Super Bowl LII speculation

Betting against the Patriots is a fool’s errand, so there’s no point trying to predict who will win. There are however a few areas that the Rams can attack the Patriots so I thought I’d guess at what might work for Sean McVay as he returns to Atlanta.

The Rams have been running a lot of fake jet sweeps all season to distract Defensive lines and outside Linebackers and the one are that of the Patriots Defence that could be considered a weakness is the lack of speed that their front 7 have, but they are very disciplined and rarely over pursue. The Patriots also bolster this weakness by playing DB’s as Linebackers, but if Jared Goff spots this he may be able to audible to a short pass play to a tight end or Todd Gurley out of the backfield (if Todd brings his catching hands this week!). Even if the Patriots do use Patrick Chung et al closer to the line of scrimmage it only takes one missed tackle or one great block from the always impressive Rams O-line to bust Brandon Cooks for a decent rushing gain. It wouldn’t be a huge shock if McVay dials up a few slight variations on the jet sweep they’ve been running during the rest of the season. They could try a Wide Reciever reverse or even a Reciever pass.

During the regular season the Patriots Defence allowed 4.9 yards per carry so the Rams might not try anything too exotic early on against them but the Patriots were very difficult to score against on the ground so there maybe some “trickeration” in the Red Zone. Time of possession for the Rams will be vital because if they can keep Tom Brady off the pitch there’s a very good chance they’ll outscore the Patriots, the Patriots returned 1 interception for a touchdown, 1 fumble for a score, 1 kick off for a TD and scored once from a blocked punt so they’re heavily reliant on Brady for their points.

For their part the Rams Special Teams are always worth keeping an eye on. John Fassell has been coaching for 20 years and like McVay is from a football dynasty (McVay’s Grandfather was the 49ers Director of Football operations from 1980 when Bill Walsh was winning more Super Bowls than you can shake a stick at), Fassell’s dad Jim was a football coach between 1974 and 2012 and the NFL coach of the year in 1997. Added to Fassell’s experience and creativity in coaching the Rams have a superhero Punter, Johnny Hekker was a high school Quarterback (he’s also 6 feet 5 inches tall so ideal height for an NFL Quarterback) and they often use him to fake punts but he’s the holder for field goal’s too so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a fake field goal if they find themselves in a particularly sticky spot. Another Fassell speciality is the “fake” return that they used to run mainly on punt returns when they had Pharo Cooper and Tevon Austin. One of them would run toward the opposite side line that the punt was going to attract the gunners and if they fell for it then the guy who was actually returning the punt would have almost half a field to run into.

If the Rams do win the Super Bowl then it will be because their coaching staff have out thought their opposition and if that happens it should be a fascinating watch. 3 sacks from Aaron Donald wouldn’t go a miss either but during the playoffs the Patriots O-line has seemed reborn and Gronkowski’s new role as an extra Tackle has had a lot to do with it (but maybe that’s all a ruse and he’ll be 100+ receiving yards Gronk tonight)?

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 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 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 1 – Colts @ Texans

Playoff games between divisional rivals are usually slightly disappointing because both teams are so familiar with each other. However this meeting promises to be a very even matchup as the aggregate score in their divisional meetings this season is 58-58 and in an interesting twist both teams won in their opponents’ stadium! The Texans kick-started their season with a week 4 win in Indianapolis, an overtime victory that began their 9 game winning streak. They didn’t lose again until the Colts visited NRG Stadium in week 14 a game which would launch the Colts current 4 game winning streak.

Since their last meeting the Colts have scored 84 points (an average of 28 a game) and conceded just 44 (about 15 a game). The Texans on the other hand have scored 79 (almost 27 per game) and they’ve only conceded 57 (19 per game) so all indicators point to another close game.

Turnovers have been a problem for the Colts in the last 3 games, they’ve given the ball away 4 times, twice as many times as the Texans in the same period of time. In their 2 games this season the Texans just edged the battle of the turnovers with 3 takeaways compared to the 1 the Colts managed in both games. The Colts displayed a clear advantage in terms of pass rush though as they sacked Deshaun Watson 12 times, 5 times in the last meeting at NRG.

The porosity of the Texans Offensive line could be the deciding factor in this game and while a heavy dose of Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue out of the backfield would take the steam out of the Colts pass rush I’m not sure Bill O’Brien, who made rose to prominence as a Wide Recievers and Quarterback coach in New England can talk himself into playing smash-mouth football against a divisional rival. The Colts seem to have a new found resilience and they’ve cultivated the useful habit of winning games that they look set to lose whilst never really playing very well. O’Brien’s playoff history is a source of concern too, he has only beaten the Raiders in the postseason and that was a Raiders team shorn of a starting Quarterback and it’s best Offensive lineman, when O’Brien’s Texans have faced team’s close to full strength they’ve lost (34-16 to the Patriots in 2016 and 30-0 to the Chiefs the previous year). It’s not beyond the realms of possibility this one is decided by a field goal, or a missed field goal similar to the one that handed the Colts victory on their last visit to NRG, sometimes history does repeat itself.

Predicting the unpredictable – buckle up for the 2018 NFL season

It could be a bumpy ride. Nike deciding to release an advertising campaign spearheaded by Colin Kaepernick mere days before the 2018 NFL season kicks off has been seen by many as a shot across the NFL bows but it could come in useful as a heat shield if the season starts as controversially as it could. This season there will be 7 first year officials (which is quite a lot) and 4 newly promoted referees, so there will understandably be a transition period while the newbies adjust to their surroundings. Added to the new personnel there are also new rules to adjust to including changes to rules regarding free-kicks and turnovers during overtime but most importantly the definition of a catch has been (apparently) simplified so a player no longer has to “survive the ground” (anyone who has ever fallen over has failed to survive the ground). But (here comes the really controversial bit) (not because it’s a controversial rule but because its incredibly difficult to police effectively and consistently) a defender lowering their head to initiate contact in the tackle is a penalty. This is going to result in a lot of controversial calls because virtually all the players in the NFL have been taught to tackle by lowering the helmet and placing it on the ball to induce a fumble. And this is where the smart Defensive Coordinators and coaches have an opportunity to stand out from the crowd, the easiest way to avoid lowering the helmet in contact is to try to keep the head up and cause a fumble by stripping the ball. And this is where my first unpopular opinion comes into play; the Seahawks disbanding the “Legion of Boom” could be a masterstroke, they’ve now become more like the Legion of Zoom, those DB’s should fly to the ball and they could create a lot of turnovers for Russell Wilson to use. The other huge positive for the Seahawks is Tom Cable is no longer the Offensive line code and while there isn’t much for anyone to work with Cable’s CV is seriously underwhelming.

Elsewhere in the NFC West the Cardinals are the other interesting team (since everyone expects the Rams to win it at a canter and the Jimmy G hype train left so early that it has now returned to the station), Steve Wilks was in charge of one of the most exciting defence’s in the NFL at the Carolina Panthers. In 2015 they took 24 Interceptions, recovered 18 fumbles and scored 5 defensive touchdowns and Bené Benwickere and Tre Boston who were members of that Panthers Defence are Cardinals now. They’re not the only playmakers in the Arizona backfield either, with Budda Baker, Patrick Peterson and 3 time Pro-bowler Antione Bethea the Cardinals pass Defence could surprise some QB’s this season. Their own QB could surprise some too, Sam Bradford has had a perpetual battle with injuries but if he can stay healthy be could take this division by the scruff of the neck (big if when you look at the O-line, but still). Bradford has rarely been afforded the luxury of a receiver like Larry Fitzgerald to catch his passes, David Johnson a former college receiver will be looking to have a big season at running back as he returns from injury and alongside the veteran Brice Butler and rookie Christian Kirk Bradford has got some tools at his disposal.

Just as a point of interest, Sean McVay has got a job on his hands to make Jared Goff less predictable this season since virtually everyone knows how the Rams only used 1 side of the field for their Offence last season, but if anyone can do it it’s McVay, don’t expect the Rams task to be as easy as some will have you believe though.

Like the NFC West the NFC East is also going to be an interesting division to watch, most people see the Eagles walking away with it but I can’t see past the Giants (the Eagles should have lost to the Falcons in the playoffs but when a single part of the team freezes the whole team freezes and Steve Sarkisian failing to call a single run in the last 4 plays was an epic freeze). Pat Shurmur and Mike Schula have Saquon Barkley and Odell Beckham back full fitness (and hopefully at least a tiny bit more mature than before) plus Nate Solder to impart some wisdom to the shambles of an Offensive line they had last year and there’s a very real chance that will be enough to bring back good Eli Manning and not his evil twin that Ben McAdoo was working with last season. The Giants Defence on the other hand could be pretty ordinary and if Eli Apple and Landon Collins get on as well as they did last year then it could be disastrous and their Offence will have to score a lot of points.

Carson Wentz will definitely be a key player in this division but not because he is the second coming of Brett Favre (we all know that’s Patrick Mahomes), if the 2017 version of Wentz returns as soon as he’s healthy then his decision making is arguably better than Favre’s was. The thing is 2017 Wentz may take a while to return and if the Eagles decide to limit him in order to protect him then it could negate his effectiveness.

Having said all that I think that competitiveness of the East West will hinder their playoff chances and I think the NFC Championship game will be between the Saints and the Packers.

The AFC is tricky to predict but if I had to pick a potential outsider who could make a playoff run it would be the Bengals, their Defence could be really tough (if they can maintain some discipline) and a whole season of Joe Mixon would be interesting to watch. I actually really like the Browns Defence too, they’re arguably the most talented roster in the AFC on that side of the ball but I’m not sure how smooth the Offence will be. A Bengals and Patriots AFC Championship game would be fun to watch in a snowy Foxboro.

Jaguars @ Patriots

Tom Brady against a 4 man pass rush is one of the things dreams are made of (yes, I have strange dreams). Brady is a master of exploiting defences that blitz to put him under pressure, but there’s a very good chance that the Jaguars won’t blitz at all unless they find themselves in a 3rd and very long situations and want to make sure their Defence gets of the field as soon as possible. Jacksonville’s Defensive linemen have combined for 47 sacks, forced 13 fumbles and they’ve even scored 3 touchdowns between them so they are a serious proposition for any Offence. There’s even a meme illustrating that the Jaguars have held Super Bowl winning Quarterbacks to just 8 touchdowns whilst they’ve intercepted them 11 times and held them to a collective passer rating of 44!

This would possibly indicate that the Patriots might be better advised to lean on their running game but last week the Steelers only managed to just 70 yards from 20 attempts. Although a lot of that was due to some bizarre play calling from Todd Haley who was subsequently fired and in part due to Le’Veon Bell not feeling the need to turn up to the last practice session before the game.

For their part last week the Patriots did rush for 101 yards on 27 carries but they favoured the run to the outside probably the avoid the Titans big defensive front, when the Steelers tried to run stretch plays against the Jaguars speedy Defensive the Jags outside Linebackers blew it up in the backfield more often than not. You can bet your bottom dollar that Josh McDaniels has been watching tape all week though and he won’t be calling slow developing run plays. He may chose to use screen passes instead of toss plays and he’ll use a lot of misdirection to try and catch the Jaguars over pursuing, for the Jaguars setting the edge and maintaining their discipline in gaps and assignments will be vitally important.

When it comes to discipline the Jaguars have a not so secret secret weapon, Tom Coughlin. Coughlin wanted the job of head coach but Jaguars owner Shahid Khan talked him into taking a front office job (Executive Vice President of Football Operations) where he has acted as both a sounding board and support structure for Head Coach Doug Marone when it comes the “X’s and O’s” but also when it comes to how to deal with players. Coughlin has famously overcome the Patriots in his previous guise as New York Giants Head Coach in two Super Bowl’s back in 2008 and 2012 so if there’s a coaching staff left in the post-season who could out think Bill Bellichick and company it has to be men from North East Florida.

However, here’s the breaks, the Steelers lit up the Jaguars Defensive backs last week with huge pass plays, Antonio Brown notched up 132 receiving yards on just 7 catches (and he had a very injured calf that he battled through). Tight End Vance McDonald had 112 yards of his own (Rob Gronkowski will win the game single handedly if he’s afforded that sort of space) and La’Veon Bell recorded 88 yards on 9 receptions. Ben Roethlisberger threw for an astonishing 469 yards and 5 touchdowns despite throwing an interception, losing a fumble and being sacked twice!

The Jaguars have a record of 1-10 against the Patriots and they have never beaten them in Foxborough in their previous 7 meetings. Tom Terrific hasn’t lost a playoff game since 2015 when the Broncos Defence got him in Denver (and there are similarities between that Broncos team and this Jaguars one, Malik Jackson played in that Broncos team before moving to the Jags. But are Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler Jr as good as Vonn Miller and DeMarcus Ware?) Brady’s Patriots haven’t lost a playoff game in Gillette Stadium since Baltimore beat them 28-13 back in 2012 so the Jaguars will have to be almost perfect to upset them this time out.

There are 2 injuries that could prove vital to this game with Tom Brady being involved in an accidental collision at practice during the week and cutting his hand but I can’t see that stopping one of the most single minded individuals in the NFL. For the Jaguars however Leonard Fournette took a blow to his troublesome ankle (in November 2016 it was described as a “chronic problem”) and if he is anywhere less than 95% healthy his physical running style will be seriously hindered. Chris Ivory and TJ Yeldon are both serviceable running backs (Yeldon particularly in the passing game) but Fournette brings the sprinkling of star dust the Jags Offence need in the playoffs. Blake Bortles has won two more games in the post-season than anyone was predicting but asking him to carry the Jags Offence on the road in a stadium where they have never won would be unwise and frankly unfair to someone in just their third playoff game.

I really do hope the Jaguars Defence can be as explosive and entertaining as they have been at their best this season (10 sacks in Houston, 5 interceptions in Pittsburgh the first time out and 7 Defensive touchdowns all season) but if you told me they are going to beat the Patriots with their iconic Quarterback in their own back yard I’d suggest you were the one who was having a strange dream.