Chiefs-Chargers one of six September matchups that could sway the tenor of 2018 NFL season

It's almost finally, actually here. Regular season football is back. Thank the heavens.

With actual games that matter on the horizon, I figured I'd take a deeper dive at the first month of the season and start dissecting the schedule for the handful of September matchups that I believe will end up resonating the most through the season. In a month that isn't all that heavy on divisional games, I wanted to pull out and highlight a few that I expect will end up in many cases swaying the tenor of an entire season.

Sure, every game matters and all of that, and in a short season the margins for error remain slim. But certain games end up, ultimately, being the critical tiebreaker that separates success from failure and making the playoffs or failing to qualify. And while I am always hesitant to go too far with this in the first quarter of the season, in the end the wins and losses all count the same whether in September or December.

Sure, there are plenty of big games on paper (Patriots/Jaguars, for instance) that I don't focus on. Because ultimately many of those early out-of-division marquee matchups end up meaning little come January, with both teams still in the postseason and already clinching a berth prior to Week 17. I'm more honed in on divisional games that could prove to be the difference in hosting a playoff game or perhaps not even playing in the postseason at all.

Week 1

Chiefs at Chargers If Patrick Mahomes can get off to a fast start against what I expect to be a fairly menacing defense, on the road, then maybe he will have what it takes to overcome Kansas City's defensive shortcomings. It's a stern test right off the bat and the kind of game the Chargers must convert if they are going to live up to their talent and possibly contend for the top seed in the AFC. I am a believer in the Chargers' roster and how this conference could shape up for them … but they can't succumb to slow starts and special teams meltdowns and coaching blunders and the usual stuff that sends them looking up at standings early on. The Chargers should boss this division and this is the perfect opportunity to announce their intent.

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Week 2

Ravens at BengalsOne of these teams will finish directly behind the Steelers in the AFC North and be situated for a wild-card spot. But I doubt both get in and the two games they play will be crucial. Baltimore having to go on the road on a short week this early in the season, to a stadium that seems to haunt them every year, is a chance to exorcise some demons … or fall prey to them again. Joe Flacco is a turnover machine at Paul Brown Stadium, and the Bengals believe their defense can lead them back to the playoffs. Cincy shocked the Ravens in Week 17 to knock them out of the playoffs last season, and games between these teams have often told the tale of the respective seasons.

Giants at Cowboys I expect the Giants to be improved, but by how much remains the question. In a very tough NFC, any playoff hopes likely require the G-Men to beat up on the Cowboys and Skins to cobble together enough conference wins to make the playoffs, assuming the Eagles win the division. I don't see many scenarios where the Cowboys contend for a playoff spot, but a fast start against the likes of the Panthers and Giants could begin swaying that opinion.

Vikings at Packers Many of us anticipate both of these teams reaching the playoffs, but that's hardly a given. And the division title likely comes down to these head-to-head matchups. These could be two totally different teams come Week 17, but the results of this September tilt will still be critical. The highest-paid QB in NFL history returns from injury to face Kirk Cousins, the first NFL player to get a fully-guaranteed mega-contract. The best defense in the league going to Lambeau is interesting enough. All eyes in the NFL will be on Cousins in this early-season litmus test as he is held to the standard indicated by all of the commas in his contract.

Week 3

Saints at FalconsOkay, so this is actually the only division game being played in the entire NFL this particular week. So thank goodness it includes two of the top teams in the entire league. This rivalry will be even more heated this season with the Falcons hosting the Super Bowl and this is clearly a game that could have division title – and top seed – implications. It's also part of an early three-week homestand for the Falcons (they also host the Bengals and Panthers) that one figures they need to take advantage of. A year ago their brand new stadium wasn't so kind to them. This is a chance to show that's in the past.

Week 4

Seahawks at Cardinals In full disclosure, I don't see either of these teams in the playoffs. But I do have them among a small group of potential surprise teams if a few things break their way. Regardless, any playoff path for either of them will require staying at least. .500 within the intriguing NFC West. This could be the kind of game that Russell Wilson simply takes over as he has in the past. Will Sam Bradford still be healthy and productive approaching the quarter-mark of the season? Any Josh Rosen rumblings? Has Seattle addressed its offensive line and run game deficiencies enough to compete? To say nothing of all the new players they need to step up on defense. Could be a more meaningful game that it seems at first blush.

CBS Sports Insider

Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday... Full Bio

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