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.

AFC Championship 2022 Bengals @ Chiefs thought dump

For all the talk that the Bengals have run their race they just seem to get better as the pressure gets cranked up and three players who seem to love it more than any are Burrow, Chase and McPherson the players who are responsible for scoring most of their points, that’s some great roster construction right there.  Those three combined for 28 points the last time they played the Chiefs which would usually beat most teams in the NFL but it is really more like a decent start against Mahomes.  However, if the Bengals let Burrow get sacked 9 times like they did last week then it’ll be impossible for them to win but last week the Chiefs only sacked Josh Allen twice and allowed one player to accrue 200 receiving yards for the second time in January after Chase went for 266 yards in week 17 and that suggests the Chiefs have a real problem stopping pass attacks. With Mahomes at quarterback you don’t really need a whole lot of defence, it took him less than 13 seconds to get Harrison Butker in range to kick a game winning field goal last weekend and he has thrown 37 touchdowns and 13 interceptions (a new record for him) this season, he’s also rushed for 2 touchdowns which is the same number he’s rushed for each season since he became a starter, he hasn’t had any passes thrown his way so far this season though after they targeted him twice last season so that maybe something to look for tomorrow (although he dropped both of those passes so maybe they’ve given up on that idea?).  Mahomes has been sacked a career high 28 times this season and he’s been forced to scramble a career high 46 times but when he has scrambled he’s run for an average of 8.7 yards each time so the Bengals need to find the balance between pressuring him and containing him or he will make them pay with his arms and legs.  It looks like Clyde Edwards-Helaire is out injured and he was Kansas City’s leading running back last week although Mahomes lead the team in rushing yards, but Darrell Williams lead their rushing attack last time round against the Bengals and scored 2 touchdowns on the way to 88 yards on the ground and 19 receiving yards.  In the wildcard round Jerick McKinnon lead the team with 61 rushing yards and 81 receiving yards against a pretty exhausted Steelers defence, so their not short of options at running back but they’re certainly not as settled as the Bengals Offence seems to be.

Bills @ Chiefs NFL Divisional round 2022

52 weeks since they last met in the playoffs the Bills and the Chiefs go at it again in Arrowhead, this will be the second time they’ve played each other in the last year and the aggregate score is currently 62-58 in favour of the Bills, so this should be a pretty even matchup. In the two games Bills quarterback Josh Allen has thrown 5 touchdown passes and a single interception compared to Patrick Mahomes’ 5 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, Allen has been sacked 4 times in these games (all coming in last year’s AFC Championship game) and Mahomes has hit the deck 3 times, oddly the Chiefs have fumbled 3 times in these games and the Bills are yet to lose the ball so that’s something to keep an eye on.

Buffalo haven’t lost since week 14 when they faced the Buccaneers in Florida and Tom Brady threw a 58-yard touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman in overtime.  Kansas City lost to the Bengals in week 17 as Evan McPherson kicked a last second field goal at Paul Brown Stadium, but that was their only loss since the 2nd of November.  Another reason this matchup is so unpredictable is that the teams who take the field tomorrow will have key personnel changes from October, when the Bills won that game, the Chiefs were without Defensive Tackle Chris Jones which largely contributed to Josh Allen rushing for 59 yards and scoring a rushing touchdown, Allen’s ability to scramble on 3rd down is key for the Bills to extend drives and fatigue opposing defences.  Jones omission was indicative of a season which saw the NFL change it’s rules regarding injuries and illness to allow players to return midseason, a number of Bills players missed that game in October too, however Dawson Knox who lead the team in receiving yards last week against the Patriots was once again at the fore of the Bills Offensive effort. In October s he notched up 117 yards and a touchdown on just 4 targets which was even more than the 89 yards and 2 touchdowns he hauled in last week as Allen looked for him 5 times.

The most impressive part of the Bills 2021 season has been their pass defence, they only allowed 12 touchdown passes during the regular season which is 15 fewer than Kansas City and the Bills made 19 interceptions during the regular season which is 4 more than the Chiefs. So, this may not be a great matchup for either quarterback as the Bills excel in pass defence and the returning players on the Chiefs defence should make them more stout against Allen’s scrambles, the Chiefs however won’t be phased by a strong pass defence after their performance last week when they rushed for 106 yards as a team and Jerick McKinnon and Patrick Mahomes notched up 90 of those yards at an average of 6 yards per carry. The 19 rushing touchdowns the Bills allowed during the regular season was the 4th highest amount in the league and whilst the Chiefs only scored one of their 6 touchdowns on the ground last week, they score 16 rushing touchdowns all season while the Bills allowed 14 touchdowns to running backs over the course of the season.

This should be the most intriguing game of the weekend and it’s very unlikely to be decided until late on, on one hand the last road team to win in Arrowhead were the Bills and if they can force the Chiefs to turn over the ball as they have done in their last two meetings, I think they have the balanced offence needed to neutralise the returning Chris Jones but if the Chiefs can eradicate their fumbling issue they could be headed for yet another AFC Championship game.  If I had to make a prediction I’d go with the Chiefs and I wouldn’t be surprised if history repeats itself and they win 38-24 again.

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.

The Patriots go to Buffalo part 2, this time it’s personal

Traditionally rookie quarterbacks struggle in the playoffs, technically the last quarterback to win their first playoff start was John Wolford last season for the Rams in Seattle and while he was ably assisted by Cam Akers 131 yards of rushing Wolford also got injured and didn’t finish that game so there’s really only one part of that story the Patriots want to reproduce here.  When the Patriots played in Buffalo back at the start of December they ran for 226 yards and that may or not be significant this time round since the Patriots are just as likely to complete ignore the run game this time round as they are to heavily lean on it and let history repeat.  History is highly unlikely to put on a repeat performance this time round though as the weather back in week 13 was pretty unique, gusts of winds approaching 50 miles an hour prevented either quarterback from throwing the ball and lead to Mac Jones ending the game with 2 completions for 19 yards, Josh Allen on the other hand had a 50% success rate through the air as he threw 15 completed passes for 145 yards, whilst the weather isn’t due to be as windy this time round the conditions should be inclement enough to make this one a complete lottery.  There should be light gusts of wind but an ambient temperature of around -13 degrees Celsius (6 degrees Fahrenheit) is going make kicking the ball very difficult and catching it pretty tricky too, so running forward and running hard should be the order of the day and if recent history is any indication of who can do that better it has to be the Patriots.

One surprising feature of the last game in Buffalo was that Josh Allen only ran 6 times for 39 yards and 21 of those yards came on 1 attempt so Buffalo may have not wanted hi to do too much against a divisional opponent, when they played in Foxborough in week 16 he ran 12 times for 64 yards (might be 18 times for 90 odd yards this time then) and the Bills rushed for 115 yards in total which would suggest they can be more direct when they need to be, but for that to happen they’ll need to win the battle at the line of scrimmage and if there’s one thing teams coached by Bill Bellichick don’t do easily it’s lose battles up front. 

The Bills are short odd favourites to win this game but the more you look at it the more this looks like it’s going to be a low scoring battle of wills and that makes it very even and appointment viewing.  It might not be pretty, but it is going to be good, tense and not particularly clean fun.  Either Josh Allen will put the team on his back and drag them into the next round or another ingenious Bellichick plan will come to fruition and Mac Jones will get the rare rookie playoff win.

The wildest of Wildcard weekends

Cincinnati have already beaten the Raiders once this season but that was in Vegas back in week 11 before Joe Burrow’s tough December when he suffered both a “high knee injury” and a “gruesome looking finger injury” too so leading into the Quarterback’s first NFL playoff game he might not be feeling 100%.  Everyone expects to be slightly banged up by the end of the season and after an extended season it would be pretty surprising if any player was 100% fit right now, Burrow did appear on the Bengals Injury Report this week along with 12 other players but Burrow was listed as having taken a full part in practice every day as did Kicker Evan McPherson but a kicker with a slight groin problem is a bit of a red flag, especially when today’s game is going to played in temperatures below freezing.  The Raiders have 13 players on their Injury Report this week and Jonathan Haskins looks set to miss the game with an injured back and a knee injury but Tight End Darren Waller could be back from his knee injury although he has been limited in practice this week so it would be slightly surprising if he can play the majority of the Offensive snaps and with backup Tight End Foster Moreau recovering from an abdomen injury and an ankle problem Derek Carr could be short of receiving options.  Haskins’ injury could be the biggest problem for the Raiders though as cold weather at the Paul Brown Stadium on the banks of the Ohio river would seem like ideal weather for Joe Mixon to handle most of the Bengals Offensive work and Hankins has been a premier run stuffer in the league since he left Ohio State in 2013 and when the two teams met in November Mixon ran for 123 yards and scored twice and that was with Hankins playing.

Back in week 11 the Bengals ran out 32-13 victors and in addition to Mixon’s efforts Burrow went 20 of 29 and in what was quite a muted display by his standards threw for 148 yards and one touchdown, he was sacked 3 times however and if he’s got a bad knee the Bengals won’t want that happening this time out.  The Raiders didn’t have the same success running the ball with Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake only getting 14 carries between them and managing 60 yards on those carries, Carr threw 27 passes and managed 215 yards through the air with Darren Waller accounting for 116 of those yards while Foster Moreau caught Carr’s only touchdown pass in that game.

Theoretically this game should be a comfortable home win but the first game came just weeks after the Henry Ruggs incident and Damon Arnette’s release by the Raiders and was just the 5th game of Rich Bisaccia Head Coaching career (albeit in a temporary capacity) so it’s highly unlikely this game follows the same path as their previous meeting.  There are two things that are virtually guaranteed in the NFL when January rolls around and those things are wild weather and equally wild officiating decisions.  The weather is set to be seasonably chilly in Ohio today and if the officiating matches the conditions this may well be the upset of the weekend, particularly if the Bengals are short of a fully fit kicker come the end of the game. Bookmakers are offering 2/1 on a Raiders win and who knows how Burrow will play in the biggest game of his professional career to date?  Carr might be 5 years older than Burrow but he is also yet to start a playoff game and his record in cold weather games is a cause for concern especially if the Raiders run game can’t get going or if the Bengals take an early lead, Carr is 0-5 in games where the temperature drops to 37 degrees or below (today the temperature shouldn’t rise above 33 degrees F) so I’m expecting the Bengals to progress but it might not be as straight forward as their last 19-point victory.

2021 NFL Wildcard weekend – Colts @ Bills

As a big fan of lazy tropes I can’t shake the feeling an aging Phillip Rivers will struggle in freezing temperatures at Bills Stadium on Saturday afternoon and it’s not just the Quarterback who has a tough task ahead of him in western New York, Colts kicker Rodrigo Blankenship has only made 1 field goal of 50 yards or longer this season having attempted just 3. Now part of that is because the Colts have converted 61.5% of their 4th downs this season so Frank Reich hasn’t felt the need to attempt long range shots very often. Tyler Bass for the Bills on the other hand has made 4 field goals over 50 yards from 6 attempts and his longest successful attempt this season is a 58 yarder, although that was kicked indoors against Arizona.

As much as focusing on both kickers seems incongruous in a win or go home playoff game there’s a very real possibility the result will be determined by the effectiveness of the special teams. Both teams have had very efficient Offences this season who have leant on their passing games to score the majority of their touchdowns.

The Bills have scored 40 TD’s through the air as opposed to 16 on the ground and the Colts have 24 pass TD’s and 20 with the running game. On the other side of the ball the Colts Defence appears to be tougher to break down than their hosts this week have, the Colts have allowed 500 fewer yards than the Bills and five fewer rushing TD’s, however the Colts have allowed 160 more yards through the air and 1 more touchdown reception than the Bills. So it should be a very even matchup, however according to the strength of schedule of their opponents the Colts had the easiest schedule in the NFL this season and their last loss was a road game in a cold, clear Pittsburgh on boxing day.

Bookmakers have set the points spread at 6.5 which seems quite high to me, the Colts Defence has really only been overrun once and that was back in week 12 when the Titans scored 45 points against them when a lot of players were missing including the talismanic defensive lineman DeForest Buckner. I’m expecting a Bills win but it would be a surprise if it will be as comprehensive a win as their last 10 games have been (by at least 10 points).

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.