Predicting the unpredictable – buckle up for the 2018 NFL season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The road from Oakland to Vegas

DSC_0198560 miles is a relatively short distance in a country that spans over 3,000 miles but the prospect of a 16 hour road trip to watch the NFL team you’ve called your own since 1995 (and for some the 21 years preceding their move to LA in 1982) is going to leave a bitter taste in the mouth. To appease embittered Oakland fans the Raiders have attempted to bring back the good old days by signing Super Bowl winning Jon Gruden to a frankly whopping $100 million deal which runs until 2028 (with the Raiders proposed move due to take place in 2020) but just like blue passports and the fallacy that anyone can make anything “great again” Mark Davis’ attempt to return to a past glory is nothing more than misguided nostalgia.

Gruden is a rarity as an active Super Bowl winning Head Coach, there are just 7 winners still coaching and his last spell in Oakland was his most successful tenure with a 59% win rate (compared to his 54% overall win rate) but he had just 4 seasons with 10 or more wins in his 11 years as a Head Coach. His playoff record is not too impressive either with only 5 wins from 9 games and that was when he was at the peak of his coaching power, Gruden hasn’t won a game in the post season since he won the Super Bowl in 2002 and he hasn’t coached a football team since 2008!

While he hasn’t been totally out of football, he’s been working for ESPN as an analyst on Monday Night Football and he actually said one of the reasons he wanted to become a Head Coach again was “I got tired of sitting in a dark room, watching tape by myself” so he’s hardly coming in cold but as illustrated by the Raiders decision to trade draft picks for current players show that he might not be entirely au fait with the world of College football as other Head Coaches.

Those trades (Martavis Bryant for their 3rd round pick and Right Tackle Brandon Parker with the 3rd round pick they recieved from the Ravens) along with slot receiver Ryan Switzer who they traded for from the Cowboys plus the addition of Free Agent Doug Martin has retooled the Offence to give Derek Carr some help. However Gruden’s reputation for hammering his Quarterbacks (Christian Hackenberg only lasted about 4 weeks in Oakland after the Raiders traded for him in May) and Derek Carr’s erratic performances (just 1 winning season and a 45% winning record) seem like a volatile combination to some outsiders and let’s not forget that while Bryant is potentially a league leading receiver he had a particularly strained relationship with Big Ben in Pittsburgh after his 13 month suspension for violating the substance abuse policy. How new Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson balances the run game with the pass game and manages to share the workload between Martin and Lynch (and possibly Richard and Washington, if they retain 4 Running Backs into the regular season) will be key, last season the Raiders threw on 60% of their Offensive snaps and they only recorded 23 touchdowns alongside 14 interceptions so it would appear that they didn’t allow Carr to use his strengths as much as they could have.

I think the important part of Gruden’s deal is the 10 years of the contract and as much as his appointment is to placate the fans who feel betrayed by the ownership who have decided to move Mark Davis is also trying to make the transition to a new State as smooth as possible. However if the start of Gruden’s tenure is a rocky one the Black Hole faithful may lose interest and the $100 million price of the deal may become more of an albatross around the Raiders neck than a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Vikings @ Eagles

Steve Sarkisian deserves a great deal of credit for the Eagles progressing to NFC Championship game and Saints rookie Marcus Williams’ mother of all missed tackles saw the Vikings into this round of the playoffs, so you could say both teams are lucky to have made it this far.

Both had identical regular season records, 13-3, but the Eagles high powered Offence behind their second year Quarterback Carson Wentz scored 75 points more than this week’s opponents, however Wentz was placed on IR and under his replacement Nick Foles they’ve averaged 17 points per game (not the 31 points they averaged under Wentz’s stewardship).

The Vikings Defence allowed the fewest points per game in the regular season with just 15.8 and only once did they concede more than 26 points and that was in 38-30 shootout win over the Redskins back in week 10. The Vikings Defence has been tighter than a drum this season, they’ve only given up 275 yards per game on average with just 83.6 rushing yards per game. Philadelphia’s Offence has largely relied on it’s running backs to move the ball for them as they’ve averaged an impressive 132.2 yards on the ground, but they have struggled to punch the ball in on the ground with just 9 rushing touchdowns ranking them 24th in the league. They have however thrown a whopping 38 touchdown passes which is 4 more than anyone else in the NFL. The Vikings had the best pass Defence in the regular season as they only allowed 13 touchdowns whilst they recorded 14 interceptions.

The Eagles Defence only allowed 7 touchdowns on the ground, the 3rd fewest in the league whilst they gave up 24 pass touchdowns (which is great news for Vikes red zone threat Travis Rudolph) but they did make 19 interceptions so throwing against them is no easy feat and after only completing 62% of his passes last week and throwing an interception to Marcus Williams you’d expect a more circumspect Case Keenum this week. If the Eagles remain stout against the run the Vikings may be forced to utilise a more expansive Offence and the Eagles Defensive backs could be in business.

I really hope that the Vikings become the first team to play a home Super Bowl, buy when Jay Ajayi signed with the Eagles I did tweet that Philadelphia’s run game would be unstoppable in January and I can’t see past a home victory in this one

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. 

Bills @ Jaguars 

If the Ravens had managed to record a home win over the 6-9 Bengals then the Bills wouldn’t even be in the playoffs. The “Bills mafia” have been thanking Bengals Quarterback Andy Dalton by donating $17 (1 dollar for every year of their playoff drought) or $49 (because the winning touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd was a 49 yard completion) the Dalton Foundation has raised around $250,000. Others donated to Tyler Boyd’s fund-raising campaign and so far Boyd has received over $20,000 for a youth athletic foundation in Western Pennsylvania! So arguably the Buffalo fans have made a more valuable contribution to this NFL season than their team. On the road the Bills have won just 3 games all season but if the Buffalo faithful are looking for a glimmer of hope they have won 2 of their last 3. Their last road game was in Miami and the Dolphins gave away 5 first downs with penalties, the Bills Offence actually only managed to gain 18 first downs of their own volition. They’ve really struggled to run the ball on the road and all season they’ve looked like a team who get by on character and stubbornness over any kind of talent or flair. The one player who can provide plenty of skill and flair is running back LeSean McCoy (he’s scored 6 of their 28 Offensive touchdowns) but he will be carrying an injury and even though he’s expected to play he has struggled away from home this season even when he’s been fully fit. 

The Jaguars defence on the other hand has bags of talent, arguably enough talent to get them all the way to a Super Bowl. On average they have allowed opposing teams just 17 points per game at EverBank (and Wembley Stadium), in all of their last 3 road games the Bills have scored 16 points. The Jaguars have scored 105 in their last 3 games at EverBank Field. Injuries have played a part recently for the Jaguars too with star running back Leonard Fournette and several Offensive linemen missing game time, this week they have Tackle Cam Robinson and Centre Brandon Linden along with Tight-End Marcedes Lewis on the Injury Report but they all played at least some part in practice. 

I can’t see the Bills winning this game but there is a very real chance that the Jaguars could lose it. The play calling this season hasn’t always been sympathetic to Blake Bortles talents, they haven’t let him run too often and he always seems more composed and confident after he’s made a few positive plays of his own. If the Bills are to stand any chance at all they will need to run well and tire out the Jaguars pass rush, if they continue with their road struggles and have to resort to a pass heavy attack then Tyrod Taylor will be forced to choose between throwing rushed passes or being sacked by the electrifying Defensive front the Jags have amassed recently.

Bookmakers favour the Jaguars to win a close one (8 points or less) but if the Bills can’t stop Fournette and you’d imagine Chris Ivory on occasion running the ball then the Jaguars Offence could end up racking up the points like they did against the Ravens in London  and the Texans last time out in EverBank. 

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. 

Titans @ Chiefs

Eric Berry is one of the best 2 Safeties in the NFL and the Chiefs Defence has just not been the same since he tore an Achilles tendon back in September. According to recent reports he’s still the heartbeat of the Chiefs team off the field but nobody can replace the awareness and skill set he brings onto the field. The Chiefs presence in the playoffs is largely due to their 4 game win streak which was inspired by a 31-38 loss to Josh McCown’s Jets in week 13. Teams on winning streaks are often touted as being the team to beat in January but during their winning streak the Chiefs have conceded 55 points! During the same period the the Titans have scored 68 points.

The Titans could also be missing a very important player as their lead running back DeMarco Murray reportedly suffered a grade 3 MCL tear in week 16 and did not play in week 17 although the Titans reportedly consider him day to day. Grade 3 tears are the most serious tears and usually take months rather than weeks to heal, Murray though is 29 and will be only too aware that his chances of playing in the post-season are decreasing considerably. Running the ball will be crucial for the Titans if they are to have any success against the Chiefs defence who have allowed 118 yards per game at an average of 4.3 yards per carry. Only 2 Quarterbacks have scored more rushing touchdowns than Marcus Mariota this season and when he’s run with the ball he’s averaged 5.2 yards per carry, so the Titans definitely have the tools to take the Chiefs apart.

The Titans have had an issue with turning over the ball this season and their – 4 ratio was the 7th worse in the league, the Chiefs on the other hand were the second best team in terms of turnovers as they recorded 15.

I’ve already read an article entitled “Why the Titans have no chance in Kansas City” this week and the bookies have the Chiefs as 8 point favourites but I think the Titans Offensive line combined with Eric Berry’s absence give the Titans more than a chance especially considering Andy Reid and Alex Smith’s previous playoff travails (a combined record of 13-16).  I’d be surprised if the Chiefs playoff run lasts more than a week and with cold and very windy conditions forecast for Saturday ball possession will be vital and kickers Ryan Succop (who set an NFL record when he made his 47th consecutive field goal inside 50 yards earlier this season)  and Harrison Butker could be the most important players for their respective teams.