Friday, 14 August 2015

NFL NFC 2015/16 Season Preview

Following on from my AFC preview last week, it is now the turn of the National Football Confernce to come under the NTTA microscope. And where else to start but in the divisional home of the Super Bowl runners, Seattle Seahawks

NFC West
This division for the last few years was a straight battle between the Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. Yet the Seahawks have the upper hand ever since Russell Wilson came to the fore and the legendary 12th man crowd made them impossible to play at home.

Having come within two yards of winning the Super Bowl for a second consecutive season, there is still the competitive drive within the organisation due to the head coach Pete Carroll, QB Wilson and the vaunted defensive unit called the Legion of Boom led by the irrepressible Richard Sherman.

Following the faux pas and wrong play calling, Marshawn Lynch remains as the lead back yet finally Wilson has a legitimate red zone target in Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham, who has left the New Orleans Saints in search of some finger jewellery.

Seattle are the red hot favourites agin in this division, but the runner up could well be different. The 49ers are in meltdown as a franchise, numerous retirements of key personnel coupled with off the field behaviour has decimated their roster, never mind the departure of influential leader Jim Harbaugh to his alma mater of Michigan University in the college ranks. A lot will depend on Colin Kaepernick whose play last year left a lot to be desired at times, and the team will do well to reach five wins for the year and avoid last place.

St. Louis Rams have made some upgrades in search of a playoff spot in a division and conference where 9 games is required at minimum. In defence they have added Nick Fairley from Detroit to join names such as Michael Brockers, sack king Robert Quinn and James Laurinaitis . They have Nick Foles at QB who will offer some much needed assurance and precision at the position to help playmakers like Todd Gurley, Tavon Austin and Tre Mason.

Arizona Cardinals welcome back Carson Palmer, but can he survive an entire season on the injury front with a receiving core led by Larry Fitzgerald. The defence of the Cardinals led by Tyrann Mathieu as well as Patrick Peterson, who is the punt return specialist. Can Bruce Arians conjure up some more magic or will the Cardinals be a team full of talent unable to get over the hill?

Prediction: 1. Seattle 2. Arizona 3. St. Louis 4. San Francisco

NFC North
The division with the leagues best quarterback can now lay claim to having the leagues best running back. Never has the return of one player had such an anticipation of expectation for one team.  Minnesota Vikings exceeded many peoples predictions last year following the season long suspension to Adrian Peterson for off the field conduct. Yet those same Vikings won 9 games with some great play by rookie QB Teddy Bridgewater, who grew into the role as QB and leader as the season went on. The return of all day AP make Minnesota a legitimate play off team.

And a threat to the dominance of Aaron Rodgers and his Green Bay Packers. Many feel the Packers can be the team to defeat Seattle if they get the chance, but like Seattle, the Packers need home field advantage to maintain superiority over their rivals.

Detroit Lions still have Matthew Stafford and Calvin 'Megatron' Johnson, yet they have lost Fairley and Suh from a stellar defence last year, and the continual reliance on this QB-WR duo will again be too much for Detroit to overcome.

Chicago Bears had a pretty bad season last year but have not seemingly changed much apart from employ coach John Fox from Denver. Jay Cutler is still at the helm with Matt Forte and Alshon Jeffrey. The draft pick of Kevin White from West Virginia, will give them a much needed boost in the same way Mike Evans and Odell Beckham did for their teams last season. However, the defence still looks ageing and the need to pressure rival QB or stop Peterson has not been addressed.

Prediction: 1. Green Bay 2. Minnesota 3. Chicago 4. Detroit

NFC South
After so many years of back and forth between Atlanta and New Orleans, there is a gradual sea change in this division based upon who has the best QB. Now that might be legitimate in most NFL divisions but three years ago you would have picked any team with Drew Brees leading the team. Now it seems time is catching up with the Big Easy, a terrible defensive showing last year gave Brees too much to do and the lack of weapons meant they were chasing their tail. The departure of Jimmy Graham also means this again will be a long season for the Saints.

That incapability led to the Carolina Panthers and Cam Newton to step in, all the more surprising considering he did it without Steve Smith, but the growth of Kelvin Benjamin and the maturity of Newton was encouraging. This makes the Panthers the tentative favourites but in a division where 8 wins can get you in the play offs, that is an unusual situation to get home field.

The Atlanta Falcons need to bounce back and with Matt Ryan throwing to Julio Jones and Roddy White, they have every chance.

The most surprising storyline will probably come from Tampa Bay who with the overall #1 pick selected Jameis Winston, who lost only one college game at Florida State, his last game versus
Marcus Mariota's Oregon Ducks. Although a tough season on the field, Winston showed unbelievable strength of character and leadership to win 11 games, some from double digit deficits. This temerity
and stubbornness will serve Lovie Smith and his Buccaneers well, as the closeness between the four division rivals is too close to call. Winston also has impressive rookie Mike Evans as a deep threat although Winston is not renowned for his arm strength.

Prediction: 1. Carolina 2. Atlanta 3. Tampa Bay 4. New Orleans

NFC East
For so long the toughest division to call, based on the long held rivalries between the four huge franchises. And it is no different this year either.

Dallas Cowboys won the division last year, and have the potential to go deeper this year if Tony Romo and Dez Bryant fulfil full seasons. Yet it is on defence that is the worry, the selection of Randy Gregory in the draft and Greg Hardy in free agency smacks of a team who irrespective of individual players off the field issues, they are going all in to win big this year whilst Romo can still stand upright.

Philadelphia Eagles played a different brand of football, up tempo, lots of plays and score a
lot of points, yet the defence could not match that intensity. The arrival of Sam Bradford will surprise many but if he can stay fit, a big if obviously, he can marshall an offence without risking injury to himself, yet can they overcome the loss of LeSean McCoy whilst Demarcus Murray will find it hard to replicate his personally great season at Dallas this year.

Washington Redskins are a mess and continue to be so long as they have an unfit QB at the helm, the franchise that is a disgrace will struggle to win 4 games this year and a blessing may be to tank the season and get a new franchise QB and end the Griffin era.

Which leaves us  with the New York Giants, who for me have the potential to be the seasons dark horse much like the Minnesota Vikings. A terrible start to the season was rejuvenated by the inclusion of the phenomenal Odell Beckham Jr, who single handedly (literally) won games by doing ridiculous grabs for big plays. This elevated the play of Eli Manning who finished the season on a tear finally having a stellar Wide receiver at his disposal. The improvements on the offensive line will aid Eli and co.

Prediction: 1. New York 2. Dallas 3. Philadelphia 4. Washington

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

NFL AFC Conference 2015/16 Season preview

For any writer to do a full preview on all 32 teams and 8 divisions is a stretch, but I will give it my best shot. They say start with what you know,so I am starting with the AFC, the conference which is home to the reigning Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots.

Much has been made during this offseason about one man and the effect it will have on his team, it is easy to forget there are 31 other teams vying to win this season. And that is from a New England Patriot fan. I am biased, yet I accept this is a weird offseason leading into the preseason. If I was the Patriots I would accept the suspension and get the first four games, which on paper look no worse than a 2-2 record anyway (v Pittsburgh, @ Buffalo, v Jacksonville and @ Cowboys) and then reset the season come October with Brady under centre.

AFC East
My preview begins in the AFC East which thank to some key personnel moves on and off the field for certain teams, the division which has been New England's for nearly a decade is now under threat.  The Miami Dolphins realised that they need not only a capable QB for themselves, but a pass rush to attack the various QBs they face such as Brady. Therefore the signing of Ndamoukah Suh is a masterstroke, a player whose defensive capabilities are limitless but perhaps a change of climate will do him the world of good.

Rex Ryan, left New York, but did not get far heading north to Buffalo, staying in house and bringing a winning mentality to the floundering Bills who have enough offensive weapons to give any defence headaches all year. Expect Shady McCoy to lead the charge and with Sonny Williams the lead wide out in his second year, the pace will be tough to be second to the Patriots.

The New York Jets have a new head coach in former DC of Arizona, but the loss of
Sheldon Richardson for the season is huge for a team whose defence kept them in more games than you would think. Gene Smith is still the QB and that raises enough doubts that they will again be wooden spoon champions in the East.

The reason the battle for second will be tough is that the Patriots will again employ the siege mentality as us against them takes hold. With or without Brady, you anticipate that the presence of Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman will be sufficient for either Brady or Garrapollo to engineer victories. Much has been made of the losses on defence, no Revis, no Browner but time and again the Patriots have a turnover of defensive personnel and they either draft well or pick up free agents. The general acclaim afforded them for picking up Malcolm Brown in the draft indicates the nerves about the Patriots defence should be put on the back-burner.

Prediction: 1. New England 2. Miami 3. Buffalo 4. New York Jets

AFC North
So often this division has been one of feisty competition and resilience, now it looks like a division of teams failing to fulfil their potential. The theory of consistency holds true, but you can be a good regular season team yet you have to back it up in the playoffs. Something that has alluded the Cincinnati Bengals led by Andy Dalton and the still employed Marvin Lewis. For them it is easy, win the division and win a playoff game. Just one. Only one to have credibility.

Big Ben put up some huge numbers last season but as he ages, the stellar QB needs to adapt and utilise Le'Veon Bell this season to win the division, while the loss of Dick Lebeau will be a loss for any team.

The Cleveland Browns have another QB competition but it is between Johnny Football and Josh McGown, not exactly a great competition to begin with. Despite that who will the winner throw to
with Josh Gordon suspended for the season.

That leaves us with the Baltimore Ravens, a team with a perfect balance on both sides who have
quietly gone about their business and have the least questions to answer on the field. Can Flacco be less of a fluke and prove his elite status.

Prediction: 1.  Baltimore 2. Cincinnati 3. Pittsburgh 4. Cleveland

AFC West
Ordinarily this would be an easy decision and say the Denver Broncos with Peyton Manning at the helm would walk this division, get 12 wins minimum and compete with the Patriots for home field advantage. Yet the ageing Manning means the division is up for grabs although 10 wins might be enough for whomever. The biggest problem for Denver is protecting Manning, and Ryan Clady's injury at left tackle (Manning's blind side) will ask serious questions on his power of recuperation. A blessing for the Broncos was the advancement of CJ Anderson who gives Manning a great number to call at the line.

Elsewhere in the division, Kansas City have the most efficient QB but he had no downfield threat to keep them in high scoring games. Still a good defence marshalled by Andy Reid will make the the biggest threat to Denver.

San Diego have a good QB but a lot of questions on their defence and the four game suspension of Antonio Gates for PEDs is a big loss.

Oakland Raiders are not going to the be the laughing stock of the league, but again they have a young QB without much offensive weapons to help him mature and gain wins. Latavius Murray showed flashes of explosive game changing potential last year but is not considered their first choice RB, a mistake if they do not want to be dead last again.

Prediction: 1. Denver 2. Kansas City 3. San Diego 4. Oakland

AFC South
Quite possibly this could be the closest division in the AFC this season thanks to the elevation of one teams defence, and more consistent QB play hopefully coupled with the leader of the packs intention to not protect their star asset. This is the division that will see a real change of scenery.

Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts are many neutral observers tips to again reach the AFC championship game, yet to this observer the team have not done enough to beef up the offensive line to protect Luck. This makes it al the more remarkable when they play twice against the Houston Texans who can boast a defensive line that includes boy JJ Watt, the now fully fit Jadeaveon Clowney and newly acquired Vince Wilfork at defensive tackle - a scary combination. If the Texans can get a full season out of their QB either the young and maturing Ryan Mallett or dependable Brian Hoyer, some yardage out of Arian Foster (note Foster suffer a groin injury on 3-8-15) then the Texans are not only a division winner but a formidable opponent.

The Texans also have a favourable schedule. They open at home to Kansas City followed by a three game series versu three of the awful NFC South (Carolina, Tampa, Atlanta) so a possible 4-0 start perhaps, followed by a tough trip in Week 10 at Cincinnati for Monday Night Football with New England visiting Houston in Week 14. Not a terrible looking schedule, certainly not one to be scared of.

The other two teams have young QBs. Tennessee got Marcus Mariota and so changed their scheme, can the Hawaiian native lead the team to glory. It is down to expectation and Mariota should be given the keys for a season and not have a lot of pressure on his young shoulders.

Whereas, Blake Bortles is expected to progress and get more wins this year for the Jacksonville
Jaguars, Bortles showed flashes of quality coupled with bad rookie decisions, yet the acquisition of
Julius Thomas from Denver gives him a security blanket and red zone target.

Prediction: 1. Houston 2. Indianapolis 3. Jacksonville 4. Tennessee

Click here for my NFC preview.