Conference Championship Games

Tags

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

Tonight we get the top two teams from both conferences competing to see who goes to the Super Bowl, which is much more important than our trivia competition but we’re doing it anyway!

‘For this week I’ll keep it simple and its ONE point for each of the 3 questions.

In the 2018 Regular season who had the most sacks?

We have already asked which team has made the most Championship appearances (The Steelers with 16) but who has made the second most?

Finally, which team has won the most Championship games?

Dan still has a 1 point advantage – will that be the case come Sunday?’

Okay, so this is a varied set of questions, but let’s see how we go. I’m pretty certain that the answer to the first question is Aaron Donald, which just goes to show how impressive he is as he got them playing defensive tackle.

I’m slightly worried that there is a trick to the other questions because this brings back to my mind the overall record post I did in the summer before this season and so I am sure that the team with the most championship wins is the Green Bay Packers, but were they super-efficient and got it on fewer tries or are they second to the Steelers in terms of appearances? The Packers got thirteen championships (I have the spreadsheet to prove it) and if the Steelers were first with sixteen then the Packers were in at least thirteen championship games so I’m sticking with them for both questions. I look forward to being proved wrong…

‘I’m really feeling the pressure here – after a terrible pick-em season, I’m desperate to win the trivia competition, and with 3 weeks left (I think) I’m getting nervous!

Question one I’m going to go with Aaron Donald – it’s a bit of a guess but he’s been a sack machine for years so I’ll go with him for the most this season.
Sorry to jump around, but I’m going for the Patriots as the team who have won the most Conference Championships in Q3 and I’m between them and the Packers for second most appearances in question two… I think I’ll stick with the Patriots for both answers.’

LA Rams @ New Orleans Saints

The first game on Sunday sees the LA Rams take their second ranked offence and nineteenth ranked defence by DVOA to play the slightly more evenly spread New Orleans Saints. The Saints actually rank fourth in offence and eleventh in defence but fourth in overall DVOA.

What does this all mean given that all four teams playing this weekend are ranked in the top seven by DVOA?

At this stage of the season I’m not entirely sure. Neither team’s offence has been at the peak of their form in recent weeks, but the Rams performance on the ground against the Dallas Cowboys’ run defence was particularly impressive so you have to think that running the ball will feature heavily in Sean McVay’s game plan. The combination of CJ Anderson, picked up as a free agent late in the season, and a now healthy Todd Gurley created a fearsome tandem that the Rams used to amass two hundred and thirty-eight yards between them with both rushing for one hundred yard. I have again run out of time to finish the coaching tape I was watching this week, but I did see how the Rams managed to run the ball so effectively with 11 personnel. The mix of repeated jet motion, moving the tight end, and even end around runs by Josh Reynolds and fakes of the same created consistent motion going both ways that served to make a good run defence a step slow. The Saints rushing defence actually ranked two places higher by DVOA at the end of the season that the Cowboys, but a big question in this game is how will the injury to defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins last week affect the Saints ability to pressure and hold up in the middle of their defensive line.

The Saints might not be too dissimilar in the way they attack the LA Rams defence given that the Rams finished the season ranked twenty-eighth in rush defence by DVOA and the Saints have both Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram able to run and catch passes out of the backfield. Kamara is devastating in space, whereas Ingram is a more powerful runner and the Rams will have their hands full dealing with this duo. Getting Ted Ginn back from injury has allowed the Saints to stretch the field more, but the awkward truth is that these days Drew Brees struggles a little to get the ball deep as the opening play interception in the game last week demonstrates because Brees underthrew Ginn. The worry for the Saints is that whilst the Rams rush defence is not great, they do have Aaron Donald who is probably the most disruptive defensive player in the league and left guard Andrus Peat is playing with a broken hand. I know offensive linemen are a different breed when it comes to injury, but this is not a great time to be nursing an injury and the Saints also had centre Max Unger dealing with a knee injury during the week.

In recent years it has been the home teams who have been getting through to the Super Bowl, but this game feels really tight. The Saints have a great home advantage, and the experience at head coach and quarterback, but there are some injury concerns and the Rams have several players who can take over a game as well as a really well schemed offence. I would lean to the Saints still, mainly because of Drew Brees’ experience as compared to Jared Goff and Sean Payton’s knack of being aggressive at the right time but it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise if the Rams won.

New England Patriots @ Kansas City Chiefs

I have been one of many who have wondered about the form of the Patriots this year, but that does not mean that I think they suck as Tom Brady claimed after their win over the Chargers this week. We are all pretty familiar with the legend of the sixth round quarterback and how he is still using that slight and others to motivate himself. Given the success that him and Bill Belichick have had over the years I was definitely not overlooking them last week, and lo and behold, they demonstrated what they are truly capable of. We had Julian Edleman throw back the clock and catch nine balls for one hundred and fifty-one yards whilst James White caught fifteen balls out of the backfield on screen plays and gained ninety-seven yards. Meanwhile Sony Michel ran for one hundred and twenty-nine yards, helped by the blocking of fullback James Develin and in particular Rob Gronkowski. Gronk may have had only one reception in this game, but he blocked effectively and looked good doing it as the Patriots put up forty-one points to give themselves control for the entire game. Now they take this offence to Arrowhead stadium and have to try to keep up with a great Chiefs’ offence. This the Patriots can definitely do, but it is frequently foolish to try to predict how the Patriots will approach the game. I suspect they will try to use their multiple running backs and short passing game to slow the Chiefs’ pass rush and given that their defence ranked twenty-sixth by DVOA at the end of the regular season they may stand a chance, but I’ll come back to that after we’ve talked the Chiefs properly.

The Chiefs have been one of the dominant teams of this season as well as one of the defining narratives thanks to the performance of Patrick Mahomes in his first full season of starting. The young quarterback has continually wowed with his ability to throw the ball as he racked up fifty touchdowns and over five thousand yards during the regular season. He showed few signs of nerves last week as the Chiefs made short work of a Colts team who had been as good as anyone in recent weeks. The defence has been the weakness of this team through the season, but they looked really good against the Colts even if Eric Berry continues to sit out. The Chiefs lost 40-43 in New England earlier this season and this was one of the few games where Mahomes showed some nerves and he threw two of his twelve interceptions that week. However, this week they welcome the Patriots to their own turf in what should be a second great game this.

This game is really hard to call, there is always an unpredictability to the approach that Bill Bilichick will take, whilst Andy Reid’s team has looked great all season. If anybody can silence the raucous Arrowhead crowd it is Tom Brady, but with a defence that is mid-table by DVOA the Patriots will need to keep up with the Chiefs offence. Given the time of year and the weather we may not get the explosion of points there were in their previous meeting, but Patriots have not been good on the road this season and so despite never wanting to bet against the Patriots I am leaning towards the Chiefs in this one.

We should be in for two great games today and then all of a sudden we’ll have two weeks full of news and no football (no, the Pro Bowl doesn’t count) and then it will be the big day. I’m looking forward to all three games as there are simply no bad matchup in any combination of the four teams left, let’s hope the games live up to expectations.

Advertisements

The Divisional Dismayed

Tags

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

There are two games and two weekends left between now and the Super Bowl, and I will give full attention to the teams in the Conference Championship games on Sunday before the teams take the field, but it is time to say goodbye to the divisional dismayed who fell last week.

There is a reason that teams fight for the top two seed and last weekend the advantages told as all four home teams won, and so to the losers.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts might be the least dismayed team to lose this round. Their performance against the Chiefs was worrying as both sides of the ball struggled in the cold of Arrowhead but in head coach Frank Reich’s first year the Colts were really competitive and this bodes well for the future. Reich’s tenure started late after Josh McDaniels pulled out of the job late after the Patriots’ Super Bowl loss, but Reich and the coaching staff have already established an identity with a roster that has been turned around in only a couple of off-seasons by GM Chris Ballard. I expect them to be a real force next season given that Ballard has another draft and the most cap room for the 2019 season to further augment this team. Whilst there is no guarantee of success given the volatility of the NFL and injury luck, I do tip the Colts to be right up there with the best next season now they have surrounded Andrew Luck with the talent to make the most of his skills. Luck has looked really good in this latter half of the season, although he seemed to be off last weekend, but after it looked for a while like we might not seem him play again the success this season is hopefully laying the ground work for future seasons. I just hope I’m not jinxing the 2019 Colts by being this optimistic about them.

Dallas Cowboys

I’m conflicted about how the Cowboys will fare next season as whilst there were definite positives to take from this season, there are also a bunch of question. This starts with head coach Jason Garrett who survives another year as Jerry’s man, but the nine year head coach added just his second playoff win to a record of three playoff visits and Garrett has never got beyond the divisional round. The defence looked really good for long stretches of this season, but we know that defence is more volatile than offence, and the Rams ran all over the Cowboys on Saturday and that was the strength of this Cowboys defence. Meanwhile, the offence desperately needs more options around Dak Prescott who is about to go into the final season of his rookie deal. For once the Cowboys cap number does not look bad as they have the tenth amount of space in the league when looking at 2019, but the big question will be how much of this space will Prescott’s deal take and the Cowboys have frequently not been afraid of handing out big deals to starts and regretting it towards the end of the deal. They have enough young talent to be competitive again next season, but I do wonder if there is a ceiling to what they can achieve without some serious tweaking. Everyone will be watching the Cowboys anyway, but I don’t know if the 2019 team will be able to break into the elite strata of teams truly competing for the Super Bowl.

LA Chargers

There is a lot of good to take from the Chargers season but they are another team that head into the off-season with a lot of questions surrounding them. They got thoroughly outplayed by the Patriots on Sunday, and kept seven defensive backs on the field for longer than they should have so that tells you the linebackers need upgrading. The offensive line also gave up too much pressure and so re-enforcements would be a welcome addition, but the not so secret question is how much longer can Philip Rivers go? The thirty-five year old quarterback has won one of his nine games against the Patriots and is 0-5 in Gillete Stadium. I’m not saying that he can’t win, but the Chargers don’t have a lot of time to turn things round and whilst Anthony Lynn has done well in his first two seasons as head coach of the Chargers, there is still work to be done and very little cap room for next year. The Chargers are not exactly bringing in the fans from LA either, despite being a competitive team. If Joey Bosa can be healthy all next season then the Chargers could be right up there with the best in the league again, but in the longer term we might be looking at quarterback controversies and a franchise that hasn’t been able to truly establish itself in a demanding market. There was no football in LA for a long time, and teams have struggled and moved away from the city before, and with the Rams’ previous history in LA serving them well I can’t help but wonder where the Chargers will be playing once Rivers calls it a day. For now though, let’s enjoy what we have.

Philadelphia Eagles

The defending Eagles did well to get back to the playoffs given the way the season started for them and how many injuries the roster sustained. They will be hoping to return a lot of players next season, but will need to add some speed to an offence that couldn’t stretch the field and find a consistent running game as well as shoring up the back of the defence. For all his playoff magic, Nick Foles, Super Bowl winning quarterback, will be playing for someone else next season, but Carson Wentz’s stress fracture will be healed in plenty of time for him to have a full off-season and I suspect he will be even better for the Eagles another twelve months away from his knee surgery. After all the turnover in the coaching staff last season, where the offence suffered a real brain drain, I think that the Eagles will be raring to go next season. They may be solidly in the middle in terms of cap space, but Howie Roseman has demonstrated his aggressive strategy of draft trades and free agent moves can build incredibly deep rosters and after this season, I would expect the Eagles to be back at it again next season. I can hear the fans singing, ‘Fly Eagles fly!’ already.

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

Tags

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

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

Sunday Divisional Games

Tags

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

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

Tags

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

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

Tags

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

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!

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

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

Tags

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

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

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

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

Tags

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

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.