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.

The most interesting 2016 NFL offseason moves (part 3)

DSC_0198Danny Trevathan is the Super Bowl winner you’ve probably never heard of and while he operated in the considerable shadows cast by Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware in Denver he was an integral part of the Broncos Super Bowl 50 victory.  He’s an all action Middle Linebacker in the Luke Kuelchy mould (obviously he’s not as quick as Kuelchy but then nobody could even claim to be).  In the 2015 regular season he defended 6 passes and took 2 interceptions, 1 of which he returned for a touchdown.  Those may not seem numbers worth getting excited about but when you consider that in Kuelchy’s remarkable regular season he defended 6 passes and made 4 interceptions (and also returned 1 to the house) Trevathan’s numbers look more than adequate.  Whilst ball hawking Linebackers are pretty exciting and can provide a much needed safety-net for shaky Secondary’s Middle Linebackers earn their corn with the number of tackles they make and Trevathan notched up 73 solo efforts last season and assisted on 36 other occasions, Kuelchy had 76 solo tackles and 42 assists and that’s not where the comparison ends.  In the Super Bowl only 2 players made more than 7 tackles, Kuelchy (10) and Trevathan (8).  Trevathan also recovered a vital fumble in the second half that could have lead to momentum swinging in the Panthers favour.  With 5 minutes and 44 seconds left in the 3rd quarter a Cam Newton pass intended for Ted Ginn Jr. was tipped and T.J Ward made the interception, an interception which involved Ward losing 3 yards and then fumbling the ball when he was hit by Mike Tolbert.  Trevathan’s speed of mind and fleet of foot beat Ginn (who isn’t slow) to the loose ball and prevented the Panthers from closing the gap on the scoreboard to just 6 points.

So Trevathan’s addition can only be a bonus for a Bears team who struggled to just 6 wins last season, other good news within their division is Lions receiver Calvin Johnson retired aged just 30.  However neither the Bears or Lions made the playoffs from the NFC North last season and with a resurgent Vikings team moving into the absolutely stunning U.S Bank Stadium allied to the fact the Packers and Lambeau have become complete mysteries to the Bears lately with just 4 wins in their last 17 meetings (2 in 8 in Wisconsin) the Bears’ playoff chances look slim this year too.  For their part the Bears have done as much as they possibly could have done (short of making some silly trades to rise up the draft order, they were 9th anyway and ended up with the 2nd best draft according to some).  They’ve almost completely rebuilt their defence, with some experts projecting a starting line-up including just 2 of last season’s starters.  The front 7 (including Trevathan) feature a nose tackle promoted from last season’s 2nd string and 2 outside Linebackers who look to have swapped sides from last season although their first draft pick Leonard Floyd could become a starter and while he is a largely unknown quantity some Bears fans hope that Vic Fangio could use Floyd’s athleticism to make him into an Aldon Smith type pass rusher.  In the backfield Trevathan’s Broncos teammate from his rookie season (2012) Tracy Porter who is the only player to have made more than 10 career interceptions and Trevathan himself has more career interceptions than both starting Safeties, 5 compared to 1 between Adrian Amos and Henry Jones-Quartey.

One has to imagine the Bears will have a better season than they did in John Fox’s first attempt at the NFC North although the perennial questions around Jay Cutler are bound to surface at some stage and as Cutler approaches his 34th birthday his ability to stay healthy will become even more scrutinised.  An improvement of defence will relieve some of the pressure Cutler faces, the 24.8 points per game they conceded last term was the 20th best in the league last season and was more than 23 Offences were able to score last season, not just the Bears.  The Bears biggest problems will be outside of their control, last season’s NFC North champions the Vikings look to have improved their pass rush and they managed to sack Russell Wilson 4 times in just 1 half of football last week!  Although the Vikings are not without their own issues, Teddy Bridgewater has not been healthy enough to play in preseason yet so they could struggle to defence their division crown.  The Packers were seriously disrupted by injuries last season and while Aaron Rodgers almost singlehandedly took them to the NFC Championship game with an inspired display in Arizona they will be favourites to regain the title of NFC North Champions provided they can keep number 12 in one piece particularly since a recent article reported how the Packers backup QB’s are ranked 22nd in the league.

The most interesting 2016 NFL offseason moves (part 2)

DSC_0198Brock Osweiler would score you 24 points in a game of Scrabble, but since the use of proper nouns is frowned on by us traditionalist Brock will have stick to scoring points on NFL field’s around America instead.  The 25 year old threw 10 touchdown passes in the 8 games he played last season, which is not particularly impressive but under Gary Kubiak’s stewardship the Broncos only threw 19 all season (a totally underwhelming TD pass % of 3.1, snore) so Brock’s number’s look pretty reasonable in that light.  The Broncos won 5 of the 8 games Osweiler started last season and averaged a shade over 20 points per game (compared to 24 ppg in Peyton Manning’s 8 starts).  When Manning retired it looked like the Broncos had a readymade replacement so when they decided that Osweiler could go to the Texans and draft Paxton Lynch instead more than a few heads were scratched.

For their part last season the Texans finished 9-7 and averaged 20 points per game, but they threw 29 touchdown passes (a TD% of 4.7).  They did make the playoffs as winners of the AFC South but since no other AFC South team managed to finish the season with a winning record it wasn’t exactly worth shouting from the rooftops.  Having drafted Ohio State standout Braxton Miller who will probably feature as a Wide Receiver opposite the blisteringly fast DeAndre Hopkins (who hauled in 11 of their TD passes last season), or in the slot, but has experience of playing at Quarterback in College so he could feature as a “Wildcat” QB.  As a College Quarterback Miller was known for his elusive running may even appear in the backfield as a Running Back alongside Osweiler so the Texans have no shortage of talent and versatility in the “skill positions”.  The area where you worry about the Texans Offence is up front; their Offensive line allowed 36 sacks last season and that contributed to the inconsistent performance of their Quarterback’s.  Brian Hoyer, by his own admission was bad in his first game for the Texans (some would say he wasn’t particularly good all season but he finished with 19 TD passes and just 7 interceptions) but having been sacked 25 times in 2015 he ended the season having received 2 concussions, an injured wrist and a strained neck!  Hoyer was sacked 6.3% of the times he dropped back to pass but Osweiler was sacked 7.7% of the times he dropped back for the Broncos last season and while the Broncos Offensive line was more comfortable run blocking more than a few of the 23 sacks on Osweiler were as a result of him not going through progressions quick enough or because he didn’t throw the ball away when nobody was open.  At 6 feet 8 inches tall and weighing around 108 kgs Osweiler is no Braxton Miller when it comes to the dancing feet and jet heels so the Texans pass Offence may well take a while to fulfil its undoubted potential.  If the addition of powerful Running Back Lamar Miller to the exciting Alfred Blue can provide the Texans with a balanced, or even run heavy Offence then they will have a real chance of winning the AFC South again.

By far the biggest plus for the Texans and the area where they have used more 1st round draft picks than you can shake a stick at is the Defensive front.  With JJ Watt, JaDaveon Clowney, Vince Wilfork and Whitney Mercilus all pressurising opposing Quarterbacks they should be very difficult to score against.  However last year they allowed n average just less 20 points per game and gave up 44 points to a capricious Miami Dolphins and 48 to the Falcons who finished the season 8-8!  Allied to this concerning trend is the fact that Clowney has traditionally struggled for fitness and JJ Watt may miss the start of the season with a back injury.

Osweiler leaving the Broncos will be more of a problem for them than it will be for Osweiler, the Texans have plenty of tools that he can utilise to his own benefit.  Even if Braxton Lynch is a revelation in Denver he won’t have stars like Hopkins and Miller around him, the AFC South should be a completely different kettle of fish this season with the Jaguars investing heavily during free agency and having a draft of a lifetime (plus their number 1 pick from the 2015 draft potentially playing his first NFL game this season having blown his knee out in training camp last season) and Andrew Luck actually being 100% healthy it promises to be a wild ride.

Super Bowl 50 an irresistible force meets an immovable object

DSC_0198Cam Newton scored was responsible for 270 points during the regular season (35 touchdown passes and 10 rushing touchdowns); it took the Broncos 14 weeks to break that number of points! As a collective the Panthers scored 500 points in their 16 regular season games, so roughly 31 points every game. So there’s the irresistible force right there, the immovable object comes in the form of the Broncos Defence who conceded just 296 points during the regular season (or roughly 19 points per game), the 4th fewest in the NFL and the 296 yards per game they allowed was the lowest in the league and gives an idea of how they made it to the Super Bowl.
The Broncos have made suffocating defence an art form this season, they recorded 52 sacks in the regular season and with edge pass rushers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller (who combined for 18.5 sacks during the regular season and recorded 3 of the Broncos sacks on Tom Brady in the AFC Championship game) alongside Derek Wolfe (who had 5.5 sacks during the regular season) they’ve redefined quarterback pressure. 14 different players have recorded at least half a sack for the Broncos this season so Wade Phillips isn’t afraid to send any of the defence to rush opposing Quarterbacks, one of the results of pressurising Quarterbacks is that they throw inaccurate passes and as a result 9 Broncos have made Interceptions this season.
The antidote to a good pass rush is the ability to run the ball well and the Panthers have used their running game effectively this season, Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula said that he’s never had a playlist with so many different running plays on it before and his NFL coaching career began in 1988). The Panthers have used 4 Running Backs this season who have combined for 1536 yards, Quarterback Cam Newton has carried for 636 yards too and Wide Receivers have chipped in for 114 yards too (with Ted Ginn Jr recording a 43 yard rush, so look out for that in the Super Bowl). The Panthers 19 rushing touchdowns during the regular season tied 1st in the NFL and with an average of 4.3 yards per attempt the Panthers could just use the run game early on as they attempt to suss out the Broncos Defence (they won’t though, you don’t earn the nickname “Riverboat Ron” for conservative play calls).
Denver’s rush defence was the 3rd best in the league but it was nowhere near as stifling as the pass defence and they allowed on average 3.3 yards per carry, they did recover 13 fumbles though as part of their 27 takeaways and had their Offence not conspired to give possession away 31 times they would have ended the season with a much healthier +/- ratio. The Broncos Defensive Back’s were (and have been all season) incredibly physical when it came to pass coverage and Rob Gronkowski in particular was the victim of a lot of grabbing and jersey pulling which could be called by official’s in a showpiece event such as the Super Bowl (about 114 million people watched last year).
Carolina’s Defence rattled up a very impressive 39 turnovers, 24 of which were Interceptions and 4 of those were returned for touchdowns with All Pro Josh Norman recording 2 scores during the regular season and general all round superstar middle linebacker Luke Kuelchy adding 2 postseason return touchdowns to the 1 he made during the regular season. Kuelchy is going to be vital with Thomas Davis Jr suffering a broken arm in the NFC Championship game (he will probably play, but how many snaps he can play is not entirely clear yet) and Peyton manning loving to throw to Broncos Tight End Owen Daniels, particularly near the end zone (both of Daniels catches against the Patriots were also both of the Broncos touchdown receptions) Kuelchy’s ability to ball hawk and break on any loose passes may well win the game.
Last week the Broncos progressed to the Super Bowl on the back of a Stephen Gostkowski missed extra point even though their Defence was the dominant faction of the game, their Offence were forced to punt 9 times and as the game wore on a miracle recovery by the Patriots looked increasingly possible. The Panthers on the other hand have dominated the NFC playoffs and have scored 80 points in 2 games whilst conceding just 39 so they should favourites, right? Well they are favourites but the Broncos close call last week will definitely focus their minds and with Peyton Manning possibly playing his last NFL game (or maybe his last as a Bronco) they will definitely be up for it.
It’s impossible to predict who will win this game before it’s started largely because whoever scores first will be vitally important, if the Broncos score first they’ll just send as much pressure as possible at Cam Newton because he hasn’t seen this much pass rush all season but if the Panthers score first the Broncos will have to break their usually ultra conservative game plan in order to catch up and they will make for a fun game and possibly a nail biting finish.

AFC Divisional game #2 – Pittsburgh Steelers @ Denver Broncos

DSC_0198Pressure does funny things to people; Carson Palmer for instance threw 2 Interceptions yesterday, something which it took him 3 whole games to do during the regular season as the Packer defensive line bought their pass rush to the desert. The Denver Broncos always bring the pass rush and their 52 sacks (roughly 4 a game) was the most in the NFL during the regular season. Usually the way to combat an aggressive pass rush would be to run the ball as much as possible to try to fatigue the opposing defensive front but with Pittsburgh’s “hit and get hit” confrontational style of football taking its toll on their Offensive personnel for what seems to be the umpteenth time in as many season’s they’ll struggle to run the legs off a Broncos Offensive line that includes 4 players with 5 or more sacks in the regular season. The Steelers Offence has done a decent job of protecting their Quarterback’s (they’ve had 3 different one’s during the course of the regular season) and the 33 sacks they allowed was the 6th fewest number in the league during the regular season. However last week against the Bengals they allowed 4 sacks for a combined loss of 38 yards and one of which caused Ben Roethlisberger to sprain his right shoulder and that will likely be the key to this game.

 
The Steelers have been missing players at different stages of the season but this week they will be without Pro Bowl Running Back Le’Veon Bell, Pro Bowl Centre Maurkice Pouncey (who hasn’t played since August), Pro Bowl Wide Receiver Antonio Brown and the replacement for Le’Veon Bell, another Pro Bowler, DeAngelo Williams. With those 4 players available and Roethlisberger 100% fit the Steelers would be more than a match for the Broncos team in their own backyard but with almost half their starting Offence missing it’ll be impossible to beat the team who finished 2nd in the AFC. Back in week 15 The Steelers did turnover the Broncos in Denver but that was largely on the back of 189 receiving yards and 2 the touchdown passes that Brown hauled in.

 
While there’s a real chance that this won’t be a nail biter like the Wild Card game the Steelers were involved in last week it should still be fun to watch if only because the Steelers Defence can be extremely dynamic and with Peyton Manning starting at Quarterback for the first time since week 10 where he went 5/20 the Broncos Offence may not dominate. If Manning is able to run a Gary Kubiak Offence that seems more functional than attractive and fairly conservative then players like Emmanuel Sanders (who rattled up 181 receiving yards last time they met) and Demaryius Thomas could be very productive, if Manning’s struggles continue however then the Steelers defence might keep them in the game for the first 3 quarters but with 15 players on IR and a weekly injury report including a further 11 players the altitude will fatigue them late on and the Denver Defence won’t afford them any sort of lead to defend late on. If the Steelers are able to use Ben Roethlisberger to his full ability then they may score enough points to worry the Broncos because Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey have the searing pace to stretch the field and Martavis Bryant has the physical attributes to out-jump any defender in the back of the endzone.