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Lions and Bears, oh my
Atlanta looks to soar back into back into the playoff race with a win over Cleveland; AFC South rivals face off in Indianapolis; a pair of young gunslingers battle in Kansas City; struggling AFC East foes try to salvage their seasons in New York; while DeSean Jackson hopes to get back on track against his former team, The Associated Press reports
The Associated Press

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Saturday, November 10, 2018 – Page S10

LAKE FOREST, ILL.; KANSAS CITY; CLEVELAND; EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.; INDIANAPOLIS; TAMPA -- LIONS AT BEARS The Chicago Bears have a rare opportunity to beat the Detroit Lions and pick up a victory over an NFC North opponent.

As accomplishments go, those seem rather modest. Then again, consider their recent history.

The division-leading Bears have a chance to check off two more boxes when they play host to the struggling Lions on Sunday.

They have lost nine of the past 10 games against Detroit and have dropped 10 in a row to division opponents heading into their match-up at Soldier Field.

Since the start of the 2014 season, Chicago is 4-21 against the NFC North. But these Bears aren't those Bears.

Chicago (5-3) hit the halfway mark with its best record in five years and sole possession of the NFC North lead for the first time since 2013. It's a big change for a franchise with four straight last-place finishes. But the Bears have already matched their win total from last year and are making a push for their first playoff appearance since the 2010 team advanced to the NFC championship game.

"There's just so much ball left," said coach Matt Nagy, in his first season. "For our team, we've won in different ways and we've lost in different ways. I think we've kind of learned different ways to do it.

And when you lose, you try to figure out why and how to not let it happen again. When you win, you figure out why and how you can always improve and be better. I like where we're at, but we understand we have a ways to go."

Chicago is coming off back-to-back wins over two struggling teams, with a 41-9 blowout at Buffalo after beating the New York Jets at home.

Detroit (3-5) has dropped two in a row and last week's 24-9 loss at Minnesota was particularly ugly.

Matthew Stafford got sacked 10 times, and the Lions were held to single digits in points for the first time since a 17-6 loss to the New York Giants on Dec. 18, 2016.

CARDINALS AT CHIEFS The Patrick Mahomes Reunion Tour rolls on Sunday when the young, record-setting quarterback leads the 8-1 Kansas City Chiefs against the Arizona Cardinals at Arrowhead Stadium.

Last week, Mahomes shredded the Cleveland Browns while outplaying their rookie quarterback, Baker Mayfield. The two met when Mahomes was being recruited to Texas Tech and Mayfield helped to serve as his host. Their relationship continued even when Mayfield transferred to Oklahoma.

This week, Mahomes gets to reminisce about his time working at Peyton Manning's football camp with his old roommate, Josh Rosen - now the QB on whom the Cardinals are pinning their future.

"I've met him a couple times, been out to California and met him," Mahomes said. "He throws a beautiful ball. It's always a really tight spiral. I know he'll have a lot of success."

But it's going to be tough to top the success Mahomes is having. The first-year Chiefs starter is setting benchmarks just about every time he steps onto the field, and the next one might be consecutive 300yard passing games. Mahomes has eight straight to match Andrew Luck from the 2014 season, and he's shown no signs of slowing down.

"I thought he was pretty good," Rosen said, reflecting on those days working camp together. "We weren't really throwing, we were mostly just coaching the kids ... but I liked him as a dude. We got along really well."

Rosen hasn't seen a lot of Mahomes with the Chiefs, either as he's spent all his time focusing on the defence. But Cardinals coach Steve Wilks has seen enough to know that stopping him may be impossible, and slowing him down is nearly as difficult.

That goes for the entirety of the K.C. offence.

"One thing we talked about all week is really trying to limit those big plays, understanding exactly who they're trying to target," Wilks said. "This is a very explosive offence. Going against Andy Reid for several years in different places, going all the way back to the Eagles, this is part of his M.O.

"So, we've got to try to limit the big plays as much as possible." FALCONS AT BROWNS Quietly, steadily and with little fanfare, the Atlanta Falcons have got the ground.

They're flying again - under the radar.

Despite numerous injuries at vital positions, the Falcons have shaken off a 1-4 start and carry a threegame winning streak into Sunday's match-up with the Browns (2-6-1). Cleveland has changed coaches, dropped four in a row and is trying not to let another season spiral completely out of control.

The Falcons (4-4) are coming off their best game this season, a well-rounded 38-14 thrashing of Washington that has lifted them back into contention in the wild-card race. Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said the key to the team's turnaround has been persistence.

"The main thing for us was the message to be real consistent, to stay the course," Quinn said this week.

"Although we got knocked down, defensively especially from the communication standpoint, we had to work hard to increase on that. There might be some new voices leading the way. We just tried to stay consistent with the guys. Make sure that we knew what we were doing was right and we had to do what we did better."

Nobody's doing it better than Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who is playing like he did as the league's MVP in 2016. Ryan has thrown 19 touchdown passes, only three interceptions, and is completing 71 per cent of his passes. The 33-year-old leads the NFL with 335.6 yards passing a game, and he recently went 213 attempts between interceptions.

"He really is playing well. He is executing very well," said Browns interim coach and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. "You can see the comfort zone that he has with [Falcons offensive co-ordinator] Steve [Sarkisian] in Year 2. That usually is the way that it is in our league."

Last week, Ryan passed for 350 yards and four touchdowns, one to star receiver Julio Jones, who ended a 12-game scoreless drought and finished with seven catches for 121 yards.

Cleveland's D will get another stiff test a week after dealing with Kansas City's aerial assault. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs scored 34 in three quarters before coasting through the final 15 minutes.

BILLS AT JETS Even the most die-hard of Bills and Jets fans might have a tough time getting fired up about this one.

Struggling offences, quarterback questions and losing streaks are the ugly storylines marking the latest matchup of AFC East rivals, the first of their two meetings this season.

"It's the NFL and anybody can be beat in this league," Jets safety Jamal Adams said. "You've definitely got to show up each and every Sunday. It doesn't matter what the numbers are."

Well, the numbers aren't very good - for either side - when it comes to offence.

The Bills (2-7) have the 31st-ranked over all unit and have been dealing with a quarterback carousel all season, and were trying to figure out late in the week where it would stop this time.

Rookie Josh Allen has missed three games with a sprained right throwing elbow, veteran Derek Anderson was in the concussion protocol and turnover-prone Nathan Peterman has been healthy but ineffective, to put it mildly. He completed a career-high 31 passes last week against Chicago, but also had three interceptions in the 41-9 rout by the Bears.

It has been a problem all season no matter who has been under centre for the Bills, who have lost four straight. They have scored two touchdowns in their past four games and been outscored 103-20 in its past three.

"Well, you know, the result, obviously, is not what we want it to be on the offensive side," coach Sean McDermott said. "We've got to continue to find ways to create things, to create separation, to create wins in the 1-on-1 game, whether it's the run game or the pass game. You always look at yourself first. I expect myself and our coaches to look at ourselves first, and I expect the players to look at themselves first.

"Collectively, though, we have to do a better job."

The Jets (3-6) know the feeling.

Todd Bowles's bunch has echoed those sentiments during the team's second three-game skid of the season.

JAGUARS AT COLTS The Indianapolis Colts spent the off-season cramming for Sunday's test. They knew that to ascend in the AFC South, they needed a bigger, stronger offensive line, better coaching and different study habits.

So far, they've aced it, and now they face their biggest challenge: Jacksonville's daunting defence.

"We don't need any incentive. It's the NFL, we go out there, it's our job to protect the quarterback," long-time left tackle Anthony Castonzo said. "The past is the past, we're going to try the best we can."

Just about anything would be an upgrade over what's happened lately against the Jaguars.

When these teams previously met, late last season, the Jaguars finished with four sacks - a significant improvement over the 10 sacks Indy allowed six weeks earlier last season.

Those 14 sacks accounted for more than onefourth of Indy's season total, showing general manager Chris Ballard where the Colts needed to focus their attention to get back into the division race.

Ballard found two starters in the draft, left guard Quenton Nelson in the first round and right tackle Braden Smith in the second. He added free-agent right guard Matt Slauson and centre Ryan Kelly returned to form after an injury-filled 2017. Even after Slauson went down with a back injury the Colts have managed to find solid replacements. As a result, Andrew Luck has been sacked just 10 times all season, none in his past 154 attempts - the longest stretch of his pro career.

Improvement also can't be measured by pass protection alone: Marlon Mack rushed for career highs in each of the past two weeks and has given Indy (3-5) its first back-to-back 100-yard rushing games since 2007. Still, the Colts know they are far from perfect and careful study of last year's two game tapes reveal just how quickly Jacksonville's defence can expose lingering flaws.

"I'm not going to tell you what our weaknesses are but this is going to be a big week coming off the bye," Castonzo said. "It's going to be tightening the screws on the things that we can." But this Jacksonville team doesn't resemble the one that reached last year's AFC title game, either.

WASHINGTON AT BUCCANEERS DeSean Jackson's frustration grows by the loss.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have dropped five of six games following a 2-0 start and the veteran receiver doesn't want anyone to buy the notion that all it'll take to make him happy is to catch more passes Sunday against Washington.

The Bucs (3-5) haven't made the playoffs since 2007 and the only way to change that trend is to start winning.

Jackson, who signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent in 2017 after spending the previous three seasons with Washington, thinks he can make a difference. He fielded questions this week for the first time since he reportedly asked to be traded last month.

"Whatever them conversations were, they were between us," Jackson, when asked if he approached general manager Jason Licht before the Oct. 30 NFL trade deadline.

"It's over and done with now and I'm looking forward," the five-time 1,000-yard receiver added.

"We've got eight games left to continue to try our best to get in the playoffs and win here."

The 11th-year pro has rebounded from a subpar debut with Tampa Bay a year ago to average 22.4 yards per reception in 2018.

But since beginning the season with consecutive 100-yard performances, that included TD catches of 58 and 75 yards in victories over New Orleans and Philadelphia, the 31-year-old's production has curtailed.

Through eight games, Jackson has 28 catches for 626 yards and four touchdowns, including a 60-yard scoring reception against Cincinnati that gave him the most TDs of 60-plus yards (24) in NFL history.

At the risk of sounding selfish, Jackson concedes he would like to be more involved in the offence. He began his career in Philadelphia, where he had three 1,000-yard seasons in six years. He had two in three seasons with Washington.

"It's just knowing what's in this locker room, knowing the players we have all across the board. ... That's been more of the frustration for me," Jackson said. "It's not individual. It's more [about] accomplishing what we all want to accomplish."

Associated Graphic

Bears head coach Matt Nagy

Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn

Colts tackle Anthony Castonzo, left, and Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes

Bills quarterback Nathan Peterman

Buccaneers wide receiver DeSean Jackson

Huh? How did I get here?
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