Sullivan: Allen and Mahomes come out of the gate on fire
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (WIVB) — If the opening week was any indication, we’re in for a wild and unpredictable NFL season. For one thing, both of last season’s Super Bowl teams — the Rams and Bengals — lost. For the first time in this millennium, both teams that played for the previous year’s title went down in the opener.
The opening week featured some brutal place-kicking, shoddy offense, and sloppy overall play that had a lot of critics suggesting that teams play their starters more often during preseason games. That’s even more reason to be giddy about the Bills’ stunning performance on Thursday night in L.A.
Some celebrated quarterbacks had a rough time in the opener. Joe Burrow turned it over five times in the Bengals’ overtime loss to the Steelers. Derek Carr threw three picks and took five sacks in the Raiders’ loss to the Chargers.
Aaron Rodgers, compromised by a weakened supporting case, didn’t complete a pass over 25 yards in the Packers’ 23-7 loss at the Vikings. Ryan Tannehill struggled in the red zone in Tennessee’s shocking loss to the Giants. Kyler Murray struggled as Arizona got smoked at home by the Chiefs.
Dak Prescott was dreadful in the Cowboys’ 19-3 loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday night. Making matters worse, Prescott will require surgery to an injury on his right thumb and is expected to miss six to eight weeks. Cooper Rush will take over next week against the Bengals.
But a couple of elite QBs came out on fire in Week One: The Bills’ Josh Allen and the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes. Allen and Mahomes led their teams to blowout wins in their openers, offering an early validation for their statuses as the top-two preseason favorites for league MVP.
Allen picked up where he left off in the playoffs, completing 26 of 31 passes for 297 yards and two touchdowns. Over his last three games, including playoffs, he’s 74 of 93 for 934 yards and 12 TDs. He has two interceptions, one that was bobbled away by Isaiah McKenzie in the opener.
Oh, Allen also rushed 27 times for 190 yards in those games. That means he accounted for 1,124 yards on 40 touches per outing in three games, against three of last year’s four conference title game teams. His 83.9 completion percentage was a team record for a single game.
Mahomes, a former regular-season and Super Bowl MVP, basically said, ‘Hold my beer.’ He went 30-for-39 passing for 360 yards and five TDs in a 44-21 rout at Arizona. He completed passes to nine different players, momentarily ending any speculation that he’d miss the departed Tyreek Hill.
Dominating the opener is nothing new for Mahomes, who turns 27 Saturday. He’s 5-0 in openers, with 18 TD passes and no interceptions. He has 16 games of four or more TD passes in his career. It was his eighth game with five or more TDs (five times with no picks), including playoffs.
There’s a collection of terrific quarterbacks in the AFC — Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, Derek Carr, to name a few. But it’s Mahomes and Allen, extraordinary talents who are roughly the same age, who have established themselves as the best rivalry in the NFL.
Last season’s divisional round, which has been called by some the greatest game ever played, cemented that rivalry and took it to a higher level. Yes, Allen has lost to Mahomes in the playoffs the last two years, but he keeps getting better and seems to be pushing Mahomes, too.
The Chiefs are the Bills’ rival nowadays, not the Dolphins or Pats. They’ve played twice in each of the last two years, including playoffs, and could meet twice again this year. Brandon Beane has been building his roster with one main objective: Stopping Mahomes in the playoffs. Enter Von Miller.
The next installment in the league’s best quarterback rivalry, and maybe the best one-on-one rivalry in sports, is at Kansas City on Oct. 16. Circle the calendar. And circle the wagons.
There’s certainly no cause for regret with the Bills, but it was a nice weekend for people who left Buffalo.
Mitch Trubisky, who threw eight passes all of last season as Allen’s backup, started and led the Steelers to an overtime upset victory over the Bengals. Tight end O.J. Howard, who was cut by the Bills at the end of August, had two touchdown catches in the Texans’ 20-20 tie with the Colts.
But the biggest story among ex-Bills was former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who won his NFL head coaching debut in the Giants’ 21-20 upset of the Titans. Daboll made the bold decision to go for a two-point conversion after the Giants scored with 66 seconds left to cut Tennessee’s lead to 20-19.
Saquon Barkley, who rushed for 164 yards on Sunday, took an underhand pass from Daniel Jones and fought his way into the end zone for two points. The Titans drove into field goal range in the final minutes, but Randy Bullock missed a 47-yard field goal at the horn and Daboll had the W.
As the Giants were driving toward a potential tying score, Daboll told five of his defensive players, separately, “Hey, when we score, we’re going for two — you okay with that?” They all said yes.
“Those are the guys out in the battle, laying it on the line,” Daboll said later. “I want to make sure they’re okay with going for it all right there. They were like, ‘Hell yeah.’”
At 1-0, the Giants have a winning record for the first time since 2016, the last time they made the playoffs. They’re 22-59 over the last five seasons. It’s early, but with Dallas’ Prescott out for the next six to eight weeks, New York might be in for a big turnaround under Daboll.
The NFC East title is likely up for grabs this season, but you can’t say the same about the AFC East. Again, it’s only one week, but from what I saw on Sunday, there’s no reason to believe anyone will give the Bills a serious fight for the divisional crown.
The Patriots, who made the playoffs and led the division in December last year, looked as dreary as advertised in a 20-7 loss at Miami. Mac Jones played a typically conservative game, completing 70% of his passes, but making no big throws to an ordinary cast of wideouts.
Miami’s defense played well, but it seemed more a matter of the Patriots’ limited offensive weapons. Meanwhile, Tua Tagovailoa completed 23 of 33 and completed eight balls to Tyreek Hill, he remains a dink-and-dunk passer who won’t beat Allen in any shootouts.
The Jets, well, they’re still the Jets. They lost to the Ravens, 24-9, in a performance that was about as dreary as New England’s. The worst thing about the other teams in the AFC East is that they’re a chore to watch.
Joe Flacco, subbing for injured Zach Wilson, was 37-for-59 passing for 307 yards. Much of it was garbage time. Flacco completed 18 throws for 144 yards in the fourth quarter. There’s no telling whether Wilson, who won’t be back until Week 4 after knee surgery, would have done any better.
The Bills play their first division game at Miami in Week 3. Maybe they’ll suffer a letdown after two nationally televised night games. But they’ve won seven in a row against the Dolphins and five straight in Florida. If they win that one, they’ll have a good chance to sweep the division.
Is He Owned? I’m reviving an old fantasy feature where I search for hot and relatively unknown players who are likely available as free-agent acquisitions in fantasy leagues.
As any fantasy player knows, grabbing free agents can be the key to success. Six years ago, I was surprised to find a surging Adam Thielen available in late November. Four weeks later, he had 12 catches for 202 yards in my championship game and helped me win a title.
Of course, it’s early in a season, with roles still shaking out, where you really must pay attention. Running back is a key position where depth is vital and productive backups can help you win. Here’s a few running backs I targeted after the first week:
Khalil Herbert, Chicago: Herbert, a sixth-round pick out of Virginia Tech last year, had nine carries for 45 yards and a TD in the opener. He’s owned in 25% of ESPN leagues. David Montgomery ran 17 times for 26 yards. He’s average, so there’s a chance for Herbert to seize a bigger role.
Kenneth Gainwell, Philly: Gainwell had five rushes for 20 yards and a TD, plus two catches for 12 yards. The Eagles like him near the goal line and as a receiver out of the backfield. I was happy to get him in the 12th round of the media league. He’s rostered in 29% of ESPN leagues.
Isiah Pacheco, K.C.: Pacheco, a seventh-round rookie out of Rutgers, is third on the depth chart, but had 12 carries for 62 yards and a TD. Much of it came late in a blowout, but he’s worth keeping an eye on. Rostered in only 18.1% of ESPN leagues.
Stats Incredible: Thursday was Josh Allen’s seventh career game with three passing touchdowns and a rushing TD. That’s third in NFL history behind Drew Brees (9) and Tom Brady (8). I trust he’ll be No. 1 on the list before long … Speaking of guys who did well after leaving Buffalo, former UB star Khalil Mack had three sacks in his Chargers debut, a 24-19 victory over the Raiders in LA … Baker Mayfield started Sunday’s game against his former team, the Browns, with five three-and-outs, including three fumbled snaps and four passes batted at the line of scrimmage. He did rally Carolina to a fourth-quarter lead, but rookie Cade York kicked a 58-yard field goal with 13 seconds left for the win … Brothers Amon-Ra St. Brown and Equanimeous Brown caught TD passes 134 seconds apart on Sunday. Amon-Ra scored on a 4-yard toss from Jared Goff in the third quarter off Detroit’s home loss to Philly. Barely two minutes later in Chicago, Equanimeous caught an 18-yard TD toss from Justin Fields to pull the Bears ahead of the Niners. Amon-Ra has a TD catch in five straight games, the most for the Lions since Calvin Johnson in the 2011 season.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.