It's a schedule maker's dream. All you want on a Sunday night, when the bulk of the week's games are finished and America is sitting down in front of the TV, is to have two elite teams going head-to-head, settling an argument on the field.
That's Sunday night: Houston Texans at Chicago Bears, a showdown between two one-loss teams with résumés so stout, all of us are left to look for weaknesses (good luck with that).
In many ways, the two teams are similar. Both are tested, both have high-profile wins under their belts and both feature productive, well-rounded offenses that are overshadowed by flashy and disruptive defenses. Oh, and both have lost to the Green Bay Packers.
All the more reason to find some kind of asymmetry on the field.
With the playoffs coming into focus, one victory might prove increasingly meaningfully. The Texans figure to have more of a buffer zone as far as earning a No. 1 playoff seed, and the Bears are still looking up at the Atlanta Falcons while playing in the NFC North, the NFL's toughest division. A "W" over the vaunted Texans could act as an accelerator.
Sorry, Falcons fans. The winner of this one gets to wear our temporary crown as the regular season's best.
Here is your Week 10 primer, with games ranked in order of intrigue, from 1 to 14:
Why this game is No. 1:
Battles between non-traditional rivals who rarely square off are rarely very juicy. This is the exception. So much will play out on the field for teams that operate at such a high level, it leaves us wondering if this is a preview of Super Bowl XLVII. My eyes will be trained on both defenses. Each unit has challenges to face, and each unit showcases a playmaker bidding for Defensive Player of the Year honors. How many times do you think the Chicago Bears have seen film of J.J. Watt's flyswatter hands returning the football to opposing quarterbacks? Jay Cutler's rifle arm will have to contend with that. And how much of a concerted effort do you think Houston Texans receivers like Andre Johnson will make in keeping the ball away from the prying hands of Bears cornerback Charles Tillman? Will Watt or Tillman state his case? Which team will emerge as the battle-tested king? (Until the playoffs, that is.) #HOUvsCHI *
Why this game is No. 2:
This one would have been an easy pick for top honors if you'd looked at the schedule before the season started. It would've been a ridiculous choice if you'd looked at it after Week 4. Now, this makes sense at No. 2. We know what the Atlanta Falcons are. After dispatching the Dallas Cowboys, tight end Tony Gonzalez wondered if the time had come for media folks to finally say, "The Falcons are a good team." Well, it's here. They're good. But a more under-the-radar notion is that the New Orleans Saints could be on their way, too. Really. The belief has always been there. New Orleans followed an 0-4 start with a 3-1 run. Roughing up the Philadelphia Eagles on national TV Monday just solidified Drew Brees' hope that all is not lost. The Falcons should be able to overwhelm that still-leaky Saints defense, even on the road, while Atlanta's own corners present the Saints with the rare duo they can't destroy in the passing attack. Atlanta is poised to pull this out. But if the Saints are the one team to tarnish the Falcons' record, they will have changed the conversation for 2012. #ATLvsNO *
Why this game is No. 3:
The word for this is "rubbernecking." Like when you're driving along the highway, you see a crash and you crane your neck because you can't avoid checking out the carnage. Welcome to Cowboys-Eagles. Loser gets Sean Payton? Well, we're a long ways from that. But the loser will be 3-6 in a surprisingly downtrodden NFC East, and likely kissing any faint playoff hopes goodbye. It's fun to watch winning teams, efficient teams, teams that are going places. They can be electric. But I won't be turning away from this, with so many immediate and future outcomes hanging in the balance. On the field, the biggest key for the Eagles will be keeping Cowboys pass rusher DeMarcus Ware from breezing past a replacement-filled offensive line and spending his day in Michael Vick's lap. The goal, one figures, would be to allow fewer than the seven sacks the Eagles gave up on Monday. As for the Cowboys, if they can't score against this confused unit, they might never get it together. #DALvsPHI *
Why this game is No. 4:
The last time these AFC East rivals played, the New England Patriots found themselves at a crossroads, trailing at halftime and about to go into a deep hole on the road against a Buffalo Bills team that had high expectations for 2012. Then Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes forced a fumble, and the franchises have been going in opposite directions ever since. After dropping a 45-spot on the St. Louis Rams in London, the Pats spent their bye week tinkering with -- not overhauling -- a 5-3 team that is coming into its own on both sides of the ball. As for the Bills, they seem reluctant to give carries to C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, while the "D" has been more like an "F." In Gillette Stadium, the Patriots might just steamroll on. But if Buffalo wants to keep its heart beating, the Bills have to have this one. #BUFvsNE *
Why this game is No. 5:
I'll admit, I'm a sucker for the San Francisco 49ers. Love watching 'em. This game isn't eye-popping on paper, even though it's an NFC West matchup. But I'm excited to see how it turns out, mainly because the St. Louis Rams are one of the few teams that can take the Niners out of their game. Quarterback Alex Smith is coming off one of the most efficient outings in NFL history, with a successful run game giving Smith and his receivers easy access to endless completions against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 8. It will be a challenge to repeat that against a Rams team that has shown flashes of being able to stop the run and can really cover the ball in the air. The physical Cortland Finnegan and the promising Janoris Jenkins will be on the case for St. Louis. Niners receiver Randy Moss hasn't been lighting up the stat sheet, but he still draws double-coverage and opens up the field. My bet is that he won't this time, though, as either corner will be tasked with roughing him up. That extra defender will help St. Louis. Of course, if the 49ers' front four is in Rams quarterback Sam Bradford's face all afternoon, none of that will matter much. #STLvsSF *
Why this game is No. 6:
Just a few short, panic-filled weeks ago, this was shaping up to be a game between two falling and failing franchises. San Diego Chargers coach Norv Turner was reportedly a loss away from being fired, while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just couldn't finish off games. Two weeks later? Not so much. Now the Buccaneers have a chance to win three in a row, thrusting themselves into the playoff conversation. A win by the Chargers, meanwhile, would be enough to give Turner at least a few more weeks. On the field, the matchup between two offenses that fling it deep will be fascinating (and head-turning) to watch. But the subtext is most intriguing. San Diego general manager A.J. Smith is also under fire. And the best player he let walk away via free agency last offseason? The same one he spent 2011 tormenting: Bucs receiver Vincent Jackson. If Jackson thrives on Sunday, it will intensify the spotlight on Smith. How bad will quarterback Philip Rivers be hurting if Jackson -- the one who got away -- torches the Chargers? #SDvsTB *
DON'T SLEEP ON (OR DURING) THESE GAMES
Why this game is No. 7:
If you want to watch the NFC North right itself, this is the one to turn on. A market correction, perhaps. Are the days of the Minnesota Vikings' prominence over nearly as quickly as they began? Percy Harvin is a long-shot to play and quarterback Christian Ponder has looked mortal recently; only the machine-like legs of Adrian Peterson have kept Minnesota competitive. The Vikings are coming down to Earth, and if the Detroit Lions win Sunday, they'll be the ones to punctuate the landing. Remember when we thought Detroit was a possible playoff team? The Lions are fighting to get there again. They've scored at least 28 points in their last two games, and you can see them starting to click. #DETvsMIN *
Why this game is No. 8:
None of the reasons to watch this game include finding out about Tim Tebow's magical new and growing role. Safe to say, if that was going to save the New York Jets' season, it would've been unveiled already. Whether No. 15 takes six snaps or eight isn't that interesting to me. What about the battle between two much-debated pass rushers, first-round draft picks who are often the subject of comparison? OK, I'm into that. The Seattle Seahawks' Bruce Irvin (the 15th overall pick in April) and Gang Green's Quinton Coples (16th) will be measured against each other throughout their careers, and this is their first head-to-head battle in the crazed confines of CenturyLink Field. Really, the reason to check out this game is to see whether the Jets should be talking about 2012 or 2013. Coming off a bye, Jets coach Rex Ryan said this about his team earlier this week: "We're not sniffing the playoffs." A loss will make that a fact. #NYJvsSEA *
Why this game is No. 9:
Any game that gives the Indianapolis Colts -- the talent-starved, rebuilding, crazily young Indianapolis Colts -- a chance to inch closer to a playoff appearance is worth checking out. Sunday's thrilling win over the Miami Dolphins was followed with a heart-string-tugging moment in the locker room with coach Chuck Pagano. The Colts have to deal with a quick turnaround if they want to get to 6-3. In reality, Indianapolis badly needs this one. Those two late-season games against the Houston Texans stand out like a broken thumb on the Colts' schedule, and they need to collect as many wins as possible before that. Oh, and to get revenge on a Jacksonville Jaguars team that handed them a loss in Week 3? That wouldn't be bad for the Colts. As for the Jags, home teams have fared well in Thursday night games. That thought should give them some hope, unlike the prospect of playing without Maurice Jones-Drew once again. #INDvsJAC *
Why this game is No. 10:
Will this be one of the more low-profile games on Sunday? Yup. Yet the stakes are astoundingly high for both teams, though probably more so for the Tennessee Titans. Any time owner Bud Adams throws down the gauntlet and puts the Titans on notice, they had better respond. It doesn't sound like changes will come during the season in Tennessee, but anything is possible after the year's over. Last week's embarrassment against the Chicago Bears sparked Adams' outburst. The Titans simply must look better; the "or else" is understood. The Miami Dolphins, meanwhile, are improbably trending upward, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill gets a chance to continue his impressive rookie season against as welcoming a defense as he'll find. One victory gets Miami back over .500 and back into the playoff mix. #TENvsMIA *