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By Milt Northrop

The National Football League is heading into the home half of the schedule where some games become truly meaningful.

The three teams with the best records in the league face important games on today’s Week 10 schedule. At the top of the slate, the Houston Texans (7-1), with the best record in the American Conference go to Chicago to face the 7-1 Bears, who are out in front of the NFC North.

Atlanta (8-0), the NFL only unbeaten team goes to New Orleans to face the Saints in telling matchup. If the Falcons win, they will drop their leading division rivals and defending NFC South champions six games back and, for all practical purposes, wrap up the division. The Saints probably need the win just to stay in the wild-card picture and put a dent on the Falcons’ confidence.

Also, a Falcons loss and a win at home by the surprising Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-4) over San Diego would throw a little mystery in the division race.

In the AFC North, first-place Baltimore has a one-game lead over Pittsburgh with two games left against the Steelers, including next week at Heinz Field. Both are favored in home games this week.

A look at the games:

Game of the day

Texans (7-1) at Bears (7-1)

TV: Ch. 2, 8:20 p.m.

The line: Bears (-1)

The scoop: Toughest stretch of season for Chicago. Road game at 49ers is next. ... Texans’ only loss was to another NFC North opponent (Green Bay, 42-24). ... Bears already have seven INT returns for touchdowns, third most in league history. Record for one season is nine by 1961 Chargers.

Outlook: Texans not ready to step up in big road game. Chicago, 21-16.

Top attractions

Falcons (8-0) at Saints (3-5)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Falcons (-2)

The scoop: Saints, not the Bills, have the worst defense (as of now) in the NFL, allowing 471.3 yards per game. ... Falcons 8-0 for first time in franchise history, but seemed begging to lose the shaky way they closed out Monday night victory over Eagles.

Outlook: Falcons should pick Saints “D” apart unless Matt Ryan tries to force ball. Atlanta, 34-27.

Lions (4-4) at Vikings (5-4)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Lions (-2½)

The scoop: Vikings QB Christian Ponder is 38 for 74 for only 372 yards with 2 TDs, 4 INTs last three games with 10 sacks. He is 4-1 in last five home starts. ... Vikings rookie kicker Blair Walsh has hit 19 of 20 FGs. ...Lions QB Matthew Stafford passed 10,000 career mark in passing yards last week. ... Win last year was Detroit’s first in Minneapolis since 1997.

Outlook: Lions don’t travel well, but Detroit 30-21.

Cowboys (3-5) at Eagles (3-5)

TV: Ch. 29, 4:15 p.m.

The line: Dallas (-2)

The scoop: A struggle for survival. Loser of this one will be in deep trouble, if they are not already. Eagles have taken over Jets’ role as the NFL’s leading soap opera. ... Cowboys, especially owner Jerry Jones, are drama queens, too. ... Eagles can’t protect Michael Vick so DeMarcus Ware figures to add to his sack total (9),

Outlook: Eagles are due. Philadelphia, 31-27.

Chargers (4-4) at Buccaneers (4-4)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Buccaneers (-3)

The scoop: Bucs unleashed rookie RB Doug Martin (Boise State) for 251 yards and three TDs in win at Oakland. Tampa Bay offense has exploded for 144 points (36 ppg.) in last four games. ... Hiring of Rutgers coach Greg Schiano looking like a stroke of genius now. ... Chargers rout of Chiefs relieved a little bit of pressure on coach Norv Turner, but mood in San Diego is ugly.

Outlook: This one could be fun to watch. San Diego, 31-27.

Bills (3-5) at Patriots (5-3)

TV: Ch. 4, 1 p.m.

The line: Patriots (-12)

The scoop: Little-known fact: Only two current Patriots (Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork) have played on a Super Bowl winner with New England. ... Buffalo is 0-10 at Gillette Stadium. ... New England is 52-21 versus divisional opponents under Bill Belichick, 22-3 against the Bills. ... New England is 9-3 after a bye week under Belichick (4-1 against the Bills), one win in 2004 when Buffalo also came off a bye.

Outlook: Bills have fallen apart after building leads against New England in last two meetings. Patriots, 31-17.

Raiders (3-5) at Ravens (6-2)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Ravens (-7½)

The scoop: Baltimore is 5-1 all-time against Raiders and has won last 14 at home. Ravens coming off unimpressive win at Browns. ... Ravens QB Joe Flacco is 32-5 at home (including postseason). ... After cutting 25-point deficit to three and gaining possession. Raiders couldn’t capitalize at home against Buccaneers last week.

Outlook: With Steelers in rear-view mirror, Ravens have to keep winning. Baltimore 24-13.

Broncos (5-3) at Panthers (2-6)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Broncos (-4)

The scoop: Former Carolina coach John Fox leads Broncos against his old team. ... Denver’s Peyton Manning needs two TD passes to pass Dan Marino (420) for second most in NFL since 1970. ... Broncos LB Von Miller (9 sacks) will be zeroing in on Cam Newton of Panthers.

Outlook: Carolina has only one bad loss. Five of six defeats by six or less.. Manning on fire. Broncos, 27-20.

Giants (6-3) at Bengals (3-5)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Giants (-4)

The scoop: Giants trying to right ship after getting beaten up at home by Steelers. Paper Tigers have lost last four. Their three wins were over teams with a combined 6-20 record.

Outlook: Giants have been better on road (3-1) than at home. New York, 33-20.

Best of the rest

Titans (3-6) at Dolphins (4-4)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Dolphins (-6)

The scoop: Turnovers and special teams breakdowns led to 51-20 rout at home against Bears last week and set off owner Bud Adams, who is threatening to clean house. ... Three of Fish losses have been by three points, two in overtime.

Outlook: Powder Blues won’t go easily. Dolphins, 20-17.

Jets (3-5) at Seahawks (5-4)

Kickoff: 4:05 p.m.

The line: Seahawks (-6)

The scoop: Jets coming off bye while Seahawks were winning at home over Vikings. ... Gang Green’s offense is struggling while Seattle defense is No. 2 in NFC behind only San Francisco.

Outlook: Nobody has an easy time with Seahawks. Seattle, 24-17.

Rams (3-5) at 49ers (6-2)

Kickoff: 4:15 p.m.

The line: 49ers (-12)

The scoop: NFL schedule-maker must have made a mistake because both teams are coming off a bye, which is only fair. ... Niners shut down Cardinals, 24-3, in last game, fourth time this season SF has kept an opponent out of the end zone.

Outlook: Rams have been competitive in most games, but Niners have allowed only 38 points in last five games. San Francisco, 27-6.

Dog of the day

Chiefs (1-7) at Steelers (5-3)

TV: ESPN, Monday, 8:30 p.m.

The line: Steelers (-12½)

The scoop: Poor Romeo Crennel. His floundering team has lost five in a row since upset win in OT at Saints and KC has not had a lead yet. Now he has to face Steelers a team he is 0-8 against in his coaching career. Is anybody having a better season than Ben Roethlisberger (16 TDs-4 INTs, 101.1 rating)?

Outlook: Steelers looking for 15th straight home win on Monday Night Football. Pittsburgh 28-13.

Last week’s results: 12-1 outright, 12-1 versus spread. Season’s record: 72-51 outright, 56-65-3 versus spread.

email: mnorthrop@buffnews.com