The 2012 NFL regular season officially crosses the halfway point this weekend, so -- as you'll notice by the teams included on the Week 9 "Must-Win Watch" -- this is not the time to be sitting with an under .500 record.
As such, the number of important games on the upcoming docket is extensive. They start Thursday night with the Chiefs' visit to San Diego and continue right on through Monday's New Orleans-Philadelphia battle to stay relevant.
Who needs a win this week? Only about half the league ...
• Cincinnati Bengals (3-4, vs. Denver): The Bengals are reeling, having lost three in a row with Denver and the Giants on the schedule in the next two weeks. Helping Cincinnati's cause, though, is that the AFC North has yet to sort itself out much. The Ravens are 5-2 but dealing with a host of injuries, while the Steelers are 4-3 and have a tough road game in New York this week. A loss would hurt the Bengals' chances, but there will be others. Desperation level (out of 10): 1.5
• San Diego Chargers (3-4, vs. Kansas City): The Chargers are perched precipitously on a cliff now, having lost three straight to fall a game back in the AFC West. The biggest game of their season awaits in three weeks, when they visit Denver. But that one will only be so meaningful if the Chargers are 3-6. Desperation level: 3
• Arizona Cardinals (4-4, at Green Bay); Seattle Seahawks (4-4, vs. Minnesota): For the second straight year, the 49ers are on the verge of running away in the NFC West. They're 6-2 and have knocked off Seattle and Arizona in back-to-back weeks.
Just two weeks ago, both the Cardinals and Seahawks were 4-2 -- and four weeks back, Arizona sat at a perfect 4-0. Now, they're trying to stop the bleeding. Neither faces an easy task this weekend, though Seattle, playing in front of its raucous home crowd, seems to have a better shot at a victory. Desperation level (out of 10): 4
• Buffalo (3-4, at Houston): This is the Bills' appetizer before a two-week main course that features a home game against Miami and a trip to New England. A win over the 6-1 Texans would prove an immeasurable boost heading into that stretch. Weeks 10 and 11 loom much larger for the Bills than Week 9, though. Desperation level (out of 10): 4.5
• Dallas (3-4, at Atlanta): Dallas is in a similar situation to its NFC East rival, Philadelphia (no, I didn't forget about the Eagles). Working in Dallas' favor: A schedule that closes with five seven games at home, plus winnable road trips to Washington and Cincinnati. In other words, the Cowboys could drop this one and still have a shot to rebound. Desperation level (out of 10): 5
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-4, vs. Oakland): Put the Raiders on the list, too, as they're also 3-4 -- so this one sets up as doubly important. It's possible, however, that the Raiders could lose and still be just a game out of first place in the commonplace AFC West.
Tampa Bay is not so fortunate, to put it lightly. The NFC South all but belongs to the Falcons already, meaning the Buccaneers have to go the wild-card route. Like a lot of the other teams on this list, having five losses at the midway point would put those dreams in jeopardy. Desperation level (out of 10): 7
• Detroit (3-4, at Jacksonville): The good news for the Lions is that they rallied back to knock off Seattle last week. The bad news is that they're still in last place in the NFC North, three back of 6-1 Chicago. Detroit plays five of its final seven games at home, so wins over the Jaguars this week and Minnesota in Week 10 could set the table for a strong close. Lose on Sunday, though ... Desperation level: 8
• Tennessee Titans (3-5, vs. Chicago); Washington Redskins (3-5, vs. Carolina): These teams find themselves in similar spots, having slipped to the outskirts of their respective playoff races. Tennessee sits four games back of Houston in the AFC South, Washington three back of the Giants in the NFC East. Losses this week would all but close the door on the Titans and Redskins for 2012. Desperation level: 9
• Philadelphia Eagles (3-4, at New Orleans): The Eagles' Week 9 foe is also on our list, but there's no denying how dire the situation is in Philadelphia. That goes for Michael Vick, whose days as starting QB might be numbered, as well as for Andy Reid, stuck on the hot set.
Philadelphia plays division foes each of the next two weeks and has a favorable schedule from now until a Week 17 road game against the Giants. But panic is already on the verge of setting in, and a loss to the Saints might drive Reid and his team too far down. Desperation level: 9.5New Orleans Saints (2-5, vs. Philadelphia): Desperation level: 10