Don't get too excited just yet, but we're rapidly approaching that time of the NFL season when the phrase "playoff scenarios" becomes a part of every-day jargon.
No teams can clinch playoff sports this week (or next), but those moments are just around the corner -- Jacksonville, New Orleans and Carolina, for example, all could be eliminated from their respective division races by the time Week 11 ends.
The stakes, then, are growing incrementally higher each NFL weekend, and the case is no different this Sunday and Monday. A primer for the Week 10 slate:
• Can the Saints stop Atlanta's run at perfection?
Falcons wide receiver Roddy White said this week that his team has "the pedigree" to run the table and go 16-0. One of the biggest remaining tests on the Falcons' schedule comes Sunday, when they visit New Orleans.
After starting the season 0-4, the Saints have won three of their last four games, including an impressive Week 9 shellacking of the Eagles. Drew Brees' offense is 10th in the league in points scored (218), two back of Matt Ryan's Atlanta attack. So, you can expect a little bit of an offensive show on Sunday afternoon.
As things stand now the Falcons have just one above-.500 team (the Giants, Week 15) between them and 16-0. But the Saints has won three straight against its divisional arch-rival, so they should have Atlanta's full attention
• Detroit-Minnesota matchup takes the NFC North spotlight
Green Bay has the week off and Chicago does not take the field until Sunday night, so all NFC North eyes will fall on the Metrodome early. That's where the 4-4 Lions and 5-4 Vikings clash in a game that could go a long way toward sorting out the division's playoff prospects.
Minnesota already knocked off Detroit back in Week 3, but the Lions have cranked up their play over the past two weeks -- while the Vikings have done the exact opposite, losing back-to-back games to Tampa Bay and Seattle. Percy Harvin is ailing, too, and may not be able to play in this one, which would serve as a huge blow to the Vikings' chances.
Both these teams have grueling schedules upcoming, so the loser may find itself too far gone in the postseason race.
• Opportunity knocks for AFC division leaders
Life has not been very easy for any AFC team in 2012, save the Texans -- and even they continue to deal with Brian Cushing's season-ending knee injury. The other three division leaders (Baltimore, Denver, New England) will be in action during Sunday's early slot, and all could use a victory.
The Ravens appear to have the easy road: home against 3-5 Oakland. Of course, the Patriots may beg to differ, given that they took down their opponent, Buffalo, by 24 points earlier this season. Denver, meanwhile, heads to Carolina for a tricky matchup with Cam Newton's Panthers.
• Creating separation in the NFC West
The Cardinals (off this week) were a nice story to start the season, and the Rams have won just enough games to hang around. But the cream has risen to the top in the NFC West. This week, the first-place 49ers can widen the gap further by dropping the Rams in San Francisco. The 5-4, second-place Seahawks also have a very winnable game, at home against the struggling Jets.
A lot can change in the coming weeks, but go ahead and circle your calendars for San Francisco at Seattle on Dec. 23, just in case.
• Are any 3-5 teams capable of bouncing back?
Eight 3-5 teams (plus 3-6 Tennessee) will take the field on Sunday. The NFL remains a parity-filled world, but with the calendar ticking into mid-November, it's now or nothing for those squads.
The headliner, at least in terms of forced national attention: 3-5 Dallas at 3-5 Philadelphia. Both teams are in shambles, with Andy Reid a dead man walking in Philadelphia. The Cowboys showed last season, though, how quickly the tides can turn -- Dallas won four straight starting in Week 9 to take over first place ... then lost four of five to miss the playoffs.
The other 3-5 teams in action: New Orleans, Cincinnati (vs. the Giants), Oakland, Buffalo, the Jets and St. Louis.
Every single one of those teams is, rightfully, an underdog. Can one or two pull off an upset? Or will the line between the NFL's contenders and pretenders grow that much thicker before Week 10 is out?
• When the same record doesn't feel the same ...
Sitting just about the 3-5 muck are San Diego and Tampa Bay, both 4-4 at the halfway point. Yet, there's a palpable buzz surrounding the Buccaneers (despite Tampa Bay not selling out its game this week), thanks to rookie RB Doug Martin and first-year head coach Greg Schiano.
San Diego is at the other end of the 4-4 spectrum, again vying for the role of the league's most disappointing team. The Chargers' last trip east ended in a dismal 7-6 loss to Cleveland. Still, they remain just a game back in the AFC West, so if they ever could get things together on a consistent basis ... But Chargers fans will tell you how "consistent" Norv Turner has been in his career.
• A potential Super Bowl preview in the Windy City
At least on paper, Sunday night's Houston-Chicago showdown looks like one of the best this 2012 NFL season has provided. The matchups are juicy -- Chicago's meek offensive line against Houston's ferocious pass rush; the Texans' zone-read run game vs. the Bears' aggressive defense.
If you're a lover of the X's and O's portion of football, this is the Week 10 game for you. As important as the individual battles will be, keep an eye on how Houston attacks the Bears' Cover-2 defense or what Cutler does to minimize the number of times he hits the deck.
Both Houston and Chicago are 7-1 and vying for top seeds in the playoffs. Given that, we'll have no choice but to consider Sunday night's winner an unquestioned Super Bowl threat.
Riding a three-game win streak, the Steelers -- for all the revelers declaring their demise earlier this season -- again appear to be among the AFC's best. The Chiefs, losers of five in a row, do not.Matt Cassel