Wildcard Weekend (the NFC bit part 2)

Back in 1996 the Propellerheads collaborated with Shirley Bassey and released “History Repeating” and that should be this game’s theme tune, the Seahawks travelled to Philadelphia just 6 weeks ago and despite a few alleged experts claiming they would struggle with the travel and the time difference they won 17-9. There a few differences in personnel from that game and the Seahawks demonstrated last week that they can quite average and incredibly exciting to watch in 2 halves of the same game so there is a chance that this is the wild Wildcard game.

In week 12 had Rashaad Penny and Chris Carson to combine for 155 rushing yards and a touchdown and this week it looks likely that they’ll be relying on Travis Homer to carry most of the load in the run game with occasional bursts of veteran Marshawn Lynch and another veteran Robert Turbin on third downs. That may sound like a pretty serious problem, but back in week 12 the Seahawks had 14 players either “limited” or completely missing from practice this week that number is just 8 although 3 of them are Offensive lineman and that could have a bigger effect on the run game than the combination of running backs they’re using. The Eagles themselves have missed running back Miles Sanders and left tackle Lane Johnson during practice this week although Sanders says he fully expects to play on Sunday.

It’s been a messy season for the Eagles especially in terms of injuries and they’ve only won 5 games at home this season compared to the Seahawks 7 road games, the Eagles are ranked 12th in the league for passing touchdowns (averaging 1.7 per game) and 8th for interceptions (23rd in overall turnover percentage) and 13th for rushing touchdowns (averaging 1 per game) so they’re going to need their Defence to hold the Seahawks to less than 14 points if they’re going to win this game. The Seahawks have averaged a nice, round 25 points per game on the road this season although the 17 they scored in Philly last time out was the fewest points they’ve scored outside Seattle this season. If Eagles fans are searching for hope they can look to the fact that the Seahawks lost their last 2 games of the season against divisional opponents, so teams who have already played them this season can be problematic although both those teams were considerably healthier than the Eagles figure to be this week.

It’s difficult to see how injuries don’t decide this game, even if both teams start the game with the majority of players who have missed practice there’s a very real possibility the injuries will rear their ugly heads again during the game. Unless something drastic happens the Seahawks should be buoyed by the ending of last week’s battle with the 49ers and should progress serenely into the next round with a 10 point buffer.

Wildcard Weekend (the NFC bit)

It seems amazing that any team from the NFC North made the playoffs so the fact that two teams are still playing in January is absolutely inconceivable. Conversely the only thing surprising about the Saints appearance in the playoffs is that it’s happening so early with many expecting them to be one of the first two seeds and on a bye week.

Frankly its hard to envision a scenario whereby the 10-6 Vikings even get remotely close to the 13-3 Saints, even if both teams finished with similar final records there’s no getting away from the fact that Kirk Cousins is an absolute basket case in big games, he’s 7-15 over his entire career in prime time matchups and 6-29 against teams with a winning record! Obviously this isn’t all on Cousins, it’s a team game so obviously the rest of the team need to contribute to decide the outcome of games and the Vikings do have a playoff victory over the Saints in recent years back in 2018 in what became known as the “Minneapolis Miracle” when Saints Safety Marcus Williams completely whiffed on his attempt to tackle Stefon Diggs and actually ducked straight underneath him allowing Diggs to complete a game winning 61 yard touchdown. Unfortunately for the Vikings the cliché “once bitten, twice shy” spring readily to mind, Williams certainly won’t be beaten as easily this time round and as Hollywood often seems to write the script for these NFL redemption stories it wouldn’t be a surprise if he starts the game with a pick 6. As if history and a shonky QB weren’t enough reason to doubt the Vikings they currently have 11 players on the Injury Report and although 6 of them practiced in full today it still concerning.

Statistically this should be the most entertaining of the 4 games this weekend with the Saints being second in the league in terms of passing touchdowns scored and 21st when it comes to the number they’ve allowed. Alternatively the Vikings prefer to run the ball and being 6th in the league for rushing touchdowns. The one thing in the Vikings favour is that they may well be able to keep the ball away from the Saints pass first Offence by running the ball against the Saints leaky run Defence but if Dennis Allen decides to load the box then at some stage Kirk Cousins will have to take the team on his shoulders and we all know that rarely ends well.

There’s a real chance this becomes a huge blowout win for the Saints as Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Taysom Hill seem to be finding some very impressive form of late and the Saints haven’t lost a game on the road since week 2 but the Vikings have been averaging 24 points per game at home this season and the Saints have been nearer 29 points per game away so the Total Points set at 49.5 seems far too low. Saints by more 12 points seems like a realistic outcome.

2019 NFL Playoffs, Divisional round – Game 4 Eagles @ Saints

Saint Nick turned into Super Nick last week in Chicago as his Eagles team saw off the “best defence” in the NFL by 1 point as Cody Parkey performed the rare “double doink”. In fairness to Parkey his attempt was tipped by an Eagles defender and that faint touch altered the ball flight enough to cause the ball to fade away and cannon off the left upright and then in the cruelest twist of fate bounce off the top of the crossbar and somehow land in the end zone.

It’s that outrageous combination of Special Teams play and the slings and arrows of misfortune, to paraphrase Hamlet that makes it impossible to predict what the Eagles will do this week. All you can say is that Doug Pederson is a hell of a coach and he shares some sort of special symbiosis with Nick Foles, Pederson has yet to lose a playoff game as a Head Coach and Foles hasn’t lost one since 2013.

The Saints were the second highest scoring NFC team and with a rested Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas and Drew Brees on Offence and a hopefully healthy Marcus Davenport alongside Cameron Jordan and Sheldon Rankins Nick Foles could face his toughest playoff test so far. Back in week 10 the Saints beat the Eagles 48-7 in New Orleans but the Eagles have got some players back fit since then and bedded in some new guys so it would be a huge surprise if there’s a repeat performance. Except some controversy and some very angry Eagles with a point to prove.

2019 NFL Divisional round – Game 2 Cowboys @ Rams

The Rams scored more points than any other team in the NFC and it wasn’t even that close, their 527 was 23 more than the second place Saints and 101 more than the third placed Seahawks! After the first 12 games of the season they averaged a whopping 34.9 points per game and then Cooper Kupp got injured (tore his ACL) and Jared Goff lost his safety blanket. Todd Gurley picked up a knee injury in December and the Rams season ended with a bumpy ride into the postseason, ha carried 11 times in week 14, 12 times in week 15 and missed the last 2 games of the season, even earlier this week he was listed as questionable, so how often he’s used tonight will be interesting and may be vital to the result. In Gurley’s absence CJ Anderson took over as lead back and experienced some success but neither Arizona nor San Francisco have a defence of the calibre of the Cowboys.

How much pressure the Cowboys can put Jared Goff under and whether or not Sean McVay has figured out how to fill the Cooper Kupp shaped hole in the passing game will determine who wins this game. The Cowboys scored an average of 21 points per game this season and the Rams only failed to score 21 points once, against the Bears in a chilly Chicago. The Cowboys Defence have only kept their opponents under 21 points on the road 3 times this season and the last time that happened was in week 7 when they lost 20-17 in Washington D.C.

Last week the Seahawks tried to run through the heart of the Cowboys Defence and despite the Cowboys dealing with it easily more often than not they didn’t alter the plan. Sean McVay will have noticed this and I expect he’ll try to attack the edge of the Cowboys Defence with the run game, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he uses some read option plays. In Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein the Rams have 2 of the smartest and mobile Offensive Tackles in the league so expect some trap plays in the run game and maybe even a few bubble screen’s to Josh Reynolds or even the Tight End’s to fill that Cooper Kupp sized gap.

If the Cowboys do win this it will be an absolute nail biter and may be one of the greatest playoff games in history, but I can’t imagine Jason Garrett winning one of the greatest games in NFL history so I think the Rams will win a relatively ordinary game but the Cowboys Defence won’t go down without a fight.

NFL Playoffs – Wildcard Weekend game 4 – Eagles @ Bears

The Eagles have been playing knockout football since week 12 when they’re record was 4-6, since then they have only lost once in overtime at AT & T Stadium. So playing under pressure is not new to them, but only since Nick Foles returned as starting Quarterback have they looked anywhere close to the team who made last year’s Super Bowl. Foles has thrown 6 TD’s, completed 77% of his passes and has an average QB rating of 104 in those 3 games. However ball security has been an issue for the Eagles, largely due to the poor protection the O-line has provided and in those 3 games Foles has fumbled twice and thrown 3 interceptions!

The Bears Defence has been their glittering jewel this season as Khalil Mack has absolutely dominated opposing O-lines on his way to 12.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles and an interception that he returned for a TD. Mack is not the only outstanding player on the Bears Defence though, 10 other players have made Interceptions, Kyle Fuller has 7 and Eddie Jackson has 6, 2 of which he’s returned for TD’s.

Really the only thing that can prevent the Bears from progressing to a meeting with the Saints next week is their own health problems. Mack has struggled through an ankle injury this season and Eddie Jackson has also missed time. Unless a mini injury crisis rears it’s ugly head at Soldier Field the Bears Defence should be good enough to win with this game while both Offences could find themselves scratching around to establish a run game.

NFL Playoffs – Wildcard Weekend, game 2 – Seahawks @ Cowboys

Form is usually the key to predicting which teams will advance in the playoffs, especially in the Wildcard round where teams with inferior records can look to recent results to provide them with confidence in the postseason. However both of these teams have suffered a slight wobble as the playoffs approached, both have won 2 but lost 1 in the last 3 weeks and the games they have won have only been decided by 1 score.

When these teams met in the regular season the Seahawks won but the game was played in Seattle and way back in September, since when the Cowboys have traded for Amari Cooper who has had a dramatic effect on their Offence and the Seahawks have lost Defensive stalwart Earl Thomas to a broken leg. In that game Dallas out gained the Seahawks 303 yards to 295 yards but the Cowboys really struggled to keep the scoreboard ticking over and Dak Prescott threw 2 interceptions and just the 1 touchdown. The Cowboys rushed for 116 yards at an average of 8.7 yards per attempt so Zeke Elliott will be looking forward to meeting the Seahawks again. In their last 3 games Seattle have allowed 333 rushing yards and in his last 3 games Elliott has run for 285 yards and he was rested in week 17 so he should be chomping at the bit this week.

Since week 15 the Seahawks have scored on average almost 30 points a game whilst conceding an average of 27 points per game. For their part the Cowboys are averaging 21 but defensively they have conceded an average of 26 points per game so there’s a very good chance this will be the highest scoring game of the weekend.

This game could be decided early on if the Seahawks can establish a lead because the Cowboys are not as comfortable playing from behind as they are when they can utilise Elliott as their main attacking weapon even if Seattle struggle to contain explosive running backs. Even if the Seahawks go 2 scores up early in proceedings it should still be a high scoring game because neither Defence have managed to dominate their opposition in recent weeks. How healthy Seahawks kicker Sebastian Janikowski is could be an important factor because a healthy Sea Bass is a threat from long range but in his last 2 games he hasn’t looked like a man trying to protect himself from further injury, could there be a chance for Australian punter Michael Dickson get the chance to drop kick some points in the postseason?

Like Bill O’Brien’ the Cowboys’ Jason Garrett has had his share of playoff woes and at home he has the rather inauspicious record of 1 win and 1 loss, the last loss coming in 2016 when some rather questionable officiating saw the Packers leave AT & T Stadium with a very controversial 31-34 win (and a few conspiracy theories were born).

Baring any unfortunate officiating decisions the Cowboys should double Jason Garrett’s number of playoff wins this weekend in a points-fest but of all the Quarterbacks on show in this round of the playoffs Russell Wilson is the one who could single handedly change the path of a postseason game.

Predicting the unpredictable – buckle up for the 2018 NFL season

It could be a bumpy ride. Nike deciding to release an advertising campaign spearheaded by Colin Kaepernick mere days before the 2018 NFL season kicks off has been seen by many as a shot across the NFL bows but it could come in useful as a heat shield if the season starts as controversially as it could. This season there will be 7 first year officials (which is quite a lot) and 4 newly promoted referees, so there will understandably be a transition period while the newbies adjust to their surroundings. Added to the new personnel there are also new rules to adjust to including changes to rules regarding free-kicks and turnovers during overtime but most importantly the definition of a catch has been (apparently) simplified so a player no longer has to “survive the ground” (anyone who has ever fallen over has failed to survive the ground). But (here comes the really controversial bit) (not because it’s a controversial rule but because its incredibly difficult to police effectively and consistently) a defender lowering their head to initiate contact in the tackle is a penalty. This is going to result in a lot of controversial calls because virtually all the players in the NFL have been taught to tackle by lowering the helmet and placing it on the ball to induce a fumble. And this is where the smart Defensive Coordinators and coaches have an opportunity to stand out from the crowd, the easiest way to avoid lowering the helmet in contact is to try to keep the head up and cause a fumble by stripping the ball. And this is where my first unpopular opinion comes into play; the Seahawks disbanding the “Legion of Boom” could be a masterstroke, they’ve now become more like the Legion of Zoom, those DB’s should fly to the ball and they could create a lot of turnovers for Russell Wilson to use. The other huge positive for the Seahawks is Tom Cable is no longer the Offensive line code and while there isn’t much for anyone to work with Cable’s CV is seriously underwhelming.

Elsewhere in the NFC West the Cardinals are the other interesting team (since everyone expects the Rams to win it at a canter and the Jimmy G hype train left so early that it has now returned to the station), Steve Wilks was in charge of one of the most exciting defence’s in the NFL at the Carolina Panthers. In 2015 they took 24 Interceptions, recovered 18 fumbles and scored 5 defensive touchdowns and Bené Benwickere and Tre Boston who were members of that Panthers Defence are Cardinals now. They’re not the only playmakers in the Arizona backfield either, with Budda Baker, Patrick Peterson and 3 time Pro-bowler Antione Bethea the Cardinals pass Defence could surprise some QB’s this season. Their own QB could surprise some too, Sam Bradford has had a perpetual battle with injuries but if he can stay healthy be could take this division by the scruff of the neck (big if when you look at the O-line, but still). Bradford has rarely been afforded the luxury of a receiver like Larry Fitzgerald to catch his passes, David Johnson a former college receiver will be looking to have a big season at running back as he returns from injury and alongside the veteran Brice Butler and rookie Christian Kirk Bradford has got some tools at his disposal.

Just as a point of interest, Sean McVay has got a job on his hands to make Jared Goff less predictable this season since virtually everyone knows how the Rams only used 1 side of the field for their Offence last season, but if anyone can do it it’s McVay, don’t expect the Rams task to be as easy as some will have you believe though.

Like the NFC West the NFC East is also going to be an interesting division to watch, most people see the Eagles walking away with it but I can’t see past the Giants (the Eagles should have lost to the Falcons in the playoffs but when a single part of the team freezes the whole team freezes and Steve Sarkisian failing to call a single run in the last 4 plays was an epic freeze). Pat Shurmur and Mike Schula have Saquon Barkley and Odell Beckham back full fitness (and hopefully at least a tiny bit more mature than before) plus Nate Solder to impart some wisdom to the shambles of an Offensive line they had last year and there’s a very real chance that will be enough to bring back good Eli Manning and not his evil twin that Ben McAdoo was working with last season. The Giants Defence on the other hand could be pretty ordinary and if Eli Apple and Landon Collins get on as well as they did last year then it could be disastrous and their Offence will have to score a lot of points.

Carson Wentz will definitely be a key player in this division but not because he is the second coming of Brett Favre (we all know that’s Patrick Mahomes), if the 2017 version of Wentz returns as soon as he’s healthy then his decision making is arguably better than Favre’s was. The thing is 2017 Wentz may take a while to return and if the Eagles decide to limit him in order to protect him then it could negate his effectiveness.

Having said all that I think that competitiveness of the East West will hinder their playoff chances and I think the NFC Championship game will be between the Saints and the Packers.

The AFC is tricky to predict but if I had to pick a potential outsider who could make a playoff run it would be the Bengals, their Defence could be really tough (if they can maintain some discipline) and a whole season of Joe Mixon would be interesting to watch. I actually really like the Browns Defence too, they’re arguably the most talented roster in the AFC on that side of the ball but I’m not sure how smooth the Offence will be. A Bengals and Patriots AFC Championship game would be fun to watch in a snowy Foxboro.

Panthers @ Saints 

Alvin Kamara is the multiple threat running back that many commentators expected Christian McCaffrey to be. Kamara has scored 13 total touchdowns, 6 of which have come on the ground. McCaffrey has scored 7 touchdowns, just 2 of which have been rushing TD’s. McCaffrey has shared the carrying with Jonathan Stewart who has 6 rushing touchdowns of his own and the running threat that is Cam Newton who has scored 6 times himself and averaged 5.4 yards per carry.  Kamara has been part of the Saints own 2 headed monster with Mark Ingram who has notched 12 TD’s on the ground and even Drew Brees has squeezed into the end zone twice!

The difference between the two rushing attacks is symbolic of how I expect the game to go, the Saints have beaten the Panthers twice already this season with an aggregate score of 65-34 with Kamara scoring 3 touchdowns across the 2 games and while McCaffrey managed just the 1 scoring reception, as a team the Panthers managed just 2 rushing scores in the 2 games and allowed Cam Newton to be sacked 6 times.

It’s always tricky to disregard a team with a Quarterback as influential and explosive as Cam Newton can be but in Cameron Jordan and Marshon Lattimore Newton has 2 very big obstacles (well technically Lattimore is only 6 foot, but his influence is huge) between him and the Divisional round. Newton may well take this game by the scruff of the neck but I don’t think the Panthers will be able to tame the monster that is Kamara and Ingram.

You can get the Saints to win 13 points at 2/5 with some bookmakers and while the winning margin may well not be that substantial I’m still expecting a Saints win but don’t be surprised if they leave it late. 

Falcons @ Rams 

As a huge fan of Sean McVay and the story (however apocryphal)  of how he promised the Rams owners that he would get Wade Phillips as his Defensive Coordinator before he’d even spoken to the 70 year old Super Bowl winner I very much hope the Rams have a successful start to the playoffs. After an 11 win season there’s a very strong possibility that they will win but their opponents the Falcons won 10 games themselves and 5 of them came on the road, for their part the Rams were also better away from home as they won 7 road games and just 4 in their temporary home the LA Memorial Coliseum.

That’s just one reason this game is hard to pick, the Rams scored more points than anyone in the NFL (leading to several favourable comparisons with the Greatest Show on Turf, just without the turf) this season averaging a shade under 21 points per game. However the Falcons have best Defence of any of the Wildcard teams, they have allowed just under 20 points per game. The Falcons have been particularly successful stopping the run (they have only allowed 9 rushing touchdowns), but their pass Defence hasn’t been as tight and they’ve allowed almost 700 passing yards and 6 touchdown passes in their last 3 games. The Rams Offence has scored 28 of their 45 touchdowns through the air and Jarred Goff has only thrown 7 interceptions all season, the Falcons have taken 4 interceptions in their last 2 games. Overall in terms of takeaways the Rams have an impressive +7 ratio while the Falcons have a less impressive -2, they’ve made 8 interceptions all season but they’ve thrown 12 away. The Rams have made 18 interceptions this season so it would almost be a shock if Matt Ryan didn’t throw one tonight, however the Rams have lost 14 fumbles so there should be ample opportunity for the Falcons Defence to get the ball back.

The only thing anyone can say with any certainty is that a Dan Quinn Defence against a Sean McVay Offence is a mouthwatering prospect. The Falcons Offence has looked a little clunky at times this season and an Aaron Donald lead Wade Phillips Defence will definitely have chances to shut down Matt Ryan. How well  the Falcons deal with the crushing disappointment of the Super Bowl could be a deciding factor but their coaching staff has had a major overhaul since that fateful night in February.

Personally I hope the Rams can advance to a Divisional round match up against the Vikings to see if they really are the new Greatest Show on Turf. I’m also hoping Cooper Kupp has a strong game purely because he was so generous with his time as he left Twickenham, stopped and took selfies, chatted with everyone and signed anything he was asked to. The Rams have plenty of receiving threats and running backs who are dangerous receivers out of the backfield, not just Todd Gurley, (who will probably find himself shadowed by Deion Jones or Keanu Neal) Malcolm Brown averages 5.9 yards per catch this season too.

For the Falcons Grady Jarrett is always worth watching because he can be a very disruptive pass rusher and also because his team mates have nicknamed him “the truck driver” because they think he looks like a truck driver (how rude). You can never count out any team with Julio Jones on the roster but you wonder if the Falcons run game can be effective enough to shift the Defensive focus away from one of the greatest receivers currently  in the NFL.

I am expecting a bit of a nail biter and I would discount the possibility of Overtime in LA tonight and in close games Special Teams can have a decisive impact. Greg Zuerlein or “Leg-atron” the Rams All-pro kicker is on Injured Reserve and his replacement Sam Ficken hasn’t attempted a field goal over 39 yards yet so that might be important. The Rams return game is strong though so they may very well not need to attempt long field goals in this game either. Bookmakers have the Rams as 6 point favourites, which seems slightly generous but here’s hoping we get to see the Rams taking on their former Quarterback Case Keenum next week. 

NFC Divisional round Playoffs – Green Bay Packers @ Dallas Cowboys

Aaron Rodgers is what scientists would call an “uncontrolled variable” and as he showed last week he can do absolutely anything during the course of a football game.  In the arctic temperatures at Lambeau Rodgers completed 25 passes, threw for 362 yards and 4 touchdowns, all of this despite being sacked 5 times and losing 31 yards in the process.  So this week inside “Jerryworld” in Texas he should have no problem picking apart a Cowboys defence who gave up 25 touchdowns through the air during the regular season and that could be true, the Giants showed that if you try to cover all the Packers receivers and just rush 4 Rodgers has the pass protection and patience to light up a defensive backfield.

The phrase “the Cowboys don’t blitz often, but when they do they get there” has been uttered more than a few times by Troy Aikman in the Fox commentary booth so far this season and if they don’t blitz Rodgers often then they might come a cropper, Benson Mayowa and Maliek Collins have been the Cowboys most successful pass rushers this season, (Mayowa with 4 in his last 5 games and Collins with 3 in his last 2) but David Irving has been the key to the Cowboys rush over recent weeks.  The 6 feet 7 inch, 19 stone Defensive End emerged as a real star in week 15 and in his last 3 games he’s recorded 3 sacks and made 7 total tackles, he’s also deflected 5 passes and forced 4 fumbles this season so he’ll have be a vital cog in the Cowboys defensive machine.

The most effective way to stop Aaron Rodgers displaying his many, well honed skills will be for the Cowboys to keep possession of the ball for the majority of the game and with Ezekiel Elliot and a mobile Quarterback in Dak Prescott they have players who can do that (they also have Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris who would start for most other NFL franchises but it’s unclear how willing they will be to spell Elliot who has been the league’s dominant Back this season).  In all 10 different players have run the football for the Cowboys this season and 4 of them have scored touchdowns so I would expect them to stray from their usual balanced attack (49% pass plays) to more run heavy game plan with the occasional deep pass in Dez Bryant’s direction to keep the defence honest.  The Packers Defence is seriously thin when it comes to defensive backs but if the Cowboys go after their defensive backfield there’s a solid chance that they will just end being drawn into a shoot out and there’s no better gunslinger than Rodgers particularly with Randall Cobb fit again, Cobb only caught 5 passes last week but he accounted for 126 yards and 3 of his 5 receptions were for touchdowns!

The Cowboys have only lost one game at home this season, which was to the Giants who the Packers successfully vanquished last week and since the Cowboys did beat Packers in Lambeau back in October they are the bookmakers favourites to win, they certainly have the personnel to grind out a win and in their previous meeting Elliot ran for 156 yards on 28 attempts!  However Rodgers and the Packers haven’t lost a game since the 20th of November and during that run he’s thrown 19 touchdowns and 0 interceptions (he’s actually thrown 22 touchdowns & run for 1 since his last interception).  He’s completed a career high 401 passes this season and I’m not sure the Cowboys can stop him.  So this game will really come down to whether or not the Dallas Offence can show up when the pressure is really on, over their last 7 games they have averaged 23 points per game which is very good, but the Packers have averaged 30 points per game so it looks like they’ll win a close game (although say that with very little conviction at all)!