NFC Championship game 49ers @ Rams

6 is the smallest perfect number and 6-0 is Kyle Shanahan’s perfect record against Sean McVay’s Rams, but in the last two Rams’ home games they have only lost by 3 points and in the game at SoFi earlier this year the 49ers needed overtime to finish the job, so that’s an upward trend for McVay, right?  The 49ers should have confidence going into this game but Matt Stafford only arrived in Los Angeles in 2021 and he seems to be improving with every game so the first 4 games in those 6 wins are fairly irrelevant going into this game.  For his part Stafford does have a slightly better record against the 49ers than McVay with one win but that happened in 2015 so that’s probably not that relevant either since Jim Tomsula was the 49ers Head Coach back then.

The aggregate score between these teams this season is 57-34 in favour of the 49ers and Deebo Samuel has caught a touchdown pass, rushed for 2 touchdowns and thrown a touchdown pass in those games so there’s no prizes for guessing who the Rams Defence should be focused on this evening. However, across those two games Elijah Mitchell has run for 176 yards at an average of 3.9 yards per carry.  The much-maligned Jimmy Garoppolo has also caused the Rams so problems this season too as he’s thrown for 498 yards and 3 touchdowns, he has only run for the grand total of 2 yards in both these games though and if Shanahan wants to try to confuse the Rams Defence, he might want to try some run option plays or to substitute Garoppolo for the younger, more mobile Trey Lance on a couple of plays.  Garoppolo has thrown 2 interceptions and fumbled against the Rams this season though (although at least one of those was tipped to a defender by his own receiver) and in the most recent game he was sacked 3 times and hit a further 6 times so the Rams definitely know how to pressure him into mistakes.  Trent Williams should be the key man for the 49ers, his absence in SoFi last time out led to the heat that Garoppolo faced, when he played against the Rams in Levi Stadium Garoppolo was sacked once and hit once so if he can play any snaps today the 49ers future looks a lot brighter.

 

Last time out the Rams allowed 5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits as Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa absolutely menaced the Rams offensive line in the second half of the game.  If Stafford gets any time at all he can dissect the 49ers defensive backfield and his arm strength should cause them all sorts of issues, last week against an injured Buccaneers backfield he threw 38 passes for 366 yards (so he might have a sore arm after all that) and Cooper Kupp recorded 183 receiving yards on his 9 catches but if the 49ers pass rush can affect the pass Offence the Rams could have a huge problem.  Last week they only averaged 2.4 yards per carry on the ground and if you disregard Van Jefferson’s 15-yard rush (as he may not play today) they averaged a measly 2 yards, in the last game at SoFi they also averaged 2.4 yards per carry and Cooper Kupp recorded 18 yards on a single carry in that game so if the Rams are to win this game it’ll be largely on Stafford’s shoulders.

 

The 49ers appear to have a key player in their kicker Robbie Gould who has never missed a kick in the playoffs but his longest this year is 52 yards which is 3 yards shorter than his Rams counterpart Matt Gay so if the Rams can keep it close and they have to final possession of the game they will have a slight advantage because they won’t need to move the ball as far down the field as their counterparts would, having said that the 49ers did block a 39 yard attempt on the frozen tundra last week. The Rams are favourites to win this by 6 points or fewer which seems odd to me because whoever wins this should do so quite comfortably you can only hope that it’s as a result of a great play rather than as a result of an error or unfortunate injury.

Some thoughts on the 49ers @ Rams pt. 3

Robbie Gould has never missed a kick in a playoff game and he’s played in 12 post-season games during his 16-year career and Special Teams won the 49ers the game in frozen Green Bay last week so they should be looking forward to the opportunity to play in the more benign conditions of Los Angeles this week.  Kyle Shanahan has beaten Sean McVay’s Rams the last 6 times they’ve played them and like Packers coach Matt LaFleur McVay is one of Shanahan’s former colleagues so it’s safe to say the 49ers and Rams are familiar with each other and as we all know familiarity breeds contempt.  The challenge for the 49ers coaching staff will be to prevent any contempt creeping into this performance and they only need to point out how they were 17-3 down at halftime when the teams last played on the 9th of January.  How Shanahan goes about keeping the Rams Defence off balance and on the field will be interesting partly because the 49ers have two high draft picks who have scarcely played this season, Trey Lance and Trey Sermon could certainly add an element of surprise to the 49ers Offence (Sermon in particular as Eli Mitchell looked very fatigued last week and Jeff Wilson is probably out) and they’re highly unlikely to hold any contempt for the Rams as they’ve only played 11 snaps against L.A between them.

  Cooper Kupp has been the most consistent and impressive player for the Rams Offence this season but last week it was more a story of how good Matthew Stafford can be when he’s allowed to operate in a clean pocket.  The Buccaneers really struggled to pressure Stafford, only getting to him 10 times and sacking him just twice, however Joseph Noteboom will probably be missing for the Rams this week having suffered a chest injury in Tampa and that would not only affect the Offence (as he played every down) but also the special teams (played 20% of their snaps too).  Andrew Whitworth will return at left tackle for Noteboom but he missed last week with an injured ankle and a 40-year-old left tackle with mobility issues sounds like Nick Bosa’s dream Sunday night out. In addition to injuries at left tackle the Rams are also unsure if Van Jefferson will be able to line up opposite Cooper Kupp and if he’s unavailable that would make 4 injured receivers so McVay may be forced to lean on the run game or short passes more than he would like to as the 49ers defensive backs look to have a serious weakness covering receivers deep downfield.

NFL Divisional round the Saturday edition

Tennessee like to the run the ball, even without Derrick Henry, who is injured in week 8, they have scored 23 rushing touchdowns third in the league to only the Eagles and Patriots and the Bengals have been battling injuries on the defensive line all season and placed defensive tackle Larry Ojunjobi on the Injured Reserve list this week so it’s going to be very difficult for the Bengals to turnover the number one seed this week.  One way that they could negate the Titans offence is to keep their own offence on the field for the majority of the game but that’s not really how Joe Burrow likes to operate, they scored 36 touchdown passes and were ranked  7th in the league compared to their 16 rushing touchdowns that saw them ranked 14th in the league.  Conversely the Titans defence was more successful at preventing the run than they were at defending passes so Burrow, Chase et al might put up some points but they’re unlikely to do it slowly so the Titans offence should have plenty time to score points of their own.

This should be a very watchable game but it would need a monumental performance from the young Bengals offence to beat a Titans team who have had a bye week.  Turnovers have been an issue for the Titans offence but the Bengals turnover ratio for the season is net 0 as they’ve made 21 takeaways and they’ve relinquished possession 21 times too and the discipline stats heavily favour the Bengals though as they have only conceded 72 penalties for 602 yards compared to the Titans 103 for 973 yards but I would still be surprised by a Bengals win tonight.

Aaron Rodgers has dug the Packers out of more holes than a top of the range earth mover would have and there’s a very big chance he does exactly that again tonight against the 49ers.  The 49ers big weakness is their defensive backfield and a healthy Davante Adams could make absolute mincemeat of it.  If Jimmie Ward is anywhere near one of his favourite receivers Rodgers won’t hesitate to throw in their direction, he got lost in coverage a couple of times last week in Dallas and he’s had a pretty inconsistent season defending the pass.  The 49ers only made 9 interceptions during the regular season whilst allowing 25 touchdown passes which is music to Rodgers unvaccinated ears, the 49ers have been much stronger against the run allowing 17 rushing touchdowns.  The 49ers have sacked the opposing quarterback 48 times this season, 9 more times than the Packers have and the Packers offensive line might not be 100% healthy this week but the 49ers haven’t always turned this pass rush success into touchdowns and I think a lack of clinical finishing could be their downfall tonight.  One thing to keep an eye on tonight in Flambeaus though is Mason Crosby, the Packers kicker is only kicking field goals at a 66.7% this season and if the 49ers can put enough pressure on Rodgers to send jitters throughout the Packers team this could be decisive.  The Packers coming off a bye week have to be the favourites against a 49ers team who went out to a big lead in Dallas last week and thanks to a Jimmy G shoulder injury and a Cowboy resurgency they almost conspired to go into overtime.

Wildcard Weekend (the NFC bit part 2)

Back in 1996 the Propellerheads collaborated with Shirley Bassey and released “History Repeating” and that should be this game’s theme tune, the Seahawks travelled to Philadelphia just 6 weeks ago and despite a few alleged experts claiming they would struggle with the travel and the time difference they won 17-9. There a few differences in personnel from that game and the Seahawks demonstrated last week that they can quite average and incredibly exciting to watch in 2 halves of the same game so there is a chance that this is the wild Wildcard game.

In week 12 had Rashaad Penny and Chris Carson to combine for 155 rushing yards and a touchdown and this week it looks likely that they’ll be relying on Travis Homer to carry most of the load in the run game with occasional bursts of veteran Marshawn Lynch and another veteran Robert Turbin on third downs. That may sound like a pretty serious problem, but back in week 12 the Seahawks had 14 players either “limited” or completely missing from practice this week that number is just 8 although 3 of them are Offensive lineman and that could have a bigger effect on the run game than the combination of running backs they’re using. The Eagles themselves have missed running back Miles Sanders and left tackle Lane Johnson during practice this week although Sanders says he fully expects to play on Sunday.

It’s been a messy season for the Eagles especially in terms of injuries and they’ve only won 5 games at home this season compared to the Seahawks 7 road games, the Eagles are ranked 12th in the league for passing touchdowns (averaging 1.7 per game) and 8th for interceptions (23rd in overall turnover percentage) and 13th for rushing touchdowns (averaging 1 per game) so they’re going to need their Defence to hold the Seahawks to less than 14 points if they’re going to win this game. The Seahawks have averaged a nice, round 25 points per game on the road this season although the 17 they scored in Philly last time out was the fewest points they’ve scored outside Seattle this season. If Eagles fans are searching for hope they can look to the fact that the Seahawks lost their last 2 games of the season against divisional opponents, so teams who have already played them this season can be problematic although both those teams were considerably healthier than the Eagles figure to be this week.

It’s difficult to see how injuries don’t decide this game, even if both teams start the game with the majority of players who have missed practice there’s a very real possibility the injuries will rear their ugly heads again during the game. Unless something drastic happens the Seahawks should be buoyed by the ending of last week’s battle with the 49ers and should progress serenely into the next round with a 10 point buffer.

Wildcard Weekend (the NFC bit)

It seems amazing that any team from the NFC North made the playoffs so the fact that two teams are still playing in January is absolutely inconceivable. Conversely the only thing surprising about the Saints appearance in the playoffs is that it’s happening so early with many expecting them to be one of the first two seeds and on a bye week.

Frankly its hard to envision a scenario whereby the 10-6 Vikings even get remotely close to the 13-3 Saints, even if both teams finished with similar final records there’s no getting away from the fact that Kirk Cousins is an absolute basket case in big games, he’s 7-15 over his entire career in prime time matchups and 6-29 against teams with a winning record! Obviously this isn’t all on Cousins, it’s a team game so obviously the rest of the team need to contribute to decide the outcome of games and the Vikings do have a playoff victory over the Saints in recent years back in 2018 in what became known as the “Minneapolis Miracle” when Saints Safety Marcus Williams completely whiffed on his attempt to tackle Stefon Diggs and actually ducked straight underneath him allowing Diggs to complete a game winning 61 yard touchdown. Unfortunately for the Vikings the cliché “once bitten, twice shy” spring readily to mind, Williams certainly won’t be beaten as easily this time round and as Hollywood often seems to write the script for these NFL redemption stories it wouldn’t be a surprise if he starts the game with a pick 6. As if history and a shonky QB weren’t enough reason to doubt the Vikings they currently have 11 players on the Injury Report and although 6 of them practiced in full today it still concerning.

Statistically this should be the most entertaining of the 4 games this weekend with the Saints being second in the league in terms of passing touchdowns scored and 21st when it comes to the number they’ve allowed. Alternatively the Vikings prefer to run the ball and being 6th in the league for rushing touchdowns. The one thing in the Vikings favour is that they may well be able to keep the ball away from the Saints pass first Offence by running the ball against the Saints leaky run Defence but if Dennis Allen decides to load the box then at some stage Kirk Cousins will have to take the team on his shoulders and we all know that rarely ends well.

There’s a real chance this becomes a huge blowout win for the Saints as Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Taysom Hill seem to be finding some very impressive form of late and the Saints haven’t lost a game on the road since week 2 but the Vikings have been averaging 24 points per game at home this season and the Saints have been nearer 29 points per game away so the Total Points set at 49.5 seems far too low. Saints by more 12 points seems like a realistic outcome.

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 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 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.

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 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.