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.

Talk of Circadian rhythms, to paraphrase REM’s “Daysleeper”

Circadian rhythms are biological cycles that last approximately 24 hours, they are more commonly known as the body clock and as trans-Atlantic cross-pollination of sports leagues becomes increasingly de rigueur they become increasingly relevant.

Recently there have been 2 rumours attracting public scrutiny, the first and almost certainly the biggest news is that the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees are considering playing a “series” on the Eastern side of the pond which would seem a huge undertaking and the archetypal logistical nightmare (but if they think it’ll make money then it may very well happen).  Playing a series of games is pretty run of the mill stuff to MLB teams even though you would imagine most other sports (outside of basketball and ice hockey) would shudder at the prospect of travelling to and staying in a foreign city for at least 3 days (more if they are playing more than twice).

OK, now concentrate, here comes the science bit (well loosely speaking, as close as I get to science anyway); according to the National Centre for Biotechnology Information “Prolonged transmeridian air travel can impart a physical and emotional burden on athletes”.  They go on to state that “Jet lag may negatively affect the performance of athletes”.  Circadian rhythms are controlled in the body by the hypothalamus (the suprachiasmatic nucleus to be precise, nope, me neither) located more or less in the centre of the brain.  Circadian rhythms affect many biological factors including core body temperature but they are vitally important to the sleep-wake cycle, the brain uses exposure to light and the resulting secretion of the hormone melatonin to determine whether the body should be asleep or awake.  So really any long haul flight will cause disruption to an athlete’s sleep pattern and, as a result, their performance.  North American athlete’s in particular are habituated to long haul flights (the Seahawks have to fly for 6 hours every time they play in Florida, so don’t expect them to be in London anytime soon) but they rarely have to fly for over 6 hours and they never have to attend fan rally’s the day before the game as they do in London.  It’s widely accepted that travelling East produces more lasting effects than Westward travel as there is excessive exposure light and more melatonin production, so any trans-Atlantic journey will be arduous and the 10 plus hour flight from Los Angeles the Rams face would be more like torture.  The NCIB states that the optimum way to deal with jet lag is to adapt behaviour rather with rely on pharmaceutical products.  It is believed that it takes approximately 1 day to adjust to crossing 1 time zone (so the Rams would need 9 days in early October, they really didn’t think the whole LA move through, did they?) So if the Red Sox and the Yankees did attempt to play more than 1 game on this side of the pond it could be quite a long road trip for both teams.

The second and more pertinent whispering involves the NFL reconsidering the early kick off times (1:30 pm BST or 2:30pm GMT) that recent International Series games have had to a more traditional (and the original International Series) kick off time of 6pm BST or 5pm GMT (1pm Eastern Time).

This was surprisingly met with a fairly negative response from fans on social media, largely due to the fact a lot of them travel to deepest, darkest North London to watch the games (not as far as the LA Rams travel to play mind you).  Fans concerns may well be one of the factors that the organisers take into consideration when they finalise kick off times but it has to be said that the effects of playing well and truly out of not just their time-zone but also their comfort zone (the Bengals played in front of 84,448 fans at Wembley 13,000 more than their average home attendance and despite twice taking the lead, and, at one stage opening a 10 point lead they finished by tying a game that they could have easily lost).  Both the Bengals and Redskins suffered from a slow start as they amassed 17 points between them in the first half and a far more impressive 37 points in a breathless second half.  Like the Bengals the Colts struggled early on at Wembley (where they were playing in front of around 18,000 more people than their average home attendance) against an unconvincing Jaguars team who were 0-3, Andrew Luck and his Offence didn’t register a touchdown until the 4th Quarter but once they scored 1 they added another 2 in about 11 minutes.  The Rams who played against the New York Giants at (historic) Twickenham Stadium (which has a capacity almost 12,000 smaller than the Coliseum) managed the impressive feat of starting like a house on fire (very impressive considering it was 5:30 am where they had come from) until the Giants scored a touchdown and then the Rams managed to produce 3 scoreless quarters, while the Giants Offence didn’t register their first touchdown until the 4th Quarter to finally put the game to bed.

So, disruption of circadian rhythms, jetlag, call it what you will certainly appear to be a factor in how NFL players perform and since the NFL use the International Series to showcase the game to not just the UK but all of Europe (and to a certain extent the rest of the world) their primary concern is providing a spectacle that is not just convenient to attend but also entertaining to watch.

Purely from a personal perspective I think that Wembley under floodlights is a pretty spectacular venue, the pre-game shows inside a dark stadium are mesmeric.  This year the atmosphere when the Bengals and Redskins finished playing was absolutely electric (it’s pretty difficult to get “rowdy” at 1pm, the bars will have been open longer if they don’t kick off until 5pm or 6pm) so if the NFL feel that changing kick off times will benefit the players and provide entertaining games from the off it can only be a positive.

NFC Championship game Green Bay Packers @ Seattle Seahawks

2 time zones and the small matter of a 1,933 mile drive separate the frozen tundra of Wisconsin from the temperate (and more often than not soggy) Pacific Northwest geographically but football-wise it’s each team’s ability to run the football and stop the run that is separates them this season. The Seahawks lead the league in rush yards and their defence was the hardest to run against in the NFL this season too. The Packers on the other hand finished the regular season with the 11th best rushing average on offence and rather worryingly the 23rd tightest run defence in the league, although it should be pointed out that the Packers inability to stop the run is largely a by-product of Nose Tackle B.J Raji missing the entire season with a torn bicep.
The Seahawks have not lost a game since Middle Linebacker Bobby Wagner returned from injury on week 12 and since his return they’ve only conceded 56points at an average of 8 per game. Russell Wilson hasn’t lost to Aaron Rodgers in their 2 previous meetings and the Packers haven’t won in Seattle since 2009, so there’s not much reason for optimism for the boys from back East. In fact things look so bleak for the Packers injuries are one of the few things that could assist them, the Seahawks have 15 players on Injured Reserve and a further 8 players missing from practice this week while the Packers only have 10 on Injured reserve and 4 who have missed practice but 2 of them will definitely play because if Eddie Lacey and Aaron Rodgers can stand up they’ll be on the field. The Seahawks have got a particular injury problem on defence where they have 6 defensive linemen on IR and 3 linebackers also missing. The only other issue the Seahawks have experienced this season is ill discipline, they were the most penalised team in the NFL during the regular season and if Rodgers and the Packers are able to keep the score tight and build a bit of tension then they could benefit from some of the ticky-tacky refereeing calls these playoffs are in danger of being remembered for.
The Packers haven’t really got much going for them in this match-up and unless Aaron Rodgers is 100% fit (which he probably isn’t) there’s nothing to suggest the Packers season won’t finish where it started on the 4th of September last year with a 20 point loss in front of the “12th man” at CenturyLink Field. The thing about Rodgers and the Packers is they’re scrappers and with the officiating we’ve seen this postseason it’s far from certain. For what it’s worth the Packers pass rush should be able to cause the Seahawks offensive line and Russell Wilson some problems but it won’t help them stop Marshawn Lynch if he turns on his “Beastmode”.