Wildcard Weekend (the NFC bit part 2)

Back in 1996 the Propellerheads collaborated with Shirley Bassey and released “History Repeating” and that should be this game’s theme tune, the Seahawks travelled to Philadelphia just 6 weeks ago and despite a few alleged experts claiming they would struggle with the travel and the time difference they won 17-9. There a few differences in personnel from that game and the Seahawks demonstrated last week that they can quite average and incredibly exciting to watch in 2 halves of the same game so there is a chance that this is the wild Wildcard game.

In week 12 had Rashaad Penny and Chris Carson to combine for 155 rushing yards and a touchdown and this week it looks likely that they’ll be relying on Travis Homer to carry most of the load in the run game with occasional bursts of veteran Marshawn Lynch and another veteran Robert Turbin on third downs. That may sound like a pretty serious problem, but back in week 12 the Seahawks had 14 players either “limited” or completely missing from practice this week that number is just 8 although 3 of them are Offensive lineman and that could have a bigger effect on the run game than the combination of running backs they’re using. The Eagles themselves have missed running back Miles Sanders and left tackle Lane Johnson during practice this week although Sanders says he fully expects to play on Sunday.

It’s been a messy season for the Eagles especially in terms of injuries and they’ve only won 5 games at home this season compared to the Seahawks 7 road games, the Eagles are ranked 12th in the league for passing touchdowns (averaging 1.7 per game) and 8th for interceptions (23rd in overall turnover percentage) and 13th for rushing touchdowns (averaging 1 per game) so they’re going to need their Defence to hold the Seahawks to less than 14 points if they’re going to win this game. The Seahawks have averaged a nice, round 25 points per game on the road this season although the 17 they scored in Philly last time out was the fewest points they’ve scored outside Seattle this season. If Eagles fans are searching for hope they can look to the fact that the Seahawks lost their last 2 games of the season against divisional opponents, so teams who have already played them this season can be problematic although both those teams were considerably healthier than the Eagles figure to be this week.

It’s difficult to see how injuries don’t decide this game, even if both teams start the game with the majority of players who have missed practice there’s a very real possibility the injuries will rear their ugly heads again during the game. Unless something drastic happens the Seahawks should be buoyed by the ending of last week’s battle with the 49ers and should progress serenely into the next round with a 10 point buffer.

NFL Playoffs – Wildcard Weekend, game 2 – Seahawks @ Cowboys

Form is usually the key to predicting which teams will advance in the playoffs, especially in the Wildcard round where teams with inferior records can look to recent results to provide them with confidence in the postseason. However both of these teams have suffered a slight wobble as the playoffs approached, both have won 2 but lost 1 in the last 3 weeks and the games they have won have only been decided by 1 score.

When these teams met in the regular season the Seahawks won but the game was played in Seattle and way back in September, since when the Cowboys have traded for Amari Cooper who has had a dramatic effect on their Offence and the Seahawks have lost Defensive stalwart Earl Thomas to a broken leg. In that game Dallas out gained the Seahawks 303 yards to 295 yards but the Cowboys really struggled to keep the scoreboard ticking over and Dak Prescott threw 2 interceptions and just the 1 touchdown. The Cowboys rushed for 116 yards at an average of 8.7 yards per attempt so Zeke Elliott will be looking forward to meeting the Seahawks again. In their last 3 games Seattle have allowed 333 rushing yards and in his last 3 games Elliott has run for 285 yards and he was rested in week 17 so he should be chomping at the bit this week.

Since week 15 the Seahawks have scored on average almost 30 points a game whilst conceding an average of 27 points per game. For their part the Cowboys are averaging 21 but defensively they have conceded an average of 26 points per game so there’s a very good chance this will be the highest scoring game of the weekend.

This game could be decided early on if the Seahawks can establish a lead because the Cowboys are not as comfortable playing from behind as they are when they can utilise Elliott as their main attacking weapon even if Seattle struggle to contain explosive running backs. Even if the Seahawks go 2 scores up early in proceedings it should still be a high scoring game because neither Defence have managed to dominate their opposition in recent weeks. How healthy Seahawks kicker Sebastian Janikowski is could be an important factor because a healthy Sea Bass is a threat from long range but in his last 2 games he hasn’t looked like a man trying to protect himself from further injury, could there be a chance for Australian punter Michael Dickson get the chance to drop kick some points in the postseason?

Like Bill O’Brien’ the Cowboys’ Jason Garrett has had his share of playoff woes and at home he has the rather inauspicious record of 1 win and 1 loss, the last loss coming in 2016 when some rather questionable officiating saw the Packers leave AT & T Stadium with a very controversial 31-34 win (and a few conspiracy theories were born).

Baring any unfortunate officiating decisions the Cowboys should double Jason Garrett’s number of playoff wins this weekend in a points-fest but of all the Quarterbacks on show in this round of the playoffs Russell Wilson is the one who could single handedly change the path of a postseason game.

Detroit Lions @ Seattle Seahawks

Detroit lost 13-10 at CenturyLink Field the last time they played in Seattle but last season’s Monday Night Football game was more memorable for its controversial ending when K.J Wright batted a fumble through the end-zone than any of the Offensive play.  The Lions notched up just 10 first downs as they only managed 256 yards on Offence (Jay Ajayi ran for 214 yards for the Dolphins in week 7 of this season against Buffalo).  Ameer Abdullah was Detroit’s leading rusher with a measly 33 yards as he averaged just 2.5 yards per carry and they weren’t much more successful through the air as Matt Stafford averaged just 5.8 yards per pass despite targeting the since retired Calvin Johnson 11 times.  On the plus side for Stafford he did finish the game with a completion rate of 69% and he managed to avoid being sacked by the Seahawks aggressive Defence.  Conversely on that might the Lions managed to sack Russell Wilson 6 times and forced him to fumble 3 times.  When Wilson stayed upright he dissected the Lions pass defence though and he finished the game with a completion rate of 77% and a passer rating of 125.0.

This season Detroit are averaging 21.6 points per game on the Offensive side of the ball which is 0.5 fewer than the Seattle’s 22.1 (which is the 9th best average in the NFC), so both Offence’s appear well matched.  However, on the other side of the ball there is a vast chasm of difference, the Lions Defence has struggled to contain opposing Offences and against Aaron Rodgers Green Bay Packers Offence many of them appeared to have lost the ability to tackle anyone in possession of the ball.  The Lions have conceded an average of 22.4 points per game, the 13th best number in the league and whilst Seattle Defence hasn’t been as airtight as they have been in the past (and they have missed Earl Thomas and Michael Bennett through injury) they have only conceded a miserly 18.3 points per game, the 3rd stingiest total in the league.  Essentially for the Lions to win a game they have to score 3 touchdowns and the Seahawks haven’t allowed many teams to score more than 2 against them this season.

Earl Thomas’ injury has proved a significant hindrance for the Seahawks defence and it’s caused them to concede an average of 24.5 points per game in the last 4 games of the season, strangely though given that Earl Thomas is the Free Safety the real problem of late has been stopping Rushing Touchdowns.  They’ve allowed 7 in 4 games compared to 5 pass touchdowns in the same period of time.  Feasibly the loss of a Free Safety like Thomas would make a Defence increasingly susceptible to a pass heavy attack, but in their last 4 games the Seahawks have only allowed on average 216 yards through the air (and one of those games was against Aaron Rodger’s Packers).  They have though given up Touchdown passes of 66 yards to Davante Adams and 80 yards to J.J Nelson over that period, the Lions longest pass completion this season is a 77 yarder to Marvin Jones but that happened way back in week 3 which was also the last time Jones recorded 100 yard receiving yards in a game.

The Seahawks Offence has hardly been a thing of beauty, or consistency, or stability as indicated by the fact they’ve had 18 different people carry the ball for them so far this season including Christine Michael (who has also played for the Cowboys and Packers this year <he clearly loves the NFC>), C.J. Prosise, C.J. Spiller and Thomas Rawls who is currently listed as the number 1 Running Back on their depth chart.  Their depth chart also includes Terrance Magee (who they released on the 28th September 4 days after they promoted him from the Practice Squad) and the rookie from Arkansas J.D McKissic who both signed on the 12th of December.  The Seahawks passing Offence has been severely disrupted by elite pass rushers this season with the Bills, Buccaneers and Cardinals combining for a total of 17 sacks on Russell Wilson in just 3 games, the Lions Defence however have recorded just 26 sacks this season and are ranked joint 30th in the NFL.

The Lions appear to game plan (either accidentally, or by design) for Matt Stafford to be the deciding factor in games, Zak Zenner has had impressive first halves in both of their last 2 games but as the clock runs down Lions Offensive Co-ordinator Jim Bob Cooter seems to almost panic and abandon the run game.  They’ve been behind heading into the 4th quarter of 16 games this season and the Matt’s, Stafford and Prater have won 9 of those games to get them this far.  However with Seattle’s Defence and Richard Sherman’s predatory instinct for interceptions in particular the chances of a late scoring run in the Pacific Northwest are incredibly slim.

If the Lions can keep it close on the scoreboard (and use Zenner to keep the Seahawks Defence honest) then they will have a chance to cause an upset.  Their main advantage is in the place kicking stakes where Matt Prater has a 90% rate of success, missing just 7 all season compared to Steven Haushka who has missed 10 all season and has an 86% success rate.  Allied to that is the fact Prater is 7/7 on field goals over 50 yards long this season and his longest has been a whopping 58 yards to take a game to overtime, Haushka has made just 1 field goal from 50 yards or further all season and his longest is a 53 yarder, the only one that he’s attempted from this distance.

Bookmakers have the Seahawks as favourites to win by more than a touchdown and while the chilly and potentially damp weather could make ball handling difficult (another reason to keep an eye on the special teams) the Lions would need to find something pretty spectacular to reverse their 3 game losing streak.  Matt Stafford’s finger injury has made it difficult for him to throw and even the return of Darius “big play” Slay didn’t fix their defensive frailties against the Packers.  If the game does come down to who can grind their opponent down more effectively the Seahawks and particularly their Defence will love it.  Were Marshawn Lynch were still on Seahawks roster the result would be a foregone conclusion, but he isn’t so it’ll be worth watching if only because any Offence featuring Jimmy Graham has the potential to explode.

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.