Titans @Patriots 

6/1 is pretty long odds in a two horse race and that’s the price you can get on the Titans winning in Foxboro. It’s pretty inconceivable that Mariota and co. will advance to the AFC Championship game so I won’t even try to make a case for an upset, however there are a few areas where they could trouble the Patriots.

The Titans have bagged themselves 12 interceptions in their way to making 21 turnovers however they have only returned one of the takeaways for a touchdown and in a game where points will be at a premium since their Offence averages about 9 fewer points per game than Tom Terrific and his boys. Dick LeBeau’s Tennessee Defence has been very successful generating pass rush this season and the 43 sacks they recorded ranked them 5th overall. They have also conceded the fewest number of rushing touchdowns this season with just 5 and opposing running backs have averaged just 3.6 yards per carry against them. The Titans Offensive line has been pretty solid too allowing just 35 sacks, coincidentally the same number as the Patriots. Only 1 team scored more rushing touchdowns than the Titans did this season but with no DeMarco Murray it will be difficult for the Titans to sustain a run heavy game against a Defence as strong as the Patriots who themselves have only allowed 6 rushing touchdowns, the second fewest number in the league.

Rex Ryan thinks the Patriots are due to be upset in the playoffs but with so few receiving options for Mariota to throw to (he caught his own pass for a score last week remember) the Patriots will be gearing up to stop Mariota and Henry running. The Titans may well stuff the Patriots run game but that will just put the game in Tom Brady’s usually reliable hands and as Chris Hogan returns from injury, Gronkowski looks to be as healthy as he has been for a while and with receiving threats out of the backfield like Dion Lewis and James White Dick LeBeau will need to pull a masterstroke to derail his friend Bill Belichick’s Lombardi trophy pursuit. 

Falcons @ Eagles 

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

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

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

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

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

Panthers @ Saints 

Alvin Kamara is the multiple threat running back that many commentators expected Christian McCaffrey to be. Kamara has scored 13 total touchdowns, 6 of which have come on the ground. McCaffrey has scored 7 touchdowns, just 2 of which have been rushing TD’s. McCaffrey has shared the carrying with Jonathan Stewart who has 6 rushing touchdowns of his own and the running threat that is Cam Newton who has scored 6 times himself and averaged 5.4 yards per carry.  Kamara has been part of the Saints own 2 headed monster with Mark Ingram who has notched 12 TD’s on the ground and even Drew Brees has squeezed into the end zone twice!

The difference between the two rushing attacks is symbolic of how I expect the game to go, the Saints have beaten the Panthers twice already this season with an aggregate score of 65-34 with Kamara scoring 3 touchdowns across the 2 games and while McCaffrey managed just the 1 scoring reception, as a team the Panthers managed just 2 rushing scores in the 2 games and allowed Cam Newton to be sacked 6 times.

It’s always tricky to disregard a team with a Quarterback as influential and explosive as Cam Newton can be but in Cameron Jordan and Marshon Lattimore Newton has 2 very big obstacles (well technically Lattimore is only 6 foot, but his influence is huge) between him and the Divisional round. Newton may well take this game by the scruff of the neck but I don’t think the Panthers will be able to tame the monster that is Kamara and Ingram.

You can get the Saints to win 13 points at 2/5 with some bookmakers and while the winning margin may well not be that substantial I’m still expecting a Saints win but don’t be surprised if they leave it late. 

Bills @ Jaguars 

If the Ravens had managed to record a home win over the 6-9 Bengals then the Bills wouldn’t even be in the playoffs. The “Bills mafia” have been thanking Bengals Quarterback Andy Dalton by donating $17 (1 dollar for every year of their playoff drought) or $49 (because the winning touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd was a 49 yard completion) the Dalton Foundation has raised around $250,000. Others donated to Tyler Boyd’s fund-raising campaign and so far Boyd has received over $20,000 for a youth athletic foundation in Western Pennsylvania! So arguably the Buffalo fans have made a more valuable contribution to this NFL season than their team. On the road the Bills have won just 3 games all season but if the Buffalo faithful are looking for a glimmer of hope they have won 2 of their last 3. Their last road game was in Miami and the Dolphins gave away 5 first downs with penalties, the Bills Offence actually only managed to gain 18 first downs of their own volition. They’ve really struggled to run the ball on the road and all season they’ve looked like a team who get by on character and stubbornness over any kind of talent or flair. The one player who can provide plenty of skill and flair is running back LeSean McCoy (he’s scored 6 of their 28 Offensive touchdowns) but he will be carrying an injury and even though he’s expected to play he has struggled away from home this season even when he’s been fully fit. 

The Jaguars defence on the other hand has bags of talent, arguably enough talent to get them all the way to a Super Bowl. On average they have allowed opposing teams just 17 points per game at EverBank (and Wembley Stadium), in all of their last 3 road games the Bills have scored 16 points. The Jaguars have scored 105 in their last 3 games at EverBank Field. Injuries have played a part recently for the Jaguars too with star running back Leonard Fournette and several Offensive linemen missing game time, this week they have Tackle Cam Robinson and Centre Brandon Linden along with Tight-End Marcedes Lewis on the Injury Report but they all played at least some part in practice. 

I can’t see the Bills winning this game but there is a very real chance that the Jaguars could lose it. The play calling this season hasn’t always been sympathetic to Blake Bortles talents, they haven’t let him run too often and he always seems more composed and confident after he’s made a few positive plays of his own. If the Bills are to stand any chance at all they will need to run well and tire out the Jaguars pass rush, if they continue with their road struggles and have to resort to a pass heavy attack then Tyrod Taylor will be forced to choose between throwing rushed passes or being sacked by the electrifying Defensive front the Jags have amassed recently.

Bookmakers favour the Jaguars to win a close one (8 points or less) but if the Bills can’t stop Fournette and you’d imagine Chris Ivory on occasion running the ball then the Jaguars Offence could end up racking up the points like they did against the Ravens in London  and the Texans last time out in EverBank. 

Falcons @ Rams 

As a huge fan of Sean McVay and the story (however apocryphal)  of how he promised the Rams owners that he would get Wade Phillips as his Defensive Coordinator before he’d even spoken to the 70 year old Super Bowl winner I very much hope the Rams have a successful start to the playoffs. After an 11 win season there’s a very strong possibility that they will win but their opponents the Falcons won 10 games themselves and 5 of them came on the road, for their part the Rams were also better away from home as they won 7 road games and just 4 in their temporary home the LA Memorial Coliseum.

That’s just one reason this game is hard to pick, the Rams scored more points than anyone in the NFL (leading to several favourable comparisons with the Greatest Show on Turf, just without the turf) this season averaging a shade under 21 points per game. However the Falcons have best Defence of any of the Wildcard teams, they have allowed just under 20 points per game. The Falcons have been particularly successful stopping the run (they have only allowed 9 rushing touchdowns), but their pass Defence hasn’t been as tight and they’ve allowed almost 700 passing yards and 6 touchdown passes in their last 3 games. The Rams Offence has scored 28 of their 45 touchdowns through the air and Jarred Goff has only thrown 7 interceptions all season, the Falcons have taken 4 interceptions in their last 2 games. Overall in terms of takeaways the Rams have an impressive +7 ratio while the Falcons have a less impressive -2, they’ve made 8 interceptions all season but they’ve thrown 12 away. The Rams have made 18 interceptions this season so it would almost be a shock if Matt Ryan didn’t throw one tonight, however the Rams have lost 14 fumbles so there should be ample opportunity for the Falcons Defence to get the ball back.

The only thing anyone can say with any certainty is that a Dan Quinn Defence against a Sean McVay Offence is a mouthwatering prospect. The Falcons Offence has looked a little clunky at times this season and an Aaron Donald lead Wade Phillips Defence will definitely have chances to shut down Matt Ryan. How well  the Falcons deal with the crushing disappointment of the Super Bowl could be a deciding factor but their coaching staff has had a major overhaul since that fateful night in February.

Personally I hope the Rams can advance to a Divisional round match up against the Vikings to see if they really are the new Greatest Show on Turf. I’m also hoping Cooper Kupp has a strong game purely because he was so generous with his time as he left Twickenham, stopped and took selfies, chatted with everyone and signed anything he was asked to. The Rams have plenty of receiving threats and running backs who are dangerous receivers out of the backfield, not just Todd Gurley, (who will probably find himself shadowed by Deion Jones or Keanu Neal) Malcolm Brown averages 5.9 yards per catch this season too.

For the Falcons Grady Jarrett is always worth watching because he can be a very disruptive pass rusher and also because his team mates have nicknamed him “the truck driver” because they think he looks like a truck driver (how rude). You can never count out any team with Julio Jones on the roster but you wonder if the Falcons run game can be effective enough to shift the Defensive focus away from one of the greatest receivers currently  in the NFL.

I am expecting a bit of a nail biter and I would discount the possibility of Overtime in LA tonight and in close games Special Teams can have a decisive impact. Greg Zuerlein or “Leg-atron” the Rams All-pro kicker is on Injured Reserve and his replacement Sam Ficken hasn’t attempted a field goal over 39 yards yet so that might be important. The Rams return game is strong though so they may very well not need to attempt long field goals in this game either. Bookmakers have the Rams as 6 point favourites, which seems slightly generous but here’s hoping we get to see the Rams taking on their former Quarterback Case Keenum next week. 

Titans @ Chiefs

Eric Berry is one of the best 2 Safeties in the NFL and the Chiefs Defence has just not been the same since he tore an Achilles tendon back in September. According to recent reports he’s still the heartbeat of the Chiefs team off the field but nobody can replace the awareness and skill set he brings onto the field. The Chiefs presence in the playoffs is largely due to their 4 game win streak which was inspired by a 31-38 loss to Josh McCown’s Jets in week 13. Teams on winning streaks are often touted as being the team to beat in January but during their winning streak the Chiefs have conceded 55 points! During the same period the the Titans have scored 68 points.

The Titans could also be missing a very important player as their lead running back DeMarco Murray reportedly suffered a grade 3 MCL tear in week 16 and did not play in week 17 although the Titans reportedly consider him day to day. Grade 3 tears are the most serious tears and usually take months rather than weeks to heal, Murray though is 29 and will be only too aware that his chances of playing in the post-season are decreasing considerably. Running the ball will be crucial for the Titans if they are to have any success against the Chiefs defence who have allowed 118 yards per game at an average of 4.3 yards per carry. Only 2 Quarterbacks have scored more rushing touchdowns than Marcus Mariota this season and when he’s run with the ball he’s averaged 5.2 yards per carry, so the Titans definitely have the tools to take the Chiefs apart.

The Titans have had an issue with turning over the ball this season and their – 4 ratio was the 7th worse in the league, the Chiefs on the other hand were the second best team in terms of turnovers as they recorded 15.

I’ve already read an article entitled “Why the Titans have no chance in Kansas City” this week and the bookies have the Chiefs as 8 point favourites but I think the Titans Offensive line combined with Eric Berry’s absence give the Titans more than a chance especially considering Andy Reid and Alex Smith’s previous playoff travails (a combined record of 13-16).  I’d be surprised if the Chiefs playoff run lasts more than a week and with cold and very windy conditions forecast for Saturday ball possession will be vital and kickers Ryan Succop (who set an NFL record when he made his 47th consecutive field goal inside 50 yards earlier this season)  and Harrison Butker could be the most important players for their respective teams. 

Not such great expectations 

I am all too aware that expecting Wales to win a Test match can lead to the sort of soul crushing disappointment that can only be caused by combining a forward pack coached by a Druid with a backline coached by a scrum half but I fully expect Wales to continue their winning streak against the Springboks this afternoon (granted it’s only 2 games, but Wales have only beaten 2 teams ranked in the World Rugby top 10 in the last 12 months)

Expecting a win when Wales first 3 choices at Tight-Head is borderline insanity too but the major part of Wales’ gameplan is their line speed in defence so even if South Africa dominate the set piece and win a ridiculous amount of possession they should struggle to dominate territory with the same ease.  New boy Hadleigh Parkes alongside the wiley old head that is Dan Biggar should actually provide a level of organisation and communication that hasn’t always been evident from Wales’ inside backs in recent years and if the Welsh backs can keep Jesse Kriel contained and get him to floor I really fancy the Welsh back row to dominate the ruck area which should provide enough penalties to keep Wales in the game.

The Springbok back row has got 2 fantastic ball carriers in it, if Siya Kolisi gets the ball in space he is faster than most of Wales’ defenders and Daniel Du Preez is huge number 8 who played under 13 rugby for Natal while he was still in primary school (he’s got a twin brother Jean-Luc who got injured in the Currie Cup final and an older brother Robert who has been an outstanding 10 for the Barbarians) but the balance of their back row is thrown slightly off-kilter with the selection of Pieter-Steph Du Toit. Du Toit is a very mobile second row but when you have Eben Etzebeth and Lood De Jager (both 6 foot 7 plus giant’s) as your starting lock combination you’re not really looking for a 6 foot 5 lock so Du Toit becomes a pretty average blindside as the Springboks try to get all their good players on the pitch at once. Wales have got a 6 foot 5 blindside of their own and if Shingler finds himself in a 1-on-1 situation with Du Toit it could be a very interesting foot race. Incidentally if Josh Navidi continues the sort of form he found against the All Blacks last week (and let’s not forget the Springboks got rolled over 57-0 when they travelled to New Zealand earlier this year) then Navidi’s cameo as a Test player may become more of supporting cast role (they won’t pick over a fit Warburton but Gatland is hardly a Tipuric fan at the best of times).

My biggest reason for the uncommon optimism I’m feeling is because this will be the Springboks 13th Test of the year and some of their squad have played in every single one! Due mainly to injuries Wales have got through a hell of a lot of players and really only Faletau, Alun-Wyn and Biggar have played major role for both Wales and the Lions this year. There’s also the Jerome Garces factor at play, he’s refereed the Springboks on something like 17 occasions and they’ve only won 3 Tests, it should be interesting, it could be ugly but if Wales’ defence can finally win them a Test who cares?