If form through the first half of the National Football League (NFL) season is a guide, Sunday's clash between the Houston Texans and the Chicago Bears could be a potential Super Bowl preview.
The Texans lead the AFC with a 7-1 record and the Bears have an identical record, bettered in the NFC only by the unbeaten Atlanta Falcons (8-0).
Critics of the Bears point to their relatively easy schedule so far and the way they struggled against the toughest team they have had to face so far this season - the Green Bay Packers who beat them 23-10 in week two.
Certainly, the Bears face a much tougher second half to the season with the San Francisco 49ers, the Minnesota Vikings [twice], the Seattle Seahawks and the return with the Packers in their next six games.
"You don't win anything when you start 7-1 but it helps," said head coach Lovie Smith this week.
"We don't have a lot of injuries and I feel like our arrow is pointing up....we are pleased where we are," he added.
The Bears have the sixth-ranked overall defence in the NFL and that success has been complimented by the success of wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
The Bears traded for Marshall from the Miami Dolphins in the hope that he could re-kindle the relationship he enjoyed with quarterback Jay Cutler at Denver and the gamble has paid off.
Marshall is ranked fourth in the league among wide receivers having put up 797 yards and scored seven touchdowns, three of them in last week's 51-20 crushing of the Tennessee Titans.
"He's doing a great job for this offence. He's attracting a lot of attention and he's still able to play at a high level, catch balls and make things happen on a Sunday," said Cutler.
Cutler, though, will have to contend with Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, who leads the league in sacks (10.5) and also has 10 pass break-ups.
The Bears' offensive line has not always given Cutler the best protection possible and they will need to be well aware of the threat Watt poses, especially given his current level of confidence.
"I see opportunities for sacks against every offensive line. I've watched the film, you see opportunities, you get excited," said Watt.
Also Sunday, unbeaten Atlanta heads to archrival New Orleans; Houston is at Chicago; Denver at Carolina; San Diego at Tampa Bay; Oakland at Baltimore; the New York Giants at Cincinnati; St. Louis at San Francisco; the New York Jets at Seattle; Buffalo at New England; Tennessee at Miami; and Detroit at Minnesota.
Dallas (3-5) at Philadelphia (3-5)
The Cowboys and Eagles were going to challenge the Giants for NFC East supremacy. Instead, they face off Sunday in what might be dubbed the Flop Bowl: a pair of 3-5 teams with deep-rooted problems.
What once was a matchup of high-profile teams that offered plenty of excitement and big plays, Cowboys-Eagles now looks like a Keystone Cops movie. Or maybe the Three Stooges.
It's difficult to tell which of these supposed contenders has been more inept. Philadelphia has scored a meagre 133 points, but Dallas isn't much better with 150. The Eagles displayed their weakness at tackling in last Monday's debacle at New Orleans, and the Cowboys have had similar fundamental problems all year.
Both teams are turnover machines, too. Michael Vick can't hold onto the ball, but neither can Dallas' receivers. Vick and the Eagles have 19 giveaways, including an absurd 10 fumbles. The Cowboys also have turned it over 19 times, with Tony Romo leading the NFL with 13 interceptions.
"Right now, there are a few things we need to take care of," said Eagles coach Andy Reid, who has never been more criticized in his previous 13 seasons. "You focus in on the job at hand. You don't get past that. You don't start going past and thinking about records, futures, and all those things.
"There is no time to think about those things and the guys are worrying about getting themselves better to win football games. That's number one. That's where I sit."
The arrows are flying at Romo and the rest of the Cowboys just as regularly.
"There have been too many different things," said tight end Jason Witten, one of the few Cowboys with consistent performances this season. "[Teams] that are good in this league are consistent. That's not what we've been. Each week it's different, and you've got to eliminate it and get it fixed.
"The results have got to come. They've got to come soon."
Atlanta (8-0) at New Orleans (3-5)
Usually, this is a meeting of NFC South titans, but the Saints have not done their part. Still, they come off their best performance in a 28-13 victory over Philadelphia, their third win in four games. And they surely will be stoked to play the runaway division leaders, especially with the Falcons being undefeated.
"For the players, it feels like every time we play the Falcons it's such a big game, whether it be our standings or the meaning of the game (or) just the fact that we're divisional opponents," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "We always know it's going to be a 16-round bout. But, I think it's kind of obvious that there's an extreme competitiveness on both sides knowing what type of game this will be."
Eight teams have gone 9-0 since 2002. Four went on to play in the Super Bowl and two (2006 Indianapolis and 2009 New Orleans) won it.
Denver (5-3) at Carolina (2-6)
Peyton Manning is closing in on more milestones, and current coach John Fox would be a very willing recipient of Manning's latest achievements against the team that fired him after the 2010 season.
With two touchdown passes at Carolina, Manning would pass Dan Marino for the second-most touchdown passes in NFL annals; Marino had 420. Brett Favre holds the record with 508.
And with a win, Manning will tie Marino with 147 career regular-season victories, trailing only John Elway (148) and Favre (186).
The Panthers have fallen apart since Fox left, going 8-16 under Ron Rivera, but Fox draws no pleasure from that.
"I have a lot of great relationships there," Fox said. "It was the place that gave me my first opportunity as a head coach, so I'll always be indebted for that. I still own a home there. Some of my sons live that way, so it will be good to be back but it's the NFL and this game's only fun when you're winning."
San Diego (4-4) at Tampa Bay (4-4)
Vincent Jackson is having a terrific first season with the Buccaneers, and now he gets to show how good he is playing against the team that let him walk as a free agent after several contract hassles.
Jackson has 31 catches for 710 yards and six touchdowns, but most eye-opening is his 22.9-yard average per reception — game-breaker territory. No one in the league with as many as 20 catches comes close.
"Vincent is a great talent with his size and speed. He also has great hands and the ability to catch the ball in traffic and make things happen," quarterback Josh Freeman said. "Vincent's been tremendous. He complements Mike Williams and vice versa. Having those two allows you to do a lot of things with your offence.
"Off the field the guy is a leader and a hard worker."
Oakland (3-5) at Baltimore (6-2)
The Ravens have won six of the seven meetings and three in a row. Oakland comes in limping, particularly at running back with both Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson dealing with sprained right ankles.
Baltimore, which has won 14 consecutive home games, has two players in reach of milestones. Ray Rice needs 1 yard rushing to reach 5,000 for his career. Receiver Anquan Boldin needs 32 yards to reach 10,000 from scrimmage for his career.
An interesting sidelight: Oakland rookie offensive lineman Tony Bergstrom will be playing against his brother-in-law, Ravens LB Paul Kruger.
Kansas City (1-7) at Pittsburgh (5-3), Monday night
ESPN might be looking for some college hoops to put in the prime-time slot.
The Chiefs, ranked at the bottom of the AP Pro32, have been awful in nearly every phase except running the ball. Most notable is their turnover woes: a ludicrous 29 giveaways, and a minus-20 differential.
Pittsburgh has begun playing like the Steelers we expect, using a power running game, stingy defence and timely special teams. Most impressive might be the depth at running back, where Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer have 100-yard games — and they are the backups to Rashard Mendenhall.
New York Giants (6-3) at Cincinnati (3-5)
The Giants' offence has gone into something of a funk and Eli Manning has been off his game the last two weeks. With receiver Hakeem Nicks hobbled, that doesn't help the equation for New York, which was outplayed and overpowered at home last Sunday by the Steelers, even though the score was only 24-20.
Without Nicks, star slot receiver Victor Cruz is seeing double and even triple coverage.
"We're still able to find our spots and find our areas where I can get the ball and be effective," he said. "But I have to work through a lot more traffic to get there."
Cincinnati has been run over by traffic, dropping four straight.
St. Louis (3-5) at San Francisco (6-2)
Both teams come off byes, with the Rams playing their worst game of the season in their "home" contest against New England in London. They have lost seven of the last eight in this series.
San Francisco has an 11-game home winning streak against the NFC West.
"They're well-coached," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "The special teams units are very productive. Their statistics reflect that they're very productive on both sides of the ball. They tackle well. One thing about this team is they don't make many mistakes."
Indeed, the Niners have just nine giveaways, and only Tom Brady has thrown fewer interceptions than Alex Smith's five.
New York Jets (3-5) at Seattle (5-4)
The Jets also are coming off a bye during which they tried to fix, well, everything. In their last outing, they were awful on offence, defence and special teams in a loss to Miami.
Of special interest here is the relationship between Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and Jets QB Mark Sanchez. When both were at Southern California, Carroll urged Sanchez to return for his senior year, saying he didn't think Sanchez was ready for the NFL. But Sanchez left — and led the Jets to the AFC title game in his first two seasons after being selected in the first round of the 2009 draft.
Player and coach remain close.
Buffalo (3-5) at New England (5-3)
The final of the four teams coming back from an idle week, the Patriots have to love the Bills being their first opponent. New England has won 17 of the last 18 against the Bills and scored a season-high 52 points in its win at Buffalo on Sept. 30, with touchdowns on six straight second-half possessions. Buffalo ranks 31st in defence, while the Patriots are No. 1 with 32.8 points and 440.8 yards per game.
Brady is 19-2 against the Bills with 49 TD passes.
Tennessee (3-6) at Miami (4-4)
Titans owner Bud Adams put everyone on alert for their jobs after last week's fiasco against Chicago. Most pressing is finding someone — anyone — who can play some defence. Tennessee has allowed 308 points, historically bad numbers, and ranks 30th in overall D.
Jake Locker will return at quarterback for the Titans, barring a setback to his left, non-throwing shoulder. He missed five games.
Miami hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 22 consecutive games, but Chris Johnson has run for more than 100 yards both times he has faced the Dolphins.
Detroit (4-4) at Minnesota (5-4)
Teams headed in opposite directions: Minnesota has lost two in a row and three of four as the passing game has disappeared. The Vikings must keep finding ways to get wideout Percy Harvin involved even as QB Christian Ponder struggles. At least they have the league's top rusher, Adrian Peterson, to be a focal point.
Lately, the Lions have displayed offensive balance, getting strong performances from someone other than Calvin Johnson.
Second-year pros RB Mikel Leshoure and WR Titus Young have been especially effective, and Leshoure became the franchise's first player since 1934 to run for three touchdowns in a half in last week's 31-14 win at Jacksonville. He has run for 375 yards in six games since being suspended for the first two weeks of the season.
With reports from the Associated Press