The can't-miss games of the 2014 NFL season's second half
Division rivalries. Matchups that pit the game's greatest quarterbacks against outstanding defenses. Teams on the rise looking for respect, and other teams hoping to stop late-season slides before they're out of the postseason hunt altogether. The second half of every NFL season provides compelling drama, and the 2014 campaign is no exception. Here are nine games from here on out that you don't want to miss.
Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals, Week 11 (Sunday, Nov. 16, 4:25 p.m., FOX) -- Could this be an NFC Championship Game preview? You'd get a lot of shaking heads if you had hypothesized that before the season began, but these are two of the three best teams in the conference by record (Philly's 6-2 mark matches Detroit's, and the Cardinals are the NFL's only 7-1 team), and this is an intriguing matchup for a number of reasons. Bruce Arians' vertical passing game concepts against Detroit's underrated defense, the Lions' vaunted front seven against Arizona's over-performing offensive line, and a Megatron-Patrick Peterson matchup that might be upstaged by Antonio Cromartie covering Golden Tate.
New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts, Week 11 (Sunday, Nov. 16, 8:30 p.m., NBC): No team is hotter than the Patriots, winners of five straight games, but Andrew Luck has been the game's most prolific quarterback this season, and it will be fascinating to see what kinds of coverages Bill Belichick throws at him. When these teams last battled, Luck threw four interceptions in the divisional round of the 2013 playoffs, perhaps his worst game as a pro. On the other side of the ball, New England's receivers face difficult tests in Vontae Davis and Greg Toler, Indy's pair of outstanding cornerbacks. As it generally seems to, this game might come down to who can (or can't) cover Rob Gronkowski.
Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks, Week 12 (Sunday, Nov. 23, 4:05 p.m., FOX): Last year, the Cards became the first team all season to win on the road in Seattle, and the rematch could very well be a desperation game for the Seahawks, who currently stand at 5-3 and are not firing on all cylinders. Arizona's aforementioned secondary should be able to deal with Seattle's receivers, who are good but not great, and a Seahawks secondary that used to be the envy of the league might be overwhelmed by Arizona's four- and five-wide sets.
Miami Dolphins at Denver Broncos, Week 12 (Sunday, Nov. 23, 4:25 p.m., CBS): This could be a crucial game for the 5-3 Dolphins, who are currently flying a bit under the radar with an improved offensive line, an outstanding defense and a quarterback in Ryan Tannehill who might just be figuring it out. The Broncos have some things to address after the Patriots undressed them in Foxboro last Sunday, and while an upset might not be in the making, this is a shot for the Dolphins to be taken seriously on a national stage.
Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys, Week 13 (Thursday, Nov. 27, 4:30 p.m., FOX): Happy Thanksgiving! By this time, we'll have seen enough of the allegedly new and improved Mark Sanchez to know if he can take the Eagles through the second half of the season. Expect Chip Kelly to slow down the offensive tempo a bit, as Dallas' defense has proven to be vulnerable when left on the field too long. It's a tug-of-war for the top spot in the NFC East, and if Tony Romo isn't back to full health and the Cowboys have to rely on Brandon Weeden, the Eagles could create some separation in the division. The rematch on Dec. 14 at Lincoln Financial Field will be just as important.
Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers, Week 13 (Thursday, Nov. 27, 8:30 p.m., NBC): Happy Thanksgiving, Part 2! What enjoyed a stretch as the NFL's best rivalry may have turned into two teams fighting desperately for playoff position by this point in the season. The Seahawks are unbalanced on both sides of the ball, and between San Francisco's struggling offensive line and Colin Kaepernick's regression in the pocket, this has the looks of an ugly pier-sixer in which the winner may or may not score in double digits. If you love old-school smashmouth football, this game is for you.
Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns, Week 15 (Sunday, Dec. 14, 1:00 p.m., CBS): Wait -- Cincinnati at Cleveland? Yep. The Dawg Pound will be in full throat as the Browns look to be real division contenders for the first time in years. And after the beatdown the Browns put on the Bengals Thursday night, Cincinnati won't just be looking for revenge and respectability -- they'll likely be on the outside looking in at any sort of playoff shot. Just the kind of high-pressure situation that usually brings out the best in Andy Dalton ... or not.
Indianapolis Colts at Dallas Cowboys, Week 16 (Sunday, Dec. 21, 8:30 p.m., NBC): The Colts will be playing for playoff positioning here, as they'll have the AFC South comfortably wrapped up by then. Depending on their run of late-season NFC East games, Dallas could be in search of a rebound from a potential mid-season slump. Andrew Luck has what it takes in football acumen and total targets, and Indy's defense, as detailed before, is a very tough matchup when everyone's healthy. Could be Dallas' first true "backs against the wall" game in a number of years.
Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers, Week 17 (Sunday, Dec. 28, 1:00 p.m., FOX): Right now, the Packers stand just one game behind Detroit in the NFC North, and the tiebreaker goes to the Lions, because they beat Green Bay in Week 3, when Aaron Rodgers' offense was still floundering. No such issues now, and though Detroit's defense is much-improved this season, Rodgers' splits against Detroit over his career are pretty sick: The Packers are 9-2 when their franchise quarterback plays against Detroit, and the only loss before this season's came in 2010, when Rodgers suffered a concussion in the first half. Ndamukong Suh and company will no doubt bring their full fury against Rodgers, but will it be enough? The answer may decide the NFC North.