NFL Playoffs – Wildcard Weekend game 4 – Eagles @ Bears

The Eagles have been playing knockout football since week 12 when they’re record was 4-6, since then they have only lost once in overtime at AT & T Stadium. So playing under pressure is not new to them, but only since Nick Foles returned as starting Quarterback have they looked anywhere close to the team who made last year’s Super Bowl. Foles has thrown 6 TD’s, completed 77% of his passes and has an average QB rating of 104 in those 3 games. However ball security has been an issue for the Eagles, largely due to the poor protection the O-line has provided and in those 3 games Foles has fumbled twice and thrown 3 interceptions!

The Bears Defence has been their glittering jewel this season as Khalil Mack has absolutely dominated opposing O-lines on his way to 12.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles and an interception that he returned for a TD. Mack is not the only outstanding player on the Bears Defence though, 10 other players have made Interceptions, Kyle Fuller has 7 and Eddie Jackson has 6, 2 of which he’s returned for TD’s.

Really the only thing that can prevent the Bears from progressing to a meeting with the Saints next week is their own health problems. Mack has struggled through an ankle injury this season and Eddie Jackson has also missed time. Unless a mini injury crisis rears it’s ugly head at Soldier Field the Bears Defence should be good enough to win with this game while both Offences could find themselves scratching around to establish a run game.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

NFC Wildcard game 2 Detroit Lions @ Dallas Cowboys

It’s easy to get distracted by the fact that the Cowboys haven’t actually made the postseason since 2009 and the Lions haven’t played a playoff game since the turn of the century but as that famous Detroit native Henry Ford said “History is bunk!”. Two teams with such poor records in recent times won’t be paying much attention to what has gone before and instead enjoying their current success.
Statistically it’s a matchup of a very good offence, the Cowboys have averaged 29.2 points per game which makes them 5th in the league and a defence which has allowed an average of 17.6 points per game which is the 2nd fewest this season. It would be appropriate to point out how the Dallas defence has greatly improved this season and they have conceded on average just 22 points per game, which when combined with the Detroit offence’s inability to score more than 24 points away from home this season should hint at which way this game should go.
The Cowboys have the best running back in the league this season with DeMarco Murray and his 1845 yards on the ground, the leading touchdown pass catcher in Dez Bryant and the Quarterback with the best passer rating in the league this season so the Lions defence is facing an uphill struggle even if they do have the 2nd highest tackler in the league and the player with the most interceptions on their side. Allied to their standout individual performances this season the Cowboys averaged 41.25 points per game in the last 4 games of the regular season while the Lions offence averaged just 22.5 points per game.
If the Lions are looking for a ray of hope it’s that they will be missing fewer players with injury than the Cowboys, they have just 7 out and a further 3 concerns over players who have missed practice this week while the Cowboys have to deal with having a rather significant number of 11 players in Injured Reserve and a further 4 who have had their practice schedule effected by injury this week. By far the biggest problem for the Lions this entire season has been how to get the best out of Calvin Johnson when he’s clearly not been 100% fit since week 5 when he injured his ankle, to compound Megatron’s loss Reggie Bush the Lions second most explosive player on offence has also been trying to manage an injured ankle since week 4 and missed 5 games this season.
Those who know these things will tell you that defence win Championships and the Lions could welcome back defensive tackle Nick Fairley for the trip to Dallas but it would take a gargantuan effort for the Lions defence to hold the Cowboys to a score that their failing offence could achieve. Obviously the Lions offence can help their defence by staying on the field for as long as possible but since they’ve been averaging just 94.5 rushing yards away from home and the Cowboys offence has averaged 32.15 minutes of possession per game at home and they have a defence who allowed just 1 yards of rushing in their last home game it looks more than tricky for the Lions to progress. Lions Quarterback Matthew Stafford hasn’t had the best protection this season and the pressure that opposing defences have been able to apply to him has resulted in 12 intercepted passes and a whopping 45 sacks so the winning margin bet of Cowboys by 6 points that is favourite with some bookies seems awfully generous to the Lions.