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5 AFC quarterbacks who need to bounce back after their poor season openers

Week 1 was not particularly kind to some of the league’s most high-profile quarterbacks, particularly in the AFC. No one had it worse than Aaron Rodgers, of course, whose season in New York ended after just four snaps with the Gang Green. But for several others who managed to stay healthy, the results were less than stellar. Here are five of that conference’s quarterbacks who struggled in their openers and could use a bounce-back performance in Week 2.

Patrick Mahomes

Mahomes wasn’t really the problem for Kansas City in their 21-20 loss to Detroit. More so, he was undone by the inability of his receivers — Kadarius Toney in particular — to make plays. Still, Mahomes was an uncharacteristic 21-39 for just 226 yards with two touchdowns and an interception that bounced off of Toney’s hands and into the arms of Detroit’s Brian Branch, who took it to the house.

That pick-six was the most egregious of Toney’s drops, which included several others as well. Toney was targeted five times but caught just one pass for one yard. The fact Mahomes kept throwing in Toney’s direction despite the drops underscored the absence of playmakers on the field for the Chiefs. Minus Travis Kelce, who missed the game with a hyperextended knee, and Mecole Hardiman and Juju Smith-Schuster, who departed during the off-season in free agency, Kansas City’s leading receiver against Detroit was Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who caught two passes for 48 yards. Clearly, without the elite targets who traditionally populate Kansas City’s lineup, it was harder for Mahomes to look like, well, Mahomes.

Kelce’s status for this weekend’s game at Jacksonville is questionable. Andy Reid simply said Kelce was “progressing” on Wednesday, which doesn’t reveal much about his availability. The Chiefs in general, and Mahomes in particular, will need Kelce if they want to keep up with a high-powered Jags offense. They can only dink-and-dunk the ball to their backs and backup tight ends so much. They will need to stretch the field to keep Jacksonville from sitting on their short, horizontal passing game. If Kelce can’t go, the receivers must step up and make plays down the field, something they struggled mightily with in Week 1.

Joe Burrow

Burrow authored his second straight miserable opening week performance on Sunday, when he went 14-31 for a measly 82 yards in a 24-3 shellacking at Cleveland. Last year, in the opener against Pittsburgh, he turned the ball over five times in a 23-20 overtime loss. Cincinnati is now 1-3 in season openers in which Burrow has started, so clearly there are some issues with him coming out of the gate.

The good news for Cincinnati fans is the Bengals tend to rally. Over the first five games of the past two seasons, they’re a combined 5-5. Then, in the subsequent twelve games, they’ve gone 18-6. The Bengals seem to put things together around mid-October and play their best football late in the season, when it counts most.

The problem this season is that the AFC is extremely competitive. A slow start could be a recipe for disaster, given the fact that 10 or 11 teams have a legitimate chance of making the playoffs. Falling into an 0-2 hole is not a death sentence, but with the talent in the conference, climbing out will be difficult.

The Bengals are at home this week, where they have a tough divisional game against Baltimore. Cincinnati has won four of the last five in the rivalry, which bodes well for their chances. To win, though, Burrow will have to overcome another defense who knows him well. The Browns befuddled Burrow by mixing their coverages and playing much more zone than anticipated. Baltimore tends to be aggressive and is traditionally among the league leaders in blitz frequency. But they may take a page from Cleveland’s book and adjust their tendencies. Whatever they do, Burrow’s ability to rebound from his woeful opener will likely be the biggest determinant in the outcome of the game.

Josh Allen

It seems impossible that Buffalo lost to the Jets on Monday night. The Rodgers injury took the life out of New York, and with backup Zach Wilson on the field, and the Bills leading 13-3 at halftime, this felt like a done deal. But Allen turned the ball over three times in the second half (four times in all) and kept New York in the game until the Jets put things away with a rare walk-off punt return in overtime. Allen’s performance looked more like something from his rookie season, when he completed just 52% of his passes and threw 12 interceptions on 320 attempts, than the Pro Bowl player he’s become.

The biggest flaw in Allen’s game Monday night was his recklessness with the football. Two of his interceptions were on deep balls thrown to the post into double coverage. Either Allen didn’t see safety Jordan Whitehead on those plays, or he trusted his receivers to win the ball. Whitehead had all three picks for New York, meaning he caught more of Allen’s passes than Buffalo’s number two receiver, Gabe Davis. While Stefon Diggs had 10 catches on 13 targets for Buffalo, the rest of the receiving corps was largely silent. Allen needs to spread the football around more, and his receivers need to reward him by making plays when he does.

Buffalo gets 1-0 Las Vegas at home on Sunday. The Raiders finished 29th in the league against the pass last season but managed to limit Denver to 177 passing yards in Week 1. Buffalo is favored in the contest, but Allen must protect the football better than he did a week ago for the Bills to be successful.

Ryan Tannehill

The Titans’ quarterback was terrible on Sunday, going 16-34 for 198 yards with no touchdowns, three interceptions and three sacks. Tennessee scored just 15 points at New Orleans and failed to reach the end zone. The Saints are a very good defense — they finished 5th overall in total yards last season and were number two against the pass — but Tannehill accommodated them by turning in one of the worst outings of his career. It was his first three interception/no touchdown performance since his rookie season in 2012, leaving Titans coach Mike Vrabel baffled at his performance.

“Yeah, I have no idea,” Vrabel told the media when asked about why Tannehill struggled. “I wish I could tell you. He (Tannehill) has to be better. He has to hit guys when they’re open. We can’t force balls into double coverage. We can’t turn the football over.”

Vrable didn’t exactly sugar coat things with his assessment. Nor should he. Tennessee’s offense is built around the power run game. It’s a ball-control philosophy that relies on the quarterback to manage the game and make plays when they’re there. Above all, the quarterback must protect the football, especially against a good defense like New Orleans. Tannehill didn’t do that, and it cost Tennessee the game.

Tannehill seemed eager to target new acquisition DeAndre Hopkins against the Saints. But he appeared to be forcing the ball in Hopkins’ direction. One of his interceptions was thrown to Hopkins while in double coverage. Hopkins was targeted 13 times on the day, which was as many as the rest of Tennessee’s receivers combined. Like Allen, Tannehill will have to protect the ball better this week and not lean so heavily on his favorite target when Tennessee plays the Los Angeles Chargers in their home opener.

Kenny Pickett

After a stellar pre-season in which he compiled a perfect passer rating while leading the Steelers’ offense to five touchdowns on five possessions, Pickett looked totally overmatched against the 49ers. He struggled to read the defense, was inaccurate with the football, and like some of his counterparts above, forced throws into tight coverage. Pickett’s stat line — 31-46, 232 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions — is kinder than the reality. He never seemed comfortable in the pocket against San Francisco and based on his body language, seemed to grow frustrated and lose confidence as the game progressed.

The thing that made this a shocking debut for Pickett was it belied the progress he seemed to have made. Pickett went 6-2 as Pittsburgh’s starter down the stretch last season, throwing eight touchdowns against just one interception in those games. That, and his excellent pre-season play, had Steelers’ fans bubbling with optimism. One game does not make a season, and it’s no sin to struggle against an excellent 49ers defense. But the regression in Pickett’s play, particularly in terms of his accuracy, was concerning. Pickett will undoubtedly improve, but he faces a stern test on prime time in Week 2 as the Steelers host the Browns on Monday Night Football. If Cleveland does to Pickett what they did to Burrow in Week 1, the situation in Pittsburgh will begin to get uncomfortable.

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