The NFL season is past the midpoint, and each game becomes more valuable for teams with postseason ambitions.
In the AFC, the New England Patriots are looking to remain undefeated while facing a potential playoff opponent in the Baltimore Ravens. Elsewhere, teams like the Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks are hoping to remain atop their divisions while facing challengers hoping to turn their season around.
Here are three things to watch for this NFL Sunday:
1. The NFL’s best defense versus a worthy opponent
The New England Patriots are famous for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the quarterback and coach duo that’s responsible for six Super Bowl trophies. While Brady has been excellent during the team’s 8-0 run to start the season, ranking among the NFL’s top 10 for quarterback rating, the story has been the Patriot’s defense.
The Patriots are only allowing 7.6 points per game, which puts all other teams to shame. No one else in the NFL is holding opponents under 10 points per contest.
“All of America respects this team … they have guys that know how to play and that shows up in stats like sacks and interceptions,” said John Harbaugh, head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. The two teams will clash on Sunday evening.
The New England defense keeps opposing teams in check by creating turnovers (19 interceptions so far) and limiting yardage (31 sacks).
However, they haven’t had to face a threat like the Raven’s Lamar Jackson. Ravens tight end Nick Boyle told ESPN‘s Jamison Hensley: “I don’t think they’ve seen anyone like our offense or like Lamar.”
Patriots’ safety Devin McCourty told reporters he agrees: “He (Jackson) can make three guys miss in the backfield, and now it’s 45-55 yards before anybody can get next to him.”
The speedy quarterback has run for 576 yards this season, which would place him in the top 10 of running backs. That explosiveness has helped Baltimore to three straight victories, and they’ll be looking to hand New England their first loss of the year.
Watch: New England Patriots vs. Baltimore Ravens at 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC
2. A clash of quarterbacks
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have finished with a 5-11 record the past two years, a far cry from what the team expected when it drafted quarterback Jameis Winston first overall in 2015. New coach Bruce Arians was supposed to right the ship, but at 2-5, the team remains a work-in-progress.
The team needs Winston, a high-volume thrower, to make better decisions to get some wins. Three of Tampa Bay’s five losses have been by a touchdown or less, so the Bucs have some hope of beating the Seattle Seahawks this weekend.
But with a calm and collected Russell Wilson on the opposite sideline, Winston will need to curb his turnovers for his squad to have a chance. Winston spoke highly of the Seahawks field general, noting in his weekly presser: “I got to spend some time with him at the 2015 Pro Bowl … just how he carries himself, he’s a true leader.”
The Seahawks have nearly the opposite record at 6-2. The team rebounded with a win against the Atlanta Falcons last week after the Ravens ended Seattle’s three-game win streak.
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll told reporters he’s still looking for improvement from his squad: “We’re turning the corner on the halfway point … it’s important that we keep getting fundamentally better.”
For a team that only reached the wild-card game last season, minor technical improvements could mean a return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2014. But Carroll isn’t overlooking Tampa, a team he believes is difficult to plan for because “they have a very explosive team … they’re going to come after you.”
Watch: Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Seattle Seahawks at 4:05 p.m. ET on Fox.
3. Colts look to continue their surprise season
The Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers hit roadblocks in the early days of the season, relying on backups instead of their projected quarterbacks.
Ben Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl champion, was knocked out of the Steelers’ second game of the season and required season-ending surgery. The quarterback position has been in flux since then, with backup quarterback Mason Rudolph suffering a concussion against the Ravens in early October.
Devlin Hodges would fill in admirably for Rudolph, helping Pittsburgh to a win against the San Diego Chargers. Rudolph then returned against the Miami Dolphins and continued the winning streak for the group of quarterbacks-by-committee.
As for the Colts, Andrew Luck, the former No. 1 overall pick in 2012, retired before the season after a series of injuries restricted his ability to play.
Jacoby Brissett, Tom Brady’s former backup in New England, has performed admirably in his place. The team is 5-2, and each loss has been by only a touchdown.
Brissett has thrown for 14 touchdowns against three interceptions, and his smart decision making is a big part of the Colts’ unexpected hot start. The fourth-year man from NC State isn’t only doing well on the field, he’s also doing good in the community. For Halloween, Brissett hosted a runway show for kids with cancer, helping them show off their costumes for their families.
Watch: Indianapolis Colts vs. Pittsburgh Steelers at 1 p.m. ET on CBS