10 games that will shape the second half of the 2018 NFL season

The 2018 NFL season might be half over, but crucial matchups loom in the season's final two months. The fun starts this weekend.

Week 9: Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints — The Rams are 8-0 and the Saints have won six straight after losing the season opener. Los Angeles is in the midst of a stretch of games that will challenge its perfect record, and the Superdome has been one of the league's biggest road tests since Sean Payton and Drew Brees arrived in New Orleans.

Week 9: Green Bay Packers at New England Patriots — Tom Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers … a showdown of all-time great quarterbacks is an easy enough sell for NBC to get a huge national television viewing audience. For the Patriots, this is a rare bump in the road to another easy AFC East crown and potentially home-field advantage in the playoffs, too. Just look at New England's schedule: Aside from hosting the Vikings in Week 13 and visiting the Steelers in Week 15, the Patriots should be enormous favorites in all of their remaining games.  

Week 11: Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks — These two teams currently are hanging on the precipice of playoff contention, and this game could make or break their seasons. For the Packers, this is the second of three tough road games in four weeks (aside from the aforementioned game vs. the Patriots, Green Bay plays at Minnesota in Week 12). For the Seahawks, this game is sandwiched between road games against the Rams and Panthers.  

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Week 11: Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears — Are the upstart Bears for real? As it stands now, one game separates first from fourth in the NFC North. First-place Bears get a couple of winnable games (at Buffalo in Week 9, vs. Lions in Week 10) before hosting the Vikings. The Vikings, meanwhile, will be coming off their bye week before this pivotal divisional clash.

Week 11: Kansas City Chiefs vs. Los Angeles Rams (in Mexico City) — NFL fans in Mexico will be treated to one of the season's most anticipated matchups when the Rams "host" the Chiefs at the Estadio Azteca in a "Monday Night Football" tilt. The offenses of the Rams and Chiefs rank second and third, respectively, in the NFL in yards per game, so a shootout should be in order. Could this also be a Super Bowl LIII preview? 

Week 15: Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs — The Chargers' two losses have come against teams that are a combined 15-1, and are lurking right behind the Chiefs in the AFC West. But the Bolts have dropped the last nine meetings with their divisional foe, including a 38-28 defeat earlier this year. This matchup could either decide the AFC West for the Chiefs or put pressure on Kansas City in the season's final two weeks.

Week 15: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers — For the better part of the past two decades, the Patriots and Steelers have been the AFC's most dominant teams. Their almost-annual autumn showdowns (which, conveniently for sports fans, also are almost always on national TV) almost always have a profound impact on the landscape of the AFC playoffs. 

Week 17: Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins — At the moment, the Redskins' closest competition in the NFC East are the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles, whose title defense hasn't gone quite as expected. There's much to be decided between now and Dec. 30, but this could game could determine the division title.

Week 17: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers — The Steelers have won three straight to reclaim first place in the AFC North, while the Bengals hit their Week 9 bye at 5-3.  If Cincinnati can keep pace over the next two months, this game could have big playoff implications.

Week 17: Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints — The Panthers and Saints play twice in the season's final three weeks. These games should have a substantial role in shaping who claims the NFC South stretch run and potentially a valuable home playoff game (and perhaps a first-round bye, given how things have progressed so far for teams in the NFC East and NFC North).

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jim Reineking on Twitter @jimreineking.

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