AP Pro Football Writer
Ask the Baltimore Ravens and Washington Redskins about their biggest rivals and they don't mention each other.
For the Ravens, it's usually playing the Pittsburgh Steelers, who beat them last weekend. For the Redskins, it's often the New York Giants, an opponent they edged last Monday night.
Coming off those emotional matchups, the Ravens and Redskins renew the Beltway Bowl, a game that happens only every four years, but on Sunday is of critical importance to both teams.
Unless they faced off in February, of course.
"They call it the Battle of the Beltway," Ravens running back Ray Rice said. "I don't know if you call it bragging rights or whatever. We are two different (conferences), but it's also good to know if you can get a win when you are that close apart. I always said it would be kind of crazy if we have a Ravens-Redskins Super Bowl.
"It's not going to be any different than last week. It's going to be a slugfest. It's going to be two teams that are going out there and fighting."
Baltimore (9-3) leads the AFC North and wins it by beating Washington and seeing both the Steelers and Bengals lose. The Ravens grab a playoff berth with a win and one of those division rivals losing.
Washington (6-6) has won three in a row to move within one game of the Giants atop the NFC East. Rookie sensation Robert Griffin III runs a hybrid offense that has been effective on the ground and in the air.
"RG3, he can put the ball out there and throw it very far," Ravens defensive back Corey Graham said. "They do a lot of play-action reads. RG3, he can do everything. He's a fast guy, he can turn the edge, turn the corner on a lot of guys. He can throw the ball very good and is accurate with his passes also. When you've got a guy that can do pretty much everything, it's a tough challenge."
Also Sunday, it's Miami at San Francisco, New Orleans at the New York Giants, Chicago at Minnesota, Detroit at Green Bay, Atlanta at Carolina, Dallas at Cincinnati, Tennessee at Indianapolis, Arizona at Seattle, Philadelphia at Tampa Bay, San Diego at Pittsburgh, St. Louis at Buffalo, Kansas City at Cleveland, and the New York Jets at Jacksonville.
Monday night has the premier matchup of the week, with Houston at New England.
Houston (11-1) at New England (9-3), Monday night
The best Monday nighter of the season, with the winner emerging as an AFC favorite.
"First off, every game is big here coming down the stretch," said Texans coach Gary Kubiak, whose team -- unlike the perennial contenders from New England -- has not been in this kind of spotlight too often. "We're in position, just like the Patriots are, to kind of control our own destiny moving forward.
"We know we'll have to play extremely well this weekend. We see every week as a big game and obviously in December, they're all huge."
New England's offense has been unstoppable, with the Patriots outscoring opponents by 170 points. The 430 they have put up are 79 more than the Texans, who rank second in scoring.
So a light-up-the-scoreboard affair could be in order, even though Houston ranks sixth in defense.
"They certainly get after the football. They can rush the quarterback," Tom Brady said. "They do a great job stopping the run. They're taking the ball away; they get a lot of balls batted down at the line of scrimmage, interceptions, fumbles. They've won a lot of close games. They've won overtime games. They've come from behind. They've won on the road; they're 6-0 on the road."
at San Francisco (8-3-1)
San Francisco has gotten very sloppy the last two weeks, endangering what was a huge lead in the NFC West. The Niners had 21 penalties in those games out of 88 total for the season, and eight times were called for offensive holding.
Those issues certainly need to be cleaned up before the 49ers visit New England and Seattle the next two weeks.
Miami must find a way to keep linebacker Aldon Smith in check in passing situations. Smith has matched the franchise single-season sacks mark with 17 1/2 , and Miami's starting left tackle, Jake Long, is gone for the season.
New Orleans (5-7)
at N.Y. Giants (7-5)
The Saints have a three-game winning streak against Giants, including two blowouts. But New Orleans is a different team on the road and, for that matter, a lesser version of previous Saints squads with Drew Brees at quarterback. Brees never has lost to the Giants in four games, has 11 touchdowns, no interceptions and a 122.1 passer rating.
But he comes off a five-interception debacle against Atlanta, and faces a Giants team that still must have nightmares over chasing RG3. With trips to Atlanta and Baltimore ahead and just a one-game edge in the NFC East, New York is in dire need of a win here.
at Minnesota (6-6)
Last year, one injury after another, most notably to QB Jay Cutler, victimized the Bears. The injury curse has struck again, with the latest star unable to suit up being Brian Urlacher. That doesn't bode well for a team that has lost three of four and must play Green Bay next week.
"When you start getting depleted and trying to make that run for the division, trying to position yourself for the playoffs or whatever it is, and you don't have your main guys out there, it could be difficult," said Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen, whose club lost outstanding receiver Percy Harvin for the season this week, but has the equally outstanding Adrian Peterson.
Detroit (4-8) at Green Bay (8-4)
Detroit's slide has reached four, all against solid opponents, including the Packers' 24-20 decision three weeks ago. The Lions have been undisciplined and it has really cost them late in games.
They also don't get after the passer as well as would be expected with the likes of Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril on defense. Even worse with Aaron Rodgers on the other side, Detroit struggles in pass coverage.
Atlanta (11-1) at Carolina (3-9)
The Falcons barely escaped against the Panthers in Week 4. Atlanta has clinched the NFC South, but desperately wants to clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, and actually could do so this weekend with a victory and losses by Chicago, Green Bay and San Francisco.
With few blowouts this season, the Falcons haven't overwhelmed anyone despite their gaudy record. It will take some playoff victories to make a major impression, not wins over the likes of the Panthers, who fell at lowly Kansas City -- albeit in an emotion-filled setting -- last Sunday.
Dallas (6-6) at Cincinnati (7-5)
Two teams in the midst of the playoffs races even though each has had a slew of stumbles this season.
Cincinnati has overcome a four-game slide with four consecutive wins, three against AFC West weaklings and one over the Giants, who aren't looking so good recently, either. The Bengals do seem a legit contender, though, as their defense has stepped up, allowing a mere 42 points in the winning string.
Dallas confounds everyone, and if it could hold onto leads late in games, it might very well be leading the NFC East. The Cowboys trail the Giants by one game, but their last four victories are against Carolina, Cleveland and two against Philadelphia, all last-place teams.
at Indianapolis (8-4)
Here's how stunningly well this season is going for the Colts: win here and next week at Houston -- a tall order, that one -- and Indy could own a playoff spot. That's how effective the new regime and its collection of new players, including, of course, top overall draft pick Andrew Luck, has been.
Winners of six of the last seven outings, the Colts come off one of the most exhilarating comebacks in the league this year, capped by a final-play touchdown at Detroit.
Arizona (4-8) at Seattle (7-5)
The first of three home games with NFC West rivals for the Seahawks, a huge edge in the schedule that could help them make the playoffs. Seattle is 5-0 at home and comes off its most impressive late-game performance; forget that replacement officials-aided last-second win over Green Bay in Week 3.
No team has collapsed deeper than the Cardinals, who won their first four, but haven't tasted victory in two months. Their quarterback situation is a total mess, and they can't stop the run.
at Tampa Bay (6-6)
While the Eagles can't get the season over quick enough, Tampa Bay still has big plans. Losses to the Falcons and Broncos the last two weeks were damaging, but the Bucs remain in the wild-card chase and can't afford a stumble here.
Their productive offense could tear through a weakened and sometimes disinterested Eagles defense; look for receiver Vincent Jackson to excel in his matchup with whichever defensive backs cover him.
San Diego (4-8)
at Pittsburgh (7-5)
For those who believe the Steelers saved their season with that impressive victory at Baltimore, hold on. They remain vulnerable until Ben Roethlisberger is healthy enough to function like the winning quarterback he has been.
But the defense has come on and might be good enough to lift the Steelers to the playoffs while Roethlisberger fully recovers.
San Diego has lost four straight and seven of eight as it plays out the string in perhaps the final season for coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith.
St. Louis (5-6-1) at Buffalo (5-7)
St. Louis is the only team in the league that wishes it could face San Francisco more often after a tie and a win against the 49ers. This week, though, it's Buffalo, which runs the ball nearly as well as the Niners, but has trouble stopping it. Could be a productive day for the Rams' Steven Jackson and the Bills' C.J. Spiller on the ground.
The Rams could play a role in who gets an NFC wild-card slot because they face Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Seattle after this. The Bills have not beaten a team that currently has a winning mark. Of course, St. Louis doesn't have one, either.
Kansas City (2-10)
at Cleveland (4-8)
The Browns are showing some life since new owner Jimmy Haslam took over, and perhaps they can save coach Pat Shurmur's job with continued strong performances. Cleveland is plus-7 in turnover differential, which could be a huge edge against Kansas City, which ranks at the bottom of the NFL with a minus-21 and 32 giveaways.
KC comes off an uplifting victory against Carolina one day after linebacker Jovan Belcher shot to death his girlfriend and then committed suicide.
New York Jets (5-7)
at Jacksonville (2-10)
Mark Sanchez remains behind center, and not necessarily on a short leash given the backup situation with the Jets. New York has gotten sloppy in virtually every offensive area, with the spotlight, naturally, on Sanchez's failings. But the running game isn't much, the receivers have been pedestrian and the offensive line has continued its 2011 slump.
Yet the Jets' remaining opponents, beginning with the AFC-worst Jaguars, have a 15-33 record.