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.

 

Fantasy football

So it’s nearly time for the first online NFL Draft which could could provide some hilarity and more than a few very frustrated and bamboozled middle aged coaches and GM’s. The NFL have said that for the first time in the history of the Draft they will stop the clock if there are unforeseen circumstances which cause team’s issues when making picks so it could also be one of the most protracted first rounds ever, so there’s something to look forward to! Last week I tried to predict (although in fairness I readily admit that I guessed wildly) so this week I thought I’d think aloud about which players I’d like to see with different teams even if there’s no chance of them actually ending up there.

I’m a big fan of Jalen Hurts and I think there’s a very good chance he will surprise a few of the experts and be a success wherever he lands but I would really like to see him in Indianapolis. Hurts looked very good in patches at Alabama but had a fairly big hiccup in the National Championship game and was bailed out by Tua and that seemed to be held against him despite him returning the favour in the 2018 SEC Championship game against Georgia. Last season he played for Oklahoma and while he wasn’t exactly Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray he actually looked to be playing at quite a high level in a team that wasn’t as star studded as it had been in the previous two seasons. They finished the season with a 12-2 record and lost in the Peach Bowl to eventual champions LSU, Hurts threw 32 TD’s with 8 interceptions and ran for another 20 and even caught a TD so hardly a terrible season but he’s still not projected as a high pick with Tua, Herbert and Jordan Love ahead of him.

The Colts have already signed Phillip Rivers as a stop-gap for one season so a young QB to learn from such an experienced campaigner the way Patrick Mahomes did behind Alex Smith would be ideal. Two more major plus points for any young QB who the Colts draft are that GM Chris Ballard has made a speciality out of building a team to win the battle at the line of scrimmage, possibly as a result of seeing Andrew Luck take so much punishment during his career the Colts now have a very sturdy Offensive line and Head Coach Frank Reich who was a QB in the league for 13 years and has developed a reputation as something of a Quarterback whisperer as a coach and he was the Offensive Coordinator in Philadelphia when the Eagles beat the Patriots 41-33 in Super Bowl LII. There’s almost no chance Hurts does land in Indianapolis and as they’ve already traded away their first round pick a project QB won’t be anywhere near the top of their list but they do have 2 picks in the first 12 of the second round.

A more pressing need for the Colts is probably Wide Receiver with T.Y Hilton approaching his 31st birthday and the strain of being the major receiving threat in Indianapolis since 2012 starting to take its toll whoever takes over from Rivers could use a consistent number 1 receiver and unless they trade up for one of the most promising prospects Michael Pittman could be a very useful guy who will probably be available when the Colts first pick comes around at number 34.

Speaking of high end WR talent I would personally love to see at least 2 of the best 3 land with top QB’s but that is highly unlikely unless there are some blockbuster trades happening in the top half of the first round (which seems highly unlikely), but this is my fantasy world remember so we live in hope. It would be great to see the Packers actually try to help Aaron Rodgers and giving him another elite receiver like CeeDee Lamb to pair with Davante Adams would go some way towards doing that but it’s highly unlikely they will. For a team who won 13 games last season the Packers have a lot of needs in this Draft and they’ve only got 2 picks in the first 93 (!) they do have 8 picks in the later rounds though so they could trade up to try and at least solidify the O-line.

Carson Wentz is another QB who needs more reliable receiving options, the Eagles ended last season with former College QB Greg Ward playing as a receiver and after an injury crisis they had 9 different WR’s who caught passes. Going into the 2020 their most established WR is DeSean Jackson who will be 34 in December and hasn’t played a full season since 2013! Jerry Jeudy would be really interesting to watch in an Offence with Carson Wentz and coached by Doug Pederson. With a real deep threat to clear space for Zach Ertz, Miles Sanders and Boston Scott the Eagles could return to the sort of high powered Offence that saw them overpower the Patriots not so long ago.

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.

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.