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.

Jaguars @ Patriots

Tom Brady against a 4 man pass rush is one of the things dreams are made of (yes, I have strange dreams). Brady is a master of exploiting defences that blitz to put him under pressure, but there’s a very good chance that the Jaguars won’t blitz at all unless they find themselves in a 3rd and very long situations and want to make sure their Defence gets of the field as soon as possible. Jacksonville’s Defensive linemen have combined for 47 sacks, forced 13 fumbles and they’ve even scored 3 touchdowns between them so they are a serious proposition for any Offence. There’s even a meme illustrating that the Jaguars have held Super Bowl winning Quarterbacks to just 8 touchdowns whilst they’ve intercepted them 11 times and held them to a collective passer rating of 44!

This would possibly indicate that the Patriots might be better advised to lean on their running game but last week the Steelers only managed to just 70 yards from 20 attempts. Although a lot of that was due to some bizarre play calling from Todd Haley who was subsequently fired and in part due to Le’Veon Bell not feeling the need to turn up to the last practice session before the game.

For their part last week the Patriots did rush for 101 yards on 27 carries but they favoured the run to the outside probably the avoid the Titans big defensive front, when the Steelers tried to run stretch plays against the Jaguars speedy Defensive the Jags outside Linebackers blew it up in the backfield more often than not. You can bet your bottom dollar that Josh McDaniels has been watching tape all week though and he won’t be calling slow developing run plays. He may chose to use screen passes instead of toss plays and he’ll use a lot of misdirection to try and catch the Jaguars over pursuing, for the Jaguars setting the edge and maintaining their discipline in gaps and assignments will be vitally important.

When it comes to discipline the Jaguars have a not so secret secret weapon, Tom Coughlin. Coughlin wanted the job of head coach but Jaguars owner Shahid Khan talked him into taking a front office job (Executive Vice President of Football Operations) where he has acted as both a sounding board and support structure for Head Coach Doug Marone when it comes the “X’s and O’s” but also when it comes to how to deal with players. Coughlin has famously overcome the Patriots in his previous guise as New York Giants Head Coach in two Super Bowl’s back in 2008 and 2012 so if there’s a coaching staff left in the post-season who could out think Bill Bellichick and company it has to be men from North East Florida.

However, here’s the breaks, the Steelers lit up the Jaguars Defensive backs last week with huge pass plays, Antonio Brown notched up 132 receiving yards on just 7 catches (and he had a very injured calf that he battled through). Tight End Vance McDonald had 112 yards of his own (Rob Gronkowski will win the game single handedly if he’s afforded that sort of space) and La’Veon Bell recorded 88 yards on 9 receptions. Ben Roethlisberger threw for an astonishing 469 yards and 5 touchdowns despite throwing an interception, losing a fumble and being sacked twice!

The Jaguars have a record of 1-10 against the Patriots and they have never beaten them in Foxborough in their previous 7 meetings. Tom Terrific hasn’t lost a playoff game since 2015 when the Broncos Defence got him in Denver (and there are similarities between that Broncos team and this Jaguars one, Malik Jackson played in that Broncos team before moving to the Jags. But are Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler Jr as good as Vonn Miller and DeMarcus Ware?) Brady’s Patriots haven’t lost a playoff game in Gillette Stadium since Baltimore beat them 28-13 back in 2012 so the Jaguars will have to be almost perfect to upset them this time out.

There are 2 injuries that could prove vital to this game with Tom Brady being involved in an accidental collision at practice during the week and cutting his hand but I can’t see that stopping one of the most single minded individuals in the NFL. For the Jaguars however Leonard Fournette took a blow to his troublesome ankle (in November 2016 it was described as a “chronic problem”) and if he is anywhere less than 95% healthy his physical running style will be seriously hindered. Chris Ivory and TJ Yeldon are both serviceable running backs (Yeldon particularly in the passing game) but Fournette brings the sprinkling of star dust the Jags Offence need in the playoffs. Blake Bortles has won two more games in the post-season than anyone was predicting but asking him to carry the Jags Offence on the road in a stadium where they have never won would be unwise and frankly unfair to someone in just their third playoff game.

I really do hope the Jaguars Defence can be as explosive and entertaining as they have been at their best this season (10 sacks in Houston, 5 interceptions in Pittsburgh the first time out and 7 Defensive touchdowns all season) but if you told me they are going to beat the Patriots with their iconic Quarterback in their own back yard I’d suggest you were the one who was having a strange dream.

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 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.