, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

It has been a rough few days. Between Lemmy’s funeral, the Bengals’ implosion, and then Bowie’s death, I have been wandering around in something of a haze. That’s two music icons and personal heroes gone, along with the continuing twenty-five year wait for a playoff win. That’s not even a championship, but the hope that the team, fans, and the city of Cincinnati would be spared a fifth consecutive playoff loss, but I’ll come back to the Wildcard games in a bit.

In the days following Bowie’s death there have been some writing that they don’t understand the outpouring of grief over a musician, that this is someone that you have never met so why are you sad? The answer to that was put rather beautifully by Lauren Laverne on her Monday radio show, because of course it is personal, music has that strange and magical hook direct into your soul. It has the power to soothe, to inspire, it is the soundtrack to your life, and can take you back to a key moments from your past in an instant. Part of our identity is what we chose to love, what is important to us. This is the same process that makes someone care about the outcome of twenty-two men chasing a ball around a field, what films we like to watch, or what books we read. It is all a part of how we identify ourselves, how we express to the world who and what we are.

I have written before on the positive effects that sport can have, particularly with participation, but also for simply taking someone out of themselves. What I love about Bowie was his endless exploration of self-expression. This pursuit wasn’t a search for a new on trend sound that would help further his career, but the continuing development of a curious artist. I don’t have the single personal moment of a song telling me that I could do or be something that I have heard so many talk about in the last few days. I am too young for him to have revolutionised what was possible, for me it had already happened, but oh boy what a catalogue of songs. To me he was intrinsically intertwined with what a musician should be, and so as a drummer, therefore what I should aspire to be. I can’t hear Rebel Rebel without thinking about my dad, it was one of those conversations father and sons have across generations when they both love music. We all have heroes and influences. Some people have a select few. I could wax lyrical on scientists, politicians, artists of all hues, and yes sports people.

Even as I write the first draft of this blog, we have learned that Alan Rickman has also passed away, again aged 69 and killed by cancer. Death is not something we like to think about, it is an all too painful reminder of our own mortality. It is even more shocking when it comes as a surprise, when we were ignorant of the illness, when an album was only released three days earlier.

So how do I pull this back to sport of all things? Well by dint of the aforementioned discussion on policing grief. Like all things, there are degrees of grief. Life in all its infinite complex glory gives us endless things to care about, and usually concern over one thing does not deny concern about the other. We have to have some kind of balance, otherwise we’d collapse under the cares of the world. I am saddened by the death of a hero. But what about all the wars? My team lost a playoff game. Are you not concerned by the systematic dismantling of the welfare state? My team is moving city. Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.

With apologies to Walt Whitman, we’ll get back to football, and the various sets of fans that have had a pretty bad week as well.

The Houston Texans had done well to even make the playoffs, but last weekend really was one game too far. The game started with a one hundred and six yard kick off return touchdown by the Chiefs, and things never improved as the Texans slipped to a 30-0 loss. The defence actually gave a reasonable account of themselves, especially with JJ Watt having further injuries, but the offence was horrible. Racking up five turnovers, with Brian Hoyer throwing four interceptions and two fumbles, losing one to the Chiefs, things never got going in the passing game. In fairness, having your starting left tackle is always going to hurt, but the lack of options behind DeAndre Hopkins really hurt the Texans, and you have to think they will be looking to address this in the offseason.

I have said playoff win or bust for the Bengals all season, and it was another painful loss. However, if last year’s loss was explainable by the number of injuries to the skill positions on offence, then this one was understandable given the Bengals were without their starting quarterback and still gave a reasonable account of themselves in the fourth quarter. Despite not scoring in the first three quarters, AJ McCarron put the Bengals in a position to win the game, and they had the ball with 1:50 left on the clock. With a year left on his contract, building one of the league’s most talented rosters, and with his coaching tree still expanding, it appears that Marvin Lewis is safe for another year in Cincinnati, but he will have to address the issue of discipline/poise in the offseason. I have no issue with either of the late penalties that cost the Bengals this game, although Joey Porter had no business being on the field and another coach had already pulled Reggie Nelson’s dreadlocks on the sideline, but you have to be smarter than both Burfict and Jones were at the end of this game. I am sure the league will be looking at ways to control this fixture going forward as they will desperate to avoid the rancour escalating further given the Steelers and Bengals face each other twice a season. Already Hue Jackson has left to be head coach of the Cleveland Browns, so it will be another season of change at coordinator for the Bengals, but so much of the team’s recent success has been built through the offseason and draft that hopefully this part of the process will take care of itself once more.

The most painful loss of the Wildcard round has to be the Minnesota Viking’s agonising last second loss on a missed chip shot twenty-seven yard field goal. You have to think that Blair Walsh will be thinking about that kick for years to come, but this should not take the gloss of the continuing progress the Vikings have made, In ex-Bengal coordinator Mike Zimmer’s second year in charge the Vikings were able to wrestle the NFC North division away from the Green Bay Packers, and have a young foundation to build on. They need to sure up the offensive line and get Teddy Bridgewater some options on offence, but the Vikings have a very tough defence and are heading in the right direction. You can argue that they have the most to look forward to out of the four teams that were eliminated last weekend.

That said, Washington are also making good progress in another ex-Bengals coordinator’s second year in charge. Fittingly, old offensive coordinator Jay Gruden found a formula during the course of the season that turned quarterback Kirk Cousins into one of the most effective passers in the league in the final weeks. With two solid receivers and a very promising progression from tight end Jordan Reid there is hope for them next season. They will need to strengthen their defence, particularly in the secondary, if they want to compete in their division again next season, but they were able to compete with the Packers for three quarters. There looks to be a foundation to build from as long as they can sign Cousins to a sensible contract.

I will come back to the franchises that are moving in the offseason once all the deals have been firmed up, but I can’t help feeling sorry for the fans in St. Louis who are losing their team. It at least makes sense for the Rams to return to Los Angeles, and the offer has been made for the Chargers to join them. We will have to see if they agree, but it looks likely that they will be on the move in some way or the other. At least the Raiders look set to stay in Oakland, but I’m sure their fans won’t feel safe until the franchise finds a long term stadium solution.

So now onto this week’s games, which unsurprising all look to be great.

Kansas City Chiefs @ New England Patriots

All the talk about the Patriots is that they are getting all their key players back, and that just having Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski back will enable to Tom Brady to get the ball out quicker, helping the Patriots in pass protection. This is likely to be the deciding factor in this game, the Chiefs defence has been excellent for most of the season since they got corner Shaun Smith back from injury, but their pass rush will need to be effective if the Chiefs are to win this game.

The Patriots defence has been good for large chunks of the season, but the Chiefs have been getting it done without spectacular passing numbers from Alex Smith, who doesn’t turn the ball over. They actually seem to have improved since running back Jamaal Charles has gone down, but it will be interesting to see if they can scheme their way into competing in this game.

I wouldn’t like to call this game as there are too many injury unknowns, but I am expecting a good contest.

Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals

I am looking forward to this game as the Cardinals are my favourite team left in the competition. Their aggressive long passing game has been effective against virtually everyone, whilst they got a huge amount of pressure on Aaron Rodgers the last time they played.

The Packers may have pulled away from Washington at the end of the game, but the offence still hasn’t proved to me that it can play against man coverage, which has been their downfall for much of the season. If they can turn the Cardinal’s aggressive pass rush against them, then they might be able to win this game as their defence has been playing well recently, but I am expecting them to come up short in this one.

Seattle Seahawks @ Carolina Panthers

The Seahawks are a good team, but they are lucky to be playing in this game. They should have lost against the Vikings if Blair Walsh hadn’t missed the last second field goal. Their offence got very little going last week except when for when Russell Wilson made plays out of structure, but the Seahawks defence is looking good once more and should keep them in contention.

However, the one area the Seahawks defence have struggled with is against tight ends, and Cam Newton’s favourite target this season has been tight end Greg Olson. The Panthers beat the Seahawks in week six, and with their own great defence you would expect them to repeat the feat at home. The Seahawks are always a dangerous proposition in the post season, but you don’t go 15-1 without being very good.

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Denver Broncos

Our final game of the weekend sees Peyton Manning start the game after an injury plagued season where he has ranked amongst the worst quarterbacks in the league. We really can’t be sure how effective the offence will be against a Steelers defence that plays better than its patchy secondary, but the Broncos have been like this all season. What has got them into the playoffs is a fearsome defence, and although they had difficulties against the Steelers earlier in the season, they have been mixing more zone into their coverages, which might help them as the Bengals’ two high safety look did limit the Steelers’ passing attack.

The Steelers will be concerned about attempting their normal game on offence, as Antonio Brown has been ruled out of this week’s game with the concussion he sustained at the end of the game against the Bengals. Somehow Ben Roethlisberger is only questionable despite a sprained AC join and torn ligaments in his throwing shoulder. If you combine this with the injuries to their running backs and the Steelers might just be too injured to win this one. They will play the Broncos tough, but I would have more faith in the Bronco’s Brock Osweiler than Landry Jones if it does come down to a battle of the backups. I’m expecting the Steelers’ defence to blitz the Broncos heavily to keep themselves in the game, but I think this could be a week too many for the Steelers.

It should be a great set of games this weekend, and let’s hope the world eases up on us a bit going into next week.