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

Jaguars @ Patriots

Tom Brady against a 4 man pass rush is one of the things dreams are made of (yes, I have strange dreams). Brady is a master of exploiting defences that blitz to put him under pressure, but there’s a very good chance that the Jaguars won’t blitz at all unless they find themselves in a 3rd and very long situations and want to make sure their Defence gets of the field as soon as possible. Jacksonville’s Defensive linemen have combined for 47 sacks, forced 13 fumbles and they’ve even scored 3 touchdowns between them so they are a serious proposition for any Offence. There’s even a meme illustrating that the Jaguars have held Super Bowl winning Quarterbacks to just 8 touchdowns whilst they’ve intercepted them 11 times and held them to a collective passer rating of 44!

This would possibly indicate that the Patriots might be better advised to lean on their running game but last week the Steelers only managed to just 70 yards from 20 attempts. Although a lot of that was due to some bizarre play calling from Todd Haley who was subsequently fired and in part due to Le’Veon Bell not feeling the need to turn up to the last practice session before the game.

For their part last week the Patriots did rush for 101 yards on 27 carries but they favoured the run to the outside probably the avoid the Titans big defensive front, when the Steelers tried to run stretch plays against the Jaguars speedy Defensive the Jags outside Linebackers blew it up in the backfield more often than not. You can bet your bottom dollar that Josh McDaniels has been watching tape all week though and he won’t be calling slow developing run plays. He may chose to use screen passes instead of toss plays and he’ll use a lot of misdirection to try and catch the Jaguars over pursuing, for the Jaguars setting the edge and maintaining their discipline in gaps and assignments will be vitally important.

When it comes to discipline the Jaguars have a not so secret secret weapon, Tom Coughlin. Coughlin wanted the job of head coach but Jaguars owner Shahid Khan talked him into taking a front office job (Executive Vice President of Football Operations) where he has acted as both a sounding board and support structure for Head Coach Doug Marone when it comes the “X’s and O’s” but also when it comes to how to deal with players. Coughlin has famously overcome the Patriots in his previous guise as New York Giants Head Coach in two Super Bowl’s back in 2008 and 2012 so if there’s a coaching staff left in the post-season who could out think Bill Bellichick and company it has to be men from North East Florida.

However, here’s the breaks, the Steelers lit up the Jaguars Defensive backs last week with huge pass plays, Antonio Brown notched up 132 receiving yards on just 7 catches (and he had a very injured calf that he battled through). Tight End Vance McDonald had 112 yards of his own (Rob Gronkowski will win the game single handedly if he’s afforded that sort of space) and La’Veon Bell recorded 88 yards on 9 receptions. Ben Roethlisberger threw for an astonishing 469 yards and 5 touchdowns despite throwing an interception, losing a fumble and being sacked twice!

The Jaguars have a record of 1-10 against the Patriots and they have never beaten them in Foxborough in their previous 7 meetings. Tom Terrific hasn’t lost a playoff game since 2015 when the Broncos Defence got him in Denver (and there are similarities between that Broncos team and this Jaguars one, Malik Jackson played in that Broncos team before moving to the Jags. But are Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler Jr as good as Vonn Miller and DeMarcus Ware?) Brady’s Patriots haven’t lost a playoff game in Gillette Stadium since Baltimore beat them 28-13 back in 2012 so the Jaguars will have to be almost perfect to upset them this time out.

There are 2 injuries that could prove vital to this game with Tom Brady being involved in an accidental collision at practice during the week and cutting his hand but I can’t see that stopping one of the most single minded individuals in the NFL. For the Jaguars however Leonard Fournette took a blow to his troublesome ankle (in November 2016 it was described as a “chronic problem”) and if he is anywhere less than 95% healthy his physical running style will be seriously hindered. Chris Ivory and TJ Yeldon are both serviceable running backs (Yeldon particularly in the passing game) but Fournette brings the sprinkling of star dust the Jags Offence need in the playoffs. Blake Bortles has won two more games in the post-season than anyone was predicting but asking him to carry the Jags Offence on the road in a stadium where they have never won would be unwise and frankly unfair to someone in just their third playoff game.

I really do hope the Jaguars Defence can be as explosive and entertaining as they have been at their best this season (10 sacks in Houston, 5 interceptions in Pittsburgh the first time out and 7 Defensive touchdowns all season) but if you told me they are going to beat the Patriots with their iconic Quarterback in their own back yard I’d suggest you were the one who was having a strange dream.

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. 

AFC Wildcard game 1 – Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers made it 21 divisional titles (granted that division’s title has changed from the AFC Central to the AFC North over the years, but still) on Sunday Night Football when they beat the Bengals last weekend. The last 2 times the Steelers won their division they appeared in the Super Bowl so they’re no stranger to long playoff runs.
If they are to go deep into the postseason this year they will need defensive stalwarts Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor be healthy and back to their vintage best, which they haven’t really been all season, they could also do with Pro Bowl Running back LaVeon Bell to be 100% fit, which after Reggie Nelson’s crunching hit to his right knee is looking increasingly unlikely. Bell’s knee injury is such a worry for the Steelers that they’ve been trying out Ben Tate this week, the Steelers would be Tate’s 3rd different team this season, but needs must and all that. If they do sign another running back I would imagine it’d be to compliment the 2 talented rookies they have rather than replace LaVeon Bell as the main back, with a short turn around between their Sunday Night Football game last week and their Saturday night playoff game it’d be tricky for Tate to learn the entire playbook. Bell’s loss will mean the Steelers will have to adapt their offense quite a lot this week as Bell is 2nd only to Pro Bowl Wide Receiver Antonio Brown in receiving yards, Brown lead the NFL in yards and with his 854 Bell was 40th in the league. Short passes will be the key for the Steelers offence against a Ravens defence that has recorded 49 sacks this season, Tight End Heath Miller who is master at finding the spot in a zone defence stands to be a key target for Ben Roethlisberger and I’d expect a few screen passes to youngsters Martavius Bryant and Dri Archer who have some serious speed. The 6 foot 4 inch Bryant ran a 4.41 second 40 yard dash at the NFL Combine and Archer ran the fastest time at the combine (4.26 seconds) which is no surprise for someone who clocked a 10.49 100 metre time as a High School student.
The Ravens are not without their own considerable injury problems with a massive 18 players on the Injured Reserve list and 4 more players struggling to practice this week just reaching the postseason is a gargantuan feat in itself. After the controversial exit of their former Running back Ray Rice (not controversial because it wasn’t warranted, but controversial because the NFL’s indefinite ban was overturned in court) early in the season and star Defensive Tackle Haloti Ngata being banned for 4 games for failing a drug test, the Ravens could be forgiven for struggling through 2014 and starting a fresh next season. It’s a mark of their resilience not just as a team but as an organisation that they’ve made a potentially traumatic time into a relatively successful season. On the field the Ravens have averaged an impressive 664.9 yards per game and have averaged 25.6 points per game, with the Steelers averaging 411.1 yards and 27.3 points per game this doesn’t appear to be one of the titanic battles of field position that the AFC North traditionally served up. In fact when these teams met at Heinz Field in early November there was a total of 66 points, 43 for the Steelers and just 23 for the Ravens and LaVeon didn’t have his best game that night either, he managed just 58 total yards from scrimmage and wasn’t even the Steelers best rusher. Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown did tear the Ravens secondary to pieces though with Roethlisberger throwing for 340 yards and a whopping 6 touchdowns and Antonio Brown being on the receiving end of 11 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown.
I think the Steelers should win this game too because they have only lost 2 home games all season and they were both against NFC South teams. It should be closer than their previous meeting but 2 inconsistent defensive backfield’s on show there could be almost as many points as the Pittsburgh faithful saw in week 9. The one thing you know about any Steelers matchup with the Ravens is there will be no shortage of physicality and even with the improvement the Steelers offensive line has made over the course of this season the loss of LaVeon Bell’s blitz recognition and pass blocking will mean Ben Roethlisberger will be under constant pressure when he drops back to pass.