A pride of Lions

Warren Gatland and his coaching team are facing the prospect of the most complicated British and Irish Lions tour in history (and the Lions have toured South Africa during the days of Apartheid and played a 35 game tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1888 that involved playing games of Aussie Rules. A tour which departed Gravesend on the 9th of March and returned on the 11th of November! So they have a pretty high bar when it comes to complicated tours). Even without the current pandemic situation organising 4 separate Unions and hoping for cooperation from regional and club teams under the 4 separate umbrellas was always going to be awkward, not to mention expensive. However, the most complicated part has to be selecting the squad and hoping that the players are as enthusiastic about the tour going ahead as the accountants are, Ben Youngs has already decided that the imminent birth of his third child is a priority and Youngs coach at Leicester has politely declined an invitation to go on another tour as part of Gatland’s coaching team so the Kiwi’s job becomes increasingly intricate day by day.

Luckily I haven’t got to worry about the intricacies, I’m just going to pick the 36 players who I think will be in the touring party, so here goes nothing-

Mako Vunipola, Wyn Jones, Joe Marler (who may decline the offer, then it may be Rory Sutherland or Ellis Genge)

Ken Owens, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Scott Baldwin (although the 3rd sport is wide open. Rob Herring would be an interesting selection)

Tadgh Furlong, Kyle Sinkler, Andrew Porter

Maro Itoje, Alun-Wyn Jones, James Ryan, Iain Henderson

Tadgh Beirne, Hamish Watson, Josh Navidi

Justin Tipuric, Sam Underhill

CJ Stander, Taulupe Faletau

Conor Murray, Ben Spencer, Tomos Williams

Jonny Sexton, Dan Biggar, George Ford

Robbie Henshaw, Owen Farrell

Garry Ringrose, Chris Harris

Liam Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit, Josh Adams, Duhan Van der Merwe

Anthony Watson, Stuart Hogg

Traditionally this would be the bit where the “bolters” get a mention but I would be very surprised if there are any shocking selections. There are 3 areas where there isn’t much depth so there could be some unpopular picks at hooker, scrum half and lock but other than that Gatland has players he is more than familiar to pick from.

Lions chatter

Danish physicist Niels Bohr once said “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future!” and he had a very good point (probably not quite as good a point his father, Christian, who discovered the Bohr effect) but I’m always up for a challenge and no stranger to looking silly so it’s time to talk Lions squad selection.

Warren Gatland is one of the most succesful Lions coaches for a reason, he’s incredibly single minded and puts his faith in players who share his intense focus on winning so I think you can split the potential squad into 2 seperate parts, the core which will consist of players he knows and has previously coached and the wider talent base (it’s not completely impossible there will be one or two complete wildcards in the 36 but since it has been reported they are taking a “streamlined” there won’t be much room for “bolters”). There has also been a lot of talk about Gatland selecting “on form” but that rather implies that he doesn’t believe he, along with his coaching team, can get the best out of players who have been struggling in what has, lets face it, been a particularly trying last 10 months for everyone. According to the current schedule there will be 5 games in South Africa leading into the first Test in Johannesburg plus a pre-tour warm up game against Japan so I can’t imagine selection will be limited to players who hasve been absolutely outstanding in the last few weeks or months.

The core players are pretty easy to predict (he said foolishly), so here goes –

  • Mako Vunipola, I think he’s the loose head prop Gatland would want if he were still playing hooker.
  • Ken Owens, he’s been a driving force in solidifying the Welsh set piece during the 6 Nations and he has 84 Test caps.
  • Tadgh Furlong, if he’s not the best tight head in rugby he’s in the top 2.
  • Maro Itoje, has to be the most annoying player to play against in world rugby, or he might be second to
  • Alun-Wyn Jones, he’s got 157 Test caps and 9 of them are for the Lions. At this stage he’s a living, breathing rugby instruction manual.
  • James Ryan, he’s started 32 Tests and won 26 of them, whatever he does it undeniably works.
  • Tadgh Beirne, possibly a controversial choice for “absolutely nailed on” but he can play 5, 6 or 8 in an emergency and he’s a phenomonal athlete, he’s played 22 Tests and won 15.
  • Sam Underhill, there’s a reason heplayed 22 Tests and won 18, he is one of those people who looks like a normal human but has superhero strength (like a lot of the Springbok squad).
  • CJ Stander, there’s a reason he isn’t retiring until the International window has closed, he made 6 appearances on a 10 game tour of New ZealandA so it’s safe to say Gatland is a fan.
  • Taulupe Faletau, he’s got 90 Test caps, 4 for the Lions and nobody has ever looked so sangfroid whilst playing International rugby.
  • Conor Murray, he’s not been in vintage form but if Gatland thinks he can get 2 decent Test starts from him he’s on the plane.
  • Johnny Sexton, he’s flashed some of his talent this season but has mostly been battling his decrepid body but similarly if he can stay upright for 100 minutes he’ll be there.
  • Owen Farrell, literally everyone who isn’t related to him will be furious (hello Mike Brown) but Gatland loves an angry bloke and he’s actually a decent communicator in midfield.
  • Robbie Henshaw, probably Ireland’s player of the 6 Nations and one of the best Centre’s in the tournament, he’s started 47 Tests and won 33 plus he can play 12 or 13 and he’s massive.
  • Liam Williams, Gatland loves an angry bloke remember and his versatility will help “streamline” the squad too.
  • Stuart Hogg, he’s quick, he’s bigger than he was when Gatland picked him to tour New Zealand, he can kick the ball a mile and he can play 15, 10 and possibly 13 if nobody else can.
  • Anthoy Watson, probably the best athlete in the England squad and another one who can play two postions, his attacking threat was key in stretching the All Black defence 4 years ago.

Predicting the wider squad will be much trickier but after this weekend’s European rugby there may be some stand out candidates, so that’ll probably be a job for Monday then. Can you leave the 6 Nation’s top try scorer at home though? Especially if he’s a manimal born in South Africa. Just imagine Duhan having to tackle Akker in the corner late in the 3rd Test, that would surely be something.

Wales v England 2021, not so much a blog as a therapy session

So Wales have won 2 consecutive games under Wayne Pivac and seem to have accelerated the transition he was claiming had started during the Autumn, however both of those games have seen their opponents have a Forward sent off for an illegal clear out at a ruck, so is there reason to be optimistic? Well, purely based on the last two games it’s very tricky to tell, but here goes –

Wales have really struggled to get their hands on the ball (under Gatland they essentially allowed opponents to have posession because they trusted the defence to force penalties or turnovers in scoring positions but Pivac insists that the cornerstone of his transition is a move away from permanent defence), against Ireland they had just 36% of the ball and in Edinburgh 38%. If England finish the game having had almost 70% they will more than likely score over 30 points and that should be enough to win convincingly.

Another area where Wales have struggled is gaining ground when they do have the ball, against Ireland they had 190 carries and only managed 2.1 metres per carry and whilst they improved against Scotland it was only by 20 centimetres per carry to a similarly unimpressive 2.3 metres. The inclusion of Jonathan Davies at 12 and the return of Josh Navidi should add some extra dynamism to the attack though. For their part last time out England allowed Italy to make 3.5 metres per carry a full metre more than they allowed Scotland in the Calcutta Cup match so the insignificant statistics definitely trending in a Welsh direction.

England have conceded 27 turnovers in the first two games which is 5 more than Wales have and once again the return of Josh Navidi alongside Tipuric, Wyn Jones, Alun-Wyn and Faletau suggest that Wales will be aiming to disrupt as many breakdowns as possible while England will be without one of their arch-disrupters in the form of Jack Willis but in Tom Curry, Mark Wilson and Maro Itoje (and Ben Earl on the bench) England have more than their fair share of scrappers plus Jonny Hill is always good for a few law bending infringments when the ball is on the ground.

On the theme of bending laws instead of breaking them the team of officials are bound to have a huge influence on the result of this game and while Pascal Gauzere’s interpreatations at ruck time are going to be interesting the scrum seems to be the most contencious area and with two Irish assistant referees it’s difficult not to see them being a complete free for all. Andrew Brace seemed to take a real dislike to the Welsh scrum against Scotland in the Autumn and as a former scrum half Frank Murphy isn’t exactly what you would call a front row maven so expect some inexplicable decisions there. One area that England should probably target is the Welsh back 3, Louis Rees-Zammit could win any game of rugby almost single handedly and none of the English backline will want him to get any space or time so it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he’s singled out for some special treatment and if he is I’d expect the entire Welsh team to take exception to it with Liam Williams never backwards in going forwards when there’s a potential fracas.

Despite not really having much ball or doing much with it Wales have been looking to keep it alive a lot more than England have, they have offloaded 10 times in the tournament so far compared to England who have managed just 6 and it might be Wales’ desire to promote the ball and find players in space that has caused opponents to attack rucks when Wales look to be turning the ball over?

So it looks like this could be a close game and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if it is decided in the last 10-15 minutes and if that is the case a quick Gareth Davies could exploit some tired defenders and with Callum Sheedy and Willis Halaholo on the bench for Wales they would be more than happy to into the closing stages 5 points behind (don’t think the fans would be though). The old “no fans in the stadium levels the playing field” trope doesn’t really hold much water with me, England have won in Cardiff with fans in the stadium so I don’t think it’ll be the deciding factor here. The deciding factor will probably be that Wales are still a team in that “transitional” phase and Eddie Jones has been drumming his ideas into his England team since 2015.

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).

Marginal Gains

Baring one of the biggest shocks in recent times England should cruise to a win in Llanelli tomorrow but Wayne Pivac’s team selection rather shows that he’s not too concerned with the result, he seems more concerned with evaluating the players he has available and analysing who fits his plan for the future. Even so he won’t want to watch his team get run ragged and there’s a chance a few players could pose their opponents a problem, I thought I’d try to predict who wins the individual battles –

Wyn Jones v Kyle Sinkler – Sinkler actually claimed that he’d only been playing at 20% for his club Bristol in an interview this week which seemed either self-deprecating or worrying for anyone who plays against him when he’s back to 100%! If Sinkler is only at 20% tomorrow then Wyn Jones should have a relatively quiet evening but Eddie Jones doesn’t often select players who aren’t firing on all cylinders so one can only imagine Sinkler will come out on top in this one.

Ryan Elias v Jamie George – one has looked completely out of his depth, which is worrying given he’s playing at his home ground, the other is either the 4th or 5th best hooker in the world. Can’t see a way for Elias to suddenly become a Test hooker against such an established international.

Samson Lee v Mako Vunipola – this one is going to be particularly fascinating, they both look born to be props. They both look like they’re most comfortable doing things not many humans would relish, the only real difference is Mako never really looks fatigued whereas you always know Samson has put a shift in. Both played 62 minutes last week but Samson played against a Tier 2 nation who seemed unable to challenge the Welsh scrum too often so maybe he’ll just have a bit extra in the tank.

Jake Ball v Maro Itoje – Jake Ball might be the toughest man in world rugby and he’ll need to be to go toe with the most in form second row in the world. This an absolutely mouthwatering pairing and Itoje will almost certainly come out on top but it will have to be a decision on points rather than a K.O, they’re both bound to knock each other around a bit.

Alun-Wyn Jones v Joe Launchbury – Alun-Wyn seems to have reached the era of his career where the quiet games appear a bit more readily than anyone wants them too whereas you always know what you’re going to get, he’ll be a solid 8.5 to 9 out of 10 every game. Launchbury is 6 years younger than Alun-Wyn but a big game from the veteran would go a long way to quietening the armchair experts and would absolutely raise the level of the rest of the squad.

Shane Lewis-Hughes v Tom Curry – Lewis-Hughes had a very accomplished debut against Ireland 2 weeks ago opposite Peter O’Mahony but a 22 year old Tom Curry is a very different prospect than a 31 year old O’Mahony. Curry is actually younger than Lewis-Hughes but has 25 more caps a World Cup final under his belt. I can’t imagine Wales’ young flanker will take a backward step and it might get a bit feisty but as the old saying goes “youth and enthusiasm is no match for age and skulduggery”

James Botham v Sam Underhill – you actually have to fear for Botham here, he must be showing Pivac some pretty amazing power in training for him to get the nod ahead of the other back row options (granted most of them are either injured or on their way back to fitness, but he picked the squad). Botham played well against a Tier 2 nation last week but he’s giving away the best part of 2 stone to Underhill who looked pretty close to the peak of his powers last week against Peter O’Mahony and when he’s at 100% Underhill is one of the 2 or 3 best 7’s in the world.

Taulupe Faletau v Billy Vunipola – whatever happens you know this is going to be fun and everyone will keep reminding you that they’re cousins and they’re pretty close. But who doesn’t like teaching their closest relatives a lesson? Faletau has been used out wide rather than close to the breakdown by Pivac and if it is possible to get the ball in hands in any sort of space he’s bound to perform some feats of magic. It’s hard to imagine Billy drifting out into the 13 channel when he could be pounding the ball down the channels closer to the ruck so depending on which area of the pitch they end up in will determine the result of this one. Lovers of an underdog story will definitely be cheering for a win for the bloke in red though.

Lloyd Williams v Ben Youngs – it’s absolutely impossible to know which version of Williams or Young will turn up on any given day but with the dominant pack in front of him it’s sensible to expect Youngs will have a better chance to shine.

Dan Biggar v George Ford – it’s not beyond the realms of possibility than vintage Biggar turns up and bosses the game. He won’t want to go back to Northampton in 2 weeks and listen to his team mates bang on about he got his hat handed to him by the Leicester half backs but he seems to enjoy being the pantomime villain a bit too much at the moment and without a thousands of people there hanging on his every move he appears largely disinterested. Ford on the other hand definitely looked like he could have been reading a newspaper and smoking a cigar when he came off the bench and steered England around Twickenham for 10 minutes last week.

Josh Adams v Jonathan Joseph – this has got box office written all over it. The top try scorer at last year’s World Cup against one of the best defenders in rugby, Joseph tends to rely on his pace if he gets caught out of position though and Adams has got plenty of pace of his own so if Wales can find him on the outside he’ll be off to the races.

Johnny Williams v Owen Farrell – this could be where Wales have the most joy, Williams is only in his second Test but he has played for London Irish and Newcastle Falcons so he’ll know all about Farrell and he will surely know that without Brad Barritt alongside him he can be exposed in defence. Williams has looked very impressive as a ball carrier this season (and he’s huge) so if the Welsh set piece can yield any ball they shouldn’t have to to be too expansive to get over the gain line.

Nick Tompkins v Henry Slade – it’s Saracens versus Exeter Chiefs, hold on to your hats everybody. Even Tompkins doesn’t know what he’ll do next and the new chunky Tompkins has definitely got a defensive mistake or 3 in him but if he lines up Slade it’ll definitely be memorable.

Louis Rees-Zammit v Jonny May – this will be hilarious, the Gloucester team mates want to knock seven bells out of each other but they will definitely be far more successful if they pin their ears back and run like the wind. Provided Wales can provide some sort of service for their teenage sensation he should get on the score sheet.

Lee Halfpenny v Elliot Daly – they’re both Lions, they can both kick it an absolute mile and they’re both pretty fearless under a high ball. Halfpenny’s extra experience will definitely be key but if he has to spend the majority of the game tearing around the backfield catching Youngs’ and Ford’s raking kicks he’ll be struggling by the 70 minute mark.

Ultimately I don’t think there’s anything Wales can do about England’s monstrous pack but if they can generate a few turnovers the way Pivac needs them to then they absolutely have the firepower out wide to scare England. Whoever prevails in games between these two nations rarely win by a huge margin but I have to think a dominant set piece will give England the platform to win by about 12 points this time out.

Wales v England 2020 (the sequel)

38 weeks ago Manu Tuilagi was sent off for a dangerous tackle on George North and Wales sneaked in for 2 late tries to put provide a glossy finish to what had been a simple walk in the Twickenham park for Eddie Jones’ England as the first indications that Wayne Pivac’s rebuild was going to be tough to watch for Wales fans. This weekend Wales are set for an even more difficult task than they had back in March, last week’s captain Justin Tipuric is set to miss the game with a head injury, his replacement will probably be Josh Navidi who is yet to feature in this Test window and whoever they’ve picked Wales have struggled to demonstrate any sort of consistency at the line out and as if that wasn’t worrying enough they struggled against an Ireland scrum that looked far from comfortable against England last weekend. On that optimistic note I thought I’d try and guess who Pivac is likely to select for what could be a very uncomfortable in Llanelli –

  1. Wyn Jones – he seems to be preferred for his scrummaging but in reality neither him or Carre have been dominant at set piece time.
  2. Elliot Dee – looks to a safer pair of hands than Ryan Elias.
  3. Samson Lee – what he lacks in pace he makes up for by being completely immovable in a scrum.
  4. Alun-Wyn Jones – he’s still the captain.
  5. Jake Ball – he does everything you want a Lock to do.
  6. Shane Lewis-Hughes – Suddenly Wales have a plethora of young 6’s.
  7. Josh Navidi – more out of hope than expectation, but he’s tough as teak.
  8. Taulupe Faletau – he’s got the sort of knowledge and temperament you need against a Deathstar like this England pack.
  9. Lloyd Williams – he’s more likely to endure the pasting Wales’ 9 is going to suffer in the first 60 odd minutes.
  10. Dan Biggar – might as well go with the experience, none of the 3 10’s Wales have used recently have looked eye catching because they’ve had no platform to work from.
  11. Louis Rees-Zammit – he’s familiar with all the English players and he has the ability to create space for himself.
  12. Jonny Williams – likewise he’ll also be familiar with the opposition and he looked more than comfortable doing everything he was asked to on Saturday.
  13. Jonathan Davies – he’s a very important defensive cog and in the unlikely event that the ball gets into his hands he easily disrupts opposition defences.
  14. Josh Adams – he can play 15 so he won’t mind the number of times England are likely to kick the ball his way and he’s a great finisher if Wales can get him the ball and a one on one matchup.
  15. Lee Halfpenny – tactically he’s one of the best fullbacks in Test rugby, he tackles anything that comes at him and he doesn’t mind a game of aerial tennis.
  16. Ryan Elias – I have no idea why Pivac keeps selecting him, but he does.
  17. Rhys Carre – if the game breaks up a bit late on it’ll be a good chance for the youngster to carry some ball, but again nobody has really stood out.
  18. Tomas Francis – very much a safe pair of hands and someone who will have played with or against all the English players.
  19. Cory Hill – the Alun-Wyn understudy never seems to combine well with the captain but he usually brings some energy off the bench.
  20. Aaron Wainwright – he can cover 6, 7 or 8 and will be unlucky not to start after working his socks off last week but that was against a Tier 2 Nation and he is still only 23.
  21. Rhys Webb – he could start but he usually pilfers a try against a tired defence so why not see if that works this week?
  22. Callum Sheedy – looked reasonable enough against Georgia and if Pivac needs a point of difference Sheedy has the ability to find get the ball to his attacking threats more quickly than most.
  23. Liam Williams – I’m not entirely convinced he’s fit enough to play 80 minutes against England after a near 12 month lay off but you know he’ll create some excitement and liven up his team mates when he comes off the bench.

The “What have you done for me lately” XV

Games have come thick and fast since the Premiership resumed on the 14th of August. Some players have really stood out to me (obviously from teams who have performed well), some look like they really benefitted from a mid-season break whilst others have been pressed into action earlier than coaches probably would have liked but have looked more than ready for top flight rugby –

  • Val Rapava-Ruskin – he is really enjoying the new ruck interpretations
  • Tom. Dunn – he’s back to his dynamic best, very Jamie George-esque
  • Will Stuart – he’s dominated scrums, Neal Hatley must be delighted. Not sure about his lockdown mullet though
  • Chris Vui – another who looks like he needed a rest and has come back as dynamic as ever
  • Nick Isiekwe – he began well in his new surroundings but even his presence has been unable to lift Northampton lately
  • Miles Reid – he’s probably a 7, but he looks smart enough to fit in anywhere across the back row
  • Will Evans – he’s been the outstanding open side since resumption and the new interpretations have made an elite 7 vital to a teams success
  • Ben Earl – like Reid he could play anywhere in the back row but like Justin Tipuric he could play in the outside backs too
  • Ben Spencer – he’s probably been in the best form of anyone since August
  • Joe Simmonds – he looks ready for Test rugby, his decision making might be the best of anyone since August
  • Louis Rees-Zammit – it’s unbelievable that he’s still a teenager. He’s had 2 dodgy outings at fullback but he looks a natural on the wing
  • Siale Piatau – Bristol look a different team when he’s not playing as illustrated by the ban he received for completely losing his marbles at Worcester (but he’s a Tongan 12, you want that fire)
  • Tom de Glanville – he’s a 15 not a 13 but he has to be starting he makes rugby look easy. He’s played in 8 games for Bath – they’ve won 6 and he’s only 20
  • Ollie Thorley – he’s not been totally consistent (but neither have Gloucester) but anyone who can score 4 tries in 21 minutes has to be playing pretty well
  • Max Malins – he’s a very good 10 but when he has the space he gets as a fullback he can absolutely devastating. The 23 year old has scored 3 tries in 3 starts since his move to Bristol
  • Honourable mentions should go to Jake Polledri (but he’s always great), Matt Symons (but he’s injured), Matt Garvey (who has always been good when healthy), Ruaridh McConnochie (who absolutely looks like he should have played more at the RWC), Lewis Boyce (he’s an outstanding ball carrier), Alfie Barbeary (hooker’s shouldn’t score 3 tries on their debut at 6, that’s superhero stuff), Jimmy Gopperth (his ability to stabilise Wasps will never stop amazing me) and Scott Baldwin (he looks like he’s 100% healthy and his experience is a real boon when it comes to the new breakdown interpretations)

    2020 AFC West preview

    2019 Super Bowl Champion Chiefs scored 46 touchdowns on their way to amassing 451 points during the regular season, the second highest total in the AFC and fifth most in the league. It’s hardly surprising that the team who won the whole thing last time out would be one of the highest scoring teams but what is slightly shocking is that Patrick Mahomes was only responsible for 28 of them, 26 with passes and 2 rushing TD’s. He did miss 2 games through injury but he threw 24 fewer touchdown passes in 2019 than in 2018 and that has to be unnerving for the rest of the division if not the rest of the league. If 2019 featured Mahomes’ sophomore slump then it’s not beyond the realms of possibility the 2020 Mahomes lead Chiefs could improve on the 12-4 record of last season. Their trickiest games come away to the Saints on the 20th of December, in Tampa Bay on the 29th of November and at Baltimore on a Monday night in week 3 but even if they stumble in those games they’ll still end the regular season at 13-3 which would surely be enough to secure home field advantage in the postseason.

    The Broncos 2019 almost had two separate starts, they had the new beginning of a new Head Coach with an experienced QB in week one when Vic Fangio and his team started out in Oakland against the Raiders with Joe Flacco and a reset and restart in week 13 when they started Drew Lock at Mile High against the Chargers, won 23-20 and proceeded to win 4 of their last 5 games of the season losing only to the Chiefs in Kansas City. During those 5 games they averaged almost 22 points per game compared to under 16 points per game in the first 11 games which may not seem like an enormous difference but when you have a Defence that allows just 18.5 points per game those 2 Field Goals are the difference between winning a game and very narrowly losing. The Broncos have the 12th toughest schedule in the league next season but with their home field advantage (they call it Mile High for a reason) and the addition of stand out WR Jerry Jeudy along with 2 other WR’s and a TE in the Draft the Broncos Offence should continue on their upward curve, I expect they’ll end the season with a 9-7 record which will put them in with a shot at a Wildcard place.

    The Raiders will have a shiny (very shiny) new stadium in the Las Vegas desert to call home this season and while there may be a few question marks surrounding Jon Gruden as a Head Coach he made one of the canniest moves in NFL history when he signed Mike Mayock up as his GM, last year they drafted Josh Jacobs with the 24th pick and despite injuring his shoulder in week 7 the Running Back still carried the Offence and ended the season with 1,150 rushing yards from 242 carries but only scored 7 touchdowns. Their real success came later in the Draft with Tight End Foster Moreau who was drafted in the fourth round and caught 5 touchdowns and Hunter Renfrow who caught 4 touchdown passes despite being drafted with the 149th pick. If the Raiders lower draft picks can have a similar impact this year then Bryan Edwards should be able to help out with their scoring problems, a tall, rangy receiver can always assist a Quarterback who can have accuracy issues and Tanner Muse along with Amik Robertson should at least add some depth to a Defence that gave up 11 more passing touchdowns than the Raiders scored last year, only 9 teams had a worse pass defence. Finding hidden gems may be an area where the Raiders excel but polishing those gems may be their downfall, for all Gruden’s enthusiasm and ability to motivate players the Raiders often suffer from over-enthusiasm, they conceded 1,138 penalty yards on 128 penalties. Only the Jaguars conceded more penalties on average per game with 72.8 compared to Oakland’s 71.1 and this is why I think they’ll struggle to make the playoffs this year. Vegas will actually have quite a favourable schedule in terms of the strength of their opponents, it’s the second easiest in the division behind the Chargers, but they will have to face 8 high powered Offences plus the Browns, Jets and Dolphins (in week 16 when Tua will probably be starting) who may well score freely whilst still suffering through their growing pains. If they can avoid as many injury problems as they incurred last season and without an Antonio Brown sized distraction I can see them ending the season 8-8 which would be an improvement on last season, but the strong possibility of a Carr-Mariota QB controversy when neither really look like a Super Bowl calibre QB prevents them from taking a huge leap forward.

    Similarly to the Raiders the Chargers also have a brand new stadium to look forward to this season with the added bonus that Sofi looks like a space ship and not a robot vacuum cleaner (like Allegiant Stadium does). What will be happening inside that stadium is anyone’s guess though, they do face the easiest schedule in the division but they’ve lost some pretty important players from recent seasons. Before they even began signing draft picks in April the Chargers had to deal with 34 player’s contracts with 13 re-signing, Russell Okung traded to the Panthers for Trai Turner and 21 either cut or declaring for Free Agency (including Phillip Rivers and Melvin Gordon) which seems excessive during a normal year let alone a season which could involve a truncated preseason schedule. Last season the Chargers were ranked 21st in terms of scoring as they averaged 21.1 points per game, just ahead of the Browns who many believe had an awful season but the Chargers were 10th in terms of the number of yards gained on Offence so it would appear that where they got the ball on the field was a bigger issue. Only 6 teams averaged fewer yards on kick off returns and 4 fewer on punt returns so there is definitely room for improvement there. Last season’s Defence stats are more of a worry, especially when Anthony Lynn is considered a Head Coach who bases his success on a firm defensive foundation. In 2019 they conceded 21.6 points per game which is fine for a team with a high octane Offence but if you’re only scoring 21.1 per game you’re not even producing an average amount of octane. I expect it will be difficult for last year’s stuttering Chargers Offence to hit the ground running as a new Quarterback (whether it be Tyrod Taylor, Justin Herbert or Cam Newton they weren’t starting in L.A last season), new Running Back and Trai Turner who will be fitting in to the Offensive line (he’s traditionally a Guard but may be at Tackle if he replaces Okung) all immersing themselves into new surroundings. On the Defensive side of the ball Chris Harris Jr. should make the pass defence even better and the arrival of Linval Joseph will definitely solidify the Defensive line but even with Derwin James returning from injury I’m not sure they’ll be able to subdue teams like the Chiefs, Broncos, Saints and Buccaneers. I can see them making a winning start to the season against the Bengals but the last month of the season involves travelling to Vegas and Kansas City whilst welcoming the Falcons and Broncos to their new surroundings which should be incredibly tough, finishing 7-9 would be a successful season given the upheaval in terms of moving location and the roster turnover would.

    2020 AFC North preview

    If the AFC East is going to look like The Great Depression of the 1930’s the AFC is going to be the 1967 Summer of Love. There’s going to be 3 of the youngest, most exciting QB’s in the league and grizzly old Ben Roethlisberger just waiting to go full “Obi Wan” and teach Burrow, Jackson and Mayfield the way of the Force.

    Lamar Jackson lead the Ravens to a 14-2 record in the regular season last year which put them ahead at the top of the division and a full 6 games ahead of the second placed Steelers. They have added J.K Dobbins, 2 Wide Receivers and 2 Offensive linemen in the Draft and a whole load of talent on the Defensive side of the ball too and according to CBS the Ravens have the easiest schedule based on last seasons results. However they did not face a Steelers team featuring Roethlisberger last season and the Browns were an absolute disaster with Freddie Kitchens at the helm so that’s four tougher games and the teams who they seemed to struggle with were the one’s featuring mobile QB’s and this year they should face Joe Burrow twice and they could see Daniel Jones, Pat Mahomes and Deshaun Watson during the regular season too so they may not stroll to the division title this time round but they should still win it. I’m expecting them to end the season with an 11-5 record.

    The Steelers have added the imposing Chase Claypool as a receiving option for Big Ben and the highly touted Running Back Anthony McFarland jr. (although they currently have 6 RB’s on their roster) but the key to their Offence, as it has been for the last 16 years, is Roethlisberger, when he’s injured they’re a shadow of their former selves, they ended up 8-8 and all of their 8 wins came after they traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick who alongside rookies Alex Highsmith and Antoine Brooks could form the core of a seriously fast and exciting Defence next season which will be vital in a division where high powered Offence should be all the rage. The Steelers could be the early pace setters in the division as they start the season against the Giants and Broncos who could take a while to settle in their seasons and they should have a pretty successful December with games against the Redskins, Bills, Bengals and Browns and I expect them to finish the season with at least 2 more wins than they scraped together last season, a 10-6 record will see them finish second in the AFC East and probably get them a Wildcard berth.

    The Browns and Baker Mayfield have a new Head Coach to frustrate this upcoming season but Kevin Stefanski is more than likely to frustrate Baker in equal measure as a Head Coach who will want to run the ball more than he throws it I’m expecting to see Mayfield and his high maintenance receiving corps of Beckham, Landry and Higgins having some rather fraught conversations on the sidelines this season. Even if Stefanski moves away from his preference of running the ball first with those three and Austin Hooper and David Njoku and Damion Ratley amongst 7 other WR’s currently on the roster Mayfield’s head might explode as he tries to share the ball around and keep everyone happy. Defensively the Browns added three players in the Draft including two from the Champion LSU team and a further 6 players in Free Agency so how well that unit gels will be interesting to watch. The Defence wasn’t a huge issue last year as even though they conceded around 25 points a game it was largely due to the fact the Offence couldn’t string together long series of plays so the Defence was almost exclusively on the field in some of those games. Last season the Browns finished 6-10 in a season which lurched from one disaster to another even more controversial disaster and strangely I’m expecting them to finish with exactly the same record this year just with less controversial incidents as Kevin Stefanski has to exert more command over the locker room than his predecessor did.

    The Bengals have a shiny new Quarterback to throw passes to their equally shiny new receiver but I’m not convinced that Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins will be able to completely turn around a team who ended last season with 2 wins in a short period of time that will include no OTA’s or mini camps and will probably include a truncated preseason schedule. Defensively last season they conceded an average of 26 points per game so not to different to the Browns and I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if they finish the 2020 season with the same record as their neighbours in Cleveland, the end of their season could be absolutely brutal as I can’t see them winning any of their last 4 games on their way to a 6-10 record.

    AFC East 2020 preview

    Based on each team’s 2019 win percentages the AFC East have the toughest 2020 season of all 8 NFL Divisions and of all the teams in the division the Patriots have the toughest schedule. Combine that with the fact they’ve lost their starting Quarterback and really struggled to generate any Offence last season with someone as experienced as Tom Brady trying to run the show behind a porous Offensive line and with little help from his receiving corps and this has to be the time to count out the Patriots, doesn’t it? Well, sort of. They’ve got a real chance to go into their bye week with a winning record but their bye comes in week 6 and I’m expecting them to be 3 and 2 as they have to travel to Seattle and Kansas City in the first 4 weeks (although if both of those stadiums are empty then they could have a better chance of surprising away wins). It’s the tail end of the season where their tricky games come thick and fast with a road game in L.A against the Chargers coming on the 6th of December followed by a game in the same new stadium on Thursday the 10th of December against the Rams after which they have 10 days off and a trip to Miami with a Monday Night Football outing 8 days later against the Bills. Their final game is in Foxborough against the Jets which is virtually a guaranteed home win but by then they could already be staring down the barrel of a losing season. I’ve got them finishing with a 7-9 record but in this toughest of divisions they should still finish second.

    So how are the other 3 teams going to shake out? Well while the Patriots seem intent on testing out the maxim that “Defence wins Championships” by having a suspect Offensive line and inconsistent skill players the Bills are taking an opposing stance on Offence, they’ve got a solid Offensive line and some very good receivers with Steffon Diggs joining Cole Beasley and John Brown in their receiving corps and Dawson Knox and Devin Singletary giving Josh Allen plenty of assistance they have no excuses not to produce on the Offensive side of the ball. Allen is the big question mark for the Bills he’ll be in his third season and if he continues to improve his stats from second year to third as he did from first to second he’ll throw 40 TD’s and 6 INT’s but as Defences have more tape to watch and everyone is now aware he’s historically struggled with accuracy on deep passes so keeping the Interceptions down may be a problem. Personally I feel that with the tools he’s got at his disposal the Bills should top the division with a 9-7 record and I’ve got them winning their last 3 games so they could be one of the hot teams come playoff time.

    “Tagovailoa” is the word on everyone’s shirt in Miami (seriously, the Dolphins QB has the two highest selling NFL jerseys this year) but how many games he starts this season seems to be an unknown quantity at the moment, it would however be a surprise if he starts all 18 and what would be an even bigger surprise is if Ryan Fitzpatrick goes undefeated as the Dolphins bed in a new Offensive Coordinator and 4 other Rookies not named Tua and a new Running Back (or two as both Jordan Howard and Matt Breida both arrived in the off season). Personally I have a few misgivings about bringing in so many new faces on and off the pitch (they could potentially have 10 rookies on the Defensive side of the ball too) but the middle of the Dolphins season looks pretty ugly, I’m expecting them to only win 3 games from the 8 surrounding their bye week. Mid-season struggles with new coaches and a rookie QB waiting in the wings could spell disaster for a relatively new Head Coach employed by a volatile ownership but I don’t think Flores will find himself on a hot seat unless something goes horribly wrong, I’ve got the Dolphins finishing the season third with a 6-10 record.

    Bringing up the rear of the division has to be the Jets, not because they lack playing talent but because the coaching staff, front office and ownership is such a convoluted, tumultuous muddle that it will be incredibly difficult for a Quarterback who is yet to complete a full regular season to overcome. This year though the Jets have added some experienced veterans to the mix who are more than likely to back up their QB and hang Adam Gase out to dry if the Offence stutters. Newbies Frank Gore, Brashad Perriman and Joe Flacco alongside the likes of Demaryius Thomas and Le’Veon Bell know what an NFL Offence should look and feel like so they won’t hesitate to ask questions if the Jets are below par. They have bought in Mekhi Becton to help bolster the Offensive line and keep Darnold upright but if the Offensive Coordinator isn’t calling the right plays then the personnel running those plays is largely irrelevant. I can’t see them winning more than 3 games this season and that would surely see them ending up with a very high Draft pick and a new coach next season.