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).