The NFL's strategy to backload its schedule with division games makes for some compelling viewing. But the league might have overdone it in the AFC South.
The Colts visit Houston on Sunday for the first meeting of the season between that division's top two teams; they'll play again in Week 17, back in Indianapolis. The stakes could not be much higher for Round 1: Houston holds a two-game lead in the AFC South and a precarious one-game lead for the conference No. 1 overall seed, while Indianapolis is trying to clinch a wild-card berth and swipe the division crown.
The Texans could lock up the division by dropping Andrew Luck and the Colts on Sunday, but the Colts still control their destiny -- finish 3-0 with two wins over Houston, and they would pull off a stunning coup in the AFC South.
Standings aside, Houston could use a bounce-back performance after a humiliating Week 14 loss in New England. QB Matt Schaub had a miserable night in that one, misfiring all over the place as Tom Brady torched the Texans' defense. Schaub has never played a postseason game (he was injured for Houston's run last year), so the Texans would love him to find a little mojo before it's too late.
What else is on tap for a critical Week 15 in the NFL? Here are a few of the key storylines:
If nothing changes in the AFC playoff picture, the Broncos and Ravens would enter the postseason as the third and fourth seeds, respectively. It feels right now like the gap between the two teams is far greater than that.
Denver heads into its Week 15 road trip to Baltimore with the NFL's longest winning streak -- an eight-game run that started with a rally from 24 points down in San Diego, way back in Week 6.
The Ravens, on the other hand, have dropped two straight, continue to deal with injury problems and just this week canned offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. The swap of Cameron for Jim Caldwell (Peyton Manning's former coach in Indianapolis) reeked of desperation, but the Ravens are confident that Caldwell can light a fire under Joe Flacco and a plodding offense.
A Baltimore win would change the conference's outlook, both breaking Denver's win streak and umping the Ravens to No. 3 in the AFC standings.
• RGIII knee and the NFC East race
Speaking of the NFL's division-heavy end to the season, Week 17 features a Dallas-Washington rematch, in D.C. Will that game be for the NFC East title? Or will the Giants be gunning for that honor in the Meadowlands against Philadelphia?
It looks less and less likely that the NFC East will be decided prior to the season's final Sunday, what with Washington and Dallas keeping the heat on New York.
The drama ramps up even further this week, as the Redskins await word on Robert Griffin III's status for their game in Cleveland. Griffin hurt his knee during last Sunday's dramatic OT win over Baltimore and is questionable to go this week.
The Cowboys and Giants may keep one eye on the scoreboard, but they have their own work to do -- Dallas against a Pittsburgh team that's badly in need of a win itself, and the Giants in Atlanta.
The trash talk has been flying from Chicago to Green Bay and back this week, in anticipation of Sunday's huge NFC North showdown between the Bears and Packers. Brandon Marshall's emotional rant earlier in the week set the tone, but multiple players on both sides of this game have joined in the fun.
Chatter aside, this is the most important game in the NFC North this season -- Green Bay secures the division title with a victory. This one's doubly important for the Bears, too, since they are holding on for dear life in the wild-card race, in addition to chasing down first place.
• Will the Saints take their anger out on Tampa Bay?
The latest chapter in the Saints' bounty saga was written earlier this week, when Paul Tagliabue wiped Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove's suspensions from the books. Drew Brees' response, via Twitter: "Congratulations to our players for having the suspensions vacated. Unfortunately, there are some things that can never be taken back."
Clearly, the Saints hold commissioner Roger Goodell responsible for a chunk of their struggles this season. At 5-8, the Saints' playoff hopes are all but dead ... but if they're going down, they'd at least like to take Tampa Bay with them.
• Another shot at national respect for Atlanta
The Falcons want to be considered among the NFL's elite teams, to be thought of as a Super Bowl contender. Their record (11-2) puts them in that category -- the NFC's playoff road almost certainly will travel through Atlanta. Public perception, however, has not been as favorable.
Atlanta's rep took another hit last week in a loss to Carolina. A visit from the Giants Sunday provides the Falcons another chance to prove their worth against a marquee opponent. A loss might leave even the Falcons themselves a little shaken.
A fired-up Brees against the NFL's worst pass defense? Yikes.
• Can San Francisco cool down the Patriots?
Denver may be the hottest team in football, but Tom Brady's Patriots are not far behind. New England has run off seven consecutive wins to jump back into the race for the AFC's top spot, and a blowout win over Houston last week certainly fired some warning shots to the league.
The 49ers are the next team on the Foxboro hot seat. Their defense will try to slow Brady enough to give Colin Kaepernick a chance to deliver his biggest win yet. San Francisco might be the NFC's most complete team, but the 49ers have yet to lock down the NFC West and a loss Sunday could cost them a first-round bye.
• The Jets? In the playoffs?
Discussing the Jets as a postseason contender feels somewhat ludicrous given how up and down they've been in 2012 -- and the lows feel like they have been much more numerous.
Yet, here we are, with three weeks left in the regular season and the Jets have a critical Monday night game in Tennessee. A win would keep them a mere one game back in the AFC wild-card race with two winnable games (San Diego, at Buffalo) left on the schedule. Of course, the last time Rex Ryan led his team into a nationally-televised game, the Jets took a 30-point beating from New England on Thanksgiving night.