Some NFL teams enter into the second half of their schedule in Week 9. Others are closing up shop on the first half of their slate. Either way we spin it, the NFL season is about to get serious.

Post-trade deadline, there’s a number of stories to pay attention to as the league begins its November slate.

Can Kirk Cousins lead his Vikings to yet another big victory? Is Aaron Rodgers ready to cement his status as a legit NFL MVP candidate? Meanwhile, the historic San Francisco 49ers are looking to remain undefeated in the desert.

Over in the AFC, the defending champion Patriots face their first real test of the season and the Buffalo Bills look to bounce back after just their second loss of the campaign.

These are among the stop storylines for NFL Week 9.

Taking his Vikings to the next level

Winners of four consecutive games, Kirk Cousins and the Vikings have a real opportunity on Sunday to make a statement. It comes at Arrowhead against the Kansas City Chiefs. For Cousins in particular, this is a pretty big game on what promises to be a big stage.

Cousins has accounted for 1,261 yards while completing 79% of his passes with 10 touchdowns and one interception over the past four games. Minnesota has won all four, averaging over 30 points per game in the process. However, none of the four teams they beat are currently over .500. We know the narrative surrounding Cousins against winning teams. Can he change that Sunday in Kansas City?

First big test for the Patriots

We know the story in New England. Complete and utter domination over the first eight weeks. The defending champs have outscored their opponents by an average of 31-8. They have scored more touchdowns on defense than that unit has allowed opposing offenses. This is some next-level stuff. It’s also came against teams with a combined 14-42 mark on the season.

All of this changes Sunday against a darn good Ravens team in Baltimore. Led by the record-setting performance of second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Ravens are a real threat in the AFC. Their ability to run the ball could loom large. In their first real big test of the season, will the Patriots be exposed on Sunday night? It’s something to watch.

Life without J.J. Watt

By virtue of their late-game victory over the Raiders this past Sunday, the Houston Texans head into Week 9 just a half game behind the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South. They are also just one game ahead of Jacksonville and Tennessee. Unfortunately, Houston will have to play the remainder of the season without multi-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.

This changes the entire dynamic in Houston. With Jadeveon Clowney now playing in the Pacific Northwest, what was once a fearsome pass rush has turned into a major hole. It’s led to a horrible performance against the pass. The name of the game moving forward will be shootouts. That starts Week 9 against the Jaguars and uber impressive rookie quarterback Gardner Minshew. Will Deshaun Watson be up for the task in London?

49ers look to continue rolling opponents

Fresh off a blowout 51-13 win over a previously red-hot Carolina Panthers squad, it’s now time to start taking the undefeated 49ers seriously as legit Super Bowl contenders. They have outscored their opponents by a combined margin of 207-77 on the season. San Francisco is also the first team to yield 100 or fewer net passing yards in four consecutive games since the 1970s.

Set to take on a surprisingly competitive Cardinals team in Arizona on Thursday, the 49ers are looking to go 8-0 and cement their status as the NFC’s best team. Interestingly, head coach Kyle Shanahan has lost all four of his games against the Cardinals.

Get-right game for the Bills

Buffalo’s 31-13 home loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last week was a bummer for the team. Sean McDermott’s squad had started the season out 5-1 and looked to be legit playoff contenders in the AFC. Still with an upper-hand for one of the two wild-card spots in the conference, it’s time for the Bills to move on from last week’s disastrous performance.

There’s certainly good news on this front. Buffalo is set to host a one-win Redskins team on Sunday. The team’s defense should be more than up for the task against one of the worst quarterback situations in the NFL. Anything less than a blowout win will add another layer to questions about Buffalo’s legitimacy heading into the second half of the season.

Do-or-die game in Philadelphia

It’s not hyperbolic to indicate that the 3-4 Chicago Bears are in a must-win situation this week. Already pretty much out of the NFC North race with Green Bay and Minnesota looking like trendsetters in the division, a loss here would put Chicago behind the proverbial eight-ball when it comes to a wild-card spot. It’s in this that Mitchell Trubisky must find a way to up his game.

The Eagles’ situation is a tad different in that they are just a half game behind Dallas in the NFC East. However, Doug Pederson’s squad faces a daunting schedule moving forward. That includes consecutive games against the Patriots and Seahawks following their Week 10 bye. This also has the hallmarks of a must-win game for Philly.

Raiders back home with season on the line

The NFL did not do Oakland any favors with its schedule. Jon Gruden’s squad will host the Detroit Lions in Week 9. It’s the Raiders’ first game in Oakland since all the way back on Sept. 15. It also comes with Oakland at 3-4 on the season and coming off a narrow loss to the Texans in Houston.

In an AFC West with the Chiefs leading at 5-3, Oakland can maintain its status as a surprise contender with a win over the Lions come Sunday. A loss would move the squad to 3-5 and likely forced to play out the string in its final season before relocating to Las Vegas.

Jameis Winston’s last hurrah in Tampa?

A total of 10 turnovers over the past two games. The most turnover-prone quarterback since he entered the NFL back in 2015. We’re running out of excuses for Winston. Tampa Bay thought it had found an answer by hiring Bruce Arians. However, the first-year head coach has soured on Winston big time in recent weeks.

Enter into the equation this Week 9 matchup against the Seahawks in Seattle. The picking seems to be ripe for Seattle to force multiple Winston turnovers. Now at 2-5 on the season, could another bad Winston performance lead to his indefinite benching in a contract year? We wouldn’t put it past Arians.

Coming out of the bye with a cupcake

The Dallas Cowboys have to be feeling good about themselves following a blowout 37-10 win over Philadelphia back in Week 7. It ended a three-game losing streak and enabled Jason Garrett to keep his job…for now.

Faced with a daunting schedule coming out of their bye, the 4-3 Cowboys must dominate a two-win Giants team on Monday night. The last time they took to Jersey, the Cowboys were utterly humiliated in a loss to the Jets. With six of their final eight games coming against teams that are currently .500 or better, the Cowboys must take care of business in Week 9.

Aaron Rodgers and Co. look to keep it going

We really don’t have words to explain just how darn good Rodgers has been over the past two games in first-year head coach Matt LaFleur’s system. This span has seen the former NFL MVP complete 48-of-64 passes for 734 yards with nine total touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Now at 7-1 on the season and boasting a legit defense, the Packers have to be seen as top-end contenders in a competitive NFC. Set to take on a struggling Chargers team in Los Angeles with the Cheeseheads likely to be out in full force, we’re expecting another brilliant performance from Rodgers in Week 9. If so, it will cement his status as a legit MVP candidate.

Colts’ ascension to legit contenders

To say that Indy got lucky in a narrow 15-13 win over the hapless Broncos last week would be an understatement. Some questionable officiating coupled with Denver’s conservative game plan enabled the Colts to win their fifth game in seven tries to start the season.

Jacoby Brissett and Co. now head to Pittsburgh to take on Steelers team that has won three of four since an 0-3 start to the season. Frank Reich’s squad can’t take this game with a grain of salt. It should be competitive. A win here would have the Colts at 6-2 through the midway point of their schedule. No one could have seen that coming following Andrew Luck’s abrupt retirement during the preseason.