If you're willing to accept the notion of a must-win game occurring in Week 1 of the NFL season, you'll want to pay careful attention when the Dallas Cowboys host the New York Giants for a Sunday night game on Sept. 10.
According to Football Power Index (FPI) projections, there won't be a game more important to either team's playoff hopes than that late-summer NFC East showdown. Put simply, if the Cowboys start 1-0, FPI will give them a 70.8 percent chance of reaching the 2017 playoffs. Lose that game, and their odds to reach the postseason drop below a coin flip (46.7 percent).
Meanwhile, the Giants' playoff chances are 55.9 percent with a win in Dallas in Week 1, a figure that plummets to 30.3 percent if they lose.
It's where the high value of a win meets the high risk of a loss that we arrive at the definition of "playoff leverage." With that in mind, we had FPI look at the game that each team's playoff push would hinge on most greatly, then ranked them in order of which teams would need to put the greatest emphasis on a single game:
1. New York Giants
Key game: at Cowboys (Week 1) | Playoff leverage: 25.6 percent
FPI sees the Sunday night trip to meet the defending NFC East champs as the Giants' most difficult game of the season. As such, a victory would greatly improve the team's playoff odds.
2. Indianapolis Colts
Key game: at Texans (Week 9) | Playoff leverage: 25.5 percent
The AFC South projects as the tightest division in the league, according to FPI, meaning the race will pivot on key intra-division games. The Colts' matchup at the Texans in Week 9 narrowly edges their trip to meet the Titans in Week 6 as Indy's most important.
3. Kansas City Chiefs
Key game: vs. Raiders (Week 14) | Playoff leverage: 24.8 percent
FPI also sees the AFC West as a near-dead heat, this one including the Chiefs and Raiders, meaning their Week 14 clash in Kansas City figures to be pivotal in determining playoff viability and seeding. A win would give the Chiefs a 66.1 percent chance of reaching the playoffs.
4. Dallas Cowboys
Key game: vs. Giants (Week 1) | Playoff leverage: 24.1 percent
As mentioned, the Week 1 game at Jerryworld is nearly as big for the Cowboys as for the Giants. An early win against what FPI sees as its primary rival for the division title would set Dallas up nicely.
5. Atlanta Falcons
Key game: vs. Buccaneers (Week 12) | Playoff leverage: 24.1 percent
It's more about what the Falcons stand to lose than what they'll gain. If Atlanta can't avoid a home loss against what FPI projects as the weakest team in the division, it would lower the Falcons' playoff probability to 43.7 percent.
6. Arizona Cardinals
Key game: at Seahawks (Week 17) | Playoff leverage: 24.1 percent
A division road game in the season's final week is what FPI projects as the Cardinals' most difficult and impactful game. Of course, Arizona will have some work to do to make this contest meaningful.
7. Carolina Panthers
Key game: at Saints (Week 13) | Playoff leverage: 24 percent
The Panthers are projected by FPI as the most likely NFL team to earn a wild-card berth, and their game in New Orleans looms large both in terms of reaching the postseason field (61.1 percent if they win) and winning the division (40 percent).
8. Tennessee Titans
Key game: at Texans (Week 4) | Playoff leverage: 23.9 percent
A win in Houston would speak well of Tennessee's chances to cut a three-team race in the AFC South down to two. Tennessee's chances to reach the playoffs would be 55.8 percent with a win, and would drop to 31.9 percent with a loss.
9. Baltimore Ravens
Key game: vs. Steelers (Week 4) | Playoff leverage: 23.7 percent
FPI projects Baltimore as the AFC favorite to take a wild-card spot, and a home win over the rival Steelers would raise its playoff probability to 60.8 percent. A win here also elevates the Ravens' chances of taking the AFC North to better than 1-in-3.
10. Oakland Raiders
Key game: at Chiefs (Week 14) | Playoff leverage: 23.5 percent
Just as it is for the aforementioned Chiefs, the Dec. 10 game in Arrowhead is narrowly the Raiders' highest-leverage game. FPI projects five Oakland games between 22.4 percent and 23.5 percent leverage, and all are division games.
11. Minnesota Vikings
Key game: at Packers (Week 16) | Playoff leverage: 23 percent
Minnesota's game at Green Bay in the penultimate week of the season is pivotal to either a division crown or a wild-card berth. A win at what figures to be a frigid Lambeau Field would raise the Vikings' playoff probability to 58.8 percent.
12. Philadelphia Eagles
Key game: at Cowboys (Week 11) | Playoff leverage: 23 percent
The Eagles never need extra motivation to beat the Cowboys, but a road win over the FPI division favorites would be the difference between a near coin flip to make the playoffs (49.1 percent) to roughly a 1-in-4 chance (26.1 percent) with a loss.
13. Cincinnati Bengals
Key game: at Ravens (Week 17) | Playoff leverage: 22.8 percent
The Week 17 matchup in Baltimore may end up a win-and-in scenario for both teams, which jibes with the fact that the Bengals' best chance to make the playoffs, per FPI, relies on winning this game (53.3 percent if they do).
14. Houston Texans
Key game: at Colts (Week 17) | Playoff leverage: 22.1 percent
The most likely scenario for the Texans to reach the playoffs is by winning the AFC South, and a road win against the FPI division-favorite Colts in Week 17 projects to be pivotal in that quest.
15. Green Bay Packers
Key game: vs. Vikings (Week 16) | Playoff leverage: 21.5 percent
FPI thinks so highly of Green Bay that a home loss to Minnesota would still leave the Packers with a 59.1 percent chance to make the playoffs -- but a defeat here means their path is more likely to come as a wild card than a division winner.
16. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Key game: at Falcons (Week 12) | Playoff leverage: 21.3 percent
Going on the road to take down FPI's favorite to win the division would more likely bolster a wild-card run than a division title push. FPI projects Tampa as the least likely of four candidates to win the NFC South, but the Bucs' playoff probability jumps to 41.4 percent with a victory here.
17. New Orleans Saints
Key game: at Falcons (Week 14) | Playoff leverage: 21.1 percent
Both this game and the Saints' home matchup against Carolina the week before possess high playoff leverage figures of more than 21 percent. Saints/Falcons narrowly edges Saints/Panthers because of its impact on the division (18.2 percent division leverage, compared to 14.4 in Week 13).
18. Washington Redskins
Key game: at Cowboys (Week 13) | Playoff leverage: 21.1 percent
The Redskins' trip to Dallas looms largest in their playoff quest -- just as it is for the division-rival Giants and Eagles. FPI sees a road win against the Cowboys as the primary driver of their chances to make the postseason (38.3 percent if they do).
19. Denver Broncos
Key game: at Chiefs (Week 8) | Playoff leverage: 20.4 percent
The Broncos' highest-leverage game of the season is their trip to Kansas City, just beating out a Week 4 home against the Raiders. In FPI's 10,000 simulations, winning both gets Denver into the playoffs more often than not.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers
Key game: vs. Ravens (Week 14) | Playoff leverage: 20.3 percent
The return game of the always contentious Steelers-Ravens home-and-home is Pittsburgh's highest-leverage game of the season. While the Steelers would still be above 60 percent to make the playoffs with a loss, the division title could swing on this matchup (as it did in 2016).
21. Detroit Lions
Key game: at Packers (Week 9) | Playoff leverage: 19.8 percent
If they're going to challenge for a playoff spot, no game would help the Lions more than a midseason matchup against the FPI division favorites on the road. Detroit's playoff probability jumps to 39.9 percent with what would be a rare win in Green Bay.
22. Los Angeles Chargers
Key game: at Chiefs (Week 15) | Playoff leverage: 19.6 percent
This late-season encounter in Kansas City likely would help more in the Chargers' push for a wild-card spot than an AFC West crown. Even with a win here, FPI sees only a 20.3 percent chance for L.A. to take the division.
23. Seattle Seahawks
Key game: vs. Cardinals (Week 17) | Playoff leverage: 17.8 percent
The Seahawks are heavy favorites to win the NFC West (75.8 percent), but if it comes down to Week 17, their game against Arizona could be the difference between the division and a wild-card position. They'd still have a 70.3 percent to reach the playoffs, even with a loss, according to FPI.
24. Miami Dolphins
Key game: at Patriots (Week 12) | Playoff leverage: 16.4 percent
In what will be their most difficult game of the season according to FPI (18.4 percent chance to win), even projecting a victory at Gillette Stadium boosts Miami's playoff probability only to 30.1 percent.
25. Jacksonville Jaguars
Key game: at Colts (Week 7) | Playoff leverage: 15.6 percent
The only team in the AFC South with less than a 22.5 percent chance to win the division according to FPI, any run at the playoffs likely would require a road win over division-favorite Indy.
26. Buffalo Bills
Key game: at Bengals (Week 5) | Playoff leverage: 14.8 percent
The Bills' best chance at the postseason per FPI is as a wild card, meaning a win over a Bengals team that FPI has among its most likely wild-card participants would go a long way (especially when considering potential tiebreakers). Mainly because the Patriots are projected to run away with the AFC East, Buffalo is the only NFL team whose highest-leverage game falls outside its division.
27. Los Angeles Rams
Key game: at Seahawks (Week 15) | Playoff leverage: 12.1 percent
Multiple long-shot scenarios would have to come through here, but projecting a late-season win in Seattle improves the Rams to a near 1-in-5 shot (17.8 percent) at making the playoffs.
28. New England Patriots
Key game: vs. Dolphins (Week 12) | Playoff leverage: 8.1 percent
When you are projected to win more than 11 games and no other team in your division is expected to win more than seven, no single win or loss projects as being all that impactful. A home win over the Dolphins ups the Patriots' playoff chances to 97.7 percent, but a loss drops them to only 89.6 percent. Still, by the numbers, it's New England's single most important game.
29. Chicago Bears
Key game: at Vikings (Week 17) | Playoff leverage: 8.1 percent
On the other end of the spectrum from the Patriots, when your chances of reaching the playoffs project at 5.5 percent, a single win or loss won't greatly impact that number. FPI sees the Bears' Week 17 matchup in Minnesota as the game that may help them the most, but even marking them down for a win at the Vikings raises their playoff chances to only 11.6 percent.
30. San Francisco 49ers
Key game: at Seahawks (Week 2) | Playoff leverage: 6.5 percent
The odds will still be long, but an early-season win in Seattle would provide a platform upon which the 49ers can mount a playoff challenge. Putting San Francisco down for a win at the Seahawks raises the Niners' playoff chances to 8.6 percent.
31. New York Jets
Key game: at Patriots (Week 17) | Playoff leverage: 4.9 percent
The odds are long that this game will be meaningful for either team's playoff chances. Having such long odds to start, even a win in their most difficult game of the season (FPI gives the Jets a 9.9 percent chance to win in New England) wouldn't move the needle much.
32. Cleveland Browns
Key game: vs. Steelers (Week 17) | Playoff leverage: 4 percent
Same as the Jets, the Browns would not seem to be a candidate to alter their playoff course with any single win or loss, and they'll need a lot to go right before their Week 17 game has a meaningful impact.
A look at the complete playoff impact table, according to FPI:
For more from ESPN Analytics, visit the ESPN Analytics Index.