AFC Championship Game Pittsburgh Steelers @ New England Patriots

If the NFC Championship game is clear of drama then its AFC counterpart has enough hoopla surrounding it to keep most soap operas in storyline’s for about a year!  Pittsburgh and Boston fan are 2 of the most fervent fan bases in sports, so when their respective football teams meet in such an important game then a little tension is to be expected and the line between friendly rivalry and bad sportsmanship can become a little blurred.  To attest to that fact a 25 year old Bostonian was arrested at about 3 am on Sunday for setting off the fire alarm in the Steelers hotel, correspondingly Gillette Stadium was evacuated when the fire alarm went off there at about 7 hours later (so it’s going well so far).  Even before the latest shenanigans there was plenty of drama swirling around this game, 15 Steelers have been suffering from stomach flu leading up to the game, the Patriots have injury concerns over 3 of their 6 active Wide Receivers and Martellus Bennett will reportedly play with bone fragments in his heel!  And all that without even mentioning Roger Goodell’s absence from New England following the “Deflate-gate” brouhaha (if he feels the NFL was correct then why should he avoid any potential ill feeling, even if he’s likely to suffer a hostile reception from some locals?) or the reports that surfaced in December that Pittsburgh may have used deflated ball’s too, the NFL vehemently refuted the claims.  And then there’s Antonio Brown’s own personal social media snafu last week (he broadcast Head Coach Mike Tomlin post game speech from the changing room where he railed against the Patriots and how they have benefitted from extra rest due to the way the schedule has fallen, although the Patriots were the number 1 seed in the AFC) live on Facebook which wasn’t met with universal approval from his teammates.

So on to the actual football that may be played (if the fire alarm ever stops going off) and remembering that both of these teams combined are responsible for winning 20% of all the Super Bowls ever played this game could be one for the ages.  Both teams scrapped to wins last week with the Patriots coming up against a Jadaveon Clowney inspired Texans Defence and the Steelers having to battle some arctic conditions in Kansas City along with a worrying inability to get the ball into the end zone despite 7 trips to the redzone.  For the Steelers the return of smash-mouth football seems to be the key to their success, for all the talk of Antonio Brown being one of the top 2 receivers in the NFL Running Back La’Veon Bell has been responsible for 1,431 yards and 8 Steelers touchdowns in their 9 game unbeaten run compared to Brown’s 685 and 7 touchdowns.  The Patriots Defence however has been particularly stingy against the run, they only allowed 6 rushing touchdowns during the regular season (the fewest in the league) and on average they only conceded 3.9 yards per carry while they forced 11 fumbles (the second most in the league).  So the Steelers may lean more on Brown in this game than Bell and with his controversy in the locker room last week he certainly has appoint to prove, he was fined $10,000 by the team but if Tomlin is feeling particularly disciplinarian (and like a decent gambler) then he may well chose to hold Brown out of the early exchanges.  This could have a twofold effect, Brown is looking at signing a big contract in the near future and if the Steelers can perform in his absence then his next big pay day may come outside Pittsburgh and if the Steelers Offence can occupy the Patriots Defence adequately in the first 30 minutes of the game then a fresh Brown may well provide the finishing touches and close the game out for the away team.

The Patriots early struggles against the Texans will have disappointed Bellichick and the coaches but I think they will have been quietly satisfied that they showed the character to come through against one of the toughest Defences in the NFL, they turned over the ball 3 times and I’m sure the players have been hearing about that all week long.  It’s always important to learn from mistakes so if the Patriots had sailed through last week’s game without making any it would have been harder to coach them this week, Brady threw as many interceptions last week as he did in the preceding 12 games of the season so he won’t have been a happy bunny and will be desperate to show exactly how good he can be this weekend against an opponent he’s seem plenty of during his career.  In 6 games against Mike Tomlin’s Steelers Brady has lost just once and he’s thrown 19 touchdowns without throwing a single interception!  This is why I feel the Patriots are going to yet another Super Bowl, along with the absolute distain they feel towards Goodell after the 4 game ban Brady was subjected for his part in the “Deflate-gate” furore (although it was such a protracted legal process that nobody really remembers if Brady was proven to have done anything wrong at the beginning of it).  The Steelers Defensive line and Linebackers may well have a reasonable amount of success against a Patriots Offensive line who couldn’t handle Merciless and Clowney for large parts last week but former Steeler LeGarrette Blount will be pretty desperate to run all over them and take some of the steam out of any Defender unfortunate enough to get in his way (he weighs in just 18 stone and he can really move if he’s 100% healthy).

The bookmakers have got the Patriots as favourites and while the fitness of the Steelers flu sufferers and the Patriots Receivers will ultimately determine how comfortable the victory is I wouldn’t be surprised to see a faultless Brady showing and frankly I’m imagining the Patriots will be terrified to turn over the ball after last week’s profligacy!


NFC Championship game Green Bay Packers @ Atlanta Falcons

Really the only drama around this game is the fact that the Packers had to bus it 125 miles to Milwaukee because fog meant that they couldn’t fly out of Green Bay.  The delay meant that they were not due to arrive in Atlanta until 7pm on Saturday evening but as the game doesn’t kick off until 5 past 3 in the afternoon on Sunday the disruption should be minimal.

Aaron Rodgers has reached God-like Super Quarterback status in the last 8 weeks as he’s lead the Packers to 8 victories and guided them to the NFC North title despite suffering back to back losses of 18 or more points in November (a disappointing 25-47 on the road to Tennessee and an embarrassing 24-42 away to the Redskins 8 days later).  During these 8 weeks Rodgers has thrown 283 passes (over 35 per game), 21 of those passes have been for touchdowns, with just 1 interception in almost 2 months and Rodgers’ arm has been responsible for 77% of the Packers yards on Offence in that time.  Neither Defence really deserves to talked about because they’re not very good against the pass (Atlanta allowed 31 pass touchdowns + 267 yards per game and Green Bay 32 + 269 y.p.g), but even if they were Rodgers form has been so strong that’d he would make them look bad anyway.

Matt Ryan on the other hand has been in almost as phenomenal form as Rodgers, over his last 8 games he’s thrown 225 passes, of which 17 were for touchdowns and just 2 were interceptions.  Even more impressively than that is the fact that 72% of them, 163 in all have been caught!  The Falcons have one thing that the Packers don’t (well technically two things with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman) they have a consistent running threat and that’s where I believe Ryan and the Falcons have an advantage this week.  Roughly 30% of the Falcons total yards this season have come on the ground and 34% of their Offensive touchdowns have come on the ground, when the two teams met earlier in the year Tevin Coleman wasn’t fit but Terron Ward averaged 7.7 yards per carry and Devonta Freeman scored twice, once on the ground and once on a short screen pass (even Matt Ryan made 9 yards on 2 carries).

The Falcons won 33-32 on the 30th of October and they are favourites to win again this week but it’s not as straight forward as it would appear.  Most of the numbers point towards the Packers being the best team and with Aaron Rodgers any team would have a very good chance of winning, it’s the potency of the players around that is in question, Jordy Nelson who racked up 94 yards and a touchdown in the last meeting will still be feeling his recently broken ribs.  Even if he pays he won’t be able to fully extend to catch passes and every time he’s tackled or hits the turf in the Georgia Dome (or breathes deeply or sneezes) he’ll feel like his abdomen has been set on fire, Geronimo Allison, Davante Adams and Jeff Janis have all appeared on the Packers Injury Report this week too and they combined for 125 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns last time out.  Allied to the fact that 4 linebackers have appeared o the same Injury Report I think it’s time for Rodgers heroics to end.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the Packers string it out for as long as possible though and Overtime certainly isn’t out of the question, even with such a long list of injured or potentially restricted players the Packers will battle to the last and it would be typical of Rodgers to find Max McCaffrey in the end zone at some stage even if McCaffrey only joined the team yesterday.


AFC Divisional round Playoffs – Pittsburgh Steelers @ Kansas City Chiefs

Weather was the headliner in the build up to this game with the kick off being delayed because they were expecting an “ice-storm” but as it turned out the weather may have also delayed it’s kick off and the expected precipitation might not appear until the game has started (oopsie).  All the other chatter surrounding this game has surrounded the 3 B’s from the Steelers; Ben, Bell and Brown but that rather forgets the one man who could be the best B in KC tonight, Berry.  Eric Berry’s comeback from Hodgkin’s lymphoma has been nothing short of miraculous and if Super Bowl’s were won by the most deserving candidate then the Chiefs would be guaranteed to win all of them while Berry’s continues.
This season Berry has made 75 total tackles, defended 9 passes, forced a fumble and scored 2 touchdowns from the 4 interceptions he’s made.  So he’s pretty ubiquitous around the field, the only thing he hasn’t done this season is make a sack but with Dee Ford and Justin Houston combining for 14 between them Berry is just fine patrolling the backfield and acting as the eraser as John Lynch would say, just rubbing out any mistakes the 10 players in front of him make (not they make many).

Kansas City have their own 3 danger men on Offence in Jeremy Maclin, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, they’ve been responsible for 15 touchdowns so far this season (which is not far off the whopping 22 the 3 B’s have notched up) and when your team has the best give/take ratio in the league with 16, 10 more than the Steelers (the Chiefs lead the league in both interceptions and fumble recoveries) you don’t need to be putting up the points that the Steelers do (24.9 points per game), but the Chiefs aren’t far away with an average of 24.3.

The Steelers have done well pass protecting this season with just 21 sacks allowed in the regular season but the last time the teams played back in October the Chiefs sacked Big Ben twice and hit him a further 3 times so Justin Houston and co. will feel like they could have some success on their home turf.  Back in October The Steelers ran out 43-14 winners as Roethlisberger unloaded 5 touchdown passes on a Chiefs team who had a record of 2-1, that game was a bit of watershed for the Chiefs coming the week before their bye and since then they have only lost 2 more games. Immediately following the loss in Pittsburgh the Chiefs went on a 5 game winning streak and in the 2 games they have lost the aggregate score was 38-34, losing as they did 19-17 to both Tampa Bay and Tennessee (but since Pittsburgh doesn’t start with a “T” I don’t think the curse will be in effect this week)!

The Steelers are the meanest Defence in football right now, as illustrated by Dupree’s hit on Matt Moore last weekend so the Chiefs have to be aware that there will be some big hits (legal or illegal, Dupree was fined $18,000 for laying out the Dolphins QB) flying about and it will imperative they keep their starters, especially Tyreek Hill in one piece and also on Offence the Steelers won’t hesitate to lay out anyone who looks they might be about make a big play so Berry, Peters and the injury prone Justin Houston must avoid any big hits.  If the Chiefs can avoid any unfortunate injuries and keep their turnover record up this should be their game, but it could be close and the if it becomes a shoot out then the Steelers will like their chances, Big Ben loves a 2 minute drill so if they get the chance to tie or win the game late on then it could be the killer B’s paying a visit to Foxboro next week.


NFC Divisional round Playoffs – Green Bay Packers @ Dallas Cowboys

Aaron Rodgers is what scientists would call an “uncontrolled variable” and as he showed last week he can do absolutely anything during the course of a football game.  In the arctic temperatures at Lambeau Rodgers completed 25 passes, threw for 362 yards and 4 touchdowns, all of this despite being sacked 5 times and losing 31 yards in the process.  So this week inside “Jerryworld” in Texas he should have no problem picking apart a Cowboys defence who gave up 25 touchdowns through the air during the regular season and that could be true, the Giants showed that if you try to cover all the Packers receivers and just rush 4 Rodgers has the pass protection and patience to light up a defensive backfield.

The phrase “the Cowboys don’t blitz often, but when they do they get there” has been uttered more than a few times by Troy Aikman in the Fox commentary booth so far this season and if they don’t blitz Rodgers often then they might come a cropper, Benson Mayowa and Maliek Collins have been the Cowboys most successful pass rushers this season, (Mayowa with 4 in his last 5 games and Collins with 3 in his last 2) but David Irving has been the key to the Cowboys rush over recent weeks.  The 6 feet 7 inch, 19 stone Defensive End emerged as a real star in week 15 and in his last 3 games he’s recorded 3 sacks and made 7 total tackles, he’s also deflected 5 passes and forced 4 fumbles this season so he’ll have be a vital cog in the Cowboys defensive machine.

The most effective way to stop Aaron Rodgers displaying his many, well honed skills will be for the Cowboys to keep possession of the ball for the majority of the game and with Ezekiel Elliot and a mobile Quarterback in Dak Prescott they have players who can do that (they also have Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris who would start for most other NFL franchises but it’s unclear how willing they will be to spell Elliot who has been the league’s dominant Back this season).  In all 10 different players have run the football for the Cowboys this season and 4 of them have scored touchdowns so I would expect them to stray from their usual balanced attack (49% pass plays) to more run heavy game plan with the occasional deep pass in Dez Bryant’s direction to keep the defence honest.  The Packers Defence is seriously thin when it comes to defensive backs but if the Cowboys go after their defensive backfield there’s a solid chance that they will just end being drawn into a shoot out and there’s no better gunslinger than Rodgers particularly with Randall Cobb fit again, Cobb only caught 5 passes last week but he accounted for 126 yards and 3 of his 5 receptions were for touchdowns!

The Cowboys have only lost one game at home this season, which was to the Giants who the Packers successfully vanquished last week and since the Cowboys did beat Packers in Lambeau back in October they are the bookmakers favourites to win, they certainly have the personnel to grind out a win and in their previous meeting Elliot ran for 156 yards on 28 attempts!  However Rodgers and the Packers haven’t lost a game since the 20th of November and during that run he’s thrown 19 touchdowns and 0 interceptions (he’s actually thrown 22 touchdowns & run for 1 since his last interception).  He’s completed a career high 401 passes this season and I’m not sure the Cowboys can stop him.  So this game will really come down to whether or not the Dallas Offence can show up when the pressure is really on, over their last 7 games they have averaged 23 points per game which is very good, but the Packers have averaged 30 points per game so it looks like they’ll win a close game (although say that with very little conviction at all)!


AFC Divisional round Playoffs Houston Texans @ New England Patriots

In all honesty it’s difficult to see how the Texans can win this one; it’s difficult to see how anybody except the Patriots can win a Playoff game in Foxboro so without wishing to ruin the surprise I’m pretty sure this is a home win.
Tom Brady is arguably the best Quarterback who has ever played in the NFL, but he’s definitely the best Quarterback who is currently playing in the AFC, (Aaron Rogers is the only one in the league who could challenge him and might do in Houston in a few weeks) but the Texans do have distinguished themselves as the best Defence in the NFL this season so it shouldn’t be a walkover.  LaGarrette Blount has scored 6 rushing touchdowns for the Patriots this season and averaged about 80 yards from the line of scrimmage this season so Brady isn’t the Texans only concern, Blount has missed some practice this week though and although he is thought to be the starting Back he may not be at his devastating best.  Dion Lewis is a different type of Back to the giant Blount but he is averaging 4.4 yards per carry and 5.5 yards per catch so far this season and James White averages 9.2 yards per catch and 4.3 yards per rush for the Patriots this season too, so their Offence is stacked!

The Texans will have built some confidence last week when they eased past the Raiders, who it should be said were missing 2 of their most important players on Offence Donald Penn and Derek Carr. Nonetheless the performances of JaDaveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus who combined for 8 tackles, 2 sacks and an interception are reason to believe the Patriots won’t have it all their own way, especially if Blount is hindered by his injury.

On Offence the Texans have been inconsistent at best all season and their Offensive line is a serious concern although the return of Duane Brown will bolster their ranks the Patriots Chris Long and Rob Ninkovich should see a fair bit of Brock Osweiler who’s bound to take the heat if the Texans don’t make full use of DeAndre Hopkins, in truth the lack of a consistent run game combined with some iffy play calling and the aforementioned turnstile-esque pass blocking has combined to make Osweiler look a huge waste of money.  The Patriots Defence has made a speciality of forcing fumbles this season and only just 5 teams have managed more than their 10 and with temperatures falling to below zero the Texans will need to be extra careful when they are handling the ball.

You could get odds of 8-1 on the Texans winning this game and they frankly seem quite stingy odds, the Patriots are favoured to win by fewer than 12 points but it’s not inconceivable that they could win by somewhere nearer 18 points.  Veteran Texans Defensive Tackle Vince Wilfork may well be playing his last NFL game and as a Patriot legend his performance and how he’s received by the Foxborough faithful will be definitely worth keeping an eye on.


NFC Divisional round Playoffs – Seattle Seahawks @ Atlanta Falcons

Matt Ryan doesn’t have a great record in Playoff football; he’s won just 1 game out of the 5 that he’s played, but that game was against the Seahawks.  In his defence he hasn’t had the highest scoring Offence in the league around him before so his chances have never been as good as they are right now.  During the regular season the Falcons averaged almost 34 points per game which compares very favourably to Seattle who averaged just a shade over 22 and only scored more than 34 on 2 occasions.
The Seahawks relying on their Defence to win them games is not news but if they plan on keeping this one low scoring then they might come unstuck because the Falcons have only failed to score 20 points on 2 games this season and in their last 4 games they recorded an aggregate score of 154-75 (they’re kind of on fire).  For the Seahawks part they can cling to the fact they were victorious by 26-24 when the teams met back in week 5 but that game was at CenturyLink field, not in the Georgia Dome and in their last 4 regular season games the Seahawks aggregate score was 90-98!

This game is far from a done deal though and both Defence’s will be fun to watch, they have both have aggressive pass rushes with Atlanta recording 34 sacks this season, 15.5 of those were credited to Vic Beasley who led the league during the regular season (and 4 of those came in his last 4 games).  The Seahawks had the 3rd best number in the league with a very impressive 42 (Cliff Avril was their leader with 11.5 for the season).  On the Offensive side of the ball the Seahawks have also allowed 42 sacks, so Vic Beasley could well be in business tonight, Atlanta have been marginally better at protecting Matt Ryan as they’ve just allowed the 37 sacks but with extra emphasis on the Seahawks pass rush Ryan won’t be holding on to the ball for too long.  The Seahawks are missing one of the best 2 Free Safety’s in the NFL in Earl Thomas (I can’t separate him and Eric Berry in KC) which theoretically means they’re susceptible to the deep pass but with their receiving corps leading the league in yards after the catch with 6.37 they will probably stick to short throws that allow the receivers to use their speed and elusiveness to break off big chunks of yards.  The running game will be vital to slow down the Seahawks pass rush and the last time the 2 teams played the Falcons really struggled to get anything going on the ground, they recorded just 52 yards rushing and 2 of those were credited to Ryan.  This caused Ryan to be sacked 4 times losing 25 yards and throwing an Interception to Earl Thomas.  The Seahawks on the other hand ran all over the Falcons, although they only recorded 72 rushing yards they scored 3 touchdowns on the ground.

How the Falcons Offensive Co-ordinator Kyle Shanahan interviewing for numerous Head Coaches jobs has disrupted the team remains to be seen and while Ryan’s shaky Playoff record is a worry the Falcons have the players to win this game and with Beasley and their Receiving corps they have the ability to do it spectacularly.  The Seahawks biggest issue all season has been place kicking and every point will be crucial at this stage of the postseason so I can see that counting against the road team too, don’t be surprised if Haushka has his customary snap hook on an extra point and that could be a deciding factor.  I’m expecting a nervy game though and if the Seahawks can keep it a low scoring affair then there’s always a chance the home crowd will become restless and Ryan’s previous Playoff displays may well come back to haunt him.  The bookmakers have the Falcons as favourites to win by 6 points or fewer but if the Falcons continue their recent form then they should win by more than 1 touchdown.


Should player safety be case of more haste less speed? 

So, I saw a tweet from @JoshGardner of the @bloodandmud podcast and it got me thinking (well as close as my head gets to thinking  Seriously it’s like 2 marbles and an empty tin can up there), mainly because as cynical as it may appear he’s probably right:

Take a look at @joshgardner’s Tweet: https://twitter.com/joshgardner/status/811241510998044675?s=09

World Rugby certainly appear to have rushed through the new “directive”, brining it in mid-season for the Northern Hemisphere competitions seems a little strange, although they appear to tinker with rules on an almost monthly basis (seriously, who releases their bind to collapse a scrum?  You only release when the other guy’s forcing you down anyway and there’s now more rules for a rolling maul than there are for entering North Korea).  If the new approach is guided by the NFL lawsuit brought by ex-players (and the result of which was then subject to an appeal) this maybe just the first step on a windy road.  The NFL lawsuit was largely focussed on the belief that the NFL hid information that related to head trauma and the settlement from the resulting case was worth $765 million, since World Rugby has hardly hid or shied away from the issues of head trauma they already seem ahead of their American counterparts in this area (which is just as well since the chances that World Rugby have that sort of spare cash are pretty remote).  However when the NFL changed the rules regarding hits to the head as a precautionary measure they saw an increase in the number of knee injuries because players were so intent of tackling the ball carrier’s lower body.  As a result they then had introduce another new rule regarding low tackles on Quarterbacks (you can’t tackle below the knee or above the shoulders now), so if World Rugby have been influenced by recent history we could well be looking at more new rules (please God no) and we might as well all play football and take our chances with heading a lump of leather.

There are also other injury risks related to tweaking the tackle rules as illustrated perfectly by the “Archbishop of Banter-bury” James Haskell on Sunday when he momentarily become “concussed of Coventry” as he managed to smash his head into Freddie Burns (who may have since gained the nickname “Bones”) hip and knock himself unconscious, Haskell had only been on the pitch for around 34 seconds following a 6 month injury layoff (and I bet you didn’t think he did irony).  It was a completely innocuous and accidental contact but can’t have been any safer than being knocked out by a high tackle, World Rugby may have seriously misjudged just how quickly collisions happen in professional rugby today.  I can’t imagine anybody did, but somebody really should have kept a record of how many players were subject to a HIA after putting their head in the wrong position when tackling low at the weekend.  Technically it’s poor technique on behalf of the tackler, but when ball carriers are so big and the game moves at such a high pace then it’s understandable accidents will happen (likewise when it comes to high tackles when a more nimble player steps inside a slower defender, but you won’t get sent off for putting your hip into a potential tackler).

The second area I think the governing body have sorely misjudged is the amount of empathy that referee’s have for players and for different scenarios within the game (the ball of confusion and contention that is the rolling maul is an example), Richard Barrington’s red card on Saturday was the most widely picked bone of contention in the first weekend, but boy was it controversial.  The only way Barrington could have avoided being part of the tackle would have been to retreat and any professional sports man or woman isn’t going to run away from the ball during a match.  Brad Barritt who knocked Geoff Parling out with a swinging arm didn’t even get a yellow card from a referee and TMO who were clearly so flustered by what had happened and what they were forced to do by the new guidelines that the rest of the game degenerated into 15 Exeter players who were desperate not to give the officials an opportunity to level the playing field (so to speak) and a set of officials were almost solely concentrated on looking for high tackles whilst missing (or ignoring) more basic offences  like forward passes and knock on’s.  It will be interesting to see how many players Glen Jackson sends off for high tackles or how many Nick Wood or Karl Dickson would send off with them all having been involved in professional games in recent memory.

Finally, if these rules remain in place for the rest of the year then there has to a be a real chance that the Lions and All Blacks will be playing most of their Test series with as many players sat in the stands as on the field of play because the Kiwis won’t miss a chance to have an opponent sent off and the Lions coach is a Kiwi too.