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.

Jaguars @ Steelers 

Pittsburgh threw 15 interceptions in the 2017 season and 5 of those came the last time Jacksonville visited Heinz Field and won 30-9 but that game served as a wake up call for the Steelers and waa followed by 8 straight wins. Only the Patriots have beaten the Steelers since Jacksonville’s week 5 thrashing and that game involved a very controversial booth review which erased a Jesse James touchdown that would have given the Steelers a 3 point lead with a PAT attempt (or 2 point conversion) to come.

In week 5 Leonard Fournette rushed for 181 yards on 28 attempts and the Jags in total attempted 37 running plays and averaged 6.2 yards per carry. Fournette has only had 3 100+ yards rushing games since and has scored just 4 rushing touchdowns in the last 10 weeks of the season, that’s known as the “rookie wall”. Jacksonville’s heavy reliance on the 22 year old has been one of their frailties this season, he has carried 50% of the teams running game on his shoulders and he missed 3 regular season games injured!

The Steelers team in week 5 was lead by Antonio Brown’s 157 receiving yards (10 catches on 19 targets) which is some effort against a Jaguars pass Defence that has been winning admirers left, right and centre this season. The Steelers did not run well against a Jaguars Defensive front that specialises in pass rush with Le’Veon Bell only gaining 47 yards on 15 attempts following his 4 week suspension at the start of the season.

Jacksonville only just squeaked past a very perfunctory Bills team at home last week and Heinz Field is a very difficult place to place in adverse conditions and when this game the weather forecast is predicting a temperature of -9 degrees Celsius! I expect Pittsburgh will take everything they learned in week 5 and use it to their advantage but this game could hinge on Antonio Brown’s health, he will reportedly play however returning from a calf injury in weather that would make skiing physically demanding sounds like a feat of superhuman strength to me. It will be easier to play Defence in that weather than it will be to construct long, fluent offensive drives so that could play into Jacksonville’s hands. Pittsburgh by 1-6 points is the bookies favourite result and in such extreme conditions you have to imagine points will be at a premium so they’re probably right. 

Bills @ Jaguars 

If the Ravens had managed to record a home win over the 6-9 Bengals then the Bills wouldn’t even be in the playoffs. The “Bills mafia” have been thanking Bengals Quarterback Andy Dalton by donating $17 (1 dollar for every year of their playoff drought) or $49 (because the winning touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd was a 49 yard completion) the Dalton Foundation has raised around $250,000. Others donated to Tyler Boyd’s fund-raising campaign and so far Boyd has received over $20,000 for a youth athletic foundation in Western Pennsylvania! So arguably the Buffalo fans have made a more valuable contribution to this NFL season than their team. On the road the Bills have won just 3 games all season but if the Buffalo faithful are looking for a glimmer of hope they have won 2 of their last 3. Their last road game was in Miami and the Dolphins gave away 5 first downs with penalties, the Bills Offence actually only managed to gain 18 first downs of their own volition. They’ve really struggled to run the ball on the road and all season they’ve looked like a team who get by on character and stubbornness over any kind of talent or flair. The one player who can provide plenty of skill and flair is running back LeSean McCoy (he’s scored 6 of their 28 Offensive touchdowns) but he will be carrying an injury and even though he’s expected to play he has struggled away from home this season even when he’s been fully fit. 

The Jaguars defence on the other hand has bags of talent, arguably enough talent to get them all the way to a Super Bowl. On average they have allowed opposing teams just 17 points per game at EverBank (and Wembley Stadium), in all of their last 3 road games the Bills have scored 16 points. The Jaguars have scored 105 in their last 3 games at EverBank Field. Injuries have played a part recently for the Jaguars too with star running back Leonard Fournette and several Offensive linemen missing game time, this week they have Tackle Cam Robinson and Centre Brandon Linden along with Tight-End Marcedes Lewis on the Injury Report but they all played at least some part in practice. 

I can’t see the Bills winning this game but there is a very real chance that the Jaguars could lose it. The play calling this season hasn’t always been sympathetic to Blake Bortles talents, they haven’t let him run too often and he always seems more composed and confident after he’s made a few positive plays of his own. If the Bills are to stand any chance at all they will need to run well and tire out the Jaguars pass rush, if they continue with their road struggles and have to resort to a pass heavy attack then Tyrod Taylor will be forced to choose between throwing rushed passes or being sacked by the electrifying Defensive front the Jags have amassed recently.

Bookmakers favour the Jaguars to win a close one (8 points or less) but if the Bills can’t stop Fournette and you’d imagine Chris Ivory on occasion running the ball then the Jaguars Offence could end up racking up the points like they did against the Ravens in London  and the Texans last time out in EverBank. 

Titans @ Chiefs

Eric Berry is one of the best 2 Safeties in the NFL and the Chiefs Defence has just not been the same since he tore an Achilles tendon back in September. According to recent reports he’s still the heartbeat of the Chiefs team off the field but nobody can replace the awareness and skill set he brings onto the field. The Chiefs presence in the playoffs is largely due to their 4 game win streak which was inspired by a 31-38 loss to Josh McCown’s Jets in week 13. Teams on winning streaks are often touted as being the team to beat in January but during their winning streak the Chiefs have conceded 55 points! During the same period the the Titans have scored 68 points.

The Titans could also be missing a very important player as their lead running back DeMarco Murray reportedly suffered a grade 3 MCL tear in week 16 and did not play in week 17 although the Titans reportedly consider him day to day. Grade 3 tears are the most serious tears and usually take months rather than weeks to heal, Murray though is 29 and will be only too aware that his chances of playing in the post-season are decreasing considerably. Running the ball will be crucial for the Titans if they are to have any success against the Chiefs defence who have allowed 118 yards per game at an average of 4.3 yards per carry. Only 2 Quarterbacks have scored more rushing touchdowns than Marcus Mariota this season and when he’s run with the ball he’s averaged 5.2 yards per carry, so the Titans definitely have the tools to take the Chiefs apart.

The Titans have had an issue with turning over the ball this season and their – 4 ratio was the 7th worse in the league, the Chiefs on the other hand were the second best team in terms of turnovers as they recorded 15.

I’ve already read an article entitled “Why the Titans have no chance in Kansas City” this week and the bookies have the Chiefs as 8 point favourites but I think the Titans Offensive line combined with Eric Berry’s absence give the Titans more than a chance especially considering Andy Reid and Alex Smith’s previous playoff travails (a combined record of 13-16).  I’d be surprised if the Chiefs playoff run lasts more than a week and with cold and very windy conditions forecast for Saturday ball possession will be vital and kickers Ryan Succop (who set an NFL record when he made his 47th consecutive field goal inside 50 yards earlier this season)  and Harrison Butker could be the most important players for their respective teams.