4 Teams, 3 Games, 2 Weekends and a Super Bowl!

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It’s really hard to believe that there’s only just over 2 weeks left before ‘America Day’ descends upon the TWFDan Household and we gear up for the Super Bowl. It doesn’t seem like more than a month or two since the season began – I vividly remember feeling like a kid on Christmas Eve back on the evening of the 8th September as I waited for the Dolphins to kick off their season (little did I know that game would take over 7 hours to complete due to various weather delays!!).

But we’re down to the Elite Four now, with the Rams and Saints representing the NFC, and the Patriots and Chiefs waving the Red flag for the AFC, and once again it’s both conference’s first and second seeds who meet for a place in the Super Bowl.

Before we look at those games though, I want to quickly mention the Head Coaching situation in Miami, following Adam Gase being relieved of his duties a couple of weeks ago. It’s looking pretty nailed on that the Dolphins will be recruiting current New England Patriots Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers Coach Brian Flores as their new main man. It’s looked that way for a while, and if you follow the Miami Dolphins on Twitter, you’ll know that they made it very clear very early that he was their favoured candidate. I don’t know a huge amount about him but he’s growing on me from what I’m hearing. He’s very much invested in the ‘winning way of life’ at New England, having been with the team since 2004, and I think that’s something that Stephen Ross and GM Chris Grier will be keen for him to bring over to Miami. One thing that makes me a little wary is that he was the guy responsible for putting Gronk in the Safety position for the Miami Miracle play a few weeks back, but I suppose I could see what he was doing in covering the Hail Mary, so I’ll let him off.

Adam Gase, by the way, wasted no time in finding himself a new job… and some controversy the process. He’s landed the Head Coaching role in the green half of New York, and to say he’s been an unpopular choice is a bit of an understatement. The New York Post’s back page headline of “Jets choose Fish failure Gase to be head coach” the day after his announcement tells you a lot of what you need to know about that appointment…

Onto this weeks games, and lets start in the NFC.

LA Rams @ New Orleans Saints

The first game sees a meeting of 2 teams who both finished 13-3 and more than deserve their place in this one. Last week saw the Rams survive a bit of a late charge from the Cowboys to make it here in a game in which their rushing game absolutely dominated, with CJ Anderson and Todd Gurley both having over 100 yard games, and sharing nearly 40 carries. The Saints on the other hand started very slowly on Sunday night against the Eagles, going 14-0 down after less than 10 minutes of play, but 20 unanswered points in the remaining quarters saw them see off the defending champions. That one could have finished very differently though, with Philly getting to within 27 yards of a potential winning touchdown before an interception intended for Alshon Jefferey was picked off – an unfortunate way for Nick Foles career with the Eagles to come to an end.

This weekend though is a tough one. I really want the Rams to win this – I’d like nothing more for my bet to still be alive going into the big game as it’ll make things even more interesting for me, but I’m struggling to see it going that way. I think it’ll be close, but I’m going for the Saints to take the game. Onto the AFC…

New England Patriots @ Kansas City Chiefs

Man, I’m bored of New England. I mean, I’m really REALLY bored of the Patriots making it to the Super Bowl. And that’s not just sour grapes as a Dolphins fan, but it really is about time someone else got to represent the red brand. They have done well to get here though after a slightly shaky start to the season. Last weekend, they were pretty dominant over the LA Chargers, going 38-7 up at one point towards the end of the Third quarter. Sony Michel made his sixth 100+ rushing yard game of his rookie season and is starting to look like he was a pretty handy draft.

The Chiefs were also pretty dominant beating the Colts by 31 points to 13. I didn’t manage to catch much of that game unfortunately, but from what I hear, they fully deserved their win.

But who’s going to make it to the Super Bowl? I really want to say Kansas, but as much as people talk down the Patriots (there was even someone on the NFL Network this weekend suggesting that they would lose to the Chargers and this would be the ‘end of the dynasty’), I still think they’ve got another super bowl in them unfortunately, so I’m going to pick the Patriots.

And that’s definitely not because my picks for the playoffs have been rubbish and I just want to jinx them… or is it!

Before I sign off, for the penultimate time (assuming they win!) here’s a look at how my bet is looking:

Interestingly, the Rams are now joint 3rd Favourites (with the Patriots, both on 4.5), with the Saints current favourites (2.8) and Chiefs in between on 3.6.

So who do you think will make it to the Super Bowl? And what are your thoughts on the coaching moves we’ve seen so far? Drop me a line on Twitter and lets have a chat.

Until next time…

@TWFDan

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Sunday Divisional Games

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Following on from Saturday’s contests, we have the Sunday Divisional games, although I have to fail at the trivia competition first:

First then, for the 2018 Regular Season only who scored the most touchdowns? Name, Team and Number for a max 3 points.

My second Divisional related question was triggered by the chaos which followed the Vikings TD as time expired last year.

What penalty is to be applied if a team lines up for scrimmage with fewer than 11 on the field? 2 points available here.’

There was a clarification on the first question that a quarterback running the ball would count, but not passes as we were looking for the play crossing the goal line with the ball. This immediately made me think of quarterbacks and suspected Cam Newton, but I just don’t think that quarterbacks get enough of an opportunity to lead the league in touchdowns so I’m going to jump positions on the Panthers and plump for Christian McCaffery, who had a fantastic year and I’m going for eight touchdowns.

As for the penalty, I’m not sure there is one but my guess is illegal formation as what else could it be? Well, I’ll find out later in the week!

‘Tricky questions again this week, and I feel a bit more pressure now I’m leading!

Question one I had to clarify as I was originally thinking of a Quarterback who will have thrown the most touchdowns, but apparently that doesn’t count. So I think it’ll be a running back, and I’m a bit torn between Todd Gurley and Alvin Kamara…. I think I’ll go with Saints Number 41, Alvin Kamara.

Second question I think is a bit of a trick. Obviously there’s a penalty for having too many players on the field, but I don’t think there is one for having too few. I’m just struggling to justify why that answer warrants 2 points and whether there’s another answer to go with it, but I’ll stick with that!’

LA Chargers (5th) @ New England Patriots(2nd)

Another year, another division win for the New England Patriots but this is the first time in nine seasons that they didn’t get at least twelve wins. There have been several, is he slipping moments for Tom Brady in recent seasons, which is perhaps not that surprising given that he is now forty-one, but the Patriots have not been as convincing this season as in recent years. Part of this is the relative weakness of their receiver group, which was worrying enough that the Patriots took the risk of trading for Josh Gordon. The troubled receiver did supply help on the field for a while, but even the Patriots couldn’t help Gordon off the field and it may be that the football environment may not be conducive for Gordon staying healthy. Back on the field, Rob Gronkowski has laboured all season and doesn’t look himself, but Brady has thrown for over four thousand yards and the Patriots do rank fifth in the league by DVOA so all is not terrible. They have lost some surprising games but their defence ranks better by DVOA than last year they still earned a bye week for the start of the playoffs.

This week the entertain one of the more dangerous fifth seeds of recent years in the twelve win LA Chargers. I didn’t get to watch all of the coaching tape from last week, but the Chargers played with seven defensive backs to counter the Ravens running game, reminding everyone just how good a defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is. It also helps that in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, Bradley has the players to get pressure on the quarterback whilst rushing four, which is the nearest anyone has found to a formula to stop Tom Brady. For all his regular season success, Philip Rivers has not had the playoff victories he wold have hoped for and has a pair of playoff losses to the Patriots from the 07/08 seasons to avenge. The Chargers have really played well this season and stand as good a chance of dethroning the Patriots as anyone has in recent years. However, winning in Foxborough is never easy and particularly not in the playoffs and so I must give the edge to the Patriots as I don’t think you can count them out until they have lost, but this is a dangerous game for them.

Philadelphia Eagles (6th) @ New Orleans Saints (1st)

The New Orleans Saints took a step forward last season with a draft that yielded the offensive and defensive rookies of the year and finally pairing a defence good enough to help the always proficient Drew Brees get back into the playoffs. They carried this momentum forward into this season and continue to make moves in an attempt to maximise the chances of getting Brees another Super Bowl in the time the veteran quarterback has left. Their offence was truly terrifying for a lot of the season, and even when it cooled off they still found ways to win and finished with only three losses all season. In securing the first seed they ensured that they got to play with their impressive home field advantage. They currently rank fourth of the elite offences through the season, and if there is a weakness in the offence it is the talent behind Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas, although Mark Ingram did also run the ball effectively in the games he played, but the creativity of Sean Payton and Drew Brees has been more than enough to carry them through.

This week they welcome the Philadelphia Eagles and the supposed playoff mojo of Nick Foles. There is not a large enough sample size to declare that Foles is especially effective in the playoffs, but he has certainly done brilliantly for a backup over last season and this. Still, we shouldn’t forget how effective the Eagles defensive line was against the Chicago Bears last week. Still, the Saints at home are a different prospect and Fletcher Cox and the rest of the defence will need to get pressure up the middle to disrupt Brees. It is possible as the Cowboys demonstrated earlier this season, but right now the Saints are my tip for the Super Bowl. Brees may have thrown for under four thousand yards for the first time in fourteen years, but he also has the highest completion percentage of his career and the lowest number of interceptions. The route to the Super Bowl runs through New Orleans and I don’t see the Eagles disrupting that this week, although of course all things are possible.

Saturday Divisional Games

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Now we have all the teams that are left in the competition playing it is time to look at the Saturday games.

Indianapolis Colts (6th) @ Kansas City Chiefs (1st)

The Kansas City Chiefs have been the talk of the NFL all season thanks to their high powered offence and the play of Patrick Mahomes in his first full season. Mahomes threw fifty touchdown and only twelve interceptions as he account for five thousand spectacular yards. We’ve had no look passes, differing arm angles and regular how did he do that plays, which have made Reid’s offensive scheme hum. This has been helped by the glut of talent the Chiefs have at the skills positions, and although there was a wobble after they cut running back Kareem Hunt after video of his assault of a woman in a hotel surfaced (because TMZ are better at investigating these incidents than the NFL are), the Chiefs finished the season with two thirty points games. The worry for the Chiefs is that their offence may match their overall ranking of first by DVOA, and their special teams are ranked second, but their defence is ranked twenty-sixth and so whilst they went 12-4, they have had to win a lot of shoot outs.

There are other problems though. One is that the Chiefs home playoff record has not been good, and whilst they will hope to overturn that this weekend, it would not exactly be a surprise if Mahomes shows some nerves early in the game. They welcome a Colts team who went on the road to beat their divisional rivals last week and come into this game with good form and great offensive and defensive lines. The other problem I want to mention for the Chiefs is that their defence was bottom of the league in rush defence by DVOA, and so whilst the Colts are not especially great at running the ball, they don’t have to be. I don’t have strong feeling on who is going to win this game, but I am really looking forward to seeing it as I think it could be spectacular given the Chiefs offence skill and defensive problems. I could see the Arrowhead crowd getting nervous if the Chiefs don’t get off to a good start and I do think an upset is possible. I’m not going to call it as a home teams in the divisional rounds have been won of the safer bets of the playoffs recently, but it definitely could happen.

Dallas Cowboys (4th) @ LA Rams (2nd)

The LA Rams may have suffered a disappointing Wildcard loss last season in Sean McVay’s first year, but they built on that momentum and hit the ground running this season. The offence was as scary as anyone’s up to their week twelve bye. Injury has hampered them a little since then, and one of the big questions going into this game is just how healthy is Todd Gurley. However, the signing of CJ Anderson helped them right the ship at the end of the season, and if Jared Goff’s form has dipped since the Rams lost Cooper Kupp they have done enough to be seeded second in the NFC. On the other side of the ball, Aaron Donald has had a formidable year as arguably the leagues best defensive player, but things have never quite gelled for all of the free-agents they have brought in and so whilst the offence is second in the league by DVOA, the defence is nineteenth. This is still better than the Chiefs, even if it is a similar formula and they may run into similar problems against the Cowboys as I see the Chiefs having with the Colts.

The Cowboys were the only home team to win in the Wildcard round and take their own formula to face the Rams. This starts with an offence built around Ezekiel Elliott running the ball and increasingly catching the ball out the back field. The addition of Amari Cooper has opened up defences for the Cowboys, but losing Allen Hurns last week to a nasty dislocation/broken fibula will hurt the passing game as will the niggles Cole Beasley and Tavon Austin are dealing with. However, the Rams defence has struggled against the run, only ranking twenty-eighth by DVOA despite the presence of Donald and Ndamukong Suh in the middle of the defensive line. The Cowboys formula of running the ball could definitely work in this game. Meanwhile the Cowboys defence has looked pretty good as well and finished the season ranked fifth in rushing defence by DVOA. If they can limit the Rams effectiveness in running the ball and not over commit to the play fakes of the Rams then they could well sneak this game and you know the Cowboys fans will likely be well represented in the Coliseum this Saturday. I lean to the Rams in this one, but I can make a formula for the Cowboys to win this game.

Close games have been a feature of this season. We could well have two of them today!

Fell at the First Hurdle

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Here we are in the second week of January with four playoff games complete, eight teams left, and six games to the Super Bowl. Today I’ll be taking a look at the playoff teams who fell at the first hurdle and will run through the coaching news as I have it, although it will be worth you checking the usual places as events are picking up pace as teams start to hire.

Houston Texans

The Texans made it to the playoffs but fell to their surging division rivals in the Indianapolis Colts. The Texans had a slow start to the season, and there was talk of Bill O’Brien’s job being in danger if they lost again and fell to 0-4. Instead they got an overtime win against the Colts, and then ripped off a further eight wins. The problem they have though, is whilst the front seven of their defence is strong, and they have one of the best receivers in the game as well as a dynamic young quarterback, there are holes in the rest of the team. This might not be surprising given they had to trade away picks to get their quarterback in Deshaun Watson, but they need to balance up the skill players surrounding DeAndre Hopkins or get them healthier and they need to improve the secondary of their defence. They have the sixth most cap space looking forward to 2019 so they have some room to manoeuvre, particularly with a young quarterback on a rookie deal, but they also have several picks in this year’s draft that have been traded away. More worrying is that whilst O’Brien keeps making the Texans competitive in the division, they have not quite convinced and the Colts look like they are shaping up to be a fearsome team in 2019. Experience teaches us that the Texans will likely compete for the division title again next season, and it was definitely great to see JJ Watt playing a high level again and who know what he might be able to achieve with a full off-season without a major injury to rehab. The Texans have gone to the playoffs four times in the last eight years, and twice under O’Brien, but in his five years as head coach they have only won one playoff game and that just makes me wonder if the owner will start to think about a change if the Texans can’t get a step further next season.

Seattle Seahawks

This is going to be curious one to write up as in a lot of ways the Seahawks defied the expectations coming into the season by finishing 10-6 and making the playoffs despite their young roster. The defence was overhauled and they committed to running the ball as their identity and that was good enough to make the playoffs, but my worry is that they will be too stubborn surrounding the offensive game plan. The repeated run on first and second down in their Wildcard loss to the Cowboys was not effective thanks to the Cowboys fifth rated rush defence. We have moved well pst establishing the run as a offensive philosophy and I very much believe that what you need is a credible threat to do either so that play action is effective. In Russell Wilson the Seahawks have one of the most effective quarterbacks in the game, and if they say ran play action on fifty percent of their first downs and threw in some mid-range passing they could be really effective without abandoning the run. I just don’t know if it is going to happen or not and it makes no sense to extend Russell Wilson as they will need to do shortly, and pay him the premium he is going to deservedly ask for if they don’t make the most of him. That doesn’t mean they should start running an Andy Reid style offence, but to my mind the offence needs tweaking. They have plenty of cap space and frequently draft well, but I just don’t if they are going to change spots now and I wonder if that will hobble them from getting back to the Super Bowl.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens got back to the playoffs after three years of missing out, and discovered the future of their offence in rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson. They can’t keep giving him carries at a record setting pace despite him only playing half a season, but he can throw the ball and the fact that he was able to get a couple of touchdowns in the fourth quarter of their Wildcard loss to the Chargers should reassure that he won’t be solved by a clever defence. The front office won’t be the same with Ozzie Newsome stepping down, but it feels like with the infrastructure in Baltimore they will be back and competitive next season. It certainly seems like John Harbaugh will stay as long as he gets the contract extension with the terms he wants. Unlike many defences, the Ravens always seem to be around the top five in the league and so you would imagine that the Ravens can focus on getting Jackson tools for the passing game, although you can never have too many pass rushers or corners. The Ravens are a little below league average for cap space in 2019 as currently constructed, but you would expect them to be there or there about next season and with a good draft they could be really scary.

Chicago Bears

The Bears loss in the Double Doink game was heart breaking, although the field goal miss has been amended to a block as a defender did get a touch. Either way, the worry for the Bears is that they had the number one defence in the league and couldn’t get the game won against the Eagles. They are twenty-third in the league in salary cap and there are players whose contract has expired. As defence is generally considered to be less consistent year to year (unless you’re the Ravens it seems), any step back from the defence would have to be countered by an improvement in the offence. Although Matt Nagy has improved the team, and there has been lots of focus on the way he called the offence, it only finished twentieth in the league by DVOA. I definitely thought that Mitchell Trubisky looked better this season, but he really needs to improve next year and there’s no way of knowing if it will happen. They also look like they will be without defensive coordinator Vic Fangio who is being looked at as a head coach candidate for the Broncos, who was the mastermind behind the Bears defence, and whilst they have a lot of talent, a new coordinator is not guaranteed to get the same result with the new roster next season. I do think the Bears can remain competitive, but there are enough factors to make Bears’ fans wary that it was a one season wonder. Hopefully a good pre-season and start to the 2019 season will put those fears to rest.

Coaching Hires

And so we move to the coaching carousel, where we have started to get some hires.

First up were the Green Bay Packers, who had a head start thank to their firing of Mike McCarthy mid-season. They are hoping to capitalise on the rise of Sean McVay by hiring his former assistant Matt LeFleur after one year of running the offence in Tennessee. It’s hard to assess how good a job LeFleur did with the Titans given the nerve injury Marcus Mariota battled through for large parts of the season, but at age thirty-nine with limited experience it is a risk. He’ll have been hired with a mandate to innovate and to get the best out of Aaron Rodgers, but as ever with young coaches it will all depend on how he builds his staff. I don’t think it is a coincidence that both McVay and Matt Nagy had first year success as a head coach and had very experienced defensive coordinators to lean on.

There will be no such concerns about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ new head coach, as they have hired Bruce Arians, who is one of my favourite coaches. I hope the year rest has helped his health as that is honestly my biggest worry, but he was attracted to the Bucs by his relationship with GM Jason Light and if anyone can turn around that franchise given some time it is Arians. I’m not totally abandoning my previous comments on the Bucs from last week as there is a lot to do, but I have about as much faith in Arians turning it around as anyone.

The Cleveland Browns have hired their temporary offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens as their new head coach, following the recent trend of teaming up an offensive mind with a young quarterback and we shall have to see how this works. Certainly the rapor with Baker Mayfield seems positive, but these hires haven’t always worke so we shall have to see.

The Arizona Cardinals have hired Kliff Kingsbury from college, and the honest answer is I don’t know enough about college football to judge this hire. It is deliberately an offensive coach to develop Josh Rosen and I’ve sean a video clipe of Sean McVaty praising him but only time will tell on that one.

Finally, at least of the ones I’ve seen confirmed, the New York Jets have hired Adam Gase to be another offensive minded head coach paired to a young quarterback, and Sam Darnold will have to hope to replicate the success of Peyton Manning than Ryan Tannehill.

There are other hires in the works as well as coordinators hired or staying so keep your eyes out and we’ll do a deeper dive when things calm down and we don’t have more important things like games to watch.

Divisional Picks & Wildcard Wrap-up!

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We head to the Divisional games this week which is always an exciting time as those with Wildcard byes get back into the mix. Quicker roundup from me this week, as I’m a) late, and b) short on time!

So picks-wise, I was 1-3, which I’m not happy with, although the one I did get was pretty convincing (despite a late charge from the Ravens!). That being said, there were a couple of pretty close ones. The Bears will feel really disappointed about the end of their game, and subsequently their season, which finished with a kick that rebounded off not just one, but two posts – a kick which would have seen them go on to face the Rams this weekend.

Go back and have a look at the Bears mascot’s reaction to the missed kick if you haven’t already!

I heard an interesting fact over the weekend: Since 2013, no team who has played in Wildcard week has made it to the Super Bowl. Especially interesting as between 2002 and 2012, there were 9 wildcard week teams who made it to the big game.

And so with that, it’s onto my divisional picks, and we’ll start with Saturday evening’s AFC clash between the Colts (6) and Chiefs (1). Indianapolis are looking good and were absolutely dominant against the Texans last weekend. That being said, the Chiefs are 1st seed for a reason and they’ve been equally impressive. Believe it or not though, as good as the Kansas Offence has been this year (ranked 1st in the league), their defence ranks at 31st! I think they’re going to struggle this year, and I’m going to make a big call for the Indianapolis Colts to take this week’s game and head to the Conference championships.

Early Sunday morning will see the Rams (2) back in action as they host the Cowboys (4) in what I think will be the game of the weekend, and one I might even try to stay up and watch live. This genuinely could go either way, for me. Form means a lot when it comes to this stage of the year, and while the Cowboys are definitely the form team of the tie, the Rams were patchy towards the back end of the year after a fantastic start. As much as it pains me to say it (see my bet update below!!) but I think the Dallas Cowboys will be moving on.

Onto Sunday evening, and we’ve got the Chargers (5) travelling to Foxborough to face the Patriots (2). I like the Chargers a lot, and I think they definitely could have what it takes to take the game. I’m hesitant to do this as I feel I’m doing the typical ‘English’ thing and backing the underdogs in every game so far, but I am going to go with the LA Chargers for the win.

That stops here though I’m afraid. The Saints (1) face the Eagles (6) in the final game of the weekend, which I think is going to be the end of Nick Foles’ playoff run. The Saints have looked great all year, and I think they’re pretty much a shoe in here to get into the Conference game, so I’m picking the New Orleans Saints.

If my picks are all correct (and lets be honest, they won’t be!), that’ll give us Colts/Chargers and Cowboys/Saints Conference games, which would be pretty good… although at this stage, there’s no bad sounding games.

Finally, it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for – my bet update:

I should really be cashing out as I don’t think they’re going to win this weekend, but for your entertainment, dear reader, I’ll keep it there. By the way, you owe me a fiver.

Who are your picks this week? Do you think I’m wrong in picking the lower ranked team in 3 of the 4 games this weekend? Drop me a line on Twitter and lets have a chat!

Until next time…

@TWFDan

Sunday Wildcards

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And now it is time to at the Sunday Wildcard games but before that there’s this week’s trivia question to deal with.

‘Firstly and with 2 points on offer I want to know

The 2017/18’s Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year played for which teams?

Secondly and again for 2 points:

What was significant about the 2015/16 Wildcard Weekend?

Now, the first question I think is slightly sneaky as I believe both players were on the New Orleans Saints, namely Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore.

The second is trickier and I’m torn between two things, either this was the last time that a team with a losing record made the playoffs, or and this is the one I’m going for, this was the last time that a road team won wildcard game. I’m sure both of these are wrong but I can’t think anything else so I have a nasty feeling I’m going to kick myself when the answer is revealed.

‘This week’s trivia is keeping me occupied and my mind off the state of the names linked with the Dolphins HC position!

First question was about last year’s Rookies of the Year, and I believe they were both from the New Orleans Saints – I know offensively it was Alvin Kamara and while I can’t think who the defensive rookie was, I’m fairly sure they were also a Saint.

The second question is a bit tougher. I’ve looked at the results and I’m still struggling. I don’t think it’s the first time any of the teams made it to the playoffs, and I don’t think there’s anything significant about the dates or anything like that. The only think I notice is that all of the road teams won which I would have thought is pretty rare… was it the first time that had happened? I’ll go with that.’

LA Charger (5th) @ Baltimore Ravens (4th)

The Ravens are yet another example of your season being defined by how you finish a season rather than how you start it, although they were at least competitive all year. However, after a 3-1 start the Ravens fell to 4-5 before the bye and had lost against all three of their division opponents. However, with an injury to Joe Flacco’s hip they put Lamar Jackson into the starting line-up and went 6-1 in the second half of the season. It has to be said that the reason they were competitive all year was that their defence was right up there for best in the league all season, and it was their offensive woes that were causing them problems after some initial promise. However, when they placed rookie quarterback Jackson into the line-up, they started running the ball so much that the combination of time of procession and their defence enabled them beat everyone but the Chiefs after their bye, including the Chargers. The commitment to the running game did not mean that they were lining up with 21 personnel and running up the middle, but rather the Ravens made use of the pistol and multiple tight-ends to take advantage of Jackson’s skill running the ball, which also opened up the game for their running backs. How sustainable this is in the long term I don’t know, but it makes them a scary proposition in this game.

The Chargers may be the fifth seed, but they actually have a better record at 12-4 than the Ravens and have been a force all year. Their slightly slow start can be attributed to facing both the Chiefs and Rams in their opening four games but the only team with a losing record they lost to all year was their division rivals the Broncos. Otherwise, despite missing Joey Bosa for half the season on defence they won and kept winning thanks to strong performances on both sides of the ball, in fact they finished third in the league on offence by DVOA and eighth in defence. If there is a worry, it is that they have been banged up at running back through the latter half of the season and they lost to the Ravens two weeks ago. In fact, the Chargers had real problems picking up a linebacker defensive-tackle stunt in that game, which overcame Philip Rivers’ usual ability to counter poor offensive line play by being quick to get rid of the ball.

So how does this game look to shape up? Well, this time the Chargers have to travel across the country to face the Ravens but given their lack of home field advantage in their temporary home in LA this might not be the disadvantage you might think. You also have to believe that the Chargers will figure something out to stop the particular protection issue they had in their last game. The Chargers have the players on offence to function against a good Ravens defence and if the Ravens blitz as much as they did late against the Browns last week in a close game, then I can see Philip Rivers making much smarter plays to get rid of the ball. This is a game where if the Chargers can get up early they can cause the Ravens real problems by getting them out of their time of procession and defence game plan. I think it will be a tough game and I can definitely see the Chargers winning it, but with their ability to play in more than one way and the experience of Rivers at quarterback I give the Chargers a slight edge.

Philadelphia Eagles (6th) @ Chicago Bears (3rd)

The Bears are the turnaround story of the season having gone 12-4 after going 5-11 the previous year. Matt Nagy has been able to come in and improve the offence, although I was surprised that their offensive DVOA was only twentieth in the league, although that is still better than the twenty-eight they were last season. Yet when combined with the league’s best defence by DVOA the formula has been more than enough for the Bears to win. It helped that Nagy was secure enough when he came in to keep Vic Fangio on as defensive coordinator, who has continued his development of the defence and the addition of Khalil Mack via trade at the start of the season augmented an already strong defence and was in of itself transformative.

The Eagles on the other hand, have very much had a season of Super Bowl hangover and injury, which meant that they required a late surge and results to go their way even get into the playoffs. In fact they almost have to thank the very team they face this evening as if the Bears had not beaten the Vikings in their last game of the regular season then the Eagles win against Washington would have been meaningless. Both the Eagles’ offensive and defensive DVOAs are very average, and whilst the defence has struggled with injuries, particularly in the secondary, the offence has struggled with an absence of players who can stretch the field and a running game that has lacked consistency since Jay Ajayi was lost for the season to a torn ACL. It should be mentioned that Fletcher Cox has had a remarkable year as part of reduced but still strong defensive line, while on offence tight-end Zac Ertz has been the stand out player on offence. However, as is often the way, the big story of the Eagles’ season is at quarterback. Carson Wentz led the team for most of last season only to go down with a knee injury late in the season, which saw Nick Foles come in and lead the Eagles all the way to a Super Bowl title. However, Foles started the season 1-1 before Wentz came back in and went 5-6 and things started to look bleak for the Super Bowl Champions when it was revealed that Wentz had a stress fracture in his back. Now, last year’s run was remarkable enough for Nick Foles, who not so long ago was at home contemplating retirement, yet now he is an Super Bowl MVP and he went 3-0 at the end of the season to get the Eagles into the playoffs and here they are travelling to face the Bears.

The Bears are surprisingly strong favourites, with the line often being quoted as the Bears giving six and a half points to the Eagles, which looks strong to me. I think this will be an fascinating matchup and given the injuries I would give the edge to the Bears but if I was picking against the line I’d lean Eagles given their recent form and the fact the Bears have been limiting what they ask Mitchell Trubisky to do, and anytime you have to specifically game plan to limit your quarterback’s mistakes then you are at a slight disadvantage and I would not put it pas the Eagles to be able to take advantage.

AAF: Saquon Barkley

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As this was the last week I could look at players from twenty teams I decided to treat myself to a player I wouldn’t get a chance to look at going forward and so I had a look at Saquon Barkley who would be the outright favourite for offensive rookie of the year if it were not for the value advantage that quarterbacks enjoy in such awards.

The interesting thing for me about this particular game was that the New York Giants were taking on the Dallas Cowboys in week seventeen, and so I got to see Barkley go up against the fifth best rush defence in the league by DVOA and to be fair that is pretty much how they looked in this game.

A cursory look at the stats would have you believe that Barkley was effective all game as he ran for one hundred and nine yards at over six yards per carry, but if you remove his one sixty-eight yard run that we shall discuss in a moment then his rest of his runs went for forty-one yards at an anaemic two-and-half yards a carry. No one has every questioned Barkley’s talent or athleticism, but there has been talk of him being boom or bust and looking to break the big run rather than taking what’s there. It’s hard to say if he has got over this from the evidence of this game because the reason his numbers looked so average for most of the game is that all to often when he had the ball in his hands, the Cowboys front seven or eight (they were often playing in single high safety looks) would be in their run fits and there was often nowhere for the running back to go. Still, Barkley worked hard to get what he can, and not all runs were stuffed for short gains, he made some decent runs using his agility and ability to cut and get what he can, but often he and his blockers would be met in the hole. The Giants had more success attacking the edges of the defence than running between the tackles but the difference was marginal.

The Giants rotated Barkley in and out with Wayne Gallman but there was no pass run split and Barkley was able to work on third down and ran plenty of routes, including down the field when he was flexed out as a receiver, which was not uncommon. On one play he also ran a route and willingly blocked to help make a big pickup. Still if he was no that effective in the passing game and gained most of his rushing yards on one play, what is the buzz about him? Well partly the answer is that anytime he has the ball in space he is dangerous and he can catch the ball and has done in other games, but in this game you would point to the play that went for nearly seventy yards.

On second and twenty, starting on their own seventeen-yard line the Giants lined up with 11 personnel in a shotgun formation facing the Cowboys in a nickel formation with two high safeties. On a draw play Barkley took the handoff and followed right guard Jamon Brown who blocked Sean Lee allowing Barkley to find a small crease and get behind the secondary to pick up sixty-eight yards. Eventually Jeff Heath was able to catch him and battle Barkley down, but the damage was done as flew past the defence and then was hard to bring down. That in essence is his game.

It is this threat of breaking a play that makes Saqoun Barkely so dangerous. He has been hindered this season by a Giants offensive line that couldn’t consistently open holes for him, or they certainly could in this game, and the fact that Eli Manning can’t throw the ball downfield consistently anymore. Manning did make some deep throws but he can’t do it often enough for this team to move the ball effectively and maintain drives. The Giants have some great skill position players but to unlock Barkley’s full potential they need to improve the offensive line and their quarterback play. The scary thing is that Barkley was still able to account for two thousand yards of offence this season even with these limitations so whilst I’m still not sure I would have made the same draft decision at number two, I can see why the Giants did.

Wildcard Saturday

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So here we are at the start of the playoffs with a Wildcard Saturday that features two games.

Indianapolis Colts (6th) @ Houston Texans (3rd)

The first game of the playoffs is an AFC South divisional rivalry game that sees the Texans host the Colts.

The Texans took a slightly strange route to the playoffs as they lost their opening three games and there was talk that Bill O’Brien’s job was in danger, but then they went on a nine game winning streak before alternating wins and losses. The strength of this team is their top ten defence, even if their special teams unit does rank higher by DVOA, but this defence features a strong front seven including a healthy JJ Watt and a slightly suspect pass secondary. Meanwhile on offence they have relied on running the ball and Deshaun Watson’s legs to compliment DeAndre Hopkins amazing ability as receiver. Hopkins should be considered amongst the best receivers in the game but does not have a lot of help around him and the Texans’ offensive line is definitely a problem. We’ll take a look at how this might play out shortly, but firstly let’s talk about how the Colts got to this game.

The Colts also had a tricky start to the season that included an overtime loss to the Texans that sparked the Texans’ nine game winning streak. However, slowly all three phases of the team came together in Frank Reich’s first season in charge and that in of itself is something worth talking about. The Colts were ready to officially announce Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as their new head coach once the Super Bowl was over, only for McDaniels to pull out at the last minute and leave the Colts scrambling to find a new coach and what a coach they found. Frank Reich left the Super Bowl winning Eagles and was able to use the staff that had already been assembled for McDaniels to turn the Colts from a team who went 4-12 last season to a 10-6 team that returned Andrew Luck to health and form. The defence was the first thing to come together, ably led in tackles by rookie linebacker Darius Leonard, they dragged themselves into the tenth best unit in the game by DVOA. Meanwhile, for pretty much the first time in his career Andrew Luck has an offensive line that gives him more than a couple of seconds to get rid of the ball and Marlon Mack has given them enough balance as a runner to make this offence effective. We all knew that TY Hilton was a great receiver but free-agent acquisition tight-end Eric Ebron has also benefitted from his new surroundings, contributing thirteen touchdowns to go with his seven hundred and fifty yards.

This should be an interesting matchup between two teams who obviously know each other well. Earlier in the season Deshaun Watson was over exposing himself running the ball and had to deal with bruised lung and ribs that were serious enough that he was bussed to one road game rather than flown. The defence of the Colts should be able to match up to the Texans’ offence, particularly as they will be able to double Hopkins without too much worry as long as they can contain Watson. Meanwhile if the Colts offensive line can protect Luck as they have recently then the Colts should be able to move the ball effectively on the Texans. The Texans lost their last home gain against the Colts, and whilst I can see it being another close game I actually kind of fancy the road underdog to spring the upset.

Seattle Seahawks (5th) @ Dallas Cowboys (4th)

The Dallas Cowboys are another team who started relatively slowly, going 3-5 before turning things around and only losing one more game this season. The catalyst for this transformation appears to be the trade for Amari Cooper, and whilst his success does not negate the argument that the Cowboys traded away too much to get him, the move certainly helped this team. As did the defence’s transformation from one that was overly reliant on linebacker Sean Lee to one that thrived on the play of rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith finally beginning to show some of the college form that excited so many before his horrible knee injury in his final bowl game. The Cowboys are actually only ranked twenty-first in the league by DVOA, although their defence is top ten but their winning formula has been utilising the NFL leading rusher Ezekiel Elliott more effectively whilst Amari Cooper has opened up the passing game enough to make the Cowboys a functional offence if an uninspiring twenty-fourth by DVOA.

This Saturday they host a Seattle Seahawks team that many had written off in pre-season as they overhauled their roster, moving away the last vestiges of the Legion of Boom defence and collecting young talent. However, Pete Carroll has returned to the formula that saw him have so much success and so whilst the defence only ranks fourteenth in the league by DVOA, the offence ranks in the top ten thanks to their run first approach and Russell Wilson efficient play in the passing game. The now thirty-year old quarterback threw thirty-five touchdown and only seven interceptions, relying on his chemistry with Tyler Lockett and Doug Baldwin when available. However, Chris Carson has run for eleven hundred yards in fourteen games and it is the run first approach that has allowed the Seahawks to remain competitive and overcome an 0-2 start to make the playoffs.

This should be a bruising old school game that is going to feature two tough defences and a lot of running the ball. The Seahawks actually rank nine places better than the Cowboys by overall DVOA and given Pete Carroll’s playoff experience, not to mention a Super Bowl win, it is hard not to give them the edge over Jason Garrett’s Cowboys. It might be one for the football purist but I’m certainly looking forward to it.

The Disappointed Twenty: NFC Edition

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Following on from yesterday’s post it is time to say farewell to the NFC half of the disappointed twenty.

Washington

I almost don’t where to being with this team. They had a 6-3 record going into week eleven but no team can survive two quarterbacks breaking their legs and they also lost both starting guards in two separate games as injuries wreaked havoc over their roster and 2018 campaign. However, this is a franchise that has also just fired a huge number of their front office staff whilst the coaching staff have never quite convinced. Meanwhile, fans are attending games in ever fewer numbers and the glory days on the field are now over a generation away. I’m really not sure what to expect this offseason, a team that claims Reuben Foster on waivers three days after a domestic violence arrest are capable of pretty much anything but it’s possible they could compete in NFC East next year yet I could equally see it all going wrong and I certainly have very little confidence in them for the upcoming off-season.

New York Giants

The Giants got themselves a possibly all-time great a running back in this year’s draft, but that didn’t exactly result in a huge turnaround for the team, which is why the pick was questioned back in April. There is still talk of Eli Manning coming back for another year, but whilst he’s a lot better than I would be, he doesn’t look like the player who was part of two Super Bowl wins. Until they truly face up to, and resolve, the quarterback situation for the future then I think there is a pretty severe limitation to what this franchise can achieve. They also have other areas of the roster to address and are not exactly flushed with cap-space either but at least GM Dave Gettleman has built a Super Bowl contender before. There were questions about his iteration of the Panthers, but they built around Cam Newton and right now I think the Giants need a quarterback they can build round before they can improve by much. The Giants’ fans will live in interesting times this off-season.

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings went into the season’s final week needing a win to make it to the playoffs and so they can hope to compete next year, but the window might be closing for a talented team that were hoping that the addition of Kirk Cousins as their quarterback would put them over the top. This very much did not happen, but there were other issues as the offence sputtered this season. The defence may have only slipped a couple of places in DVOA by the end of the year, but you don’t expect a Mike Zimmer defence to ship twenty-seven points to a woeful Bills offence and there were other slip ups. I love Zimmer as a coach, but he has not been able to find an offensive co-ordinator or quarterback to work with long term and this is something the Vikings need to get right this offseason. Cousins isn’t going anywhere with his guaranteed contract and the Vikings have the least amount of cap space available going into next year of the teams who aren’t actually over the cap at the moment i.e. thirtieth in the league. The problem with that is the Vikings’ offensive line is still letting its skill players down and so I have to wonder whether the Vikings will be able to pull something together next season or if they are going to have similar problems again. They are not going to turn into a bad team overnight but I’m not sure how they get the answers they need on offence, which would be a concern if you a fan or attached to the team but I wouldn’t rule them out of improving either. It’s just not as easy to see as for certain other teams and they need to hire the right offensive coordinator and stick by them.

Green Bay Packers

The Packers fired one of the longest tenured coaches in the league this season, having hired a new GM in the offseason and so now we get even more change. On the face of it the Packers job is appealing given the tradition of the Packers and the presence of Aaron Rodgers. However enough people have speculated about Rodgers to make me wonder if there is something about the way he has been handled by the franchise and the stories of his attitude. More concerning is the fact that he is thirty-five, the expectations that come with this job will be huge yet the Packers are in the bottom half of the league for available cap space next season and Green Bay is not exactly a free-agency destination. This is the first season where a healthy enough Aaron Rodgers hasn’t got you into the playoffs, and with the right hires and roster moves I’m sure the Packers can be back in contention next season, but I’m not sure if it is the slam dunk that some might have you believe.

Detroit Lions

The coaching tree of Bill Belichick has not exactly prospered when they have left New England and Matt Partricia had a difficult first season. The offence was hobbled by injury at the skill positions, but long term offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter paid the price and Patricia will now get to hire his own coach to run the offence. However, it would not surprise me if there was very little room for Patricia to manoeuvre going forward as he was hired to take the team on and they went backwards from their 9-7 record of the 2017 season. If Patricia can step away from some of the Belichick inspired behaviours and find his own way then the team could rebound next season, but I would not exactly be surprised if the Lions have another difficult year and then Patricia should be very concerned about his job given how cut throat the world of NFL coaching has got in recent years.

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons had a difficult season, with injuries up the spine of their defence wrecking their hopes early in the season and they actually battled back pretty well to finish 7-9. It was always going to be a hard job to follow Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator, but the offence has never quite been the same since he left and Steve Sarkisian has paid the price this off-season after two years of not quite putting it together. That said they still finished with a top ten offence by DVOA and Matt Ryan is thirty-three so whilst the Falcons window to get a championship has not closed, they need to get the new co-ordinator hire right if they are to make this a blip rather than the start of a downward trend. They also can’t have a defence that ranks thirty-first in the league by DVOA, but getting players back from injury and a good draft should solve that, but they really need their offence to fly again if you’ll forgive me the pun. I couldn’t help myself. Sorry…

Carolina Panthers

This was one of the stranger falls from grace as the Panthers were 6-2 after week nine but then lost seven straight games before closing out with a win against a resting Saints team in week seventeen. Until his shoulder started to bother him the unlikely pairing of Cam Newton and sixty-six year old offensive co-ordinator Norv Turner was paying dividends in their first season together, ably assisted by Christian McCaffrey who totalled nearly two thousand yards of offence this season and might have hit it if Cam Newton had not been sat for the last couple of games. More worrying for this team is that the defence slipped from seventh in the league by DVOA to twenty-second. I’m not entirely sure what the off-season holds given that the Panthers have a new owner with a background in finance and analytics whilst the coaching staff have an avowedly old school feel and the team ranks twenty-eighth in terms of cap space for next season. I think a lot of this will be immaterial if Cam Newton can’t get his shoulder healthy and manage it so he’s healthy for all of next season. I know I like to say we’ll have to wait and see a lot, but with the Panthers I think that is especially true for the next fourteen months or so.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers got off to an entertaining start whilst Jameis Winston was suspended, but then things fell apart and head coach Dirk Koetter was let go after a 5-11 season. I’m more surprised that GM Jason Licht is staying and that the Bucs have committed to Winston for next season, but now whoever the new head coach is, he will have to buy into a roster that has threatened but never quite lived up to expectations and make it work. The Bucs are actually twenty-ninth in the league for cap space next year and with a new coach but no questioning of a regime who have failed to have a winning season then I’m not sure I can buy into a turnaround until I can actually see it. For context, the Buccaneers haven’t had a winning season since 2010 or back to back winning seasons since the 1999/2000 seasons. I take no pleasure in this, but I can’t look at this record and the previous four years of Jameis Winston and say yes, the Bucs are going to be fighting for the playoffs next season. As ever, I would be delighted to be proved wrong but I think there is more turbulence to come for this franchise unless they knock this coaching hire out the park.

San Francisco

The 49ers got their first bad piece of injury news in pre-season when running back Jerrick McKinnon, who came across from the Vikings in the off-season, was lost to IR with a knee injury and then quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was lost for the season before the 49ers even made it through a quarter of the season. In fairness the season never really got going and that will be a worry, as will the performance of a defence that couldn’t get out of the twenties by DVOA and a team who were thirtieth in the league overall. You can’t really judge the direction of this franchise by this season but I would imagine that both head coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch will be feeling a sense of urgency going into this offseason. I don’t think it is time to panic, but they could do with a good offseason and a definitive improvement to solidify their project in San Francisco or they might not get to complete it. The 49ers are at least in the top ten for cap space next season so they have room to manoeuvre and I wouldn’t necessarily bet against Lynch and Shanahan pulling it off but we’ll know a lot more by about week five of next season.

Arizona Cardinals

The first thing I want to say about the Cardinals disaster of a season is given the state of the roster, that GM Steve Keim had a five-week suspension from the team after pleading guilty to an extreme DUI charge in the summer, and that the Cardinals’ defence was top ten at points this season, it feels a little unfair to fire head coach Steve Wilks after one year. The offence had a rookie quarterback for lots of the season and a bad offensive line and there is a lot of work to do with this team. I will be interested to see who they go with for next season and how much room Keim will be given to manoeuvre, although he seemed to work very well with Bruce Arians so has some track record with the franchise. It could take more than one offseason to turn things round again though and clearly this is a franchise who now expect a certain level of success but I wonder if they will be able to achieve the results they expect if they don’t show some patience. There are certainly a number of coaches around the league who have demonstrated that in the right situation it is possible to turn things round quickly, but I’m not convinced that any coach doesn’t deserve more than a year unless there are serious problems in the locker room or behind the scenes and I’m not aware of anything like that in Arizona. This is a situation I’m going to watch closely but I wouldn’t like to predict right now what I think will happen next season.

The Disappointed Twenty: AFC Edition

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It is time to say our sad farewells to the teams that have already gone their separate ways having failed to reach the playoffs. In a bid to make this more manageable to both read and write I will be covering the AFC today and the NFC tomorrow.

Before I begin there is one universal bit of comfort that any fan of the following teams should take, namely that in the NFL a franchise really can turnaround in an off-season, although there are some situations that may take a couple of off-seasons to sort out but even then a big improvement could be in the offing in September.

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins had a very up and down season that saw a 3-0 start falter and slip to 7-9 record. This has cost Adam Gase his job and it feels like the Dolphins will spend the off-season remaking the roster again and trying to find a franchise quarterback. There were questions raised before the season about trading away some of their best players to address issues in the locker room, but it was a lack of consistency and an utter failure on the road that cost this team. The Dolphins won their first road game against the Jets and failed to win another all year. The season highlight will undoubtedly be the last second hook and ladder play to beat the New England Patriots but once again the Dolphins couldn’t seriously challenge in the AFC East. My concern is that the roster and front office is as much to blame, if not more, than the coaches and until they build a team round a quarterback who can remain healthy for the whole season then there is only so much success they can have. They also rank twenty-seventh in the league for cap space next year and so there is not a lot of room to do much in free agency with the way the team is currently constructed.

Buffalo Bills

The Bills had a tough season this year as they traded away a number of assets to move up in the draft to get their quarterback of the future and whilst this did not affect the defence too badly as it finished second in the league by DVOA, the offence really suffered. The good news regarding Josh Allen was that he proved that he could be effective on the ground in the NFL, but he will need better players around him and to develop as a passer if the Bills are to get back to the playoffs. It will help that there is some stability as GM Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott are staying in place, and this team played hard for McDermott all year, but the offence will have to improve if they are to get where they want to go. The good news is that they have the third most free cap space next year so they have room to manoeuvre.

New York Jets

Having failed to get into the playoffs for three seasons and only going 4-12 this year the Jets let go of head coach Todd Bowles. I can understand that the franchise felt they needed a new voice, but Bowles was not given a huge amount to work with over the last couple of seasons and the Jets always seemed to play hard for him. The good news is that Sam Darnold is a promising young quarterback, but once again he will need to have the infrastructure placed around him to enable success. The worry will be that the defence also needs work as it only finished twenty-first in the league by DVOA despite Bowles’ pedigree as a defensive mind. At least they will have cap room to work with as they are second only to the Colts in cap space next year, but free-agency success doesn’t always translate onto the field as this franchise has learned only a few seasons ago.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers just missed out on the playoffs and will be kicking themselves about losses to the Broncos and Raiders. However, there was more than a little drama surrounding the team this season and to an outsider it seems that sorting this out may help the on field performance. Part of this should be achieved by the departure in free-agency of Le’Veon Bell, and certainly James Conner was an able and cheaper alternative at running back. In truth there doesn’t need to be big changes as there is an awful lot of talent on this team, who finished sixth on offence and thirteenth on defence by DVOA. I have no doubt the Steelers will be competitive next year and before we say there is too much wrong, with a now competitive Browns franchise the AFC North was one of the tougher divisions in the league this season. Speaking of which…

Cleveland Browns

I billed this post as the disappointed ten, and yes the Browns would prefer to be in the playoffs, but this is the first time since 2010 that the Browns have not been bottom of the division (and yes the Bengals were bottom that season too) and there are definitely things that should give the fans in Cleveland hope. For the first time since the new franchise was founded it looks as if the Browns have got a franchise quarterback and a five and three finish suggests that if the Browns can nail the coaching staff hire this off-season they should be competitive next year. There is plenty of young talent on the roster already and GM John Dorsey has a proven track record of success, whilst the Browns have the fourth most cap space next season. I’m happy for the long suffering fans of Cleveland but it does not make the picture look any better for the Bengals.

Cincinnati Bengals

All teams face injuries and there are plenty of teams who either had more, or had them more clustered, but the offence particularly suffered this season and when the defence didn’t really shape up until the last couple of weeks after Marvin Lewis took control then it’s not surprising that the season sputtered to a halt. The Lewis era is finally over in Cincinnati and I do not forget how much work he had to put in to make the franchise credible and not the laughing stock of the league but how this group moves on is the big question for next season. It is not implausible for the team to bounce back in the off-season, but they will need to be setup to improve and that really all does depend on the coaching staff as there is not much cap room to improve and Mike Brown seems to very much believe in incremental progress. There are a lot of unknowns right now and so us Bengals fans will just have to hope that the next hire is a good one.

Tennessee Titans

For all that I couldn’t get a handle on them for picking purposes, the Titans went 9-7 despite the injuries to quarterback Marcus Mariota and if he can get the nerve issue in his throwing arm to settle down in the off-season then there is no reason why the Titans can’t compete again next season. For all his accolades as a player, Mike Vrabel was a rookie head coach with limited experience as the man calling the shots and he made a winning start in his first year of coaching, which bodes well for the future. The AFC South could be very competitive next season.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars had a nightmare season, falling to 5-11 after getting to the conference championship game the year before. It appears that GM David Caldwell and head coach Doug Marone are coming back on Tom Coughlin’s say so but there are real problems here. They have no franchise quarterback and the running back they took ahead of Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes has struggled this year and there are reports that he’s been a problem in the locker room. They are also currently over the cap for next season and even if they cut Blake Bortles, $16.5 of his $21 million dollar cap hit would remain as dead money. For all that they have assembled a good defence, they desperately need a functioning solution at quarterback and better players on offence and who knows if they can put that together in the off-season. There may be trouble ahead for the Jaguars next season as a difficult off-season looms.

Denver Broncos

The Broncos could not sustain a challenge to get to the playoffs and ultimately fell to 6-10. The Broncos never really took off under Vance Joseph and with their vaunted defence slipping and Case Keenum not bringing the form he showed with the Vikings last season to the party this year, it feels like there is a lot up in the air this off-season. I don’t know how long it might take for John Elway to feel pressure, but his drafts have not been stellar and his only real success in finding a quarterback was signing Peyton Manning and even then, Manning was a shell of himself when they actually won the Super Bowl. Their cap situation is not a disaster, but they need to get the coaching hire right and nail a draft if they want to compete with the Chiefs and Chargers in the AFC West, which looks like it will be no easier next season.

Oakland Raiders

The best thing that can be said for the Raiders is that they have a lot of draft capital, but after a tumultuous campaign that saw them go 4-12, the Raiders head into the off-season with nowhere to play their home games next season and questions all over the roster. They have just hired Mike Mayock to be their GM, but whilst he has been a great analyst for ESPN, it is a different job evaluating talent when there are wins on the line and make no mistake it will be Jon Gruden calling the shots. A lot will depend on whether this new pairing can hit the ground running, but with the roster where it is and where to play up in the air, it’s hard to sit here and predict how the Raiders will go next year. Let’s just say it would not exactly be a shock if they struggle again…