Monday, 28 September 2015

Peyton's Place

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The cream of the AFC West

It seems that the more things change the more they stay the same in the NFL. People get so worried about certain individuals and their performances after one week, the age of social media makes us all judges in the wink of an eye or 140 characters or less. Yet class remains permanent for those who we criticise, with only injuries slowing them down.

Case in point is the twilight of Peyton Manning.  Many fear that he has reached the end of his illustrious career, can he stand up for 16 games. After the week 1 victory over Baltimore, many thought that Manning's body with his worrisome neck injuries would not be able to withstand the continual pass rush which made many observers wince.

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Why worry? 3-0 start helps
Yet the Broncos won the game.  Peyton may have lost weapons such as Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas but he still has Demaryius Thomas, and something he has on his side will make the Broncos competitive - a defence that is making plays all around the field. Against Detroit, the D had another interception - two in this game - against Matthew Stafford.

On the road, Peyton threw for 324 yards off a solid 31 of 42 throws.  The Broncos are 3-0 and in the ascendency of the AFC West if the Kansas City Chiefs lose to the Green Bay Packers tonight, with only the Oakland Raiders (yes really!) with another winning record in the division.

Can the Broncos go all the way?
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Von Miller leads the D
Well that depends on many things not least can Manning stay healthy along the stretch which includes some tasty encounters on the slate - after the bye in Week 7 they face Green Bay, New England, Kansas City and Cincinnati and San Diego at home as well as road trips to Indianapolis, San Diego and Pittsburgh. That could be construed as one of the toughest schedules post bye in the league especially for a team wanting to contend in the postseason.

Can they gain a 13-3 record for the season. Personally I see them entering the bye week 6-0 due to their defensive superiority over the next three teams - Minnesota, Oakland and Cleveland.  But I can see them losing three games at Pittsburgh, San Diego (who are playing better than their record currently) and versus New England or Cincinnati, not to mention the Week 8 shootout versus Aaron Rodgers in Denver, where the edge goes to Denver who will be coming off the bye week to a home contest.

Wade to the Max
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Phillips has rejuvenated the Denver D

Credit for the Broncos revival can be the acquisition of Wade Phillips as Defensive co-ordinator, again the defence were stingy affording the high powered Detroit offense 290 total yards and only 28 yards on the ground. That bodes well for the match up next week versus Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings.

As well as the household names on defence such as Von Miller, Chris Harris and Aqib Talib; the depth is being shown by the two people who did grab interceptions in the Motor City.  Bradley Roby's athletic grab in the first quarter set the tone for the defensive display and the fourth quarter interception by David Bruton Jr, doused a possible Lions comeback and led to the Broncos' final touchdown to ice the game.

This depth will be imperative on the stretch especially when the Broncos play such elite quarterbacks performing at a high level after that bye week - Rodgers, Luck, Brady, Rivers (twice), Dalton and a returning Roethlisberger.  The Broncos have given up a total of 49 points in three games, against such high scoring offences this is a must to succeed.

As Chris Harris stated:
“That’s what it takes to win a Super Bowl,” said Harris. “You need everybody. Some games are going to be [Bruton]’s game, some games going to be T.J. [Ward]’s game, some going to be Aqib’s game – as long was we keep taking turns it’ll be looking great for us at the end of the year.”

And I have not even mentioned the pass rush which in addition to Von Miller includes first round draft pick Shane Ray, DeMarcus Ware and Lerentee McCray, who are giving offensive lines fits thus far.  These vaunted playmakers are making plays. Plays that could lead Peyton Manning to the Super Bowl and the perfect finale.

Running on Empty

Where might the Broncos come up short though may be the running game, which again had a woeful performance before injuries reared their ugly head.  CJ Anderson had 18 yards off of 8 carries before leaving the field with a possible concussion, although he passed a test he did not return.  After Anderson passed the test, back up Juwan Thompson (3 carries for 11 yards) left with a neck injury. This left Ronnie Hillman who had 13 yards off of 7 carries albeit a touchdown run also from near the goal-line.

This would be a worry for Denver going forward - something their running backs do not do lightly - if Manning does have an off day and cannot find Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders or the ever improving Owen Daniels then where is the running game to fall back on.  Ronnie Hillman is not the sort of running back to strike fear into defensive lines; whilst CJ Anderson has only garnered 74 yards at an average of 2.3 yards with a longest run of only 14 yards. 

Again not numbers to have defences worrying but if you have Manning tossing the ball as he is, can Denver totally forsake the run and put more pressure on Peyton's ageing and weary shoulders?

Thursday, 24 September 2015

NFL 2015 Week 3 Preview

Last week, in my predictions I went 8-8 which is an improvement of the week before. So overall for the season I am a sterling 14-18. Probably the longest I have been under .500. I feel like the Chicago Cubs, but at least they are resurgent.

In week 2, a record eight teams remained winless including possible Super Bowl contenders Seattle Seahawks, Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens.

The Seahawks can be forgiven as they have faced a tough opening road trip to St. Louis Rams (who oddly lost on the road to Washington) and the Green Bay Packers, they now have Cam Chancellor back from his contract hold out to help the defence and a team which will still win 7-8 games at home and should get the 10 wins required to make the playoffs. The Colts are an odd creature, giving Andrew Luck weapons on the wideouts but failing to realise he needs to be upright to hold the ball as the Jets again brought pressure and blitzes to confuse the MVP candidate who had another bad outing on Monday night. The Jets are 2-0 tied with the Patriots.  The Ravens, I have discussed at length, in my blog and need to get a better balance which hopefully the returning Lorenzo Taliaferro at running back will do.

The other teams winless are New York Giants, New Orleans Saints, Chicago Bears, Houston Texans and Detroit Lions. Can you see any of those teams making a significant push? The Saints look to be in a bad way considering Drew Brees has a rotator cuff shoulder injury, it is anything but easy in Louisiana currently.

Washington @ NY GIANTS
Cincinnati @ BALTIMORE
New Orleans @ CAROLINA
ATLANTA @ Dallas
Tampa Bay @ HOUSTON
Indianapolis @ TENNESSEE
Jacksonville @ NEW ENGLAND
Philadelphia @ NY JETS
San Francisco @ ARIZONA
Chicago @ SEATTLE
DENVER @ Detroit
Kansas City @ GREEN BAY

Match of the Week

Pittsburgh Steelers (2-0) at St. Louis Rams (1-1)

Le'Veon Bell is back from suspension
Big Ben is ringing it up

This is a great match up to look forward; a real clash of a high tempo offense versus a vaunted defence.  Last week the Steelers destroyed a buoyant 49ers side at home with Ben Roethlisberger showing his high class going down fields and De'Angelo Williams gaining three touchdowns for himself.  They did all this without Le'Veon Bell who returns from suspension this week and is expected to slot right in to the system but perhaps in a more catching role out of the backfield.  The Steelers defence has also brought its game this season versus Tom Brady and Colin Kaepernick, but this team is about the offence which seems able to score a lot more than you can.

St. Louis meanwhile showed a great defensive display at home to Seattle in their season opener, then they could not replicate that form on the road in Washington as Kirk Cousins and running back Matt Jones ate up the defence. Washington might not be as bad as feared on both offensive and defensive lines, yet St Louis to not back up such a resounding victory with a complimentary performance is worrying. 

Can the Rams match up with the Steelers offence, probably not but can they get pressure to Roethlisberger, yes.  Can they attempt to stifle the run game of Williams and Bell, yes.  It makes for an intriguing match up nonetheless. I see the Steelers winning on the road by 7.

Upset of the Week

After last week's two golden picks which I did not pick myself. I am picking one game only and that is Tennessee at home to Indianapolis.  The Colts are in big trouble and this will be a big test of their offensive line to make sure Andrew Luck stays upright in the pocket and can control the flow and tempo of the game, and find his targets; it would help if they avoid penalties for holding so Frank Gore can get some yardage and avoid third and long situations.

Tennessee themselves need to bounce back from coming up short at Cleveland. This is their home opener versus a division rival, and they will want to make a statement in Marcus Mariota's first home game. Both teams will have to avoid turnovers and it could easily descend into a shoot out, if that is the case my upset may not happen but are the Colts running out of luck?

Fantasy Advice
- Lorenzo Taliaferro is back for the Ravens. He vultured a touchdown from Justin Forsett last week and is the red zone RB for Baltimore who need to make some red zone visits count for once.
- Charles Clay (Buffalo) a good TE pick up. A legitimate red zone target for the Bills who are throwing a lot with Tyrod Taylor, and with Sammy Watkins, Percy Harvin getting attention outside, Clay can benefit in the slot.
- Seattle Seahawks defence. Cam Chancellor is back. And so is the Legion of Boom.
- Cam Newton (Carolina). He has no-one to throw to. So he will be running a lot in red zone.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Ravens looking for lift off

For many neutral observers, including yours truly, the Baltimore Ravens were a sneaky Super Bowl contender and I selected them as my opponent to face the Seattle Seahawks in San Francisco in February. However, both of those selections look questionable now.

Whilst I think the Seahawks have been undone by a tough opening road trip - away to divisional rivals St. Louis and a grudge rematch in Green Bay - the Ravens also had an opening dual road trip on the much friendlier West Coast away to Denver and Oakland. The Ravens must have been confident returning home with at least one victory from a demanding road schedule.

However, they return for their home opener versus the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3 with an 0-2 record and with a major need of reassessing their expectations for the season following a 19-13 in Mile High and then he gut wrenching defeat in Oakland 37-33 when they gave up a last minute touchdown to Derek Carr who connected with Seth Roberts from 12 yards with 26 seconds remaining.

What was so obvious of the touchdown pass was the blown coverage as Roberts was wide open to receive his reception in the end zone. Yet this was indicative of the whole Ravens performance on defence, Carr went 7 for 9 for 65 yards on the winning drive as well as a career high 351 yard and three touchdowns, this after last week when it was feared he suffered a serious hand injury to his throwing hand last week versus Cincinnati.

This is in stark contrast to the defensive performance by the same Ravens team that shut down Peyton Manning's passing offence. The Raiders gained 448 yard, more than twice what Manning was allowed.

Why did this occur? Were the Ravens complacent facing the lowly Raiders and confident that a repeat of the same defensive performance would get a road win. Yet the defence could not get any pressure to the sophomore Carr, as he was sacked once and he one time Timmy Jernigan did get in Carr's face he was called for roughing the passer.

The loss of Terrell Suggs to a season ending Achilles injury will effect the pass rush and in a division when you have Andy Dalton and Ben Rothliesberger to face you need pressure upfront to help the talented cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Will Hill. Again the Raiders had talent at their disposal with both Michael Crabtree and rookie Amari Cooper both going for 100+ yard games, so perhaps the loss while a shock does have some explanation.

The finger can be pointed more at the offence, who took field goals from Justin Tucker at distances of 21, 22,  31 and 37. Maybe the offence need to be more assertive in the opposition territory, despite Steve Smith Sr. having 150 yards off of 10 receptions and Crockett Gilmore had another productive day with two touchdowns off 5 receptions for 88 yards. Kariam Aiken had 89 yards but Marlon Brown is coming back from injury so only had 2 receptions for 12 yards.

They like the balance of rush and pass but Joe Flacco throwing 45 times and Justin Forsett only getting 15 carries shows no balance. Flacco threw for 384 yards off 32 off 45 attempts and he did not get sacked. Flacco to be considered Eli needs to step up and show some clutch in critical fourth quarter situations.

0-2 is not the end of the season, but that age old statistic does rear its ugly head, only 12% of teams starting winless after two games made he postseason since 1990. The Ravens along with fellow playoff teams Seattle and Detroit Lions are in the same boat. Whilst I think the Ravens are not in as bad a situation as the Lions are, Baltimore will be like Seattle and not push the panic button just yet. Although the need for lift off at home to Cincinnati this coming Sunday is much needed.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

NFL 2015 Week 2 Preview


Okay, so firstly the breakdown of Week 1:

Pittsburgh @ NEW ENGLAND 21-28 Y
GREEN BAY @ Chicago           31-23 Y
Kansas City @ HOUSTON       27-20 N
Cleveland @ NY JETS               10-31 Y
Indianapolis @ BUFFALO          14-27 Y
MIAMI @ Washington                 17-10 Y
Carolina @ JACKSONVILLE      20-9 N
SEATTLE @ St. Louis           31-34 OT N 
New Orleans @ ARIZONA           19-31 Y
DETROIT @ San Diego              28-33 N
Tennessee @ TAMPA BAY         42-21 N
Cincinnati @ OAKLAND              33-13 N
BALTIMORE @ Denver               13-19 N
NY GIANTS @ Dallas                   26-27 N
PHILADELPHIA @ Atlanta            24-26 N
MINNESOTA @ San Francisco     3-20 N

So a very Detroit looking 6-10 but as I said in my Week 1 preview, there are always a lot of surprises to be had and a lot has been learnt. 

However, I had my heart set on Buffalo and I am pleased I went with the Ryan Bills, it was my
upset special for the weekend and the dominant defensive display by the Bills against Andrew
Luck who had a rough day due to the constant change of looks that Rex Ryan gave him.  In the end the scoreline flatters the Colts who were just bad all day on the offensive side scoring both their touchdowns in the fourth quarter.  

As for the Bills, I for one thought they would be the biggest threat to the Patriots in the AFC East this season and they get a chance to test their credentials when they host the Super Bowl champions on Sunday with Tom Brady facing off against Rex Ryan again.  Brady was in command against the blitz this week versus Pittsburgh but the front 7 of the Bills is a totally different proposition and will be one of the games to watch this Sunday.

Here are my picks for Week 2:
TENNESSEE @ Cleveland
Houston @ CAROLINA
ARIZONA @ Chicago
Detroit @ MINNESOTA 
San Francisco @ PITTSBURGH
ST LOUIS @ Washington
MIAMI @ Jacksonville
Seattle @ GREEN BAY

Match of the Week

Seattle Seahawks (0-1) @ Green Bay Packers (1-0)
In these previews you want to try and avoid picking the same teams and give some coverage to other teams. On the face of it thee are two matches of the week, but seeing as I covered the Cowboys at home to the Giants, it is best to look at the repeat of last year's NFC Championship game as the Seattle Seahawks travel to Lambeau Field to face the Green Bay Packers.

In a reversal of home field advantage, the Super Bowl finalists Seahawks are on the road again to face Aaron Rodgers. Seattle lost in overtime to St. Louis in an indicator as to how difficult the NFC West will be this year with three out of four teams being victorious in week 1. Seattle seemed at odds to garner a momentum in offence as Russell Wilson had only one pass travel further than 10 yards, failing to utilise Jimmy Graham nor Marshawn Lynch. Credit where it is due though, the Rams have an exceptional defensive front 7 led by Aaron Donald, and while a lot of criticism has been hurled at Wilson, it was his leadership that got the game to overtime.

Green Bay meanwhile made short work of Chicago on the road, in a collision of contenders and pretenders. Rodgers mobility in and out of the pocket meant that the Bears could not get any pressure on the QB, and despite the season ending injury to Jordy Nelson, Rodgers makes names out of people and the reunion of James Jones (after an awful spell in Oakland) for two TDs gave Green Bay an easy start.

Of course, this Sunday is a battle of titans but it could well have major play off implications as you can imagine Green Bay eager for the win to go to 2-0 restrict Seattle to a winless record but more importantly hold the tiebreaker when it comes to home field advantage in January. Both teams are so dependent on home field, Packers for climate and Seattle for hostility, and many felt that Green Bay would have won that Championship game had it been in Lambeau.

While the weather should have no bearing on this game in mid September, there is a wave of
momentum currently in Green Bay and they have playmakers in their own front 7 - Julius Peppers, Clay Matthews and Ha-Ha Clinton Dix to stifle the Seattle output.  I fancy the Packers by 6.

Upset of the Week
This is a tough week to call in terms of match ups and records already, but if you were to pick two it would be either Jacksonville Jaguars (0-1) at home to Miami Dolphins (1-0) who did little to flatter themselves against Washington, needing a 74 yard punt return from Jarvis Landry to get the victory. The Jags have some good wide threats and if Blake Bortles at quarterback can minimise his turnovers and mistakes they have a chance.

As do the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-1) versus the New Orleans Saints (0-1). The Bucs need a statement following their pitiful performance versus the Titans last week at home. If Jameis Winston wants to be considered a legitimate overall No1 draft pick he needs to step up and lead.  The return of Mike Evans will help him, and free up Vincent Jackson who was double covered, and that two wideout threat may well help Doug Martin find running room. The Saints question marks remain on defence giving up 307 passing yards to Arizona, and in Brandon Browner they have a cornerback who gives away silly pass interference penalties frequently, something that may well occur in the matchup with Evans.

Fantasy Advice
- Get on the Mariota express, expect Tennessee to show his legs this week and become a dual threat QB treat. Pity if you're playing him this week
- Mike Evans (Tampa Bay) is back from hamstring injury, expect him to get targets but also help Vincent Jackson in that regard.
- St. Louis Rams defence, best in week 1. Play Washington in Week 2. No brainer
- Expect Steve Smith Jr. (Baltimore) to do some damage on the Oakland D

Monday, 14 September 2015

First Impressions - Mariota v Winston

Perfect debut for Mariota

You work all of your college career for a day on the NFL turf. You are entrusted by a franchise who select you above 200 of the rest of your collective peers to be the face of the franchise, the salvation from obscurity.  And it ends in either victory or defeat, one way or another there will be a winner.  That is the beauty of American sport - the decisiveness and finality of it.  No draw, no sharing of the points. There will be a winner by sudden death, shootout or overtime.  You win no matter what.

You work your way through college for a day in the sun. A day to remember. 

For the top 2 selections in the NFL draft, you could not have had two more contrasting days for Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston.  The only time they played each other in college was in last year's National Championship when Mariota's Oregon Ducks beat Winston's Florida State Seminoles 59-20. It was Winston's only college loss in 27 starts.  Now Mariota has handed him his only NFL loss, as he and the Tennessee Titans were victorious 42-14 on the road in Tampa Bay.

Mariota hit a 52 yard touchdown in his first series to Kendall Wright, this would be his first of four Touchdowns on his NFL debut.  

Have the Titans found their man?

Mariota looked composed and assured in the pocket, meaning he got good OL protection and Ken Whisenhunt played to his strengths of playing a quick tempo with packages similar to his days in Oregon and allowing him a quick release at the line of scrimmage, to those in the slot. This allowed receivers like Wright (who had 101 yards off of just four receptions) to gain yards after the catch running through that gap between linebackers and safeties when spaced out. Mariota only had to throw 16 times, this is good management of his expectations, do not force him to throw the ball too much and mistakes may not happen.

Unanswered questions remain about him once he feels pressure and is pushed outside of the pocket, and barring in mind next week they are away to the  Cleveland Browns he should be able to maintain the momentum against the sorry Browns team who lost 31-10 on the road to the New York Jets.

Baptism of fire for Winston
As for Famous Jameis, he might not be famous for much longer, but that would be cruel after only one game.  His first pass in the NFL was returned for a pick 6 by the Titans' Cody Sensabaugh for 26 yards, the sort of moment that means all the momentum is with Tennessee and made it almost impossible for the Bucs to wrestle it back as the Titans built up a 21-0 lead in the first quarter and eventually won by 42-14.  

Jameis famously won a lot of games in his second year at Florida State from positions of adversity and deficit but the first pass is all on him as he misread his receiver's route and the cornerback Sensabaugh came in underneath to make a good play. As for the second interception by Deiontrez Mount, again Winston is at fault for a shallow pass that did not get over the linebacker.

Are the Bucs all at sea?
To be realistic, Winston could only do so much as the Tampa defence allowed Mariota to look good on his debut leaving Winston with too much to do as they played catch up.

There is hope for Tampa Bay and Winston as they travel to New Orleans this week and while both teams are transforming, the Saints little signs of a defensive improvement in their loss on the road to the Arizona Cardinals, their secondary got blitzed by Carson Palmer for 3 touchdowns and 307 yards in the air.  Jameis has probably better recievers in Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, so there is hope as they face a division rival albeit on the road; and in Austin Sefarin-Jenkins much like many QBs he has found a nice reliable target to aim for, the tight end finished with 2 touchdowns for 110 yards off of five receptions.

On first impressions, you see Mariota as a calm presence at the line, in control of his emotions making good decisions in the pocket emphasized by his TD pass to Delanie Walker between three Bucs defenders.  Winston meanwhile seemed a bit riled by the occasion, not overawed but his decision making was poor on occasion and he showed a lack of movement to get out of the pocket initially which led to him not being able to show his athleticism he is renowned for.

This is not saying it was a mistake to draft Winston first over Mariota, that would be too knee-jerk after one game or after one quarter as many on social media did on Sunday; the jury is still out.