Wildcard Weekend the AFC bit (part 2)

Continuing the Premier League analogies, if Houston and Buffalo are the North London derby then New England and Tennessee are Manchester United and West Ham, the away team have a coach with a tenuous link to their more storied rivals both teams should be better than they currently are and home advantage should be huge in deciding the result of the game.

In terms of recent form both teams have won 3 of their last 5 games which signifies a huge improvement for the Titans who only won 2 games in the first 6 weeks of the season, this change is largely down to Ryan Tannehill taking over from Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry’s traditional late season heroics. Henry has wracked up 896 yards and 10 touchdowns since week 10 and he didn’t even play in week 16! Unfortunately for the Titans best hope of progressing in the playoffs the Patriots Defence has only allowed 7 rushing TD’s all season and 3 of those were scored by the Lamar Jackson lead Ravens in week 9. Since their chastening at the hands of the most explosive Offence in the NFL they’ve conceded on average fewer than 91 yards on the ground per game and just 2 rushing TD’s!

For their part the Titans Defence has managed generate some pass rush lately which will be a concern for the Patriots who have really struggled, 15 of the Titans 39 sacks have come since week 11 so don’t expect a shoot-out. Luckily for the Patriots their Defence has notched up a league leading 21 turnovers 15 more than the Titans have made. If you were looking for a shred of hope for the Titans to cling to it would have to be that the Patriots are missing Stephen Gostkowski and Nick Folk had missed 3 field goals between the 40 and 50 yards out so far this season (but bizarrely he’s 1/1 from 50+ yards). The Titans could also look to the fact that they’ve won their last 3 road games and 5 games away this season but none of the Colts, Raiders or the Texans reserves provided the sort of challenge that the Patriots in a soggy Foxborough will.

I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be a close game and I would be surprised if there are a lot of points and excitement involved. When there’s a very decent chance that there will be a few fumbles and a lot of turnovers it’s impossible not lean toward the team with 21 takeaways this season by a field goal.

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.

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 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.

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. 

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. 

Miami Dolphins @ Pittsburgh Steelers

The Dolphins join the Raiders in the ranks of teams who have lost their starting Quarterback to injury in December but unlike Derek Carr in Oakland Ryan Tannehill may not miss the playoffs (it has recently been reported that Tannehill will play no part on Sunday, but an underdog team trying to get the jump on their opponent is not unheard of in the postseason), he has been able to practice but with the assistance of a knee brace.  Should Tannehill be able to take the field from the start on Sunday night then Miami’s chance will greatly improve, not because his replacement Matt Moore is a bad player but because Tannehill is more au fait with the players around him and lead them to 7 wins (that included a 6 game winning streak with a home win against Pittsburgh).  When the teams met in week 6 Tannehill did throw for 252 yards with a 75% completion rate as the Dolphins won but the real damage was done by Jay Ajayi who ran for 204 yards and scored 2 touchdowns.  In the game at the Hard Rock Stadium Ben Roethlisberger controversially suffered a knee injury when Ndamukong Suh’s foot made contact with Roethlisberger.  Suh was engaged in a David DeCastro block when the incident occurred and controversy surrounded whether or not the Suh acted deliberately or if the contact was incidental (the league did not punish Suh, so the official view was that he did not deliberately kick out), either way Suh will probably come in for some close attention at Heinz Field and it would be very surprising if he’s not double teamed on every down.

During the regular season both teams recorded fairly similar numbers on the Defensive side of the ball, with the Steelers allowing an average of 342.6 pass yards per game compared to the Dolphins average of 382.6 pass yards.  The Steelers have been better at stopping the run than the Dolphins this season though, but they have given up on average 100 yards per game, whereas the Dolphins have surrendered a rather whopping average of 140.4 yards!

The weather forecast for Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon is a seasonably cold -6 degrees (Celsius) so Quarterback’s will have to battle numb fingers when throwing the ball.  Catching the ball will not be an easy task either so Wide Receivers, Defensive Back’s and anyone involved in Special Teams play are going to have to be on top form.  Running the ball will be the order of the day and in La’Veon Bell and Jay Ajayi both teams posses their own elite Back’s, Bell has the 5th highest number of rushing yards in the league this season 1,268 and with 4 more yards Ajayi has the 4th best total. They have both averaged 4.9 yards per carry, Ajayi has run in 8 touchdowns and Bell has recorded 7 of his own, Ajayi has fumbled 4 times, Bell 3 and both have had rushes of 20 plays yards this season, 10 for Ajayi but just 4 for Bell.  Really the only difference between the pair is that Bell was suspended at the start of the season and so his average number of yards per game is 105.7 compared to Ajayi’s 84.8, although Ajayi has recorded more than 200 yards in 3 games this season, a feat only matched by Tiki Barber in 2005, Earl Campbell and he who shouldn’t be mentioned (O.J. Simpson).

Fumbles could be the difference maker in the game, the Steelers have recovered 10 fumbles this season, one more than the Dolphins but they have only surrendered 3 of their own all season which leads the league, the Dolphins on the other hand have given up 8.  Slightly bizarrely they have both given up 15 interceptions, but Miami have made 16 compared to the Steelers 13, although it should be pointed out that the Steelers Defence have grown together throughout the season as they suffered a number of injuries which have seen them use many different personnel combinations.  Earlier in the season the defensive secondary and linebacker corps were particularly affected, now they have to deal with the loss of players on the defensive line and a few linebackers, so James Harrison may well feature more prominently in this game than most other 38 defenders in the league would.

The conditions will make it difficult for either team to fire up their high octane Offences and while neither team may not score as many touchdowns as they’d like it wouldn’t be a surprise if the tough Running Backs on display excel in adversity.  Special Teams will probably be vital because punting and place kicking in the sub-zero temperatures will incredibly difficult so coverage and returning kicks (even attempted Field Goals or Extra Points) will be invaluable.  Home advantage will be crucial in determining the result of this fixture and ultimately the temperature difference between the City of bridges and the tropical climbs of Miami, it’ll be around 18 degrees in Miami when the game kicks off will be too much for the Dolphins to overcome.  Adam Gase has had a very impressive first season in charge though leading a team with just 6 wins last year to 10 wins this season, if they have better fortune with injuries next season they may be improve even more.