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PRINT EDITION
Rookie gunslingers face off in Buffalo
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Newton and the Panthers look to get back on track in Cleveland; former NFC contenders do battle in Green Bay; the Dolphins hope to extend New England's run of futility in Miami; the resurgent Giants host their NFC East foes from Washington who are on their third starting quarterback; while the Chargers look to take care of business against the Bengals, The Associated Press reports
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By JOHN WAWROW, TOM WITHERS, GENARO C. ARMAS, STEVEN WINE, HOWARD, FENDRICH JOE REEDY
The Associated Press
  
  

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Saturday, December 8, 2018 – Page S10

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. CLEVELAND GREEN BAY, WISC. MIAMI LANDOVER, MD. CARSON, CALIF. -- JETS AT BILLS

The only time rookie quarterbacks Josh Allen and Sam Darnold got on the field when the Bills faced the Jets a month ago was to shake hands following Buffalo's lopsided victory.

On Sunday, much more is anticipated from both when the two AFC East teams meet in Orchard Park.

Allen, drafted seventh over all, will make his third start for Buffalo since missing four games with a sprained throwing elbow. And the Jets' Darnold, drafted third, is on track to return since missing three games with a strained right foot.

The focus on the two quarterbacks represents one of the few reasons for intrigue in a meeting of teams - Buffalo is 4-8 and the Jets 3-9 - with little on the line entering the final month.

Just don't ask Jets coach Todd Bowles to commit to starting Darnold despite the rookie being a full participant in practice Wednesday and Thursday.

"Trying to get him better and getting him healthy, and then we'll go from there," Bowles said.

The Jets haven't done much to make anyone happy for plenty of other reasons.

In losing six straight, they've followed one low point with another, while raising questions over Bowles's job security.

There was New York's 41-10 loss to the Bills, after which Bowles said: "We stunk it up as coaches, we stunk it up as players."

Then came last weekend, when the Jets squandered a 16-0 lead in a 26-22 loss at Tennessee. Bowles referred to the collapse as "one of them games you'll remember for the rest of your life."

Continuing Darnold's development then becomes the priority, much like the Bills' approach to Allen. Both have had their inconsistencies.

In Week 2, Darnold became the NFL's youngest QB to top 300 yards passing in a 20-12 loss to Miami.

But he also leads the league with 14 interceptions, including four in his most recent start, a 13-6 loss to Miami. Allen was erratic, going 69 of 114 for 657 yards and two TDs, with five interceptions and a lost fumble in his first five starts. He has shown signs of progress by going 26 of 52 for 391 yards with three TDs and two picks in his past two.

PANTHERS AT BROWNS During a meeting this week with his defence, Browns interim coach Gregg Williams used star end Myles Garrett as a model. And a warning.

A 6-foot-4, 270-pound mass of chiselled muscle, power and speed, Garrett cuts an imposing figure.

He's a physical specimen, the kind of athlete who stands out even in a room full of elite humans.

Oh, and he happens to be about the same size as Carolina quarterback Cam Newton.

"I said that he is bigger than Myles," Williams said. "People said, 'What?' I said, 'There it is. There is your quarterback right here - Myles Garrett. That is the kind of framework that you guys are looking at here.' We have our work cut out for us."

One week after failing to contain Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Browns (4-7-1) now have to deal with Newton and the Carolina Panthers (6-6), who have lost four straight games and need a win Sunday to improve their iffy playoff hopes.

Williams has a history with Newton, who has been slowed by a sore right shoulder and has been limited in practice over the past few weeks. When Williams was with New Orleans, he had to plan for Newton twice a year and still seems to have scars from his encounters with the 6-foot-5, 245-pound dual threat.

"He has grown and taken very good steps year by year by year," Williams said. "[Panther offensive coordinator] Norv [Turner] has done a really good job with the things that they are doing with him. It is back-to-back games with that kind of a quarterback, but more powerful in the pocket. When you are taking a look at getting him down in the pocket, now that is a grown man. It is not a small quarterback."

Newton is coming off a poor performance in last week's loss at Tampa Bay. He threw four interceptions and was replaced on the game's final play by backup Taylor Heinicke, who came in to attempt a Hail Mary that wasn't answered.

Earlier this week, Newton said he'd be ready to face the Browns and try to get the Panthers back on track. Carolina trails Minnesota by a half game for the NFC's second-wild card spot and can't afford another loss.

FALCONS AT PACKERS How fortunes have changed in less than two years for the Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers.

The participants in the NFC title game in January, 2017, are floundering this season. The Packers have already fired head coach Mike McCarthy.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank reaffirmed support for his coach, Dan Quinn, after a four-game losing streak dropped the team out of the playoff picture.

The game between the Falcons (4-8) and Packers (4-7-1) on Sunday at Lambeau Field was once circled on the NFL calendar as a potential matchup between contenders jockeying for a home game in the playoffs.

Instead, it's turned into a matchup between disappointing teams each trying to avoid a losing season.

"I think what you want to do when you go through a difficult stretch is you want to make sure you take the lessons first, and when you do that, there's something that you have to gain," Quinn said. "Sometimes you don't like to admit it, but that's where the learning takes place the most."

It sounds a lot like what the Packers are going through at Lambeau, where the future is clouded by uncertainty.

Offensive co-ordinator Joe Philbin took over as interim head coach after McCarthy was fired following the stunning 20-17 loss last week to the lowly Arizona Cardinals.

A coaching veteran with a dry sense of humour, Philbin has delivered simple messages at a time of upheaval.

"I told the offence, we've got to block, we've got to throw and catch, we've got to run hard with the ball.

That's really ultimately what wins games," Philbin said. "Schemes are important, but not as important as playing guys together and playing with great effort and playing fundamentally sound. That's really the focus."

The Packers have lost three straight and five of six. They need lots of help to get into the postseason even if they can somehow win their last four games.

PATRIOTS AT DOLPHINS Ryan Tannehill was heading out the door when someone noted the temperature is expected to be 28 C for Sunday's game between the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots.

"Not quite hot enough," Tannehill responded with a smile.

Turn up the heat. That's what the Dolphins tend to do when the Patriots play in Miami.

While New England has dominated Miami - and everyone else - in the AFC East over the past decade, the reverse has been true lately when the teams meet in South Florida.

The Dolphins have won four of the past five home meetings, including 27-20 last December when Jay Cutler outplayed Tom Brady. Oddsmakers expect the trend to end, with New England (9-3) a touchdown favourite over Miami (6-6).

In recent years the Patriots have had worse results in Miami than anywhere else, and New England coach Bill Belichick blames the Dolphins.

"They've got a good football team," he said.

"They've got a lot of good players."

That's fine, coach, except that in Foxborough your team has won 10 in a row against Miami by an average score of 33-13. That includes a 38-7 win earlier this season. And in the standings, the Dolphins have been perennial also-rans to your dynasty.

Belichick and his players discount the South Florida climate as a factor, but it does favour the Dolphins, with teams from the north tending to wilt in the warm weather.

"Sometimes it hits some of these teams pretty hard," Miami coach Adam Gase said.

The bad news for Miami is that forecasters don't expect the heavily favoured Pats to take the game lightly - not with the annoyance this week of constant questions about their recent results in Miami.

The Patriots appear to be tightening up at the right time. They haven't allowed a 300-yard passer in five consecutive games, or a 100-yard rusher in nine consecutive games. That's a vast improvement for a unit that gave up 30 or more points three times in the first seven games, including a season-high 40 in narrow win over Kansas City.

GIANTS AT WASHINGTON The first time Washington faced the New York Giants this season, Alex Smith was the QB for Washington and its victory pushed it to 5-2, alone atop the NFC East.

The Giants, meanwhile, dropped to 1-7, headed nowhere fast in coach Pat Shurmur's first year and what just about everyone was figuring would be Eli Manning's last.

So much has happened in the meantime.

As the rivals prepare to meet again Sunday, it'll be Mark Sanchez taking the reins as Washington's third starting quarterback in less than a month. They've lost three consecutive games to fall to 6-6. There was also the fallout from the decision to claim Reuben Foster off waivers after the San Francisco 49ers released the linebacker following an arrest for domestic violence.

The biggest challenge now for Washington is trying to persuade itself not to pack it in.

"We still have a lot to play for. We're not out of anything right now. It's not like we're 0-12 and we're just playing for whatever. We're actually playing to try to get into the playoffs, possibly win the division. Heck, we still have a lot out in front of us," Washington coach Jay Gruden said.

"It might not be pretty. We might not throw for 500 yards and lead the league in offence or what have you. We might throw for 100 and rush for 100 and win the game 7-3. Who knows?" Gruden said.

And the Giants?

Well, they're still in last place, but they've shown lately that they didn't give up under Shurmur, winning three of their past four games to get to 4-8, with rookie running back Saquon Barkley and star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. leading the way. If they beat Washington - and New York is favoured because of the host's quarterback situation - the Giants would suddenly have a realistic shot at moving out of the division cellar.

The biggest impediment to Washington's chances at staying close to the teams ahead of it, Dallas and Philadelphia, is an offence that saw Smith go down with a broken leg in a 23-21 loss against Houston on Nov. 18, then McCoy get a broken leg last week.

BENGALS AT CHARGERS The Los Angeles Chargers are coming off a 16-point comeback victory at Pittsburgh and have a crucial AFC West showdown next week at Kansas City. Before Anthony Lynn's team can turn attention toward the Chiefs, there is the matter of taking care of the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.

The Chargers (9-3) are double-digit favourites against a Bengals squad that has dropped four straight and six of its past seven, but they are well aware of what can happen when they overlook an opponent. Denver, which had dropped five of six before facing Los Angeles on Nov. 18, rallied from a 12-point deficit to win 23-22.

"It was an emotional game last week, nationally televised and all of that, but that's behind us now.

We have to lock in this week," Lynn said.

Los Angeles is closing in on its first playoff spot since 2013. Cincinnati (5-7) appeared to be in the postseason conversation earlier in the season after winning four of its first five before the bottom fell out, largely due to injuries. Its only hope now is to win out and then get a lot of help.

"You have to prepare for them like everybody else whether they're in it or out of it," Lynn said.

"Their playoffs basically start this week. We have t o be aware of that, the urgency that they're going to play with and what they're going to bring to the table."

The Chargers come in with plenty of momentum after last week's 33-30 win at Pittsburgh, as they pulled off the largest road comeback against the Steelers. Philip Rivers has thrown two or more touchdown passes in every game this season and Keenan Allen has a TD catch in four straight games.

The Bengals have been beset by injuries with QB Andy Dalton, WR A.J. Green, TE Tyler Eifert, DE Carl Lawson and LB Preston Lawson on injured reserve.

"Last I looked, we're not out of it. We've dug a huge hole and need a lot of things to work our way out, but maybe with everything else that's gone against us, maybe we get some things to break our way," coach Marvin Lewis said.

Associated Graphic

New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold

Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett

Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn

Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill

Washington quarterback Mark Sanchez

Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers


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