A few games always stand out at the start of the NFL season as must-watch, circle-the-calendar events.
The Week 8 showdown between Drew Brees and Peyton Manning, part of an intriguing Saints-Broncos matchup in Denver, was one of those games. Only, two months ago, no one would have predicted that New Orleans and Denver would reach this Sunday with a combined 5-7 record.
Denver's 3-3 mark has not come easy -- the Broncos have losses to Atlanta, Houston and New England, all first-place teams; and they were on the verge of falling to 2-4 before rallying from a 24-0 halftime deficit to take down San Diego last week.
That win put Denver in first place in the AFC West, where a .500 record might just hold up for the second consecutive season.
New Orleans is not in nearly as promising a spot. The Saints did move one step closer to normalcy as interim coach Joe Vitt returned from his six-game suspension this week, but he inherits a team already in desperation mode. Back-to-back wins have the Saints at least in the playoff conversation again in the NFC, but they're four back of Atlanta in the NFC South and can ill afford more than one or two more losses the rest of the way.
So, Sunday night's showdown between the Saints and Broncos is an important one. Either New Orleans will continue its resurgence or Denver, in front of its home crowd, will take another step toward control of the AFC West.
Here's what else to keep an eye on this NFL weekend:
• The earlier, the better? For the second consecutive Sunday, there are but two games in the late-afternoon time slot (Oakland at Kansas City and the Giants at Dallas). That means you'll need to get that go-to spot carved out on your couch early Sunday, because there are nine games scheduled for 1 p.m. ET.
And in case you had forgotten how parity-riddled the NFL is this season, there is just one game in Week 8 that features two teams with above-.500 records ... and it's Monday night. Only one game in Sunday's opening set even pits an above-.500 team against a .500 team: 6-0 Atlanta at 3-3 Philadelphia.
• Crucial Sunday in the NFC East
By the close of business Sunday, the Giants could either have at least a 2.5-game lead on everyone else in the NFC East or all four of the division's teams could be within one game of first place.
The swing game in helping to decide which direction the East will go is the Giants-Cowboys battle in Dallas. New York enters with a 5-2 mark and winner of three straight; Dallas sits at 3-3.
That's the same record that Philadelphia currently holds -- the Eagles have their hands full Sunday as well, with a home game against the undefeated Falcons. The Redskins are in the gravest danger of dropping out of the picture. They're stuck at 3-4 and face a road trip to Pittsburgh's Heinz Field this Sunday.
The NFC East race is at a fork in the road, with the Giants in position to turn for home with a comfortable lead.
• Door's open for the Steelers
Before we drift away from the Washington-Pittsburgh game that was just mentioned, let's not forget how much the Steelers could use a victory there, too.
Pittsburgh scrapped its way to 3-3 last week with a hard-fought win in Cincinnati. The Steelers still sit 1.5 games back of Baltimore in the AFC North, but the Ravens might be unraveling at the seams, as evidenced by their 43-13 beatdown in Houston last weekend.
The Steelers are a flawed and banged-up lot themselves. Unless the Ravens can get things together soon, though, the AFC North should be there for the taking, meaning the Steelers need to hold serve at home on Sunday.
• Knockout games in Tennessee and New York?
Given all that aforementioned parity, it's still hard to get a full handle on where the cut line will be for the postseason. Still, it feels like time may be running out on the Colts (3-3) and Titans (3-4), who meet in Tennessee; ditto for the Dolphins (3-3) and Jets (3-4), two teams set for a potentially cantankerous bloodbath in the Meadowlands.
The losers of those games not only take a hit in the divisional head-to-head tiebreakers, they'll drop further back in the standings. Obviously, Indianapolis and Miami have a tiny bit more wiggle room with one less loss at the moment. But neither would feel great about its chances after a loss.
• The Lions are running out of time
Sure, it's only Week 8, but the 2-4 Lions find themselves in a must-win on Sunday, at home against Seattle. A loss might force Detroit to run the table the rest of the way to claim a return invite to the playoffs. With games against Houston, Green Bay, Chicago and Atlanta still looming, that's not going to happen. The mountain would be treacherous even at 3-4, though Detroit has to start somewhere.
• Something's gotta give (probably) ...
The Giants and Cowboys will enjoy a national-TV audience for their 4:25 p.m. ET kickoff. The other game in that window is an AFC West contest between the 2-4 Raiders and 1-5 Chiefs. Not exactly the sexiest of matchups.
Oakland has yet to win a game on the road, posting an 0-3 mark ... but Kansas City has somehow gone winless at home, with a matching 0-3 record. Either Carson Palmer's Raiders or Brady Quinn's (Brady Quinn's!!) Chiefs likely will walk away with a victory Sunday. Which team will take step one toward salvaging its season?
• San Francisco's NFC West tour continues
The four-week stretch that the 49ers currently find themselves in might be one of the more critical
of the NFL season. During that time San Francisco has all three division rivals on its docket, with a bye week sprinkled in between.
The 49ers opened strong in Week 7, downing Seattle to grab the reins in the NFC West race. This week, they're headed to Arizona with a chance to land a knockout blow on a Cardinals team that's lost three straight. Then, after that bye, it's back home to deal with St. Louis.
Arizona needs to find a way to win this one Monday. After racing out to a surprising 4-0 start this year, the Cardinals have plummeted back to earth by losing three straight. Another defeat might send them spiraling toward a 10- or 11-loss season. San Francisco would love nothing more than to kick the Cards while they're down.