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Around the NFL: Ravens Make Statement in AFC North Opener

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Welcome to Around the NFL, where Cale Berger of Steelers Now will recap early-week action and take a look ahead at some of the most important matchups from the perspective of the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

THURSDAY NIGHT HIGHLIGHTS

Kansas City Chiefs 34, Houston Texans 20 

The reigning Super Bowl champs proved early and often Thursday night why they are the favorites to hoist the Lombardi Trophy again this season. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes looked as talented as ever, completing 24 of 32 passes for 211 yards and three touchdowns. Rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire dazzled in his NFL debut, almost immediately proving the Chiefs right for drafting him with the final pick in the first round. The former LSU Tiger carried the ball 25 times for 138 yards and a score.

The Chiefs defense made things difficult for quarterback Deshaun Watson, who looked out of sorts at time in his first game without wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Running back David Johnson, who the Texans acquired for Hopkins, was solid in his Texans debut, rushing for 77 yards and a touchdown. Houston’s warts showed Thursday night, especially on the offensive line, as Watson was sacked four times.

AROUND THE NFL THIS WEEKEND

Baltimore Ravens 38, Cleveland Browns 6

With expectation high heading into the 2020 season, reigning MVP Lamar Jackson and the Ravens delivered in Week 1, thrashing the Browns in all facets of the game.

Jackson was stellar, completing 20 of 25 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for 45 yards. The former Heisman Trophy winner is making a habit of shining in season openers. Over the last two seasons, Jackson has completed 82 percent of his passes, thrown for 599 yards and eight scores.

Although they debuted a new head coach in Kevin Stefanski, it felt like 2019 all over again for the Browns, who experienced similar offensive woes to what they had under Freddie Kitchens.

Third-year quarterback Baker Mayfield was inaccurate and erratic throughout the day, under constant duress by the Ravens’ defensive front. He went 21 of 39 for 189 yards and touchdown with an interception. Mayfield has now thrown an interception in seven-straight games dating back to last season.

Cleveland also struggled to get wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. involved, which was one of biggest errors of Kitchens’ tenure. The three-time Pro Bowler had the second-fewest receptions, yards and touchdowns of his career in 2019. He caught just three passes for 22 yards on Sunday, but was targeted ten times.

The Browns will have a short turnaround hosting the Bengals on Thursday Night Football, while the Ravens will battle Deshaun Watson and the Texans Sunday afternoon.

New Orleans Saints 34, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23

In a duel of legendary passers, it was New Orleans’ Drew Brees that bested Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady on Sunday.

Brees was a solid 18 of 30 for 160 yards and two touchdown passes, but his supporting cast was just as successful. Fresh off his new five-year, $75 million extension, running back Alvin Kamara scored twice, through the air and on the ground. Tight end Jared Cook led the Saints with five catches for 80 yards.

While the Saints played well, it was self-inflicted errors that sunk the Buccaneers. Going 23 of 36 for 239 yards and three total touchdowns (two passing, one rushing), Brady’s two interceptions proved costly, resulting in 14 New Orleans points. The Bucs also muffed a perfectly executed pooch kickoff, which turned into a Saints field goal.

Brady and the new-look Bucs offense looked out of sync in their debut, in large part because of the New Orleans defense. The Saints pass rush kept Brady under duress all afternoon, while the secondary was opportunistic and blanketed receivers. They sacked the future Hall of Famer three times, hit him on six other occasions and held wide receiver Mike Evans to one catch for two yards, a garbage time touchdown.

The Saints will battle the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday Night Football next week. The Buccaneers will host another NFC South rival in the Carolina Panthers early Sunday.

Tennessee Titans at Denver Broncos, 10:10 p.m. Monday, ESPN

Before the Steelers and Broncos meet at Heinz Field on Sept. 20, Denver will follow Pittsburgh on Monday night, taking on the Tennessee Titans in the second half of ESPN’s annual doubleheader.

Quarterback Drew Lock is entering his first full season as the starter in Denver. The Missouri product put up solid numbers as a rookie a year ago, throwing for 1,020 yards and seven touchdowns over just five games.

With the addition of explosive rookie wideouts Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler and Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon, expectation are high for Lock entering year two. He will get a favorable matchup to start his sophomore season, facing a Tennessee Titans defense that was 24th against the pass in 2019.

Fresh off an appearance in the AFC Championship last year, the Titans committed long-term to their workhorse Derrick Henry and quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Henry led the league with a career-high 1,540 yards last season, while Tannehill’s 2,742 yards and 22 touchdowns earned him Comeback Player of the Year honors.

REST OF THE SCHEDULE

Green Bay Packers 43, Minnesota Vikings 34

Washington 27, Philadelphia Eagles 17

Seattle Seahawks 38, Atlanta Falcons 25

Buffalo Bills 27, New York Jets 17

Chicago Bears 27, Detroit Lions 23

New England Patriots 21, Miami Dolphins 11

Las Vegas Raiders 34, Carolina Panthers 20

Jacksonville Jaguars 27, Indianapolis Colts 20

Los Angeles Chargers 16, Cincinnati Bengals 13

Arizona Cardinals 24, San Francisco 49ers 20

Los Angeles Rams 20, Dallas Cowboys 17

Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants, 7:15 p.m. Monday, ESPN

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Around the NFL: Chiefs Reach Third-Straight AFC Championship, Lose Patrick Mahomes to Concussion

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The Kansas City Chiefs will host their third-straight AFC Championship game next week, defeating the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

Kansas City’s victory did not come without sacrifice, as quarterback Patrick Mahomes exited the game in the third quarter with a concussion and did not return.

Still, backup Chad Henne stepped in beautifully, and made a pair of crucial plays in the final moments to ice the win. After nearly scrambling for a game-sealing first down, Henne found wide receiver Tyreek Hill on fourth and inches.

Mahomes was his usual self prior to the injury, carving the Browns defense up for 255 passing yards and touchdown each on through the air and on the ground.

Cleveland was impressive in defeat, but an ill-advised challenge and decision to punt late by head coach Kevin Stefanski thwarted their upset chances.

Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield passed for 204 yards and a touchdowns, but was baited by Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu and picked off early in the third quarter.

Cleveland also deviated from the run early, a ground game that had made their offense so potent and dangerous all season.

When they did run, the Browns found success. Running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt combined for 101 yards and a score, averaging 5.3 yards per carry.

The Chiefs now turn their attention to the red hot Buffalo Bills, who they defeated back in Week 6. The Bills are 11-1 since that loss, led by an excellent defense and MVP candidate at quarterback in Josh Allen.

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Around the NFL: Bills Top Ravens 17-3, Reach First AFC Championship Game in 26 Years

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The Buffalo Bills are heading to their first AFC Championship game since 1994 following their 17-3 win over the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday night.

Quarterback Josh Allen and the Bills offense overcame swirling winds and the vaunted Ravens defense, winning with grit as opposed to flare.

Allen missed a number of deep shots early due to the conditions, but made plays in critical moments as he has all season. He passed for 206 yards and a score on the night.

Buffalo wideout Stefon Diggs once again showed why he was the acquisition of the season, catching everything thrown his way and consistently moving the chains Saturday. The former Viking finished with six receptions for 106 yards and the lone touchdown.

While not initially running the ball with much success, the Bill found some early in the second half behind running back Devin Singletary. The FAU product demonstrated a rare mix of power and elusiveness, needling the Ravens for a modest, but meaningful 25 yards on seven carries.

Not to be outdone, the Buffalo defense smothered Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, holding the former MVP to just 34 rushing yards on nine carriers. Jackson completed 14 of 24 passes for 162 yards before exiting the game with an injury.

Buffalo capped off their outstanding defensive performance with a 101-yard pick six by cornerback Taron Johnson, tied for the longest in postseason history and the first red zone interception of Jackson’s career. Bills Mafia erupted as expected.

The Bills now await the winner of Sunday’s weekend finale between the Chiefs and Browns, wondering if they will be heading to Kansas City or hosting their first conference championship game since the mid-1990’s.

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Report: NFL to Make Significant Changes to Combine Due to COVID-19

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Major changes to the 2021 NFL Scouting Combine are expected amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a report by Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, plans of hosting the combine as traditionally constructed are “dead” following a conference call between league officials Friday. It is becoming increasingly likely that the medical and performance-based portions of the event will be held separately.

A number of alternatives are being considered, including regionalized medical checks, standardized pro days and interviews conducting via Zoom.

With regards to the regional medicals, the NFL could set up shop and administer the examinations at hospital in states where a large number of players are conducting their workouts and preparation, such as Arizona, California, Florida and Texas.

The intent would be to limit travel for players, where as the team physicians conducting the examinations would likely have already received their vaccinations.

Other aspects of the medical process can be accomplished virtually, such as reviewing injury histories.

As for the pro days, NFL or individual team personnel would put players through drills at their respective schools, but standardize each workout to ensure prospects are going through the same exercises as they would in Indianapolis. Measurements and result would then be distributed league-wide as they normally would be.

League officials will continue to meet over the coming days, according to Breer, but a finalized plan is expected later this coming week.

The NFL has also weighed the option of postponing the combine until April, but still holding it in Indianapolis. While it is on the table, the move would likely requirement the 2021 NFL Draft to be postponed as well.

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