NFL International Series 2014 @ Wembley Stadium part II

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This will be the first International Series game from Wembley Stadium screened live across all of America and a great chance for the European’s (because we’d be kidding ourselves if we just thought the plucky Brit’s know how to get to London) to show NFL fans in the USA that we can put down our cups of tea long enough to enjoy 3 hours of football and make some (a lot of) noise.
20 14 is the 8th year of the International Series at Wembley and the first time 3 regular season games are played in London, so the NFL certainly seem to think there’s a future for the game here and with talk of a franchise taking up residence in Wembley before the decade is out this week’s announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer Gorge Osborne that the British Government would help the NFL in any way they can to start a franchise in London (anyone would think there was an election coming up) was certainly exciting. Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith said the NFL is an “expansion mode” it seems like the NFL owners and Lions Head Coach Jim Caldwell, albeit more circumspectly said “Absolutely, I do think it’s possible”. So that’s the Government and the coaches on board too, after the Dolphins win earlier in the season Mike Wallace said he’d certainly like to play at Wembley more often and 2010 49ers defensive back Nate Clements said the atmosphere at Wembley was one of the best he’s ever played in, looks like the players like it too. Just the fans and the journalists to convince then, although I’ve met 2 American fans in the last 2 seasons who seemed to enjoy themselves, one was a guy flying back from his honeymoon in Italy who happened to be a Vikings fan so surprised his new wife with a trip to watch the Vikings play the Steelers and the other was a Pittsburgh Steelers fan so taken by the by the beer at Wembley he couldn’t speak by the end of the Dolphins and Raiders game last month.
The first episode of the 2014 International Series was embarrassing for the Raiders who lost 38-14 to an, until then fairly average Dolphins team, the NFL and must have been completely mortifying for Dennis Allen who was fired when he returned to Oakland (although many of the fans at Wembley would have preferred it if that’d happened at the end of the 2nd Quarter, not the end of their bye week). I like to think of the NFL as a benevolent Grandparent, you know the sort, the ones who fill you full of cake and fizzy drinks before returning you to your fraught parents just in time for dinner, so they can’t have been overly pleased with the demonstration the UK had of their product on that occasion either. This is their chance to atone for what became a one-sided tragedy for the nominal home team in October, this time promises a clash of 2 teams full of superstars (although if they’re fit to play is another story). Lions major downfield threat in the pass game Calvin Johnson is doubtful with an ankle injury he’s been carrying since week 3, in turn the Falcons star wide receiver has been struggling with an injury since week 6.
The most fascinating part of this game will be how the Falcons 5th ranked passing attack will fare against the Lions 6th ranked pass defence because only the Lions run defence is ranked higher in the league. The Lions run defence is the 3rd best in the league and the Falcons rushing attack has been pretty ordinary so far this season and is ranked 24th, the Lions own running game has been even worse though and they’re ranked 31st!
It’s impossible to predict the winner of this game because while the Falcons are coming off the back of 4 losses the Lions haven’t really played a team with the Falcons ability to score big points quickly. If the Lions are insouciant with possession as they have been early in the season then the Falcons defence will capitalise and the Lions defence might be tested more than they have been by most teams this season.
Both teams have played the Saints this season and both games went to the wire, with the Lions winning by the odd point in 47 and the Falcons going on to win 37-34 in OT, so if history is anything to go by this should be a closer contest than the Dolphins and Raiders provided us overseas fans with in October.

Dolphins @ Raiders London International Series 2014 Game 1 @ Wembley

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It’s difficult to see past a Miami win in this game, they started the season with a comeback victory over divisional rivals the Patriots but then slumped to 2 loses in their last 2 games and have failed to score more than 15 points in either game. The Raiders on the other hand have failed to win a game so far this season and have failed to score more than 2 touchdowns in any of their 3 games.
Miami are ranked a fairly lowly 23rd in the league for total pass yards this season, but the Raiders and their rookie starting quarterback Derek Carr are propping up the entire league in 32nd spot. Miami’s rushing attack has been far superior to their passing offence and is the 9th best in the league, Oakland’s rushing has also been better than their passing, but they’re only 1 spot higher in the rankings with a fairly uninspiring 31st ranked run game.
Really the only thing that Oakland have been able to do with any sort of reliability is defend against passing attacks and they’re ranked 4th in the NFL having allowed just 550 yards so far this season at an average of 183 yards per game. Miami have the 7th best passing defence in the league having allowed just 199 yards per game. Oakland have been run over so far this season and are 31st in the league in terms of stopping the run which makes them 31st in the league, Miami however have allowed more rushing touchdowns this season with 3 compared to the Raiders 2. Miami are ranked joint 19th in the league in terms of yards on the ground so the Raiders might fancy their chances there. Neither team has scored a defensive touchdown so far this season and both have recorded 5 turnovers in 3 games so far, so they should be pretty evenly matched defensively.
Both teams have been good at kickoff returns this season, with Miami averaging 30.9 yards and the Raiders averaging 30.3 yards, the Dolphins have recorded a return touchdown though. Punt returning has been a particular strength for the Dolphins though and they have averaged 14.6 yards per return, just 0.4 yards away from the league leading Giants. The Raiders are lagging someway behind with a measly average of just 6.2 yards per return.
Both teams are suffering on the injured or suspended player side with Miami missing 8 players either on Injured Reserve for the year or suspended by the league and Oakland missing 5 either on Injured Reserve or Physically Unable to Perform which after just 3 weeks of the regular season should be a worry for both sets of coaching staff. There are really only 2 things to expect from this game, firstly it shouldn’t be a points-fest and secondly the Dolphins should limp over the line ahead.

Is it the Ryder Cup, or is it (scorer’s) cabin fever?

This is part long Tweet, part therapy session.  I’m starting to crumble under the weight of the media contrived “phoney war” between the European’s and Team USA (if they’re still called that), Phil Mickelson’s wise-ass remark about who may or may not be involved in a lawsuit on the European team was ratcheted up to the height of Craig Rossie, when even the most antagonistic of American golf journalists had to admit that the European’s would have been laughing harder than anybody.  Rickie Fowler’s new haircut was largely met with derision amongst the British journalists that I’ve been observing this week, sure why not wind up America’s best golfer and the best performer at all 4 majors this year guys, what could possibly go wrong?  There’s even been talk about whether or not Team USA would be better off with Tiger Woods this week, as if Tiger’s played out of his skin at previous Ryder Cup’s!

I have heard the saintly Iain Carter on 5 Live trying to dampen expectations and claim that it will be far closer than everybody is making out and the wise old sage of Scotland himself Colin Montgomerie expects Europe to win only by a single point, but by and large most of the media coverage appears to be mostly avoiding the whole concepts of golf and competition all together.

For about 18 months after the “Miracle of Medinah” I was convinced that Europe were the Ryder Cup Champions elect come Gleneagles, but when you look at it in the cold, hard light of day Tom Watson is a canny operator and even the captain of the European team said that the US have a lower average World Ranking per player.  That’s probably the biggest red flag, Jamie Donaldson and Stephen Gallacher are both over 38 and making their Ryder Cup debut’s this week and both have won as many European Tour events as Rory McIlroy has won different Majors.  The European’s have a Vice Captain with a higher World Ranking than 2 of their players (Miguel Angel Jimenez is 37th, compared to Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood who are 38th and 44th respectively).

Now it may well be that I know nothing about golf (I guess we’ll find that out on Sunday afternoon ) but all the media coverage surrounding the European team and the blindingly obvious fact that Tom Watson is a golfing hero while Paul McGinley is as famous for diving into a lake at the Belfry as he is for sinking a putt there lead to me to question if Team USA shouldn’t be the favourites to take the trophy home.

London Prices


I love London because there’s always something to do there, but I dislike London because these things often cost money, a lot of money! I’ve been going to London for about 30 years now and am therefore used to having to pay inflated prices for just doing stuff, so imagine my surprise when I was shocked at how expensive tickets for next year’s Rugby World Cup matches in London are. World Cup Final tickets start at £150 and I know nothing about organising a Rugby World Cup so I’m not even sure where to begin critiquing that line of pricing. There is 1 game being held at the Olympic Stadium where £20 tickets are available, but that’s to see France play Romania at 8pm on a Wednesday evening.
The cheapest tickets for any of the games being played at Twickenham are £50 and that’s France v Italy (maybe France should be offended by these prices?) if you want to watch England play in a game at their home RWC you have spend at least £75!
Anyway, back to my main point, there are plenty of things to do in London and many of them are far cheaper than tickets to the RWC will be;
1. Any number of concerts, rock legend Slash is playing Wembley Arena this year and tickets are just £43.75 (which is expensive, but remember the benchmark)
2. The NFL has found a home away from home in London’s Wembley Stadium, this year tickets can be bought for £37.50 or £45
3. Tennis is no longer just confined to a fortnight in the summer in the leafy suburb of Wimbledon. In November at the O2 arena the ATP tour finals take place and there are 6 different pricing bands of tickets that are cheaper than £50!
4. More tennis, the masters event has been happening in the Royal Albert Hall in December since1997 and to see such legends as John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg and doubles master Mansour Behrami you only have to shell out £35 (and it’s at the Royal Albert Hall, I mean I love Twickenham an all but there’s no roof or heating!!)
5. A 3 course meal at the 5 star Royal Park Garden Hotel is just £37.50, so you’ll have enough change from a crisp £50 note for a drink (2 if you’re lucky, it’s London remember)
6. Tickets for just about any show in a West End theatre would be cheaper than £50; tickets for Billy Elliot the musical are available for £19.50 if you don’t mind a matinee performance.
So, while I (and others like me, it’s not just me, honest) am constantly complaining about how expensive London is it’s not as expensive as the RWC organisers would have you believe.

Aviva Premiership


Occasionally I put some thought into these things, but sometimes I just batter out any old crap safe in the knowledge that nobody reads an amateur sports blog hidden away in the darkest nooks and crannies of WordPress anyway. This one definitely falls into the latter category but it’ll definitely be fun to find out how many of these I get right come the end of the season, so here’s my final standings in the 2014/15 Aviva Premiership based entirely on guesswork and with absolutely no impartiality whatsoever (like I said, no one reads this gibberish) –
1. Saracens (they’ve got 2 first XV’s remember)
2. Leicester (too wizened and gnarly not to sneak a home Semi)
3. Northampton (it all depends on Corbisiero’s knee & how they manage it)
4. Harlequins (it all depends on whether they run Evans into the ground early doors)
5. Bath (even with all that money spent, they’ve got some ropey coaches & an iffy 10)
6. Gloucester (there’s only so much Hook, Afoa & Hibbard can do)
7. Exeter (great in the sun, but have you seen a West Country winter????)
8. London Irish (lovely training ground but with no O’Connor, it’s Tom Homer v the rest)
9. Sale (Cipriani is a personal fave but Steve Diamond is insane)
10. Wasps (they still need better depth on the front row)
11. London Welsh (let’s hope they fill out all the paper work this season)
12. Newcastle Falcons (even with Alesana Tuilagi and a rubber pitch)

So who’s gonna make the NFL playoffs?


My philosophy on life is one with a distinct deterministic bent, so making productions could be seen as counterintuitive; luckily my fatalistic viewpoint is on heavily underpinned on a foundation of hypocrisy so here goes nothing! The only correct answer to the question “who will make the playoffs?” is “your guess is as good as mine”, but I enjoy being wrong so I’m gonna commit myself to picking 6 NFC teams and 6 AFC teams (obviously);
The Seahawks are probably still the strongest team in the NFC, but that doesn’t mean some of the smarter coaches in the league won’t figure them out, I personally expect the Packers to push them all the way in the season opener (I mean who wants to see a healthy Clay Matthews racing Julius Peppers to their Quarterback this season? Not Pete Carroll that’s for sure).
I expect the Saints to run the Seahawks close for the NFC title this time out though, there’s just something about 2 maverick coaches in Rob Ryan & Sean Payton and the steady hand of Drew Brees at Quarterback that make me smile.
There’s not really much between the rest of the NFC challengers and apart from the traditional battle between the Panthers and the Falcons to squeeze into the Playoffs it should be much the same as last year with the 49ers and the Packers both making the post season. It’s tough to call between the Panthers and the Falcons but if (admittedly it’s a BIG if) the Falcons offense can stay healthy they should beat the Panthers mighty defence to the playoffs) but only by the odd win. The final NFC playoff team will obviously be the winner of the NFC East and while that seems to be least competitive division in the conference Chip Kelly’s high octane Eagles are the clear favourites with the bookmakers and they’re never wrong, right?

The AFC is a somewhat different picture and after their representatives in the last Super Bowl receiving a jolly good thrashing at the hands of a merciless Seahawks (who could have been beaten by 3 different NFC) teams it shows just how far behind they’re lagging in terms of conference bragging rights. Predictably the Patriots are my favourites to make the postseason alongside last year’s vanquished Super Bowl challengers the Broncos because Peyton Manning can sleepwalk through a regular season, it’s just January he doesn’t like (and occasionally February).
I think the Steelers could be over the worst of their recent troubles because even though their O line is older than some religions they’ve actually got a running back who can Big Ben a hand with 16 games worth of heavy lifting, LaVeon Bell looked every inch the Steelers running back of old at Wembley last year and while Joe Flacco and his Ravens are recovering from the “coaching” the offence received from Jim Caldwell last season Ben and his offence should be on the same page as Todd Haley.
The Colts are probably going to wind up winning the AFC South although that will mainly because somebody out of those 4 misfit teams HAS to win the division; there could be 2 teams who finish runners up in divisions with better records than the Colts.
For my money the other 2 AFC playoff spots will be filled by teams who made the postseason last year, the Bengals and the Chargers, the Bengals defence should be pretty tricky to score against this season and if the Chargers give Phillip Rivers his head as they did in the 4th quarter against the Broncos last January that Chargers offence will be too much for most defences to stop, the 17 points they scored in the 4th quarter proved that.

The inevitable England v Wales blog

With the weather (forecast to be) set fair, the 2 top teams from last year’s 6 Nations table renew their much overhyped, by the English media at least, rivalry. I can’t remember a day this week when the newspapers haven’t carried an article with one English player quoted as saying something along the lines of “last year’s defeat still hurts”, new boy Jack Nowell said “we know Wales hate us” (as if England’s main goal on the pitch is to win over their detractors and make lifelong friends), whilst I can only remember 2 Welsh players being cited. Adam Jones said something very understated along the lines of “it’s great to play at Twickenham but we’re not scared of it” and the returning Jonathan Davies said he would “embrace the hostile atmosphere”.  Not exactly “are you looking at my missus” in their aggression are they?  It’s obviously difficult to tell if the hype has been ramped up back in the land of my fathers, but given the effort the press put into finding something possibly controversial in Warren Gatland’s press conference I think that it would have been pointed out by some desperate hack had any of the players said anything even slightly contentious.  All they managed to get from Gatland was him questioning why England were favourites when Wales have won on the last 3 games against England, once again hardly rhetoric worthy of a Vladimir Putin speech.

For what it’s worth I think Wales will probably succumb to a reversal of last year’s result where England were “drubbed” as the Daily Star (I know, I thought the Daily Star only did football and wrestling too) put it 30-3.  Maybe it’s just paranoid pessimism getting the better of me but I can’t imagine a team would spend quite so long dwelling on a past result, or even be allowed to let something quite so ancient rankle so much, unless they were using as the ultimate motivational tool.

Now, motivation, just like Scott Johnson, is a funny old thing and speaking as someone who could never tell if he was “up for it” to borrow the vernacular or about to throw up on the pitch until a game had kicked off I can tell you it’s totally unquantifiable.  Sports psychologists on the other hand they love a good (or bad) theory and by far the best example of this is the “inverted U theory” of Yerkes and Dodson which they developed in 1908 (or so say those adorable little rouges at  Technically Yerkes and Dodson claimed there’s was a theory of “arousal”, but motivation is essentially the same thing (not to mention more family friendly), their theory states that there is a peak level of motivation midway between being totally lacking in motivation (me every week day morning) and being so motivated you completely lose focus and become distracted from your main goal (me every night when I’m trying to sleep).  Dylan Hartley in the 2013 Premiership Final is a prime example of a player who was well passed the optimum level of motivation for a game and proceeded to show how unfocussed he was by berating referee Wayne Barnes until he was sent off in less than 40 minutes.  Under motivation is very difficult to notice, just ask Dimitar Berbatov.  This is a very long and meandering way of asking if all these England players who have been so keen to offer their thoughts on how they still hurt or how much disdain their opponents proffer from across the Severn Bridge have been putting far too much emphasis on what is essentially 1 game of rugby?  Maybe Dylan Hartley and friends would have been better starting off under motivated instead of risking the chance of blowing their top’s before the half time oranges are even out of their netting by working themselves into a frenzy days before they even have to compensate for their coach parking in the wrong car park at Twickers.

The bookmakers have England as favourites, something that Brian Moore seemed to neglect to mention when he tried to pile the pressure on Wales in his newspaper column outlining how Wales need to face up to being favourites.  It is a little strange considering Wales have won 5 of the last 8 meetings and baring in mind England can only call on 3 forwards who made last summer’s Lions squad (and Dylan Hartley missed the entire tour through a ban) and 2 of those in Tom Youngs and Mako Vunipola are only substitutes.  Conversely Wales’ whole Lions front row will start the game on Sunday. 5 of their Lions backs will start too, including the back 3 who could trouble a relatively inexperienced English back 3 and with Mike Phillips and Justin Tipuric on the bench Wales can boast 14 Lions in their match day 23.  Wales’s front row should attain them a certain advantage in the scrums and with the referee from the 3rd Lions Test Romain Poite in charge of proceedings they may even sneak the penalty battle too.  Controversial figure Steve Walsh, who refereed the Millennium Stadium steamrollering last season is also one of the officials on Sunday, so there’s always that excuse for the English to cling to in the event of a 4th consecutive loss.

I still can’t bring myself to disagree with the bookies over the result, the one area where I can’t quite see eye to eye with them is the winning margin.  They have England to win by less than 5 points as their favourite score line but I can only see the victors walking all over their opponents, 18-20 points should be the final winning margin.  England have been telling everybody for what seems like weeks that they have a point to prove, so anything less than an utter domination will make them look rather silly.