What will be the most crucial game in the second half of the NFL season?
Cowboys at Eagles, Dec. 22. The ups and downs of these teams has made it unlikely that one of the NFC’s two wild-card teams will come out of the East. That means Philadelphia and Dallas have only one route to the postseason—winning the division. Both teams came into the season with Super Bowl aspirations, and one, the Cowboys, has a coach playing out his final year of his contract. So the stakes should be high three days before Christmas at the Linc. — Albert Breer
Cowboys at Eagles, Dec. 22. Not only will this game probably determine which of these two is the only team to advance out of the NFC East, but it should have lasting ramifications for the future of the losing team. If the Cowboys miss the playoffs, it would seem likely that Jason Garrett will finally be removed and questions will continue to linger on whether to reward Dak Prescott with the monster deal he wants. If the Eagles lose there could be a generational shift with this team, moving on from established veterans such as Jason Peters, Darren Sproles, Ronald Darby and perhaps even Malcolm Jenkins. This game could have long-term impact for these two popular franchises. — Andrew Brandt
Every Bengals game in December. Cincinnati is so unexpectedly bad this season that every game to close the season weirdly feels like it has implications. Will the team join the 2008 Lions and the ’16 Browns as infamous 0-16 teams? Will Zac Taylor’s team win a few games and mess up their draft pick? Will they beat the Browns in one of the two games they play in December and force a potential head-coach firing?! The possibilities are endless. — Bette Marston
I have four circled. Cowboys at Eagles, Dec. 22, which could be the only path to the postseason for both teams; Packers at Vikings, Dec. 23 (on Monday night!), which could decide the NFC North; 49ers at Saints, Dec. 8, which will probably decide homefield advantage in the NFC; and Dolphins at Browns, Nov. 24, in which a Cleveland loss would cost Freddie Kitchens his job. — Gary Gramling
Seahawks at 49ers, Nov. 11. I’m fascinated by the next contest on Monday Night Football, which pits the 49ers at home against the Seahawks. I think the records for both teams—the 49ers are 8-0, the Seahawks are 7-2—are a tad misleading, based on their respective schedules so far, and I think this game could show us quite a bit. Can the Seahawks defense rebound from the torching it received at home against Tampa Bay? Can that unit play well enough to make the Seahawks into Super Bowl contenders? And with the 49ers, this game could show whether they’re for real as a truly elite team. There’s a lot to like about San Francisco: balance, offensive and defensive schematics, the surprise their D has been this season. This game could go a long way in not only deciding the NFC West but sorting out the contenders in that conference as well. — Greg Bishop
Every 49ers game. With New England’s Sunday night loss, San Francisco is the only undefeated team left in the league. Their schedule in the second half of the season is extremely tough, and features the class of the NFC: Seahawks twice, Packers and Rams at home, Ravens and Saints on the road. Their next game, Week 10 Monday night at home vs. Seattle, will be their first division game vs. the Seahawks this season, and should be a really competitive matchup between the top teams of the NFC West. — Kalyn Kahler
Bengals at Dolphins, Week 16. Circle your calendars now. This high-stakes game right before the holidays has a good chance of being the decider for which team has the right to pick the top QB in the NFL draft, whether that be Tua Tagovailoa, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert or a mystery darkhorse. The teams in question hope it works out better than the Winston-Mariota draft. — Jenny Vrentas
Which dark-horse team should you watch out for in the second half of the NFL season?
Chargers. Even with their loss to the Raiders on Thursday night, this team makes sense as one that could salvage the back half of its season. They’ve played better, they have experience digging themselves out of holes and reinforcements have come and will continue coming. Russell Okung and Melvin Gordon are getting their feet back underneath them now, and Derwin James and Adrian Phillips could be back in December. And Anthony Lynn’s done a real nice job keeping the operation level all the way through. — Albert Breer
Steelers. Pittsburgh is sitting at 4-4, and given the (lack of) strength in the AFC, 9-7 might be good enough to earn a wild-card spot in January. The Steelers have had narrow wins and losses already this year—losing in overtime to the Ravens and beating the Colts because of a missed field goal—but the team has several winnable games in the back half of their season (against the Browns twice, at Bengals, at Cardinals and at Jets). The biggest question here will be whether or not the young talent on the roster can withstand the pressure of a tight playoff race, but if Pittsburgh keeps winning (they’ve won three straight), don’t count them out. — Bette Marston
Jaguars. Jacksonville has a solid defense and receiving core bolstered by a workhorse performance by Leonard Fournette in the backfield. The reemergence of Nick Foles will provide the offense with some unseen wrinkles that had to be scrapped after his collarbone injury. I may be the last person holding on to the idea that this version of the Jaguars is still destined for great things, especially after the Jalen Ramsey trade, but some dreams die hard. The remainder of their schedule is strangely navigable from here on out. A game against the banged up Colts after the bye followed by Tennessee, Tampa Bay, L.A. Chargers, Raiders and Falcons. There isn’t a game in there that I would immediately rule the Jaguars out of. — Conor Orr
Browns. Not because they’re good, but because if Jacoby Brissett is going to miss significant time, it’s hard to find a nine-win team to take the sixth seed in the AFC. And if the Browns can win four of five at home (which, well, is unlikely considering they’ve lost all three home games this season), their remaining road games are all exceedingly winnable (Pittsburgh, Arizona and Cincinnati). But, yeah, they’ll probably end up 4-12. — Gary Gramling
Ravens. Baltimore announced its status as a true Super Bowl contender against the Patriots on Sunday night in Week 9. They played so well, in fact, and dominated so thoroughly, that I’m not sure we should even call them a dark horse anymore. But if I’m looking at which team can win the Super Bowl that I didn’t think could early in the season, I’m going with the Ravens. Lamar Jackson has been a revelation. They can run the ball. And their secondary is filled with talent, definitely enough to match up with the top offenses. If they’re playing in February, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. — Greg Bishop
Eagles. This is shaping up to be a stereotypical NFC East race, in which a 10-6 or 9-7 record might be enough to win the division. As bad as the team looked in Dallas last month, don't count the Eagles out yet. The Cowboys have a slightly tougher back end to their schedule and the teams will meet again in Philly in Week 16. — Jenny Vrentas
Lions. Yes, the Lions are third in the NFC North, with a 3-4-1 record, but Matthew Stafford is quietly having a career year. The team would have beaten the Packers at Lambeau, if it weren’t for some controversial officiating, and they were a fourth-and-nine Mahomes scramble away from beating Kansas City. They put up 30 points in a 42-30 loss against a strong Vikings defense, and they still have two divisional games against the downtrodden Bears left to play. Stafford threw for 406 yards on the road against the Raiders but came up short because his defense couldn’t get a stop, and the Detroit run game has yet to help the offense. I think Stafford and the Lions will start seeing his level of play turn into wins in the second half of the season—next week at Chicago against a Bears team in crisis should be a good start. — Kalyn Kahler
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