2019 NFL Divisional round – Game 1 Colts @ Chiefs

Sexy Quarterback play doesn’t usually mean much in January but with Andrew Luck and Patrick Mahomes meeting in this game you get the feeling that there will be some pretty football on show. The weather in Kansas City won’t make it easy to throw the ball a long way through the air though as it may snow and the temperature doesn’t look to be moving above freezing all day.

If this game is affected by weather and Mahomes no look passes are replaced by a battle between the big guys at the line of scrimmage then the Running Back’s will be as important as the Quarterbacks and there could be a Kareem Hunt sized whole in the Chiefs line up. Just when it looked like Andy Reid was rolling toward a successful playoff run TMZ release a video of the Running Back’s behaviour that leads to the end of Hunt’s Chiefs career. Hunt’s release changed the balance of Reid’s Offence at the most vital part of the season. When Hunt was playing he scored 7 rushing Touchdowns and another 7 recieving, since his departure the Chiefs have struggled to find such a potent pass catching threat out of backfield and if the conditions dictate a game plan involving a lot of running and short passes the Colts defence should be able to keep a lid on the home team. For their part the Colts have actually been running an Offence which values short passes and relies on Marlon Mack and the Offensive line to tire out opposing Defensive fronts, Mack averaged 4.4 yards per carry in the 12 games he played in 2018 and last week he rattled up 148 of the Colts 200 yards on the ground!

The Colts physical Offensive line play combined with the Chiefs poor run defence is why a lot of experts are backing a road win for the Colts and that certainly seems to be a logical conclusion. The bookmakers have the Chiefs as short oddd favourites probably as they finished the regular season with the best Offence in the league and with only 1 defeat at home. I think the weather will be the big winner in this game and while I’d expect the Colts Offensive line and platoon of Running Back’s to keep score a few Touchdowns and the ball away from Mahomes last week proved that logic doesn’t always apply to playoff games. I’m hoping the Colts continue their playoff run because its about Adam Vinatieri appeared in another Super Bowl, but I’m definitely expecting something screwy to happen in this game.

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.

NFC Divisional game #2 – Seattle Seahawks @ Carolina Panthers

DSC_0198Rivalries play an important part in the NFL, the intensity of the rivalry between the Bengals and the Steelers cost the Bengals a place in the AFC Divisional round last week and rivalries of a more cerebral nature between Quarterbacks often develop in unexpected ways. Not many people would have imagined that a 34 year old Roger Staubach would have competed against Terry Bradshaw in Super Bowl X (and again in Super Bowl XII as a 37 year old) when Staubach was picked with the 129th pick of the draft in 1964, Bradshaw had been the first pick of the 1970 draft and was widely touted as a star in the making. Likewise when the New England Patriots drafted a Quarterback by the name of Thomas Edward Patrick Brady in the 6th round of the 2000 draft nobody but nobody thought he’d become the leading rival to the first pick in the 1998 draft, and a man with football in his blood, Peyton Manning over the course of the proceeding 16 years. Surely the next cab off the rank with regard to unlikely Quarterback rivalries is 26 year old Cameron “Cam” Jerrell Newton, who was the first pick of the 2011 having won the Heisman trophy (and BCS game with Auburn) and Russell Carrington Wilson who the Seahawks drafted in 2011 after he had lost the 2012 Rose Bowl game with Wisconisin in the 3rd round largely as a backup having spent $26 million to sign Matt Flynn. Similarly with Manning and Brady the guy who came out of nowhere is the one who’s had more success in January and Wilson has been to 2 Super Bowls and already won 1 while Newton has only won 1 of the 3 postseason games he has played in, despite the contrasts in their respective careers (and physical statures, Newton is 6 feet 5 inches tall and well over 100 kgs, while Wilson stands 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighs just 93 kgs) both Quarterbacks are as good at moving the sticks with their legs as they are with their arms.

 

The battle of the Quarterbacks will be crucial to the final result of this game and as always in Playoff football even the smallest mistake could be crucial particularly with 2 suffocating Defence’s on the field. Previous history and this season’s statistics would point toward a Carolina victory, in week 8 the Panthers won in Seattle 27-23 when Newton threw a touchdown pass and rushed for another touchdown as the Panthers found themselves on the way to a 15 week win streak. Newton did also throw 2 interceptions in that game while Wilson didn’t commit any turnovers in the game despite being sacked 4 times, losing 22 yards in the process. Over the course of the season Cam Newton was responsible for a whopping 45 touchdowns, with 35 passes and 10 rushing scores while the Seahawks conceded the fewest touchdown passes in the NFL with just 14 and the 6th lowest number of rushing touchdowns, just 10. Wilson threw 34 touchdowns passes and while he only scored 1 rushing touchdown he did run for 31 first downs during the regular season. For their part the Panthers impressive Defence allowed 21 touchdown passes in the regular season and 11 rushing touchdowns.

 

At this juncture it’d be really good to talk about how Cam Newton has become the superhero that he’s always considered himself this season, not just by presenting children in the crowd with football’s after every score he’s created this season or away from the field with his philanthropic nature (a lot of Panthers players including Defensive Captain and all round superstar Luke Kuelchy, veteran Charles “peanut” Tillman and stand out Corner Back Josh Norman are all involved in some slightly underreported charity work as are Seahawks players including Newton’ opposite number Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and everybody’s favourite pantomime villain Richard Sherman amongst others). How this could be Marshawn Lynch’s final game for the Seahawks as he could become a free agent or retire after an injury hit season would also be a worthy talking point but the feeling that this game will hinge on a mistake forced, or made by one of the exceptional Defence’s rather than a game changing piece of Offensive brilliance still pervades.

 

The Panthers Defence has made a rather startling 39 turnovers during the regular season so it wouldn’t be a total surprise if they were the team who capitalised on a crucial error and with the Seahawks averaging 1 turnover per game on Offence the Panthers should have a chance to score some points of Defence that could take some pressure off Cam Newton. Newton’s 2 interceptions to Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor would be a concern for Panthers coach “Riverboat” Ron Rivera but the fact that Greg Olsen clocked up 131 receiving yards against the Seahawks in the Pacific Northwest may allay that fear. Kyle Rudolph late on against the Seahawks last week in the arctic temperatures of Minnesota and if Olsen can do the same this week then Cam’s job will be made much easier.
Essentially this game will be closer than cousin’s are in some Southern states, Seattle have this amazing knack of looking for all the money in the world like they’re about to lose a game but still running out winners, just ask Blair Walsh. The Panthers are favourites to win but the Seahawks ended their Playoff run last year and will probably do it again this time out too.

NFC Divisional game #1 Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals

DSC_0198Aaron Rodgers and his Packers team have been vying for the most unpredictable team of the season award ever since they lost to the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field (for the first time since 1991) back in week 10. Extrapolating any patterns or trends from their statistic’s would be rendered largely pointless because as a team they’ve notched up 4 wins and 6 losses since their bye week and not only have their results been inconsistent they haven’t followed any sort of pattern; 3 losses were followed by a victory, then a loss, then 3 more wins and finally 2 losses to end the regular season including a resounding 38-8 thumping in the desert at the hands of the Cardinals. As if to prove just how unpredictable the Packers have been they had the leading rusher in that game as Eddie Lacy averaged 5 yards per carry while recording 60 yards on the ground, he added a further 28 receiving yards and caught a Touchdown pass but they still conspired to lose by 30 points, largely by fumbling 5 times and losing 3 of them.
The Cardinals suffered their own thumping loss this season, leaving it until the last game of the regular season when it could be said some players were more interested in making it to the Playoffs in one piece rather than fully committing to stopping the Seahawks who ran out 36-6 winners in the University of Phoenix Stadium. In that game the Cardinals also had trouble stopping a physical Running Back in Christine Michael who averaged 6 yards per carry. To compound the problem they have had with stopping Running Backs the Cardinals lost 318 pound Defensive End Cory Redding to injury this week and Linebacker Alex Okafor was placed on the non-football injury list. They have been replaced with undersized Linebacker Gabe Martin who was signed from their practice squad and veteran Jason Babin who spent some time with the Ravens in 2015 as cover when Terrell Suggs was injured. With a bit of a patchwork Offensive Line in front of Aaron Rodgers Babin should be able to cause problems for the Packers Offence, despite being 35 years old he has still got the strength to push the pocket and add to the 48 sacks Rodgers has taken so far this season. Pass rush hasn’t been a major asset for the Cardinals this season and the 36 sacks they managed in the regular season saw them ranked joint 20th in the NFL, they’ve been better at turning the ball over with their 19 Interceptions and 14 Forced Fumbles making them second in the NFL when it comes to takeaways. However the Cardinals pass rush has recently been boosted by the signing of another 35 year old, Dwight Freeney who played in first game against the Steelers on the 18th of October and has recorded 8 sacks in the subsequent 10 games, including 3 against the Packers in December.
The Cardinals Offence led the league during the regular season with 6533 total yards and their 30.6 points per game average was only beaten by the Panthers who topped the league standings. The Packers scored 35 points last weekend as Rodgers threw for 210 yards (81 of which James Jones put down to his “lucky hoodie”) 2 Touchdowns (one to much maligned Receiver Davante Adams who was widely expected to be a game winner this season) and Eddie Lacy and James Starks both scored rushing Touchdowns, so Offensively both of these teams could be evenly matched (although much of that depends on whether or not Rodgers’ Receivers can catch passes which is something that has been a serious issue all season) but the Packers Defence allowed Kirk Cousins to throw for 329 yards 120 of which were thrown to Tight End Jordan Reed) and score a rushing touchdown. If they don’t seriously improve this week Carson Palmer will be throwing touchdown passes for fun, only Tom Brady threw more than him during the regular season so it’s safe to say he’s in the form of his life. The Cardinals welcome back Running Back Andre Ellington this week too so they’ll have 2 of the best pass catching Running Back’s lining up in the backfield as he and rookie David Johnson share time. Johnson scored 12 Touchdowns this season, 4 through the air and while Ellington only caught 15 passes in his injury hit season he averages 9.1 yards per catch over the course of his career. With Tight Ends Darren Fells and Jermaine Gresham available on the inside and veteran Larry Fitzgerald recording 17 catches of 20+ yards during the regular season Palmer should have enough tools to end the Packers Playoff hopes, but since they are the most unpredictable team of the season the only certainty is that it will be unmissable and if Aaron Rodgers can inspire the Packers and they manage to minimise the turnovers then it will be a high scoring spectacular but unfortunately for James Jones it’s not going to be hoodie weather in Glendale.

AFC Divisional Playoff #1 – Kansas City Chiefs @ New England Patriots

Knile Davis must be hoping the Chiefs win the toss and elect to receive the kick today after he became the first person to return the opening kick of the postseason for a touchdown last weekend. Perspicaciously one of the major keys to this game will be who starts fastest, some points from the Chiefs Special Team unit or Defence will be vital if they are to cause the first upset of the Divisional weekend. Kansas City have got one of the highest scoring Defence’s in the NFL this season and last week (against an admittedly shambolic Texans team) they created 5 turnovers and while Tom Brady couldn’t even try to play as badly as Brian Hoyer did last week the Chiefs defence haven’t concede more than 22 points since week 4 and are a large reason for their team’s 11 week winning streak. Alex Smith and the Chiefs’ Offence has not had a particularly bad season either mind you and last week his 77% pass completion rate set a new record in the NFL Playoffs and while Wide Receiver Jeremy Maclin suffered a painful high ankle sprain Tight End Travis Kelce is the current receiving yard leader after 1 week of the Postseason with his 128 yards from 8 catches, could mini-Gronk out Gronk the Gronk today? The issue that Kansas City has had on Offence for large parts of the season is that they have struggled to hit the ground running and it’s not until Alex Smith sparks them with a long run that they seem to click, the chances of the Patriots Defence allowing Smith to settle enough to spark them are pretty slim though.
The pragmatist in me says that the Patriots with home advantage are a hard nut to crack and that they’ll win what will probably be a close game with 2 strong defences on show. My romantic side however would love to see Alex Smith and Andy Reid put to bed their playoff ghosts with a victory over a Patriots team who Tom Brady has dragged to 12 wins despite losing 10 Offensive players to Injured Reserve (including 4 Running Backs) and missing Julian Edelman for 7 games, Rob Gronkowski (who was the team’s leading receiver in 7 games) missing 1 game and receiving hospital treatment on a troublesome knee injury and Danny Amendola (who lead the team in receiving yards twice) for 2 games. Brady led the NFL with Touchdown passes in the regular season with an impressive 36 and just 7 Interceptions. The Patriots rushing Offence as you may imagine having lost 4 Running Back’s to injuries has not been quite as successful, although their 14 Touchdowns on the ground is the 5th highest total in the league, but they’ve only averaged 3.7 yards per rush attempt which is the 30th best in the NFL this season.
The Chiefs do have previous against the Patriots, the last time they played them in September 2014 they not only beat them, they thrashed them 41-14. That was in Arrowhead Stadium though and usually teams who travel to Foxboro face the prospect of adverse weather conditions, the Chiefs however may be glad to be playing somewhere warmer than their home town. Despite being separated by 1,429 miles average climate conditions in January don’t vary too much between Kansas City and Foxboro although there’s usually more precipitation in the North East, but today the temperature could drop as low as -9 Celsius in KC while in Foxboro it should be a balmy 4 degrees at game time which could mean that the team who runs the ball best will prosper.

 

It’s going to be fascinating to watch and in terms of closely matched teams these 2 are almost perfect, both will be relying on a committee of Running Back’s, both have fascinating plot strands running through them which would lead to a suitable denouement. Chiefs’ safety Eric Berry was battling Leukaemia less than 12 months ago, since Alex Smith left San Francisco for Kansas City the 49ers have essentially imploded as an organisation and since the Eagles have recently fired the man they hired to replace Andy Reid after 2 lacklustre season’s. The Patriots have had to overcome a litany of injuries and their hero Tom Brady still has the fallout of the Deflate-gate saga hanging over his head in the shape of an appeal hearing in March plus their Running Back Steven Jackson is 32 and hasn’t played in the playoffs for 11 years since his rookie season with the St. Louis Rams! The prospect of the game being one or lost by a spectacular moment of brilliance or a total meltdown are what makes knock out football great and whilst I will be cheering everything the Chiefs do as loudly as I did at Wembley way back in October (they gave me a free flag and I’m easier to bribe than an IAAF official) theirs is exactly the sort of bubble the Patriots love to burst.

NFC Divisional game 2 Dallas Cowboys @ Green Bay Packers

Calf tears (or medial gastrochnemius strains for those of us who spent hours sitting in lectures when we could have been in gym, or the pub. Probably the pub) are classified in grades; grade 1 being the least severe where some muscle fibres are damaged but movement is still possible all the way to grade 3 where all fibres are damaged and a major loss of function is experienced. If you’re thinking this is slightly off topic then the real key to this game is how severe Aaron Rodgers calf tear is, he had to miss 1 drive against the Lions in week 16 and that was the only time the Lions forced a 3 and out from the Packers offence. Even if Rodgers tear is a grade 1 (and given how much practice he’s missed this week it must be at least a grade 2) the more he has to use his left leg to stabilise himself before he throws or to attempt to avoid pass rushers then the more likely he is to cause it more damage.
The good news for Rodgers that in Eddie Lacy the Packers have the 7th best running back in the league during the regular season and ironically away from the Cowboys have relied heavily on their run game so Rodgers might not to have spend too much time on the field (while spending time on the sidelines may cause the muscle to seize up it won’t be getting damaged further). The bad news for Rodgers however is that the Cowboys run defence has been far superior to their passing defence this season and the without the Packers filling the Quarterback for the Packers this season they have thrown 0 touchdowns, 1 interception and allowed 2 sacks (that was an eventful 16 passes Matt Flynn attempted).
Last week the Cowboys looked like an exceptionally nervous outfit but they had only won half the games they played in their home stadium all season and are yet to lose a game on the road this season, the Packers are yet to lose a game at home though so something has to give this week. If Rodgers leg can hold out and Eddie Lacy can do what no other running back has managed against the Cowboys defence this year and rush for 100 yards then the Packers should make short work of a Cowboys team who will struggle outside of their climate controlled home stadium. The temperature at Lambeau Field is forecast to be between -5 and -16 degrees C with a chance of snow. If Rodgers is unable to battle through what is certain to be a painful and limiting injury then the Cowboys could almost progress by default and face a 2nd trip to Seattle since October.

NFC Divisional game 1 Carolina Panther @ Seattle Seahawks

On paper this is an absolute walkover victory for the Seahawks, the Panthers only managed to win 7 games in the regular season and only managed to navigate Wildcard weekend with the help of a Cardinals offence that set a new in terms of yards during a playoff game. But they’re not playing on paper; they’re playing on the Fieldturf of CenturyLink Field. Continuing the theme of this year’s playoff’s the strangest thing about this game is that with less than 12 hours until kickoff there’s over 3,200 tickets on sale for it.
Remarkably both these teams are quite similar in their approach to the game; they both have mobile Quarterback’s, don’t score too many points, use their running game to tire out the opposing defences and rely on their defence to win them games. Obviously whoever executes their gameplan with the most accuracy will proceed to the NFC Conference game next week and over the course of the regular season the Seahawks 12 wins indicate they should triumph.
Both teams even have similar faults, they have both fumbled 9 times on offence this season (the Seahawks losing just 2 compared to the Panthers 4) and neither have been particularly effective through the air on offense (Seahawks threw 20 touchdown passes, Carolina 23 a long way from the Colts 42). Special teams-wise the Panthers have been particularly outstanding with an NFL leading 15.5 yards per punt return and a 32.4 yard average kick return which is the second in the NFL, this could be vital in a game where offence will be hard to come by.
Carolina’s run game and more importantly how they chose to carry it out is particularly fascinating, this year they have used 12 different players to carry the ball (the Seahawks have had 10 players handle the ball, but when you fumble as often as them some unusual players will pick it up) they will have to use some creative formations and maybe even a few trick plays to keep the Seahawks 3rd ranked rush defence on the back foot. Jonathan Stewart has lead the Panthers rushing offence this season while DeAngelo Williams has missed portions of the season injured but 4 players have scored rushing touchdowns for them. Allied to the running game short and screen passes to play coming out of the backfield will also keep the Seahawks defence on its toes and 5 Running Backs have caught passes for the Panthers this season and both of Cam Newton’s touchdown passes last week were caught by backs, not receivers.
Russell Wilson was the first Seahawks Quarterback to take his team to a Super Bowl when he got them there last season and only an exceptional display of high stakes speculation from “Riverboat” Ron Rivera will prevent Wilson from advancing to a possible meeting with another MVP candidate Aaron Rogers. Look out for a slow start from Seattle and another “seismic run” from Marshawn Lynch, although if Carolina’s Luke Kuelchy continues last week’s sensational form there could be a lot of bitten nails in the Pacific North West this evening.