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)!

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 1 – Josh Norman

DSC_0198Salary cap issues have meant that there have been multiple free agent moves in the NFL since Super Bowl 50 back in February and of course with the Draft happening in April there will be some intriguing new faces in different places come September, here’s how so of the moves may pan out.

 

Josh Norman becoming a Washington Redskin has to be the most interesting free agency move for a number of reasons, firstly (ignoring the perpetual storm of controversy surrounding Dan Snyder and what appears to be his total indifference to the offence his team’s name causes <any offence is too much, right?>) because Norman was regarded by some as the best Cornerback in the NFC, if not the league last season.  Secondly the Panthers didn’t decide that they had to rescind the franchise tag and release Norman  until late April, by which time several teams who would have been interested in his signature had spent too much money to be able to afford an All Pro defensive back.  Finally the price that Washington paid for Norman’s signature, a massive $75 million (with $50 million guaranteed) for the next 5 years makes him the league’s highest paid Cornerback over the first 3 seasons of his deal!

The mere fact that the Panthers released Norman was shocking to most people, with Yahoo.com posting an article entitled “Five reasons why the Panthers screwed up in dumping Josh Norman” but some others have questioned whether the system and the players around him in Carolina made him look better than he really is.  One thing for sure is the numbers don’t lie, he combined with teammates to make 56 tackles last season which ranked him outside the top 30 Cornerbacks in the league (25 behind the league’s top tackling CB, Bashaud Breeland from Washington), however his 4 interceptions were the 7th most for a Cornerback and the 3 fumbles he forced were only bettered by the Cardinals Justin Bethel.  So Norman is a very well rounded defender and he should fit in well to Joe Barry’s system but it’s doubtful that he’ll be able to perform to the level he’s paying paid i.e. the best Cornerback in the NFL.  Veteran defensive back DeAngelo Hall has been moved to Strong Safety for the coming season which should allow Breeland to concentrate on life as a Cornerback in the NFL and with the addition of Norman to Chris Culliver Washington go into next season with 2 Cornerbacks with Super Bowl experience.

Washington won the NFC East last season by 2 games, after ending the season with a 4 game win streak which saw them finish with a winning record (the only team in the division to do so).  In such a tight conference a strong defence will be crucial for the upcoming campaign and while nobody could accuse the NFC East of being one of the strongest divisions in football a Cornerback who made 4 interceptions last year is an excellent investment, particularly when you realise that the other 3 teams competing with Washington this season conspired to throw 54 interceptions last year!  Away from the rollercoaster that is the NFC East Norman can look forward to a meeting with the Panthers in week 15 when his former team visit FedEx Field on Monday Night Football and in week 8 International Series fans may well have the chance to see him matched up against AJ Green as Washington host the Cincinnati Bengals at Wembley Stadium.

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.

NFC Championship game – Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers

DSC_0198I’ve theorised two opposing hypotheses with regard to the possible conclusion’s this game may reach, the first is related to the fact the Panthers were held scoreless by the Seahawks for the final 36 minutes and 26 seconds of their game Divisional game against the Seahawks and that should be a concern for Ron Rivera not to mention something the Cardinals Defence will be able to learn from. The Cardinals Defence held the Packers to just 2 second quarter Field Goals in the first half last week. On the side of the ball the Cardinals, unlike the Panthers finished strongly, scoring 10 points in the 4th quarter and of course, the winning touchdown in Overtime. The last 6 Panthers drives last week ended in 5 punts and the end of the game after Thomas Davis Sr. Recovered the Seahawks onside kick.
The second (more likely) theory centres around the fact the Cardinals have had their struggles with powerful Running Backs recently. Eddie Lacy ran for 84 yards last week at an average of 7.4 yards per run and in week 16 of the regular season the Seahawks Christine Michael ran for 102 yards as Pete Carroll’s team delivered the Cardinals a 36-6 beating. In fact in the 3 games the Cardinals lost during the regular season they were consistently undone by running games. Apart from Christine Todd Gurley (who to be fair made a few defence’s look silly in his rookie year) recorded 146 yards against the Cardinals as the Rams pipped them 24-22 and probably more worryingly for Bruce Arians the Quarterback/ Running Back combination of Michael Vick and Le’Veon Bell accounted for 135 yards when the Steelers rushed for 141 yards in 25-13 win when the teams met at Heinz Field in October. Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart have combined or 71% of the Panthers total Rushing yards (roughly 28% of their total Offensive yards) this season so that may be their success as a pair may well determine the result of the game. Jonathan Stewart returned from an injured foot last week to rattle up 106 yards and score 2 touchdowns (incidentally the Panthers have won every game that Stewart has been involved in this season). However Stewart injured his ankle in the 2nd half last week and has missed training this week, although he is due to play running with a sore ankle on a pitch that’s bound to cut up after the pretty extreme weather that’s hit the East Coast of America in the last day will be tricky to say the least.
How ever this game pans out anything other than a very close denouement will be a surprise with both teams’ points difference on the season being separated by just 12 (or 0.75 per game). They both scored 35 passing touchdowns during the regular season and while the Cardinals threw 13 interceptions (3 more than the Panthers) the Panthers allowed 33 sacks (6 more than the Cardinals) so Dwight Freeney could be the man to win this game. Both teams have very real chances to win this game with the Cardinals having a receiving corps with the likes of future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald, young guns like J.J Nelson and John Brown and the sizeable Michael Floyd Luke Kuelchy’s coverage ability will be tested (he saved the Panthers Defensive Backs from a giving up a few big plays to Russell Wilson last week). The Panther’s pass defence does start to unravel when opposing Quarterbacks break the pocket and they have to cover receivers ad hoc, while Carson Palmer is 36 and not renowned for scrambling around the play he made in overtime to Larry Fitzgerald showed that he can make pass rushers miss. Tight Ends Darren Fells and Jermaine Gresham are both excellent receivers but they have only made 11% Cardinals receptions this season, in a game where ball control could be the key the ability to throw short passes into gaps in coverage could be a useful tool for Palmer. If the Cardinals aren’t able to build long drives and take time off the clock then the Panthers running game, even with a dinged up Stewart, should be enough for them to win (Mike Tolbert, Fozzy Whitaker and Cameron Arts-Payne should all be available and they all averaged over 4 yards per carry during the regular season) and Cam Newton not Carson Palmer will become the 4th Heisman Trophy winning Quarterback to start a Super Bowl.

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.

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 Wildcard game 2 Detroit Lions @ Dallas Cowboys

It’s easy to get distracted by the fact that the Cowboys haven’t actually made the postseason since 2009 and the Lions haven’t played a playoff game since the turn of the century but as that famous Detroit native Henry Ford said “History is bunk!”. Two teams with such poor records in recent times won’t be paying much attention to what has gone before and instead enjoying their current success.
Statistically it’s a matchup of a very good offence, the Cowboys have averaged 29.2 points per game which makes them 5th in the league and a defence which has allowed an average of 17.6 points per game which is the 2nd fewest this season. It would be appropriate to point out how the Dallas defence has greatly improved this season and they have conceded on average just 22 points per game, which when combined with the Detroit offence’s inability to score more than 24 points away from home this season should hint at which way this game should go.
The Cowboys have the best running back in the league this season with DeMarco Murray and his 1845 yards on the ground, the leading touchdown pass catcher in Dez Bryant and the Quarterback with the best passer rating in the league this season so the Lions defence is facing an uphill struggle even if they do have the 2nd highest tackler in the league and the player with the most interceptions on their side. Allied to their standout individual performances this season the Cowboys averaged 41.25 points per game in the last 4 games of the regular season while the Lions offence averaged just 22.5 points per game.
If the Lions are looking for a ray of hope it’s that they will be missing fewer players with injury than the Cowboys, they have just 7 out and a further 3 concerns over players who have missed practice this week while the Cowboys have to deal with having a rather significant number of 11 players in Injured Reserve and a further 4 who have had their practice schedule effected by injury this week. By far the biggest problem for the Lions this entire season has been how to get the best out of Calvin Johnson when he’s clearly not been 100% fit since week 5 when he injured his ankle, to compound Megatron’s loss Reggie Bush the Lions second most explosive player on offence has also been trying to manage an injured ankle since week 4 and missed 5 games this season.
Those who know these things will tell you that defence win Championships and the Lions could welcome back defensive tackle Nick Fairley for the trip to Dallas but it would take a gargantuan effort for the Lions defence to hold the Cowboys to a score that their failing offence could achieve. Obviously the Lions offence can help their defence by staying on the field for as long as possible but since they’ve been averaging just 94.5 rushing yards away from home and the Cowboys offence has averaged 32.15 minutes of possession per game at home and they have a defence who allowed just 1 yards of rushing in their last home game it looks more than tricky for the Lions to progress. Lions Quarterback Matthew Stafford hasn’t had the best protection this season and the pressure that opposing defences have been able to apply to him has resulted in 12 intercepted passes and a whopping 45 sacks so the winning margin bet of Cowboys by 6 points that is favourite with some bookies seems awfully generous to the Lions.