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.

The “What have you done for me lately” XV

Games have come thick and fast since the Premiership resumed on the 14th of August. Some players have really stood out to me (obviously from teams who have performed well), some look like they really benefitted from a mid-season break whilst others have been pressed into action earlier than coaches probably would have liked but have looked more than ready for top flight rugby –

  • Val Rapava-Ruskin – he is really enjoying the new ruck interpretations
  • Tom. Dunn – he’s back to his dynamic best, very Jamie George-esque
  • Will Stuart – he’s dominated scrums, Neal Hatley must be delighted. Not sure about his lockdown mullet though
  • Chris Vui – another who looks like he needed a rest and has come back as dynamic as ever
  • Nick Isiekwe – he began well in his new surroundings but even his presence has been unable to lift Northampton lately
  • Miles Reid – he’s probably a 7, but he looks smart enough to fit in anywhere across the back row
  • Will Evans – he’s been the outstanding open side since resumption and the new interpretations have made an elite 7 vital to a teams success
  • Ben Earl – like Reid he could play anywhere in the back row but like Justin Tipuric he could play in the outside backs too
  • Ben Spencer – he’s probably been in the best form of anyone since August
  • Joe Simmonds – he looks ready for Test rugby, his decision making might be the best of anyone since August
  • Louis Rees-Zammit – it’s unbelievable that he’s still a teenager. He’s had 2 dodgy outings at fullback but he looks a natural on the wing
  • Siale Piatau – Bristol look a different team when he’s not playing as illustrated by the ban he received for completely losing his marbles at Worcester (but he’s a Tongan 12, you want that fire)
  • Tom de Glanville – he’s a 15 not a 13 but he has to be starting he makes rugby look easy. He’s played in 8 games for Bath – they’ve won 6 and he’s only 20
  • Ollie Thorley – he’s not been totally consistent (but neither have Gloucester) but anyone who can score 4 tries in 21 minutes has to be playing pretty well
  • Max Malins – he’s a very good 10 but when he has the space he gets as a fullback he can absolutely devastating. The 23 year old has scored 3 tries in 3 starts since his move to Bristol
  • Honourable mentions should go to Jake Polledri (but he’s always great), Matt Symons (but he’s injured), Matt Garvey (who has always been good when healthy), Ruaridh McConnochie (who absolutely looks like he should have played more at the RWC), Lewis Boyce (he’s an outstanding ball carrier), Alfie Barbeary (hooker’s shouldn’t score 3 tries on their debut at 6, that’s superhero stuff), Jimmy Gopperth (his ability to stabilise Wasps will never stop amazing me) and Scott Baldwin (he looks like he’s 100% healthy and his experience is a real boon when it comes to the new breakdown interpretations)

    2020 AFC West preview

    2019 Super Bowl Champion Chiefs scored 46 touchdowns on their way to amassing 451 points during the regular season, the second highest total in the AFC and fifth most in the league. It’s hardly surprising that the team who won the whole thing last time out would be one of the highest scoring teams but what is slightly shocking is that Patrick Mahomes was only responsible for 28 of them, 26 with passes and 2 rushing TD’s. He did miss 2 games through injury but he threw 24 fewer touchdown passes in 2019 than in 2018 and that has to be unnerving for the rest of the division if not the rest of the league. If 2019 featured Mahomes’ sophomore slump then it’s not beyond the realms of possibility the 2020 Mahomes lead Chiefs could improve on the 12-4 record of last season. Their trickiest games come away to the Saints on the 20th of December, in Tampa Bay on the 29th of November and at Baltimore on a Monday night in week 3 but even if they stumble in those games they’ll still end the regular season at 13-3 which would surely be enough to secure home field advantage in the postseason.

    The Broncos 2019 almost had two separate starts, they had the new beginning of a new Head Coach with an experienced QB in week one when Vic Fangio and his team started out in Oakland against the Raiders with Joe Flacco and a reset and restart in week 13 when they started Drew Lock at Mile High against the Chargers, won 23-20 and proceeded to win 4 of their last 5 games of the season losing only to the Chiefs in Kansas City. During those 5 games they averaged almost 22 points per game compared to under 16 points per game in the first 11 games which may not seem like an enormous difference but when you have a Defence that allows just 18.5 points per game those 2 Field Goals are the difference between winning a game and very narrowly losing. The Broncos have the 12th toughest schedule in the league next season but with their home field advantage (they call it Mile High for a reason) and the addition of stand out WR Jerry Jeudy along with 2 other WR’s and a TE in the Draft the Broncos Offence should continue on their upward curve, I expect they’ll end the season with a 9-7 record which will put them in with a shot at a Wildcard place.

    The Raiders will have a shiny (very shiny) new stadium in the Las Vegas desert to call home this season and while there may be a few question marks surrounding Jon Gruden as a Head Coach he made one of the canniest moves in NFL history when he signed Mike Mayock up as his GM, last year they drafted Josh Jacobs with the 24th pick and despite injuring his shoulder in week 7 the Running Back still carried the Offence and ended the season with 1,150 rushing yards from 242 carries but only scored 7 touchdowns. Their real success came later in the Draft with Tight End Foster Moreau who was drafted in the fourth round and caught 5 touchdowns and Hunter Renfrow who caught 4 touchdown passes despite being drafted with the 149th pick. If the Raiders lower draft picks can have a similar impact this year then Bryan Edwards should be able to help out with their scoring problems, a tall, rangy receiver can always assist a Quarterback who can have accuracy issues and Tanner Muse along with Amik Robertson should at least add some depth to a Defence that gave up 11 more passing touchdowns than the Raiders scored last year, only 9 teams had a worse pass defence. Finding hidden gems may be an area where the Raiders excel but polishing those gems may be their downfall, for all Gruden’s enthusiasm and ability to motivate players the Raiders often suffer from over-enthusiasm, they conceded 1,138 penalty yards on 128 penalties. Only the Jaguars conceded more penalties on average per game with 72.8 compared to Oakland’s 71.1 and this is why I think they’ll struggle to make the playoffs this year. Vegas will actually have quite a favourable schedule in terms of the strength of their opponents, it’s the second easiest in the division behind the Chargers, but they will have to face 8 high powered Offences plus the Browns, Jets and Dolphins (in week 16 when Tua will probably be starting) who may well score freely whilst still suffering through their growing pains. If they can avoid as many injury problems as they incurred last season and without an Antonio Brown sized distraction I can see them ending the season 8-8 which would be an improvement on last season, but the strong possibility of a Carr-Mariota QB controversy when neither really look like a Super Bowl calibre QB prevents them from taking a huge leap forward.

    Similarly to the Raiders the Chargers also have a brand new stadium to look forward to this season with the added bonus that Sofi looks like a space ship and not a robot vacuum cleaner (like Allegiant Stadium does). What will be happening inside that stadium is anyone’s guess though, they do face the easiest schedule in the division but they’ve lost some pretty important players from recent seasons. Before they even began signing draft picks in April the Chargers had to deal with 34 player’s contracts with 13 re-signing, Russell Okung traded to the Panthers for Trai Turner and 21 either cut or declaring for Free Agency (including Phillip Rivers and Melvin Gordon) which seems excessive during a normal year let alone a season which could involve a truncated preseason schedule. Last season the Chargers were ranked 21st in terms of scoring as they averaged 21.1 points per game, just ahead of the Browns who many believe had an awful season but the Chargers were 10th in terms of the number of yards gained on Offence so it would appear that where they got the ball on the field was a bigger issue. Only 6 teams averaged fewer yards on kick off returns and 4 fewer on punt returns so there is definitely room for improvement there. Last season’s Defence stats are more of a worry, especially when Anthony Lynn is considered a Head Coach who bases his success on a firm defensive foundation. In 2019 they conceded 21.6 points per game which is fine for a team with a high octane Offence but if you’re only scoring 21.1 per game you’re not even producing an average amount of octane. I expect it will be difficult for last year’s stuttering Chargers Offence to hit the ground running as a new Quarterback (whether it be Tyrod Taylor, Justin Herbert or Cam Newton they weren’t starting in L.A last season), new Running Back and Trai Turner who will be fitting in to the Offensive line (he’s traditionally a Guard but may be at Tackle if he replaces Okung) all immersing themselves into new surroundings. On the Defensive side of the ball Chris Harris Jr. should make the pass defence even better and the arrival of Linval Joseph will definitely solidify the Defensive line but even with Derwin James returning from injury I’m not sure they’ll be able to subdue teams like the Chiefs, Broncos, Saints and Buccaneers. I can see them making a winning start to the season against the Bengals but the last month of the season involves travelling to Vegas and Kansas City whilst welcoming the Falcons and Broncos to their new surroundings which should be incredibly tough, finishing 7-9 would be a successful season given the upheaval in terms of moving location and the roster turnover would.

    2020 AFC North preview

    If the AFC East is going to look like The Great Depression of the 1930’s the AFC is going to be the 1967 Summer of Love. There’s going to be 3 of the youngest, most exciting QB’s in the league and grizzly old Ben Roethlisberger just waiting to go full “Obi Wan” and teach Burrow, Jackson and Mayfield the way of the Force.

    Lamar Jackson lead the Ravens to a 14-2 record in the regular season last year which put them ahead at the top of the division and a full 6 games ahead of the second placed Steelers. They have added J.K Dobbins, 2 Wide Receivers and 2 Offensive linemen in the Draft and a whole load of talent on the Defensive side of the ball too and according to CBS the Ravens have the easiest schedule based on last seasons results. However they did not face a Steelers team featuring Roethlisberger last season and the Browns were an absolute disaster with Freddie Kitchens at the helm so that’s four tougher games and the teams who they seemed to struggle with were the one’s featuring mobile QB’s and this year they should face Joe Burrow twice and they could see Daniel Jones, Pat Mahomes and Deshaun Watson during the regular season too so they may not stroll to the division title this time round but they should still win it. I’m expecting them to end the season with an 11-5 record.

    The Steelers have added the imposing Chase Claypool as a receiving option for Big Ben and the highly touted Running Back Anthony McFarland jr. (although they currently have 6 RB’s on their roster) but the key to their Offence, as it has been for the last 16 years, is Roethlisberger, when he’s injured they’re a shadow of their former selves, they ended up 8-8 and all of their 8 wins came after they traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick who alongside rookies Alex Highsmith and Antoine Brooks could form the core of a seriously fast and exciting Defence next season which will be vital in a division where high powered Offence should be all the rage. The Steelers could be the early pace setters in the division as they start the season against the Giants and Broncos who could take a while to settle in their seasons and they should have a pretty successful December with games against the Redskins, Bills, Bengals and Browns and I expect them to finish the season with at least 2 more wins than they scraped together last season, a 10-6 record will see them finish second in the AFC East and probably get them a Wildcard berth.

    The Browns and Baker Mayfield have a new Head Coach to frustrate this upcoming season but Kevin Stefanski is more than likely to frustrate Baker in equal measure as a Head Coach who will want to run the ball more than he throws it I’m expecting to see Mayfield and his high maintenance receiving corps of Beckham, Landry and Higgins having some rather fraught conversations on the sidelines this season. Even if Stefanski moves away from his preference of running the ball first with those three and Austin Hooper and David Njoku and Damion Ratley amongst 7 other WR’s currently on the roster Mayfield’s head might explode as he tries to share the ball around and keep everyone happy. Defensively the Browns added three players in the Draft including two from the Champion LSU team and a further 6 players in Free Agency so how well that unit gels will be interesting to watch. The Defence wasn’t a huge issue last year as even though they conceded around 25 points a game it was largely due to the fact the Offence couldn’t string together long series of plays so the Defence was almost exclusively on the field in some of those games. Last season the Browns finished 6-10 in a season which lurched from one disaster to another even more controversial disaster and strangely I’m expecting them to finish with exactly the same record this year just with less controversial incidents as Kevin Stefanski has to exert more command over the locker room than his predecessor did.

    The Bengals have a shiny new Quarterback to throw passes to their equally shiny new receiver but I’m not convinced that Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins will be able to completely turn around a team who ended last season with 2 wins in a short period of time that will include no OTA’s or mini camps and will probably include a truncated preseason schedule. Defensively last season they conceded an average of 26 points per game so not to different to the Browns and I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if they finish the 2020 season with the same record as their neighbours in Cleveland, the end of their season could be absolutely brutal as I can’t see them winning any of their last 4 games on their way to a 6-10 record.

    AFC East 2020 preview

    Based on each team’s 2019 win percentages the AFC East have the toughest 2020 season of all 8 NFL Divisions and of all the teams in the division the Patriots have the toughest schedule. Combine that with the fact they’ve lost their starting Quarterback and really struggled to generate any Offence last season with someone as experienced as Tom Brady trying to run the show behind a porous Offensive line and with little help from his receiving corps and this has to be the time to count out the Patriots, doesn’t it? Well, sort of. They’ve got a real chance to go into their bye week with a winning record but their bye comes in week 6 and I’m expecting them to be 3 and 2 as they have to travel to Seattle and Kansas City in the first 4 weeks (although if both of those stadiums are empty then they could have a better chance of surprising away wins). It’s the tail end of the season where their tricky games come thick and fast with a road game in L.A against the Chargers coming on the 6th of December followed by a game in the same new stadium on Thursday the 10th of December against the Rams after which they have 10 days off and a trip to Miami with a Monday Night Football outing 8 days later against the Bills. Their final game is in Foxborough against the Jets which is virtually a guaranteed home win but by then they could already be staring down the barrel of a losing season. I’ve got them finishing with a 7-9 record but in this toughest of divisions they should still finish second.

    So how are the other 3 teams going to shake out? Well while the Patriots seem intent on testing out the maxim that “Defence wins Championships” by having a suspect Offensive line and inconsistent skill players the Bills are taking an opposing stance on Offence, they’ve got a solid Offensive line and some very good receivers with Steffon Diggs joining Cole Beasley and John Brown in their receiving corps and Dawson Knox and Devin Singletary giving Josh Allen plenty of assistance they have no excuses not to produce on the Offensive side of the ball. Allen is the big question mark for the Bills he’ll be in his third season and if he continues to improve his stats from second year to third as he did from first to second he’ll throw 40 TD’s and 6 INT’s but as Defences have more tape to watch and everyone is now aware he’s historically struggled with accuracy on deep passes so keeping the Interceptions down may be a problem. Personally I feel that with the tools he’s got at his disposal the Bills should top the division with a 9-7 record and I’ve got them winning their last 3 games so they could be one of the hot teams come playoff time.

    “Tagovailoa” is the word on everyone’s shirt in Miami (seriously, the Dolphins QB has the two highest selling NFL jerseys this year) but how many games he starts this season seems to be an unknown quantity at the moment, it would however be a surprise if he starts all 18 and what would be an even bigger surprise is if Ryan Fitzpatrick goes undefeated as the Dolphins bed in a new Offensive Coordinator and 4 other Rookies not named Tua and a new Running Back (or two as both Jordan Howard and Matt Breida both arrived in the off season). Personally I have a few misgivings about bringing in so many new faces on and off the pitch (they could potentially have 10 rookies on the Defensive side of the ball too) but the middle of the Dolphins season looks pretty ugly, I’m expecting them to only win 3 games from the 8 surrounding their bye week. Mid-season struggles with new coaches and a rookie QB waiting in the wings could spell disaster for a relatively new Head Coach employed by a volatile ownership but I don’t think Flores will find himself on a hot seat unless something goes horribly wrong, I’ve got the Dolphins finishing the season third with a 6-10 record.

    Bringing up the rear of the division has to be the Jets, not because they lack playing talent but because the coaching staff, front office and ownership is such a convoluted, tumultuous muddle that it will be incredibly difficult for a Quarterback who is yet to complete a full regular season to overcome. This year though the Jets have added some experienced veterans to the mix who are more than likely to back up their QB and hang Adam Gase out to dry if the Offence stutters. Newbies Frank Gore, Brashad Perriman and Joe Flacco alongside the likes of Demaryius Thomas and Le’Veon Bell know what an NFL Offence should look and feel like so they won’t hesitate to ask questions if the Jets are below par. They have bought in Mekhi Becton to help bolster the Offensive line and keep Darnold upright but if the Offensive Coordinator isn’t calling the right plays then the personnel running those plays is largely irrelevant. I can’t see them winning more than 3 games this season and that would surely see them ending up with a very high Draft pick and a new coach next season.

    Fantasy Football (pt. 2)

    The original idea for this flight of fancy came when I thought about which players in the Draft would benefit from working with an adventurous Offensive minded coach like Kliff Kingsbury or Sean McVay and after a while I thought that one position the Cardinals could really use is a Tight End. Tight End has been an area of weakness in Arizona for a while and even when they have had good players there they’ve never really found a way to make them productive (Ricky Seals Jones caught more TD’s last season in Cleveland than in any of his seasons in the desert, Jermaine Gresham was more productive in Cincinnati, the best season of Darren Fells career was last year in Houston) the most impressive season for a Cardinals Tight End in recent history was probably Rob Housler in 2013 when he had 39 catches for 454 yards and a TD, they did get 15 catches for 202 yards and 1 TD from Maxx Williams last season and that rather highlights what an underused position it is in Arizona (although Williams is a bit of an interesting case, he’s never improved on 32 catches for 268 yards in Baltimore during his rookie season). So I thought the one player who could provide a bit of pop for the Cardinals at Tight End would be Thaddeus Moss, he was part of LSU’s Championship winning team, Kliff loves to pass (it is the AIR raid Offence after all), Kyler Murray isn’t a direct comparison with Joe Burrow but he definitely has the confidence and excitement factor most QB’s leave in College and Moss hauled in 47 passes (82.5% of his targets) for 570 yards last season. Moss didn’t attend the Combine as he suffered a foot injury and while he isn’t the superhuman athlete that his Dad was when he entered the league he is 6″2′ with a 32 inch long arms (Rob Gronkowsi’s arms measured 34.3 inches and he’s 4 inches taller) and he’s certainly strong enough to be an effective chip blocker at the line of scrimmage. His foot injury could see drop down to the fifth round of the Draft but if he is healthy in time to for mini camp (and there’s no reason to think he won’t be) he will definitely be fun to watch and with speculation that the Cardinals will draft an Offensive lineman with the 10th pick to protect Murray an extra receiving option to go along with Hopkins, Fitzgerald, Kirk and Isabella seems to be something that would appeal to Kingsbury.

    On the topic of Coaches who might be tempted to Draft extravagantly when it comes to skill players on the Offensive side of the ball it will be fascinating to see what Sean McVay and the Rams do in this Draft, they’ve got plenty of needs and aren’t due to pick until the second round with the 52nd pick. The Offensive line needs a major rebuild particularly at Guard but if they could manage to get Lloyd Cushenberry who can play either Centre or Guard and has been lauded for his leadership at LSU last season that could go a long way toward helping Jared Goff out. Another way to help Goff would be to fill the space left by Brandin Cooks departure to Houston and this is where the fun could begin, if they want to pick one of the more talked about prospects they’ll need to jump about 40 places and they’re not exactly flush with either Draft capital or desirable players but it would be great to see Darnell Mooney working in a McVay Offence, he’s like a version of Brandin Cooks who can catch passes (remember the two touchdowns he dropped in the Super Bowl?) and he’s used to going in motion which was something McVay used to do with Cooks and Goff seemed to be comfortable with.

    The Rams currently only have one Defensive End on the books and since they fired Wade Phillips at the end of last season and lost Dante Fowler to the Falcons they will surely be targeting at least one pass rusher in the Draft, but judging by how many hybrid lineman/linebackers they currently they will be looking for a big, powerful End ahead of a sneaky quick one like Fowler and there are two guys from Auburn who fit the bill. Marlon Davidson is 6″3 and weighs 303 lbs and is comfortable either on the end of the line or inside which would be great news for Aaron Donald since his production dropped with Ndamukong Suh alongside him but he may well be gone before the Rams get a chance to pick and Nick Coe is 6″5 and 280 lbs and isn’t considered to be as consistent or polished as Davidson but working with Donald and Michael Brockers would certainly speed up his development.

    In my own, very personal fantasy world I would love to see how Tua would develop under McVay in L.A too, it definitely won’t be happening anytime soon though after all the money they threw at Goff last off-season. And unless the Offensive line improves drastically that’s probably for the best, an injury prone QB behind that hotchpotch would be a huge risk.

    Finally I would quite like to see the Falcons Draft Clyde Edwards-Helaire, he could be the steal of the whole Draft class with one site ranking him 81st (the Falcons have a the 78th pick). Even though the Falcons have recently acquired Todd Gurley they don’t really have a clear backup on the roster and given Gurley’s injury history combined with the fact they only scored 10 rushing TD’s last season they could do worse than take a gamble in the LSU product. Edwards-Helaire scored 16 rushing TD’s last season, caught one and totaled 1,876 yards from the line of scrimmage at average of 6.9 yards per carry. I imagine the main concerns are over his lack of stature as he only stands 5″8′ but Maurice Jones-Drew was only 5″7′ (he was a whole pound heavier than Clyde) and he didn’t seem to fair too badly in the NFL.