Every win in the NFL counts, whether it's in Week 1 or Week 16. But wins against your division mates seem to mean a little more, which is why Dom Capers has always stressed the importance of division games.
"I like to think of division games as almost two games," the Texans' head coach said.
The math is relatively simple. A win for you creates a loss for them and vice versa. The domino effect is swift and significant.
If that's the case, then there are plenty of doubleheaders ahead for the four teams in the AFC South. Unlike last season, where there was a clear separation between the haves (Indianapolis, Tennessee) and the have-nots (Houston, Jacksonville), this season the AFC South is one of the more competitive divisions in the league.
The Colts and Jaguars are tied atop the division with a 5-3 record, having already split their season meetings. The Texans, who are 2-0 in the division, are one game back at 4-4. Tennessee, coming off its bye week, is 3-5.
That's two games separating four teams. And the schedule ensures we'll see a lot of shuffling as the calendar flips from November to December.
"Everyone talks about other divisions," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said. "At the same time, I was saying the AFC South would be the top division this year. I still feel that way. You have all four teams that are still in contention right now. Everybody was talking about the Titans for a long time, but what Jacksonville and Houston are doing right now is no surprise to me. We've always had a lot of respect for every team in the division. Every time we play Houston is a challenge."
The division still goes through Indianapolis, which is why the Texans' game at RCA Dome Sunday looms large. Houston entered this season with a division record of 2-10, with both wins coming against Jacksonville. But the Texans have already defeated the Titans and Jaguars in 2004 and over the next five weeks, Houston will face the Colts twice and the Titans once. Win all of those, or even those of those, and the table is set nicely for December.
But that's easier said than done. The Texans got the Tennessee monkey off their back (much to the delight of Space City) but they have yet to beat the Colts in four tries. Only one of those games was really close. The road to AFC South supremacy still runs through Indianapolis.
"Well, they're the division champs," Capers said. "They're the team you have to beat in this division, I think. They've had a group together there for a lot of years. They've had the same coaching staff, they're talented, they're well-coached and they're highly efficient. You don't have to put on much tape to realize that."
After their Monday night win over the Vikings, the Colts also have three division games over the next five weeks. Home games with Houston and Tennessee are sandwiched around two interconference road trips to Chicago and Detroit. And after hosting the Titans, Indianapolis makes the return trip to Reliant Stadium.
The Colts missed a golden opportunity to sweep the Jaguars on Oct. 24. But after winning at Jacksonville earlier in the season, Indianapolis came out flat and failed to hold serve, losing 27-24. Nevertheless, the Colts are still 2-1 in the division and two home wins would put them in the driver's seat at 4-1. At that point, a victory in Houston would almost ensure a repeat for Indianapolis.
Jacksonville has been one of the NFL's surprise stories at 5-3. But the Jaguars are coming off a 20-6 loss to Houston that produced an unwanted ripple effect beyond the standings. Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich injured his knee in the second quarter. He returned to finish the game but now is expected to miss the next two games.
In steps David Garrard, who has seen limited action in two-plus seasons. Jacksonville hosts the Lions this week before hosting the Titans the following Sunday. Already sporting two division losses, the Jaguars will likely need to beat Tennessee and the Texans the day after Christmas to put some heat on Indianapolis.
The Titans are seemingly out of the division picture, especially considering their 0-3 record in division games. And all of those losses were at home. But if Tennessee can beat the Bears Sunday to raise its record to 4-5, the Titans can certainly make the rest of the month interesting.
After hosting Chicago, the Titans have three consecutive games on the road. And all three are division games -- Jacksonville, Houston, Indianapolis. A potential murderers' row, to be sure. But it ensures Tennessee will have a say in who wins the AFC South.
The jockeying starts Sunday in Indianapolis.
"Everyone is going to come back on Sunday and try to prove themselves," quarterback David Carr said. "This is a big step for us regardless of what happened last week or what happened the past month. This is a division team and this is a team that everyone around the league knows and respects.
"But if we win then they'll give us some respect."