsburgh at San Francisco -- Funny, all those Super Bowls between the Steelers and 49ers and yet they've never met in the Big Game. This one will have to do for now, I suppose. Even if the 49ers have long since locked up the NFC West at this point, and they will have, there will be plenty left to play for in the pursuit of a first-round bye. Two of the NFL's best defenses collide at Candlestick on a Monday night.

Baltimore at San Diego -- The Steelers won't be the only playoff-contending AFC North team making the long, cross-country trek in Week 15. The Ravens have drawn a Sunday night date in San Diego, so both coaching Harbaughs will be working in California this weekend. If the Chargers can hang around in the AFC West, it'll probably be almost mandatory to get this one in the win column. But the same scenario might exist for Baltimore.

New York Giants at New York Jets -- Start spreading the news, because if both New York teams get to the penultimate week of the season still leading their divisions, this game is going to get the full-blown Super Bowl preview treatment. Even if it doesn't deserve it. If nothing else, Christmas week is always a tough travel situation, and both the Giants and Jets get to stay home for the holiday.

Oakland at Kansas City -- Just because all four teams are currently .500 or worse doesn't mean the AFC West isn't going to qualify someone for the playoffs this season. Somebody has to win it, and this game very well might help determine who gets to be called division champ, with a first-round home game in the postseason as the prize. K.C. embarrassed Oakland 28-0 at home in Week 7, and the Raiders will well remember that galling afternoon.

Atlanta at New Orleans -- This will be the third straight year the Falcons and Saints have met in a Monday night prime-time matchup, and they're always tight. The Saints upset the host Falcons last year in Week 16, but Atlanta gets the chance to repay the favor this season, with the winner maybe locking up another playoff trip out of the NFC South in the process.

Buffalo at New England -- We've got miles to go before we know the implications that will be on the line, but the possibility exists that the Bills and Patriots will both be fighting for a playoff berth as the regular season concludes on New Year's Day. In Week 3, the Bills got our full attention with that huge comeback from a 21-point deficit at home against New England. May this one be just as memorable.

Detroit at Green Bay -- While I don't anticipate the NFC North title still being up for grabs at this point, who knows what might still be unsettled? Green Bay could be going for a 16-0 regular season, or trying to nail down home-field advantage in the NFC. The Lions might well be fighting for their first playoff berth since 1999. And all of that would make for fascinating TV on the last day of the regular season.

Baltimore at Cincinnati -- Conventional wisdom says the Bengals won't still be playoff viable once they run the gauntlet of playing both Pittsburgh and Baltimore twice each in the season's final eight weeks, and maybe that will prove to be the reality. But who ever dreamed Cincinnati, starting a rookie quarterback, would reach midseason at 6-2, so how can you possibly rule the Bengals out?

San Diego at Oakland -- In the all-division matchup format the NFL has adopted for Week 17s, this game or the Dallas at Giants NFC East battle would seem to be two of the more meaningful pairings that could wind up being flexed to the Sunday night time slot, a la last year's winner-take-all St. Louis at Seattle showdown. Both the Chargers and Raiders at this point would love to have one last chance to salvage their once-promising seasons.

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