Predictable Wales

As somebody who likes a challenge I thought I’d have a go at predicting what starting XV Warren Gatland would pick for the 6 Nations opener in Cardiff in just under 2 weeks time:
1. Gethin Jenkins
2. Richard Hibbard
3. Samson Lee (although he’s currently injured so Aaron Jarvis could be in)
4. Jake Ball
5. Alun Wyn-Jones
6. Dan Lydiate
7. Sam Warburton
8. Talupe Faletau
9. Rhys Webb
10. Dan Biggar
11. Alex Cuthbert (despite the talk of Liam Williams Gatland’s a stickler for loyalty)
12. Jamie Roberts
13. Jonathan Davies
14. George North
15. Lee Halfpenny
I can’t imagine he’ll stray too far from the starting 15 he’s invested a lot of time and effort in since the last RWC, the interesting thing will be who chooses on the bench. He’s a firm believer that George North can provide cover at Centre and with Halfpenny beginning his International career on the wing I don’t think he’d have any problem shuffling the back 3 if an injury were to occur during the game. England’s approach is difficult to gauge with the number of injuries they suffered during the final round of European games but the inclusion of Nick Easter in the training party suggests Lancaster’s going for a “win now” plan rather than a “plan for the future” mindset (seriously though, how can you not squeeze Maro Itoje in the squad as a wildcard ahead of a 36 year old who hasn’t featured since 2011?). If Lancaster’s going for a bit of instant gratification to satisfy the ever malcontent English rugby press then there’s a solid chance he’ll want to play 10 man rugby and just pick backs who can tackle.
Gatland’s been around the block a few times and if he’s expecting an 80 minute battle in the trenches then I wouldn’t be surprised if he only picked 2 backs on the bench. He’s called Gareth Anscombe into the squad and as he’s said Anscombe can play at 10 of 15 particularly well then I’m expecting him to be on the bench in Cardiff. Scrum half cover is interesting as he selected Gareth Davies who’s hardly played since coming back from injury and Mike Phillips who has struggled to hold down a regular starting sport in Paris for Racing Metro, I’d expect Phillips would be the man for what could be a feisty scrap against a nation who Phillips has defeated 6 times in his career.
The forward replacement’s will be key and with Bradley Davies in the form of his life for Wasps he has to be on the bench, Paul James is also plying his trade in England with a dominant pack in Bath so he’ll definitely keep 22 year old Rob Evans out of the squad. Scott Baldwin will probably be the replacement hooker by virtue of being in 1 piece and involved in the Autumn Internationals, the tight head prop may well be Scott Andrews (who struggles to get a game for his region Cardiff since Adam Jones arrived there, go figure) but if Samson Lee is 100% fit then it’ll probably be Aaron Jarvis who gets more regular regional rugby. There’s not really a recognised number 8 to put on the bench so presumably Gatland would want to Warburton to switch there in the event of an injury to Faletau so there could conceivably 2 flankers on the bench and with James King’s physical presence Gatland may well believe he could provide injury cover at lock as well as providing an option at 8 while Justin Tipuric would be the obvious choice for a specialist open-side. All of this leaves Gatland with a fascinating dilemma, does he pick an outside back (probably Liam Williams if he recovers from injury) or does he bolster the bench with another forward? The temptation to leave the back 3 to rearrange themselves and use Anscombe as an emergency 15 will be pretty strong and with Luke Charteris, who is part of a Racing Metro pack who finished as 1st in Europe, left in the squad I’d be tempted to load up on forwards.

AFC Championship game Indianapolis Colts @ New England

Like the Seahawks and the Packers these 2 teams have already met this season and the Patriots have very happy memories of a 42-20 points victory, that was under the roof of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis back in mid-November though so this week might not be quite the same sort of points-fest. Again like the Packers and the Seahawks it’s difficult to see how the road team can make any case for an upset in this game either, the only game the Patriots lost in Massachusetts this season was in week 17 when they rested as many starters as they could and the Colts didn’t beat a playoff team away all season in 3 attempts.
The weather could play an important role in the way this game is played as both teams do favour a passing offence, but as was already alluded to that’s a lot easy inside the Colts home stadium and with rain and temperatures below freezing forecast in Foxboro this evening passing and catching will not be easy. If the game comes down who can run the ball best then the Patriots should have an advantage purely and simply because they have 5 Running Back’s who have rushed for touchdowns this season while the Colts have used just 3. Of those 3 1 is now on IR and another, the ever disappointing Trent Richardson missed a practice session this week and has been left back in Indiana by the Colts hierarchy. This is the first full season that the Colts 1 remaining back Dan “Boom” Herron has been involved in since he was drafted and he’s averaged an impressive 4.5 rushing yards per carry (& 8.2 yards per catch) in the regular season but he also lost 2 fumbles and has also fumbled twice in the playoffs.
Defensively both teams have generated particularly good pass rush this season with 41 and 40 sacks respectively but with their 16 interceptions helping them to a takeaway differential of +12 they are some way ahead of the Colts who have particular problems with fumbles and ended the regular season with a turnover differential of -5 which left them in the bottom 10 in the NFL.
Andrew Luck has been fantastic in his first 3 seasons (he’s won 3 playoff games) as a professional football player but for the second consecutive season Foxboro and the Patriots look to be 1 hurdle too far for a young Quarterback with an equally young Running Back (they’re both just 25) to assist him. Last season the Patriots beat the Colts 43-22 in the playoffs and Luck threw 4 interceptions along with his 2 touchdown passes, the Patriots ran for 234 yards and scored 6 touchdowns on the ground along the way. This game should not be the same 1 sided affair and with a fully fit Rob Gronkowski (the comeback player of the year you know, well according to the NFL Writers) for Tom Brady to throw to there’s very little chance they will only be scoring rushing touchdowns this year. Gronkowski’s importance to the offence is difficult to understate, not only is he a huge physical presence who is hard to stop but his mere appearance affords Wide Receiver’s Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and occasionally Brandon LaFell acres of space to run into and makes Tom Brady’s life a whole lot easier.

NFC Championship game Green Bay Packers @ Seattle Seahawks

2 time zones and the small matter of a 1,933 mile drive separate the frozen tundra of Wisconsin from the temperate (and more often than not soggy) Pacific Northwest geographically but football-wise it’s each team’s ability to run the football and stop the run that is separates them this season. The Seahawks lead the league in rush yards and their defence was the hardest to run against in the NFL this season too. The Packers on the other hand finished the regular season with the 11th best rushing average on offence and rather worryingly the 23rd tightest run defence in the league, although it should be pointed out that the Packers inability to stop the run is largely a by-product of Nose Tackle B.J Raji missing the entire season with a torn bicep.
The Seahawks have not lost a game since Middle Linebacker Bobby Wagner returned from injury on week 12 and since his return they’ve only conceded 56points at an average of 8 per game. Russell Wilson hasn’t lost to Aaron Rodgers in their 2 previous meetings and the Packers haven’t won in Seattle since 2009, so there’s not much reason for optimism for the boys from back East. In fact things look so bleak for the Packers injuries are one of the few things that could assist them, the Seahawks have 15 players on Injured Reserve and a further 8 players missing from practice this week while the Packers only have 10 on Injured reserve and 4 who have missed practice but 2 of them will definitely play because if Eddie Lacey and Aaron Rodgers can stand up they’ll be on the field. The Seahawks have got a particular injury problem on defence where they have 6 defensive linemen on IR and 3 linebackers also missing. The only other issue the Seahawks have experienced this season is ill discipline, they were the most penalised team in the NFL during the regular season and if Rodgers and the Packers are able to keep the score tight and build a bit of tension then they could benefit from some of the ticky-tacky refereeing calls these playoffs are in danger of being remembered for.
The Packers haven’t really got much going for them in this match-up and unless Aaron Rodgers is 100% fit (which he probably isn’t) there’s nothing to suggest the Packers season won’t finish where it started on the 4th of September last year with a 20 point loss in front of the “12th man” at CenturyLink Field. The thing about Rodgers and the Packers is they’re scrappers and with the officiating we’ve seen this postseason it’s far from certain. For what it’s worth the Packers pass rush should be able to cause the Seahawks offensive line and Russell Wilson some problems but it won’t help them stop Marshawn Lynch if he turns on his “Beastmode”.

AFC Divisional game 2 Indianapolis Colts @ Denver Broncos

If Peyton Manning was hoping to avoid the Colts after he ended his 13 seasons playing there then signing for Denver was a really bad idea. Tonight the Broncos play the Colts for the third time in the 3 seasons that Manning has played there, in the first 2 games the home team has come away victorious and 127 points have been scored in the 2 games, so expect this to be a defensive struggle.
Both teams follow the same basic principle, their Quarterback is good enough to beat most defences through the air and they are but the Broncos have provided Manning with a few more tools to help in his quest as the Broncos 12-4 record (compared to the Colts 11-5) will testify to. The biggest difference between the sides is that the Broncos defence in the top 10 when it comes to stopping both the pass and a run while the Colts have been quite staunch against passing offences but have been porous when it comes to stopping the run. Both teams have made 41 sacks so far this season while the Broncos have taken 18 interceptions the Colts have 12. The Broncos have an averaged an impressive 30.1 points per game and the Colts have averaged slightly fewer with 28.6. So it’s possible to see that there’s not much between the 2 teams, in the previous 2 meetings the winning margin was never over 7 points. When it comes to defending the run the Colts forced 14 fumbles in the regular season while Denver have forced just 7, the Broncos have given away far fewer on offence though with just 5 compared to the Colts league leading 15!
When 2 so closely matched teams meet it’s often the incidental things make the difference and the biggest factor at play here will be the fact that home advantage is key, the Broncos play 1 mile above sea level outdoors at Sports Authority field while the Colts are used to being indoors at their home stadium and not having to deal with wind or slippery grass and mud and the chance of snow that has been forecast for tonight. Manning and the Broncos should set up the game everybody loves against “Tom Terrific’s” Patriots to see when they sneak past his former team tonight, one thing’s for sure it’s going to be close, full of points and not without the occasional turnover.

NFC Divisional game 2 Dallas Cowboys @ Green Bay Packers

Calf tears (or medial gastrochnemius strains for those of us who spent hours sitting in lectures when we could have been in gym, or the pub. Probably the pub) are classified in grades; grade 1 being the least severe where some muscle fibres are damaged but movement is still possible all the way to grade 3 where all fibres are damaged and a major loss of function is experienced. If you’re thinking this is slightly off topic then the real key to this game is how severe Aaron Rodgers calf tear is, he had to miss 1 drive against the Lions in week 16 and that was the only time the Lions forced a 3 and out from the Packers offence. Even if Rodgers tear is a grade 1 (and given how much practice he’s missed this week it must be at least a grade 2) the more he has to use his left leg to stabilise himself before he throws or to attempt to avoid pass rushers then the more likely he is to cause it more damage.
The good news for Rodgers that in Eddie Lacy the Packers have the 7th best running back in the league during the regular season and ironically away from the Cowboys have relied heavily on their run game so Rodgers might not to have spend too much time on the field (while spending time on the sidelines may cause the muscle to seize up it won’t be getting damaged further). The bad news for Rodgers however is that the Cowboys run defence has been far superior to their passing defence this season and the without the Packers filling the Quarterback for the Packers this season they have thrown 0 touchdowns, 1 interception and allowed 2 sacks (that was an eventful 16 passes Matt Flynn attempted).
Last week the Cowboys looked like an exceptionally nervous outfit but they had only won half the games they played in their home stadium all season and are yet to lose a game on the road this season, the Packers are yet to lose a game at home though so something has to give this week. If Rodgers leg can hold out and Eddie Lacy can do what no other running back has managed against the Cowboys defence this year and rush for 100 yards then the Packers should make short work of a Cowboys team who will struggle outside of their climate controlled home stadium. The temperature at Lambeau Field is forecast to be between -5 and -16 degrees C with a chance of snow. If Rodgers is unable to battle through what is certain to be a painful and limiting injury then the Cowboys could almost progress by default and face a 2nd trip to Seattle since October.

NFC Divisional game 1 Carolina Panther @ Seattle Seahawks

On paper this is an absolute walkover victory for the Seahawks, the Panthers only managed to win 7 games in the regular season and only managed to navigate Wildcard weekend with the help of a Cardinals offence that set a new in terms of yards during a playoff game. But they’re not playing on paper; they’re playing on the Fieldturf of CenturyLink Field. Continuing the theme of this year’s playoff’s the strangest thing about this game is that with less than 12 hours until kickoff there’s over 3,200 tickets on sale for it.
Remarkably both these teams are quite similar in their approach to the game; they both have mobile Quarterback’s, don’t score too many points, use their running game to tire out the opposing defences and rely on their defence to win them games. Obviously whoever executes their gameplan with the most accuracy will proceed to the NFC Conference game next week and over the course of the regular season the Seahawks 12 wins indicate they should triumph.
Both teams even have similar faults, they have both fumbled 9 times on offence this season (the Seahawks losing just 2 compared to the Panthers 4) and neither have been particularly effective through the air on offense (Seahawks threw 20 touchdown passes, Carolina 23 a long way from the Colts 42). Special teams-wise the Panthers have been particularly outstanding with an NFL leading 15.5 yards per punt return and a 32.4 yard average kick return which is the second in the NFL, this could be vital in a game where offence will be hard to come by.
Carolina’s run game and more importantly how they chose to carry it out is particularly fascinating, this year they have used 12 different players to carry the ball (the Seahawks have had 10 players handle the ball, but when you fumble as often as them some unusual players will pick it up) they will have to use some creative formations and maybe even a few trick plays to keep the Seahawks 3rd ranked rush defence on the back foot. Jonathan Stewart has lead the Panthers rushing offence this season while DeAngelo Williams has missed portions of the season injured but 4 players have scored rushing touchdowns for them. Allied to the running game short and screen passes to play coming out of the backfield will also keep the Seahawks defence on its toes and 5 Running Backs have caught passes for the Panthers this season and both of Cam Newton’s touchdown passes last week were caught by backs, not receivers.
Russell Wilson was the first Seahawks Quarterback to take his team to a Super Bowl when he got them there last season and only an exceptional display of high stakes speculation from “Riverboat” Ron Rivera will prevent Wilson from advancing to a possible meeting with another MVP candidate Aaron Rogers. Look out for a slow start from Seattle and another “seismic run” from Marshawn Lynch, although if Carolina’s Luke Kuelchy continues last week’s sensational form there could be a lot of bitten nails in the Pacific North West this evening.

AFC Divisional game 1 Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots

Something strange happens when the Ravens meet the Patriots in Foxboro, especially during the playoffs. During the regular season the Patriots have a 7-1 win – loss record, when they play in the postseason however the Ravens have a better record, leading 2-1, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has only win 3 times against the Patriots but all of these wins have come in Foxboro.
Given last week’s Wildcard games there’s bound to be a few strange things occurring this week too, whether it was officials changing their minds, coaches refusing to replace players who were clearly not good enough or defenders recovering fumbles only to then fumble themselves there’s bound to be some inexplicable goings-on this weekend too. Last weekend was like the NFL’s version of the “Twilight Zone” though, so let’s hope there are not as many mystifying happenings this week.
On the face of it this looks like a pretty even matchup with the Patriots scoring an average of 30 points a game and the Ravens themselves averaging 26 points per game during the regular season. Statistically the Patriots have had a fairly modest season only making the top 10 in 2 major categories; they stood 9th in the NFL for passing yards and rushing defence during the regular season. The Ravens on the other hand were the 4th best rushing defence during the regular season and their rushing offence was 8th. So the numbers would suggest that the Ravens have been the more impressive team but 1 look at the overall League standings show that the Patriots 12-4 record and their 4-2 divisional record saw them ranked number 1, a full 9 places above the Ravens and that’s the only category that hints at character and resolve.
The Patriots attack against the Ravens struggling pass defence is going to be the important part of this game and more pertinently the Ravens ability to stop Gronkowski. The Patriots Tight End is their leading receiver on the year as he recorded the 15th highest number of yards in the NFL and his 12 touchdown receptions is the third highest number this season. Unlike their rushing defence the Ravens pass defence hasn’t been great this season and 3979 yards they’ve allowed sees them ranked 23rd and their 11 interceptions is the 4th fewest number in the league. They have allowed few touchdowns through the air though and are ranked joint 6th after giving up just 22 during the regular season, pass rush has been the most successful part of their defence this season and with 49 sacks just 1 team has recorded more.

The Patriots have been very effective at converting 3rd and 4th downs this season, with a combined success rate of 49.05% and one of the keys to the Ravens defeat of the Steelers last weekend was their ability to restrict them to field goals instead of touchdowns if they can repeat this feat in Foxboro they may well progress to the AFC Championship game.
I expect the Patriots will win because Tom Brady is the consummate professional when it comes to finding ways to advance in the playoffs but the Ravens have 10 road wins in the playoffs which is tied with the Patriots for the most in the NFL and if they generate enough pass rush to fluster Brady then a repeat of one of last weekend’s shocking events could be on the cards.