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.

Gallacher Premiership prediction 2018/19

  1. Exeter
  2. Saracens
  3. Gloucester
  4. Northampton
  5. Newcastle
  6. Bristol
  7. Wasps
  8. Bath
  9. Leicester
  10. Harlequins
  11. Sale
  12. Worcester

The top 2 are pretty interchangeable, I think that Saracens are more likely to be affected by injuries but I can’t see anyone else beyond both sides when it comes to home semi-finals.

Gloucester are definitely on an upward curve and Johan Ackermann has had time to settle in and bring in a few fellow South Africans (Gerbrandt Grobler and Franco Mostert should provide some mobile grunt and Jaco Kriel linking up Ruan Ackermann in the back row should be all sorts of fun) not to mention Danny Cipriani’s arrival, if he can focus on rugby they could rip defence’s apart on a weekly basis.

Beyond that it’s all a bit of a muchness to be honest, Quins link up with the NZRU seems to have provided absolutely diddly squat so far but Alex Dombrandt is great to watch in full flight and Ben Tapuai should be a great foil for Marcus Smith but they haven’t strengthened their tight 5 enough. Wasps have lost Jimmy Gopperth for the season and Lima Sopoaga is certainly not a direct Danny Cipriani replacement. Northampton are a bit short on depth (especially up front) to challenge the top 4 in Chris Boyd’s first season in charge but with the additions of Ben Franks and Dom Barrow they definitely have a chance to win enough ball for Boyd’s new charges to resemble a passable facsimile of his Hurricanes team (Dan Biggar certainly isn’t a Barrett brother but if Boyd can persuade him to use the talent outside him they will be great going forward) Andy Symonds (if he can stay fit), Andrew Kellaway, Taqele Naiyaravoro and Harry Mallinder will be a nightmare for defenders if they get quick ball to work with. Bristol may have lost Charles Piutau with an injured shoulder but they can replace him with an Australian international in Luke Morahan (who is arguably a better kicker than Piutau) and should the worst happen and the Bristol are possibly the only team in the league who could afford to tempt another Southern Hemisphere star to the Premiership on a short term contract. There’s a very real possibility that the bottom 9 teams in the league are separated by about 20 points and with no obvious whipping boys relegation shouldn’t be the foregone conclusion it has been in the past. Worcester have actually made some exciting signings in the shape of Ashley Beck and Michael Fatialofa but they both have checkered pasts when it comes to serious injuries and I have a real fear that Worcester’s scrum (particularly the front row) will be such a weakness it will see them relegated.

The road from Oakland to Vegas

DSC_0198560 miles is a relatively short distance in a country that spans over 3,000 miles but the prospect of a 16 hour road trip to watch the NFL team you’ve called your own since 1995 (and for some the 21 years preceding their move to LA in 1982) is going to leave a bitter taste in the mouth. To appease embittered Oakland fans the Raiders have attempted to bring back the good old days by signing Super Bowl winning Jon Gruden to a frankly whopping $100 million deal which runs until 2028 (with the Raiders proposed move due to take place in 2020) but just like blue passports and the fallacy that anyone can make anything “great again” Mark Davis’ attempt to return to a past glory is nothing more than misguided nostalgia.

Gruden is a rarity as an active Super Bowl winning Head Coach, there are just 7 winners still coaching and his last spell in Oakland was his most successful tenure with a 59% win rate (compared to his 54% overall win rate) but he had just 4 seasons with 10 or more wins in his 11 years as a Head Coach. His playoff record is not too impressive either with only 5 wins from 9 games and that was when he was at the peak of his coaching power, Gruden hasn’t won a game in the post season since he won the Super Bowl in 2002 and he hasn’t coached a football team since 2008!

While he hasn’t been totally out of football, he’s been working for ESPN as an analyst on Monday Night Football and he actually said one of the reasons he wanted to become a Head Coach again was “I got tired of sitting in a dark room, watching tape by myself” so he’s hardly coming in cold but as illustrated by the Raiders decision to trade draft picks for current players show that he might not be entirely au fait with the world of College football as other Head Coaches.

Those trades (Martavis Bryant for their 3rd round pick and Right Tackle Brandon Parker with the 3rd round pick they recieved from the Ravens) along with slot receiver Ryan Switzer who they traded for from the Cowboys plus the addition of Free Agent Doug Martin has retooled the Offence to give Derek Carr some help. However Gruden’s reputation for hammering his Quarterbacks (Christian Hackenberg only lasted about 4 weeks in Oakland after the Raiders traded for him in May) and Derek Carr’s erratic performances (just 1 winning season and a 45% winning record) seem like a volatile combination to some outsiders and let’s not forget that while Bryant is potentially a league leading receiver he had a particularly strained relationship with Big Ben in Pittsburgh after his 13 month suspension for violating the substance abuse policy. How new Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson balances the run game with the pass game and manages to share the workload between Martin and Lynch (and possibly Richard and Washington, if they retain 4 Running Backs into the regular season) will be key, last season the Raiders threw on 60% of their Offensive snaps and they only recorded 23 touchdowns alongside 14 interceptions so it would appear that they didn’t allow Carr to use his strengths as much as they could have.

I think the important part of Gruden’s deal is the 10 years of the contract and as much as his appointment is to placate the fans who feel betrayed by the ownership who have decided to move Mark Davis is also trying to make the transition to a new State as smooth as possible. However if the start of Gruden’s tenure is a rocky one the Black Hole faithful may lose interest and the $100 million price of the deal may become more of an albatross around the Raiders neck than a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Vikings @ Eagles

Steve Sarkisian deserves a great deal of credit for the Eagles progressing to NFC Championship game and Saints rookie Marcus Williams’ mother of all missed tackles saw the Vikings into this round of the playoffs, so you could say both teams are lucky to have made it this far.

Both had identical regular season records, 13-3, but the Eagles high powered Offence behind their second year Quarterback Carson Wentz scored 75 points more than this week’s opponents, however Wentz was placed on IR and under his replacement Nick Foles they’ve averaged 17 points per game (not the 31 points they averaged under Wentz’s stewardship).

The Vikings Defence allowed the fewest points per game in the regular season with just 15.8 and only once did they concede more than 26 points and that was in 38-30 shootout win over the Redskins back in week 10. The Vikings Defence has been tighter than a drum this season, they’ve only given up 275 yards per game on average with just 83.6 rushing yards per game. Philadelphia’s Offence has largely relied on it’s running backs to move the ball for them as they’ve averaged an impressive 132.2 yards on the ground, but they have struggled to punch the ball in on the ground with just 9 rushing touchdowns ranking them 24th in the league. They have however thrown a whopping 38 touchdown passes which is 4 more than anyone else in the NFL. The Vikings had the best pass Defence in the regular season as they only allowed 13 touchdowns whilst they recorded 14 interceptions.

The Eagles Defence only allowed 7 touchdowns on the ground, the 3rd fewest in the league whilst they gave up 24 pass touchdowns (which is great news for Vikes red zone threat Travis Rudolph) but they did make 19 interceptions so throwing against them is no easy feat and after only completing 62% of his passes last week and throwing an interception to Marcus Williams you’d expect a more circumspect Case Keenum this week. If the Eagles remain stout against the run the Vikings may be forced to utilise a more expansive Offence and the Eagles Defensive backs could be in business.

I really hope that the Vikings become the first team to play a home Super Bowl, buy when Jay Ajayi signed with the Eagles I did tweet that Philadelphia’s run game would be unstoppable in January and I can’t see past a home victory in this one

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. 

Titans @Patriots 

6/1 is pretty long odds in a two horse race and that’s the price you can get on the Titans winning in Foxboro. It’s pretty inconceivable that Mariota and co. will advance to the AFC Championship game so I won’t even try to make a case for an upset, however there are a few areas where they could trouble the Patriots.

The Titans have bagged themselves 12 interceptions in their way to making 21 turnovers however they have only returned one of the takeaways for a touchdown and in a game where points will be at a premium since their Offence averages about 9 fewer points per game than Tom Terrific and his boys. Dick LeBeau’s Tennessee Defence has been very successful generating pass rush this season and the 43 sacks they recorded ranked them 5th overall. They have also conceded the fewest number of rushing touchdowns this season with just 5 and opposing running backs have averaged just 3.6 yards per carry against them. The Titans Offensive line has been pretty solid too allowing just 35 sacks, coincidentally the same number as the Patriots. Only 1 team scored more rushing touchdowns than the Titans did this season but with no DeMarco Murray it will be difficult for the Titans to sustain a run heavy game against a Defence as strong as the Patriots who themselves have only allowed 6 rushing touchdowns, the second fewest number in the league.

Rex Ryan thinks the Patriots are due to be upset in the playoffs but with so few receiving options for Mariota to throw to (he caught his own pass for a score last week remember) the Patriots will be gearing up to stop Mariota and Henry running. The Titans may well stuff the Patriots run game but that will just put the game in Tom Brady’s usually reliable hands and as Chris Hogan returns from injury, Gronkowski looks to be as healthy as he has been for a while and with receiving threats out of the backfield like Dion Lewis and James White Dick LeBeau will need to pull a masterstroke to derail his friend Bill Belichick’s Lombardi trophy pursuit.