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Reporters' Notebook

Relief for Gase, Kitchens; Mahomes' off-field impact; Raiders roll

As we turn toward Week 10 of the 2019 NFL season,'s network of reporters provides the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

-- The struggles of first-year head coaches.

-- The Bills' salty response to their skeptics.

-- How Patrick Mahomes makes a difference for the Chiefs even while he's sidelined.

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NFL: New coaches looking for a break. There is a small measure of good news for two of the first-year head coaches who are struggling this season, thanks to the NFL schedule-makers.

The first half of the season was not kind to most of the eight coaches in the first years with their current teams. The eight combined for 19 victories through the first nine weeks, and the reality is even worse, because one coach -- Green Bay's Matt LaFleur -- accounts for seven of the wins.

The Arizona Cardinals are 3-5-1 with first-year coach Kliff Kingsbury, but his modest success with rookie quarterback Kyler Murray has raised a question, given the others' struggles. May the shocking decision by the Cardinals to fire Steve Wilks last December after a single season spur more owners to quickly pull the plug on struggling coaches when this season ends in eight weeks?

The two coaches whose poor starts have drawn the most scrutiny may also have the best chance to salvage their seasons -- and maybe their jobs -- in the second half. The Cleveland Browns (2-6) play the Buffalo Bills (6-2) this Sunday, but after that, their schedule gets significantly more manageable for coach Freddie Kitchens. Entering this week, their remaining opponents have a winning rate of .377 (26-40-1), the third easiest remaining schedule. Among their opponents: the one-win Miami Dolphins, the Cardinals and two games against thewinless Cincinnati Bengals. (Given the well-known patience of Bengals owner Mike Brown, nobody is even speculating that first-year coach Zac Taylor could be on thin ice.)

There is even better news for the Jets' Adam Gase, who could certainly use it after his team became the first in the NFL to lose to the Dolphins, dropping to 1-7 last Sunday. This Sunday, the Jets play the two-win Giants, and they'll follow that with a game against the one-win Washington Redskins. They, too, have the Bengals on the schedule. The Jets' remaining opponents have a winning rate of .364, which gives Gase's team the easiest remaining schedule in the NFL.

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ATLANTA FALCONS: Staff shuffle paying off? Embattled Falcons Coach Dan Quinn shifted the duties of three assistants after the team's bye week, with assistant head coach/WRs coach Raheem Morris returning to coach in the secondary. Morris coached the Falcons defensive backs in 2015 and this recent move was made to rescue a unit that has not played well.

Of the move, safety Ricardo Allen told me "it was needed."

"I was with him for a year here and his energy and knowledge really helped," Allen said. "Now it's really good to have him back because we know we are not playing the way we want as a position group. We have to get better.

"His perspective has changed some, too, working on offense the past few years, he sees what they want to do on offense so him having all that experience on defense and now adding what he knows from offense could help."

The Falcons face the Saints on Sunday, so that secondary will be tested. The key for Atlanta, Allen said, is for players to win each assignment, whether they're playing man or zone.

"Drew Brees is so good that he knows what you're doing, plus, these teams are so familiar with one another," Allen said. "We have to make sure everyone is sound and wins play after play, quarter after quarter because Drew and those guys are going to compete. If they find a weakness, they'll find it and get you."

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BALTIMORE RAVENS: Defense -- and Humphrey -- coming on strong. Baltimore defensive coordinator Don Martindale got creative in Sunday night's win over New England. He employed cornerback-by-trade Jimmy Smith as a safety for the better part of the night, in an effort to get his best cover guys on the field, joining Smith with Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr and Earl Thomas. It worked. The Patriots scored just 20 points, 10 off red-zone turnovers, and were beaten for the first time this season.

"We were pretty confident going in that this was going to be good for us, because we know the players," said head coach John Harbaugh. "It was good to see it in action, and it worked. It won't be everything we do, but it will definitely be in the tool bag going forward."

"I think we can be really good," said Smith earlier this week. "We have a lot of talent out there, a lot of smart players, and I think that really stands out with our guys."

"We can be really elite with that lineup," added Humphrey.

Smith's return from an injury is big for the Ravens -- he played just a half-dozen snaps in the season opener before suffering a knee injury -- but having Humphrey make the leap into the upper echelon of corners is bigger. In this, his third NFL season, the former Alabama star is marrying his great physical talent with more experience, and it shows.

"Week in and week out, [he's] our best player," said pass rusher Matthew Judon after the game Sunday.

"Marlon's confidence is out the roof, and when you have confidence playing cornerback, you can do what you want," said Smith.

A man of few words except when he's on the field -- he had a running dialogue with New England's Julian Edelman and got physical post-play with Cleveland's Odell Beckham Jr. earlier this year -- Humphrey says he just does what he's asked, but does it with some swagger.

"Definitely have to have a lot of confidence at corner," said Humphrey. "You're going to give some plays. You're going to make some plays. The thing for me is, you want to keep even-keel. Never get too high, never get too low."

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BUFFALO BILLS: Team determined to show it's for real. The Bills are 6-2, off to their best start since 1993, and they're tied for the second-best record in the AFC. But their six wins have come against teams with a combined record of 9-42. So, there's the rub.

Bills safety Micah Hyde isn't having it.

"I'm done apologizing for wins," Hyde said. "We're 6-2; this time last year, we were 2-6."

It has been a remarkable turnaround. Bills players seem to embrace head coach Sean McDermott's vision to control what they can control and make that their sole focus. It also seems likely Hyde's teammates will continue to rally around his sentiment.

"Listen, we know what we are, as far as record goes," said second-year quarterback Josh Allen. "We know we haven't played as well as we can, but to his point, it's a complete 180 from last year, night and day."

Allen went on to say the Bills' expectations inside their building are higher than anyone's on the outside.

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CINCINNATI BENGALS: No wins yet -- but no one's quitting, either. The Bengals are 0-8 as they return from their Week 9 bye to face the red-hot Ravens. But players roundly said this week the locker room remains united and tuned-in to first-year coach Zac Taylor.

"Definitely. And I've been on teams where guys are looking around like, 'I can't wait to get out of here,' " linebacker Preston Brown said. "But it's cool to see that everyone has a mentality [of], 'Oh, I'm trying to win this week.' That's the mentality -- a week by week mentality -- and guys are doing a good job of staying on Zac and the coaches' message."

That includes veteran cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who hasn't played since suffering a hyperextended knee, MCL bruise and slight hamstring tear in a Week 6 loss to Baltimore, and who is expected to sit out Sunday's rematch. Kirkpatrick, 30, is signed through 2021 and was adamant when we spoke Wednesday that he wants to be a part of the future in Cincinnati.

"I hear people go, 'Oh, you need to leave,' " Kirkpatrick said. "No. I'm cool, because I know what I signed up for. I know what I'm trying to build here. It might take a little minute, but it happens. I'm not going to stop believing in this team, or want out. That ain't what I'm built like."

Injuries have gutted the Bengals on both sides of the ball. Yet, as Kirkpatrick pointed out, four of their losses have been by six points or fewer, and only a couple have really been blowouts, including one in Week 2 against the NFL's only remaining unbeaten team.

"Everybody's still together, man," Kirkpatrick said. "We there. We there. Minus the San Francisco game. We there."

Sunday will mark rookie Ryan Finley's first start at quarterback since the benching of veteran Andy Dalton.

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CLEVELAND BROWNS: Roster, record don't add up. On Wednesday, Bills coach Sean McDermott answered a question about his team's upcoming opponent, the Browns, like this: "Yeah, that's what makes this team so good. ... They have so many weapons. You commit to stopping the run, they beat you in the passing game. You commit to stopping the pass, they've got (Nick Chubb) and now Kareem (Hunt) back (from suspension), so. Like I said before, it's been well-documented, the ability of their players."

In that answer, McDermott crystallized why this season has been so confounding for this 2-6 Cleveland team, didn't he?

Pressure or no, Mayfield's looking for answers. One of the more mysterious aspects of quarterback Baker Mayfield's sophomore season is that he has not only struggled under pressure (compiling a 54.5 passer rating, sixth-lowest in NFL) but when he's not under pressure (75.1 passer rating, lowest in the NFL). The struggles when not under pressure support the idea that Mayfield's uneven play is about more than just his protection. Mayfield is currently the only QB with more INTs (10) than TDs (6) when not under pressure this season.

Mayfield is still Mayfield in terms of his sometimes quirky approach. Before Sunday's game at Denver, he shaved his beard. After Cleveland lost, he clipped his mustache.

"The original thought for me, do handlebars," Mayfield said Wednesday. "I was undefeated before Sunday with the handlebar mustache. So I shaved it off because I didn't deserve it."

Where is OBJ? Hard to believe: Receiver Odell Beckham Jr. has been targeted in the red zone four times this season. The result: One reception for seven yards, no touchdowns.

By comparison, last year as a Giant, and with Eli Manning as his quarterback, Beckham was targeted in the red zone 18 times, with six receptions for 34 yards and four touchdowns.

Beckham has played on only one winning team, the 2016 Giants (11-5). Over his career, his teams are 10-12 in games in which he's been targeted at least twice in the red zone (.455 winning percentage). His teams are 5-13 in games in which he's not been targeted in the red zone (.278). In other words, when he logs at least two red-zone targets, his team is basically average. When he's not targeted in red zone, his teams are poor.

The Browns (2-6) acknowledge they are still trying to figure out how to best utilize -- and find -- Beckham in the red zone.

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KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Moore has been leaning on Mahomes. Quarterback Matt Moore didn't take a single rep in practice this season until two weeks ago. In August, he was coaching high school football when, out of the blue, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach called him with an offer to join the team after backup Chad Henne was lost during the preseason with an ankle injury.

Over the last two weeks, Moore has filled in for the reigning NFL MVP, injured starter Patrick Mahomes, throwing three touchdown passes against zero interceptions while compiling a 1-1 record, a shiny 105.5 passer rating and a 69.0 percent completion rate.

Moore, who played for the Panthers from 2007 to 2010 and the Dolphins from 2011 to '17, should get all the credit in the world for coming in, after being out of the NFL in 2018, and holding things down for a Super Bowl contender while Mahomes dealt with a knee injury suffered in Week 7. Moore, who told me he has been learning from Mahomes all season after missing training camp, is now using Mahomes' gifted knowledge of Andy Reid's offense every chance he can.

"It's all just little things and tidbits," Moore told me Wednesday. "Maybe formation and coverage. Maybe a way a DB is playing, things like that. He's definitely, definitely been a help, for sure."

That includes during games.

"I think Sunday night, I said something where he would tell me techniques or be like, 'Hey, this corner is playing this way,' or, 'Hey, if we come back here and the safety is this, come back to here,' things like that," Moore said a few days after making his first start of the season in Week 8. "This guy is pretty good at running this offense, so I was all ears listening to him. His vision is incredible. I told him, 'You be you, and keep the information coming.' "

"Pat's been the same guy," quarterback coach Mike Kafka said last week. "That's the beauty of Pat. He's giving information and showing everyone what he sees, which is great. We love that about him and having him around being able to give feedback. It's great. The more eyes you can get, the better."

Mahomes' stretch on the sideline has provided a wake-up call, in a sense, a reminder that there is much more to Mahomes' success than just a big arm and off-the-charts athletic ability. The third-year pro's intelligence and understanding of the offense, the main reasons Kansas City drafted him in 2017, have been on display in practice and during games while he recovers from his dislocated kneecap. Of course, it's always been there. Perhaps his ability to make plays we've never seen before has overshadowed what might be his greatest gift.

"One of his super talents to me is he sees it all," Moore told me back in late September.

"It's constant. He sees everything, which is awesome. If it's something that doesn't work out the way we thought it would, he's already on it. Before he's off the field, he's already talking about it. It's funny, because he already knows the adjustment before we talk with Coach Reid. It happened, OK. He already knows how to fix it. His mind is constantly going. It's impressive."

Mahomes has been practicing ahead of Kansas City's Week 10 matchup with the Titans.

UPDATE: Reid announced on Friday that Mahomes will start for the Chiefs on Sunday.

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OAKLAND RAIDERS: TNF win provides major boost.An intense and competitive game between the Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers ended with an interception by Raiders safety Karl Joseph and an eruption from the Oakland crowd on Thursday Night Football. I was steps away from quarterback Derek Carr as the clock counted down and the Raiders sealed the victory against their AFC West rivals. Carr had been hyping up the crowd from the sideline since the two-minute warning, and he ran onto the field for the offense's final two snaps knowing Oakland had pulled closer to division-leading Kansas City with a reasonably favorable schedule ahead.

It was rookie running back Josh Jacobs who scored the game-winning touchdown, giving Oakland a two-point lead with less than two minutes left. After the game, Jacobs commented on how much this win meant to his team. "We are a much better team than people give us credit for," he said.

For his part, Joseph spoke to the resilience of the Raiders' defense. The veteran safety was on crutches when he entered the locker room. He told me he "felt it twist when I pushed off" before the interception, though he didn't specify what "it" was. However, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Friday that Joseph will undergo an MRI on his foot and there's fear the injury is serious.

Earlier in the week, Joseph spoke about playing with a chip on his shoulder, and how this team always has something to prove. I asked him if he felt Thursday night's game showed just how good this team can be. He answered, "I think we did. But we're not happy with this win. We have our eyes on bigger goals."

The bigger goal is making it to the playoffs.

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TENNESSEE TITANS: Vrabel bracing himself for Mahomes' return. It took one jump in the air caught on camera to convince Titans head coach Mike Vrabel that Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes would be starting against his team this Sunday.

"Yeah, I think so," Vrabel said when I asked him if expects Mahomes to start the Week 10 showdown with Kansas City.

After a pause, he followed with, "Pretty good jump there at the end of the game. He got pretty good air there. Good vert."

After Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker's game-winning field goal against the Vikings last Sunday, the game broadcast showed Mahomes, who's been out since Week 7 with a dislocated knee, jumping and celebrating with his teammates on the field.

That shot was enough for Vrabel to have his team prepare this week for the reigning MVP, who ended up practicing -- and who plays the quarterback position with a certain amount of flair.

"You are always looking at his play style," Vrabel told me. "You look for certain things you're going to do your best to try and take away, and I have to make sure the players understand his play style, that the play is never over. Everybody is going to have to do their job to finish in the pass rush or cover a little longer or stay closer for those play extensions that always seem to happen. They're either a big play for them or potentially can be a big play for you."

UPDATE: Chiefs coach Andy Reid announced on Friday that Mahomes will start for Kansas City on Sunday.

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