How important is it for NFL teams to start making their last-season pushes? By the time Week 10 ended last season, 83 percent (10 of 12) of the teams that eventually made the postseason were in playoff positions. The only two outsiders that stole spots over the final seven weeks: Denver, which rallied to take the AFC West; and Atlanta, which overtook Chicago for a wild-card.
So, on the one hand, there are a lot of games left in the regular season. But it's not that easy to vault the competition come November and December.
We've seen enough teams get hot over the final six or seven weeks of the NFL season to know that comebacks can be made. The earlier playoff contenders can flip the switch, though, the better.
And with that, a look at who's in need of a win this weekend:
• Tampa Bay (4-4, vs. San Diego): You could include the Buccaneers' opponent, 4-4 San Diego, though the Chargers' make-or-break game for the season comes next week at Denver. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, is not going to win the NFC South -- Atlanta, at 8-0, holds a commanding four-game lead. Which means it's wild card or bust for the Bucs. A Week 10 loss would hurt but not end their chances. Desperation level (out of 10): 2
• Oakland (3-5, at Baltimore): After this one, the Raiders play four of their next five at home, with first-place Denver one of the teams set to visit the Black Hole. So, while falling to 3-6 would be far from ideal, Oakland's 2012 fate will be determined by what's ahead. Desperation level: 3
• New York Jets (3-5, at Seattle): Rex Ryan's bunch headed into a Week 9 bye fresh off a humiliating 21-point home loss to Miami. Just to get the taste of that one out of their mouths, the Jets could use a 'W' Sunday. But after this game, only one team with an above-.500 record (New England) remains on New York's schedule. This team might not be capable of catching fire, but it will have a chance to do so. Desperation level: 5
• Detroit (4-4) at Minnesota (5-4): The Lions have won two in a row, but lost to Minnesota earlier this season and have Green Bay-Houston back-to-back awaiting them. The Vikings have lost two straight, are dealing with a Percy Harvin injury and play four of six on the road to close the season. So which team needs this one more? Hard to say. Either way, the loser will be in massive trouble and the winner will still have plenty of mountain left to climb. Desperation level: 7
• St. Louis (3-5, at San Francisco): The Rams have yet to win away from home this year, have dropped three straight to the 49ers and already find themselves three back in the division. So ... this may be a lost cause. That said, the Rams have a manageable schedule from here out, so a stunner Sunday could be a jumping-off point to a big second half. Desperation level: 8
• Buffalo (3-5, at New England): The Bills were an 11-point underdog in this one at last check, but an upset would throw the gates wide open on the AFC East race with seven weeks left. A Bills loss, however, would be their second to the Patriots and drop them three back of first -- all but eliminating them from the division race. Desperation level: 8.5
• New Orleans (3-5, vs. Atlanta): The Saints' last stand began in fine fashion last week, as they smoked the Eagles on Monday night. A greater test awaits Sunday when the unbeaten Falcons visit New Orleans. Win this one, and the Saints' season might rest on a brutal Weeks 12-14 stretch (San Francisco, at Atlanta, at Giants). Desperation level: 9
• Cincinnati (3-5, vs. New York Giants): Since a 3-1 start to the season, things have gone very wrong for the Bengals, now losers of four straight. That stretch includes three consecutive setbacks at home, and the task will not be any easier Sunday. Drop this one, and the Bengals will have to start fighting just to stay ahead of Cleveland .... and out of the basement in the AFC North. Desperation level: 9.5 • Dallas (3-5) at Philadelphia (3-5): These teams received a stay of execution in the NFC East race thanks to Pittsburgh's win over the Giants last Sunday. Coming back from 3-6 to make the playoffs, though, would be borderline impossible. This game, then, is essentially a do-or-die scenario for these teams. Desperation level: 10