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The race for the NFC South begins in earnest
The Bills make an early season quarterback change ahead of hosting the Chargers; the Packers hope a banged up Rodgers will be ready to take on the Vikings; the Saints look to defeat the Browns for the first time since 2006; AFC East foes the Dophins and the Jets are set to do battle; while it's a fight between young and old when the Chiefs face the Steelers, The Associated Press reports PHOTOS BY THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The Associated Press

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Saturday, September 15, 2018 – Page S10

ATLANTA NEW ORLEANS ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. GREEN BAY, WISC. PITTSBURGH -- FALCONS VS. PANTHERS One season after the NFC South sent three teams to the playoffs, the division may be just as deep.

The Atlanta Falcons know they can't afford to fall too far behind in the division as they prepare to play the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. Atlanta made the playoffs at 10-6 in 2017 despite finishing third in the South, behind New Orleans and Carolina.

Now, coming off last week's loss at Philadelphia, the Falcons (0-1) need to beat the Panthers to avoid falling two games behind only two weeks into the season.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn said the team that wins the NFC South this season "will have been in some fights."

For Carolina and Atlanta, this is an early opportunity to establish a pecking order in the division.

"For us to have a division game ... early in the season, I think it's good for us and good for the division, too," Quinn said.

A road win would be another strong statement for Carolina (1-0), which won its opener over Dallas.

Each team has lost key starters to injuries.

Carolina tight end Greg Olsen and as many as three offensive linemen could be held out. Olsen has a broken bone in his foot for the second straight year, but hopes to return this season and has not been placed on injured reserve.

Panthers right tackle Daryl Williams (knee) was placed on IR Wednesday, joining left tackle Matt Kalil (knee), who was put on IR before Week 1. Also, three-time Pro Bowl right guard Trai Turner was placed in the NFL's concussion protocol on Wednesday.

"We are missing a Pro Bowler on offence," said wide receiver Devin Funchess, referring to Olsen.

"We are just here to play our game. Those guys don't make up their whole team and Greg does not make up our whole team ... I know for sure in our locker room we have the next-man-up mentality."

The Falcons placed two key defensive starters, safety Keanu Neal (left knee) and linebacker Deion Jones, on injured reserve this week. Neal will miss the remainder of the season. The team hopes Jones will return, but he must miss at least eight games.

SAINTS VS. BROWNS Drew Brees is in his 13th year playing for the Saints - and it's been about that long since he's beaten the Cleveland Browns.

Brees's first game with New Orleans was a victory at Cleveland in 2006. The Browns have won the past two meetings in 2010 and 2014.

"Man, they've been tough games against these guys," Brees recalled this week as he prepared for his latest clash with Cleveland on Sunday.

While the Saints (0-1) made the playoffs last season, they've opened the season with an upset loss at home to Tampa Bay. Cleveland (0-0-1) comes in with a marginally better record after its opener against Pittsburgh finished in a tie.

And Brees doesn't want to hear about how the Browns haven't won a game since 2016 - not after watching Cleveland's defence produce six Steelers turnovers last weekend.

"Forget their record. Forget last time they had a win. ... Whatever they throw at us, we have to have a plan for, we have to be ready for - do all the things that equate to winning football."

If Cleveland were to end a long losing streak in the Superdome on Sunday, it wouldn't be the first time.

When the current incarnation of the Browns joined the NFL as an expansion team in 1999, they arrived in New Orleans winless through seven games. They wound up celebrating their first victory after Tim Couch's 56-yard heave found Kevin Johnson in the end zone as time expired. The lasting image for Saints fans was deflated then-coach Mike Ditka lying face-down on the turf.

For the Saints to avoid falling on their collective faces against Cleveland again, New Orleans' defence likely will have to improve on the more than 500 yards it allowed to the Bucs in Week 1.

For new Browns QB Tyrod Taylor, the opportunity to play the Saints presents a shot at redemption.

He struggled against the Saints last year while playing for Buffalo and was benched the following week.

"Of course, I remember that game," Taylor said.

"It didn't go as planned. So, definitely looking forward to competing against that group again." BILLS VS. CHARGERS The Buffalo Bills can change quarterbacks all they want following their second-most lopsided loss in franchise history.

Running back LeSean McCoy knows the abrupt switch from inexperienced and interception-prone Nathan Peterman to raw rookie Josh Allen won't make much of a difference if everyone else on offence fails to perform Sunday in Buffalo's home opener against the Los Angeles Chargers.

"Maybe Nate didn't play well with the turnovers, but we helped out with that," McCoy said, referring to the 47-3 loss at Baltimore in which Peterman threw two interceptions and was yanked after Buffalo managed one first down on 10 possessions.

"We gave up pressures, we had penalties, secondand-longs, third-and-longs. We didn't make plays for him," added McCoy, who finished with 22 yards rushing on seven carries. "It's a team thing. Collectively, we didn't play well."

The meltdown, which included numerous blunders on defence and special teams, left coach Sean McDermott with little choice but to reverse course at quarterback.

A week after McDermott was comfortable with Allen developing on the sideline, the coach sped up the first-round pick's timetable by making him the starter in saying: "It's the right move for our team."

At the very least, the switch spared Peterman from revisiting the dreadful memories of the last time he faced the Chargers in his first career start 10 months ago. McDermott's decision backfired then, too, when Peterman was pulled after throwing five first-half interceptions of a 54-24 loss.

It's now on the strong-armed and mobile, 22-yearold Allen to mask the numerous deficiencies of an offence featuring a patchwork line that surrendered six sacks, and a mostly unproven cast of receivers.

Quarterback certainly isn't an issue for the Chargers after Philip Rivers topped 400 yards passing for the 10th time of his career in a season-opening 38-28 loss against Kansas City. What hurt were several dropped passes and the Chargers' inability to stop Tyreek Hill, who had 169 yards receiving and two touchdowns, and scored on a 91-yard punt return.

JETS VS. DOLPHINS Welcome to the Dolphins-Jets rivalry, Sam Darnold.

New York's rookie quarterback will be under centre and in the spotlight for the latest matchup of AFC East enemies Sunday at MetLife Stadium, with a 2-0 start to the season on the line.

It might not sound like much, but consider this: The Dolphins haven't opened with two wins since 2013, when they started 3-0. Meanwhile, the Jets haven't been 2-0 since Todd Bowles's first year as coach in 2015.

"All division games have that extra buzz around them, but I feel like when we play the Jets, it's always turned up just a little bit more," Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "I don't know what makes it that way or why it's that way. Maybe it's just the competitiveness of the games, but there always is an energy that goes with playing against the Jets."

New York leads the all-time series 54-50-1, but Miami has won three of the past four meetings.

Weird things also tend to happen when these teams square off. The muddy AFC championship game won by the Dolphins during the 1982 postseason. The back-and-forth air show by Dan Marino and Ken O'Brien in 1986. Marino's fake spike in 1994.

The Monday night "miracle" comeback by the Jets in 2000.

And, that's just to name a few.

"I definitely have the feel, with them and the Patriots," Miami wide receiver Jakeem Grant said. "I feel like it is a rivalry game."

Darnold will get to experience it for the first time while also making his regular-season debut in front of the home crowd. The No. 3 overall draft pick got off to a rough start last Monday night at Detroit with his first pass intercepted and returned for a touchdown, but bounced back to have a solid night and lead New York to a 48-17 rout.

The 21-year-old Darnold finished 16 of 21 for 198 yards and two touchdowns, showing glimpses of what made him so coveted leading up to the draft.

"I feel like I live my whole life to play football and it's awesome to just be able to do that for a living," Darnold said. "I'm embracing it every single day." PACKERS VS. VIKINGS For the Minnesota Vikings, it's more about whether Aaron Rodgers will have his full bag of tricks while playing with a knee injury than if he'll be playing at all.

The Vikings are thoroughly convinced the Green Bay Packers quarterback will be in uniform Sunday when they visit Lambeau Field.

"I don't know if he's mobile. I don't know if he can run. We don't know anything," Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen said. "We're just going to go in with a game plan, that he's running and we're going to go out there and execute our assignment."

The game before the game between these NFC North rivals involved discerning the status of the Packers' two-time NFL MVP. At midweek, Rodgers was held out of practice to focus on rehab with what the quarterback said was a sprained left knee.

Coach Mike McCarthy said he would be evaluated each day after Rodgers got hurt in the second quarter of last week's win over the Chicago Bears . McCarthy said Rodgers playing "is no layup."

One of Rodgers' many strengths is his mobility, which allows him to extend plays outside the pocket. The knee injury limited Rodgers' movement against Chicago. He still carved up the secondary operating in a shotgun or pistol formation, and without a huddle.

"I think as you saw the other night, just because I wasn't escaping the pocket, I was still moving in the pocket - subtle movements on the throw to [Davante Adams] up in the pocket, and subtle movements on the throw to [Randall Cobb] on the last touchdown of the game," Rodgers said.

The quick-pace offence looked unstoppable. It doesn't mean that's all the Packers will do with a limited Rodgers.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer recognized the differences in Rodgers in that game. He also won't underestimate him.

"But our biggest thing is that you have to prepare for every scenario," Zimmer said. "If he looks like he's moving pretty well, then we have to adjust to some other parts of the game plan." STEELERS VS. CHIEFS A talented and mobile young quarterback tasked with taking over a playoff team from a veteran.

Yeah, Pittsburgh Steelers star Ben Roethlisberger may know a little something about that. Still, the two-time Super Bowl winner's eyes get a little wide when talking about Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes.

Asked about his initial impressions of Mahomes - whom Roethlisberger and the Steelers (0-0-1) will get a close look at when Kansas City (1-0) visits Pittsburgh on Sunday - and the 36-year-old sounds impressed and a little wistful at the same time.

"An amazing talent," Roethlisberger said. "He's got a big arm."

And big expectations too. Throwing for four touchdowns in your first season opener - as Mahomes did while lighting up the Chargers on the road in Week 1 - has a way of doing that. Now all he has to do for an encore is try to help Kansas City win in Pittsburgh for the first time since 1986, nearly a full decade before the 22-year-old was born. No pressure or anything, although Mahomes isn't exactly concerned about carrying the weight of his team's largely forgettable history against the Steelers.

"It's a brand new season," he said. "We've got a lot of guys that are hungry and want to get better every single week and this will be a great challenge in the early season to kind of get us going."

Pittsburgh has won seven of the past eight meetings, including a 19-13 victory at Arrowhead Stadium last October that put a pin in Kansas City's 5-0 start while simultaneously igniting an eight-game winning streak that carried the Steelers to a second straight AFC North title.

Playing well against Kansas City has rarely been an issue for the Steelers. Neither have home openers. Pittsburgh is 15-2 in season debuts at Heinz Field since moving from Three Rivers Stadium in 2001 and Roethlisberger - who spent part of the week dealing with an achy right elbow - tends to find another gear when in Pittsburgh's black home jerseys.

He's averaging nearly three touchdown passes per game at Heinz Field since the start of 2014.

Associated Graphic

Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees

Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy

Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill

Minnesota Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes

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