NFL 2021 Playoff team prediction

Injuries (and schedule adjustments due to the pandemic) were important in determining which teams qualified for the playoffs and had success in January last time out and while it would be churlish to expect them not to have an impact this season too there are reasons to expect they won’t be as decisive this year.  With the experience of last season’s truncated preseason to provide every coaching staff with data from which to adapt training schedules, a new adapted Injured List protocol plus a new, longer regular season teams should be able to reduce the intensity of the training and increase the duration instead to lessen the stress on player’s bodies.  This is the NFL though so there will be impact injuries and freak accidents on the training field as well as the pitch.

When it comes to trying to make sense of who will be contending at the end of a new, extended regular season two things stand out for me; experience of competing at the latter stages of recent seasons and strength in depth of team rosters.  Experience in the Postseason is very much a double-edged sword, obviously having players and coaches who have proven they are good enough to compete at the highest level is vital but recent extended playoff runs are not always helpful. 

Seven of the 2020 playoff teams made the playoffs in 2019 and it’s difficult to see how the current Super Bowl Champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers don’t make the playoffs again this year but in order to successfully defend their title they will have to play 40 or 41 games in something like 74 weeks, which may seem a relatively simple task but given the impact of fatigue in increasing the likelihood of players getting injured it’s a tough ask and no team has defended the Lombardi trophy since the Patriots managed it in 2005!

Schedule alterations effected the AFC playoffs more than the NFC last season as the Ravens and Titans caused a fair amount of chaos within the Conference and the Steelers seemed to be the unfortunate ones who paid the price as they ended up playing 5 games in 25 days in December!  They still qualified for the Playoffs but unsurprisingly the fatigue caught up with them as they succumbed at home in the Wildcard game 37-48 to the Browns who they beat 38-7 at Heinz Field during the regular season.  I’m not sure the Steelers will have the chance for redemption this season as the Bengals, who were hampered by a season ending injury to rookie Quarterback Joe Burrow last season and they should take their Divisional rivals place in the postseason this time out.  I think the AFC North should be the strongest division in the Conference again this year with 3 playoff teams in the Browns, Ravens and Bengals, the AFC South may well provide two playoff teams in the form of the Titans and the Colts who appear to have two of the stronger Defence’s in the Conference (although the Colts deal for Carson Wentz seems to be a big gamble).  The other two divisions in the AFC look like the most unpredictable divisions in the league, the Chiefs will need to be befallen by some pretty catastrophic circumstances to not win the AFC West but how the other 3 teams in West perform is tricky to calculate, the Raiders are prime example, last season they won 6 of their first 9 games but then crumbled to a final record of 8-8, similarly the Chargers lost 4  of their first 5 game in 2020 and then won their last 4 so I find it very difficult to predict anyone else making the postseason form the western conference.  Josh Allen has looked remarkably calm in preseason for the Bills and while it’s only practice the Bills have played the Packers and the Bears who have strong rosters even without all of their starters in their lineups.  The Bills should win their division comfortably and while all the other teams have made changes that should improve their fortunes from last season, I think the settled nature of the Bills will provide them with enough dominance to dampen their rival’s playoff chances.

In the NFC two teams seemed to really suffer the injury curse the 49ers ended the season with 18 players on Injured Reserve and another 9 on their Injury Report and the Giants lost the mainstay of their Offence Saquon Barkley in after 19 carries in 2020 so it’s hard not to believe they will both be determined to make up for lost time this season and I can see both of them making the postseason.  I expect the Packers and Saints to be the two best teams in the Conference again and the Buccaneers have managed to retain most of their Super Bowl winning roster so it’s difficult to imagine they won’t still be in the mix by January too.  The NFC East is an interesting Division in as much as the Washington Football team have the only dominant Defence so they should be favourites to finish at the head of the pack but with the other 3 teams all having the potential to score points in bunches there may well be a Wildcard team in the East and if Saquon can stay healthy the Giants Offence should be the most consistent in that Division.  I think the final Wildcard team will be from the North and as they made the playoffs last season and as they appear to have two viable Quarterbacks, I think the Bears should still be playing come January.

 

South Africa v Lions first Test preview

Statistically speaking the more phases an attacking team goes through in their opponent’s 22 the less likely they are to cross the try line, that was a big problem for the Lions against South Africa ‘A’ and that perfectly illustrates what the Springboks do so well.  They have an almost innate ability to dominate the gain-line without conceding penalties, even without much game time in the last 18 months that’s not an ability you can easily lose and attacking with any sort of tempo and fluency against a team who can do that is always an uphill struggle.  Selecting a starting 15 made up of partnerships and combinations who have next to no experience together seems like the sort of the thing that will just compound that issue, only Robbie Henshaw and Elliot Daly in the Centre’s have started a game on this tour together (and the half backs Ali Price and Dan Biggar featured together  for 20 minutes against Japan in Edinburgh), so the back play may be more cohesive than the forward unit but if the forwards can’t provide a platform the backs will have scarce opportunity to demonstrate any cohesion.

The Lions team selection can partly be explained by how compromised the entire tour has been by COVID, firstly they had to name a smaller squad than they would have liked to have and with the Bulls COVID outbreak they had to play a very young Cell C Sharks side twice (resulting in a combined 128-38 point victory), Josh Adams was unable to return home to be with his partner as she gave birth to their first child and the Springbok camp has suffered it’s own major COVID outbreak with more than 20 people returning positive test results including Head Coach Jacques Nienaber, Fly Half Handre Pollard and Captain Siya Kolisi and that’s where this game becomes as much of a conspiracy theorist’s delight as it is a sporting contest. 

There’s very little information on how COVID effects elite athlete’s and just 5 days ago it appeared highly unlikely Kolisi would have recovered enough to take part in this game but South Africa moved the announcement of their squad forward in order to unveil his messiah like recovery.  It was almost as if in response to Lions Captain Alun-Wyn Jones recovering from a shoulder injury their own totemic leader is sensationally back, so the squad’s that were named may very well not be the actual one’s who take the field (And as I type it’s been reported that Lions prop Wyn Jones won’t play).

With such uncertainty around the personnel who will actually be available for the Springboks it appears that the Lions lack of familiarity is an almost deliberate ploy from Gatland, the experimental feel of the starting 15 rather suggests that he’s using this first Test as an extra tour game they so sorely missed in this constricted tour.  They know Kolisi and Pollard will be lacking game time (particularly as Pollard only recently recovered from a serious knee injury) so big ball carriers like Jack Conan and Luke Cowan-Dickie will be making sure that the Fly Half isn’t going to shirk any tackles.  However Cowan-Dickie does have a tendency to feel the pressure when it comes to lineout time and I believe that’s what has lead to the selection of a 6 feet 7 inch blindside flanker in the form of Courtney Lawes (who is arguably the 3rd best English blindside flanker behind Jack Willis and Sam Underhill).  Lawes’ selection appears to provide a serious imbalance in the back row, with a dynamic open side in the form of Tom Curry requiring an equally dynamic 6 who can intelligently manage a ruck to maximise his skill as he did against the Stormers and with no Wyn Jones the breakdown is certain to be an area of real weakness for the Lions.  If, as expected, the Springboks dominate the gain-line Kwagga Smith and Kolisi will easily outnumber poor Curry as the rest of the Lions forwards lumber behind him and it’ll be left to the likes of Henshaw and Daly to help out the Sale Shark.  The selection of the two wingers who are the most awkward to tackle in Duhan van der Merwe and Anthony Watson (and even Liam Williams on the bench) ahead of the two wingers who are most likely to ghost into space in Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit rather leans toward the coaches worrying about the attacking ruck speed, if they were expecting a fluid, open attacking game they’d have gone with guile over brute force.  If van der Merwe and Watson can cross the gain-line and give Price and Biggar a slightly disorganised defence to work against then the Lions backline has pace power in Henshaw, Hogg and Daly to exploit any gaps on offer but the Springbok backline are one of the most solid defence’s in world rugby so the Lions may end up kicking the ball away more than they would like to.  The Springbok back 3 and whichever member of the back row they choose to drop back will eat up any loose kicks and as the ‘A’ team demonstrated they’ll score from anywhere on the pitch.  The concern with the Lions kicking game is that Gregor Townsend usually has Russell or Hastings at 10 and they have an almost creative kicking game where they sometimes sacrifice distance in order to manipulate the opposition back 3 and allow the kick chasers a better chance of containing any counter attack chance but that’s not really something Biggar, Henshaw or Hogg (and especially Daly) don’t often try, they would all rather kick so they can compete for the ball or just clear their lines which would make Cheslin Kolbe in particular very happy.

Missing Wyn Jones could be a real problem for the Lions as he’s the most well rounded of the loose-head props in the squad and while Rory Sutherland will undoubtedly provide plenty of muscle and aggression he’s not the ball player the Welshman is and whilst Mako Vunipola’s inclusion on the bench provides some destructive ball carrying and a lot of intelligence he hasn’t been in the best form at scrum time, so unless the game is played at a frightening pace and there are some very tired Springbok forwards on the field a ball carrying loose-head might not be the order of the day.

If the Lions can dictate the pace of the game and test the host’s conditioning in the last 15 to 20 minutes they could come away with a healthy victory but if it’s a typically South African disjointed and gritty game then the home team should be the favourites to grind out an ugly win.

A pride of Lions

Warren Gatland and his coaching team are facing the prospect of the most complicated British and Irish Lions tour in history (and the Lions have toured South Africa during the days of Apartheid and played a 35 game tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1888 that involved playing games of Aussie Rules. A tour which departed Gravesend on the 9th of March and returned on the 11th of November! So they have a pretty high bar when it comes to complicated tours). Even without the current pandemic situation organising 4 separate Unions and hoping for cooperation from regional and club teams under the 4 separate umbrellas was always going to be awkward, not to mention expensive. However, the most complicated part has to be selecting the squad and hoping that the players are as enthusiastic about the tour going ahead as the accountants are, Ben Youngs has already decided that the imminent birth of his third child is a priority and Youngs coach at Leicester has politely declined an invitation to go on another tour as part of Gatland’s coaching team so the Kiwi’s job becomes increasingly intricate day by day.

Luckily I haven’t got to worry about the intricacies, I’m just going to pick the 36 players who I think will be in the touring party, so here goes nothing-

Mako Vunipola, Wyn Jones, Joe Marler (who may decline the offer, then it may be Rory Sutherland or Ellis Genge)

Ken Owens, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Scott Baldwin (although the 3rd sport is wide open. Rob Herring would be an interesting selection)

Tadgh Furlong, Kyle Sinkler, Andrew Porter

Maro Itoje, Alun-Wyn Jones, James Ryan, Iain Henderson

Tadgh Beirne, Hamish Watson, Josh Navidi

Justin Tipuric, Sam Underhill

CJ Stander, Taulupe Faletau

Conor Murray, Ben Spencer, Tomos Williams

Jonny Sexton, Dan Biggar, George Ford

Robbie Henshaw, Owen Farrell

Garry Ringrose, Chris Harris

Liam Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit, Josh Adams, Duhan Van der Merwe

Anthony Watson, Stuart Hogg

Traditionally this would be the bit where the “bolters” get a mention but I would be very surprised if there are any shocking selections. There are 3 areas where there isn’t much depth so there could be some unpopular picks at hooker, scrum half and lock but other than that Gatland has players he is more than familiar to pick from.

Lions chatter

Danish physicist Niels Bohr once said “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future!” and he had a very good point (probably not quite as good a point his father, Christian, who discovered the Bohr effect) but I’m always up for a challenge and no stranger to looking silly so it’s time to talk Lions squad selection.

Warren Gatland is one of the most succesful Lions coaches for a reason, he’s incredibly single minded and puts his faith in players who share his intense focus on winning so I think you can split the potential squad into 2 seperate parts, the core which will consist of players he knows and has previously coached and the wider talent base (it’s not completely impossible there will be one or two complete wildcards in the 36 but since it has been reported they are taking a “streamlined” there won’t be much room for “bolters”). There has also been a lot of talk about Gatland selecting “on form” but that rather implies that he doesn’t believe he, along with his coaching team, can get the best out of players who have been struggling in what has, lets face it, been a particularly trying last 10 months for everyone. According to the current schedule there will be 5 games in South Africa leading into the first Test in Johannesburg plus a pre-tour warm up game against Japan so I can’t imagine selection will be limited to players who hasve been absolutely outstanding in the last few weeks or months.

The core players are pretty easy to predict (he said foolishly), so here goes –

  • Mako Vunipola, I think he’s the loose head prop Gatland would want if he were still playing hooker.
  • Ken Owens, he’s been a driving force in solidifying the Welsh set piece during the 6 Nations and he has 84 Test caps.
  • Tadgh Furlong, if he’s not the best tight head in rugby he’s in the top 2.
  • Maro Itoje, has to be the most annoying player to play against in world rugby, or he might be second to
  • Alun-Wyn Jones, he’s got 157 Test caps and 9 of them are for the Lions. At this stage he’s a living, breathing rugby instruction manual.
  • James Ryan, he’s started 32 Tests and won 26 of them, whatever he does it undeniably works.
  • Tadgh Beirne, possibly a controversial choice for “absolutely nailed on” but he can play 5, 6 or 8 in an emergency and he’s a phenomonal athlete, he’s played 22 Tests and won 15.
  • Sam Underhill, there’s a reason heplayed 22 Tests and won 18, he is one of those people who looks like a normal human but has superhero strength (like a lot of the Springbok squad).
  • CJ Stander, there’s a reason he isn’t retiring until the International window has closed, he made 6 appearances on a 10 game tour of New ZealandA so it’s safe to say Gatland is a fan.
  • Taulupe Faletau, he’s got 90 Test caps, 4 for the Lions and nobody has ever looked so sangfroid whilst playing International rugby.
  • Conor Murray, he’s not been in vintage form but if Gatland thinks he can get 2 decent Test starts from him he’s on the plane.
  • Johnny Sexton, he’s flashed some of his talent this season but has mostly been battling his decrepid body but similarly if he can stay upright for 100 minutes he’ll be there.
  • Owen Farrell, literally everyone who isn’t related to him will be furious (hello Mike Brown) but Gatland loves an angry bloke and he’s actually a decent communicator in midfield.
  • Robbie Henshaw, probably Ireland’s player of the 6 Nations and one of the best Centre’s in the tournament, he’s started 47 Tests and won 33 plus he can play 12 or 13 and he’s massive.
  • Liam Williams, Gatland loves an angry bloke remember and his versatility will help “streamline” the squad too.
  • Stuart Hogg, he’s quick, he’s bigger than he was when Gatland picked him to tour New Zealand, he can kick the ball a mile and he can play 15, 10 and possibly 13 if nobody else can.
  • Anthoy Watson, probably the best athlete in the England squad and another one who can play two postions, his attacking threat was key in stretching the All Black defence 4 years ago.

Predicting the wider squad will be much trickier but after this weekend’s European rugby there may be some stand out candidates, so that’ll probably be a job for Monday then. Can you leave the 6 Nation’s top try scorer at home though? Especially if he’s a manimal born in South Africa. Just imagine Duhan having to tackle Akker in the corner late in the 3rd Test, that would surely be something.

Wales v England 2021, not so much a blog as a therapy session

So Wales have won 2 consecutive games under Wayne Pivac and seem to have accelerated the transition he was claiming had started during the Autumn, however both of those games have seen their opponents have a Forward sent off for an illegal clear out at a ruck, so is there reason to be optimistic? Well, purely based on the last two games it’s very tricky to tell, but here goes –

Wales have really struggled to get their hands on the ball (under Gatland they essentially allowed opponents to have posession because they trusted the defence to force penalties or turnovers in scoring positions but Pivac insists that the cornerstone of his transition is a move away from permanent defence), against Ireland they had just 36% of the ball and in Edinburgh 38%. If England finish the game having had almost 70% they will more than likely score over 30 points and that should be enough to win convincingly.

Another area where Wales have struggled is gaining ground when they do have the ball, against Ireland they had 190 carries and only managed 2.1 metres per carry and whilst they improved against Scotland it was only by 20 centimetres per carry to a similarly unimpressive 2.3 metres. The inclusion of Jonathan Davies at 12 and the return of Josh Navidi should add some extra dynamism to the attack though. For their part last time out England allowed Italy to make 3.5 metres per carry a full metre more than they allowed Scotland in the Calcutta Cup match so the insignificant statistics definitely trending in a Welsh direction.

England have conceded 27 turnovers in the first two games which is 5 more than Wales have and once again the return of Josh Navidi alongside Tipuric, Wyn Jones, Alun-Wyn and Faletau suggest that Wales will be aiming to disrupt as many breakdowns as possible while England will be without one of their arch-disrupters in the form of Jack Willis but in Tom Curry, Mark Wilson and Maro Itoje (and Ben Earl on the bench) England have more than their fair share of scrappers plus Jonny Hill is always good for a few law bending infringments when the ball is on the ground.

On the theme of bending laws instead of breaking them the team of officials are bound to have a huge influence on the result of this game and while Pascal Gauzere’s interpreatations at ruck time are going to be interesting the scrum seems to be the most contencious area and with two Irish assistant referees it’s difficult not to see them being a complete free for all. Andrew Brace seemed to take a real dislike to the Welsh scrum against Scotland in the Autumn and as a former scrum half Frank Murphy isn’t exactly what you would call a front row maven so expect some inexplicable decisions there. One area that England should probably target is the Welsh back 3, Louis Rees-Zammit could win any game of rugby almost single handedly and none of the English backline will want him to get any space or time so it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he’s singled out for some special treatment and if he is I’d expect the entire Welsh team to take exception to it with Liam Williams never backwards in going forwards when there’s a potential fracas.

Despite not really having much ball or doing much with it Wales have been looking to keep it alive a lot more than England have, they have offloaded 10 times in the tournament so far compared to England who have managed just 6 and it might be Wales’ desire to promote the ball and find players in space that has caused opponents to attack rucks when Wales look to be turning the ball over?

So it looks like this could be a close game and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if it is decided in the last 10-15 minutes and if that is the case a quick Gareth Davies could exploit some tired defenders and with Callum Sheedy and Willis Halaholo on the bench for Wales they would be more than happy to into the closing stages 5 points behind (don’t think the fans would be though). The old “no fans in the stadium levels the playing field” trope doesn’t really hold much water with me, England have won in Cardiff with fans in the stadium so I don’t think it’ll be the deciding factor here. The deciding factor will probably be that Wales are still a team in that “transitional” phase and Eddie Jones has been drumming his ideas into his England team since 2015.

NFL Divisional round 2021 – Saturday

Evaluating both the Packers and Rams based on the entirety of the season is easy enough but it’s also hardly relevant as the teams who will actually turn out today are not exactly the same the teams who have taken the field all season long.

The Rams ended the season 10-6 and 4 of those losses were on the road, the Packers on the other hand ended the season with just 3 losses in total and the only home loss came way back in week 8 to the Vikings.  In that game the teams were level at halftime with 14 points apiece but the Vikings siezed the initiative in the third quarter as they scored 2 more touchdowns and prevented the Packers scoring until the 4th Quarter. 

Playing with a lead is vital for the Rams since that will allow them to lean heavily on their run game and try to dominate time of posession as they did last week against the Seahawks (32:57 to 26:14).  All 3 of the games the Packers have lost ths season have involved the opposition running all over them, the Colts allowed the Packers to score 21 points in the second quarter and still beat them in Overtime on the back of 140 rushing yards, when the Vikings won at Lambeau Dalvin Cook racked up 163 of the Vikes 173 yards and the Buccaneers beat them in Tampa Bay as they carried the ball 158 yards on the ground. 

The Packers have allowed on average 4.5 yards per carry over the course of the season and Rams running back Cam Akers has averaged 4.3 yards per carry and in worse news for the Packers the Rams other two backs Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown have averaged 4.5 yards and 4.1 yards per game respectively so it’s safe to say this team is built to play Playoff football (probably because they’ve got Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein in the Offensive line who I absolutely love). 

The Packers Offence is largely Aaron Rodgers and whatever magic he can conjure up with Aaron Jones and Devante Adams as his glamourous assistants and in 2020 they have been very succesful at pulling rabbits out of hats.  Rodgers has thrown 48 touchdowns with just 5 interceptions and was the consensus MVP in the regular season.  However Rodgers has been allowed to conjure a lot of those scores by the foundation provided by the Packers Offensive line anchored by David Bakhtiari who suffered a season ending knee injury in week 18.  To replace the Bakhtiari shaped void the Packers signed Jared Veldheer from the Colts practice squad and he was set to take his place in the Packer Offensive line this week until the dreaded COVID-19 struck. 

And that’s why both teas may not resemble their normal selves this week, both currently have 8 players on the Injury List for this week and that doesn’t include the players who have been ruled out for the entire season.  How healthy Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp are will be vital for the road team in Lambeau but the Rams Defence have the most sacks of any team left in the playoffs and are one of the least penalised in the league which is always a great indication of a well coached unit.

The Rams are 5/2 outsiders with some bookmakers and that;s a very tempting prospect, they have allowed just 17 passing touchdowns this season whilst making 14 interceptions and they are only allowing 3.8 yards per carry to opposing rushing offences.  One person who will definitelt be worth keeping an eye on for the Packers is AJ Dillon, he’s currently ranked 3rd on the running back depth chart but if the Packers need a surprise factor agains the Rams defence he cab definitely provide some raw power.  Here’s a random fact too, the last time Packers kicker Mason Crosby attempted a Field Goal in the playoffs he missed it and that was back in 2016 against the Falcons however he has never missed an extra point in the postseason.  Rams kicker Matt Gay has only played in 1 playoff game but it was last week and he went 6/6 with 3 Field Goals.


I’m just going to come straight out with it, I’m rooting for the Bills hard in this game.  The Four falls of Buffalo is a wonderful documentary about how the city reacted to their Super Bowl heartbreaks with Jim Kelly at quarterback in the early 1990’s and it would be fairy tale stuff if Josh Allen could take them back there.  The Bills had the toughest schedule of any of the AFC playoff teams and they ended the season by winning 6 games on the bounce after their bye week so there should be plenty of confidence in western New York at the moment.  In those last 6 games they outscored their opponents 229 to 110 so if any team was coming into the postseason on a hot streak it was the Bills.

The Ravens didn’t so much glide into the playoffs as their name suggests but crash into it in a manner more fittting a buffalo, they had major COVID-19 issues during the regular season but once they seemed to recover from that they went on ther winning run of five games to the end the season where they putscored their opposition 146 to 89 and that’s where the strength of schedule really kicks in, Buffalo beat the Chargers (who have a very exciting Offence if not much in the way of Defence), the banged up 49ers who Josh Allen put up a QB rating of 139.1 against as he threw 4 TD’s and no picks, the Steelers who were looking like an AFC contender in week 14 as Sreffon Diggs caught 10 receptions for 130 yards and a TD, Denver and New England who were pretty disastrous by the end of the season and Miami who were attempting to the make the playoffs who they absoultely battered by 30 points.  The Ravens on the other hand beat a Dak-less (and directionless) Dallas, the Bengals without Joe Burrow, Cleveland (who’s leading receiver was a running back) and Jacksonville and the Giants (groan and double groan), obviously the weakness of theor opposition is nothing to do with the Ravens but going into a game against the high flying Bills (incidentally that’s a great name for a band) you would ideally want to have been tested against better teams.  Even in the Wildcard round the Ravens played the Titans who’s Defence is ranked 24th by the same people who rank the Rams 1st in the league, the Bills for their part are ranked 16th (the Ravens are ranked 2nd but the Bills Offence have the 2nd best Offence).

So I’ve tried to talk myself into a Bills victory (and it’s not that far out of the question, an inspired Josh Allen + Steff Diggs display would make it a total shoot out) but I think it’ll be very difficult for the Bills to stop the Ravens plethora of running backs and Lamar Jackson if he gets his legs working first may very well light up the BIlls defensive backs too.  Obviously there’s always the hope that it goes to Overtime and we;re treated to a Justin Tucker/ Tyler Bass shootout, Tucker got his annual miss out of his system last week though so I expect that if he has to win the gamewith hos boot he’ll be cool as a cucumber so I’ll have to go with another win for the road team in this game.

2021 NFL Wildcard Weekend -Sunday

As always in knockout games it’s the small things that can often make a big difference and the Ravens special teams seems built for the big games, Justin Tucker has scored 26 of the 29 field goals he attempted and only missed extra point all season which is why he’s widely regarded as the best kicker in the league. The Titans are on their second kicker of the season in Sam Sloman who is yet to miss a kick but he’s only played in one game and some would say he was lucky to make the game winner last time out as he dinged a game winning 37 yarder off the post.

Lamaar Jackson will be under increasing scrutiny if he doesn’t start this game well given his struggles in Playoff games so far in his professional career but the Titans Defence is just the sort of challenge an explosive, young quarterback would like to see in a wildcard game, the Titans have struggled to apply pressure to opposing QB’s all season and if they do manage to get to Lamaar he can burn them with his legs even more effectively than he can with his arm so I’ll be expecting a Ravens win on the road, the bookmakers have set the points spread at 3.5 points which seems awfully short to me. The Titans have the ability to keep possession and run Derrick Henry up and down the field but that Ravens Defence should slow the Titans down in the redzone and with 4 running backs and a mobile QB they will make it tricky for the Titans Defence.

Chicago travel the length of the Mississippi to New Orleans with very little chance of a win and that’s why this game has got “banana skin” written all over it. The Bears Defence is much better than their Offence but if you dive into the statistics it’s not really anything to write home about, they have allowed 41 touchdowns this season whilst only scoring 40 so you could say they’re very fortunate to even be in the playoffs. For their part the Saints have allowed 39 touchdowns and scored 59 so this is a pretty uneven matchup to say the least. Both teams have had freak losses in recent playoff games though and the Bears heart breaking loss at the hands of a missed last second field goal will surely fire them up for this game but the Saints more recent losses at the hands of an officiating mistake and a defensive error by rookie Marcus Williams in Minnesota back in 2018 will surely focus their attention on the task at hand. Logically the Saints should be favourite to win this by double digits (and they are) but if the Bears are looking for any glimmer of hope it’s that the Saints have struggled in recent seasons against their NFC North counterparts the Vikings in the playoffs lately and the Vikings haven’t really looked to have anything to challenge the Saints beyond a very good running back and a tricky defence. David Montgomerie has scored in his last 5 games for the Bears and the Saints will be without their sack leader Trey Hendrikson and maybe missing another 5 Defensive players going into this game so there’s the smallest of chances for the away team and in my opinion this is the best chance of an upset today.

It’s impossible to get excited about the Browns travelling to Pittsburgh to play the team they play against the team who they just scraped past last week, not because of the repetition but the Browns will be facing the Steelers strongest available team and they will be without their Head Coach Kevin Stefanski who is self isolating after a possible close contact with a COVID 19 sufferer. The Browns and Steelers are near neighbours but there’s no community spirit on show when they meet, it’s a little over a year ago since Myles Garrett hit Mason Rudolph on the head with his own helmet so the Steelers players won’t be looking for a reason to take it easy on the team from just down the Ohio River. Baring a massive injury crisis for the Steelers (which they already have on Defence) the home team should progress into the next round of the playoffs.

2021 NFL Wildcard weekend – Colts @ Bills

As a big fan of lazy tropes I can’t shake the feeling an aging Phillip Rivers will struggle in freezing temperatures at Bills Stadium on Saturday afternoon and it’s not just the Quarterback who has a tough task ahead of him in western New York, Colts kicker Rodrigo Blankenship has only made 1 field goal of 50 yards or longer this season having attempted just 3. Now part of that is because the Colts have converted 61.5% of their 4th downs this season so Frank Reich hasn’t felt the need to attempt long range shots very often. Tyler Bass for the Bills on the other hand has made 4 field goals over 50 yards from 6 attempts and his longest successful attempt this season is a 58 yarder, although that was kicked indoors against Arizona.

As much as focusing on both kickers seems incongruous in a win or go home playoff game there’s a very real possibility the result will be determined by the effectiveness of the special teams. Both teams have had very efficient Offences this season who have leant on their passing games to score the majority of their touchdowns.

The Bills have scored 40 TD’s through the air as opposed to 16 on the ground and the Colts have 24 pass TD’s and 20 with the running game. On the other side of the ball the Colts Defence appears to be tougher to break down than their hosts this week have, the Colts have allowed 500 fewer yards than the Bills and five fewer rushing TD’s, however the Colts have allowed 160 more yards through the air and 1 more touchdown reception than the Bills. So it should be a very even matchup, however according to the strength of schedule of their opponents the Colts had the easiest schedule in the NFL this season and their last loss was a road game in a cold, clear Pittsburgh on boxing day.

Bookmakers have set the points spread at 6.5 which seems quite high to me, the Colts Defence has really only been overrun once and that was back in week 12 when the Titans scored 45 points against them when a lot of players were missing including the talismanic defensive lineman DeForest Buckner. I’m expecting a Bills win but it would be a surprise if it will be as comprehensive a win as their last 10 games have been (by at least 10 points).

Marginal Gains

Baring one of the biggest shocks in recent times England should cruise to a win in Llanelli tomorrow but Wayne Pivac’s team selection rather shows that he’s not too concerned with the result, he seems more concerned with evaluating the players he has available and analysing who fits his plan for the future. Even so he won’t want to watch his team get run ragged and there’s a chance a few players could pose their opponents a problem, I thought I’d try to predict who wins the individual battles –

Wyn Jones v Kyle Sinkler – Sinkler actually claimed that he’d only been playing at 20% for his club Bristol in an interview this week which seemed either self-deprecating or worrying for anyone who plays against him when he’s back to 100%! If Sinkler is only at 20% tomorrow then Wyn Jones should have a relatively quiet evening but Eddie Jones doesn’t often select players who aren’t firing on all cylinders so one can only imagine Sinkler will come out on top in this one.

Ryan Elias v Jamie George – one has looked completely out of his depth, which is worrying given he’s playing at his home ground, the other is either the 4th or 5th best hooker in the world. Can’t see a way for Elias to suddenly become a Test hooker against such an established international.

Samson Lee v Mako Vunipola – this one is going to be particularly fascinating, they both look born to be props. They both look like they’re most comfortable doing things not many humans would relish, the only real difference is Mako never really looks fatigued whereas you always know Samson has put a shift in. Both played 62 minutes last week but Samson played against a Tier 2 nation who seemed unable to challenge the Welsh scrum too often so maybe he’ll just have a bit extra in the tank.

Jake Ball v Maro Itoje – Jake Ball might be the toughest man in world rugby and he’ll need to be to go toe with the most in form second row in the world. This an absolutely mouthwatering pairing and Itoje will almost certainly come out on top but it will have to be a decision on points rather than a K.O, they’re both bound to knock each other around a bit.

Alun-Wyn Jones v Joe Launchbury – Alun-Wyn seems to have reached the era of his career where the quiet games appear a bit more readily than anyone wants them too whereas you always know what you’re going to get, he’ll be a solid 8.5 to 9 out of 10 every game. Launchbury is 6 years younger than Alun-Wyn but a big game from the veteran would go a long way to quietening the armchair experts and would absolutely raise the level of the rest of the squad.

Shane Lewis-Hughes v Tom Curry – Lewis-Hughes had a very accomplished debut against Ireland 2 weeks ago opposite Peter O’Mahony but a 22 year old Tom Curry is a very different prospect than a 31 year old O’Mahony. Curry is actually younger than Lewis-Hughes but has 25 more caps a World Cup final under his belt. I can’t imagine Wales’ young flanker will take a backward step and it might get a bit feisty but as the old saying goes “youth and enthusiasm is no match for age and skulduggery”

James Botham v Sam Underhill – you actually have to fear for Botham here, he must be showing Pivac some pretty amazing power in training for him to get the nod ahead of the other back row options (granted most of them are either injured or on their way back to fitness, but he picked the squad). Botham played well against a Tier 2 nation last week but he’s giving away the best part of 2 stone to Underhill who looked pretty close to the peak of his powers last week against Peter O’Mahony and when he’s at 100% Underhill is one of the 2 or 3 best 7’s in the world.

Taulupe Faletau v Billy Vunipola – whatever happens you know this is going to be fun and everyone will keep reminding you that they’re cousins and they’re pretty close. But who doesn’t like teaching their closest relatives a lesson? Faletau has been used out wide rather than close to the breakdown by Pivac and if it is possible to get the ball in hands in any sort of space he’s bound to perform some feats of magic. It’s hard to imagine Billy drifting out into the 13 channel when he could be pounding the ball down the channels closer to the ruck so depending on which area of the pitch they end up in will determine the result of this one. Lovers of an underdog story will definitely be cheering for a win for the bloke in red though.

Lloyd Williams v Ben Youngs – it’s absolutely impossible to know which version of Williams or Young will turn up on any given day but with the dominant pack in front of him it’s sensible to expect Youngs will have a better chance to shine.

Dan Biggar v George Ford – it’s not beyond the realms of possibility than vintage Biggar turns up and bosses the game. He won’t want to go back to Northampton in 2 weeks and listen to his team mates bang on about he got his hat handed to him by the Leicester half backs but he seems to enjoy being the pantomime villain a bit too much at the moment and without a thousands of people there hanging on his every move he appears largely disinterested. Ford on the other hand definitely looked like he could have been reading a newspaper and smoking a cigar when he came off the bench and steered England around Twickenham for 10 minutes last week.

Josh Adams v Jonathan Joseph – this has got box office written all over it. The top try scorer at last year’s World Cup against one of the best defenders in rugby, Joseph tends to rely on his pace if he gets caught out of position though and Adams has got plenty of pace of his own so if Wales can find him on the outside he’ll be off to the races.

Johnny Williams v Owen Farrell – this could be where Wales have the most joy, Williams is only in his second Test but he has played for London Irish and Newcastle Falcons so he’ll know all about Farrell and he will surely know that without Brad Barritt alongside him he can be exposed in defence. Williams has looked very impressive as a ball carrier this season (and he’s huge) so if the Welsh set piece can yield any ball they shouldn’t have to to be too expansive to get over the gain line.

Nick Tompkins v Henry Slade – it’s Saracens versus Exeter Chiefs, hold on to your hats everybody. Even Tompkins doesn’t know what he’ll do next and the new chunky Tompkins has definitely got a defensive mistake or 3 in him but if he lines up Slade it’ll definitely be memorable.

Louis Rees-Zammit v Jonny May – this will be hilarious, the Gloucester team mates want to knock seven bells out of each other but they will definitely be far more successful if they pin their ears back and run like the wind. Provided Wales can provide some sort of service for their teenage sensation he should get on the score sheet.

Lee Halfpenny v Elliot Daly – they’re both Lions, they can both kick it an absolute mile and they’re both pretty fearless under a high ball. Halfpenny’s extra experience will definitely be key but if he has to spend the majority of the game tearing around the backfield catching Youngs’ and Ford’s raking kicks he’ll be struggling by the 70 minute mark.

Ultimately I don’t think there’s anything Wales can do about England’s monstrous pack but if they can generate a few turnovers the way Pivac needs them to then they absolutely have the firepower out wide to scare England. Whoever prevails in games between these two nations rarely win by a huge margin but I have to think a dominant set piece will give England the platform to win by about 12 points this time out.

Wales v England 2020 (the sequel)

38 weeks ago Manu Tuilagi was sent off for a dangerous tackle on George North and Wales sneaked in for 2 late tries to put provide a glossy finish to what had been a simple walk in the Twickenham park for Eddie Jones’ England as the first indications that Wayne Pivac’s rebuild was going to be tough to watch for Wales fans. This weekend Wales are set for an even more difficult task than they had back in March, last week’s captain Justin Tipuric is set to miss the game with a head injury, his replacement will probably be Josh Navidi who is yet to feature in this Test window and whoever they’ve picked Wales have struggled to demonstrate any sort of consistency at the line out and as if that wasn’t worrying enough they struggled against an Ireland scrum that looked far from comfortable against England last weekend. On that optimistic note I thought I’d try and guess who Pivac is likely to select for what could be a very uncomfortable in Llanelli –

  1. Wyn Jones – he seems to be preferred for his scrummaging but in reality neither him or Carre have been dominant at set piece time.
  2. Elliot Dee – looks to a safer pair of hands than Ryan Elias.
  3. Samson Lee – what he lacks in pace he makes up for by being completely immovable in a scrum.
  4. Alun-Wyn Jones – he’s still the captain.
  5. Jake Ball – he does everything you want a Lock to do.
  6. Shane Lewis-Hughes – Suddenly Wales have a plethora of young 6’s.
  7. Josh Navidi – more out of hope than expectation, but he’s tough as teak.
  8. Taulupe Faletau – he’s got the sort of knowledge and temperament you need against a Deathstar like this England pack.
  9. Lloyd Williams – he’s more likely to endure the pasting Wales’ 9 is going to suffer in the first 60 odd minutes.
  10. Dan Biggar – might as well go with the experience, none of the 3 10’s Wales have used recently have looked eye catching because they’ve had no platform to work from.
  11. Louis Rees-Zammit – he’s familiar with all the English players and he has the ability to create space for himself.
  12. Jonny Williams – likewise he’ll also be familiar with the opposition and he looked more than comfortable doing everything he was asked to on Saturday.
  13. Jonathan Davies – he’s a very important defensive cog and in the unlikely event that the ball gets into his hands he easily disrupts opposition defences.
  14. Josh Adams – he can play 15 so he won’t mind the number of times England are likely to kick the ball his way and he’s a great finisher if Wales can get him the ball and a one on one matchup.
  15. Lee Halfpenny – tactically he’s one of the best fullbacks in Test rugby, he tackles anything that comes at him and he doesn’t mind a game of aerial tennis.
  16. Ryan Elias – I have no idea why Pivac keeps selecting him, but he does.
  17. Rhys Carre – if the game breaks up a bit late on it’ll be a good chance for the youngster to carry some ball, but again nobody has really stood out.
  18. Tomas Francis – very much a safe pair of hands and someone who will have played with or against all the English players.
  19. Cory Hill – the Alun-Wyn understudy never seems to combine well with the captain but he usually brings some energy off the bench.
  20. Aaron Wainwright – he can cover 6, 7 or 8 and will be unlucky not to start after working his socks off last week but that was against a Tier 2 Nation and he is still only 23.
  21. Rhys Webb – he could start but he usually pilfers a try against a tired defence so why not see if that works this week?
  22. Callum Sheedy – looked reasonable enough against Georgia and if Pivac needs a point of difference Sheedy has the ability to find get the ball to his attacking threats more quickly than most.
  23. Liam Williams – I’m not entirely convinced he’s fit enough to play 80 minutes against England after a near 12 month lay off but you know he’ll create some excitement and liven up his team mates when he comes off the bench.