Super Bowl Build Up

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So amidst the swirling and annually swelling Super Bowl coverage we have to take stock ahead of the big game on Sunday.

I’ll start with the continuing saga in New Orleans, and I mention the city rather than team as apart from what befell the Saints in the Conference Championship game, this past Monday NBA superstar Anthony Davis said he will not be resigning with the New Orleans Pelicans and put in a trade request. This was a story big enough to fight the Super Bowl for attention in American sports media, which has to really hurt fans of in New Orleans.

Still, it’s hard to tell too much about how these stories battled for attention from over here in the UK, but it was certainly interesting and there are still stories about the Saints coming out. We had Ben Watson calling out Roger Goodell’s silence a week ago in a well-reasoned complaint on twitter.

19-01-31bwatson

Drew Brees clearly is begging to prepare for next season, and his Instagram post certainly showed why he’s been successful for so long.

‘I’ve spent this last week navigating the heartache and disappointment from the game. Some things within our control and some outside our control that caused us to fall short. So much of our motivation is to represent the Who Dat Nation with determination and resiliency. We want to play for you, fight for you, and win for you. You deserve that. 
The longer I play I realize that we truly are one heartbeat with our fans. Our success is your success. Our disappointment is your disappointment. We are inspired by one another to accomplish things far greater than what we could ever do on our own. 
Everything that has ever happened to this community, we have bonded together, galvanized and leaped forward every time. 
The frustration we feel now can be channeled in the same way. Pour that passion and emotion into your families and communities. Inspire others with your focus & determination and positive outlook. This will make us stronger, this will bond us tighter, this will be a source for our success in the future. 
There is no place like New Orleans. There is no community like ours. No fans like the Who Dat Nation. I refuse to let this hold us down. I refuse to let this create any negativity or resentment. I embrace the challenge. 
So keep your chin up, hold your head high, puff your chest out because WE are the Who Dat Nation and WE will always persevere.’

Drew Brees Instagram

Meanwhile his head coach Sean Payton has revealed that he spent several days locked in his office with ice cream and Netflix, and this was a story on NFL.com that followed only the Goodell press-conference when I looked at lunch time.

I was fighting my schedule again this week and as a result I was juggling when to publish posts, but part of the reason I held my mid-week post back a day was so was I could hear what Roger Goodell might have to say, but the honest answer is not much. This seems to have very much been the approach for Goodell this season who has kept a low profile, as demonstrated by his slow response to the bad no call that everyone is talking about. Even then he didn’t move past general quotes supportive of the referees and said we’ll look at replay in the off-season. Now he was never going to reverse the winners of the game and the Saints’ fans trying to bring a law suit won’t get too far either, but the interesting nugget I did read was that one of the reasons that the missed call against the Saints couldn’t be reviewed is that teams have always been against the review of no-calls. Now this will be to do with limiting the effect on the flow of the game and the influence of replay, but for something to change it has to get through the competition committee and then pass a vote amongst the owners. We shall have to see what comes out of that, but I am not expecting anything radical to come of this process. Certainly we have got used to Goodell not saying much of anything.

Getting back to the game, the media circus is in full swing with a mixture of really good break downs and less football related antics of media scrabbling for news round the Super Bowl. I’ll get to the game in my Sunday post, and I am not going to write a complaint about the quality of some of the media coverage here, but I do want to take note of it taking place.

The reason I want to do this is picking up from something Solomon Wilcots was saying on the Inside the Huddle podcast, namely that you can’t win a Super Bowl in the week before the game, but you can lose one. Now the story he tells is of the 1989 Bengals team who lost Stanley Wilson to a cocaine relapse on the eve of the Super Bowl, and his job was to block Ronnie Lott. Now I very much want to not say something like that is going to happen, and we have learnt a lot about addiction in the intervening years and it still wasn’t enough to help Josh Gordon stay clean whilst with the Patriots this season. However, with all the demands on player’s attentions and the unusual circumstances as well as changed to their routine like the extra-long half time, the team who adjusts to this environment the best will set themselves up with a good chance to win. The Patriots have been to nine Super Bowls in eighteen years and this is the third straight year they have reached the big game. That is a simply phenomenal record and has to give the Patriots some kind of edge in their preparation. The attention to detail of Sean McVay is also pretty well know so I’m not saying that the Patriots are going to walk the game, particularly given all the Patriots Super Bowls have been close, but it could be a small detail covered in a meeting this week that turns the game. Now to be fair, mostly it will be decided by the players on the day, but you never know.

I’m really looking forward to this game given both teams use a lot of deception as part of their scheme and I think it could be a fascinating match up to study in coaching tape, but for now enjoy the build-up and look forward to Sunday.

There’s not long left to go now!

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Anyone got any plans for the weekend?

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So, here we are! It’s that time of year again where all of your mates, even the ones who don’t watch any other games all season, become big NFL fans! We’re down to the final two, with the best of the AFC, namely the New England Patriots, facing off against the NFC’s LA Rams.

It’s an exciting one this year. I genuinely believe that either team could be leaving Atlanta with the Vince Lombardi trophy, and I can’t wait to see how the game goes. Lets take a look at the two teams involved.

A handy guide for Sunday night…

AFC: New England Patriots – 11-5

What can I say about the Patriots that hasn’t already been said? The combination of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick is one of the most successful partnerships in NFL history, having lead their Patriots to 5 Super Bowl championships; 4 of them with Mr Brady winning the Super Bowl MVP! This is the Patriots third representation of the AFC in the big one in row with them beating Falcons and losing to the Eagles in the last 2.

But this year, I believe that they’re a little more beatable than they have in the run up to the last couple of outings. This year, they’ve dropped games against the Jaguars (Week 2), Lions (Week 3), Titans (Week 10), Dolphins (Week 14) and Steelers (Week 15), none of whom made it to the post-season. On top of that, you can’t argue that Tom Brady is getting on a bit. It’s been interesting this week to hear him say that he ‘doesn’t know’ if Sunday’s game will be his last [He did say he had zero intention to retire -Ed.]. Personally, I can’t see it, but at the same time, if he does play again next year, I can’t see him being able to keep up the standard that everyone is used to seeing from him.

His target men have been a little bit unexpected this year. James White (a Running Back) has been targeted the most, and made the most catches this year, and losing someone like Josh Gordon towards the end of the season to suspension won’t have helped. On top of that, if you exclude the 2016 season when he was injured for half of the year, this has been statistically his worst year since 2013 – something which hasn’t helped to silence the noise about him potentially retiring too.

If things don’t go their way on Sunday, we really could be watching the end of their franchise dominance… (much to the delight of the rest of the AFC East!).

NFC: Los Angeles Rams – 13-3

It seems a long time since the Rams entered LA in 2016 with a 4-12 record. Since then, certainly in the last couple of seasons, they’ve been one of the most exciting franchises to watch in the league. This will have been in no small part down to the introduction of current Head Coach Sean McVay, who has breathed new life into the team.

Their route to the Super Bowl, via an overtime victory over the New Orleans Saints, was marred with more than a little controversy – with a missed interference call on a play that also had a helmet to helmet hit at the end of the fourth quarter which may well have lead to a different end result – but for me, you win some and you lose some throughout the year, it just happens to have come at the perfect time for them!

What has surprised me a little is that the Rams frankly loaded defence ranks 19th in the league this year. When you think that their line is stacked with the likes of Aaron Donald (who I think I’m developing a Gee/JJ Watt style man-crush on! [No fair, you are an offence man and I have an ethical polly approach to my love of destuctive interior defensive linemen – Ed.]) and Ndamukong Suh, I really would expect them to be much higher up the list.

On the other side of the ball, Jarred Goff has had a great season in his second year as starting QB. He’s been helped out by Brandon Cooks and Robert Woods who have done well, and you can’t talk about the Rams offence without taking a look at Todd Gurley. He was just slightly under his rushing yard total from last season, but has been extremely important for the team, running in 17 TDs throughout the year.

And their other benefit is their kicking game – as a team, you’ve got to go a long way to find a better pairing than Johnny Hekker and Greg Zuerlein, who have made some monster kicks and punts this year.

My Verdict

This is the most difficult Super Bowl to pick for a good few years. I had a hunch about the Rams back in March, and on balance, I think I’m going to stick with them for the win in the early hours of Monday morning. That being said, if you saw how my picks went this year, they may not be thanking me for that…

One final update on the bet before I sign off – as you’d expect, the cash out value has fluctuated a bit throughout the week and a half since they made it through, but it’s now at its most tempting!

And that’ll be it from me for now. One more post next week, and I’ll be taking a well earned break. As always, I’ve got Monday off work, so Sunday will be America day in our house, where I drink American lager, eat Corn Dogs, and watch the big game… and I can’t wait!

I’ll be tweeting throughout the game, so can’t wait to hear how you’re celebrating the occasion, and what your plans are for Sunday night – tweet me and let me know!

Oh, and if you know where I can get hold of some Corn Dogs in the UK, I’m reaching Def-Con-One here!

@TWFDan

AAF: Patriots Defence

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For the first coaching tape I watched in preparation for the Super Bowl was me taking a look at the Patriots defence and how they contained the Chiefs offence, holding them scoreless in the first half and limiting them to under three hundred total yards. In fact their two hundred and ninety total yards was the lowest for the Chiefs’ offence all season and only the second time they were kept under three hundred yards.

So how did the Patriots manage this and how did the Chiefs score thirty-one points in one half of football?

Well the game plan was pretty consistent through both halves and I will start with the coverage choices and work my way forwards. It is a well known fact the Patriots will often double cover a team’s best receiver, but they will use their best corner to cover the teams second best receiver. Now I confess that I didn’t track which corner was covering each player through the entire game as I have to limit what I track to get posts out. If someone wants to pay me to go more in depth I’m all for it! What I can say is that the Patriots doubled Tyreek Hill for the entire game and played with one high safety. This was a gamble that paid off and it needed to as this meant they were effectively playing cover 0 for the rest of the Chief’s receiving options. However, Hill was only targeted three times in this game and had one catch when running a route from the slot where he got a clean release and therefore was able to use a fake in and out break to find a soft part of the bracket coverage and catch his one pass that did go for forty-two yards. The rest of the receivers were then singled covered and whilst Sammy Watkins did catch four balls for one hundred and fourteen yard, he got no touchdowns. The other thing to mention regarding the Patriots’ coverage was they were hardly ever in what would be considered a base defence of 3-4. Mostly they played a mixture of 2-4 nickel and 3-2 dime, using the extra defensive back(s) to cover Travis Kelce, who himself only had three receptions from three targets although he did get a touchdown.

The counter to lining up with this kind of personnel and formation would be to run up the middle with more power, but whilst the Chiefs did use more 12 personnel in the second half, full back Anthony Sherman only got one snap on offence in a goal line formation. In case you are curious, Sherman did have twenty-three snaps on special teams so it is not like he was not contributing to this game, but he was not a part of the offensive game plan. The Chiefs were not however, able to get their run game going consistently on this game anyway. Their longest run of the game was a ten yarder by Damien Williams, and if you remove that from his rushing totals then Williams’ pedestrian three yards per carry drops to a woeful two point two. The second longest run was Patrick Mahomes, who scrambled for nine when the defence opened up before him but he is not a rushing quarterback and with that I have covered all the Chiefs’ runs in this game!

Now part of this is to do with game flow. The Patriots set out to run the ball and control the clock, which they managed to do and having put up a lead and amassed double the time of possession, the Chiefs had to rely on their explosive offence to catch up. It took time for Mahomes to adjust to what the Patriots were doing and to find ways of completing passes. Often there were no receivers open and Mahomes got bailed out a couple of times by defensive holding or pass interference penalties, several of which were given away by JC Jackson. Mahomes also got sacked four times as the Patriots racked up ten quarterback hits, but the good news for the Chiefs going forward is that Mahomes did find those ways in the second half and going forward he is only going to improve in such situations as he gains experience.

I’ll finish up with the two players in the front seven who particularly caught my eye. The obvious candidate is Kyle Van Noye who lined up all round the linebacker spots and racked up ten tackles, eight of them solo, as well as two sacks and a quarterback hit as well as forcing a fumble. If Van Noye was the all action super star, then Trey Flowers was the man causing the disruption in the front seven with his hand in the dirt. He may have only got two tackles but he paired that with a sack and two quarterback hits as well as getting one of those tackles for a loss.

It is kind of appropriate for a team like the Patriots to not have people leaping of the screen all over the defence, but to posses a collective doing their jobs to make an effective whole. There’s no guarantee that the same players will shine in the Super Bowl, or that the same scheme and personnel groupings will be used. I suspect they could well use the coverage trick I described a start of this piece again, but seeing what they come up with to limit the Sean McVay and the Rams’ offence is probably what I’m most looking forward to watching this Sunday. Until then, I shall take a look at the Rams defence given that I watched the Rams offence only a couple of weeks ago.

Trivia for Pro Bowl Weekend

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With a week to go until the Super Bowl we have had a bit of fun in the Pro Bowl skill competitions and I have watched my first game of coaching tape that I will write up, but we also have two trivia questions to contend with so here goes:

And then we move onto Week 21, the Pro Bowl and there are 2 questions this week with 3 points up for grabs.

Firstly, in the 2018 Regular Season who (player) kicked the most field goals? As a bonus How Many was that?

Secondly, for 1 point, whose foundation (player not team) raised a record $41m following Hurricane Harvey?’

So the second question is the easiest for me to answer as the damage that Hurricane Harvey caused in Houston was very memorable, as was the fund raising effort that was led by JJ Watt.

As for field goals, I’m going to plump for probably the best field goal kicker in the league, who just happens to play for a team who relied heavily on him and their defence for the first half of the season so I’m plumping for Justin Tucker and say he got thirty-two field goals.

‘Ok, quick answers this week. Question one I should really know as the kicking connoisseur of the group, but I’m afraid it’s going to be a guess. I’ll go with Baltimore’s Justin Tucker with about 38 kicks made.

Question 2 is easy, and unfair as the answer is Gee’s Spirit Animal and all round good guy, Mr Julian* Jonathan* Watt!

* – may not be his real names… it’s JJ Watt.

Farewell to the Teams who Fell at the Final Hurdle

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We now know the Super Bowl participants and before I really focus in on that matchup and the stories of those teams, it’s time to say goodbye to the pair of teams that fell at the final hurdle.

New Orleans Saints

This is the second straight year where the New Orleans Saints suffered a gut wrenching loss to send them out of the playoffs. Last year, a last minute miraculous play from the Vikings combined with an awful play by a safety saw the Saints crashing out. This season their hopes were dashed by a third down play that could have seen a flag thrown for pass interference or a helmet to helmet but received neither. The player admitted the foul as he was worried about giving up a touchdown and Sean Payton received a phone call telling him that the refs had blown the call. I don’t know if by the time the competition committee meet in March that things will have died down again, but there is a reason that Bill Belichick has been calling for all plays to be reviewable and no one, be it player, coach or referee wants to see a game turn on such a moment.

But what about the Saints’ season?

Well they went to the playoffs for a second straight year and were my tip for the Super Bowl for a number of weeks, but unfortunately this was not to be. Drew Brees turned forty this week, and whilst he threw for fewer yards this season, he set a record for completion percentage as he led the Saints to 13-3 record that was only matched by the Rams team that beat them at the weekend. The Saints may have started the year with a loss to the Buccaneers, but they were not the only team to concede a lot of yards to that Bucs’ offence and they promptly won ten straight games until they lost to the Dallas Cowboys in week thirteen, but I will come to that in a minute.

The Saints’ defence took a few weeks to come together, but the offence scored forty-points three times in their opening five games and for a large part of the season they looked to be on a level with the Chiefs and Rams as the best in the league. However, they really struggled against the Cowboys in week thirteen and never quite looked the same again.

How much of this was because coordinators saw something in that game that they could apply I don’t know, but there were other problems. The Saints struggled for a reliable second receiver for much of the season and relied on Alvin Kamara coming out of the backfield to supplement Michael Thomas. More worrying was through this end section of the regular season and into the playoffs Brees struggled with the long ball, under-throwing passes and getting bailed out by receivers but also getting intercepted. It would not surprise me if he has been carrying an injury as almost everyone playing in the NFL at the end of the season is managing something, but I wouldn’t push the panic button. However, if the big focus of last year’s draft was the addition of a pass rusher, and they gave up a lot to trade up and pick Marcus Davenport, then the Saints should make sure they have the receivers to utilise Brees’ time left. He has stated that he intends to return and the Saints for the past two season have been very competitive and were definitely worthy of the Super Bowl this season, but that doesn’t mean you win them. Brees has at least won one though, which is more than some Hall of Fame quarterbacks have managed. It makes sense to come back for another year with this team as in tact as possible, which is good as the Saints have one of the smaller amounts of salary cap space available in 2019 but even if they manage this there’s no guarantee that they will be as good next year and that is what makes this loss so painful. There’s hope for next season, but there’s no sugar coating the fact that the Saints are up against the clock with the age of Drew Brees. I would really like him to win another Super Bowl, but only time will tell if this was his best chance.

Kansas City Chiefs

If the Saints are fighting against Father Time as well as the rest of the league, then the Chiefs in the opposite position thanks to how impressive Patrick Mahomes has been in his first full season. The only other quarterback to throw for five thousand yards and fifty touchdowns was Peyton Manning in 2013 when he threw for five thousand four hundred and seventy-seven yards and fifty-five touchdowns. If you consider where Manning was at that point in his career and compare to how young Mahomes is then it is truly frightening for the rest of the league and particularly for the rest of the AFC West who will likely see him twice a season for the next decade and hopefully more with injury luck.

For most of the season the Chiefs offence has enthralled and entertained with motion, quick breaking plays and quick scores. They were not even that heavily affected by the loss of Kareem Hunt after he was dropped by the team once video emerged of an incident in a hotel in the off-season where he shoved a woman to the ground and kicked her. Their Achilles heel has been the defence, and ultimately defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has paid for this with his job. Given the range of talent the Chiefs possess, the offence should be just as potent next season, possibly even more so as Mahomes gains experience and he proved in the second half of the Conference Championship game that even after difficult starts he can rise to the big occasions. The Chiefs are just above league average in salary cap space for next season, and given the team they have put together already, if they can improve their defence to merely average as opposed to twenty-sixth in the league by DVOA then this team could be terrifying. There are still questions about some of the ways that Andy Reid runs the clock, but for all the jokes he has a really impressive coaching record and we could be about to see the years where he gets the Super Bowls to go with the wins.

It has now been forty-eight years since the Chiefs made it to the Super Bowl, I would not be at all surprised if they are playing in next year’s.

Conference Championship Games

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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.

The Divisional Dismayed

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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!

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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

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!