AFC Championship Game New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos

DSC_0198Tom Brady and the Patriots don’t give opponents many chances to win games against them so the fact the Kansas City Chiefs could have had 2 interceptions against Tom Terrific last weekend was rather surprising. Even more surprising was how the team who had made 22 interceptions during the regular season didn’t force a single turnover in Foxboro, Sean Smith and Tamba Hali both had chances to cling on to wayward passes and if Hali had hauled in his chance it would have been a race to the end zone between him and the 38 year old Brady.
The Patriots were the 3rd highest scoring team in the NFL during the regular season (with only Carolina and Arizona scoring more the highest scoring the AFC, 42 points ahead of the Steelers) scoring almost 30 points per game while the Broncos Offence was the 19th highest scoring in the league, averaging just over 22 points per game. The Broncos Defence on the other hand was the 3rd tightest in the AFC allowing just 296 points all season (18.5 per game) while the Patriots allowed almost 20 points per game and were ranked 6th in the AFC.
Similar to the NFC Championship game both these teams have different approaches to Offence, particularly since LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis got injured the Patriots have largely relied on the ability of Tom Brady to pass teams to death (his pass yards make up 77% of their total yards on Offence) and with 36 touchdown passes they lead the NFL. In addition to leading the league in scoring passes the Patriots also threw the fewest number of interceptions in the league with just 7 during the regular season (the Broncos’ 23 was the most). The Patriots have been susceptible to good pass rushes though, they allowed 38 sacks in the regular season and the 52 sacks the Broncos made was 3 more than the 2nd ranked team in the NFL (the Patriots) so Wade Phillips will fancy his chances of getting some pressure and forcing some mistakes on Brady. The Broncos on the other hand will look to their Running Backs C.J Anderson (who loves the cold weather) and the speedy Ronnie Hillman who have been responsible for 27% (and 33% of their Offence’s touchdowns) of the Broncos Offensive yards this season to move the ball. The Broncos Defence scored 6 touchdowns during the regular season to take some of the pressure off the stuttering Offence but Chris Harris Jr who has a touchdown from one of his two interceptions this season and also forced 2 fumbles has an injured shoulder and even if he can play won’t be fully fit (some reports suggest his injury is so bad that he’s unable to brush his teeth). Former Patriot Aqib Talib has made 3 interceptions and returned 2 of them for touchdowns this season so Tom Brady will do well to avoid his side of the field.
Brady and Manning have met 16 times during their NFL careers and Brady leads the head to head battle 11-5 including winning all 4 times they’ve been pitted against each other in the playoffs, however Brady hasn’t win an away meeting since 2007. If the Patriots take the lead in this game then I think it’ll be difficult for the Broncos to fluster Brady, with Amendola, Edelman, Gronkowski and even bit players like White, Chandler and LaFell the Broncos just won’t have enough players who can pass cover (who knows the Patriots might even try to run the ball with Steven Jackson) and the “Evil Empire” as some Jets fans like to call the team from Foxboro should make yet another Super Bowl. However if the Broncos Defence can get on top early and maybe even score a touchdown or 2 the pressure is bound to get to the Patriots as the game goes on. If the Broncos can build any sort of lead then Wade Phillips will surely unleash blitz after blitz in Brady’s direction making it tricky for the Patriots to keep the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hands and he could well get the fairytale Super Bowl ending he’s so obviously dreaming of.

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.

AFC Championship game Indianapolis Colts @ New England

Like the Seahawks and the Packers these 2 teams have already met this season and the Patriots have very happy memories of a 42-20 points victory, that was under the roof of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis back in mid-November though so this week might not be quite the same sort of points-fest. Again like the Packers and the Seahawks it’s difficult to see how the road team can make any case for an upset in this game either, the only game the Patriots lost in Massachusetts this season was in week 17 when they rested as many starters as they could and the Colts didn’t beat a playoff team away all season in 3 attempts.
The weather could play an important role in the way this game is played as both teams do favour a passing offence, but as was already alluded to that’s a lot easy inside the Colts home stadium and with rain and temperatures below freezing forecast in Foxboro this evening passing and catching will not be easy. If the game comes down who can run the ball best then the Patriots should have an advantage purely and simply because they have 5 Running Back’s who have rushed for touchdowns this season while the Colts have used just 3. Of those 3 1 is now on IR and another, the ever disappointing Trent Richardson missed a practice session this week and has been left back in Indiana by the Colts hierarchy. This is the first full season that the Colts 1 remaining back Dan “Boom” Herron has been involved in since he was drafted and he’s averaged an impressive 4.5 rushing yards per carry (& 8.2 yards per catch) in the regular season but he also lost 2 fumbles and has also fumbled twice in the playoffs.
Defensively both teams have generated particularly good pass rush this season with 41 and 40 sacks respectively but with their 16 interceptions helping them to a takeaway differential of +12 they are some way ahead of the Colts who have particular problems with fumbles and ended the regular season with a turnover differential of -5 which left them in the bottom 10 in the NFL.
Andrew Luck has been fantastic in his first 3 seasons (he’s won 3 playoff games) as a professional football player but for the second consecutive season Foxboro and the Patriots look to be 1 hurdle too far for a young Quarterback with an equally young Running Back (they’re both just 25) to assist him. Last season the Patriots beat the Colts 43-22 in the playoffs and Luck threw 4 interceptions along with his 2 touchdown passes, the Patriots ran for 234 yards and scored 6 touchdowns on the ground along the way. This game should not be the same 1 sided affair and with a fully fit Rob Gronkowski (the comeback player of the year you know, well according to the NFL Writers) for Tom Brady to throw to there’s very little chance they will only be scoring rushing touchdowns this year. Gronkowski’s importance to the offence is difficult to understate, not only is he a huge physical presence who is hard to stop but his mere appearance affords Wide Receiver’s Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and occasionally Brandon LaFell acres of space to run into and makes Tom Brady’s life a whole lot easier.

AFC Divisional game 1 Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots

Something strange happens when the Ravens meet the Patriots in Foxboro, especially during the playoffs. During the regular season the Patriots have a 7-1 win – loss record, when they play in the postseason however the Ravens have a better record, leading 2-1, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has only win 3 times against the Patriots but all of these wins have come in Foxboro.
Given last week’s Wildcard games there’s bound to be a few strange things occurring this week too, whether it was officials changing their minds, coaches refusing to replace players who were clearly not good enough or defenders recovering fumbles only to then fumble themselves there’s bound to be some inexplicable goings-on this weekend too. Last weekend was like the NFL’s version of the “Twilight Zone” though, so let’s hope there are not as many mystifying happenings this week.
On the face of it this looks like a pretty even matchup with the Patriots scoring an average of 30 points a game and the Ravens themselves averaging 26 points per game during the regular season. Statistically the Patriots have had a fairly modest season only making the top 10 in 2 major categories; they stood 9th in the NFL for passing yards and rushing defence during the regular season. The Ravens on the other hand were the 4th best rushing defence during the regular season and their rushing offence was 8th. So the numbers would suggest that the Ravens have been the more impressive team but 1 look at the overall League standings show that the Patriots 12-4 record and their 4-2 divisional record saw them ranked number 1, a full 9 places above the Ravens and that’s the only category that hints at character and resolve.
The Patriots attack against the Ravens struggling pass defence is going to be the important part of this game and more pertinently the Ravens ability to stop Gronkowski. The Patriots Tight End is their leading receiver on the year as he recorded the 15th highest number of yards in the NFL and his 12 touchdown receptions is the third highest number this season. Unlike their rushing defence the Ravens pass defence hasn’t been great this season and 3979 yards they’ve allowed sees them ranked 23rd and their 11 interceptions is the 4th fewest number in the league. They have allowed few touchdowns through the air though and are ranked joint 6th after giving up just 22 during the regular season, pass rush has been the most successful part of their defence this season and with 49 sacks just 1 team has recorded more.

The Patriots have been very effective at converting 3rd and 4th downs this season, with a combined success rate of 49.05% and one of the keys to the Ravens defeat of the Steelers last weekend was their ability to restrict them to field goals instead of touchdowns if they can repeat this feat in Foxboro they may well progress to the AFC Championship game.
I expect the Patriots will win because Tom Brady is the consummate professional when it comes to finding ways to advance in the playoffs but the Ravens have 10 road wins in the playoffs which is tied with the Patriots for the most in the NFL and if they generate enough pass rush to fluster Brady then a repeat of one of last weekend’s shocking events could be on the cards.