Wildcard weekend, the AFC bit at least

Buffalo at Houston is essentially the NFL equivalent of the North London derby, both teams are capable of producing exciting football but neither have been able to put together enough excitement to challenge for the big prize. The Bills longest winning streak this season has been 3 games and the Texans haven’t won more than 2 consecutive games all season, luckily for them they lost last week! If either coaching team could figure out how to win consistently then both of these teams could be on a bye week this weekend instead of playing after a short week which in theory should favour the home team however the weather in Buffalo is forecast to be 7 degrees and wet on Saturday so travelling somewhere where it’ll be 17 and sunny has to be a bonus.

It’s really difficult to draw any conclusions from either team’s regular season results (beyond the axiom that their inconsistency could indicate possible weaknesses within the coaching teams) since both seem to have beaten teams with poor defensive records, the only real obvious difference is that the Texans beat the Patriots while the Bills conspired to lose to them twice in some rather grim weather conditions. The Texans have won 5 games in Houston this season and as if to highlight their inconsistency the games they lost were to the Panthers and Broncos who both ended the season with losing records. The Bills on the other hand won 6 games on the road so they won’t mind having to travel 1,500 odd miles.

The Bills Defence should make them favourites too as they’re ranked second in terms of passing touchdowns allowed, ninth in rushing touchdowns and 10th in turnovers made. The Texans are 27th in passing touchdowns (a whopping 33 allowed), ninth in rushing touchdowns and 15th in turnovers. This is another reason that this game is awkward to pick, the Bills are a stronger team than passing with Quarterback Josh Allen rushing for 9 touchdowns the most in the league by a QB while their 21 touchdown passes rank them 24th in the league.

Bill O’Brien’s postseason record looks to be deciding factor in this game to me, as a head coach he’s only won 1 playoff game while he’s lost 3 and for all the Bills coaching team possible faults (Sean McDermott himself is 0-1 in the playoffs) they’ve put together a team who should be able to win a scrappy, nerve-jangler in somebody else’s back garden.

NFL Playoffs – Wildcard Weekend. Game 1 – Colts @ Texans

Playoff games between divisional rivals are usually slightly disappointing because both teams are so familiar with each other. However this meeting promises to be a very even matchup as the aggregate score in their divisional meetings this season is 58-58 and in an interesting twist both teams won in their opponents’ stadium! The Texans kick-started their season with a week 4 win in Indianapolis, an overtime victory that began their 9 game winning streak. They didn’t lose again until the Colts visited NRG Stadium in week 14 a game which would launch the Colts current 4 game winning streak.

Since their last meeting the Colts have scored 84 points (an average of 28 a game) and conceded just 44 (about 15 a game). The Texans on the other hand have scored 79 (almost 27 per game) and they’ve only conceded 57 (19 per game) so all indicators point to another close game.

Turnovers have been a problem for the Colts in the last 3 games, they’ve given the ball away 4 times, twice as many times as the Texans in the same period of time. In their 2 games this season the Texans just edged the battle of the turnovers with 3 takeaways compared to the 1 the Colts managed in both games. The Colts displayed a clear advantage in terms of pass rush though as they sacked Deshaun Watson 12 times, 5 times in the last meeting at NRG.

The porosity of the Texans Offensive line could be the deciding factor in this game and while a heavy dose of Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue out of the backfield would take the steam out of the Colts pass rush I’m not sure Bill O’Brien, who made rose to prominence as a Wide Recievers and Quarterback coach in New England can talk himself into playing smash-mouth football against a divisional rival. The Colts seem to have a new found resilience and they’ve cultivated the useful habit of winning games that they look set to lose whilst never really playing very well. O’Brien’s playoff history is a source of concern too, he has only beaten the Raiders in the postseason and that was a Raiders team shorn of a starting Quarterback and it’s best Offensive lineman, when O’Brien’s Texans have faced team’s close to full strength they’ve lost (34-16 to the Patriots in 2016 and 30-0 to the Chiefs the previous year). It’s not beyond the realms of possibility this one is decided by a field goal, or a missed field goal similar to the one that handed the Colts victory on their last visit to NRG, sometimes history does repeat itself.

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. 

Oakland Raiders @ Houston Texans

Spinal injuries and broken fibula’s are never good but JJ Watt’s herniated disk and Derek Carr’s broken leg will surely be the hot topics surrounding this game.  Watt injured his back (which he had surgery on in the offseason) way back in September whereas Carr’s injury was a crushing blow in the build up to the playoffs when it happened in week 16, to compound Raiders fans anguish they lost their second string Quarterback Matt McGloin before half time in week 17.  The Raiders reliance on a third string Quarterback will almost certainly the deciding factor in the game and while the Raiders Offensive line could allow them to adopt a run heavy Offence and with 3 productive Running Backs (provided Jalen Richard is healthy) and a Fullback who is more than capable of carrying effectively it wouldn’t be a problem for them.  Pragmatism isn’t really their style though and Head Coach Jack Del Rio would probably prefer to chance his (and Connor Cook’s) arm to provide a repeat of the Raiders 27-20 victory of the Texans in Mexico City back in November.  Derek Carr was responsible for 3 of their Touchdowns in that game though as he launched a comeback and the Raiders outscored their opponents 17 -10 in the second half.  They had real trouble running against the Texans Defence too and as a team only recorded 30 rushing yards on 20 carries, the longest being a 6 yard Latavius Murray in the last minute of the game.

The Texans Offence hasn’t been particularly outstanding this year either and has had its own Quarterback issues, although not as a result of injuries.  Their issues have been a result of their personnel decision to offer Brock Osweiler a $72 million contract in free agency and the expectancy that a contract of the magnitude brings with it.  Osweiler has struggled and has thrown 16 interceptions in 15 starts alongside 15 touchdowns with a completion rate of 59%, only Ryan Fitzpatrick has a worse passer rating in the NFL this season.  Osweiler was replaced by Tom Savage in week 15 and he started in week 16 but left the game with a concussion and his participation in the post season is far from certain (he also didn’t look to be much of an improvement from Osweiler, none of his73 attempts have resulted in Touchdowns).  Osweiler has been the focal point of Texans fans ire but a more generous view would be that the Texans have built an Offensive line that’s more adept at run blocking and their 1,850 yards on the ground (the 8th most in the NFL) and the 32 sacks they’ve allowed (5 on Savage in 73 drop back’s <hence the concussion>) would attest to that.  Despite their success at running the ball (they’ve averaged 4.1 yards per carry and 116.2 yards per game) 56% of the Texans Offensive snaps have been pass attempts this season and 16 players have caught passes for the Texans this season, so there could be some questions about the Offensive play calling (even if Osweiler is getting the big bucks they’re clearly more comfortable running).  10 different players have rushed for the Texans and while Osweiler might not feel comfortable as a runner (and he’s certainly not quick enough to be considered a running Quarterback) he has rushed for 2 Touchdowns and averages 4.37 yards per carry so he does provide a threat when he pulls the ball down.

While the Texans will be missing their Defensive superstar the Raiders will have Khalil Mack and he will terrorise the Texans Offensive line.  Mack has 73 total tackles, 11 sacks and forced 5 fumbles this season to add to one of the most outrageous interceptions anyone had ever seen against Cam Newton.  It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the Raiders could win this game with their Defence alone.  Khalil Mack is not the only playmaker in their ranks, Bruce Irvin has won the Super Bowl with the Seahawks and this season he has notched up 7 sacks and 6 forced fumbles of his own, as a team the Raiders have made 25 sacks so they could tee off on the Texans Quarterback (whoever it is) unless the Texans trust their Running Backs a bit more.  The Raiders have also made 16, the second highest number in the NFL during the regular season with 9 year veteran Reggie Nelson grabbing 5 of them, with Brock’s propensity for throwing one a game he’ll certainly be spying the Quarterback.  The Texans have managed just 17 defensive turnovers all season which ranks them 26th in the league so they’ll be more reliant on their inconsistent Offence to decide this game for them.

It would be a huge upset of the Raiders were to win this game on the road and while it’s not completely impossible the way they played in week 17 the loss of Derek Carr has not only effected how they play but also how confident they are on the field, he’s a vital cog in their machine and the absence of his leadership and personality have left them flat.  The loss of their 2nd string Quarterback at the weekend left them looking shell shocked and almost dejected, if Jack Del Rio can rejuvenate them in the coming days then they should have enough firepower to beat an unconvincing Texans who have their own problems but you’d have to agree with the bookmakers who are currently favouring the Texans to win a close game.

The most interesting 2016 NFL offseason moves (part 2)

DSC_0198Brock Osweiler would score you 24 points in a game of Scrabble, but since the use of proper nouns is frowned on by us traditionalist Brock will have stick to scoring points on NFL field’s around America instead.  The 25 year old threw 10 touchdown passes in the 8 games he played last season, which is not particularly impressive but under Gary Kubiak’s stewardship the Broncos only threw 19 all season (a totally underwhelming TD pass % of 3.1, snore) so Brock’s number’s look pretty reasonable in that light.  The Broncos won 5 of the 8 games Osweiler started last season and averaged a shade over 20 points per game (compared to 24 ppg in Peyton Manning’s 8 starts).  When Manning retired it looked like the Broncos had a readymade replacement so when they decided that Osweiler could go to the Texans and draft Paxton Lynch instead more than a few heads were scratched.

For their part last season the Texans finished 9-7 and averaged 20 points per game, but they threw 29 touchdown passes (a TD% of 4.7).  They did make the playoffs as winners of the AFC South but since no other AFC South team managed to finish the season with a winning record it wasn’t exactly worth shouting from the rooftops.  Having drafted Ohio State standout Braxton Miller who will probably feature as a Wide Receiver opposite the blisteringly fast DeAndre Hopkins (who hauled in 11 of their TD passes last season), or in the slot, but has experience of playing at Quarterback in College so he could feature as a “Wildcat” QB.  As a College Quarterback Miller was known for his elusive running may even appear in the backfield as a Running Back alongside Osweiler so the Texans have no shortage of talent and versatility in the “skill positions”.  The area where you worry about the Texans Offence is up front; their Offensive line allowed 36 sacks last season and that contributed to the inconsistent performance of their Quarterback’s.  Brian Hoyer, by his own admission was bad in his first game for the Texans (some would say he wasn’t particularly good all season but he finished with 19 TD passes and just 7 interceptions) but having been sacked 25 times in 2015 he ended the season having received 2 concussions, an injured wrist and a strained neck!  Hoyer was sacked 6.3% of the times he dropped back to pass but Osweiler was sacked 7.7% of the times he dropped back for the Broncos last season and while the Broncos Offensive line was more comfortable run blocking more than a few of the 23 sacks on Osweiler were as a result of him not going through progressions quick enough or because he didn’t throw the ball away when nobody was open.  At 6 feet 8 inches tall and weighing around 108 kgs Osweiler is no Braxton Miller when it comes to the dancing feet and jet heels so the Texans pass Offence may well take a while to fulfil its undoubted potential.  If the addition of powerful Running Back Lamar Miller to the exciting Alfred Blue can provide the Texans with a balanced, or even run heavy Offence then they will have a real chance of winning the AFC South again.

By far the biggest plus for the Texans and the area where they have used more 1st round draft picks than you can shake a stick at is the Defensive front.  With JJ Watt, JaDaveon Clowney, Vince Wilfork and Whitney Mercilus all pressurising opposing Quarterbacks they should be very difficult to score against.  However last year they allowed n average just less 20 points per game and gave up 44 points to a capricious Miami Dolphins and 48 to the Falcons who finished the season 8-8!  Allied to this concerning trend is the fact that Clowney has traditionally struggled for fitness and JJ Watt may miss the start of the season with a back injury.

Osweiler leaving the Broncos will be more of a problem for them than it will be for Osweiler, the Texans have plenty of tools that he can utilise to his own benefit.  Even if Braxton Lynch is a revelation in Denver he won’t have stars like Hopkins and Miller around him, the AFC South should be a completely different kettle of fish this season with the Jaguars investing heavily during free agency and having a draft of a lifetime (plus their number 1 pick from the 2015 draft potentially playing his first NFL game this season having blown his knee out in training camp last season) and Andrew Luck actually being 100% healthy it promises to be a wild ride.