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Friday November 4th, 2011

Fred Jackson and the Bills hope to put some distance between themselves and the Jets on Sunday. (Kevin Hoffman/US Presswire).

It is still too early in the NFL season to declare any game a "must win" for any team, but we've also reached a point where some matchups clearly hold more importance than others.

There are a boatload of critical games in Week 9, both for teams at or near the top of their divisions and those trying to claw back into the race. Here's a look at some of this week's biggest storylines:

• Bills try to keep home magic going vs. Jets

At the heart of Buffalo's unexpected run to the top of the AFC East has been a mighty home-field advantage. The Bills are 4-0 at Ralph Wilson Stadium this year, with wins over Philadelphia, Washington, Oakland and, of course, New England.

Sunday could be another big step forward for the Bills' division title dreams. But the Jets, 4-3 and a game back of first place, could use a win as well. They're riding a two-game win streak and coming off a bye -- plus host New England in Week 10 -- so stopping the Bills' home run could shoot the Jets right back into the thick of things.

Saints look for revenge against Buccaneers

Back in Week 6, Tampa Bay more or less shut down New Orleans' offense and got a huge game from Josh Freeman to down the rival Saints. Since then, though, New Orleans has reclaimed first place in the NFC South at 5-3, a half-game up on 4-3 Tampa Bay.

If the Bucs can pull off a season sweep of the Saints by winning in New Orleans Sunday, not only would it leapfrog them back to top of the division, but also give Tampa Bay the vital head-to-head tiebreaker edge.

Carson Palmer makes his first Oakland start

Palmer's first appearance as a Raider, post-trade from Cincinnati, was an absolute disaster. The veteran QB relieved Kyle Boller and threw three interceptions -- matching Boller's total -- in a 28-0 home loss to the Chiefs.

Things should run a little more smoothly in Palmer's initial Raiders start, Sunday against Denver. Even with the NFL's new rules limiting practice days during bye weeks, Palmer has still had some extra time to get to know his Oakland teammates and playbook with the Raiders off last week.

Raider Nation has very, very high hopes for Palmer this season, so the pressure will be on to deliver right away.

• Surprise contenders meet in Tennessee

Not a ton was expected of the Titans this year, but it wasn't a huge stretch to think they'd be in contention come November. The Bengals, on the other hand, were supposed to endure another difficult season.

Instead, both teams are in the playoff hunt as Week 9 hits -- Cincinnati at 5-2 sits a half-game back of Pittsburgh in the AFC North; Tennessee, 4-3, is a half-game back of surging Houston in the AFC South.

Can either of these upstarts keep the ball rolling through the season's second half? The winner of this one would be in pretty solid shape.

Giants, Patriots battle in Super Bowl XLII rematch

How many times have we seen that Eli Manning-to-David Tyree completion in the past four years? It feels like about a billion. These teams have not met since that fateful day in Arizona, when the Giants knocked off the previously unbeaten Patriots to capture the Super Bowl title.

If New England hopes to get back to that ultimate stage, it could use a win Sunday. The Patriots stumbled in Pittsburgh last week, falling to 5-2 and behind Buffalo in the AFC East because of an earlier loss to the Bills.

The Giants, meanwhile, have about the least-comfortable two-game division lead in NFL history. New York's remaining schedule is an absolute gauntlet and the Eagles are starting to charge. Stunning the Pats again would be just the momentum the Giants need.

Will Green Bay's perfect run end?

When you look at Green Bay's remaining schedule, there are only so many games that jump out as possible bumps. Sure, 7-0 is a long way from 16-0, but the Packers haven't lost since before Christmas last year and have the feel of a team that can run the table.

Sunday figures to be a test. The defending champs travel cross-country to San Diego, to take on a Chargers team coming off a devastating loss in Kansas City.

Can Philip Rivers and his team bounce back after fumbling away that Week 8 Monday nighter? On paper, San Diego has what it takes to give Green Bay a run for its money.

Ravens-Steelers rivalry cranks up again

Before last year's Baltimore-Pittsburgh playoff matchup, which the Steelers won to advance to the Super Bowl, Terrell Suggs said: "This is World War III to us. This is definitely Armageddon."

This week, Suggs went back to the well to describe his team's Week 9 trip to Pittsburgh: "We’re taking 53 men to the apocalypse and we ain’t bringing flowers."

Who knows what's next on the doomsday scale for this rivalry, but things are always interesting when these two teams meet. Baltimore waxed Pittsburgh in Week 1, 35-7, but the Ravens have been up and down since then. The Steelers, on the other hand, seem to be hitting their stride, even as more and more of their players are hit with injury.

The winner on Sunday night can start setting its eyes on the division crown.

• Can Philly stay hot?

It took the Eagles a few weeks to figure out their upgraded lineup. But now that they have, there may not be a team in the league that wants to face them.

The Bears get the next crack, Monday night in Philadelphia. And despite the Eagles' rapid rise, they're still outside the playoff picture looking in. If the playoffs started today, Chicago would hold the final wild-card spot in the NFC North -- so this is a big game for both teams involved. Philadelphia put itself in a position where it has to be on its game every single week. If it's not, Chicago is more than capable of slowing the Eagles' momentum.

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