Wildcard weekend, the AFC bit at least

Buffalo at Houston is essentially the NFL equivalent of the North London derby, both teams are capable of producing exciting football but neither have been able to put together enough excitement to challenge for the big prize. The Bills longest winning streak this season has been 3 games and the Texans haven’t won more than 2 consecutive games all season, luckily for them they lost last week! If either coaching team could figure out how to win consistently then both of these teams could be on a bye week this weekend instead of playing after a short week which in theory should favour the home team however the weather in Buffalo is forecast to be 7 degrees and wet on Saturday so travelling somewhere where it’ll be 17 and sunny has to be a bonus.

It’s really difficult to draw any conclusions from either team’s regular season results (beyond the axiom that their inconsistency could indicate possible weaknesses within the coaching teams) since both seem to have beaten teams with poor defensive records, the only real obvious difference is that the Texans beat the Patriots while the Bills conspired to lose to them twice in some rather grim weather conditions. The Texans have won 5 games in Houston this season and as if to highlight their inconsistency the games they lost were to the Panthers and Broncos who both ended the season with losing records. The Bills on the other hand won 6 games on the road so they won’t mind having to travel 1,500 odd miles.

The Bills Defence should make them favourites too as they’re ranked second in terms of passing touchdowns allowed, ninth in rushing touchdowns and 10th in turnovers made. The Texans are 27th in passing touchdowns (a whopping 33 allowed), ninth in rushing touchdowns and 15th in turnovers. This is another reason that this game is awkward to pick, the Bills are a stronger team than passing with Quarterback Josh Allen rushing for 9 touchdowns the most in the league by a QB while their 21 touchdown passes rank them 24th in the league.

Bill O’Brien’s postseason record looks to be deciding factor in this game to me, as a head coach he’s only won 1 playoff game while he’s lost 3 and for all the Bills coaching team possible faults (Sean McDermott himself is 0-1 in the playoffs) they’ve put together a team who should be able to win a scrappy, nerve-jangler in somebody else’s back garden.

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 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 3 – Los Angeles Chargers @ Baltimore Ravens

Heisman Trophy winning Quarterbacks don’t have always convert their College success to the NFL, Matt Lienart, Johnny Manziel and Troy Smith have all been voted the best player in College football recently and all have struggled as professionals. Lamar Jackson could be one new breed who can bring their College success to the NFL, Jackson won the Heisman in 2016, the year before Baker Mayfield, in his 7 NFL starts Jackson has lead the Ravens to 6 wins and his only loss came in Kansas City to the AFC topping Chiefs. However Jackson is not exactly a conventional NFL QB, he ended the regular season with a worse completion percentage than Blake Bortles (who only had 1 decent reciever to throw to for most of his season) and in 7 games he threw 5 touchdowns whilst turning the ball over 13 times (10 fumbles & 3 picks)!

The Chargers on the other hand have one of the most experienced QB’s in the league in Philip Rivers who only turned the ball over 14 times in his 16 starts this season (12 picks and 2 fumbles) while he threw a whopping 32 TD’s (or 2 a game) but the explosive nature of the Chargers Offence could well play against them today. The Ravens run first attack means they dominate time of possession (they had the ball for 38 and a half minutes last week against the Browns) and wear down opposing Defences. The Chargers Defence have been incredibly average in terms of creating turnovers and if they can’t get the ball out of Jackson’s hands they’ll be in for a long afternoon.

Just as they were when these teams faced each other in week 16. On that occasion the Ravens ran out 22-10 winners in StubHub Stadium as Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said his team had been outplayed and outcoached. The Chargers only managed 198 yards as the Ravens Defence suffocated them. The Ravens ran for 159 yards and added another 202 through the air!

A lot has been made of the Chargers having to travel to the East Coast and play at 10am their time, but they travelled to London and delivered a beat down to the Titans back in week 7 so I can’t see the travel being a huge issue for them. The biggest issue will be the Ravens ability to smother their Offence like a concrete blanket combined with the slow, deliberate, bone crushing Offence. In Gus “the bus” Edwards, Kenneth Dixon and Lamar Jackson the Ravens have 678 lbs of ball carrier to plough through the Chargers Defence and that should be enough to see them into the next round.

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.