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. 

Super Bowl 50 an irresistible force meets an immovable object

DSC_0198Cam Newton scored was responsible for 270 points during the regular season (35 touchdown passes and 10 rushing touchdowns); it took the Broncos 14 weeks to break that number of points! As a collective the Panthers scored 500 points in their 16 regular season games, so roughly 31 points every game. So there’s the irresistible force right there, the immovable object comes in the form of the Broncos Defence who conceded just 296 points during the regular season (or roughly 19 points per game), the 4th fewest in the NFL and the 296 yards per game they allowed was the lowest in the league and gives an idea of how they made it to the Super Bowl.
The Broncos have made suffocating defence an art form this season, they recorded 52 sacks in the regular season and with edge pass rushers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller (who combined for 18.5 sacks during the regular season and recorded 3 of the Broncos sacks on Tom Brady in the AFC Championship game) alongside Derek Wolfe (who had 5.5 sacks during the regular season) they’ve redefined quarterback pressure. 14 different players have recorded at least half a sack for the Broncos this season so Wade Phillips isn’t afraid to send any of the defence to rush opposing Quarterbacks, one of the results of pressurising Quarterbacks is that they throw inaccurate passes and as a result 9 Broncos have made Interceptions this season.
The antidote to a good pass rush is the ability to run the ball well and the Panthers have used their running game effectively this season, Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula said that he’s never had a playlist with so many different running plays on it before and his NFL coaching career began in 1988). The Panthers have used 4 Running Backs this season who have combined for 1536 yards, Quarterback Cam Newton has carried for 636 yards too and Wide Receivers have chipped in for 114 yards too (with Ted Ginn Jr recording a 43 yard rush, so look out for that in the Super Bowl). The Panthers 19 rushing touchdowns during the regular season tied 1st in the NFL and with an average of 4.3 yards per attempt the Panthers could just use the run game early on as they attempt to suss out the Broncos Defence (they won’t though, you don’t earn the nickname “Riverboat Ron” for conservative play calls).
Denver’s rush defence was the 3rd best in the league but it was nowhere near as stifling as the pass defence and they allowed on average 3.3 yards per carry, they did recover 13 fumbles though as part of their 27 takeaways and had their Offence not conspired to give possession away 31 times they would have ended the season with a much healthier +/- ratio. The Broncos Defensive Back’s were (and have been all season) incredibly physical when it came to pass coverage and Rob Gronkowski in particular was the victim of a lot of grabbing and jersey pulling which could be called by official’s in a showpiece event such as the Super Bowl (about 114 million people watched last year).
Carolina’s Defence rattled up a very impressive 39 turnovers, 24 of which were Interceptions and 4 of those were returned for touchdowns with All Pro Josh Norman recording 2 scores during the regular season and general all round superstar middle linebacker Luke Kuelchy adding 2 postseason return touchdowns to the 1 he made during the regular season. Kuelchy is going to be vital with Thomas Davis Jr suffering a broken arm in the NFC Championship game (he will probably play, but how many snaps he can play is not entirely clear yet) and Peyton manning loving to throw to Broncos Tight End Owen Daniels, particularly near the end zone (both of Daniels catches against the Patriots were also both of the Broncos touchdown receptions) Kuelchy’s ability to ball hawk and break on any loose passes may well win the game.
Last week the Broncos progressed to the Super Bowl on the back of a Stephen Gostkowski missed extra point even though their Defence was the dominant faction of the game, their Offence were forced to punt 9 times and as the game wore on a miracle recovery by the Patriots looked increasingly possible. The Panthers on the other hand have dominated the NFC playoffs and have scored 80 points in 2 games whilst conceding just 39 so they should favourites, right? Well they are favourites but the Broncos close call last week will definitely focus their minds and with Peyton Manning possibly playing his last NFL game (or maybe his last as a Bronco) they will definitely be up for it.
It’s impossible to predict who will win this game before it’s started largely because whoever scores first will be vitally important, if the Broncos score first they’ll just send as much pressure as possible at Cam Newton because he hasn’t seen this much pass rush all season but if the Panthers score first the Broncos will have to break their usually ultra conservative game plan in order to catch up and they will make for a fun game and possibly a nail biting finish.

NFC Championship game – Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers

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

NFC Divisional game #2 – Seattle Seahawks @ Carolina Panthers

DSC_0198Rivalries play an important part in the NFL, the intensity of the rivalry between the Bengals and the Steelers cost the Bengals a place in the AFC Divisional round last week and rivalries of a more cerebral nature between Quarterbacks often develop in unexpected ways. Not many people would have imagined that a 34 year old Roger Staubach would have competed against Terry Bradshaw in Super Bowl X (and again in Super Bowl XII as a 37 year old) when Staubach was picked with the 129th pick of the draft in 1964, Bradshaw had been the first pick of the 1970 draft and was widely touted as a star in the making. Likewise when the New England Patriots drafted a Quarterback by the name of Thomas Edward Patrick Brady in the 6th round of the 2000 draft nobody but nobody thought he’d become the leading rival to the first pick in the 1998 draft, and a man with football in his blood, Peyton Manning over the course of the proceeding 16 years. Surely the next cab off the rank with regard to unlikely Quarterback rivalries is 26 year old Cameron “Cam” Jerrell Newton, who was the first pick of the 2011 having won the Heisman trophy (and BCS game with Auburn) and Russell Carrington Wilson who the Seahawks drafted in 2011 after he had lost the 2012 Rose Bowl game with Wisconisin in the 3rd round largely as a backup having spent $26 million to sign Matt Flynn. Similarly with Manning and Brady the guy who came out of nowhere is the one who’s had more success in January and Wilson has been to 2 Super Bowls and already won 1 while Newton has only won 1 of the 3 postseason games he has played in, despite the contrasts in their respective careers (and physical statures, Newton is 6 feet 5 inches tall and well over 100 kgs, while Wilson stands 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighs just 93 kgs) both Quarterbacks are as good at moving the sticks with their legs as they are with their arms.

 

The battle of the Quarterbacks will be crucial to the final result of this game and as always in Playoff football even the smallest mistake could be crucial particularly with 2 suffocating Defence’s on the field. Previous history and this season’s statistics would point toward a Carolina victory, in week 8 the Panthers won in Seattle 27-23 when Newton threw a touchdown pass and rushed for another touchdown as the Panthers found themselves on the way to a 15 week win streak. Newton did also throw 2 interceptions in that game while Wilson didn’t commit any turnovers in the game despite being sacked 4 times, losing 22 yards in the process. Over the course of the season Cam Newton was responsible for a whopping 45 touchdowns, with 35 passes and 10 rushing scores while the Seahawks conceded the fewest touchdown passes in the NFL with just 14 and the 6th lowest number of rushing touchdowns, just 10. Wilson threw 34 touchdowns passes and while he only scored 1 rushing touchdown he did run for 31 first downs during the regular season. For their part the Panthers impressive Defence allowed 21 touchdown passes in the regular season and 11 rushing touchdowns.

 

At this juncture it’d be really good to talk about how Cam Newton has become the superhero that he’s always considered himself this season, not just by presenting children in the crowd with football’s after every score he’s created this season or away from the field with his philanthropic nature (a lot of Panthers players including Defensive Captain and all round superstar Luke Kuelchy, veteran Charles “peanut” Tillman and stand out Corner Back Josh Norman are all involved in some slightly underreported charity work as are Seahawks players including Newton’ opposite number Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and everybody’s favourite pantomime villain Richard Sherman amongst others). How this could be Marshawn Lynch’s final game for the Seahawks as he could become a free agent or retire after an injury hit season would also be a worthy talking point but the feeling that this game will hinge on a mistake forced, or made by one of the exceptional Defence’s rather than a game changing piece of Offensive brilliance still pervades.

 

The Panthers Defence has made a rather startling 39 turnovers during the regular season so it wouldn’t be a total surprise if they were the team who capitalised on a crucial error and with the Seahawks averaging 1 turnover per game on Offence the Panthers should have a chance to score some points of Defence that could take some pressure off Cam Newton. Newton’s 2 interceptions to Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor would be a concern for Panthers coach “Riverboat” Ron Rivera but the fact that Greg Olsen clocked up 131 receiving yards against the Seahawks in the Pacific Northwest may allay that fear. Kyle Rudolph late on against the Seahawks last week in the arctic temperatures of Minnesota and if Olsen can do the same this week then Cam’s job will be made much easier.
Essentially this game will be closer than cousin’s are in some Southern states, Seattle have this amazing knack of looking for all the money in the world like they’re about to lose a game but still running out winners, just ask Blair Walsh. The Panthers are favourites to win but the Seahawks ended their Playoff run last year and will probably do it again this time out too.

NFC Divisional game 1 Carolina Panther @ Seattle Seahawks

On paper this is an absolute walkover victory for the Seahawks, the Panthers only managed to win 7 games in the regular season and only managed to navigate Wildcard weekend with the help of a Cardinals offence that set a new in terms of yards during a playoff game. But they’re not playing on paper; they’re playing on the Fieldturf of CenturyLink Field. Continuing the theme of this year’s playoff’s the strangest thing about this game is that with less than 12 hours until kickoff there’s over 3,200 tickets on sale for it.
Remarkably both these teams are quite similar in their approach to the game; they both have mobile Quarterback’s, don’t score too many points, use their running game to tire out the opposing defences and rely on their defence to win them games. Obviously whoever executes their gameplan with the most accuracy will proceed to the NFC Conference game next week and over the course of the regular season the Seahawks 12 wins indicate they should triumph.
Both teams even have similar faults, they have both fumbled 9 times on offence this season (the Seahawks losing just 2 compared to the Panthers 4) and neither have been particularly effective through the air on offense (Seahawks threw 20 touchdown passes, Carolina 23 a long way from the Colts 42). Special teams-wise the Panthers have been particularly outstanding with an NFL leading 15.5 yards per punt return and a 32.4 yard average kick return which is the second in the NFL, this could be vital in a game where offence will be hard to come by.
Carolina’s run game and more importantly how they chose to carry it out is particularly fascinating, this year they have used 12 different players to carry the ball (the Seahawks have had 10 players handle the ball, but when you fumble as often as them some unusual players will pick it up) they will have to use some creative formations and maybe even a few trick plays to keep the Seahawks 3rd ranked rush defence on the back foot. Jonathan Stewart has lead the Panthers rushing offence this season while DeAngelo Williams has missed portions of the season injured but 4 players have scored rushing touchdowns for them. Allied to the running game short and screen passes to play coming out of the backfield will also keep the Seahawks defence on its toes and 5 Running Backs have caught passes for the Panthers this season and both of Cam Newton’s touchdown passes last week were caught by backs, not receivers.
Russell Wilson was the first Seahawks Quarterback to take his team to a Super Bowl when he got them there last season and only an exceptional display of high stakes speculation from “Riverboat” Ron Rivera will prevent Wilson from advancing to a possible meeting with another MVP candidate Aaron Rogers. Look out for a slow start from Seattle and another “seismic run” from Marshawn Lynch, although if Carolina’s Luke Kuelchy continues last week’s sensational form there could be a lot of bitten nails in the Pacific North West this evening.