Wildcard Weekend (the NFC bit part 2)

Back in 1996 the Propellerheads collaborated with Shirley Bassey and released “History Repeating” and that should be this game’s theme tune, the Seahawks travelled to Philadelphia just 6 weeks ago and despite a few alleged experts claiming they would struggle with the travel and the time difference they won 17-9. There a few differences in personnel from that game and the Seahawks demonstrated last week that they can quite average and incredibly exciting to watch in 2 halves of the same game so there is a chance that this is the wild Wildcard game.

In week 12 had Rashaad Penny and Chris Carson to combine for 155 rushing yards and a touchdown and this week it looks likely that they’ll be relying on Travis Homer to carry most of the load in the run game with occasional bursts of veteran Marshawn Lynch and another veteran Robert Turbin on third downs. That may sound like a pretty serious problem, but back in week 12 the Seahawks had 14 players either “limited” or completely missing from practice this week that number is just 8 although 3 of them are Offensive lineman and that could have a bigger effect on the run game than the combination of running backs they’re using. The Eagles themselves have missed running back Miles Sanders and left tackle Lane Johnson during practice this week although Sanders says he fully expects to play on Sunday.

It’s been a messy season for the Eagles especially in terms of injuries and they’ve only won 5 games at home this season compared to the Seahawks 7 road games, the Eagles are ranked 12th in the league for passing touchdowns (averaging 1.7 per game) and 8th for interceptions (23rd in overall turnover percentage) and 13th for rushing touchdowns (averaging 1 per game) so they’re going to need their Defence to hold the Seahawks to less than 14 points if they’re going to win this game. The Seahawks have averaged a nice, round 25 points per game on the road this season although the 17 they scored in Philly last time out was the fewest points they’ve scored outside Seattle this season. If Eagles fans are searching for hope they can look to the fact that the Seahawks lost their last 2 games of the season against divisional opponents, so teams who have already played them this season can be problematic although both those teams were considerably healthier than the Eagles figure to be this week.

It’s difficult to see how injuries don’t decide this game, even if both teams start the game with the majority of players who have missed practice there’s a very real possibility the injuries will rear their ugly heads again during the game. Unless something drastic happens the Seahawks should be buoyed by the ending of last week’s battle with the 49ers and should progress serenely into the next round with a 10 point buffer.

Wildcard Weekend (the NFC bit)

It seems amazing that any team from the NFC North made the playoffs so the fact that two teams are still playing in January is absolutely inconceivable. Conversely the only thing surprising about the Saints appearance in the playoffs is that it’s happening so early with many expecting them to be one of the first two seeds and on a bye week.

Frankly its hard to envision a scenario whereby the 10-6 Vikings even get remotely close to the 13-3 Saints, even if both teams finished with similar final records there’s no getting away from the fact that Kirk Cousins is an absolute basket case in big games, he’s 7-15 over his entire career in prime time matchups and 6-29 against teams with a winning record! Obviously this isn’t all on Cousins, it’s a team game so obviously the rest of the team need to contribute to decide the outcome of games and the Vikings do have a playoff victory over the Saints in recent years back in 2018 in what became known as the “Minneapolis Miracle” when Saints Safety Marcus Williams completely whiffed on his attempt to tackle Stefon Diggs and actually ducked straight underneath him allowing Diggs to complete a game winning 61 yard touchdown. Unfortunately for the Vikings the cliché “once bitten, twice shy” spring readily to mind, Williams certainly won’t be beaten as easily this time round and as Hollywood often seems to write the script for these NFL redemption stories it wouldn’t be a surprise if he starts the game with a pick 6. As if history and a shonky QB weren’t enough reason to doubt the Vikings they currently have 11 players on the Injury Report and although 6 of them practiced in full today it still concerning.

Statistically this should be the most entertaining of the 4 games this weekend with the Saints being second in the league in terms of passing touchdowns scored and 21st when it comes to the number they’ve allowed. Alternatively the Vikings prefer to run the ball and being 6th in the league for rushing touchdowns. The one thing in the Vikings favour is that they may well be able to keep the ball away from the Saints pass first Offence by running the ball against the Saints leaky run Defence but if Dennis Allen decides to load the box then at some stage Kirk Cousins will have to take the team on his shoulders and we all know that rarely ends well.

There’s a real chance this becomes a huge blowout win for the Saints as Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Taysom Hill seem to be finding some very impressive form of late and the Saints haven’t lost a game on the road since week 2 but the Vikings have been averaging 24 points per game at home this season and the Saints have been nearer 29 points per game away so the Total Points set at 49.5 seems far too low. Saints by more 12 points seems like a realistic outcome.

Wildcard Weekend the AFC bit (part 2)

Continuing the Premier League analogies, if Houston and Buffalo are the North London derby then New England and Tennessee are Manchester United and West Ham, the away team have a coach with a tenuous link to their more storied rivals both teams should be better than they currently are and home advantage should be huge in deciding the result of the game.

In terms of recent form both teams have won 3 of their last 5 games which signifies a huge improvement for the Titans who only won 2 games in the first 6 weeks of the season, this change is largely down to Ryan Tannehill taking over from Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry’s traditional late season heroics. Henry has wracked up 896 yards and 10 touchdowns since week 10 and he didn’t even play in week 16! Unfortunately for the Titans best hope of progressing in the playoffs the Patriots Defence has only allowed 7 rushing TD’s all season and 3 of those were scored by the Lamar Jackson lead Ravens in week 9. Since their chastening at the hands of the most explosive Offence in the NFL they’ve conceded on average fewer than 91 yards on the ground per game and just 2 rushing TD’s!

For their part the Titans Defence has managed generate some pass rush lately which will be a concern for the Patriots who have really struggled, 15 of the Titans 39 sacks have come since week 11 so don’t expect a shoot-out. Luckily for the Patriots their Defence has notched up a league leading 21 turnovers 15 more than the Titans have made. If you were looking for a shred of hope for the Titans to cling to it would have to be that the Patriots are missing Stephen Gostkowski and Nick Folk had missed 3 field goals between the 40 and 50 yards out so far this season (but bizarrely he’s 1/1 from 50+ yards). The Titans could also look to the fact that they’ve won their last 3 road games and 5 games away this season but none of the Colts, Raiders or the Texans reserves provided the sort of challenge that the Patriots in a soggy Foxborough will.

I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be a close game and I would be surprised if there are a lot of points and excitement involved. When there’s a very decent chance that there will be a few fumbles and a lot of turnovers it’s impossible not lean toward the team with 21 takeaways this season by a field goal.

Wildcard weekend, the AFC bit at least

Buffalo at Houston is essentially the NFL equivalent of the North London derby, both teams are capable of producing exciting football but neither have been able to put together enough excitement to challenge for the big prize. The Bills longest winning streak this season has been 3 games and the Texans haven’t won more than 2 consecutive games all season, luckily for them they lost last week! If either coaching team could figure out how to win consistently then both of these teams could be on a bye week this weekend instead of playing after a short week which in theory should favour the home team however the weather in Buffalo is forecast to be 7 degrees and wet on Saturday so travelling somewhere where it’ll be 17 and sunny has to be a bonus.

It’s really difficult to draw any conclusions from either team’s regular season results (beyond the axiom that their inconsistency could indicate possible weaknesses within the coaching teams) since both seem to have beaten teams with poor defensive records, the only real obvious difference is that the Texans beat the Patriots while the Bills conspired to lose to them twice in some rather grim weather conditions. The Texans have won 5 games in Houston this season and as if to highlight their inconsistency the games they lost were to the Panthers and Broncos who both ended the season with losing records. The Bills on the other hand won 6 games on the road so they won’t mind having to travel 1,500 odd miles.

The Bills Defence should make them favourites too as they’re ranked second in terms of passing touchdowns allowed, ninth in rushing touchdowns and 10th in turnovers made. The Texans are 27th in passing touchdowns (a whopping 33 allowed), ninth in rushing touchdowns and 15th in turnovers. This is another reason that this game is awkward to pick, the Bills are a stronger team than passing with Quarterback Josh Allen rushing for 9 touchdowns the most in the league by a QB while their 21 touchdown passes rank them 24th in the league.

Bill O’Brien’s postseason record looks to be deciding factor in this game to me, as a head coach he’s only won 1 playoff game while he’s lost 3 and for all the Bills coaching team possible faults (Sean McDermott himself is 0-1 in the playoffs) they’ve put together a team who should be able to win a scrappy, nerve-jangler in somebody else’s back garden.

NFL Sunday opinions

Theoretically I should try to say something intelligent here but I think we all know that would be presenting a false front. Instead I’ll just try and clarify a few abstract thoughts rattling around inside my head.

First up, the Dolphins – they must be toast, even just 2 games in they have all but announced they’re playing for the first pick in the 2020 Draft (poor Tua), which is slightly strange when you consider how Trevor Lawrence should be available in the 2021 Draft. Actually “tanking” in the NFL is pretty strange all the way round, trading any talent you have Draft picks almost makes sense in the NBA where 8 players can realistically alter the trajectory of a team but you need 52 to fill an NFL roster. So it appears an incredibly long process and considering the average NFL career is little over 3 years the Dolphins could be chasing their tails for perpetuity.

The Jets have reached a 2018 San Francisco 49ers number of injuries already this season so its incredibly difficult to judge how Adam Gase is doing in his new job (I mean, I personally lean towards it not going particularly well) since he’s on his 3rd choice Quarterback now and C.J Mosley who appeared to be the leader and organiser the Jets Defence needed at the start of the season got banged up in the first game and they’ve looked very wobbly ever since. With a total of 20 players featuring on their latest Injury Report they will definitely struggle until this storm has passed.

The Eagles have got 13 players on their Injury Report and if they weren’t playing the Lions you’d have to say they were behind the 8 ball this week. Doug Pederson is exactly the sort of person who could coach around an injury ravaged squad but the Lions look to be a team on the up to me. Matt Patricia seems to come for a lot of grief but he seems to have gathered together a Defence that he can work with and the 6 sacks they’ve managed in 2 games appear to point towards a team going forward. The thing about the Eagles is that Carson Wentz has an almost magical ability to avoid taking a sack, last week he threw a completed pass when his knee was about an inch off the ground! If the Lions Defensive Backs can cover the new Receiving corps the Eagles have due to their injuries this could be a very close game.

On the topic of unpopular team’s with an exciting defence the Bills finally get to play a game at home this season and after a 2-0 start to the season the atmosphere should be noisy to say the least. Against a Bengals team who have scored 37 points this season and conceded 62 the Bills should make it to 3-0 but if they don’t get off to a thunderous start then the Bills mafia may start to show their displeasure and the home advantage could quickly turn into a lot of angry people booing!

The Colts and Falcons will be very interesting, both teams won last week but neither team have looked comfortable so far this and they both have players who will be effected by injuries in this game. Adam Vinatieri could have a vital role in what could be an absolutely nerve jangling affair and I’ll be rooting for him purely because it’s always good to see people older than me playing and playing well! Hopefully the Colts will win a good game but I’m sure Frank Reich would take a scrappy win in the last seconds.

The Vikings host the Raiders in what could be a bit of a thrashing, but part of me thinks if there’s one game this week where something out of the ordinary could happen it may well be this one. Who knows which Kirk Cousins will turn up? Will Dalvin Cook be able to hoist the entire Offence upon his shoulders once more? Will the Raiders Defence be able to hold their opponents to 17 points or fewer as they have done so far this season? If Tyrell Williams is back and fit enough to sprint he could record some serious receiving yards against a Defensive backfield that has looked quite disorganised at times this season.

Chiefs v Ravens will be an interesting test for the Chiefs Defence, especially the Defensive front. They’ve recorded 4 sacks so far this season but if they can’t get into the backfield and disrupt Lamar Jackson this game might resemble an NBA game with both Offences scoring for fun and the Defences just there to watch.

Everything else looks pretty straightforward or involves teams with backup Quarterbacks playing so they’re very much wait and see games. Some of them could be very interesting but there’s usually an insurmountable difference between a starter and a backup.

The all important #RugbyWorldCup preview

As a contrarian it’s impossible for me not to see a few upsets coming in the next few weeks but I’ll to try suppress my inner anarchist for the purposes of this document.

That said there’s a real chance that Japan are the surprise package in Pool A (if a home nation can be a surprise). The weather conditions are more likely to suit Japan and maybe even Samoa (although their player base is scattered all across the world these days), baring that in mind I can see Japan qualifying in second place behind Ireland as the disconnect between Scotland’s players and Gregor Townsend grows.

Pool B is pretty easy to predict as New Zealand and South Africa are the only teams who can progress but there should be some very interesting games between Canada, Italy and Namibia. An upset of sorts could come in first game where South Africa could continue their good run against New Zealand because I’m not sure Steve Hansen prioritises winning the first game of a tournament over winning the final game of a tournament so I think the Springboks top the pool and New Zealand finish a close second.

Pool C is probably the trickiest to call because France and Argentina both have a very high ceiling but an incredibly low floor. England should progress quite calmly but it wouldn’t be a huge shock if the Pumas or les Bleus came a croper against the newly professional USA Eagles. England will almost certainly top the Pool but France and Argentina’s meeting on Saturday should decide which team takes the most confidence into the tournament and I think France under a new coaching regime will finish second.

Pool D is very much a matter of head over heart for me, obviously I hope Wales will top the standings, but I can’t see how they make it through a whole Pool without getting a harsh red card, devastating injury or comical officiating error leading to farcical result so I’m going with Australia as Pool winners, mostly because Michael Cheika scares the bejesus out of normal people. Wales should finish second but I’m not writing anything off.

So Quarter final 1 projects as England v Wales which could all come down to who is fit by then. England hope to have Mako Vunipola and Jack Nowell back by then and Wales should have Cory Hill and Adam Beard back from injury. If both squads are at full strength it should be an absolute epic and Wales won’t have anything to fear with 2 wins in their last 3 games but they’ve both been in Cardiff so I can see England winning but I’m inclined to believe that Wales’ extra conditioning training will be crucial in the brutal weather that Oita will serve up, so they will progress.

Quarter final 2 will be South Africa v Japan in Tokyo Stadium and South Africa battered the brave blossoms 41-7 just over a week ago so that seems pretty straight forward.

The 3rd quarter final would be Australia v France and this is toss of the coin stuff. Australia haven’t been in great form for about 3 years largely because David Pocock has been injured and if France have a slightly untested area in their squad its in terms of an experienced breakdown operator in the back row, Camara only has 13 caps, Aldritt 5 and Francois Cros is uncapped. So if Pocock is fit I would have to make Australia favourites to make the semi finals purely because they have a more stable bass to build from buy its definitely beyond France to shock everyone at every turn.

Ireland get another craic at New Zealand in the final Quarter final, now that has to be worth waiting for. I’m not sure Ireland will have the firepower to stop the All Blacks soul crushing machine in a game of such magnitude, after 4 Pool matches Steve Hansen might have even worked out who his best 10 is (spoiler alert – it’s Beauden Barrett).

Semi final numero uno would be the clash would be Wales v South Africa and as much as that suits Wales I’m not sure even a super fit and powerfully motivated Welsh side could stop what by now looks like Rassie’s destiny becoming fulfilled.

The final semi final will be Australia v New Zealand and very much like the Wallabies Quarter final this one could definitely go either way but the general rule when these teams meet is when the All Blacks keep 15 players on the field they win, so baring a controversial officiating decision the first game of Pool B will also be the RWC final, New Zealand v South Africa.

So, these 2 teams play each other an awful lot and this could be a really ugly bar brawl of a game because there’s certainly no love lost between the teams but I think that New Zealand will have the edge. They have an uncanny ability to soak up pressure and throw it back at their opponents in the last 5 minutes of the first half and of the game. I’ll be hoping for a nail biter but Hansen’s men could do it with time to spare.

Now would be a good time to point out that all of the previous predictions are very much dependent on typhoons not playing a huge part in the results. Along with North Korean missiles, seismic activity and the very small possibility of Godzilla arriving in Tokyo Bay.

Overreaction Sunday the NFL addition

Given that expecting anything that happened in the first week of the football season to be a regular occurrence is essentially a huge overreaction I thought I’d join the herd and see if anything I noticed last week were actually indicative of future performance.

The first thing that stood out to me was the Cardinals Defensive line, everyone was talking about their Offensive line (and it looked pretty porous, but they’ve got a College coach and a very mobile QB so there’s not really any surprise there). With Terrell Suggs, Cassius Marsh and Chandler Jones they were always going to generate some edge rush but with rookie Zach Allen, Rodney Gunter and nose tackle Corey Peters they have real physicality up front to allow the pass rushers and Linebacker Jordan Hicks to do their stuff. They play the Ravens in Baltimore this week and while Lamar Jackson made scoring 50 points look easy in week 1 I think the maligned Cardinals could pose much more of a challenge than Miami’s bunch of wantaways did (the Dolphins did actually record a sack on Jackson so a team who actually have some game tape and a roster who don’t want to leave have a very decent shot at disrupting).

Against the Cardinals last week the Lions Defensive line recorded 5 sacks (although it should be pointed out that Kyler Murray took the best part of 3 quarters to settle into the NFL regular season) and in Damon “snacks” Harrison and Mike Williams they have serious power in the middle of the line, they lack the sort of explosiveness that the Cardinals have at Linebacker but they have sort sparkling Defensive Backs so they have the potential to make turnovers and in Matt Patricia they have a Head Coach who has learned from Bill Bellichick. They host the Chargers in week 2 and if Harrison and Daniels can slow the run game down Phillip Rivers has been known to throw interceptions (12 last season alongside his 32 TD’s).

The Saints Defensive line was incredibly impressive last week too (hardly surprising considering they should have been in the Super Bowl last season) and Sheldon Rankins may return this week in L.A against a Rams team who seem as confused by their running back situation as everyone else is. If a fit Gurley appears the Rams have a real chance of winning their home opener but if his number of touches are limited the team with a healthy Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray must be favourites to make a 2-0 start to the season.

On the subject of unsurprisingly good Defensive fronts the 49ers (Nick Bosa, Solomon Thomas, Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and not forgetting Dee Ford) travel to Cincinnati to test out the Bengals O-line and with a banged up Joe Mixon probably giving Gio Bernard more carries Andy Dalton might need to throw another 51 passes this week and that could spell disaster with Richard Sherman and K’Waun Williams patrolling the Defensive backfield.

The Seahawks travel from the West Coast to the banks of the Ohio River too as they visit Pittsburgh for a game that could sink the Steelers season before its really even left the dock. The Seahawks get to unleash Jadaveon Clowney on a Steelers Offence that was completely overwhelmed by the Patriots last week (again, not a surprise) and I quite like the Seahawks slightly smaller but very quick (less Legion of Boom, more Legion of Zoom remember) Defence. The only concern is the Seahawks desire to run when the Steelers did a very good job of shutting down the Patriots run game, they were ripped to pieces by Tom Brady and playaction passes but Pete Carroll seems reticent to use Russell Wilson’s arm as a primary weapon.

Colts, or more accurately Marlon Mack could surprise the Titans this week in Indianapolis this week. The Titans pulled the much hyped Browns pants down in FirstEnergy Stadium largely because the Browns abandoned the run and tried to get Baker Mayfield to win the game (Browns ran it 20 times last week, Mack himself ran it 25 times of the Colts 33 attempts) if Adam Vinatieri hadn’t missed 7 points the Colts would have left L.A with a win.

The Vikings should win in Green Bay but does anyone trust Kirk Cousins not to throw a pass to Jaire Alexander? Probably not. The Bears at Denver could be a very low scoring game if last week is anything to go by as both QB’s looked all at sea and the Bears Defence looked like it could provide pass rush but little else while the Broncos looked anything but a Vic Fangio Defence. The Browns should get an away victory in New Jersey mainly because most of the Jets are either carrying injuries or ill, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Browns completely mess that up.

So, just to recap; Cardinals Defensive front – surprisingly great. Lions should be difficult to run on. Saints Defensive front – dominant. Todd Gurley’s knee – who knows? 49ers pass rush – scary. Seahawks Defensive front – bad news for the Steelers, but the Seahawks need to let Russell Wilson loose. Marlon Mack vs the Titans would be the best way to keep Derrick Henry off the field (& hopefully Vinatieri has new boots). Kirk Cousins in Green Bay, iffy? Can the Bears and Broncos cure insomnia? (probably). Browns gonna Brown? (probably).