Aviva Premiership playoff preview Exeter v Newcastle

Sadly the Falcons at the Chiefs isn’t a Super Bowl matchup where we get to Vic Beasley chasing Patrick Mahomes around Mercedes Benz Stadium, it’s yet another game of rugby in the unnecessary playoffs that administrators love and players suffer through because generating revenue is far more important than any player welfare concerns that anyone might have.

This game seems particularly unnecessary when you consider Newcastle have got an aggregate score of 99-37 when they’ve played the top 3 teams this season! For their part Newcastle do have the joint top try scorer in the league in the shape of Vereniki Goneva (13 alongside Josh Adams) but Goneva has very often been the Falcons only incisive runner and it will take more than 1 attacking threat beat Exeter at home.

Exeter have only been beaten at home once this season and that was during the 6 Nations when they were without all of their International players, the weather also had a part to play in that result as Gareth Steenson’s conversion to win the game was blown off course and Worcester ran out 6-5 victors. That was back in February and after their early exit from European competition Exeter have had a comparatively sparse fixture list, with just 3 games since the end of March, Newcastle’s foray into the knock out stages of the Challenge Cup saw them play 5 over the same period.

Whilst it is impressive that Newcastle have returned to the playoffs their mixed form away from home, largely caused by a questionable defence, they’ve conceded on average 24 points away from home this season (although Exeter put 34 past them back in October). Actually Newcastle and Exeter have played 3 times this season (but who counts the Anglo-Welsh Cup?) but Exeter won that game at Sandy Park too.

Sandy Park is a bit of a fortress, Exeter have scored on average 32 points each game this season and barring some inexplicable weather conditions (which are entirely possible in their part of the world) I can’t see Newcastle being able to stop the foreboding doomsday device that is the Exeter pack. It might not be the prettiest game Exeter’s season ticket holders have seen all season as the Falcons are bound to everything humanly possible to stop them but with Gareth Steenson and Joe Simmonds there to punish the inevitable penalties it should be a fairly smooth passage to Twickenham for the Devonians.

Aviva Premiership playoff preview Saracens v Wasps

Wasps one saving grace this season is that they aren’t Northampton. Northampton had the misfortune of being in Saracens Champions Cup group and so had to suffer 4 thrashing’s at the hands of their not too distant neighbours conceding 237 points in the process (an average of 60 points per game)! Wasps only conceded on average 38 points per game in their 2 games against Saracens this season (38-19 & 15-38), so while others have faired worse against the other men in black Wasps chances are razor thin.

For their part this season Wasps have played some exceptional attacking rugby and most of what has been good about them this season has been anchored by Danny Cipriani and pivoted on Willie Le Roux. Cipriani has this uncanny knack of narrowing defensive lines and Le Roux has the pace to exploit any gaps out wide. But its not just Le Roux’s ability to run that shreds defences, his flat passes have provided a few tries for Christian Wade and he can thread through pinpoint grubber kicks too (although he has been known to put in a few heavy one’s too that allow defenders to recover). Whether or not Lima Sopoaga can provide enough of a threat to narrow defences next season remains to be seen, he’s more of an attacking kicker than a running threat so Wasps might be a different team to watch in the future (or Jimmy Gopperth might be Wasps’ future 10).

Saracens have been missing various different ball carriers all season (Skelton, Koch, Billy Vunipola, Rhodes, Tolofua, Itoje, Clark, Earl and Sione Vailanu who was only signed on a temporary deal have all missed games) Jackson Wray has been an almost ever present though and must be top of the list when it comes to player of the season honours. Unfortunately for Wasps Itoje, Rhodes, Koch, Skelton and Earl we’re all in Saracens match day squad at the weekend and the team carried the ball for 588 metres on their way to a 9 try 62-12 demolition of Gloucester. While Wasps defence will surely be better than Gloucester’s was on Saturday it will take a monumental effort from the Wasps forwards to stop Saracens at source.

It might not be another 38 point performance from Saracens as they will surely be more intent on accumulating points than scoring tries, there’s no bonus points to play for after all, but I’m expecting Saracens to have too much for a Wasps team who have struggled to put together an 80 minute display together of late. For Wasps they just have to hope it’s a case of where there’s a Willie (Le Roux) there’s a way.

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. 

Falcons @ Eagles 

Playing any sport that doesn’t involve skis (or even going shopping) when the temperature drops below freezing is an uphill struggle and whilst the forecast for Philadelphia this afternoon is sunny it should be -3 degrees Celsius by the time this game finishes. Kicking the ball will be tricky and both Special Teams outfits will consider anything over 35 yards a long field goal attempt, some data shows that when the temperature is around freezing accuracy becomes an issue from as little as 25 yards. 

According to what engineers call “the ideal gas law” the air pressure inside a football will fall in low temperatures (and the longer they are exposed to these conditions the greater the effect will be). That in turn lessens the ball’s “rebound” from a kicker’s foot and more of the energy transferred from foot to ball is lost in ball deformation instead of becoming kinetic energy, combined with the fact that the ball has to travel through more “dense” air in lower temperatures and therefore will be subjected to more air friction and it is possible to see just how tricky moving the ball through the air will be for both sides not just kickers. The other difficulty that freezing temperatures prevents is that the player who actually has to kick the ball needs to try and stay warm on the sideline, so look out for kickers wrapped up and doing an unusual amount of jogging along the side of the field. 

Logically one would assume that running the ball will be the order of the day but anyone who has been watching this NFL season knows logic has nothing to do with it. Either team could win this game, if Carson Wentz was still healthy it would be difficult to make a compelling argument for a Falcons win but he’s out and Nick Foles replaces him. Normally replacement Quarterbacks don’t have any chance at all but Foles is no ordinary replacement, Philadelphia is almost his spiritual home and back in 2013 he started 10 games and threw 27 touchdowns on his way to a 8-2 season, he also rushed for 3 touchdowns and averaged 3.9 yards per carry which could be important in a game where throwing accurately should be tricky. This season the entire Eagles team have averaged 4.5 yards per carry so if they just tuck the ball up their collective jumper they will be very difficult to beat, however Head Coach  Doug Pederson is a former Eagles Quarterback himself and I’m not sure he’ll be able to play such a conservative game. The Eagles have 5 running back’s who have scored rushing touchdowns for them during the regular season and between them they’ve amassed an impressive 1,726 rushing yards so they shouldn’t need to much else. 
For their part the Falcons running game has been successful in terms of gaining yards (1,847) but they only have 2 running backs (and Devonta Freeman has been carrying a knee injury this week)  who have scored touchdowns on the ground this season, the Falcons have used wide receivers Taylor Gabriel, Mohamed Sanu and even Julio Jones to carry the ball.

Both teams have very good run defences this season with Philadelphia only conceding 3.8 yards per carry as Jim Schwarz’s revolving door of a Defensive line has contained all comers this season and the Falcons have only allowed 9 rushing touchdowns. The Falcons have lost 6 fumbles which is 5 fewer than the Eagles rather alarming total of 11 but the Eagles have scooped up 12 on Defence which is more than the 8 the Falcons have corralled. Field position could be a major issue for the Eagles however as they sit 32nd or dead last in the league with just 354 return yards from kickoffs this season, the Falcons on the other hand have 871 yards.

I feel like the Eagles should win this game even without Wentz but I’m leaning toward a Falcons victory, possibly with the ageless wonder Matt Bryant making a mockery of the conditions and knocking over field goals for fun. Immediately after Super Bowl 51 I thought it would be very tricky for anyone to prevent the Falcons and the Patriots from meeting in Super Bowl 52 and while they did lose in New Orleans back in week 16 they have averaged a shade under 20 points in their last 4 games and the Eagles have scored fewer and fewer points in each of their last 4 games culminating in a 6-0 home loss to the Cowboys in week 17.