NFC Championship game 49ers @ Rams

6 is the smallest perfect number and 6-0 is Kyle Shanahan’s perfect record against Sean McVay’s Rams, but in the last two Rams’ home games they have only lost by 3 points and in the game at SoFi earlier this year the 49ers needed overtime to finish the job, so that’s an upward trend for McVay, right?  The 49ers should have confidence going into this game but Matt Stafford only arrived in Los Angeles in 2021 and he seems to be improving with every game so the first 4 games in those 6 wins are fairly irrelevant going into this game.  For his part Stafford does have a slightly better record against the 49ers than McVay with one win but that happened in 2015 so that’s probably not that relevant either since Jim Tomsula was the 49ers Head Coach back then.

The aggregate score between these teams this season is 57-34 in favour of the 49ers and Deebo Samuel has caught a touchdown pass, rushed for 2 touchdowns and thrown a touchdown pass in those games so there’s no prizes for guessing who the Rams Defence should be focused on this evening. However, across those two games Elijah Mitchell has run for 176 yards at an average of 3.9 yards per carry.  The much-maligned Jimmy Garoppolo has also caused the Rams so problems this season too as he’s thrown for 498 yards and 3 touchdowns, he has only run for the grand total of 2 yards in both these games though and if Shanahan wants to try to confuse the Rams Defence, he might want to try some run option plays or to substitute Garoppolo for the younger, more mobile Trey Lance on a couple of plays.  Garoppolo has thrown 2 interceptions and fumbled against the Rams this season though (although at least one of those was tipped to a defender by his own receiver) and in the most recent game he was sacked 3 times and hit a further 6 times so the Rams definitely know how to pressure him into mistakes.  Trent Williams should be the key man for the 49ers, his absence in SoFi last time out led to the heat that Garoppolo faced, when he played against the Rams in Levi Stadium Garoppolo was sacked once and hit once so if he can play any snaps today the 49ers future looks a lot brighter.

 

Last time out the Rams allowed 5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits as Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa absolutely menaced the Rams offensive line in the second half of the game.  If Stafford gets any time at all he can dissect the 49ers defensive backfield and his arm strength should cause them all sorts of issues, last week against an injured Buccaneers backfield he threw 38 passes for 366 yards (so he might have a sore arm after all that) and Cooper Kupp recorded 183 receiving yards on his 9 catches but if the 49ers pass rush can affect the pass Offence the Rams could have a huge problem.  Last week they only averaged 2.4 yards per carry on the ground and if you disregard Van Jefferson’s 15-yard rush (as he may not play today) they averaged a measly 2 yards, in the last game at SoFi they also averaged 2.4 yards per carry and Cooper Kupp recorded 18 yards on a single carry in that game so if the Rams are to win this game it’ll be largely on Stafford’s shoulders.

 

The 49ers appear to have a key player in their kicker Robbie Gould who has never missed a kick in the playoffs but his longest this year is 52 yards which is 3 yards shorter than his Rams counterpart Matt Gay so if the Rams can keep it close and they have to final possession of the game they will have a slight advantage because they won’t need to move the ball as far down the field as their counterparts would, having said that the 49ers did block a 39 yard attempt on the frozen tundra last week. The Rams are favourites to win this by 6 points or fewer which seems odd to me because whoever wins this should do so quite comfortably you can only hope that it’s as a result of a great play rather than as a result of an error or unfortunate injury.

Some thoughts on the 49ers @ Rams pt. 3

Robbie Gould has never missed a kick in a playoff game and he’s played in 12 post-season games during his 16-year career and Special Teams won the 49ers the game in frozen Green Bay last week so they should be looking forward to the opportunity to play in the more benign conditions of Los Angeles this week.  Kyle Shanahan has beaten Sean McVay’s Rams the last 6 times they’ve played them and like Packers coach Matt LaFleur McVay is one of Shanahan’s former colleagues so it’s safe to say the 49ers and Rams are familiar with each other and as we all know familiarity breeds contempt.  The challenge for the 49ers coaching staff will be to prevent any contempt creeping into this performance and they only need to point out how they were 17-3 down at halftime when the teams last played on the 9th of January.  How Shanahan goes about keeping the Rams Defence off balance and on the field will be interesting partly because the 49ers have two high draft picks who have scarcely played this season, Trey Lance and Trey Sermon could certainly add an element of surprise to the 49ers Offence (Sermon in particular as Eli Mitchell looked very fatigued last week and Jeff Wilson is probably out) and they’re highly unlikely to hold any contempt for the Rams as they’ve only played 11 snaps against L.A between them.

  Cooper Kupp has been the most consistent and impressive player for the Rams Offence this season but last week it was more a story of how good Matthew Stafford can be when he’s allowed to operate in a clean pocket.  The Buccaneers really struggled to pressure Stafford, only getting to him 10 times and sacking him just twice, however Joseph Noteboom will probably be missing for the Rams this week having suffered a chest injury in Tampa and that would not only affect the Offence (as he played every down) but also the special teams (played 20% of their snaps too).  Andrew Whitworth will return at left tackle for Noteboom but he missed last week with an injured ankle and a 40-year-old left tackle with mobility issues sounds like Nick Bosa’s dream Sunday night out. In addition to injuries at left tackle the Rams are also unsure if Van Jefferson will be able to line up opposite Cooper Kupp and if he’s unavailable that would make 4 injured receivers so McVay may be forced to lean on the run game or short passes more than he would like to as the 49ers defensive backs look to have a serious weakness covering receivers deep downfield.

AFC Championship 2022 Bengals @ Chiefs thought dump

For all the talk that the Bengals have run their race they just seem to get better as the pressure gets cranked up and three players who seem to love it more than any are Burrow, Chase and McPherson the players who are responsible for scoring most of their points, that’s some great roster construction right there.  Those three combined for 28 points the last time they played the Chiefs which would usually beat most teams in the NFL but it is really more like a decent start against Mahomes.  However, if the Bengals let Burrow get sacked 9 times like they did last week then it’ll be impossible for them to win but last week the Chiefs only sacked Josh Allen twice and allowed one player to accrue 200 receiving yards for the second time in January after Chase went for 266 yards in week 17 and that suggests the Chiefs have a real problem stopping pass attacks. With Mahomes at quarterback you don’t really need a whole lot of defence, it took him less than 13 seconds to get Harrison Butker in range to kick a game winning field goal last weekend and he has thrown 37 touchdowns and 13 interceptions (a new record for him) this season, he’s also rushed for 2 touchdowns which is the same number he’s rushed for each season since he became a starter, he hasn’t had any passes thrown his way so far this season though after they targeted him twice last season so that maybe something to look for tomorrow (although he dropped both of those passes so maybe they’ve given up on that idea?).  Mahomes has been sacked a career high 28 times this season and he’s been forced to scramble a career high 46 times but when he has scrambled he’s run for an average of 8.7 yards each time so the Bengals need to find the balance between pressuring him and containing him or he will make them pay with his arms and legs.  It looks like Clyde Edwards-Helaire is out injured and he was Kansas City’s leading running back last week although Mahomes lead the team in rushing yards, but Darrell Williams lead their rushing attack last time round against the Bengals and scored 2 touchdowns on the way to 88 yards on the ground and 19 receiving yards.  In the wildcard round Jerick McKinnon lead the team with 61 rushing yards and 81 receiving yards against a pretty exhausted Steelers defence, so their not short of options at running back but they’re certainly not as settled as the Bengals Offence seems to be.

Bills @ Chiefs NFL Divisional round 2022

52 weeks since they last met in the playoffs the Bills and the Chiefs go at it again in Arrowhead, this will be the second time they’ve played each other in the last year and the aggregate score is currently 62-58 in favour of the Bills, so this should be a pretty even matchup. In the two games Bills quarterback Josh Allen has thrown 5 touchdown passes and a single interception compared to Patrick Mahomes’ 5 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, Allen has been sacked 4 times in these games (all coming in last year’s AFC Championship game) and Mahomes has hit the deck 3 times, oddly the Chiefs have fumbled 3 times in these games and the Bills are yet to lose the ball so that’s something to keep an eye on.

Buffalo haven’t lost since week 14 when they faced the Buccaneers in Florida and Tom Brady threw a 58-yard touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman in overtime.  Kansas City lost to the Bengals in week 17 as Evan McPherson kicked a last second field goal at Paul Brown Stadium, but that was their only loss since the 2nd of November.  Another reason this matchup is so unpredictable is that the teams who take the field tomorrow will have key personnel changes from October, when the Bills won that game, the Chiefs were without Defensive Tackle Chris Jones which largely contributed to Josh Allen rushing for 59 yards and scoring a rushing touchdown, Allen’s ability to scramble on 3rd down is key for the Bills to extend drives and fatigue opposing defences.  Jones omission was indicative of a season which saw the NFL change it’s rules regarding injuries and illness to allow players to return midseason, a number of Bills players missed that game in October too, however Dawson Knox who lead the team in receiving yards last week against the Patriots was once again at the fore of the Bills Offensive effort. In October s he notched up 117 yards and a touchdown on just 4 targets which was even more than the 89 yards and 2 touchdowns he hauled in last week as Allen looked for him 5 times.

The most impressive part of the Bills 2021 season has been their pass defence, they only allowed 12 touchdown passes during the regular season which is 15 fewer than Kansas City and the Bills made 19 interceptions during the regular season which is 4 more than the Chiefs. So, this may not be a great matchup for either quarterback as the Bills excel in pass defence and the returning players on the Chiefs defence should make them more stout against Allen’s scrambles, the Chiefs however won’t be phased by a strong pass defence after their performance last week when they rushed for 106 yards as a team and Jerick McKinnon and Patrick Mahomes notched up 90 of those yards at an average of 6 yards per carry. The 19 rushing touchdowns the Bills allowed during the regular season was the 4th highest amount in the league and whilst the Chiefs only scored one of their 6 touchdowns on the ground last week, they score 16 rushing touchdowns all season while the Bills allowed 14 touchdowns to running backs over the course of the season.

This should be the most intriguing game of the weekend and it’s very unlikely to be decided until late on, on one hand the last road team to win in Arrowhead were the Bills and if they can force the Chiefs to turn over the ball as they have done in their last two meetings, I think they have the balanced offence needed to neutralise the returning Chris Jones but if the Chiefs can eradicate their fumbling issue they could be headed for yet another AFC Championship game.  If I had to make a prediction I’d go with the Chiefs and I wouldn’t be surprised if history repeats itself and they win 38-24 again.

The Patriots go to Buffalo part 2, this time it’s personal

Traditionally rookie quarterbacks struggle in the playoffs, technically the last quarterback to win their first playoff start was John Wolford last season for the Rams in Seattle and while he was ably assisted by Cam Akers 131 yards of rushing Wolford also got injured and didn’t finish that game so there’s really only one part of that story the Patriots want to reproduce here.  When the Patriots played in Buffalo back at the start of December they ran for 226 yards and that may or not be significant this time round since the Patriots are just as likely to complete ignore the run game this time round as they are to heavily lean on it and let history repeat.  History is highly unlikely to put on a repeat performance this time round though as the weather back in week 13 was pretty unique, gusts of winds approaching 50 miles an hour prevented either quarterback from throwing the ball and lead to Mac Jones ending the game with 2 completions for 19 yards, Josh Allen on the other hand had a 50% success rate through the air as he threw 15 completed passes for 145 yards, whilst the weather isn’t due to be as windy this time round the conditions should be inclement enough to make this one a complete lottery.  There should be light gusts of wind but an ambient temperature of around -13 degrees Celsius (6 degrees Fahrenheit) is going make kicking the ball very difficult and catching it pretty tricky too, so running forward and running hard should be the order of the day and if recent history is any indication of who can do that better it has to be the Patriots.

One surprising feature of the last game in Buffalo was that Josh Allen only ran 6 times for 39 yards and 21 of those yards came on 1 attempt so Buffalo may have not wanted hi to do too much against a divisional opponent, when they played in Foxborough in week 16 he ran 12 times for 64 yards (might be 18 times for 90 odd yards this time then) and the Bills rushed for 115 yards in total which would suggest they can be more direct when they need to be, but for that to happen they’ll need to win the battle at the line of scrimmage and if there’s one thing teams coached by Bill Bellichick don’t do easily it’s lose battles up front. 

The Bills are short odd favourites to win this game but the more you look at it the more this looks like it’s going to be a low scoring battle of wills and that makes it very even and appointment viewing.  It might not be pretty, but it is going to be good, tense and not particularly clean fun.  Either Josh Allen will put the team on his back and drag them into the next round or another ingenious Bellichick plan will come to fruition and Mac Jones will get the rare rookie playoff win.

The wildest of Wildcard weekends

Cincinnati have already beaten the Raiders once this season but that was in Vegas back in week 11 before Joe Burrow’s tough December when he suffered both a “high knee injury” and a “gruesome looking finger injury” too so leading into the Quarterback’s first NFL playoff game he might not be feeling 100%.  Everyone expects to be slightly banged up by the end of the season and after an extended season it would be pretty surprising if any player was 100% fit right now, Burrow did appear on the Bengals Injury Report this week along with 12 other players but Burrow was listed as having taken a full part in practice every day as did Kicker Evan McPherson but a kicker with a slight groin problem is a bit of a red flag, especially when today’s game is going to played in temperatures below freezing.  The Raiders have 13 players on their Injury Report this week and Jonathan Haskins looks set to miss the game with an injured back and a knee injury but Tight End Darren Waller could be back from his knee injury although he has been limited in practice this week so it would be slightly surprising if he can play the majority of the Offensive snaps and with backup Tight End Foster Moreau recovering from an abdomen injury and an ankle problem Derek Carr could be short of receiving options.  Haskins’ injury could be the biggest problem for the Raiders though as cold weather at the Paul Brown Stadium on the banks of the Ohio river would seem like ideal weather for Joe Mixon to handle most of the Bengals Offensive work and Hankins has been a premier run stuffer in the league since he left Ohio State in 2013 and when the two teams met in November Mixon ran for 123 yards and scored twice and that was with Hankins playing.

Back in week 11 the Bengals ran out 32-13 victors and in addition to Mixon’s efforts Burrow went 20 of 29 and in what was quite a muted display by his standards threw for 148 yards and one touchdown, he was sacked 3 times however and if he’s got a bad knee the Bengals won’t want that happening this time out.  The Raiders didn’t have the same success running the ball with Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake only getting 14 carries between them and managing 60 yards on those carries, Carr threw 27 passes and managed 215 yards through the air with Darren Waller accounting for 116 of those yards while Foster Moreau caught Carr’s only touchdown pass in that game.

Theoretically this game should be a comfortable home win but the first game came just weeks after the Henry Ruggs incident and Damon Arnette’s release by the Raiders and was just the 5th game of Rich Bisaccia Head Coaching career (albeit in a temporary capacity) so it’s highly unlikely this game follows the same path as their previous meeting.  There are two things that are virtually guaranteed in the NFL when January rolls around and those things are wild weather and equally wild officiating decisions.  The weather is set to be seasonably chilly in Ohio today and if the officiating matches the conditions this may well be the upset of the weekend, particularly if the Bengals are short of a fully fit kicker come the end of the game. Bookmakers are offering 2/1 on a Raiders win and who knows how Burrow will play in the biggest game of his professional career to date?  Carr might be 5 years older than Burrow but he is also yet to start a playoff game and his record in cold weather games is a cause for concern especially if the Raiders run game can’t get going or if the Bengals take an early lead, Carr is 0-5 in games where the temperature drops to 37 degrees or below (today the temperature shouldn’t rise above 33 degrees F) so I’m expecting the Bengals to progress but it might not be as straight forward as their last 19-point victory.

NFL 2021 Playoff team prediction

Injuries (and schedule adjustments due to the pandemic) were important in determining which teams qualified for the playoffs and had success in January last time out and while it would be churlish to expect them not to have an impact this season too there are reasons to expect they won’t be as decisive this year.  With the experience of last season’s truncated preseason to provide every coaching staff with data from which to adapt training schedules, a new adapted Injured List protocol plus a new, longer regular season teams should be able to reduce the intensity of the training and increase the duration instead to lessen the stress on player’s bodies.  This is the NFL though so there will be impact injuries and freak accidents on the training field as well as the pitch.

When it comes to trying to make sense of who will be contending at the end of a new, extended regular season two things stand out for me; experience of competing at the latter stages of recent seasons and strength in depth of team rosters.  Experience in the Postseason is very much a double-edged sword, obviously having players and coaches who have proven they are good enough to compete at the highest level is vital but recent extended playoff runs are not always helpful. 

Seven of the 2020 playoff teams made the playoffs in 2019 and it’s difficult to see how the current Super Bowl Champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers don’t make the playoffs again this year but in order to successfully defend their title they will have to play 40 or 41 games in something like 74 weeks, which may seem a relatively simple task but given the impact of fatigue in increasing the likelihood of players getting injured it’s a tough ask and no team has defended the Lombardi trophy since the Patriots managed it in 2005!

Schedule alterations effected the AFC playoffs more than the NFC last season as the Ravens and Titans caused a fair amount of chaos within the Conference and the Steelers seemed to be the unfortunate ones who paid the price as they ended up playing 5 games in 25 days in December!  They still qualified for the Playoffs but unsurprisingly the fatigue caught up with them as they succumbed at home in the Wildcard game 37-48 to the Browns who they beat 38-7 at Heinz Field during the regular season.  I’m not sure the Steelers will have the chance for redemption this season as the Bengals, who were hampered by a season ending injury to rookie Quarterback Joe Burrow last season and they should take their Divisional rivals place in the postseason this time out.  I think the AFC North should be the strongest division in the Conference again this year with 3 playoff teams in the Browns, Ravens and Bengals, the AFC South may well provide two playoff teams in the form of the Titans and the Colts who appear to have two of the stronger Defence’s in the Conference (although the Colts deal for Carson Wentz seems to be a big gamble).  The other two divisions in the AFC look like the most unpredictable divisions in the league, the Chiefs will need to be befallen by some pretty catastrophic circumstances to not win the AFC West but how the other 3 teams in West perform is tricky to calculate, the Raiders are prime example, last season they won 6 of their first 9 games but then crumbled to a final record of 8-8, similarly the Chargers lost 4  of their first 5 game in 2020 and then won their last 4 so I find it very difficult to predict anyone else making the postseason form the western conference.  Josh Allen has looked remarkably calm in preseason for the Bills and while it’s only practice the Bills have played the Packers and the Bears who have strong rosters even without all of their starters in their lineups.  The Bills should win their division comfortably and while all the other teams have made changes that should improve their fortunes from last season, I think the settled nature of the Bills will provide them with enough dominance to dampen their rival’s playoff chances.

In the NFC two teams seemed to really suffer the injury curse the 49ers ended the season with 18 players on Injured Reserve and another 9 on their Injury Report and the Giants lost the mainstay of their Offence Saquon Barkley in after 19 carries in 2020 so it’s hard not to believe they will both be determined to make up for lost time this season and I can see both of them making the postseason.  I expect the Packers and Saints to be the two best teams in the Conference again and the Buccaneers have managed to retain most of their Super Bowl winning roster so it’s difficult to imagine they won’t still be in the mix by January too.  The NFC East is an interesting Division in as much as the Washington Football team have the only dominant Defence so they should be favourites to finish at the head of the pack but with the other 3 teams all having the potential to score points in bunches there may well be a Wildcard team in the East and if Saquon can stay healthy the Giants Offence should be the most consistent in that Division.  I think the final Wildcard team will be from the North and as they made the playoffs last season and as they appear to have two viable Quarterbacks, I think the Bears should still be playing come January.

 

2021 NFL Wildcard Weekend -Sunday

As always in knockout games it’s the small things that can often make a big difference and the Ravens special teams seems built for the big games, Justin Tucker has scored 26 of the 29 field goals he attempted and only missed extra point all season which is why he’s widely regarded as the best kicker in the league. The Titans are on their second kicker of the season in Sam Sloman who is yet to miss a kick but he’s only played in one game and some would say he was lucky to make the game winner last time out as he dinged a game winning 37 yarder off the post.

Lamaar Jackson will be under increasing scrutiny if he doesn’t start this game well given his struggles in Playoff games so far in his professional career but the Titans Defence is just the sort of challenge an explosive, young quarterback would like to see in a wildcard game, the Titans have struggled to apply pressure to opposing QB’s all season and if they do manage to get to Lamaar he can burn them with his legs even more effectively than he can with his arm so I’ll be expecting a Ravens win on the road, the bookmakers have set the points spread at 3.5 points which seems awfully short to me. The Titans have the ability to keep possession and run Derrick Henry up and down the field but that Ravens Defence should slow the Titans down in the redzone and with 4 running backs and a mobile QB they will make it tricky for the Titans Defence.

Chicago travel the length of the Mississippi to New Orleans with very little chance of a win and that’s why this game has got “banana skin” written all over it. The Bears Defence is much better than their Offence but if you dive into the statistics it’s not really anything to write home about, they have allowed 41 touchdowns this season whilst only scoring 40 so you could say they’re very fortunate to even be in the playoffs. For their part the Saints have allowed 39 touchdowns and scored 59 so this is a pretty uneven matchup to say the least. Both teams have had freak losses in recent playoff games though and the Bears heart breaking loss at the hands of a missed last second field goal will surely fire them up for this game but the Saints more recent losses at the hands of an officiating mistake and a defensive error by rookie Marcus Williams in Minnesota back in 2018 will surely focus their attention on the task at hand. Logically the Saints should be favourite to win this by double digits (and they are) but if the Bears are looking for any glimmer of hope it’s that the Saints have struggled in recent seasons against their NFC North counterparts the Vikings in the playoffs lately and the Vikings haven’t really looked to have anything to challenge the Saints beyond a very good running back and a tricky defence. David Montgomerie has scored in his last 5 games for the Bears and the Saints will be without their sack leader Trey Hendrikson and maybe missing another 5 Defensive players going into this game so there’s the smallest of chances for the away team and in my opinion this is the best chance of an upset today.

It’s impossible to get excited about the Browns travelling to Pittsburgh to play the team they play against the team who they just scraped past last week, not because of the repetition but the Browns will be facing the Steelers strongest available team and they will be without their Head Coach Kevin Stefanski who is self isolating after a possible close contact with a COVID 19 sufferer. The Browns and Steelers are near neighbours but there’s no community spirit on show when they meet, it’s a little over a year ago since Myles Garrett hit Mason Rudolph on the head with his own helmet so the Steelers players won’t be looking for a reason to take it easy on the team from just down the Ohio River. Baring a massive injury crisis for the Steelers (which they already have on Defence) the home team should progress into the next round of the playoffs.

2021 NFL Wildcard weekend – Colts @ Bills

As a big fan of lazy tropes I can’t shake the feeling an aging Phillip Rivers will struggle in freezing temperatures at Bills Stadium on Saturday afternoon and it’s not just the Quarterback who has a tough task ahead of him in western New York, Colts kicker Rodrigo Blankenship has only made 1 field goal of 50 yards or longer this season having attempted just 3. Now part of that is because the Colts have converted 61.5% of their 4th downs this season so Frank Reich hasn’t felt the need to attempt long range shots very often. Tyler Bass for the Bills on the other hand has made 4 field goals over 50 yards from 6 attempts and his longest successful attempt this season is a 58 yarder, although that was kicked indoors against Arizona.

As much as focusing on both kickers seems incongruous in a win or go home playoff game there’s a very real possibility the result will be determined by the effectiveness of the special teams. Both teams have had very efficient Offences this season who have leant on their passing games to score the majority of their touchdowns.

The Bills have scored 40 TD’s through the air as opposed to 16 on the ground and the Colts have 24 pass TD’s and 20 with the running game. On the other side of the ball the Colts Defence appears to be tougher to break down than their hosts this week have, the Colts have allowed 500 fewer yards than the Bills and five fewer rushing TD’s, however the Colts have allowed 160 more yards through the air and 1 more touchdown reception than the Bills. So it should be a very even matchup, however according to the strength of schedule of their opponents the Colts had the easiest schedule in the NFL this season and their last loss was a road game in a cold, clear Pittsburgh on boxing day.

Bookmakers have set the points spread at 6.5 which seems quite high to me, the Colts Defence has really only been overrun once and that was back in week 12 when the Titans scored 45 points against them when a lot of players were missing including the talismanic defensive lineman DeForest Buckner. I’m expecting a Bills win but it would be a surprise if it will be as comprehensive a win as their last 10 games have been (by at least 10 points).

AFC East 2020 preview

Based on each team’s 2019 win percentages the AFC East have the toughest 2020 season of all 8 NFL Divisions and of all the teams in the division the Patriots have the toughest schedule. Combine that with the fact they’ve lost their starting Quarterback and really struggled to generate any Offence last season with someone as experienced as Tom Brady trying to run the show behind a porous Offensive line and with little help from his receiving corps and this has to be the time to count out the Patriots, doesn’t it? Well, sort of. They’ve got a real chance to go into their bye week with a winning record but their bye comes in week 6 and I’m expecting them to be 3 and 2 as they have to travel to Seattle and Kansas City in the first 4 weeks (although if both of those stadiums are empty then they could have a better chance of surprising away wins). It’s the tail end of the season where their tricky games come thick and fast with a road game in L.A against the Chargers coming on the 6th of December followed by a game in the same new stadium on Thursday the 10th of December against the Rams after which they have 10 days off and a trip to Miami with a Monday Night Football outing 8 days later against the Bills. Their final game is in Foxborough against the Jets which is virtually a guaranteed home win but by then they could already be staring down the barrel of a losing season. I’ve got them finishing with a 7-9 record but in this toughest of divisions they should still finish second.

So how are the other 3 teams going to shake out? Well while the Patriots seem intent on testing out the maxim that “Defence wins Championships” by having a suspect Offensive line and inconsistent skill players the Bills are taking an opposing stance on Offence, they’ve got a solid Offensive line and some very good receivers with Steffon Diggs joining Cole Beasley and John Brown in their receiving corps and Dawson Knox and Devin Singletary giving Josh Allen plenty of assistance they have no excuses not to produce on the Offensive side of the ball. Allen is the big question mark for the Bills he’ll be in his third season and if he continues to improve his stats from second year to third as he did from first to second he’ll throw 40 TD’s and 6 INT’s but as Defences have more tape to watch and everyone is now aware he’s historically struggled with accuracy on deep passes so keeping the Interceptions down may be a problem. Personally I feel that with the tools he’s got at his disposal the Bills should top the division with a 9-7 record and I’ve got them winning their last 3 games so they could be one of the hot teams come playoff time.

“Tagovailoa” is the word on everyone’s shirt in Miami (seriously, the Dolphins QB has the two highest selling NFL jerseys this year) but how many games he starts this season seems to be an unknown quantity at the moment, it would however be a surprise if he starts all 18 and what would be an even bigger surprise is if Ryan Fitzpatrick goes undefeated as the Dolphins bed in a new Offensive Coordinator and 4 other Rookies not named Tua and a new Running Back (or two as both Jordan Howard and Matt Breida both arrived in the off season). Personally I have a few misgivings about bringing in so many new faces on and off the pitch (they could potentially have 10 rookies on the Defensive side of the ball too) but the middle of the Dolphins season looks pretty ugly, I’m expecting them to only win 3 games from the 8 surrounding their bye week. Mid-season struggles with new coaches and a rookie QB waiting in the wings could spell disaster for a relatively new Head Coach employed by a volatile ownership but I don’t think Flores will find himself on a hot seat unless something goes horribly wrong, I’ve got the Dolphins finishing the season third with a 6-10 record.

Bringing up the rear of the division has to be the Jets, not because they lack playing talent but because the coaching staff, front office and ownership is such a convoluted, tumultuous muddle that it will be incredibly difficult for a Quarterback who is yet to complete a full regular season to overcome. This year though the Jets have added some experienced veterans to the mix who are more than likely to back up their QB and hang Adam Gase out to dry if the Offence stutters. Newbies Frank Gore, Brashad Perriman and Joe Flacco alongside the likes of Demaryius Thomas and Le’Veon Bell know what an NFL Offence should look and feel like so they won’t hesitate to ask questions if the Jets are below par. They have bought in Mekhi Becton to help bolster the Offensive line and keep Darnold upright but if the Offensive Coordinator isn’t calling the right plays then the personnel running those plays is largely irrelevant. I can’t see them winning more than 3 games this season and that would surely see them ending up with a very high Draft pick and a new coach next season.