NFL Sunday primer: Chiefs, Bengals, Bills all facing early-season test

The Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals have become rather familiar with one another in recent seasons while vying for AFC supremacy.

The Chiefs have played in five straight AFC championship games, reaching three Super Bowls and winning two titles over that prosperous span. The Bengals have faced the Chiefs in the past two AFC championship games, prevailing in one. The Bills reached the AFC championship game after the 2020 season, then were beaten by the Chiefs in overtime in a memorable divisional-round playoff game the following year and eliminated by the Bengals in the divisional round last season.

This Sunday, the only thing those teams will share is an early-season predicament. Each will be attempting to avoid a shocking 0-2 start.

The Chiefs face a difficult test at Jacksonville. The Bengals are at home against the Baltimore Ravens. The Bills host the Las Vegas Raiders.

It’s certainly not win-or-else time — not on the second Sunday of the season. But all of this does matter in the jockeying that is to come in December and early January for playoff positioning. The AFC is overflowing with legitimate contenders, although those ranks perhaps have been reduced by one with the New York Jets minus quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Chiefs, Bills and Bengals cannot afford too many missteps.

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The Chiefs’ loss in Week 1 perhaps was the most understandable of the three. The defending Super Bowl champs were missing eight-time Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce and four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Chris Jones for their 21-20 loss to the Detroit Lions at Arrowhead Stadium in the NFL’s season-opening game.

Both could play against the Jaguars. Jones agreed to a revised one-year contract Monday to end his holdout. Kelce is making progress after missing the opener because of a knee injury suffered two days earlier on the practice field. He was listed as questionable on the Chiefs’ injury report.

Kelce’s return would give quarterback Patrick Mahomes his favorite receiver back. But Mahomes also needs better performances from his wideouts after an unproductive, mistake-filled outing against the Lions. Kadarius Toney was the leading culprit with at least three dropped passes, one of which became a tipped-ball interception returned for a touchdown. But the Jaguars are at home, and they are formidable. This is a rematch of last season’s divisional-round playoff game in which Mahomes exited with a high ankle sprain but returned to lead the Chiefs to a win.

The Bengals likewise face a would-be top contender with the Ravens visiting. It’s another rugged AFC North matchup for the Bengals after they lost, 24-3, at Cleveland last Sunday. They must hope for a better performance by quarterback Joe Burrow, who threw for 82 yards on 14-for-31 passing against the Browns.

That was Burrow’s first game as the NFL’s highest-paid player after he agreed to a five-year, $275 million contract extension three days before the opener. Perhaps more significantly, it also came after his preseason preparation was marred by a calf injury suffered during training camp.

Burrow showed up at the team’s training facility last week with a revised hairstyle. He was asked during his midweek news conference how he knows when it’s time to get a new haircut and said, “When you have a game like that on Sunday.”

The Bills had the most perplexing defeat of the opening weekend, falling to the Jets on Monday night in the Meadowlands even after Rodgers suffered a torn Achilles’ tendon four snaps into his debut. Bills quarterback Josh Allen threw three interceptions and lost a fumble. The Jets won in overtime on a punt return for a touchdown by rookie Xavier Gipson.

Allen has spoken of the need to reduce the number of turnovers he commits. But it is a fine line he must walk, given that he also makes as many brilliant plays as just about any other quarterback in the league.

“Trying to force the ball. Yeah. Same [stuff]. Same place. Different day,” Allen said after the loss.

Tom Brady isn’t walking through that door: Zach Wilson returns to the starting quarterback role as the Jets face the Dallas Cowboys in a late-afternoon game in Arlington, Tex.

The No. 2 selection of the 2021 draft was benched twice by Coach Robert Saleh last season, and the Jets made the blockbuster trade for Rodgers in April with the belief that the Hall of Fame-bound quarterback was the final piece to a championship-contending puzzle. But the Jets also retained Wilson, and Rodgers was supportive of the young quarterback.

Wilson played reasonably well Monday night in relief of Rodgers. The Jets said they remain confident in Wilson and believe they still can accomplish their lofty goals for this season. But what else could they say?

The Jets said they would consider their quarterback options but didn’t make an addition last week. Tim Boyle is slated to serve as Wilson’s backup Sunday.

Luring Tom Brady out of retirement apparently is not a viable option for the Jets, whether they inquire or not. People around Brady describe him as content in retirement. He has his deal to become a part-owner of the Raiders pending before the NFL finance committee. Other out-of-work quarterbacks include Joe Flacco, Colt McCoy, Carson Wentz, Cam Newton, Nick Foles, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Matt Ryan. But Saleh stressed last week that Wilson is the starter.

Sunday’s assignment is daunting. The Cowboys sacked New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones seven times in a 40-0 triumph last Sunday night at MetLife Stadium. That led standout pass rusher Micah Parsons to declare the Cowboys have the NFL’s top defense.

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Turf vs. natural grass: Rodgers’s injury reignited the debate over the safety of games being played on artificial turf fields. Lloyd Howell, the new executive director of the NFL Players Association, called for all teams to switch to natural grass fields.

“Moving all stadium fields to high quality natural grass surfaces is the easiest decision the NFL can make,” Howell said in a statement. “The players overwhelmingly prefer it and the data is clear that grass is simply safer than artificial turf. It is an issue that has been near the top of the players’ list during my team visits and one I have raised with the NFL.”

The NFL has maintained that the injury data is not as conclusive as the players have portrayed. On Achilles’ injuries in particular, the league said last week that there is no statistical difference between the rates of those injuries occurring on artificial turf and on natural grass fields, dating from 2015. The NFL also pointed out that of the two Achilles’ injuries suffered by players during the season’s opening weekend, one of them occurred on turf (Rodgers’s) and one occurred on natural grass (Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins).

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Saleh said he was not convinced that the playing surface at MetLife Stadium was to blame.

“If it was a noncontact injury, I think that’d be something to discuss, obviously,” Saleh said. “But that was kind of a forcible [tackle]. I think that was trauma-induced. I do know the players prefer grass.”

Players, agents and the NFLPA continued to press their case.

“While we know there is an investment to making this change, there is a bigger cost to everyone in our business if we keep losing our best players to unnecessary injuries,” Howell said. “It makes no sense that stadiums can flip over to superior grass surfaces when the World Cup comes, or soccer clubs come to visit for exhibition games in the summer, but inferior artificial surfaces are acceptable for our own players. This is worth the investment, and it simply needs to change now.”

NFL expanding practice squads: The league announced last week that it will expand teams’ practice squads to 17 players next season, with the additional slot being reserved for an international player.

“The practice squad roster expansion for international players will further contribute to our goal of building a sustainable pathway to the NFL for elite global athletes, while also creating local connections with fans around the world,” Peter O’Reilly, the league’s executive vice president of club business, major events and international, said in a statement. “With the support of all 32 clubs, the NFL International Committee, the NFL Competition Committee and the NFL Players Association, we look forward to implementing this new model to benefit the game long-term and welcome more international talent into our league in the years to come.”

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