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2017 6 Nations week 3 preview 

It’s difficult to come up with anything too insightful for Saturday’s games, so far all I’ve got is Scotland have conceded more than 20 penalties in their 2 games so far and wide John Lacey on the whistle today that may well be the deciding factor. Wales won’t mind a staccato affair with plenty of shots at goal for Leigh Halfpenny but Scotland will be hoping Lacey allows a free flowing game and if he does then their outside backs could make their opponents look like leaden footed donkeys.

Wales are always keen to talk about how they have a gameplan which involves “attacking wider” but the problem seems to be to me that they simply don’t have enough speed to threaten International defences. The 3 fast players in the squad are Justin Tipuric, who they appear to have a really convoluted way of using in a pod of forwards in the midfield alongside Alun-Wyn Jones (who admittedly does carry ball like a back, but usually gets crunched by defenders when he runs in bolt upright or surrenders to the first tackler having moved about 8 inches forward) and both the wingers George North and Liam Williams who are unbelievable attacking threats but are woefully neglected by the inside backs who either take contact and kill any momentum or kick the ball away. Scotland on the other hand have attacking threats all along the backline and on the bench too. Huw Jones has a real chance to put up his hand for a Lions spot today with Jonathan Davies struggling to start for his regional side and Jonathan Joseph and Garry Ringrose yet to really hit their straps either. Tim Visser comes in for the injured Sean Maitland and with him and George North there’s potential for some huge collisions and a few serious knocks as they 2 of the most injury prone players in Test rugby.

Wales forwards were absolutely heroic last time out against England in Cardiff and if they can match that level of combativeness they should give the undersized yet dynamic Scottish pack som problems at scrum time, although Wales really did struggle to stop England’s rolling maul so expect Jonathan Humphreys steer’s to focus on that as way of slowing down their Welsh opponents. Incidentally if Wales scrummage well and Scotland maul well then John Lacey will have a field day and the penalties and cards will be flowing, how he referee’s the rucks will be important with both backrows looking to scavenge for scraps on the floor, Lacey is usually pretty hot on tacklers not rolling away and doesn’t allow defenders to compete for the ball for very long, so set-piece dominance may well decide this game. 
Wales conspired to lose from a winning position against England and had it not been for some fairly obtuse refereeing, the abysmal decision making of some of the backs (and what appeared to be a total lack of communication in defence) compounded by a coach who thought that substituting THE besy player on the pitch after 53 minutes they would still be chasing a Grand Slam. As far as this game goes I think Scotland should snap their 9 game hoodoo against Wales provided they can score 3 tries or more and with Ali Price, Jones, Visser, Seymour and Hogg starting allied to the impact Bennett, Swinson and Watson will bring from the bench they should be able to move the Welsh defence all around the park and it could be another late heartbreak for Wales.
Ireland should be absolutely raring to go in Dublin, this will be the first home game of their 2017 tilt, the crowd will be well oiled since they’re not kicking off for 8 and a bit hours but they’re probably “warming up” already and last time out they rattled up 63 points at a canter in Rome (although it’s nearly impossible to extrapolate anything from games against Italy because they’ve been atrocious lately) the Scottish backs cut the Irish defence to pieces out wide and that might be a more relative comparison. 

France are a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, shrouded in a cloak of misdirection buried in a garden of confusion. They’ve played very well in patches lately and they look to have an incredibly strong scrum (they should have since their pack weighs several metric tonnes) but this week they’ve benched Uini Atonio (let’s hope it’s a strong bench an all that with the big clocking it at close to 22 stone) this means France have gone for the ball carrier Rabah Slimani, he’s 5 stone lighter than Atonio but France’s replacement front row tips the scales at around 58 stone so expect some set-piece dominance late on and a few rolling mauls. All in all France have got a pretty exciting bench with Machenaud, Ollivon, Ben Arous, Chavancy and Camara all pretty nippy around the park and Christopher Tolofua is an absolute wrecking ball. Ireland on the other hand have gone for boom off the bench, Trimble, Henderson, Healy and most of all O’Mahony all have tremendous power but might not be as fleey footed as their French counterparts (although Kieran Marmion would definitely have a chance of injecting some pace at 9 late in proceedings).

I think the Irish pack should be on top early on and if the returning Sexton can pull the strings for the Irish backline then they could be out of sight by the time Guy Noves empties his bench. However France have developed the ability to hang around and make their opponents uncomfortable to the very end, so I’ve got a feeling their impact players will have the desired effect and clinch an important away win.

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The mixed up world of the 6 Nations 

Usually when beginning one of these flights of fancy I have a rough handle on what will happen over the next 9 or so hours but, largely due to events in Rome on Sunday I’m absolutely bamboozled. I’d guess at 2 comfortable away wins because Ireland will be fired up after their indiscipline cost them the chance to snatch a result in Edinburgh at the death last week. In a similar fashion Italy could have won their opening game against Wales had they been able to capitalise on their large periods of territorial domination, but instead they allowed the Welsh to get a foothold in the game (not until about the 60th minute mind you) and Wales proceeded to open them up like a tin of beans on the way to a 33-7 win.  Ireland had 59% of the possession against Scotland and an even more impressive 63% of the territory and if it hadn’t been for a missed conversion they would have won.  Italy only had 39% possession and 38% of the territory, so you really feel they could be on the receiving end of a hiding this week. Even the weather seems to be conspiring against Italy, it should be a balmy 16 degrees at kick-off time but if the Italian forwards can slow down what will surely be a ferocious effort from the Irish then it could be closer than Joe Schmidt would like. If the Irish team bus gets caught in Rome’s notorious traffic then all bets are off though after a week of hearing about Ireland’s late arrival was responsible for last week’s loss (which is absolute cobblers, if you know your pre-game routine is so intricately mapped out then you should be aiming to be there an hour earlier so the players can do their own preparation before you start the process!).  If there’s one area where Italy could look to have an edge it’s in the backrow, Italian number 7 Simone Favaro has been a bit of a powerhouse for Glasgow Warriors this season and Sean O’Brien opposite him has not looked like an out and out 7 this season, alongside Sergio Parisse and Maxime Mbanda Favaro will form a very dynamic backrow and as long O’Brien, Heaslip and Stander remain on the pitch together Ireland’s will be unbalanced.  Stander is probably the form number 8 in world rugby and plays at 6 like an 8, last week Heaslip’s major contribution was to give away 2 penalties so he needs a big game to compensate for that but he won’t play like a 6 either and that’s where a problem could arise. 

Wales v England is one those games were both teams talk big but are secretly nervous as hell. Eddie Jones has had verbal diarrhoea all week, either in an attempt to infuriate everyone in Wales or in a series of very careless press conferences he’s questioned if Wales is a country (if Japan is then Wales definitely is Edwardo), he’s claimed that the Welsh are cunning referencing the possession of daffodils as evidence (that bathtub must have given his head a hell of wallop). Wales on the other hand seem to have swerved any similar stream of thought (nobody has questioned England’s actual existence) instead Rhys Webb said that Wales were only concerned with Wales, which appears to be an admirable plan.  As usual it’s Wales’ team selection that is a huge worry, in fact the idea that they might not make a final team selection until 40 minutes before kick-off seems borderline negligent. England have known their team all week and will be settled, Wales with a day less preparation time have been training under the assumption both George North and Dan Biggar are fit but won’t know until just before the game. It won’t be a problem for the players who come into the team (Sam Davies showed last week he’s Mr Cool on the pitch and Alex Cuthbert who I presume would replace North has over 40 caps) but it will for the other players around them, although Rhys Webb knows Sam Davies from the Ospreys Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies don’t play with him week in week out. There’s the potential for a ramble about 10,000 hours of practice to make an elite performer here, but it’s not 100% transferable even if the basic principle remains; fail to prepare, prepare to fail (or the 18+ version Proper Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance) and I’m just not sure Wales’ preparation has been good enough to win a Test match. 

There has been some murmurings about how England didn’t play that well against France last week and whilst it didn’t look pretty and they dominated territory against a monstrous French pack and split possession 50-50 so they weren’t as terrible as some are claiming. They also only conceded 8 penalties (which is always more to do with the referee than the team, but still). For Wales the worst news is they missed 25 tackles last week so they will have been hitting tackle bags all week. 

I personally can’t see Wales winning this game and just like the Italian game it’ll only be close if the home side’s pack play out of their skin. People will point to Jack Clifford being rushed back to counteract Warburton and Tipuric but I don’t think Steady Eddie would risk a player as young as Clifford if there was a chance he’d breakdown. The inclusion of 2 backrower’s on the English bench show how determined England are to win quick ball and Jack Nowell and Jonathan Joseph could potentially tear the Welsh defence apart if that happens. 

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The briefest of Super Bowl meanderings 

Matt Ryan has never beaten the Patriots, but Matt Ryan has never been MVP before this season so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that this could be his year.

Steve Young recently said that Tom Brady will be licking his lips at the prospect of facing the Falcons defence in the Big Show, but I think if the Falcons can keep their Offence on the field this could be quite a close game (particularly compared to last year’s 24-10 thrashing the Broncos dished out to the Panthers).  How successful the Falcons are in keeping Brady on the sidelines will depend on how much they lean on their run game and how explosive Julio Jones is. Last time out against the Packers he light their depleted Defensive backfield up, but he has history against the Packers (in 2014 he caught 11 passes for 259 yards) but Logan Ryan will be playing for the Patriots and he has been one of the form Cornerbacks in the league this season. Safety (but former Cornerback) Devin McCourty will probably be spending a lot of time in the vicinity of Julio Jones too which could lead to the Falcons making a lot of shorter throws that could allow them to chew up the clock more easily. 

The Patriots have got some great players but their 3 key ingredients are the coaches, obviously Bill Belichick is an NFL legend (even if you don’t like him he’s won 6 Super Bowls as a coach) but Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia make the dream team of Head Coach and Coordinator’s. McDaniels has won 6 AFC titles and 4 Super Bowls and Patricia has won 2 Super Bowls in the 13 years he’s been associated with the Patriots.  The Patriots Offence is probably the most balanced in the league and if the Falcons try to take away Tom Brady’s receiving options then they will just run the ball with LaGarrette Blount or Dion Lewis but if the Falcons pack the box Brady will find Edelman, Amendola, Bennett or Hogan (if he’s fit).

The Falcons have their own Super Bowl winner in Head Coach Dan Quinn, he won it as the Seahawks Defensive Coordinator in 2014 (he also won 3 NFC titles) so he knows what it takes to be successful in the post-season.

I do think the Patriots will run out winners but it should be a more exciting game than last year. The key for the Falcons will be to try and be as balanced on Offence as the Patriots are, even if they have to chase the game abandoning the run will just play straight into Patricia’s hands and then they could be blown away. My main hope is that the officials leave the eccentricity and controversy to Lady GaGa in the halftime show, I wonder if she’ll be able to avoid politics for 20 odd minutes? 

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6 Nations musings 

This isn’t really a blog, it’s more a list of things that have popped into my mind lately, a random train of thought if you will.

Scotland v Ireland should be all about which front row can get the upper hand and Ireland have 2 props who are nudging the 19 stone mark and a hooker who is an excellent scrummager. You’d imagine Rory Best will get the chance to captain the Lions in the summer and if he can find his line-out throwing accuracy it could even be in the Test series. However (and it’s a big however) Romain Poite is reffing and he’s not known for facilitating flowing rugby, so even if Ireland can generate momentum through their pack it may well be negated by the whistle. If it does become a staccato whistle-fest then Scotland have the individual brilliance to create unlikely tries, with Finn Russell, Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg (Russell and Hogg could nail down Lions shirts in this game, but both are well known <by me and a few others at least, if not the TV commentators> to be wildly inconsistent when it matters) starting and Mark Bennett and Ali Price on the bench Ireland could be in for a torrid time if it becomes fast and loose. And if the Irish pack can’t keep a choke-hold on the game then the Scottish front row will come into their own because they may not be as powerful as their green shirted counterparts but Zander Fagerson and Fraser Brown in particular can maraude around a rugby pitch like few others can, this could be a real Lions trial for front rowers. 

England and France should be much less interesting mainly because England come off the back of an undefeated 12 months (13 wins)  and France only won 4 of their Test matches last season. However England didn’t start their Autumn Tests very well, early in games they missed kicks and managed to pick up a red card early against Argentina. France on the other tend to fade in the last 20 minutes so if they can capitalise early on and open a 2 or 3 try lead then it will be a true test for a England, a test of how they perform under pressure. If France start slowly too then there’s a chance they could be blown away and out of the game by the 50 minute mark.  The real Wildcard in this game though is referee Angus Gardner who refereed Rosslyn Park last week where Eddie Jones was spotted keeping a beady eye on him. The thing about the new high tackle directive is that each referee had struggled to adapt it’s use to their own personal style and since the directive was put in place for the new Super Rugby season which hasn’t started yet Gardner has had minimal time to get to grips with it. Either he’ll ignore it completely which has been a Pro 12 adaptation of the new directive, or he’ll get himself in a right old tizzy and he and the TMO will watch every single contact on the big screen ad infinitum, which has been the approach a few Aviva Premiership referee’s have taken. 

Another point of interest at Twickenham will be how England adapt to not having Mako Vunipola (Wales have the same issue without Gethin Jenkins) often the loose-head will take the ball at first receiver to give George Ford more time to assess the defence and Mako is very good at offloading in contact, or carrying effectively or distributing the ball out the back to the backs. I’m not sure they’ve got another tight 5 forward who can do that, so they may have to use the backrower’s and that may effect the speed of their ruck ball. How the officials interpret Joe Marler’s scrummaging will be interesting (to me at least, I don’t get out much you see) there hasn’t been a concerted PR effort to tell everyone that he drives straight this time and he’s starting against the behemoth Uini Atonio, who is not only a gargantuan 21 and a half stones (!) but he’s also 6 feet 5 inches tall, so any slight angle will be exacerbated with a huge body opposite. Another thing I’ll be looking for is how Elliott Daly approaches kick chases, his last one in an England shirt saw him sent off as he didn’t jump and he ran into the player who had jumped and claimed the ball. 

RBS-6-Nations

2017 6 Nations preview

England haven’t won back to back Grand Slams since 1991 and 1992 back in the days of the 5 Nations, in fact nobody has won back to back Grand Slams in the 6 Nations era, so that indicates what a difficult task lays ahead for Eddie Jones’ men.  It’s not entirely out of the question, after all where there’s an Eddie there’s a way (or something like that), but with them facing a potential Grand Slam decider in March at the Aviva, where they lost 19-9 last time it will be tough.  Allied to the unfavourable schedule (France up first followed by a trip to Cardiff for Wales’ first home game of the Championship) they will be without key players like Billy Vunipola, Chris Robshaw, Manu Tuilagi, Anthony Watson and most importantly Mako Vunipola who are long term injury concerns and there will also be doubts over James Haskell and Jack Clifford who were recently injured on club duty (and Dylan Hartley’s been banned since December, so who knows what state he’s in physically).  The missing back-row players won’t be particularly missed if the tight 5 can provide a stable platform for them work from whoever England pick at 6, 7 and 8 will perform the tasks they are required to, Mike Williams may well make his debut but if your 4th choice is 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 18 stone then there’s nothing wrong with squad depth.  The question mark will be over whoever plays at loose-head because whoever it is won’t be able to do what Mako can, his ability to act as a first receiver in attack and disrupt opposition scrums will leave a whole in the game plan somewhere.

Since March 2013 the only team beat Ireland in a competitive match in Dublin have been the All Blacks, in 2013 with a heartbreaking last second conversion and in 2016 a rather banged up Ireland side lost 9-21 with the assistance of some rather lenient officiating, so it’s hard to see them losing to a Northern Hemisphere in the fortress-like Aviva this year.  Ireland open up their campaign in Edinburgh where they were impressive 30 point winners last time out but their visits to Murrayfield are usually much closer affairs, they’ve won 3 and lost 3 going back to 2007 and those 6 games have been decided by a total of 29 points, so this may very well be the game that decides the Championship.  Ireland’s other away game is in Cardiff in round 4 and Ireland haven’t won consecutive games in Cardiff since 2009, with the last 4 meetings being shared evenly but in their last visit to the Millennium Stadium they scored 5 tries on their way to a 22-35 victory, so they should be in confident mood as they cross the Irish Sea.

France are very much the surprise package of the 6 Nations, even to themselves.  Last year they had a chance to prevent England’s Grand Slam in the final game in Paris but despite making more line breaks and conceding fewer penalties than their visitors their inability to cross the whitewash saw them fall to a 21-31 loss.  England outscored France 11-3 in the last 29 minutes of that game and it raised the age old question of exactly how well conditioned are Guy Noves’ charges?  Since the start of last year’s 6 Nations France have won 4 games out of 10 and just one of those 4 games were outside France, so recent history doesn’t provide mu hope for les bleus but in their last 2 games they pushed both Rugby World Cup finalists close with a 2 point loss to Australia followed a week later with a 5 point loss to the All Blacks, so maybe they’re about to turn the corner?

The rarely seen optimistic Welshman in me couldn’t be happier about the introduction of the bonus point system into this year’s 6 Nations, allied with the introduction of Alex King as an “attacking guru” if you believe some publications (skills coach to the rest of us).  If any team in the Championship can benefit from the incentive to score tries it’s the team who had last year’s top try scorer George North out on the wing, Wales scored 17 tries last year (9 of them came in round 5 against Italy and since then they’ve largely been awful) so if they can summon up some confidence and the coaches actually allow them to play with freedom instead of strictly adhering to a prescriptive game plan that would confuse Professor Stephen Hawking there’s a chance they could upset a few apple carts in the coming weeks.  The major talking point in Welsh recent rugby has been Alun-Wyn Jones taking over the captaincy from Sam Warburton (who hasn’t been in great nick for the Cardiff Blues but will almost certainly feature at 6 0r 7 for Wales), Jones has been touted as the Lions captain for the tour to New Zealand in the summer but in order for that to happen one would imagine he’d have to be playing in a successful Welsh team.  Jones is not guaranteed a place on the tour at the moment with Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Richie and Jonny Gray, Luke Charteris and Devin Toner all playing well so far this season (Jake Ball and Tim Swinson have also been in great form for their respective team’s but both face a fight for game time in the follow weeks), so he will need to stand out as both player and leader.

Scotland have seemingly developed the ability to play very well in Autumn Internationals but then crumble and eventually capitulate completely after Christmas, they have improved under Vern Cotter and under Jonathan Humphreys their forward pack has become one to be reckoned with, but this will be Cotter’s last season in charge of Scotland so exactly how that plays out remains to be seen.  Since November 2014 they have run the All Blacks and Australia close at Murrayfield (losing by 8 to the All Blacks in 2014 and by a solitary point to the Wallabies last October) so with 3 games in front of their spirited supporters you have to believe they will have a say in who eventually wins the title.

Italy managed the incomprehensible combination of beating South Africa and losing to Tonga in consecutive weekends before Christmas so which Italian team turn up on a week by week basis is anybody’s guess!  Connor O’Shea must have believed that he was making progress after they defeated the Springboks by 2 points but having made a few changes to play a team ranked below them they conspired to lose to the Islanders by the same total.  The arrival of Dr. Brendan Venter as their permanent defence coach may solidify the sometimes unorganised Italian defensive line and with Carlo Canna looking like the 10 they’ve been missing since Diego Dominguez retired in 2003 the Italian’s may well provide an upset or 2 during the next 2 months, they have beaten France in 2 of their last 3 meetings on home soil, so that game could be fascinating and Wales face a tricky start away to the Azzurri in round 1, they have struggled against Italy before and although they haven’t lost to them in Rome since 2007 they will come up against an Italian pack who will be desperate to rediscover the form that vanquished the Springboks.

Personally I’m not sure how much difference the bonus point system will have on the tournament, particularly at the top of the table.  Head Coaches will still be more focussed on winning games than they will be on throwing the ball around wildly and chasing 1 extra point, there’s a very real chance that the team who wins the Wooden Spoon will be a team who records no bonus point’s and that could mean that a team who loses a few games by fewer than 7 points could finish above a team who wins one game (which would be a bit weird).  There’s a very strong possibility that Ireland will follow up their famous victory over the All Blacks in Chicago with a second Joe Schmidt Grand Slam (which would make Warren Gatland’s appointment as Lions Head Coach look a bit weird too).  Last season I predicted that the Grand Slam wouldn’t be won and Eddie Jones proceeded to show that with a decent Head Coach and a fully fit squad it’s almost easy to build momentum in a short tournament and this year England are still the bookies favourites to remain undefeated, so who knows? Certainly not me.

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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!

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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.