Saracens v Gloucester

Parkway Drive once declared “Romance is Dead” on their 2005 album Killing with a Smile and they may very well have been predicted the 2019 Gallagher Premiership season. The top 4 teams finished exactly as predicted here back before a ball had been kicked in anger but if there is one glimmer of hope that Parkway Drive’s declaration may have come prematurely its that Gloucester can be absolutely scintillating on their day and if all 22 hit their straps on the same day it could be absolutely glorious to watch.

Gloucester certainly appear to have an edge in the front row battle largely because there’s no Mako Vunipola for Saracens and since he is one of the best Loose-head props in the world any replacement is going to be a step down. They’re also Titi Lamositele, Juan Figallo and Christopher Tolofua who are all capped internationals. They are replaced by Ralph Adams-Hale who is fresh out of the Academy, Christian Judge who is on loan from Cornish Pirates and Joe Gray who only signed for Saracens in September 2018. Gloucester have also got a relative newbie in the front row ranks too with Mike Sherry, who is on loan from Munster, appearing on their bench but apart from him the Cherry & Whites front row are all familiar faces. In actual fact personnel could very little influence on how the scrums go, referee Luke Pearce proved last week that he will penalise effect over cause at scrum time. He was an assistant referee at Sandy Park where he seemed to take a sudden dislike to the Northampton scrum even when it appeared to most impartial observers that the Saints prop’s were struggling to maintain a bind and hold the scrum up because their Exeter counterparts weren’t driving particularly square.

Gloucester have been particularly successful at line outs this season with the play of Franco Mostert being particularly revelatory. The 28 year old Springbok has been one of the stand out locks all season, he’s been indefatigable around the park and he’s stolen 10 line out in 13 games which lead to him being selected in the dream team. Saracens line out has been outstanding this season too when Jamie George has been throwing it in and he may well play the whole 80 minutes this week but how the unfamiliar combinations effect the set piece later in the game will be interesting to see.

There will be a lot made of the Cipriani v Farrell matchup but the main reason that both 10’s are so successful is because they only use the ball when they are convinced that the big lads ahead of them have sucked in enough defenders for them to exploit the resulting space. If this is going to be the slug-fest Gloucester are expecting (they’ve got 6 forwards, even if Polledri has appeared on the wing this season) then neither 10 will be seeing much of the ball. Gloucester have also selected their 2 best defending wingers who are both great kick chasers. Tom Marshall is one of the most underrated players in the Gallagher Premiership, if Cipriani can get Marshall in the space between Lozowski and his opposite number Sean Maitland then Marshall’s physicality could make a bit of space for Gloucester’s right wing Charlie Sharples.

My head says Saracens at home is a huge mountain to overcome particularly at the business end of the season but my heart says Cipriani has the keys to unlock any door that appears to be shut in front of him it’s just all about how his pack stand up to the physical onslaught they’re bound to be subjected to.

And who keeps Luke Pearce on their good side will have a huge influence too.

Franco Mostert to win Man of the Match and Gloucester to win by 2.

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 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 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.

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 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.

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.