Every year we can point to a few games during the course of the NFL season and say "Wow... that game was extremely pivotal considering what happened in the playoffs."

This season will be no different, as there are several juicy matchups that will likely determine the fate of not only the two teams playing, but also the postseason landscape for the season as a whole.

So which games will those be?  I took a peek at the schedule from Week 1 to 17, and here's is what I found.

Week 1: Dallas @ NY Giants
The defending Super Bowl champs play in Week 1 in a rematch of what was essentially a “play in” game in Week 17 of the 2011 season. The Cowboys and Giants went into that game knowing the winner would get into the playoffs; and we all know what happened once the Giants got in.

The first game of the year often sets the tone for both teams, and this game should be no different. If the Cowboys want to show they’re legitimate, they’re going to have to go on the road and beat a Giants team that had a ton of momentum down the stretch in 2011.

So how important is the first game of the season anyhow? Well, we don’t have to look any further back than 2011, when the Packers played the Saints in a battle between the 2011 Super Bowl Champs and the 2010 Super Bowl Champs. The Packers ultimately prevailed in a game that would have far-reaching consequences; Green Bay went on to finish 15-1, while the Saints finished 13-3 and tied with the 49ers for the bye week in the playoffs. 

The Saints lost out on home field advantage to the 49ers due to tiebreakers, and subsequently were beaten on the road in San Francisco in the divisional playoff round.  Had the Saints beaten the Packers, the Saints would have had the No. 1 seed and home field throughout, which just might have been enough for them to get to the Super Bowl.  Don’t tell Drew Brees and the Saints the first game of the year isn’t important.
Week 4:  New Orleans @ Green Bay
This is a rematch of the pivotal 2011 Week 1 NFL Season Opener contest between the two most recent Super Bowl champs. The game turned out to be highly important to the standings at the end of the season and subsequent bye week seedings, and this contest could have similar ramifications. The Saints will be looking to go into Lambeau and get a little bit of payback as well as keep momentum moving through the first half of the season.  With their first three games being against the Redskins, Panthers, and Chiefs (2 of 3 at home), the Saints likely will enter the game 3-0 looking to take the mantle of the NFC’s team to beat.

The Packers will be hosting their 3rd home game out of four at this point, and will need this win to have momentum before going on the road for the better part of a month. Not to mention, tiebreakers between these two offensive juggernauts are bound to be important, as the Packers don’t want play a Superdome playoff game any more than the Saints want to play one in Lambeau.  Regardless, this game will be entertaining, and will have big time ramifications for the postseason.

Week 9:  Carolina @ Washington
Ok, so who isn’t looking forward to the first game between RGIII and Cam Newton? That’s right, probably no one… except for maybe people who seriously hate excitement, high scores, and statistics ringing up like new liquor sales in Washington state. This game features two of the most athletic QBs to hit the league since Michael Vick, and two defenses that struggled at times last season (Redskins were ranked No. 13 but faded down the stretch, Panthers were No. 28, and pretty much never showed up defensively for 2011).

So why is this game important, other than for the entertainment factor? Well, at the midpoint of the season, this will be a litmus test game for both Newton and RGIII. Are the Panthers and Redskins contenders behind their shiny new QBs?  Or are both at least another season away from competing? My guess is both will still be entertaining realistic postseason hopes at this point, and this game could serve as a springboard to truly competing down the stretch.
Week 12:  New England @ NY Jets
Games between Belichick’s Patriots and Ryan’s Jets are always hotly contested and usually have huge playoff ramifications on the line. Since 2009 when Rex Ryan took over as the Jets' head coach, he is 3-4 versus the Patriots, including the playoffs. 

Week 12 will mark the second of the two regular season matches between these divisional rivals, and will likely either cement the Patriots as the AFC East team to beat, or push the Jets forward into solid contention for the divisional crown. 

If it’s the former, it will mark the fourth time in as many years that the Jets haven’t been able to get over the late-season hump against the Patriots; they’ve lost every second regular season game between the two teams since Ryan took over.  The question is, can the Jets finally send the Patriots into a late-season swoon, or is it going to be more the same with a befuddled Ryan left to try to explain away another loss to Belichick’s crew?
Week 13:  Pittsburgh @ Baltimore
Pittsburgh vs. Baltimore games are always knockdown drag-out fights, with both teams getting in their punches.  Just two years ago, I remember a game between these two when Haloti Ngata pretzeled Ben Roethlisberger’s nose, yet Big Ben didn’t miss a beat and came back in to lead the Steelers, busted schnozz and all. The Week 13 contest should be no different, with both teams looking formidable once again on defense.

Week 13 will mark the second game between these two on the season, and could very well decide the AFC North crown. Likely the division will come down to these two playoff stalwarts, so whoever wins this game will have a leg up on the other in terms of winning the division and getting to the post season. Either way, I’d almost have to expect a third game between these two in the playoffs, which is always a treat.

Week 14:  New Orleans @ NY Giants
Talk about one of the more exciting matchups of the season. The Saints are always a good bet to bring the offensive fireworks, while the Giants and Eli Manning have the ability to go blow for blow with the upper echelon of offenses in the NFL. Best of all, these are two teams that are likely destined to be in the playoffs, and could be a preview of a playoff game about a month down the road.

Playing in the Giants' favor is that they are playing at the New Meadowlands, a place that will be difficult for the Saints to win, especially in December. Both teams will likely need this game to better their playoff chances; and the Giants, who haven’t been great during the regular season, may need to win the game just to get into the playoffs to have the opportunity to defend their Super Bowl title. 

The game will probably be of the utmost importance for the Saints as well, as they will undoubtedly be in the mix for one of the bye weeks, plus with the Falcons nipping on their heels, it would be hard to imagine the Saints already having the NFC South locked up at this point.
Week 14:  Detroit @ Green Bay

Talk about your explosive personalities; the Green Bay Packers were No. 3 in total offense, while the Lions were No. 5, so this game should contain all the requisite fireworks. In fact, Packers/Lions games can be so scoring heavy, a little known backup QB like Matt Flynn can end up with the Packers’ TD pass record and use that to springboard into a lucrative free agent contract.

By Week 14, it’s likely the Packers will have at least secured a playoff berth; but the promise the young Lions hold dictates that they’ll also be in the mix for a playoff spot at this point in the season. In order for the Lions to be taken seriously as legitimate contenders, however, they’re going to have to win a statement game. 

Beating the Packers in Lambeau with a playoff berth on the line for themselves would be just the type of statement the Lions will need to make in order to announce their arrival as a team to be reckoned with. If they lose this one, it will probably damage their postseason hopes at least a little bit.

Week 16:  San Francisco @ Seattle
In 2011, the 49ers literally ran away with the NFC West; they had the division locked up by Week 12, earlier than any of the other division winners clinched. I have a feeling though that the rest of the NFC West made great strides to keep up with San Francisco, especially the Seahawks and the Cardinals. 

The Week 16 game at CenturyLink Field could very well decide the winner of the NFC West this year, or at the very least decide whether or not the NFC West will have a Wild Card representative. The Seahawks are always a tough game when they’re at home, and the 49ers/Seahawks games are almost always competitive. If this one has the playoff implications that I’m expecting, this game could end up one of the more epic tilts between NFC West teams in recent years.
Week 16:  Washington @ Philadelphia
Speaking of playoff implications, late-season games in the NFC East almost always have a huge effect on how the playoffs shake out. Last year, the Week 17 game between the Cowboys and Giants ultimately decided not just who won the NFC East, but also who would end up winning the Super Bowl. Now, this game may not have Super Bowl implications, but it is almost guaranteed to have an effect on the playoffs.

Robert Griffin III could very well have the Redskins in position to steal a Wild Card spot, while Michael Vick will likely have the Eagles fighting for not just a Wild Card, but for the NFC East crown.  A likely scenario would be that Redskins will need this win to keep any flickering postseason hopes alive, while the Eagles will need this game to avoid choking down the stretch and losing the division to either the Giants or the Cowboys. 

Needless to say, this game could end up being part of the beginning of an RGIII legend, or the resurgence of the Eagles as a contender for the championship.

Week 17:  Kansas City @ Denver
If last year’s Giants-Cowboys matchup was a “play in” game for the playoffs, the Chiefs-Broncos game in Week 17 of the 2012 season could shape up that way as well. Both teams have the pieces to compete for the AFC West crown, with the Chiefs sporting an improving defense and a more healthy offense, while the Broncos will be bringing future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning to the mix, which should be good for at least one or two more wins over last year’s 8-8 playoff team.

A lot of the time Week 17 games are anti-climactic, considering most divisions and Wild Card spots will have been filled by that point.  But there are always a couple of games that have the entire postseason riding on it for a couple of teams, and this very well could be one considering the state of parity that’s apparent in the AFC West.

So what do you think?  Any other games that should be mentioned as pivotal in how the season will shake out?  If so, post them up in the comments!