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Rivals clash with revolving casts
The Falcons prep for Ravens speedster Jackson under centre; the Bengals strike out with backup Driskell against the Broncos; Rodgers and the Pack look to bounce back against a lagging Cardinals team; the Browns' chances in Houston depend on Mayfield; the Jags look to keep their spirits up in Indy; and the Bills look to turn up the heat in Miami, The Associated Press reports
The Associated Press

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Saturday, December 1, 2018 – Page S10

ATLANTA; CINCINNATI; GREEN BAY; HOUSTON; JACKSONVILLE; MIAMI -- RAVENS AT FALCONS The Atlanta Falcons must prepare for two quarterbacks as they await Sunday's visit from the Baltimore Ravens.

Of the two, rookie Lamar Jackson is the hot topic of the week in the Falcons' locker room.

The Falcons, who face Carolina and Cam Newton in the NFC South twice each season, have prepared for other mobile quarterbacks. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett says Jackson belongs in a different category.

"I don't feel there's a comparison to what we've seen in terms of the level of athlete that he is," Jarrett said. "He's a guy who can play anywhere, at any position, on the offensive side of the ball. I don't think there's a comparison to anybody in the league to what he can do athletically at the position of quarterback."

While the Ravens await the return of long-time starter Joe Flacco from a right-hip injury, Jackson has boosted the team's playoff hopes. The former Louisville stand out and 2016 Heisman Trophy winner has led Baltimore (6-5) to back-to-back wins over Cincinnati and Oakland. Jackson suddenly is the team's second-leading rusher after leading the Ravens to more than 400 total yards in each of the two straight wins.

Even coach John Harbaugh is stunned by the effect of Jackson's unusual speed in games.

"We all are sports fans, and 'speed kills' is what they say in any sport, really, so it's fun to watch," Harbaugh said. "But, I do think it's always more impressive to see it live than it is on tape, sure."

Jackson ran for 117 yards against the Bengals and 71 in last week's 34-17 win over the Raiders.

"It's difficult to simulate, because he has such quickness and speed, like a wide receiver or a corner has, but he's behind centre," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.

The Falcons (4-7) have seen their playoff hopes devastated by their second three-game losing streak of the season.

BRONCOS AT BENGALS A.J. Green has a collection of stories about quarterback Jeff Driskel's athletic exploits, such as the way he can dribble between his legs and dunk.

Or outrun teammates. Or play multiple positions in practice.

Green suggested that Driskel might be the best all-around athlete on the Bengals.

"Nice," Driskel said in response. "But I don't know about that."

Everybody will find out about Driskel at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday when he makes his first career start against the Denver Broncos (5-6), a matchup of teams headed in opposite directions as the final month of the season approaches.

The third-year veteran is filling in the rest of the way after Andy Dalton injured the thumb on his passing hand.

The reeling Bengals (5-6) have lost five of six because of significant injuries and breakdowns on offence, defence and special teams. They got steamrolled at home by the lowly Browns last Sunday, with Dalton hurting his thumb while trying to recover a fumble.

It's up to the backup quarterback to keep the Bengals' slim hopes alive.

"Jeff is the most athletic guy on our team," said Green, who expects to play Sunday after missing three games with a toe injury. "He's a guy who can play any position, has a strong arm, very smart. My job is to go out there and make his job easy."

Although the teams have identical records, they're on totally different trajectories.

The Broncos are coming off a 23-22 win over the Chargers in Los Angeles and a 24-17 home victory over the AFC North-leading Steelers. They seemed all but finished after a 3-6 start, but have been given a second - and final - chance to salvage their season.

A win on Sunday is mandatory for a team that's starting to feel it can still accomplish big things.

"You kind of want guys to walk with their chest out, right?" Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. "But at the same time, you've got to have perspective. There's a difference between confidence and arrogance." CARDINALS AT PACKERS Josh Rosen abides by "The Dude," and he's not referring directly to the Jeff Bridges character in the The Big Lebowski either.

It's the nickname that the Arizona Cardinals' quarterback has given to Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers, for some reason.

"It was just he's that guy, that man," Rosen said about Rodgers's resemblance to the laid-back movie character. "I guess I thought it was funny."

The Cardinals rookie and the two-time NFL MVP have struck up a friendship that seems to go beyond football.

Come Sunday, the Packers hope to teach Rosen a lesson when Arizona visits Lambeau Field.

Green Bay (4-6-1) desperately needs a win to keep alive the team's fading playoff aspirations. The beleaguered Cardinals (2-9), who have the worst offence in the league, might just be the foe that they need to face to get going.

"We've put ourselves in this hole, and now we've got to find a way to climb out," Rodgers said.

Green Bay has limped through its past five games, losing all four on the road and beating Miami at home. Coach Mike McCarthy's club finishes the season with three of five at home. Four of the opponents have losing records, so a glimmer of hope remains.

But the Packers can't afford to look that far ahead, especially with nagging problems on offence.

Of particular concern are problems with thirddown conversions (37 per cent), where the Packers are just 24th in the league. They could use veteran receiver Randall Cobb, who has been sidelined by a hamstring injury, to help in those situations.

Now the Packers, with an injury-riddled offensive line, have to face a defence that leads the NFC with 37 sacks. Green Bay's left tackle David Bakhtiari (knee) and left guard Lane Taylor (quad) were both on the injury report during the week.

BROWNS AT TEXANS The Cleveland Browns have done a great job of protecting Baker Mayfield recently, and have the longest active streak in the NFL by not allowing a sack in 125 snaps.

Things will get more difficult for the Browns (4-6-1) on Sunday when they visit the Houston Texans (8-3) and their defence led by pass-rushing stars J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. Watt is tied for second in the NFL with 11½ sacks and has 19 quarterback hits, and Clowney has seven sacks and 15 quarterback hits.

"I have a job to do, and that's my job to go out there and hopefully end that streak," Watt said.

"They've obviously been doing a good job. It's going to be a good battle."

Mayfield, who hasn't been sacked in two games, said he's watched Watt play since the quarterback was in high school and knows he'll have to account for him and Clowney on every play.

"I have to get it out very quick," Mayfield said.

"They have two of the best defensive ends in the league. That is not discrediting any of the other guys, but they are talented. The emphasis has to be on getting the ball out, which we have been trying to do these past weeks. We have to keep doing it."

The Texans know the key to stretching their franchise-record winning streak to nine games will be slowing down Mayfield, the top overall pick in this year's draft. Mayfield has 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions in eight starts this season and is coming off a season-best four-touchdown performance in Cleveland's 35-20 win at Cincinnati last week.

"Baker's a winner," Houston coach Bill O'Brien said. "He's a competitor, very accurate, has a great instinct for the game, excellent ability to keep plays alive. I can just tell you we hold him in very high regard."

While Houston attempts to contain Mayfield, the Browns will try and limit the Texans' young quarterback Deshaun Watson, who is also coming off a good game. Watson threw two touchdown passes and ran for a career-high 70 yards and a score in a 34-17 win over Tennessee on Monday.

COLTS AT JAGUARS This season's first AFC South rematch looks to be a mismatch.

The surging Indianapolis Colts have averaged a little more than 33 points over their past eight games while the reeling Jacksonville Jaguars have topped 21 points once in the past two months. The Colts (6-5) have won five straight since a less-thanideal start. The Jaguars (3-8) have dropped seven in a row since thumping the New York Jets to end the season's opening quarter.

"Definitely dumbfounded," Jacksonville defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. "If you would have told me in April we'd be 3-8, I'd say you're lying. I don't know what's going on. ... I don't know what to say, what to change. We work hard. Guys have bought into the scheme. The locker room is still together.

"Nobody's waving [goodbye], nobody's searching for flights to get out of here at the end of the season. Guys are locked in. To go out there and keep losing, it's unexplainable. I don't even know what to say to you."

The teams played three weeks ago, with the Colts winning 29-26 thanks partly to Jacksonville receiver Rashad Greene's fumble in field-goal range with 1 minute 30 seconds remaining.

Jacksonville won't look the same in the second meeting.

Coach Doug Marrone fired offensive co-ordinator Nathaniel Hackett and benched quarterback Blake Bortles this week, making two major changes in hopes of jump-starting one of the league's worst passing attacks. He promoted quarterbacks coach and former CFL head coach Scott Milanovich to play-caller along with backup quarterback Cody Kessler. Kessler, who went 0-8 with Cleveland in 2016, will make his first start in two years.

Those tweaks could provide a spark for Jacksonville and might be a challenge for the Colts.

"I have been in the situation before on the other side, where we have had a quarterback change, whether it be by injury or you are just changing," Colts coach Frank Reich said. "In my experiences, it's not quite as big of a deal as everybody thinks." BILLS AT DOLPHINS The season is heading in opposite directions for the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills, which has brought them closer together in the AFC East standings.

The Bills (4-7) have won two games in a row to stoke enthusiasm about their long-term outlook with rookie quarterback Josh Allen, while the Dolphins (5-6) have lost two straight and six of eight to sour their season.

Both teams will likely be playoff spectators, as usual, but there will be a stark contrast in moods when the long-time rivals square off on Sunday.

The Bills have a shot at only their second threegame winning streak since September, 2011. They've gained more than 300 yards in each of the past two games after failing to do so in the first six. And they finished strong last week, scoring twice in the fourth quarter to beat Jacksonville 24-21.

That made the Bills 2-1 in one-score games. They beat Tennessee 13-12 in Week 5.

"One of the things that you always want to check off year to year, especially when you first get into the transition of taking over, is that you develop the mindset to win close games," second-year Bills coach Sean McDermott said. "You saw the Tennessee game, you saw this past week's game and we're there as far as that goes. That's a mindset that's easier said than done."

Just ask the Dolphins, who blew a double-digit fourth-quarter lead to lose for the second time this season last week at Indianapolis.

"We gave it away," running back Frank Gore said.

"We should have won that game."

To keep their faint playoff hopes alive, the Dolphins need to beat the Bills twice, and then some.

"For us to control our destiny, we have to win out," running back Kenyan Drake said.

Associated Graphic

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Jeff Driskel

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Cody Kessler

Miami Dolphins running back Frank Gore

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