Reflections on the 2014 season

Another season is in the books and barely without a pause for breath the chatter has switched to free agency and the draft. But it wouldn’t seem right to move onto next year without a thought back to what has been a tumultuous but riveting season in the NFL, literally right down to the last seconds.

Superbowl XLIX

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Having just about got over my Sunday night / Monday morning sleep hangover, it seems right to start by reflecting back on what some are calling the Greatest Superbowl Ever. Indeed, for the neutral fan, the game had everything you would want in terms of nailbiting excitement and entertainment. Obviously as a Jet’s fan it had everything I didn’t want: a win for the Patriots.

Although it was a close game throughout, by the beginning of the fourth quarter, it certainly looked like Seattle were going to win their second Lombardi trophy in two years.  Marshawn Lynch rushed for over 100 yards and the Pats struggled to contain him. Despite Russell Wilson not completing a catch until the 19th minute of the game and only completing 12 in total (compared to Brady’s 37) the Seahawks convincingly led by 10 entering the last fifteen minutes. Jermaine Kearse caught a mind boggling, juggling catch from a Wilson deep ball and an unlikely hero emerged in former practise squad WR Chris Matthews who had not caught a catch prior to this game but took 4 grabs for 109 yards and a touchdown; a possible MVP if….

…things had not changed. Throughout the game, as the stats suggest the Seahawks had struggled against Brady’s pass. They weren’t helped by the early exit from the game of Jeremy Lane with an excruciating broken arm gained on the first of 2 Brady interceptions. New England were always coming knocking, but Seattle seemed strong enough to hold the door closed even with a weakened secondary. Then came 14 straight Patriot’s points in the fourth quarter from Edelman and Amendola and the momentum swung New England’s way. But there was still a chance, until Pete Carroll made that call to pass the ball from the 1 yard line, a pass which was intercepted and took away any chance of snatching what could have been the game winning TD.  Much has been made of this mind boggling decision, not just because he had Beastmode lined up in the back but also it was only 2nd down. They would still have been just enough time to try again on 3rd if the play hadn’t resulted in the TD. Of course, this is all history now and Belichick, Brady and Kraft can go back to Boston, hand in hand, clutching the 4th Lombardi trophy of their collaboration and Gronk can jump back on his party bus and drive off into the sunset.

The biggest surprises

Although the big game ended up being contested by both number one seeds, there were several surprises this year, both positive and negative. On the positive side the Dallas Cowboys, even with a banged up Tony Romo, provided their fans with the most successful season in years, despite being widely predicted to completely flop. Instead the trio of Dez Bryant, offensive player of the year Demarco Murray and Romo ended up at the 5th highest scoring offense and the 2nd best rushing team in the league. With exceptional rookie Guard Zach Martin amongst others, the offensive line were also able to effectively protect Romo, helping them to the divisional round of the playoffs. After a very close game against Green Bay which, including the spectacular ‘non catch’ from Dez Bryant, ended the Superbowl dreams of the Cowboys, the unexpected run of success meant a new contract for HC Jason Garrett was not far away.

On a more negative note, the New Orleans Saints, who had been tipped by some to make it to the Superbowl, failed miserably in the particularly weak NFC south, finishing 7-9. Although the offense led by Drew Brees put together some decent numbers, the defense were amongst the worst four teams for points and yards allowed. Although this wasn’t overall by any means the worst performance by a team in the league, the fact that such high hopes were pinned on the Saints before the season meant their mediocre performance stands out as an unexpected surprise.

The woes of a Jets fan

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This could be a whole blog post in itself. It’s pretty galling to think that apart from a surprise victory against the Steelers and last gasp of energy against Miami the only other wins came against the  equally awful Titans and Raiders. In all honesty there was a lot of embarrassment, not least in some of the shocking QB play from both Vick and Geno, not to mention the hoopla that surrounded it. Taking a trip to NYC in October to watch the Jets play was in itself an amazing experience; having only previously watched a pre-season game at Met Life stadium, but the quality of play, particularly from Geno, illustrated the distance the Jets had to go. The latter part of the season was peppered with ‘Fire John Idzik’ campaigns and rumours that Rex was on his way out; which it turns out, he was. The few rays of sunshine came again from the defensive line, who provide a solid foundation for Todd Bowles and his new team to build on. A Patriot’s Superbowl win felt like a nail in the coffin, but at least from here the only way is up!

Offensive players of the year – in the other sense of the word

Sadly for the NFL, this year was dogged by major controversy which bought the attention of world wide media. Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Josh Gordon (twice) and Aldon Smith are just a few of the players involved. The fact that it wasn’t just the actions of the players but also the reaction of the league that was bought into question cast a long shadow over what was a great year of football; especially in the playoffs. Particularly with the Ray Rice case, the handling of the seriousness of the incident, specifically about their awareness of video which later became public called into account the integrity of the league in general. Even now the season is over, Johnny Manziel is in rehab and Green Bay defensive tackle Letroy Guion has been arrested for felony possession. Roger Goodell, in his pre Superbowl  press conference, was noticeably emotional regarding the trials of this year, both personally and for the league as a whole but will need to act on promises made to ensure future seasons are not marred by such mishandled allegations and incidents.

Heartbreakers and standout moments.

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It would be impossible to describe all big stories of the of the 2014 season so briefly here are five of the defining moments.

  • The emergence of Odell Beckham Junior and that one handed catch.
  • Seattle vs Green Bay in the NFC championship game. Russell Wilson throwing four interceptions had one of the worst games of his career against the league MVP Aaron Rodgers but still Seattle found a way to win; a captivating game, with a heartbreaking ending for Green Bay.
  • Peyton Manning beating Brett Favre’s all time touch down record with 530 career TDs.
  • The Arizona Cardinals making it to the playoffs despite losing their first and second string QBs. A testament to excellent coaching by Bruce Arians (once again coach of the year), the wild card game was just one step too far.
  • The biggest name heading up to and out of the 2014 draft ‘Johnny Football’ not actually making any impact on the league at all and now, sadly ending up in rehab, not a great moment, but a major talking point nevertheless.

On to the next…

Now that (at least I) have some closure on the 2014 season it’s time to look ahead to 2015. As a Jets fan, there are many reasons to be optimistic; a new coaching staff, opportunities to make the most of a decent salary cap situation in free agency and a high draft pick. As an NFL fan, it’s sure to be another year of excitement; bookies are already putting the Seahawks as 6-1 favourites to win Superbowl 50 but let’s hope there’ll be less off the field controversy to overshadow it.  The great thing about the NFL is that there is no offseason and so I’ll be continuing to write a mixture of news and my views on what’s going on as we ramp up for the new season. I’m also planning to write some differently focused posts about the NFL in general and how I came to be so obsessed with it. If you enjoy reading my blog and have any suggestions about topics for the offseason, leave me comment, or drop me a line via twitter @nych83 – thoughts always welcome.

Thanks for reading so far and onto the 2015 season…

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Superbowl XLIX – Too close to call

Who will win in the desert? Seattle Seahawks or New England Patriots?

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With one day to go, it’s the million dollar question –and one I’ve been avoiding trying to answer. This is one of a closest matchups in Superbowl history and after watching, reading and taking in as much of the build up as possible it seems that everyone has come to the same conclusion: it’s too close to call. With explosive offense on both sides there is sure to be some decent scoring action so I’m predicting a high scoring game with few points in it. Which way it goes is anyone’s guess, but personally, it won’t surprise you that I don’t want the Patriots to win, therefore by default I’m rooting for Seattle. However, I have a niggling suspicion that it will go the way of the Brady Bunch, but only by a hair, albeit a well-coiffured one.

In all honesty, for the (sort of) neutral, it’s going to be the potential quality of play which will make this a great game to watch. Across all three phases of the game, both sides have exceptional depth and talent and the winner will have to find and exploit the few weaknesses presented by the opposition. It will likely come down to who plays better at key positions; Brady or Wilson, Sherman or Revis, Lynch or Blount.

All teams who have previously won back to back Superbowls have had extremely strong leaders at QB (Montana, Elway & co) and Wilson is no exception to this rule but don’t forget Brady has achieved that feat already. He has led the Patriots since 2000 and the way his ex-teammates such as Willie McGinest talk about him leaves you in no doubt of his leadership capabilities. Wilson, despite having less experience in terms of years in the league, shows extraordinary confidence and leadership even at the lowest points, as evidenced in the NFC Championship game, proclaiming to his team on the sideline that ‘we can still win this’ even with a 16 point deficit. In terms of play, Wilson is more mobile than Brady, with the ability to throw the sexiest of deep balls although Brady has made more plays from outside the pocket this year than previously and continues to put together long scoring drives. Wilson’s strength is in his versatility but you can never count Brady out.

Both teams have many stand out playmakers on offense but Rob Gronkowski and Marshawn Lynch are likely to make the biggest impact. Stopping these two will be of prime importance to both defenses. Lynch’s performance with the media shows he intends to do his talking on the field and will cause problems for the Pats run defense, which although recently improved, is not as strong as it could be. With LeGarrette Blount , New England have recently scored well on the run but the Hawks run defense is a formidable opponent. Throughout the season, tight ends have been kryptonite for the Seahawks defense. Gronk is currently the best in the business at that position and is at the top of his game. With none of injuries that have dogged him previously, a big game is expected.

Despite Seattle being famed for its boom D, both defenses will cause problems for the quarterbacks. Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins will ensure Wilson is consistently under pressure but of course Brady won’t escape the ‘legion’. In the secondary, Sherman vs Revis is an important comparison. Wilson was dogged by turnovers in the NFC Championship game and will need to avoid a repeat of this. Which side allows the most completions to receivers will be important, especially if they manage to slow the run. Sherman is on top form but Revis, taking his island to it’s first Superbowl, will also want to prove a point. Kam Chancellor will be tasked with diminishing Gronk’s impact on the game. Although he is more than qualified for this role, with a reported injury sustained at Thursday practice, he will have to be at his best to avoid a ‘Gronking to Remember.’

The coaching match up in this game is fascinating too. Belichick and Carroll are very different in their approaches but both have a great respect for each other as was clear in Friday’s press conference. In terms of game management and decision making Belichick is more level headed and organised, making well timed decisions, such as the Edelman/Amendola trick play against Baltimore. Carroll is more openly passionate and is supremely confident in his players, playing football in a simple, but effective form. Several games in these playoffs have come down to the grit of the coaches and with everything else so closely matched, a miscalled play or a stroke of innovation could make the difference.

Putting aside match ups and speculation, a good story is one of the key reasons that sport in general is so alluring and captivating. This matchup is full of potential great narratives which NFL films can exploit for the forthcoming ‘America’s game’ regardless of who wins. Pete Carroll was fired by Robert Kraft after the 1999 season to be replaced by Bill Belichick. There would be some kind of sweet symmetry if he could put one over on his very successful replacement. Similarly, the last team to win back to back Superbowls were the Patriots in the 2003/4 seasons; a bit more symmetry there. On the other side, Belichick and Brady are in the hunt for that elusive fourth ring to cement the Patriots dynasty after losing at the last opportunity against the Giants in the 2011 season. This game is an opportunity to right that wrong and to continue to make NFL history as the most successful HC and QB combination. Of course, there has been speculation that Belichick’s uncharacteristic cheeriness this week might signal his intention to retire if they win; the idea that it would be ‘job done’. This would be music to Jets (and the rest of the AFC) fan’s ears as well as a spectacular conclusion to the season if it proved true. Then there is Revis in only his first SB appearance of his 8 year career which arguably hasn’t provided as much success as his level of play has deserved.

You could write a novel about this game and still not be able to draw a decisive conclusion, which is why it’s so exciting. For now, it’s time to get in the beers and snacks and wait for it all to unfold.  Let’s hope it lives up to the hype and our high hopes are not deflated.

The Superbowl Circus

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This week feels special, a bit like the week before Christmas. You get overly excited, the TV is taken over by related programming and everyone is trying to work out whether everything will go to plan on the big day. When it actually comes, its over in a flash, everyone has a good time and you wonder why we all got so worked up in the first place. But regardless of the fact this happens every year, I am once again well and truly caught up in the whirlwind of hype that is Superbowl week. Now that media access to the players has drawn to a close, it got me thinking about the importance of this build up.

If I’m honest some of the happenings of this week are pretty alien to me as a reserved Brit, especially if you consider the way that major sporting events are built up here. We tend to play everything down, even put a negative spin on it, just in case it doesn’t turn out too well; “Andy Murray isn’t good enough to win Wimbledon” or “London transport can’t cope with these Olympics” When it comes to major annual finals, such as the FA Cup, you may get a couple of yesteryear documentaries but the coverage is little more than for a regular 3 o’clock on Saturday game. Yes, the NFL does most coverage with more razzle-dazzle than British sports, but the Superbowl build up takes it to a whole new level.

Media day is probably the most far removed from anything we see here. You’d be unlikely to see Arsene Wenger or Jose Mourinho sitting on a podium for 60 minutes answering questions from small children about their favourite stuffed animals. In fact, after watching both the Seahawks and Patriots sessions in the zoo, we mainly learnt the following:

  1. Gronk can’t sing, but he does know some Katy Perry songs.
  2. Bill Belichick says the Patriots need to ‘play well in all three phases of the game and score more points than the Seahawks’…in case you weren’t aware of that.
  3. Marshawn Lynch was ‘only there so I don’t get fined’ and therefore gave a great example to his young fans on how to behave in public.
  4. Earl Thomas has a snappy hat and cool shades.
  5. Russell Wilson appears to be an ambassador for Microsoft; he really likes the Surface tablet and even uses it in his day to day life.

In addition, there was a man dressed as a barrel, correspondents from media outlets with little or no interest in football and much discussion about Tom Brady’s hair.

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Considering all this, you could be forgiven for wondering what the point is. However, media day isn’t to get in depth dialogue about strategic direction, game planning or whether Sherman or Revis will have the better game. It serves a different purpose and that is to make it all seem that bit more real and crank up the hype just one more notch for everyone; players, coaches, fans, media. It’s the first opportunity for the teams to set out their stall, saying ‘we are here and we mean business’.  And both teams did, showing passion, intensity, excitement and a genuine pride to be there; in their own inimitable way. The Seahawks were more guarded than last year, giving less away about their approach to the game, showing an awareness of just how close this match up will be. Belichick even cracked more than one smile.

And it doesn’t stop there. Although the press conferences of the proceeding days are more traditional in approach, we are still hearing more about Marshawn Lynch’s five minute timer than what we are possibly going to see on Sunday. Maybe that is because this is one of the closest SB match ups for a long time, but also because that is just what gets us going. That’s not to say that the importance of the game is trivialised by all the media circus and furore, but instead it builds the feeling that this is something special, that we are about to see the greatest show on earth. It gets people talking, tweeting and debating. Maybe us Brits could learn a thing or do.

Back in Arizona, the players and coaches will surely be glad that it’s all over so they can now refocus on the real reason they are all roasting in Phoenix. Apparently Vince Wilfork breathed an audible sigh of relief after leaving the podium and it’s not hard to glean Beastmode’s views on the subject. We can now all look forward to Sunday and just like the teams, focus back on the the nitty gritty of the game. Media day and the rest has set the tone but the real questions will be answered on the field. I for one, cannot wait!

Green Bay heartbreak and Brady’s Balls

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For the last two weeks in a row the NFL has had me going to bed Sunday night feeling completely gutted for a team I don’t support.  First, it was the Cowboys and last weekend; Green Bay. The feeling on this one was less of anger but more of complete disbelief and shellshock. This one will surely haunt Aaron Rodgers long after he takes the steps in Canton; the Superbowl that could have been.  And how close they got. Considering the Seahawks, as home team and number one seed, were favourites going in (a fact which clearly had escaped Doug Baldwin), the first three and 4/5 quarters  suggested an upset was on the cards. Even a number of Seahawks fans left early, certain that a second SB in two years had escaped them. But how things changed…and quickly.  To be honest, it wasn’t just Bostick’s drop of the onside kick (cue British super-glue related jokes) that lost it for Green Bay. Or the fact they allowed Wilson to take the extra point following the TD which followed the recovery of that kick. Green Bay set themselves up for a loss from the first quarter where Mike McCarthy did not display the guts to go for it on fourth and short – twice. They settled for 6 points rather than the possible 14. It’s all conjecture and speculation now, but with that kind of scoreline, the craziness of the dying minutes would have been a moot point. What seems most surprising here is that the lack of trust displayed in Aaron Rodgers, it’s not like the QB was Geno Smith.  Or maybe McCarthy assumed it was too early for such plays but it cost Green Bay dearly when they made mistakes later. You have to play to win from the first second, especially in the Championship game and not assume that it’s early days and that the big plays will happen at the end, because in this game they did; for the other team. Russell Wilson had one of his worst games ever, stats wise, but it still resulted in one of the greatest victories of his career. The Seahawks do seem to have some intangible confidence that comes from their siege ‘nobody likes us’ mentality. They played to the dying seconds, taking strength from Green Bay’s mistakes. They were lucky with the coin toss giving them possession in OT, but with a hobbling Rodgers going three and out with two incompletions in the last drive of regulation time (resulting in the game –tying field goal) by this point the momentum had shifted.  Thank goodness for Mason Crosby’s 48 yard field goal; without which the game was lost already. All in all, this was a heartbreaker. Sure,  Green Bay still have a great team, the probable league MVP and a great chance next year but this was still ‘the one that got away’.

So the Seahawks will be taking the trip to Glendale, Arizona to face up to Tom Brady’s Patriots in the Superbowl. The Pats hammered the Colts  45-7, with the 38 point difference being New England’s largest margin of victory in any postseason game. Luck struggled with little support and it was clear from the start where this one was going, sadly. I will be certainly be a ‘12’ for the day next Sunday.

deflate-gate

Obviously…there is something else to talk about here, which I feel loath to mention as it has completely overtaken my twitter feed and podcast library for the last week and to be honest is getting a little boring. However, it is not possible to discuss the outcomes of this game without some mention of ‘Deflate – gate’. As a Jets fan, it wouldn’t be unsurprising for me to be ranting about how Belichick and Brady are evil villains and cheats but here are my thoughts in brief, then no more.

  1. The balls did break the NFL rule, the NFL are investigating and will come to a conclusion. If they decide to punish the Patriots then they will, possibly with a minimum fine of $25,000 and a loss of draft pick. It is serious, because the rules have been broken, but it will be dealt with. Then we can deal with who is to blame; whether that is Brady, Belichick or some lowly kit manager.
  2. Belichick has a history so has to accept that this is going to be made into a big deal regardless of who is found to be at fault, if anyone. After ‘Spygate’ he was labelled as at a least a one-time cheat. That is life, you can’t cheat and then moan when people assume you’ve done it again. Even if everyone else was doing it, during Spygate, they got caught. If you aren’t doing anything wrong, you can’t get caught. The way he deals with the press and how Brady initially laughed off the claims doesn’t endear them to the baying masses either.
  3. As much as it pains me to say it, I can’t see that deflated balls had a massive impact on the outcome of the game. It seems that the influence of deflated balls is most likely to positively affect the passing game for Brady. As was predicted before, this was a big game for the run too; LeGarrette Blount had a career-high and Patriots record 30 rushes, with 148 yards and three touchdowns. Andrew Luck completed 12 out of 33 attempts for less than 150 passing yards. Without any passing touchdowns, the Patriots still win. Even Colt’s players have said this wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the game.
  4. The number of double entendre jokes relating to Belichick and Brady’s balls has been entertaining: it’s true.
  5. It’s the Superbowl next week; after that we have no football for several months. Let’s just enjoy the build-up and deal with this once conclusions have been drawn.

In other news, as a Jets fan, I was cautiously optimistic following Todd Bowles and Mike Maccagnan’s first press conference this week and the subsequent coaching appointments. The future is starting to take shape.  Read what I  wrote about this for UK endzone at : http://ukendzone.com/2015/01/22/what-has-changed-for-the-new-york-jets/

The Road to Arizona – Divisional look back and Championship look ahead

 

As it was rather a long time ago now (life has taken over somewhat this week), I won’t waste too many words on last weekend’s divisional clashes.  My actual predictions were far more accurate this week; although I probably took the safe option going for all home wins. I’m not too disappointed with 3-1 though as the Colts were one team I really wanted to win; I just didn’t think they would.

AFC recap

Andrew Luck showed his class once again, becoming the first QB in league history to pass over 250 yards in his first 5 preseason games in Indi’s 24-13 win over the Broncos. There has been much talk this week about Peyton Manning’s future, especially as he himself was non-committal about playing next year in his postgame interview. With John Fox gone as head coach, the winds of change are blowing through Denver.  The other AFC showdown was an exceptionally close fought battle, with New England coming off better in their 35-31 victory over Baltimore at Foxborough. As expected, Joe Flacco came out all guns blazing and after the first quarter it looked like the Ravens might cause an upset, but after twice coming back from a 14 point deficit, Tom Brady with 367 passing yards steered his Patriots to the 9th Championship game of his career. The Julian Edelman trick play to Danny Amendola resulting in a 51 yard TD pass was a highlight of the game and showed the confidence Belichick has in the versatility of his offense.

NFC recap

Seattle, as widely predicted, proved too powerful for Carolina and the stronger team are rightly through to the NFC championship game with a 31-17 victory. Which leaves the Green Bay/ Dallas game.  While I always had an inkling that Brady would clinch the Patriots victory one way or another, I genuinely thought that Dallas were going to upset the apple cart in (not as cold as expected) Lambeau.  DeMarco Murray was once again able to run for over 100 yards and Green Bay had to come back from an 11 point deficit to clinch the win 26-21. Some might call it karma but once again a refereeing decision became the biggest discussion point of this game; with Dez Bryant’s spectacular ‘non catch’.  -cfe5cb4993cbfcc9Considering I don’t have any particular attachment to the Cowboys, the fact that I was still fuming about this on Tuesday morning suggests the utter craziness of the rule that in my mind spoilt the game. Yes, by the letter of the law it wasn’t a catch, but you tell me Dez was meant to fall to the ground without putting his hand down to break his fall. And since when is lunging for the goal line not a football move… anyway, I can’t get started on that again.  Just don’t let rules ruin good sport!

NFC conference championship game: Sunday 18th January, 20:05 GMT

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Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks

This is a game where the stats illustrate how close it will be.  It’s a matchup between two QBs with the first and second best passer ratings in the league. It also features the number one scoring offense in the NFL (Green Bay with an average 30.4 points per game) against the number one scoring defense in the league (Seattle allow an average of 15.9 points per game) . Which will prevail this weekend remains to be seen.  On the side of Seattle, against Aaron Rodgers, QB Russell Wilson is 2-0 on previous playoff meetings. Green Bay looked weaker against the run last week and with Marshawn Lynch, Seattle will look to exploit this further. Wilson is also much more mobile than Romo, who Green Bay found difficult to deal with in Lambeau, therefore posing an even wider threat. Of course the Seattle defense needs little explaining and Rodgers will need to look more spritely in and out of the pocket than he did when he limped around last week.  By all accounts however, the calf injury is feeling much better. Rodgers of course has his weapons too; maybe TE Andrew Quarless will be his most valuable red zone target this week as 65% of the few TDs  Seattle allowed this year were to tight ends. Eddie Lacy will also need to be back on his best to make the most of the run game.  My gut instinct is that this one will go to Seattle who will book themselves a trip to the desert. However, with two consistently outstanding and fearless QBs, explosive defense and closer than close match ups, it could go either way. Let’s hope it doesn’t hinge on another disputed catch.

AFC conference championship game:  Sunday 18th January, 23:40 GMTbrady-luck_0

Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots

Running the risk of sounding like a stuck record (or a bitter Jets fan), I of course would like the Colts to win in Foxborough on Sunday. However, in his first Championship game Andrew Luck faces a stiff challenge and he will have to repeat the form of the last 2 weeks, whilst contending with the strong patriots D to put the Colts on the road to Arizona. Historically Luck & the Colts do not have a great record against New England; as the Boston Globe pointed out, the Patriots have won the last three games against Indianapolis  by an average score of 48-22 and Luck is 0-3 against Brady. Last time they met, the New England defense held star Colts receiver TY Hilton to a season low 24 yards receiving.  A win for New England would also see Bill Belichick break the record for the most postseasons win by any head coach in NFL history. That’s not to say it can’t be done. Running back Daniel ‘Boom’ Heron is having a great postseason spell, with 18 receptions in the last 2 games, compared to 21 across the whole of the regular season and let’s not forget the Colts have the number 1 passing offense and number 3 total offense in the league. The key for their defense will be to stop the run game; the Patriots had a total of 480 rushing yards in their last 2 matchups and will look to repeat that success here. Of course, I’d like to see Brady & Belichick crash and burn on Sunday but this game is sure to be close, exciting to watch and will need coaches and players alike on both sides to be firing at their absolute best.

Divisional playoff weekend

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January is not my favourite time of year so the NFL playoffs are a little ray of sunshine in what would otherwise be a pretty depressing time of the year. As a UK NFL fan, the fact that there are games on Saturdays too is an even bigger bonus, as staying up till the early hours isn’t quite so bad when there is no work the next day.

Last week’s Wildcard post shows that predicting games is not one of my strengths (0-4 and a fiver lost). I can’t stray away from who I want to win rather than who I think will. Whatever the stats, or sometimes logical reason, I like to cling to the idea of a good story; especially if I have no personal bias towards the game. So this week, before I jump into a quick look at each of the games, I’m going to make two sets of predictions, what I’d like to happen and what I think probably will!

Wishlist Most likely
Baltimore @ New England Baltimore New England
Carolina @ Seattle Seattle Seattle
Dallas @ Green Bay Dallas Green Bay
Indianapolis @ Denver Indianapolis Denver

Saturday – Baltimore @ New England – 9.35pm GMT

As a Jets fan its unsurprising that I am holding onto the hope that Joe Flacco has once again found his unstoppable playoff form and will completely wipe the floor with the Pats at Foxborough. I have to admit (and this isn’t easy), that after watching Bill Belichick’s ‘A Football Life’ I slightly warmed to him, but his grumpy  press conferences this week just remind me why I dislike the Patriots.  Just answer the question about the weather Bill! Anyway, in reality, looking at the bigger picture it seems that the Patriots may put a stop to the Raven’s post-season run this year as Tom Brady has the best at home, cold weather stats in the league. Although this is likely to be a close game, with Flacco coming out all guns blazing as he always done in the playoffs, the strength of the Patriot secondary is likely to be a much larger test for Baltimore than Pittsburgh’s last week.

Sunday morning – Carolina @ Seattle – 1.05am GMT

This is the one game where my wish matches what I think will actually happen. Seattle are just too strong for Carolina, despite them making a lot of changes recently making them pretty different to the team which started out the year in poor form.  Its not just on D that Seattle are powerful, they have a top 5 rushing offense and Russell Wilson continues to make great plays, despite limited options at wide out. Once again Seattle seem to have peaked at the right time.  With Bobby Wagner and Bruce Irvine on fire on the defense in the last few weeks, Cam Newton is going to be under much more pressure this week and although they have  great weapons such as Jonathan Stewart, the ‘12s’ factor is sure to compound this already  difficult task for the Panthers. Whether or not it will be a shut out remains to be seen but I can’t see there being an upset in Seattle in the early hours of tomorrow, which is good, as it probably means I won’t need to stay up until 4!

Sunday – Dallas @ Green Bay – 6.05pm GMT

Now THIS is the one I’m looking forward to; ‘The IceBowl’. Lambeau Field is looking chilly this week on NFL network although unlike some of the other frozen tundra in the NFL such as Chicago, the field is heated. This should mean little difference to the play on the field (it won’t be hard as a rock) but a difficult one for those on the sidelines, especially those with recurring back problems….or healing leg injuries….

Out of all the games this weekend this is the one I really want to go to the underdog. It will be hard for Dallas though. Aside from the home advantage for Green Bay  and the fact their quarterback is the likely league MVP,  Dallas are facing more strong offensive weapons in Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson. Their secondary did manage to mainly neutralise Megatron and Golden Tate in  last week’s game against Detroit and may look to do something similar with  Nelson and Cobb this week, however Aaron Rodgers does have a wider arsenal of plays which may cause more of a problem for the Cowboys safeties and backs. On the other side, the Green Bay secondary is not water tight and will have to cope with both Dez Bryant and Jason Witten (who had a big game last week). If DeMarco Murray can get moving this week, it may be a close call.  Most commentators are going with Green Bay on this, although Rodgers is untested since his injury. Whatever happens, it’ll be a good watch.

Indianapolis @ Denver – 9.35pm GMT

The best analogy for this game I’ve heard all week is the comparison to Star Wars; Peyton ‘Obi-Wan’ Manning, vs Andrew ‘Anakin Skywalker’ Luck. However, I think Peyton is more like Qui-Gon  – a little old but still got it, and Luck is Obi-Wan – skilful and wise before his years. I also don’t think Luck is likely to turn out evil! Whichever, this could be the weekend that the apprentice schools the Master, and I hope he does. The problem is that Peyton is not out yet, yes, people have been starting to notice a dip in his arm strength but the Broncos were still dominant on both sides of the ball across the season. If Julius Thomas is back, he will cause difficulties for the Colts as when they met earlier in the year.  I’m hoping that Luck will have a repeat of his play against the Bengals last week and that Chuck Pagano  will see fit to use Moncrief and ‘Boom’ Heron (great name) in a similar way. The defensive challenge which the Colts face this week will be greater than last week and the Mile High home advantage could also play into Peyton’s hands. This is a ‘Hollywood’ style match up which hopefully will live up to its billing with plenty of spectacular QB play.

You can watch all the playoff games in the UK on Sky Sports. Grab a beer (or a G&T like me and enjoy!

Wildcard roundup

Despite being extremely excited by the prospect of playoff football in the wildcard round (even though my team where nowhere near it) apart from the final NFC match up I was pretty disappointed by the games this weekend. And not just because my accumulator bet (a whole 5 English pounds) was lost after the first one.

I’m going to save the best till last (as the NFL seemed to this weekend) and not even mention THAT flag until later…

But first; poor Ryan Lindley. I put on twitter that I felt sorry for him and a couple of responses of ‘why’ came back my way. I know he’s playing sport at an elite level, I know he earns a lot of money and I know he just isn’t that good but surely this was the definition of ‘in at the deep end’. Only a few weeks ago he was on the practise squad at San Diego, I guess trying to learn that offense just in very unlikely case something occurred to both Philip Rivers & Kellen Clemens . To be thrown back into the Cardinals, to revert to that playbook and oh….how about a playoff game – seemed a bit of a tall order from the start.  Lets not forget that Arizona do have a fourth round rookie QB  in Logan Thomas who it seems was ‘not ready’. It was an unfortunate situation for Lindley – everyone knew he wasn’t good enough to start with but seemingly the Cardinals believed there wasn’t another viable option. I mean…the Houston Texans had to take Case Keenum out of a tree.   The game was recording breaking for the Cardinals; for all the wrong reasons – the Panthers holding them to only 78 yards total offense (the worst ever in the playoffs).

The 27-16 victory was Cam Newton’s first since being drafted first overall in 2011 and continued the Panthers recent run of good form; Jonathan Stewart putting in a notable performance with 128 rushing yards. The Panthers were solid; not spectacular but poor special teams play compounded the Cardinals offensive woes – by the end of the third quarter I was wondering how long until the Steelers/Ravens…the answer was too long!

Well it wouldn’t have mattered for my bet if Arizona had won, because my next pick, the Steelers fell pretty hard to the power of the Baltimore Ravens in a slightly less expected 30-17 defeat. It was a story of fumbles, sacks and interceptions for Big Ben and the Steelers’ offense as the Ravens defense forced number 7 into numerous mistakes; and an apology to the entire Steelers fanbase and organisation in the post game press conference. Flacco, on the other hand, with no interceptions, 259 yards and 2 touchdowns was consistent, leading the Ravens to score 10 points in each quarter except the first.

Onto Sunday and Andy Dalton did it again…not really much more to say. Maybe I was being too optimistic when I suggested that this could be the year- clearly Mr Dalton can just not win playoff games. This interesting graphic pretty much sums up the Bengals post season form in recent years (and makes me feel better as a Jets fan!)

Kuno9AJ

Aside from that pretty poor showing from the injury plagued Bengals who struggled without star wideout AJ Green, the game really belonged to Andrew Luck who put up 376 yards. Coach Chuck Pagano described Luck’s play as ‘outstanding’, particularly his 36 yard on the run pass to Donte Moncrief for a third quarter TD. The 26-10 score reflected well on the Colts impressive offense … Less so on Dalton and Marvin Lewis. Surely something needs to change in Cinci. I guess the problem is that good QBs aren’t easy to find – that’s how the Cardinals ended up with their problems…but how many more years of this will the Bengals take without a change?

And finally…onto big ‘D’- a game of controversy which provided the best entertainment of the weekend. It was the only game I didn’t want to switch off, which was great considering it was still going on in the early hours of Monday morning – the curse of the UK NFL fan!  I’m not going to dwell too much on the mysterious case of the disappearing flag except to say it clearly was a penalty. It seems like the ‘dream team’ approach to providing officiating teams in the playoffs was part cause of the bad communications. Although it came at what could have been a game winning moment for the Lions (the penalty would have given a first down within scoring distance to increase their lead), it wasn’t the only factor in the Lions loss. Whereas Jason Garrett showed real confidence in his team successfully  going for it twice on fourth down (including the crucial 4th& 6 in the 4th quarter). Jim Caldwell was less fiery, choosing to punt on 4th and 1 which in the end was botched & led to that just mentioned winning drive by Dallas.  Dallas however were not perfect, Romo was sacked 6 times and the powerful Lions defense all but shut Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray down, especially in the first half. It was another game of fumbles : no more so than DeMarcus Lawrence’s fumbled recovery of Stafford’s fumble in the last 2 minute. Luckily (for Dallas) he redeemed himself shortly after by sacking the Lions QB and this time safely recovering the ball to effectively end the game in the Cowboys favour. The refereeing controversy  will continue to irk Lions fans and dominate analysis of this game but what’s done is done and Romo and his crew march on.

So that was wildcard weekend. Not the best weekend of football ever seen but some interesting moments both positive and negative.

As for my accumulator picks, I finished 0-4. I think next week I’ll save the fiver.

Wildcard weekend

 

It’s been a rough year as a NY Jets fan but I’m still excited for the post season games which start Saturday. A few thoughts below…

Saturday, Jan. 3rd

NFC: 4:35 p.m. (ET)   21:35pm (GMT), Arizona at Carolina

This is an interesting match up to call although most commentators in the US seem to think that the QB situation in Arizona combined with the recent ‘winning streak’ of the Panthers mean that it’ll be a home victory in Charlotte on Saturday night. The fact that Bruce Arian’s Cardinals have managed to make it through to January despite losing Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton is impressive but Ryan Lindley is a 3rd string QB and is sure to struggle against the Panther’s defense.  The biggest problem I have with Carolina though is that they ‘won’ the NFC South with a losing record 7-8-1 – surely a team with such a record shouldn’t make it through into the second playoff weekend? Although they have won 4 straight suggesting a bit of momentum, the last time they beat a team with a winning record was against Detroit in week 2. Whatever happens, I’ll be rooting for Arizona – they’re well coached, come from a tough division and have had some shockingly bad luck at QB.

AFC: 8:15 p.m. (ET)  1.15am (Sunday-GMT)  Baltimore at Pittsburgh

A classic divisional rivalry which should make a good watch but will probably end up in a 13-10 score-line or similar. The Steelers have had a great year on offense with stand out performances from Antonio Brown  and Le’Veon Bell. There are mixed reports about Bell’s leg injury from week 17 with several beat reporters suggesting he has no obvious limp. Despite not being the biggest fan of The Black and Gold (see AFC championship game 2010/11) I think this one is probably theirs- especially if Bell plays. Having said that Joe Flacco historically does well on the road in January (NFL record holder for most road playoff wins) so its hard to count the Ravens out.

Sunday, Jan. 4

AFC: 1:05 p.m.(ET)  6.05pm (GMT)  Cincinnati at Indianapolis

With Andy ‘One and done’ Dalton calling the shots you’d be forgiven for handing this one to Indy without a second thought. In the battle of the Andrews, Mr Luck falls on the right side of ‘The Dalton Scale’ (Chris Wesseling from the Around the NFL’s podcast QB analysis scale), with the Colts ranking number 1 in the league for passing offense.  That certainly puts him above Dalton.  However, I’ve got a feeling that this could be the year that Cinci makes it one weekend further. The Bengals rank 3rd in the NFL with 20 interceptions and Luck has thrown a few of them this year.

NFC: 4:40 p.m. (ET)   9:40pm (GMT)  Detroit at Dallas

The Cowboys have surprised this year to say the least. As well as stacking me up some great fantasy points, Romo, Murray and Bryant have more importantly racked up some great yards on the field to take them to an impressive 12-4 record. Detroit have been less explosive on offense – ranked 22nd overall. When Ndamukong Su was suspended for ‘accidentally’ stamping on Aaron Rodgers, it seemed that the trickle effect of this would swing the favour towards Dallas. However, now that this has been overturned and replaced with a fine maybe that top 5 ranked defense can put a stop to the Dallas triplets.

Whatever the outcomes (as the Jets are out I’m not that concerned!) Its good to still have football to watch in the New Year. In the UK you can watch all the games on Sky Sports.