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.

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.