6 Nations preview – abridged version

There’s been a lot of overthinking from pundits and alleged experts in the build up to the 2019 6 Nations so I thought I’d offer an alternative perspective –

  1. Ireland – they’ve James Ryan, everyone else is fucked. (Tadgh Beirne, Sean Cronin and Jacob Stockdale are in some frightening form too)
  2. England – if they had Underhill they’d be my favourites to win it but they don’t so the speed of their ruck ball depends on the erratic Ben Youngs
  3. Scotland – Finn Russell is as likely to throw a spectacular misspass as he is to miss touch from 35 yards so they’re right in the middle (ish)
  4. Wales – Gatland looks like he’ll pick an 8 who hasn’t played since the Autumn Internationala and a 9 who was injured yesterday. This is strictly RWC prep time for the wiley old Kiwi
  5. France – if they all shared Guilhem Guirado’s intensity and focus they’d terrify every opponent in world rugby. They don’t and Cami Lopez is their experienced 10!
  6. Italy – less direction than a Gatwick drone hunt, but a pack who work their collective socks off. God love them. If they ever find a 10 who marries Claudio Canna’s flair with Tommaso Allan’s pragmatism there’ll be hell to pay.

NFL Playoffs – Conference Championship games, Patriots @ Chiefs

Tom Brady is 18 years older than Patrick Mahomes so DSC_0198Brady played his first game of College football when Mahomes was 1 year old, there’s not really much relevance in that statement beyond the fact that playing your 19th game of the season will inevitably be more challenging when you are 41 years old than playing it will be when you’re a mere 23 years of age.

To counteract Brady’s age you have to imagine the Patriots are going to use his intellect more than they are going to rely on his athletic prowess (or lack thereof). I’m expecting them to use the options they have at Running Back to do most of the heavy lifting, last week 5 Patriots gained positive yards out of the backfield, Brady also threw passes to 4 players who rushed the ball too and I think that’s largely what they’ll be doing this week, if the Chiefs decide to load the box with defenders then Brady will audible at the line of scrimmage and throw a short pass to keep the chains moving. The one thing that will affect the Patriots passing game is pressure up the middle and if Chris Jones can collapse the pocket around Brady then the Patriots might have to rely on their Defence making big plays. The Patriots Defence has been very much a Jekyll and Hyde affair this  season, it was 6th at home but in the bottom away home from. If they continue that trend in Arrowhead today they’ll be behind the 8 ball.

The Chiefs have been beaten at home once this season and that was a one point defeat to the team the Patriots absolutely destroyed last week, the Chargers. On that occasion fumbles cost the Chiefs and the Chargers threw for 313 yards and 2 touchdowns. With temperatures set to be well below freezing tonight it would be surprising to see either Quarterback attempting 38 passes like Philip Rivers did back in week 13. The weather promises to be the key factor in Kansas City, the sub-zero temperatures will make it hard to throw, kick and catch the ball and should favour the team with the most experience of playing high pressure games in adverse conditions. However last week penalties  especially offside penalties were big factors in both the  Chiefs and Patriots games, Mahomes repeatedly made the Colts Defence look like schoolboys by drawing them offside and the Patriots Defence jumped more than you’d expect a Bellichick coached team to.

If I had to make a prediction for this game it would be that the team who possess the ball as the clock ticks down to zero will leave Arrowhead with the win. It would be a fairytale for Mahomes to make the Super Bowl in his first full NFL season but I wouldn’t bet on it happening.

 

NFL Playoffs – Conference Championship games, Rams @ Saints

In the last 5 NFL seasons home teams are 10-0 in Conference Championship games so all indicators point toward the Chiefs and Saints meeting in Atlanta on the 3rd of February. Statisticians will tell you however that every game is an “individual event” and that as such what has previously happened means nothing in terms of the outcome of these future “events”. This purely mathematical approach does rather exclude the fact that humans are not robots and therefore are totally unpredictable! Obviously how every player involved reacts to external factors like expectations and, in the case of the AFC game, weather will have a baring on the result but just because a road team hasn’t progressed to a Super Bowl in the last 5 years doesn’t mean they won’t this time.

The Rams have travelled to New Orleans twice since August and they’ve lost twice (28-0 in week 4 of preseason and 35-45 in week 9) so they have had more than enough game tape to watch and learn from in the last week. The preseason game largely featured backup players from both sides but the Saints still held the visitors scoreless and in the week 9 meeting both teams had more success throwing the ball than they did running it. The Rams threw for 483 yards and 3 touchdowns (with 1 interception), the Saints 487 and 4! The Quarterback comparison is quite interesting, especially considering how similar their stats were in November – Jared Goff will be playing his first road playoff game tonight whereas Drew Brees will playing his 6th playoff game at the Superdome and he’s yet to lose. Brees has started 322 games since his College days at Purdue while this will be Goff’s 78th start since his College career began in 2013. Goff has thrown 162 touchdowns and 56 interceptions so far in his short career and Brees has 641 TD’s and 288 picks. However this game probably won’t be decided by Quarterbacks, it should be determined by running backs (both teams have a tandem running back attack) or by how the Head Coaches decide to use their Quarterbacks (since both teams relied on the passing game during the regular season it would be brave or a bit mad to try exactly the same again). If the Saints try to throw deep and often they could be playing right into the hands of the Rams best player Aaron Donald and given how Andrus Peat underwent surgery on a broken hand this week it would be prudent for Sean Payton to try and get the ball out of Brees’ hand as quickly as possible. That would also give his receivers the opportunity to attack the weakest area of the Saints Defence, the Linebackers. Alvin Kamara, Benjamin Watson and even the underused Wide Recievers like Keith Kirkwood, Austin Carr, Tommylee Lewis or Tre’Quan Smith who didn’t catch passes in week 9 could be secret weapons for the home team. Taysom Hill is also a weapon for the Saints but he’s certainly not a secret, he can play Quarterback, Running Back and Wide Reciever but since his versatility and speed are well documented he might find himself in a new position this week, decoy. If Sean Payton wants to prove a point he might stick to his guns and the plan from week 9 which was to torch Marcus Peters in the Rams secondary, but this could be a tricky prospect since Aqib Talib is back healthy now so Peters shouldn’t have to defend Michael Thomas who racked up 211 yards last time he played the Rams.

The Rams will want to run the ball a lot this time out and with Todd Gurley and CJ Anderson taking on a new Defensive front minus Sheldon Rankins there’s a strong chance they’ll have success doing it. Their Offence still misses Cooper Kupp and if Sean McVay puts the Rams fate on the shoulders of Goff the Saints Defensive backs’ eyes will light up, in particular Marshon Lattimore who picked off Nick Foles twice last week.

Last week the Rams brushed aside the Cowboys with a 17 point 2nd quarter and once they had opened up a 23-7 lead it was all over. The Saints conversely had to battle back from 0-14 at the end of the first quarter against the Eagles and I think facing down adversity will make them battle hardened and that should see them through to the Super Bowl. If the Rams can find a big play early on and set the home crowd on edge it will be fascinating to watch though.

2019 NFL Playoffs, Divisional round – Game 4 Eagles @ Saints

Saint Nick turned into Super Nick last week in Chicago as his Eagles team saw off the “best defence” in the NFL by 1 point as Cody Parkey performed the rare “double doink”. In fairness to Parkey his attempt was tipped by an Eagles defender and that faint touch altered the ball flight enough to cause the ball to fade away and cannon off the left upright and then in the cruelest twist of fate bounce off the top of the crossbar and somehow land in the end zone.

It’s that outrageous combination of Special Teams play and the slings and arrows of misfortune, to paraphrase Hamlet that makes it impossible to predict what the Eagles will do this week. All you can say is that Doug Pederson is a hell of a coach and he shares some sort of special symbiosis with Nick Foles, Pederson has yet to lose a playoff game as a Head Coach and Foles hasn’t lost one since 2013.

The Saints were the second highest scoring NFC team and with a rested Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas and Drew Brees on Offence and a hopefully healthy Marcus Davenport alongside Cameron Jordan and Sheldon Rankins Nick Foles could face his toughest playoff test so far. Back in week 10 the Saints beat the Eagles 48-7 in New Orleans but the Eagles have got some players back fit since then and bedded in some new guys so it would be a huge surprise if there’s a repeat performance. Except some controversy and some very angry Eagles with a point to prove.

2019 NFL Playoffs, Divisional round – Game 3 Charger @ Patriots

“Mental disintegration” was a phrase attributed to Steve Waugh when the Australian cricket team used to regularly thrash England way back in the 1990’s but it could just as easily be applied to the Ravens display against the Chargers last week. A combination of Lamar Jackson failing to rise to the occasion in his first NFL playoff game and the Ravens coaching staff failure to adapt the teams approach to help Jackson saw the rookie Quarterback sacked 7 times and fumble the ball 4 times whilst throwing an interception.

The Chargers Defence on the other hand completely schooled the Ravens playing personnel and coaching staff by totally changing their approach to an Offence that had beaten them by 12 points just 2 weeks earlier. They contained the Ravens dynamic Quarterback by playing 7 Defensive back’s instead of 4 and 3 Linebackers. This week they face a completely different threat from Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady, he is definitely not dynamic and usually defeats opposing Defences with his brain so how the Chargers adapt to completely new challenge will be interesting.

The Patriots haven’t lost a home game all season and the Chargers haven’t lost a game outside Los Angeles all season either so they won’t mind having to travel, but at some stage all that travel must catch up with a team who have flown nearly 5,660 miles in the last week. Tom Brady hasn’t lost a Playoff game in Foxborough since the Ravens beat him in 2012 and Phillip Rivers hasn’t beaten a Tom Brady lead Patriots team ever! But if the last week proved anything it’s that the Chargers have a coaching team that doesn’t mind thinking out of the box and if their Defence can keep causing turnovers they’ll have a chance to make history. The one area that the Chargers will need to improve from last week is turning their turnovers into Touchdowns instead of Field Goals but the Patriots Defence is not the Ravens Defence so they should not find it as difficult to punch the ball in if they get the chance.

Personally I think this is the end of the Chargers run, so far this week the bye week teams have proven that rest is crucial at this stage of the season. Both the Chiefs and Rams could muster some extra physicality that their opponents couldn’t match. It should be a close game though, the Patriots scored just 8 more points than the Chargers during the regular season and the Chargers conceded 6 points fewer over those 6 games

2019 NFL Divisional round – Game 2 Cowboys @ Rams

The Rams scored more points than any other team in the NFC and it wasn’t even that close, their 527 was 23 more than the second place Saints and 101 more than the third placed Seahawks! After the first 12 games of the season they averaged a whopping 34.9 points per game and then Cooper Kupp got injured (tore his ACL) and Jared Goff lost his safety blanket. Todd Gurley picked up a knee injury in December and the Rams season ended with a bumpy ride into the postseason, ha carried 11 times in week 14, 12 times in week 15 and missed the last 2 games of the season, even earlier this week he was listed as questionable, so how often he’s used tonight will be interesting and may be vital to the result. In Gurley’s absence CJ Anderson took over as lead back and experienced some success but neither Arizona nor San Francisco have a defence of the calibre of the Cowboys.

How much pressure the Cowboys can put Jared Goff under and whether or not Sean McVay has figured out how to fill the Cooper Kupp shaped hole in the passing game will determine who wins this game. The Cowboys scored an average of 21 points per game this season and the Rams only failed to score 21 points once, against the Bears in a chilly Chicago. The Cowboys Defence have only kept their opponents under 21 points on the road 3 times this season and the last time that happened was in week 7 when they lost 20-17 in Washington D.C.

Last week the Seahawks tried to run through the heart of the Cowboys Defence and despite the Cowboys dealing with it easily more often than not they didn’t alter the plan. Sean McVay will have noticed this and I expect he’ll try to attack the edge of the Cowboys Defence with the run game, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he uses some read option plays. In Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein the Rams have 2 of the smartest and mobile Offensive Tackles in the league so expect some trap plays in the run game and maybe even a few bubble screen’s to Josh Reynolds or even the Tight End’s to fill that Cooper Kupp sized gap.

If the Cowboys do win this it will be an absolute nail biter and may be one of the greatest playoff games in history, but I can’t imagine Jason Garrett winning one of the greatest games in NFL history so I think the Rams will win a relatively ordinary game but the Cowboys Defence won’t go down without a fight.

2019 NFL Divisional round – Game 1 Colts @ Chiefs

Sexy Quarterback play doesn’t usually mean much in January but with Andrew Luck and Patrick Mahomes meeting in this game you get the feeling that there will be some pretty football on show. The weather in Kansas City won’t make it easy to throw the ball a long way through the air though as it may snow and the temperature doesn’t look to be moving above freezing all day.

If this game is affected by weather and Mahomes no look passes are replaced by a battle between the big guys at the line of scrimmage then the Running Back’s will be as important as the Quarterbacks and there could be a Kareem Hunt sized whole in the Chiefs line up. Just when it looked like Andy Reid was rolling toward a successful playoff run TMZ release a video of the Running Back’s behaviour that leads to the end of Hunt’s Chiefs career. Hunt’s release changed the balance of Reid’s Offence at the most vital part of the season. When Hunt was playing he scored 7 rushing Touchdowns and another 7 recieving, since his departure the Chiefs have struggled to find such a potent pass catching threat out of backfield and if the conditions dictate a game plan involving a lot of running and short passes the Colts defence should be able to keep a lid on the home team. For their part the Colts have actually been running an Offence which values short passes and relies on Marlon Mack and the Offensive line to tire out opposing Defensive fronts, Mack averaged 4.4 yards per carry in the 12 games he played in 2018 and last week he rattled up 148 of the Colts 200 yards on the ground!

The Colts physical Offensive line play combined with the Chiefs poor run defence is why a lot of experts are backing a road win for the Colts and that certainly seems to be a logical conclusion. The bookmakers have the Chiefs as short oddd favourites probably as they finished the regular season with the best Offence in the league and with only 1 defeat at home. I think the weather will be the big winner in this game and while I’d expect the Colts Offensive line and platoon of Running Back’s to keep score a few Touchdowns and the ball away from Mahomes last week proved that logic doesn’t always apply to playoff games. I’m hoping the Colts continue their playoff run because its about Adam Vinatieri appeared in another Super Bowl, but I’m definitely expecting something screwy to happen in this game.

NFL Playoffs – Wildcard Weekend game 4 – Eagles @ Bears

The Eagles have been playing knockout football since week 12 when they’re record was 4-6, since then they have only lost once in overtime at AT & T Stadium. So playing under pressure is not new to them, but only since Nick Foles returned as starting Quarterback have they looked anywhere close to the team who made last year’s Super Bowl. Foles has thrown 6 TD’s, completed 77% of his passes and has an average QB rating of 104 in those 3 games. However ball security has been an issue for the Eagles, largely due to the poor protection the O-line has provided and in those 3 games Foles has fumbled twice and thrown 3 interceptions!

The Bears Defence has been their glittering jewel this season as Khalil Mack has absolutely dominated opposing O-lines on his way to 12.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles and an interception that he returned for a TD. Mack is not the only outstanding player on the Bears Defence though, 10 other players have made Interceptions, Kyle Fuller has 7 and Eddie Jackson has 6, 2 of which he’s returned for TD’s.

Really the only thing that can prevent the Bears from progressing to a meeting with the Saints next week is their own health problems. Mack has struggled through an ankle injury this season and Eddie Jackson has also missed time. Unless a mini injury crisis rears it’s ugly head at Soldier Field the Bears Defence should be good enough to win with this game while both Offences could find themselves scratching around to establish a run game.

NFL Playoffs – Wildcard Weekend game 3 – Los Angeles Chargers @ Baltimore Ravens

Heisman Trophy winning Quarterbacks don’t have always convert their College success to the NFL, Matt Lienart, Johnny Manziel and Troy Smith have all been voted the best player in College football recently and all have struggled as professionals. Lamar Jackson could be one new breed who can bring their College success to the NFL, Jackson won the Heisman in 2016, the year before Baker Mayfield, in his 7 NFL starts Jackson has lead the Ravens to 6 wins and his only loss came in Kansas City to the AFC topping Chiefs. However Jackson is not exactly a conventional NFL QB, he ended the regular season with a worse completion percentage than Blake Bortles (who only had 1 decent reciever to throw to for most of his season) and in 7 games he threw 5 touchdowns whilst turning the ball over 13 times (10 fumbles & 3 picks)!

The Chargers on the other hand have one of the most experienced QB’s in the league in Philip Rivers who only turned the ball over 14 times in his 16 starts this season (12 picks and 2 fumbles) while he threw a whopping 32 TD’s (or 2 a game) but the explosive nature of the Chargers Offence could well play against them today. The Ravens run first attack means they dominate time of possession (they had the ball for 38 and a half minutes last week against the Browns) and wear down opposing Defences. The Chargers Defence have been incredibly average in terms of creating turnovers and if they can’t get the ball out of Jackson’s hands they’ll be in for a long afternoon.

Just as they were when these teams faced each other in week 16. On that occasion the Ravens ran out 22-10 winners in StubHub Stadium as Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said his team had been outplayed and outcoached. The Chargers only managed 198 yards as the Ravens Defence suffocated them. The Ravens ran for 159 yards and added another 202 through the air!

A lot has been made of the Chargers having to travel to the East Coast and play at 10am their time, but they travelled to London and delivered a beat down to the Titans back in week 7 so I can’t see the travel being a huge issue for them. The biggest issue will be the Ravens ability to smother their Offence like a concrete blanket combined with the slow, deliberate, bone crushing Offence. In Gus “the bus” Edwards, Kenneth Dixon and Lamar Jackson the Ravens have 678 lbs of ball carrier to plough through the Chargers Defence and that should be enough to see them into the next round.

NFL Playoffs – Wildcard Weekend, game 2 – Seahawks @ Cowboys

Form is usually the key to predicting which teams will advance in the playoffs, especially in the Wildcard round where teams with inferior records can look to recent results to provide them with confidence in the postseason. However both of these teams have suffered a slight wobble as the playoffs approached, both have won 2 but lost 1 in the last 3 weeks and the games they have won have only been decided by 1 score.

When these teams met in the regular season the Seahawks won but the game was played in Seattle and way back in September, since when the Cowboys have traded for Amari Cooper who has had a dramatic effect on their Offence and the Seahawks have lost Defensive stalwart Earl Thomas to a broken leg. In that game Dallas out gained the Seahawks 303 yards to 295 yards but the Cowboys really struggled to keep the scoreboard ticking over and Dak Prescott threw 2 interceptions and just the 1 touchdown. The Cowboys rushed for 116 yards at an average of 8.7 yards per attempt so Zeke Elliott will be looking forward to meeting the Seahawks again. In their last 3 games Seattle have allowed 333 rushing yards and in his last 3 games Elliott has run for 285 yards and he was rested in week 17 so he should be chomping at the bit this week.

Since week 15 the Seahawks have scored on average almost 30 points a game whilst conceding an average of 27 points per game. For their part the Cowboys are averaging 21 but defensively they have conceded an average of 26 points per game so there’s a very good chance this will be the highest scoring game of the weekend.

This game could be decided early on if the Seahawks can establish a lead because the Cowboys are not as comfortable playing from behind as they are when they can utilise Elliott as their main attacking weapon even if Seattle struggle to contain explosive running backs. Even if the Seahawks go 2 scores up early in proceedings it should still be a high scoring game because neither Defence have managed to dominate their opposition in recent weeks. How healthy Seahawks kicker Sebastian Janikowski is could be an important factor because a healthy Sea Bass is a threat from long range but in his last 2 games he hasn’t looked like a man trying to protect himself from further injury, could there be a chance for Australian punter Michael Dickson get the chance to drop kick some points in the postseason?

Like Bill O’Brien’ the Cowboys’ Jason Garrett has had his share of playoff woes and at home he has the rather inauspicious record of 1 win and 1 loss, the last loss coming in 2016 when some rather questionable officiating saw the Packers leave AT & T Stadium with a very controversial 31-34 win (and a few conspiracy theories were born).

Baring any unfortunate officiating decisions the Cowboys should double Jason Garrett’s number of playoff wins this weekend in a points-fest but of all the Quarterbacks on show in this round of the playoffs Russell Wilson is the one who could single handedly change the path of a postseason game.