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.

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.

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. 

Detroit Lions @ Seattle Seahawks

Detroit lost 13-10 at CenturyLink Field the last time they played in Seattle but last season’s Monday Night Football game was more memorable for its controversial ending when K.J Wright batted a fumble through the end-zone than any of the Offensive play.  The Lions notched up just 10 first downs as they only managed 256 yards on Offence (Jay Ajayi ran for 214 yards for the Dolphins in week 7 of this season against Buffalo).  Ameer Abdullah was Detroit’s leading rusher with a measly 33 yards as he averaged just 2.5 yards per carry and they weren’t much more successful through the air as Matt Stafford averaged just 5.8 yards per pass despite targeting the since retired Calvin Johnson 11 times.  On the plus side for Stafford he did finish the game with a completion rate of 69% and he managed to avoid being sacked by the Seahawks aggressive Defence.  Conversely on that might the Lions managed to sack Russell Wilson 6 times and forced him to fumble 3 times.  When Wilson stayed upright he dissected the Lions pass defence though and he finished the game with a completion rate of 77% and a passer rating of 125.0.

This season Detroit are averaging 21.6 points per game on the Offensive side of the ball which is 0.5 fewer than the Seattle’s 22.1 (which is the 9th best average in the NFC), so both Offence’s appear well matched.  However, on the other side of the ball there is a vast chasm of difference, the Lions Defence has struggled to contain opposing Offences and against Aaron Rodgers Green Bay Packers Offence many of them appeared to have lost the ability to tackle anyone in possession of the ball.  The Lions have conceded an average of 22.4 points per game, the 13th best number in the league and whilst Seattle Defence hasn’t been as airtight as they have been in the past (and they have missed Earl Thomas and Michael Bennett through injury) they have only conceded a miserly 18.3 points per game, the 3rd stingiest total in the league.  Essentially for the Lions to win a game they have to score 3 touchdowns and the Seahawks haven’t allowed many teams to score more than 2 against them this season.

Earl Thomas’ injury has proved a significant hindrance for the Seahawks defence and it’s caused them to concede an average of 24.5 points per game in the last 4 games of the season, strangely though given that Earl Thomas is the Free Safety the real problem of late has been stopping Rushing Touchdowns.  They’ve allowed 7 in 4 games compared to 5 pass touchdowns in the same period of time.  Feasibly the loss of a Free Safety like Thomas would make a Defence increasingly susceptible to a pass heavy attack, but in their last 4 games the Seahawks have only allowed on average 216 yards through the air (and one of those games was against Aaron Rodger’s Packers).  They have though given up Touchdown passes of 66 yards to Davante Adams and 80 yards to J.J Nelson over that period, the Lions longest pass completion this season is a 77 yarder to Marvin Jones but that happened way back in week 3 which was also the last time Jones recorded 100 yard receiving yards in a game.

The Seahawks Offence has hardly been a thing of beauty, or consistency, or stability as indicated by the fact they’ve had 18 different people carry the ball for them so far this season including Christine Michael (who has also played for the Cowboys and Packers this year <he clearly loves the NFC>), C.J. Prosise, C.J. Spiller and Thomas Rawls who is currently listed as the number 1 Running Back on their depth chart.  Their depth chart also includes Terrance Magee (who they released on the 28th September 4 days after they promoted him from the Practice Squad) and the rookie from Arkansas J.D McKissic who both signed on the 12th of December.  The Seahawks passing Offence has been severely disrupted by elite pass rushers this season with the Bills, Buccaneers and Cardinals combining for a total of 17 sacks on Russell Wilson in just 3 games, the Lions Defence however have recorded just 26 sacks this season and are ranked joint 30th in the NFL.

The Lions appear to game plan (either accidentally, or by design) for Matt Stafford to be the deciding factor in games, Zak Zenner has had impressive first halves in both of their last 2 games but as the clock runs down Lions Offensive Co-ordinator Jim Bob Cooter seems to almost panic and abandon the run game.  They’ve been behind heading into the 4th quarter of 16 games this season and the Matt’s, Stafford and Prater have won 9 of those games to get them this far.  However with Seattle’s Defence and Richard Sherman’s predatory instinct for interceptions in particular the chances of a late scoring run in the Pacific Northwest are incredibly slim.

If the Lions can keep it close on the scoreboard (and use Zenner to keep the Seahawks Defence honest) then they will have a chance to cause an upset.  Their main advantage is in the place kicking stakes where Matt Prater has a 90% rate of success, missing just 7 all season compared to Steven Haushka who has missed 10 all season and has an 86% success rate.  Allied to that is the fact Prater is 7/7 on field goals over 50 yards long this season and his longest has been a whopping 58 yards to take a game to overtime, Haushka has made just 1 field goal from 50 yards or further all season and his longest is a 53 yarder, the only one that he’s attempted from this distance.

Bookmakers have the Seahawks as favourites to win by more than a touchdown and while the chilly and potentially damp weather could make ball handling difficult (another reason to keep an eye on the special teams) the Lions would need to find something pretty spectacular to reverse their 3 game losing streak.  Matt Stafford’s finger injury has made it difficult for him to throw and even the return of Darius “big play” Slay didn’t fix their defensive frailties against the Packers.  If the game does come down to who can grind their opponent down more effectively the Seahawks and particularly their Defence will love it.  Were Marshawn Lynch were still on Seahawks roster the result would be a foregone conclusion, but he isn’t so it’ll be worth watching if only because any Offence featuring Jimmy Graham has the potential to explode.