Super Bowl 50 an irresistible force meets an immovable object

DSC_0198Cam Newton scored was responsible for 270 points during the regular season (35 touchdown passes and 10 rushing touchdowns); it took the Broncos 14 weeks to break that number of points! As a collective the Panthers scored 500 points in their 16 regular season games, so roughly 31 points every game. So there’s the irresistible force right there, the immovable object comes in the form of the Broncos Defence who conceded just 296 points during the regular season (or roughly 19 points per game), the 4th fewest in the NFL and the 296 yards per game they allowed was the lowest in the league and gives an idea of how they made it to the Super Bowl.
The Broncos have made suffocating defence an art form this season, they recorded 52 sacks in the regular season and with edge pass rushers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller (who combined for 18.5 sacks during the regular season and recorded 3 of the Broncos sacks on Tom Brady in the AFC Championship game) alongside Derek Wolfe (who had 5.5 sacks during the regular season) they’ve redefined quarterback pressure. 14 different players have recorded at least half a sack for the Broncos this season so Wade Phillips isn’t afraid to send any of the defence to rush opposing Quarterbacks, one of the results of pressurising Quarterbacks is that they throw inaccurate passes and as a result 9 Broncos have made Interceptions this season.
The antidote to a good pass rush is the ability to run the ball well and the Panthers have used their running game effectively this season, Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula said that he’s never had a playlist with so many different running plays on it before and his NFL coaching career began in 1988). The Panthers have used 4 Running Backs this season who have combined for 1536 yards, Quarterback Cam Newton has carried for 636 yards too and Wide Receivers have chipped in for 114 yards too (with Ted Ginn Jr recording a 43 yard rush, so look out for that in the Super Bowl). The Panthers 19 rushing touchdowns during the regular season tied 1st in the NFL and with an average of 4.3 yards per attempt the Panthers could just use the run game early on as they attempt to suss out the Broncos Defence (they won’t though, you don’t earn the nickname “Riverboat Ron” for conservative play calls).
Denver’s rush defence was the 3rd best in the league but it was nowhere near as stifling as the pass defence and they allowed on average 3.3 yards per carry, they did recover 13 fumbles though as part of their 27 takeaways and had their Offence not conspired to give possession away 31 times they would have ended the season with a much healthier +/- ratio. The Broncos Defensive Back’s were (and have been all season) incredibly physical when it came to pass coverage and Rob Gronkowski in particular was the victim of a lot of grabbing and jersey pulling which could be called by official’s in a showpiece event such as the Super Bowl (about 114 million people watched last year).
Carolina’s Defence rattled up a very impressive 39 turnovers, 24 of which were Interceptions and 4 of those were returned for touchdowns with All Pro Josh Norman recording 2 scores during the regular season and general all round superstar middle linebacker Luke Kuelchy adding 2 postseason return touchdowns to the 1 he made during the regular season. Kuelchy is going to be vital with Thomas Davis Jr suffering a broken arm in the NFC Championship game (he will probably play, but how many snaps he can play is not entirely clear yet) and Peyton manning loving to throw to Broncos Tight End Owen Daniels, particularly near the end zone (both of Daniels catches against the Patriots were also both of the Broncos touchdown receptions) Kuelchy’s ability to ball hawk and break on any loose passes may well win the game.
Last week the Broncos progressed to the Super Bowl on the back of a Stephen Gostkowski missed extra point even though their Defence was the dominant faction of the game, their Offence were forced to punt 9 times and as the game wore on a miracle recovery by the Patriots looked increasingly possible. The Panthers on the other hand have dominated the NFC playoffs and have scored 80 points in 2 games whilst conceding just 39 so they should favourites, right? Well they are favourites but the Broncos close call last week will definitely focus their minds and with Peyton Manning possibly playing his last NFL game (or maybe his last as a Bronco) they will definitely be up for it.
It’s impossible to predict who will win this game before it’s started largely because whoever scores first will be vitally important, if the Broncos score first they’ll just send as much pressure as possible at Cam Newton because he hasn’t seen this much pass rush all season but if the Panthers score first the Broncos will have to break their usually ultra conservative game plan in order to catch up and they will make for a fun game and possibly a nail biting finish.

A chaotic 6 Nations preview

RBS-6-NationsBacking Scotland is always a risky business because they usually thrive when they’ve been written off and not after they’ve been within a hare’s breath of beating Australia (incidentally Craig Joubert has been appointed to referee England v Wales at Twickenham, what could possibly go wrong?) and making a RWC semi final, but I’ve just got a feeling that Vern Cotter might finally have a squad that can win the 6 Nations (they’re last win was in 1999 when it was still the 5 Nations).
W.P Nel and Ben Toolis added to the Gray brothers should provide a solid front 5 and if the Scottish pack is able to even attain parity against their opponents then a back row which should include John Hardie and could include David Denton and Josh Strauss will be more than a match for anyone. Greig Laidlaw is one of the safest pairs of hands in European rugby at scrum half and with the possibility of Sam Hidalgo-Clyne coming off the bench to test tired defenders it’s hard to imagine Cotter’s side won’t score tries. Scotland do have a few injury concerns (as all the Nations do after a gruelling International season) and while Alex Dunbar will miss the first 2 games and Mark Bennett may not be available to play England Scotland are in the unusual position of having about 5 Centre’s who could start. With Peter Horne, Matt Scott, Duncan Taylor and Sean Lamont desperate to play if Vern Cotter needs to call up reinforcements Scotland have more than a few options to cover those missing. For a change Scotland have even got 2 contrasting Fly Halves to call upon with the steady Ruairidh Jackson having a good season for Wasps (he kicked 13 points as Wasps won in Dublin & scored 15 as they beat Toulon) and the exciting Finn Russell who is renowned for getting a backline moving.
Scotland are 4th favourites for the Championship behind England who have a new coach and seem to be making some inexplicable selection decisions and France who, despite having a new coach haven’t made wholesale changes and have selected 7 Toulouse players (Toulouse are 2nd in the Top 14 but won just 1 European Champions Cup game and finished bottom of Pool A, below Oyonnax with a -88 points difference) so they’ll be looking to rely more on individual flair than on collective performances, “plus ca change” an all that.
England are actually the bookmakers favourites, which would rather contradict Eddie Jones’ assertion that Scotland are favourites to win the Calcutta Cup on Saturday and Warren Gatland’s statement that Ireland must be favourites (that one actually makes sense since Ireland do have 3 home games against Wales, Italy and Scotland). Eddie Jones called up a number of talented youngsters to his training party but then sent most of them back to their club sides late last week so who knows what he’s got planned? If England win in Scotland then they will have a solid base to build from but with consecutive home games against Ireland and Wales Eddie Jones hasn’t got much time to settle on a squad and if he doesn’t trust the younger players to stand up to pressure then it might be a long 2 months for him. As a slight aside in the last 5 years England have scored 97 tries at home and 51 away from home (21 more than Ireland who were second of the 6 Nations teams) so Stuart Lancaster was hardly the albatross around the English rugby that some would have you believe.
Wales’ last 2 Grand Slams have been won in season’s were they had 3 home games and visits to Ireland and Twickenham to contend with but even my most optimistic parts can’t see that happening this season. The residual damage from the ill fated “condition programme” they undertook pre- World Cup will have a big impact on their chances. Scott Williams will be a big miss because he was the only real try threat Wales possessed in September and October (Cory Allen was the other but with Jonathan Davies fit and Gatland’s bizarre belief that George North can play 13 Cory’s not getting a sniff any time soon). Wales have averaged roughly 1.8 tries per game in the last 5 years and that’s not going to be enough to win the Championship, let alone a Grand Slam.
Ireland would be my second favourite for the Championship but they’ve got a slight injury crisis and with Paul O’Connell retiring from international rugby (he would have been injured too if he hadn’t retired) Ireland will start the tournament without Cian Healey, Mike Ross, Ian Henderson, Peter O’Mahony and Chris Henry and with Fly Half Jonny Sexton seemingly ever only 1 heavy blow away from a HIA Ireland will face an uphill struggle to beat England in Twickenham and France in Paris.
Italy are 500-1 shots to win the Championship and you’d have to imagine that’s largely down to their witting duck status with everyone knowing their coach will leave return to France at the end of the season. Their seemingly eternal struggle to find an Outside Half who can both kick and run doesn’t help but if their pack is as strong as it has been in the past they’ll cause some teams problems (Wales particularly) and I can’t imagine Guy Noves will get much sleep this week knowing that Italy love to pull out all the stops when they arrive in Paris.
Rather interestingly you can odds of 40-1 on France finishing bottom of the table which isn’t totally out of the question, under Noves Toulouse (with the exception of Theirry Dusautoir) have often had questions raised over their conditioning and if they’re not ready to battle for 80 minutes they could find themselves on the receiving end of nail biting results. You can also get 10-1 on France winning a Grand Slam, which seems almost impossible to me since they’ve only won 8 of their last 28 away games (29%) and they’ve average 1.4 tries per game away from home in the last 5 years (2.03 per game at home).
In conclusion, just keep your money in your pocket and enjoy the ride, with so many newcomers to this 6 Nations (some from other continents and with Guy Noves maybe even from different planets) a Grand Slam hasn’t been won since Wales did it 2012 and it’s highly unlikely anyone will do it this year but I’m still backing Scotland to win an exciting Championship.

AFC Championship Game New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos

DSC_0198Tom Brady and the Patriots don’t give opponents many chances to win games against them so the fact the Kansas City Chiefs could have had 2 interceptions against Tom Terrific last weekend was rather surprising. Even more surprising was how the team who had made 22 interceptions during the regular season didn’t force a single turnover in Foxboro, Sean Smith and Tamba Hali both had chances to cling on to wayward passes and if Hali had hauled in his chance it would have been a race to the end zone between him and the 38 year old Brady.
The Patriots were the 3rd highest scoring team in the NFL during the regular season (with only Carolina and Arizona scoring more the highest scoring the AFC, 42 points ahead of the Steelers) scoring almost 30 points per game while the Broncos Offence was the 19th highest scoring in the league, averaging just over 22 points per game. The Broncos Defence on the other hand was the 3rd tightest in the AFC allowing just 296 points all season (18.5 per game) while the Patriots allowed almost 20 points per game and were ranked 6th in the AFC.
Similar to the NFC Championship game both these teams have different approaches to Offence, particularly since LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis got injured the Patriots have largely relied on the ability of Tom Brady to pass teams to death (his pass yards make up 77% of their total yards on Offence) and with 36 touchdown passes they lead the NFL. In addition to leading the league in scoring passes the Patriots also threw the fewest number of interceptions in the league with just 7 during the regular season (the Broncos’ 23 was the most). The Patriots have been susceptible to good pass rushes though, they allowed 38 sacks in the regular season and the 52 sacks the Broncos made was 3 more than the 2nd ranked team in the NFL (the Patriots) so Wade Phillips will fancy his chances of getting some pressure and forcing some mistakes on Brady. The Broncos on the other hand will look to their Running Backs C.J Anderson (who loves the cold weather) and the speedy Ronnie Hillman who have been responsible for 27% (and 33% of their Offence’s touchdowns) of the Broncos Offensive yards this season to move the ball. The Broncos Defence scored 6 touchdowns during the regular season to take some of the pressure off the stuttering Offence but Chris Harris Jr who has a touchdown from one of his two interceptions this season and also forced 2 fumbles has an injured shoulder and even if he can play won’t be fully fit (some reports suggest his injury is so bad that he’s unable to brush his teeth). Former Patriot Aqib Talib has made 3 interceptions and returned 2 of them for touchdowns this season so Tom Brady will do well to avoid his side of the field.
Brady and Manning have met 16 times during their NFL careers and Brady leads the head to head battle 11-5 including winning all 4 times they’ve been pitted against each other in the playoffs, however Brady hasn’t win an away meeting since 2007. If the Patriots take the lead in this game then I think it’ll be difficult for the Broncos to fluster Brady, with Amendola, Edelman, Gronkowski and even bit players like White, Chandler and LaFell the Broncos just won’t have enough players who can pass cover (who knows the Patriots might even try to run the ball with Steven Jackson) and the “Evil Empire” as some Jets fans like to call the team from Foxboro should make yet another Super Bowl. However if the Broncos Defence can get on top early and maybe even score a touchdown or 2 the pressure is bound to get to the Patriots as the game goes on. If the Broncos can build any sort of lead then Wade Phillips will surely unleash blitz after blitz in Brady’s direction making it tricky for the Patriots to keep the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hands and he could well get the fairytale Super Bowl ending he’s so obviously dreaming of.

NFC Championship game – Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers

DSC_0198I’ve theorised two opposing hypotheses with regard to the possible conclusion’s this game may reach, the first is related to the fact the Panthers were held scoreless by the Seahawks for the final 36 minutes and 26 seconds of their game Divisional game against the Seahawks and that should be a concern for Ron Rivera not to mention something the Cardinals Defence will be able to learn from. The Cardinals Defence held the Packers to just 2 second quarter Field Goals in the first half last week. On the side of the ball the Cardinals, unlike the Panthers finished strongly, scoring 10 points in the 4th quarter and of course, the winning touchdown in Overtime. The last 6 Panthers drives last week ended in 5 punts and the end of the game after Thomas Davis Sr. Recovered the Seahawks onside kick.
The second (more likely) theory centres around the fact the Cardinals have had their struggles with powerful Running Backs recently. Eddie Lacy ran for 84 yards last week at an average of 7.4 yards per run and in week 16 of the regular season the Seahawks Christine Michael ran for 102 yards as Pete Carroll’s team delivered the Cardinals a 36-6 beating. In fact in the 3 games the Cardinals lost during the regular season they were consistently undone by running games. Apart from Christine Todd Gurley (who to be fair made a few defence’s look silly in his rookie year) recorded 146 yards against the Cardinals as the Rams pipped them 24-22 and probably more worryingly for Bruce Arians the Quarterback/ Running Back combination of Michael Vick and Le’Veon Bell accounted for 135 yards when the Steelers rushed for 141 yards in 25-13 win when the teams met at Heinz Field in October. Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart have combined or 71% of the Panthers total Rushing yards (roughly 28% of their total Offensive yards) this season so that may be their success as a pair may well determine the result of the game. Jonathan Stewart returned from an injured foot last week to rattle up 106 yards and score 2 touchdowns (incidentally the Panthers have won every game that Stewart has been involved in this season). However Stewart injured his ankle in the 2nd half last week and has missed training this week, although he is due to play running with a sore ankle on a pitch that’s bound to cut up after the pretty extreme weather that’s hit the East Coast of America in the last day will be tricky to say the least.
How ever this game pans out anything other than a very close denouement will be a surprise with both teams’ points difference on the season being separated by just 12 (or 0.75 per game). They both scored 35 passing touchdowns during the regular season and while the Cardinals threw 13 interceptions (3 more than the Panthers) the Panthers allowed 33 sacks (6 more than the Cardinals) so Dwight Freeney could be the man to win this game. Both teams have very real chances to win this game with the Cardinals having a receiving corps with the likes of future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald, young guns like J.J Nelson and John Brown and the sizeable Michael Floyd Luke Kuelchy’s coverage ability will be tested (he saved the Panthers Defensive Backs from a giving up a few big plays to Russell Wilson last week). The Panther’s pass defence does start to unravel when opposing Quarterbacks break the pocket and they have to cover receivers ad hoc, while Carson Palmer is 36 and not renowned for scrambling around the play he made in overtime to Larry Fitzgerald showed that he can make pass rushers miss. Tight Ends Darren Fells and Jermaine Gresham are both excellent receivers but they have only made 11% Cardinals receptions this season, in a game where ball control could be the key the ability to throw short passes into gaps in coverage could be a useful tool for Palmer. If the Cardinals aren’t able to build long drives and take time off the clock then the Panthers running game, even with a dinged up Stewart, should be enough for them to win (Mike Tolbert, Fozzy Whitaker and Cameron Arts-Payne should all be available and they all averaged over 4 yards per carry during the regular season) and Cam Newton not Carson Palmer will become the 4th Heisman Trophy winning Quarterback to start a Super Bowl.

AFC Divisional game #2 – Pittsburgh Steelers @ Denver Broncos

DSC_0198Pressure does funny things to people; Carson Palmer for instance threw 2 Interceptions yesterday, something which it took him 3 whole games to do during the regular season as the Packer defensive line bought their pass rush to the desert. The Denver Broncos always bring the pass rush and their 52 sacks (roughly 4 a game) was the most in the NFL during the regular season. Usually the way to combat an aggressive pass rush would be to run the ball as much as possible to try to fatigue the opposing defensive front but with Pittsburgh’s “hit and get hit” confrontational style of football taking its toll on their Offensive personnel for what seems to be the umpteenth time in as many season’s they’ll struggle to run the legs off a Broncos Offensive line that includes 4 players with 5 or more sacks in the regular season. The Steelers Offence has done a decent job of protecting their Quarterback’s (they’ve had 3 different one’s during the course of the regular season) and the 33 sacks they allowed was the 6th fewest number in the league during the regular season. However last week against the Bengals they allowed 4 sacks for a combined loss of 38 yards and one of which caused Ben Roethlisberger to sprain his right shoulder and that will likely be the key to this game.

 
The Steelers have been missing players at different stages of the season but this week they will be without Pro Bowl Running Back Le’Veon Bell, Pro Bowl Centre Maurkice Pouncey (who hasn’t played since August), Pro Bowl Wide Receiver Antonio Brown and the replacement for Le’Veon Bell, another Pro Bowler, DeAngelo Williams. With those 4 players available and Roethlisberger 100% fit the Steelers would be more than a match for the Broncos team in their own backyard but with almost half their starting Offence missing it’ll be impossible to beat the team who finished 2nd in the AFC. Back in week 15 The Steelers did turnover the Broncos in Denver but that was largely on the back of 189 receiving yards and 2 the touchdown passes that Brown hauled in.

 
While there’s a real chance that this won’t be a nail biter like the Wild Card game the Steelers were involved in last week it should still be fun to watch if only because the Steelers Defence can be extremely dynamic and with Peyton Manning starting at Quarterback for the first time since week 10 where he went 5/20 the Broncos Offence may not dominate. If Manning is able to run a Gary Kubiak Offence that seems more functional than attractive and fairly conservative then players like Emmanuel Sanders (who rattled up 181 receiving yards last time they met) and Demaryius Thomas could be very productive, if Manning’s struggles continue however then the Steelers defence might keep them in the game for the first 3 quarters but with 15 players on IR and a weekly injury report including a further 11 players the altitude will fatigue them late on and the Denver Defence won’t afford them any sort of lead to defend late on. If the Steelers are able to use Ben Roethlisberger to his full ability then they may score enough points to worry the Broncos because Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey have the searing pace to stretch the field and Martavis Bryant has the physical attributes to out-jump any defender in the back of the endzone.

NFC Divisional game #2 – Seattle Seahawks @ Carolina Panthers

DSC_0198Rivalries play an important part in the NFL, the intensity of the rivalry between the Bengals and the Steelers cost the Bengals a place in the AFC Divisional round last week and rivalries of a more cerebral nature between Quarterbacks often develop in unexpected ways. Not many people would have imagined that a 34 year old Roger Staubach would have competed against Terry Bradshaw in Super Bowl X (and again in Super Bowl XII as a 37 year old) when Staubach was picked with the 129th pick of the draft in 1964, Bradshaw had been the first pick of the 1970 draft and was widely touted as a star in the making. Likewise when the New England Patriots drafted a Quarterback by the name of Thomas Edward Patrick Brady in the 6th round of the 2000 draft nobody but nobody thought he’d become the leading rival to the first pick in the 1998 draft, and a man with football in his blood, Peyton Manning over the course of the proceeding 16 years. Surely the next cab off the rank with regard to unlikely Quarterback rivalries is 26 year old Cameron “Cam” Jerrell Newton, who was the first pick of the 2011 having won the Heisman trophy (and BCS game with Auburn) and Russell Carrington Wilson who the Seahawks drafted in 2011 after he had lost the 2012 Rose Bowl game with Wisconisin in the 3rd round largely as a backup having spent $26 million to sign Matt Flynn. Similarly with Manning and Brady the guy who came out of nowhere is the one who’s had more success in January and Wilson has been to 2 Super Bowls and already won 1 while Newton has only won 1 of the 3 postseason games he has played in, despite the contrasts in their respective careers (and physical statures, Newton is 6 feet 5 inches tall and well over 100 kgs, while Wilson stands 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighs just 93 kgs) both Quarterbacks are as good at moving the sticks with their legs as they are with their arms.

 

The battle of the Quarterbacks will be crucial to the final result of this game and as always in Playoff football even the smallest mistake could be crucial particularly with 2 suffocating Defence’s on the field. Previous history and this season’s statistics would point toward a Carolina victory, in week 8 the Panthers won in Seattle 27-23 when Newton threw a touchdown pass and rushed for another touchdown as the Panthers found themselves on the way to a 15 week win streak. Newton did also throw 2 interceptions in that game while Wilson didn’t commit any turnovers in the game despite being sacked 4 times, losing 22 yards in the process. Over the course of the season Cam Newton was responsible for a whopping 45 touchdowns, with 35 passes and 10 rushing scores while the Seahawks conceded the fewest touchdown passes in the NFL with just 14 and the 6th lowest number of rushing touchdowns, just 10. Wilson threw 34 touchdowns passes and while he only scored 1 rushing touchdown he did run for 31 first downs during the regular season. For their part the Panthers impressive Defence allowed 21 touchdown passes in the regular season and 11 rushing touchdowns.

 

At this juncture it’d be really good to talk about how Cam Newton has become the superhero that he’s always considered himself this season, not just by presenting children in the crowd with football’s after every score he’s created this season or away from the field with his philanthropic nature (a lot of Panthers players including Defensive Captain and all round superstar Luke Kuelchy, veteran Charles “peanut” Tillman and stand out Corner Back Josh Norman are all involved in some slightly underreported charity work as are Seahawks players including Newton’ opposite number Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and everybody’s favourite pantomime villain Richard Sherman amongst others). How this could be Marshawn Lynch’s final game for the Seahawks as he could become a free agent or retire after an injury hit season would also be a worthy talking point but the feeling that this game will hinge on a mistake forced, or made by one of the exceptional Defence’s rather than a game changing piece of Offensive brilliance still pervades.

 

The Panthers Defence has made a rather startling 39 turnovers during the regular season so it wouldn’t be a total surprise if they were the team who capitalised on a crucial error and with the Seahawks averaging 1 turnover per game on Offence the Panthers should have a chance to score some points of Defence that could take some pressure off Cam Newton. Newton’s 2 interceptions to Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor would be a concern for Panthers coach “Riverboat” Ron Rivera but the fact that Greg Olsen clocked up 131 receiving yards against the Seahawks in the Pacific Northwest may allay that fear. Kyle Rudolph late on against the Seahawks last week in the arctic temperatures of Minnesota and if Olsen can do the same this week then Cam’s job will be made much easier.
Essentially this game will be closer than cousin’s are in some Southern states, Seattle have this amazing knack of looking for all the money in the world like they’re about to lose a game but still running out winners, just ask Blair Walsh. The Panthers are favourites to win but the Seahawks ended their Playoff run last year and will probably do it again this time out too.

NFC Divisional game #1 Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals

DSC_0198Aaron Rodgers and his Packers team have been vying for the most unpredictable team of the season award ever since they lost to the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field (for the first time since 1991) back in week 10. Extrapolating any patterns or trends from their statistic’s would be rendered largely pointless because as a team they’ve notched up 4 wins and 6 losses since their bye week and not only have their results been inconsistent they haven’t followed any sort of pattern; 3 losses were followed by a victory, then a loss, then 3 more wins and finally 2 losses to end the regular season including a resounding 38-8 thumping in the desert at the hands of the Cardinals. As if to prove just how unpredictable the Packers have been they had the leading rusher in that game as Eddie Lacy averaged 5 yards per carry while recording 60 yards on the ground, he added a further 28 receiving yards and caught a Touchdown pass but they still conspired to lose by 30 points, largely by fumbling 5 times and losing 3 of them.
The Cardinals suffered their own thumping loss this season, leaving it until the last game of the regular season when it could be said some players were more interested in making it to the Playoffs in one piece rather than fully committing to stopping the Seahawks who ran out 36-6 winners in the University of Phoenix Stadium. In that game the Cardinals also had trouble stopping a physical Running Back in Christine Michael who averaged 6 yards per carry. To compound the problem they have had with stopping Running Backs the Cardinals lost 318 pound Defensive End Cory Redding to injury this week and Linebacker Alex Okafor was placed on the non-football injury list. They have been replaced with undersized Linebacker Gabe Martin who was signed from their practice squad and veteran Jason Babin who spent some time with the Ravens in 2015 as cover when Terrell Suggs was injured. With a bit of a patchwork Offensive Line in front of Aaron Rodgers Babin should be able to cause problems for the Packers Offence, despite being 35 years old he has still got the strength to push the pocket and add to the 48 sacks Rodgers has taken so far this season. Pass rush hasn’t been a major asset for the Cardinals this season and the 36 sacks they managed in the regular season saw them ranked joint 20th in the NFL, they’ve been better at turning the ball over with their 19 Interceptions and 14 Forced Fumbles making them second in the NFL when it comes to takeaways. However the Cardinals pass rush has recently been boosted by the signing of another 35 year old, Dwight Freeney who played in first game against the Steelers on the 18th of October and has recorded 8 sacks in the subsequent 10 games, including 3 against the Packers in December.
The Cardinals Offence led the league during the regular season with 6533 total yards and their 30.6 points per game average was only beaten by the Panthers who topped the league standings. The Packers scored 35 points last weekend as Rodgers threw for 210 yards (81 of which James Jones put down to his “lucky hoodie”) 2 Touchdowns (one to much maligned Receiver Davante Adams who was widely expected to be a game winner this season) and Eddie Lacy and James Starks both scored rushing Touchdowns, so Offensively both of these teams could be evenly matched (although much of that depends on whether or not Rodgers’ Receivers can catch passes which is something that has been a serious issue all season) but the Packers Defence allowed Kirk Cousins to throw for 329 yards 120 of which were thrown to Tight End Jordan Reed) and score a rushing touchdown. If they don’t seriously improve this week Carson Palmer will be throwing touchdown passes for fun, only Tom Brady threw more than him during the regular season so it’s safe to say he’s in the form of his life. The Cardinals welcome back Running Back Andre Ellington this week too so they’ll have 2 of the best pass catching Running Back’s lining up in the backfield as he and rookie David Johnson share time. Johnson scored 12 Touchdowns this season, 4 through the air and while Ellington only caught 15 passes in his injury hit season he averages 9.1 yards per catch over the course of his career. With Tight Ends Darren Fells and Jermaine Gresham available on the inside and veteran Larry Fitzgerald recording 17 catches of 20+ yards during the regular season Palmer should have enough tools to end the Packers Playoff hopes, but since they are the most unpredictable team of the season the only certainty is that it will be unmissable and if Aaron Rodgers can inspire the Packers and they manage to minimise the turnovers then it will be a high scoring spectacular but unfortunately for James Jones it’s not going to be hoodie weather in Glendale.

AFC Divisional Playoff #1 – Kansas City Chiefs @ New England Patriots

Knile Davis must be hoping the Chiefs win the toss and elect to receive the kick today after he became the first person to return the opening kick of the postseason for a touchdown last weekend. Perspicaciously one of the major keys to this game will be who starts fastest, some points from the Chiefs Special Team unit or Defence will be vital if they are to cause the first upset of the Divisional weekend. Kansas City have got one of the highest scoring Defence’s in the NFL this season and last week (against an admittedly shambolic Texans team) they created 5 turnovers and while Tom Brady couldn’t even try to play as badly as Brian Hoyer did last week the Chiefs defence haven’t concede more than 22 points since week 4 and are a large reason for their team’s 11 week winning streak. Alex Smith and the Chiefs’ Offence has not had a particularly bad season either mind you and last week his 77% pass completion rate set a new record in the NFL Playoffs and while Wide Receiver Jeremy Maclin suffered a painful high ankle sprain Tight End Travis Kelce is the current receiving yard leader after 1 week of the Postseason with his 128 yards from 8 catches, could mini-Gronk out Gronk the Gronk today? The issue that Kansas City has had on Offence for large parts of the season is that they have struggled to hit the ground running and it’s not until Alex Smith sparks them with a long run that they seem to click, the chances of the Patriots Defence allowing Smith to settle enough to spark them are pretty slim though.
The pragmatist in me says that the Patriots with home advantage are a hard nut to crack and that they’ll win what will probably be a close game with 2 strong defences on show. My romantic side however would love to see Alex Smith and Andy Reid put to bed their playoff ghosts with a victory over a Patriots team who Tom Brady has dragged to 12 wins despite losing 10 Offensive players to Injured Reserve (including 4 Running Backs) and missing Julian Edelman for 7 games, Rob Gronkowski (who was the team’s leading receiver in 7 games) missing 1 game and receiving hospital treatment on a troublesome knee injury and Danny Amendola (who lead the team in receiving yards twice) for 2 games. Brady led the NFL with Touchdown passes in the regular season with an impressive 36 and just 7 Interceptions. The Patriots rushing Offence as you may imagine having lost 4 Running Back’s to injuries has not been quite as successful, although their 14 Touchdowns on the ground is the 5th highest total in the league, but they’ve only averaged 3.7 yards per rush attempt which is the 30th best in the NFL this season.
The Chiefs do have previous against the Patriots, the last time they played them in September 2014 they not only beat them, they thrashed them 41-14. That was in Arrowhead Stadium though and usually teams who travel to Foxboro face the prospect of adverse weather conditions, the Chiefs however may be glad to be playing somewhere warmer than their home town. Despite being separated by 1,429 miles average climate conditions in January don’t vary too much between Kansas City and Foxboro although there’s usually more precipitation in the North East, but today the temperature could drop as low as -9 Celsius in KC while in Foxboro it should be a balmy 4 degrees at game time which could mean that the team who runs the ball best will prosper.

 

It’s going to be fascinating to watch and in terms of closely matched teams these 2 are almost perfect, both will be relying on a committee of Running Back’s, both have fascinating plot strands running through them which would lead to a suitable denouement. Chiefs’ safety Eric Berry was battling Leukaemia less than 12 months ago, since Alex Smith left San Francisco for Kansas City the 49ers have essentially imploded as an organisation and since the Eagles have recently fired the man they hired to replace Andy Reid after 2 lacklustre season’s. The Patriots have had to overcome a litany of injuries and their hero Tom Brady still has the fallout of the Deflate-gate saga hanging over his head in the shape of an appeal hearing in March plus their Running Back Steven Jackson is 32 and hasn’t played in the playoffs for 11 years since his rookie season with the St. Louis Rams! The prospect of the game being one or lost by a spectacular moment of brilliance or a total meltdown are what makes knock out football great and whilst I will be cheering everything the Chiefs do as loudly as I did at Wembley way back in October (they gave me a free flag and I’m easier to bribe than an IAAF official) theirs is exactly the sort of bubble the Patriots love to burst.

NFL Wild Card game 3 2016 – Green Bay Packers @ Washington Redskins

DSC_0198Form is often the key to winning playoff games some people say (although the statistics show that form teams only win about 52% of the playoff matches, so in reality form isn’t much of an advantage), the Redskins have the second longest winning streak in the NFL at the moment behind the Chiefs, so they have momentum behind them. They have won their last 4 games, which is hardly momentous in itself but their opponents the Packers go into this game with a losing streak after defeats to the Cardinals and their divisional rivals the Vikings last week at Lambeau Field. If the Packers had won last week, and Aaron Rodgers had a chance to perform one of his trademark last minute marvels, then they would have been playing a home game in -11 degree temperatures to the team everyone wants to avoid; the Seattle Seahawks, so maybe losing wasn’t the worst thing they could have done.
Recent results for both teams can be put down to their health, or lack thereof in the Packers case. The Packers have 6 players on their Injured Reserve list including 2 Wide Receivers, in addition to the 6 who definitely can’t play they have a further 18 players who are carrying injuries including starting Running Back Eddie Lacy, 6 Offensive Linemen and a Tight End. So Aaron Rodgers is playing with a patchwork offence around him, but that’s not all for the Packers they also listed 8 of the players from their Defensive front on this week’s official injury report including Pro-Bowler Clay Matthews and former Pro-Bowler Sam Shields so this really could be a shell of a what a healthy Green Bay team could look like. The Packers have managed to make 16 interceptions this season despite having a fairly fluid line-up and the Redskins have turned the ball over 22 times on Offence this season so Aaron Rodgers should have plenty of chances to work his magic albeit with a skeleton crew around him, Tight End Richard Rogers should be one of his main targets through the air and a big game from him would give the Redskins some problems.
Washington also have injury problems with 15 players on their Injured Reserve list and a further 11 on their injury report for this week including Running Back Matt Jones and their leading Wide Receiver DeSean Jackson. The Redskins have relied on their pass game for 77% of their touchdowns this season so if the injury to Jackson is significant enough to impact this facet of their play then they might be in trouble. Tight End Jordan Reed has caught 11 of their 30 touchdown passes this season though so he’ll be vital in the red zone, however if there’s no Jackson to stretch the field then Reed may well it difficult to find the space to catch passes. The Redskins lead the league in fumbles forced by their defence and with the strong possibility of heavy rain falling in D.C this afternoon the ball could be flying out of runner’s hands quite often.
It’s almost impossible to predict how the Packers will approach this game and if they even get close with the majority of their team banged up then I’m sure Mike McCarthy will be quietly pleased. Even the Bookmakers aren’t brave enough to pick a favourite for this game, personally I suspect the Redskins will continue their win streak but if DeSean Jackson is impeded by his knee injury this may well become a midfield battle dominated by the Running Backs and since the Redskins Defence has allowed just 11 rushing touchdowns compared to the Packers 14 the advantage should be with them.

NFL Wild Card game 2 2016 – Pittsburgh Steelers @ Cincinnati Bengals

DSC_0198Familiarity may well breed contempt and although the Steelers have only lost twice in Cincinnati since the Bengals 2001 overtime win in 2001 the Steelers will be approaching this game with more trepidation than contempt.
Losing number 1 Running Back La’Veon Bell after 6 games of the season (in controversial circumstances) during a home loss to the Bengals was a blow to the Steelers but up stepped veteran Running Back DeAngelo Williams who rushed for 11 touchdowns and recorded 1,274 yards from the line of scrimmage, but now he’s out injured too! Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman are now the Steelers only healthy Running Backs and they’ve rushed for 64 yards so far this season having had very limited opportunity (22 carries between them), the running game is a key part of the Steelers Offence not only have they have scored the 3rd highest number of rushing touchdowns in the NFL but the running game affords the Steelers trio of electrifying Wide Receivers and veteran Quarterback “Big” Ben Roethlisberger the time to create some of the most explosive plays in the NFL (with a league leading 21 pass plays over 40+ yards, 5 more than the 2nd ranked team the Odell Beckham Jr. lead New York Giants). Antonio Brown, Martavius Bryant and Markus Wheaton have been responsible for about 73% of the Steelers total yards on Offence this season and in order for them to remain effective the Steelers will need a running game or the Bengals Defence will focus on defending the pass. The effectiveness of the Steelers running game could also play a part in determining how effective the Bengals Defence is at the end of the game, particularly the pass rush in week 16, albeit in the altitude of the Rockies the Bengals Defence started fast and slowed considerably as the Broncos chewed up the clock and kept Domata Peko and co. out on the field for extended passages of play. If the Steelers only effective Offence involves throwing 40 yard bombs then conversely the Steelers Defence will be spending far more time on the field than Mike Tomlin wants.
The Bengals Defence is ranked 20th in the NFL in terms of yards allowed during the regular season but their 42 sacks are the 8th most in the league so either Todman or Toussaint (or both) may find that they have a loss of pass blocking to do. Incidentally, if the Steelers need good pass blocking and a dependable receiver in short, soft zones then Heath Miller could be the most vital player on the field for wither side. Cincinnati are the 3rd best team in the where defensive turnovers are concerned with a differential of 11, 9 more than the Steelers have managed this season. Reggie Nelson has accounted for 8 of the Bengals 21 interceptions and with rejuvenated Corner Back Adam Jones (or the artist formerly known as “Pac Man”) has 3 of the 21 but only Leon Hall has returned an interception for a touchdown this season. The Bengals have intercepted Roethlisberger 4 times in their 2 meetings this season but the Steelers have intercepted Bengals Quarterbacks 5 times in the same 2 games, so don’t expect this game to be dull. The Bengals have one of the best receivers in football in AJ Green and he’s already had 2 100 yard games against the Steelers this season (and caught 2 of 10 touchdowns against them) but he’s persistently struggled during the playoffs. This has been in part blamed on the Bengals Quarterback Andy Dalton who has traditionally been very strong during the regular season but is yet to win a game in the postseason in 4 attempts, but this time Dalton is replaced by rookie (and first Alabama Quarterback to win a game in the NFL) A.J McCarron who has looked impressive in the 7 games he’s played this season, although he was the Quarterback when the Steelers won in Cinci back in week 13 and 2 of his 5 career wins came against a frankly embarrassingly bad Cleveland Browns team.
These teams really don’t like each other and the Bengals must be tired of their rivals from just up the Ohio River beating them in their back yard so don’t expect them give up without a fight. It’s difficult to see how the Bengals can stop a Steelers offence with a fit Roethlisberger, Brown, Wheaton, Bryant and Miller in it, but the Bengals have a recent history of kicking Steelers out of games so there’s a real chance they can finally get revenge for the 2005 Wild Card game when Pittsburgh won 31-17 on the back of Big Ben and Hall of Fame Running Back Jerome Bettis (the bus). The bookmakers have the Steelers as favourites by 6 points or less but it really is too close to call, if the Steelers can cobble together some sort of run game with their healthy Backs and maybe their Wide Receivers joining in on the odd reverse or gadget play then there’s a real chance the Bengals rookie Quarterback could feel the pressure and the away team could win by closer to 20 points.