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ATPF Mock Draft 2014

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1)      Houston Texans- Jadeveon Clowney, DE South Carolina

The Texans would love to draft their franchise quarterback here but the simple fact is that none of the big three quarterback prospects in the 2014 draft are assured franchise guys. Johnny Manziel is the most polarising player in the draft but even in his home state doubts over his ability at the next level persist. Blake Bortles has all the weapons but his production and game tape are not that of a top overall pick and after a poor pro day long time number one consensus Teddy Bridgwater has slid rapidly down draft boards.

Jadeveon Clowney is atop almost everyones board and with good reason. He looks the best defensive end prospect to come along in around a decade and the prospect of teaming him with 2012 defensive player of the year J.J. Watt should have Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel salivating. The Texans have had a long time to consider and reconsider this pick but common sense should tell them not to over complicate this and pick the best player in the draft, Jadeveon Clowney.

 

2)      St. Louis  Rams- Greg Robinson, OT Auburn

There has been plenty of speculation linking the Rams with a trade down from this pick, their third first rounder from their 2012 blockbuster trade with the Washington Redskins. With doubts seemingly heavy over all three quarterbacks long linked with such a trade however it is looking less and less likely that a trade of value to the Rams will present itself and therefore they take the player atop their board.

Greg Robinson has the physical attributes and upside to become one of the league’s best left tackles and with brittle former number one overall pick Sam Bradford under center such a player would be a delight for head coach Jeff Fisher who needs his franchise quarterback upright to stand any chance in the toughest division in football.

 

3)      Jacksonville Jaguars- Johnny Manziel, QB Texas A&M

Probably not the destination that brand ‘Johnny Football’ would have really wanted but a dream pick for the Jaguars who need to both fill their stadium and attain a franchise quarterback. Manziel remedies the first issue and his unique skill set could finally give the Jaguars an identity both offensively and as a brand.

If Johnny Football is going to succeed he needs a playbook designed around him and in offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch the Jags have just the man for the job. Fisch led Matt Hasselbeck to three pro bowls in Seattle and directed the University Of Miami’s hugely productive passing offense in 2012. Manziel is a boom or bust pick but even if he proves to be the latter it will be no different to what the Jags have grown accustomed too, if however Manziel is a hit the long term mediocrity of this franchise could finally be lifted.

 

4)      Cleveland Browns- Blake Bortles, QB Central Florida

There has been plenty of speculation linking Johnny Manziel here but even if he is on the board I have my doubts over his legitimacy as a signal caller in the AFC North. Facing three brutal, bruising defenses twice a year outdoors does not look the sort of task the slender if slippery Manziel is built for.

Bortles has great size and the powerful former tight end has a bit of the Ben Roethlisberger about him. He can make all the throws, has a powerful arm and is smart and elusive in the pocket for a guy his size. Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco have three super bowl rings between them and show the value of a big strong armed quarterback in the AFC North. Bortles would actually have a great situation to come into in Cleveland, the Browns have one of the league’s best receivers, a rapidly improving tight end and a defensive line led by perennial all-pro left tackle Joe Thomas.

 

5)      Oakland Raiders- Sammy Watkins, WR Clemson

The Raiders seem inexplicably smitten with their veteran quarterback recruit Matt Schaub. With the Raiders the word inexplicable should be an anagram of the team name however. Schaub won’t lead the Raiders to the promise land but is just about a serviceable starter. He desperately needs receiving talent and luckily for the Raiders Sammy Watkins arguably the second best player in the draft is still available at number five.

Watkins is a rare athlete. He has the sort of game breaking speed of a Tavon Austin or Percy Harvin but stands 6 foot tall and weighs 210 lbs. He looks very much a leading candidate for rookie of the year and capable of an instant impact in the NFL. Whoever drafts him should get an electrifying player and the Silver and Black need such a player more than most.

 

6)      Atlanta Falcons- Khalil Mack- DE Buffalo

The Falcons were one of the most disappointing teams in football and there were two major contributing factors, injuries and a complete inability to pressure opposing quarterbacks.

Better health is something they can only cross their fingers for but improving their woeful pass rush is a matter they can take into their own hands. Had the Texans been in for a quarterback the Falcons would have been seriously likely to trade up for Jadeveon Clowney at number two but with him off the board they get the best remaining option. Mack is slightly undersized at 251 lbs but has a frame capable of adding bulk. He has phenomenal quickness and is refined beyond his years as a pass rusher. Mack’s motor is relentless and he gives the Falcons a chance to hurry Drew Brees and Cam Newton.

 

7)      Tampa Bay Buccaneers- Mike Evans, WR Texas A&M

The Bucs would love to draft a quarterback here but can they be sure Teddy Bridgwater is better than Josh McCown? McCown had a fine season last year in Chicago and looks sure to beat out Mike Glennon who is rumoured to be on the trade block.

With questions over Bridgwater Lovie Smith takes the safe option in his first draft adding college phenomenon Mike Evans. Evans has remarkable similarities to Tampa’s number one wide out Vincent Jackson as a huge receiver capable of making big plays in the vertical passing game. Evans has also drawn comparisons to A.J. Green and Brandon Marshall and if he plays at either of their or indeed Jackson’s level he will be a great value pick at number seven.

 

8)      Minnesota Vikings-Anthony Barr, DE/OLB UCLA

Barr like earlier selection Khalil Mack is probably undersized as a pure defensive end but as a SAM linebacker and pass rush specialist he could play a sort of Von Miller role in the twin cities.

New defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is said to be modelling the Vikings on the Bengals cover 2 scheme which often sees the Bengals rush five men. Barr has phenomenal speed off the edge and could be hugely productive as the fifth rusher yet is an excellent cover linebacker who closes rapidly and tackles expertly. He is the sort of athlete who can play a variety of roles and play them all with ease.

 

9)      Buffalo Bills- Jake Matthews, OT Texas A&M

Upgrading the tackle positions is a must for the Bills after drafting quarterback E.J. Manuel in the first round last spring only to see him miss a third of the year with injuries. With their two headed running back monster of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson the focal point of the attack adding a major upgrade at right tackle makes sense.

Matthews is arguably more pro-ready than our second overall pick Greg Robinson and looks well capable of stepping in as a day one starter. He will expect to move over to the more valued and higher paid left tackle spot down the line but for now is a solid right tackle.

 

10)   Detroit Lions- Justin Gilbert, CB Oklahoma State

The Lions sooner or later have to give Matthew Stafford a chance by adding corners that can cover rather than just relying on Stafford and Calvin Johnson to always score one touchdown more than their opponent.

Justin Gilbert is the consensus top corner in the draft. Gilbert is a big but rapid corner, the sort so coveted to deal with the extraordinary athletes playing wide receiver in the modern NFL. Gilbert isn’t afraid to get physical and has great ball skills for a defensive back so can make game changing plays. At number ten he is a must for the Lions.

 

11)  Tennessee Titans- Darqueze Dennard, CB Michigan State

The Titans are sick that Gilbert goes a pick before them but I can’t see any way he gets past the Lions. Alterraun Verner left in free agency leaving the Titans dreadfully short at corner. If indeed Gilbert is gone this pick will likely be Dennard, Bradley Roby or Kyle Fuller.

Dennard’s scheme versatility gives him the edge and he excels as a press man corner where his physical style is best seen while his speed gives him nice possibilities as a zone defender.

 

12)  New York Giants­- Aaron Donald, DT Pittsburgh

The Giants desperately need help alongside Cullen Jenkins upfront after losing Linval Joseph. Donald is inexplicably being overlooked by some because he weighs less than 300 lbs but he has extraordinary upper body strength and he shows up time after time when watching game tape of the Panthers.

Donald was completely dominant in the senior bowl and was almost unstoppable all week. Donald’s relentless motor and enormous power would make him a hugely disruptive 3 technique for the Giants whose long revered pass rush isn’t what it was.

 

13)  St. Louis Rams- HaHa Clinton Dix, S Alabama

The Rams go defense this time with the talented Clinton Dix, the latest in a long line of NFL calibre defensive backs out of Nick Saban’s hugely successful Crimson Tide programme. The Rams have an exceptional front four but could do with a center fielder to rival their divisional rivals, the Superbowl Champions Seattle who have Earl Thomas, arguably the best safety in football.

 

HaHa  Clinton Dix has the size and strength to cover tight ends and running backs one on one but is best as a last line of defense in one deep safety looks which playing the power running teams in the NFC West is vital and he looks the sort of player that controversial defensive coordinator Gregg Williams can turn into a pro bowler.

 

14)   Chicago Bears- Louis Nix, DT Notre Dame

The Bears lost Henry Melton in free agency and must find a suitable replacement early in the draft. Nix, a man mountain fits the bill and can help beef up the Bears defensive line which is vital considering that they have to face Adrian Peterson and Eddie Lacy twice a year.

Nix is the classic two gap nose tackle whose size and sheer power overwhelms offensive linemen one on one and routinely creates lanes for blitzing linebackers and one on ones off the edge for defensive ends. Nix is quick for his size too and is more than just a pocket collapse, he can get into the backfield and is a tremendous asset for any run defense.

 

15)  Pittsburgh Steelers- Ra’Shede Hageman, DE/DT Minnesota

The Steelers aging defense is due for upgrade in many positions and the physically gifted Hageman could man any of the three defensive line spots and would get playing time as a pass rusher from day one.

Hageman at 6”6’ 330 lbs is an enormous man but has excellent quickness to accompany his obvious strength. He has limited experience and has questionable work ethic but between Dick LeBeau and Mike Tomlin both could quickly be resolved and you could see him becoming a real terror for the Steelers in the future.

 

16)  Dallas Cowboys- Kony Ealy, DE Missouri

The cap strapped Cowboys had to release all pro pass rusher DeMarcus Ware and are left with no proven pass rushers on the whole roster. The league’s worst defense from 2013 could use upgrades virtually everywhere but securing a pass rusher is top priority.

Ealy looks a prototypical 4-3 end and would start from day one in big D. He isn’t an elite pass rusher because of his fairly average speed but he is a significant upgrade on the Cowboys current roster and is excellent against the run also which was also a problem for this defense in 2013.

 

17)  Baltimore Ravens- C.J Mosley, LB Alabama

The Ravens do a great job of finding starters in the early rounds of the draft and C.J. Mosley could start from day one. The Ravens filled some holes on offense in free agency to put them in position to draft the best available player in the first round and Mosley is just that here. Mosley has been one of the mainstays of the hugely successful Alabama defense the last four years and his versatility makes him an every down player. Excellent in coverage, instinctive and with a high football IQ he could go some way to replacing Ray Lewis for the Ravens.

 

18)  New York Jets- Odell Beckham, WR LSU

The Jets added controversial veteran quarterback Michael Vick this offseason to add some speed to an offense which was incredibly pedestrian last year. Vick will likely beat sophomore quarterback Geno Smith to the starting job but whether he can stay healthy is another matter.

Whoever is under center for gang green they desperately need to find playmakers and Odell Beckham is just that. Beckham displayed his blazing speed with a 4.31 seconds 40 yard dash at the combine last month and he is just as dangerous returning kicks as he is at wide receiver. Vick combined well with DeSean Jackson in Philadelphia so he should appreciate a similar player in Beckham.

 

19)  Miami Dolphins- Taylor Lewan- OT Michigan

The infamous Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin incident has left Miami short on their offensive line and although Brandon Albert and Bryant McKinnie were added in free agency the Dolphins can’t pass on a lineman with top 10 talent this late in the first round. Lewan is a man mountain at 6 foot 7 310 lbs but is smooth and athletic. He could start at right tackle in his rookie year and take over from Albert on the more important left side in a year or two.

 

20)  Arizona Cardinals- Teddy Bridgwater- QB Louisville

The Cardinals won’t likely be thinking quarterback in the first round at this stage of the draft process but two things make this pick happen. Firstly the Cards almost always pick the best available player in the draft rather than drafting for needs and Bridgwater would have strong claims to be the best available player at number 20. Secondly veteran Carson Palmer is not a long term option under center. Palmer improved play at the position last year after the revolving door of the 2011 and 2012 seasons but he threw far too many interceptions too.

Here the talented Bridgwater can learn from the sidelines for a year before taking over and providing an upgrade in 2015. The Cardinals scheme should suit Bridgwater, a pure pocket passer whose greatest abilities are his decision making and ability to work through progressions quickly to find an open target.

 

21)  Green Bay Packers- Calvin Pryor- S Louisville

Back to back Louisville Cardinals come off the board here with the Packers needing to shore up against the deep pass to help them become contenders again in 2014. Pryor has climbed up boards steadily during the draft process and is now consensus second best safety. He isn’t an elite athlete but when you watch his tape he is always around the ball and he has the knack for creating turnovers. The Packers were among the league’s worst at creating turnovers last year so adding a playmaking safety like Pryor would be a major bonus.

 

22)  Philadelphia Eagles- Kyle Fuller- CB Virginia Tech

The Eagles need a receiver to fill the void left by DeSean Jackson but unless Beckham is still on the board they may wait until the second round in a deep class. Kyle Fuller would be higher on most boards than any receiver at this juncture and the Eagles are short there also. Fuller is a versatile corner able to play inside or outside and his ability to match up with number one receivers bodes well for the future, the Hokies are excellent at providing NFL calibre defensive backs and Fuller looks another safe bet.

 

23)  Kansas City Chiefs- Eric Ebron- TE North Carolina

The Chiefs need offensive playmakers in the passing game to take some of the heat from Jamaal Charles. Ebron is generally expected to go in the top half of the first round so represents great value for Andy Reid here. Ebron is basically an out and out pass catcher but his speed and size combination is very rare and he will be a huge weapon for Alex Smith whose favourite target in San Francisco was a big fast tight end in Vernon Davis. Ebron could finally give the Chiefs a legitimate replacement for Tony Gonzalez.

 

24)  Cincinnati Bengals- Bradley Roby- CB Ohio State

Terence Newman and Pacman Jones are coming to the end of the line and the Bengals need to enthuse their secondary with youth to maintain their top ten defense. Bradley Roby is a pretty obvious pick here; he is a big fast corner who excels in man coverage. Roby and Dre Kirkpatrick, the Bengals so far unsuccessful first round pick of 2012 could become a strong pairing if Kirkpatrick can stay on the field.

 

25)  San Diego Chargers- Ryan Shazier- LB Ohio State

The Chargers need to help their defense against the pass and whilst a corner would have been their favoured option the four off the board already don’t leave any value on the board at 25. Shazier is the kind of kid who will improve any defense with his electric speed. Shazier is a fantastic tackler but also has the range and agility to excel in coverage and he could be one of the stars of this year’s class.

 

26)  Cleveland Browns- Marqise Lee- WR USC

The Browns arm Blake Bortles with a third playmaker in former Trojan Marqise Lee. Lee is a three year starter at a high level and was hugely productive throughout his career in Southern California. A Heisman finalist in 2012 he suffered a little with double coverage in 2013 but remained successful. He is a great route runner who seems to always be able to get open when it matters particularly on third down. His YAC ability would be a nice bonus for his rookie quarterback to pick up yards on check downs but Lee can get open deep also.

 

27)  New Orleans Saints- Kelvin Benjamin- WR Florida State

Drew Brees loves tall receivers like Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston so drafting Benjamin would delight him. Benjamin stands at a giant 6’5” and is exceptional at using his size to win jump balls. He was a huge part of Florida State’s National Championship winning team, catching the Championship winning catch inside the final minute. He is fast enough to get open deep and can overwhelm smaller corners and of course excels in the red zone. Benjamin could easily have double digit touchdowns in his rookie year in the big easy.

28)  Carolina Panthers- Brandin Cooks- WR Oregon State

The run on receivers continues and few teams are more desperate than Carolina in that department. With Steve Smith gone the Panthers may have the worst receiving group in the league and it’s almost inconceivable that they don’t draft a receiver here. Cooks ran a 4.33 at the combine and is a small but very nimble athlete who can turn short throws into big gainers. Cooks is best in the slot where his agility and quick feet make him extremely hard to cover inside and despite his size he is highly durable and tough so big hits don’t worry him.

 

29)  New England Patriots- Zack Martin- OT/G Notre Dame

The Patriots always fill their holes to give them the chance to draft by their board rather than needs. Most teams will have Martin inside the top 20 so Bill Belichick is delighted to draft an instant starter here. Martin could play at right tackle or guard as a pro but he is too good to not get on the field as a rookie. Martin was great at the senior bowl and almost certainly did enough to force himself into the first round.

 

30)  San Francisco 49ers- Jason Verrett- CB TCU

There aren’t many holes on this roster and with five picks in the first two days expect the rich to get richer. The 49ers take one of the best players available here in Verrett who will likely start as a nickel back in the NFL. Verrett is undersized but is a tough competitor with the speed to keep pace with almost any receiver in the league; he may get the job of Percy Harvin twice a year.

 

31)  Denver Broncos- Xavier Su’a-Filo- G UCLA

Protecting Peyton Manning is the number one priority in Denver and Su’a Filo is a great pass protector. He is a rare athlete for the position with excellent speed, quickness and agility to mirror rushes and he stands strong against the bull. He isn’t over powerful in the running game but his agility can really help on stretch plays and screens.

 

32)  Seattle Seahawks- Marcus Roberson- CB Florida

The Seahawks dealt remarkably well with the upheaval that suspensions caused to their secondary last year. They are still strong atop the depth chart but behind the starters their isn’t the depth that the rest of the defense can boast. Roberson would fit in well in Seattle, he is a big strong corner who lacks elite speed but excels in aggressive man coverage schemes. He could really flourish in Seattle.

 

 

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ATPF Preview Superbowl XLVIII

 

So finally Superbowl XLVIII is upon us and for the first time since Superbowl XLIV in 2009 the NFL’s best two teams by regular season record have made their way to the sport’s ultimate showpiece the Superbowl. There would be few who would deny that we have the best two teams in football facing off here. Fans of the 49ers will point to how little there is between them and bitter rivals Seattle, Patriots fans will point to the losses of Vince Wilfork and Rob Gronkowski and there are probably a few other loyal fans around the league who believe their favourite team is as good as either of these two but truthfully and quite unusually we have the two teams who have dominated their conference from the first whistle nearly 5 months ago.

To try and find the winner of what looks to be a very close match on paper we decided to breakdown the matchups of offense versus defense of the two, then we will look at special teams and coaches to see if we can pick out any more edges.

Broncos Offense versus Seahawks Defense

The matchup we have all been waiting for. Peyton Manning and the Broncos record breaking offensive juggernaut facing off against the Seahawks ultra talented, brilliantly coached league’s best defense.

Before a ball was thrown this season the Broncos looked to have one of the most dangerous offenses in the league but as it turned out their offense broke virtually every major record during the regular season. The 606 points they scored was an all time high, as was the 5477 yards gained as was the 76 touchdowns scored. Put simply the Broncos may have the finest offense in football history right now. In Peyton Manning they have the smartest quarterback in all of football. Manning who won Superbowl XLI back in 2007 with the Indianapolis Colts is now 37 years of age and is a certain first ballot hall of famer. Manning missed the entire 2011 season with a serious neck injury requiring multiple surgeries before leaving for Denver in 2012. In 2012 the Broncos lost one of the most riveting games ever seen as eventual Superbowl winners Baltimore downed them in a second quarter of overtime.

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Manning had a fine season in 2012 despite the injuries clearly taking some velocity off his throws. In 2013 Peyton’s arm has been much stronger and his throws have been pretty close to what we saw during his glorious career with the Colts. Manning is of course very accurate at all distances but it is his ability to dictate to a defense that is so good. On each play offensive coordinator Adam Gase dials in two plays and Manning chooses his preferred one. Even then Manning regularly checks out of the play or changes his protection depending on what he sees. At times you would think one of the defenders had the play written on their helmet such is his ability to see what is coming. The Seahawks base defense is a relatively simple 4-3 scheme which rotates the pass rush heavily and relies on their corners to cover man to man with Earl Thomas’s closing speed deep field just in case. The Seahawks won’t be pushed around by Manning constantly changing formations and changing plays at the line of scrimmage. They believe in themselves 110% and that isn’t just Richard Sherman. They stay in formation and instead back their guys to be too good for the opposition’s guys and nine plays out of ten they are. Corner’s Byron Maxwell and of course Sherman and nickel corner Walter Thurmond will play press coverage on Denver’s top three receivers and they will then expect their pass rush to get home before Manning can find a receiver who has broken from the shackles. Manning won’t be able to routinely find a receiver just getting open as he has all year against this defense. He will probably have to hold onto the ball a half second longer than usual and will probably have a half second less with the Seahawks pass rush closing in. He might have to take a few chances, back someone one on one, fit a few into tight coverage etc. because this defense covers so well.

Denver’s incredible season has of course been made possible by the supreme yet diverse talents of their receiving corps. In 2012 both Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker had over 1000 yards receiving and double figure touchdowns and both repeated the feat in 2013. Diminutive slot receiver Wes Welker had his fewest season yards in eight years in his first year in Denver but did miss three games, even so he still had ten touchdowns on the year, a career high. Tight end Julius Thomas was the surprise of the bunch. In his first two years in the league he had just one catch, in this his third year he was just shy of 800 yards receiving and was the fourth Denver receiver to have double digit touchdowns, twelve to be precise. Other receivers to note on the Broncos roster are running backs Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball, fourth receiver Andre Caldwell and backup tight end Jacob Tamme a long time Manning associate. As talented as this group is their opposition on Superbowl Sunday will be just as good.

Seattle’s defense is the best around but it is their secondary that really stands out. Cornerback Richard Sherman makes all the headlines for a variety of reasons but make no mistake; he is the best cornerback in football. Sherman has gained near shutdown status now but loves to goad a quarterback into challenging him. Sherman will face up to Demaryius Thomas here and it will be a fascinating battle. Sherman is aggressive at the line of scrimmage and will get his hands on Thomas to slow him down and then follow him when he looks to go deep. Thomas is both faster and bigger than Sherman but Sherman has faced both deficiencies on a regular basis and won this season. Opposite Sherman is Byron Maxwell who stepped on for suspended Brandon Browner in week 10. Maxwell was briefly looked at as a potential weakness as a little known dime corner moving up two spots on the depth chart to replace a pro bowler but that perception quickly changed. One would expect Maxwell to largely shadow Decker on the Broncos left side but Denver may look to switch their receivers to see if Maxwell can deal with the elite Demaryius Thomas. Walter Thurmond is a reliable slot corner who is one of the best in the game but in Wes Welker he faces one of the finest and most elusive inside receivers in NFL history. Welker is so hard to cover and Manning will be bargaining on him getting open regularly for first downs here. What interests me most here is how the Seahawks cover 6-5 tight end Julius Thomas. It would appear that pro bowl strong safety Kam Chancellor or outside linebacker K.J. Wright will have the role but both would see Thomas favoured. Thomas has the speed and catching ability of an NFL wide receiver so to cover him with a good but not overly athletic linebacker like Wright could be disastrous. Chancellor is faster but he would be giving up a huge size advantage and if the Broncos realise he is covering Thomas they will pull him around the field to open up the run game. To cover all four of Denver’s double digit touchdown receivers is extremely tough; expect the Seahawks to have their share of success here but the Broncos to edge the battle.

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The running game of the Broncos has been surprisingly successful with so much attention on their passing game. Knowshon Moreno has been the chief benefactor and the former first round pick has finally stayed healthy to shed his bust tag. Moreno had over 1500 total yards and thirteen touchdowns on the year and his bruising inside running complements Denver’s passing game brilliantly. Rookie second round pick Montee Ball is a similarly big punishing back who will get carries but third rusher Ronnie Hillman has spent too much of Superbowl week in strip clubs to be a factor. Seattle allowed just four rushing touchdowns during the regular season and opposing rushers managed less than four yards per carry so while Moreno will have some success and will be heavily used in short yardage and goal line situations we expect that Seattle contain Denver to well under 100 yards rushing on the day.

Finally in this battle we look at the line of scrimmage. Denver’s offensive line versus Seattle’s defensive line. Peyton Manning is very hard to sack but if you can pressure him and get hits you can force errors, the Saints despite some questionable motives managed it in Superbowl XLIV and it affected Manning, no more so than when he threw the late pick six that all but sealed the New Orleans win. The Broncos offensive line allowed just 20 sacks and 54 quarterback hits during the regular season both league lows. Manning gets rid of the ball so quickly and his receivers are open in a flash so defenders have little chance to get their hands on him and defensive coordinators are all too aware of the consequences of an unsuccessful blitz against this team. Denver’s line paved the way for a sixth best in the league sixteen rushing touchdowns and a healthy 4.1 yards per carry also so they are strong going forward as well as in protection.

The Seahawks got 44 sacks in the regular season, good for eighth in the league and their defensive line got the lion’s share. Former Buccaneer defensive end Michael Bennett’s 8.5 sacks leads the team but Cliff Avril opposite him has eight despite being a pass rush specialist rather than a starter and Chris Clemons has 4.5 despite missing half of the season. Clint McDonald is the top pass rusher inside but again he only comes in on passing downs with Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel the tackles in the Seahawks base 4-3. Mebane, McDaniel and giant run stuffing end Red Bryant form a hugely powerful front which was seventh best in the regular season against the rush and held San Francisco’s runners to a pitiful 31 yards on sixteen carries in the NFC Championship. We think Seattle’s defensive line will win this battle but Manning’s quick read and release may nullify it and as good as the Seahawks are against the run they will likely only see it when their chief run stoppers are on the sidelines which will further halt any sort of dominance upfront.

So to summarise this mouth-watering battle we think in boxing terms it will go to the judges. Denver we believe will shade it due to the firepower at their disposal and Manning’s ability to find matchups he can win but if Seattle can grab a turnover or two they will give their offense a real chance to win this game. We are looking at Denver scoring three touchdowns and three field goals in total to get 30 points on this stingy defense.

Seahawks Offense versus Broncos Defense

The headline acts on the other side of the ball have seen these two units almost forgotten by the media in the run up to the big game.

The Seahawks offense was ample complement to their defense during the regular season as they averaged 339 yards per game, good for 17th in the league but scored 417 points, eighth most in the league. Short fields helped the points total but hurt the yardage, realistically this was probably a unit just outside of the top ten overall but injuries were a major factor. Sophomore quarterback Russell Wilson has been an incredible success story and threw 26 touchdowns to just nine interceptions during the regular season. He has just one touchdown pass in his two postseason games this year but is yet to throw an interception although he did fumble on the opening play in the NFC Championship. Wilson isn’t quite a dual threat quarterback like great rival Colin Kaepernick or Cam Newton but he is still very capable of using his legs to make a play. Where Wilson is pretty unique is in his ability to use his speed to create space, buy time and create throwing angles to receivers. The likes of Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo are renowned for their ability to keep plays alive and make improvisatory throws off the back of it and Wilson is joining them in this category. Teams generally try to pack their defense in tight to try and shut any holes for Marshawn Lynch but this allows Wilson to run bootleg plays where he gets to the outside and looks downfield. He is a great passer on the move so the Broncos need to stay in coverage until the whistle; a pass play is never dead with Wilson under center.

The Broncos defense was up and down during the regular season, at times they looked pretty dire at other times they looked ready to come good but ultimately the unit ended the season ranked 19th overall and 22nd in the league in allowing 399 points. In the playoffs they have improved, they held the Patriots to just 16 points and 320 yards in the AFC Championship and the Chargers to just 17 points and 269 yards in the divisional round. Considering both of those were top ten offenses the improvement is obvious but both Tom Brady and Phil Rivers are pocket passers, Wilson will offer an altogether different test with hid mobility. You have to go back to the early weeks of the season to see the last time Denver faced a quarterback of Wilson’s athleticism. They completely suffocated Robert Griffin III as Washington had five turnovers against them and they kept Michael Vick from having a major impact on the ground also going all the way back to week four.

Seattle’s offense is built on the solid foundation of their relentless battering ram running back Marshawn Lynch who rushed for over 1200 yards and double digit touchdowns for the third straight year in Seattle having left the Buffalo Bills. Lynch led the Seahawks to the fifth most rushing yards in the league and the team averaged almost 32 rushes per game in total, the second most in the NFL. Lynch has been just as effective in the postseason; he rushed for 140 yards at 5 yards per carry and had two touchdowns against the Saints in the divisional round and in the NFC Championship he finally broke a 40 yard touchdown having been frustrated for long periods by one of the best defenses in football. The Broncos will likely make Lynch their main focus here to try and make it Wilson versus Manning, a battle Wilson simply can’t win.

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Denver were good against the run in the regular season, only six teams allowed less than the 1626 rushing yards they did and they were tied sixth for yards per carry by opposing rushers. In the playoffs they haven’t faced a top running team like Seattle but they held San Diego to 65 yards rushing and New England to 64 and in neither game did a running back find the end zone. In this key battle Lynch will have success, it is basically impossible to shut him down for a full game but he certainly won’t be able to take over the game as he can do at times. Expect Lynch to find the end zone at least once and manage around 100 yards on over 20 carries.

The Seahawks were optimistic about their receiving corps pre-season largely down to the capture of the biggest prize in free agency, Percy Harvin. Harvin, formerly of Minnesota is an explosive athlete and one of the fastest players in the league; he is a threat every time the ball is in his hands. The Vikings lined him up outside, in the slot and even as a running back and he also returned both kicks and punts. But in his first year in Seattle Harvin has been on the field for just 40 snaps, that less than a full game. An injury enforced hip surgery kept him out until week 16 and concussion kept him out of the NFC Championship but make no mistake, Harvin is one of the most feared playmakers in the game and with no clue as to how the Seahawks are likely to use him the Broncos will be terrified of his potential to torch them here. Seattle’s other starter on pre-season depth charts was Sidney Rice who was lost to a torn ACL in midseason and may have played his last game for the Seahawks. With Rice down and Harvin barely seen Golden Tate (898 yards, 5 touchdowns) and Doug Baldwin (778 yards, 5 touchdowns) have been the starters for most of the season. Tate is an underwhelming athlete but has excellent hands, is a fine blocker and displays a nasty demeanour on the field. Baldwin in his third year out of Stanford where he went undrafted into the NFL is another steady rather than spectacular receiver but is having career year. Tight end Zach Miller is a seventh year pro who was productive in his time in Oakland but has never become a major part in the passing game in three years in Seattle. Third or maybe fourth now Harvin is back receiver Jermaine Kearse has been the team’s deep threat as we saw with his ultimately overshadowed game winning 35 yard touchdown in the NFC Championship. Denver’s secondary is headlined by future hall of famer Champ Bailey who finally gets his shot at the Lombardi trophy in the twilight of his career. Opposite him is Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie a tall, fast, hugely talented corner who has underperformed in his career given his physical gifts but who at his best can be outstanding. Bailey struggles with elite speed now but neither Baldwin nor Tate should have the afterburners to hurt him and against receivers who can’t get behind him his knowledge and technique generally allow him to dominate individual battles. The Seahawks will look to get Tate against Rodgers- Cromartie who is a poor tackler and who lacks the lower body strength to wrap up runners, in space the tough, physical Tate could be too much for his opponent. Overall this one is close; I would say the Broncos secondary despite being a pretty average unit could probably win the battle if it wasn’t for Percy Harvin. We don’t know what to expect from him but I have a suspicion he will have a big influence in this game.

Seattle’s offensive line paved the way for Lynch to again have a big season but they can struggle in pass protection. Russell Wilson was sacked 44 times and hit 94 times in the regular season and has been sacked seven times in two postseason games, more than any other quarterback in the playoffs. Denver’s defense has been inspired by the dominant play of former Jaguar Terrance Knighton. The 335 lbs defensive tackle has become the Broncos star defender in his first year in Colorado with Von Miller spending almost half the season suspended and then going down to a knee injury soon after. Ten year veteran Shaun Phillips, a long time rival with San Diego had ten regular season sacks in his first year with the team and will look to expose Seattle’s pass protection deficiencies. This battle will be pivotal to the game and we think the form of ‘pot roast’ Terrance Knighton can be huge. Knighton’s ability to overwhelm offensive linemen and collapse the pocket could really hurt Marshawn Lynch’s impact on this game and force Wilson from the pocket although that doesn’t necessarily impact his game negatively.

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This battle despite its lack of hype by comparison will be close like that on the other side of the ball. Lynch is irrepressible but won’t have it all his own way so Russell Wilson will be tested on the grandest scale of them all. We believe in Wilson and think he can step up but barring Harvin who may not even be 100% would any Seahawk receiver even make the Broncos roster as a backup? Denver’s defense however is far from bombproof and is especially vulnerable to the deep ball. We think the Seahawks manage two touchdowns and two field goals to score twenty points in this game.

Special Teams

It is far from rare to see a big special teams play in the Superbowl. Think of the onside kick by the Saints, Devin Hester’s touchdown to open Superbowl XLI or ‘Mr Clutch’ Adam Vinatieri’s two Superbowl winning field goals.

With Vinatieri in mind we will first compare the two kickers, Denver’s Matt Prater and Seattle’s Steven Hauschka. Prater’s headline moment came when breaking the record for longest ever NFL field goal as he booted a 64 yarder over against the Titan earlier this season. On the season Prater was 25 of 26 for an offense which scores far more touchdowns than field goals. Hauschka was 33 of 35 and also showed a strong leg, converting all three of his attempts of over 50 yards. In the playoffs Hauschka is 6 of 6, Prater 5 of 6. Both have missed two on the season both have big legs, the two can’t be separated.

Of the punters Jon Ryan had a better season and has a bigger leg than Dustin Colquitt. More notable however is punt coverage, Seattle allowed returners just 3.9 yards per return but Denver for all they didn’t punt that often allowed nearly ten yards per return. Seattle’s punt returner is Golden Tate, his longest return of the season was 71 yards and he averaged over eleven yards per return. Expect to see the explosive Percy Harvin get a look in this department also. Diminutive but explosive Trindon Holliday is one of the most feared returners in the game and gives the Broncos yet another scoring threat. Holliday’s average was less than Tate’s at 8.5 per return but he did have an 81 yard touchdown return. With Seattle having the stronger punter, being better in coverage and having a higher return average they get the edge here. Can they get a crucial big return here? Maybe even return one for a touchdown?

On kick returns for Seattle is usually Jermaine Kearse although again Harvin may get a look. Kearse’s longest return of the year was 40 yards and he averages 21.8 yards per return. Holliday averages an excellent 27.7 yards per return for Denver and had a 105 yard touchdown against the Eagles, matching his 105 yard career long against the Bengals a year ago. Holliday is one of the top two or three returners in the league so he is a huge weapon here and against Kearse, a fairly average returner he certainly is the more likely to break one.

We can’t find an obvious edge on special teams. Seattle are the all round better special teams group but Holliday is so explosive that he alone levels the playing field.

Coaches

Veteran head coach John Fox is in his second Super Bowl having led the Panthers to Super Bowl XXXVII where they lost to the Patriots. The guarded cautious veteran is the polar opposite to Seattle’s Pete Carroll. Carroll lives every moment, bouncing around on the sidelines, furiously chewing gum, cheering every play. The former college standout has become a first rate head coach in his time in Seattle. John Fox meanwhile has coached football for 34 years with the last dozen in the NFL and is highly respected in the game.

Denver Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, former head coach of the Jaguars is again coveted by teams as a head coach and Seattle’s Dan Quinn, now in his second stint after two years at the University of Florida has continued the excellent work of Gus Bradley who left last year to become head coach of Del Rio’s former team Jacksonville. Offensive coordinators Adam Gase Darrell Bevell are both being linked with head coaching jobs also after stellar seasons.

The old school Fox and modern ‘player’s coach’ Carroll are both excellent and they both have staff ready to step up to the next level too. We can’t fault the coaching of these two excellent teams so can’t give any edge here.

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Verdict

The two teams look closely matched and both are outstanding football teams. There must be a winner and a loser though and we think Denver’s experience and irrepressible offense will triumph over a young Seahawks team that looks to be capable of making many more appearances in this game in the next decade. We predict the final score is Denver 30 Seattle 20.

For added interest………

We like to have a few bets for a bit of added interest on Superbowl Sunday and this year we are going with the following-

Peyton Manning Superbowl MVP- best price 11/10

Percy Harvin to score a touchdown- best price 23/10

Marshawn Lynch over 87.5 yards- best price 10/11

Bruno Mars first song- Locked Out Of Heaven- best price 8/13

Across the pond football

Thanks for making our first season great and our popularity swell. Stay tuned during the offseason for a variety of subjects from draft to free agency to the 2014 season.

 

 


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ATPF Preview Conference Championships

 

So here we are, the conference Championships, for every player this is the big one, they are on the cusp of the Superbowl and the game they have dreamed of for so long. Of course this is hardly alien territory to the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Bill Belichick or indeed any member of the 49ers who of course lost the big game itself a year ago.

New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos

Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning for the AFC title. It’s a script we’ve all read before but this time Manning is clad in orange not blue. In his second year in Denver Manning has had one of the greatest years in NFL history, breaking virtually every single season passing record along the way. Of course Brady’s historic 16-0 season of 2007 saw play of a similar calibre and the two best quarterbacks of this century will once again do battle here, maybe for the final time.

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Brady took a backseat as the Patriots pummelled the Colts on the ground last week. It was a win that will have inspired confidence in New England considering the Colts were one of just three teams to beat the Broncos in the regular season, of course New England were one of the trio too, downing the Broncos in overtime nearly two months ago. LeGarrette Blount led the way as the Patriots scored six rushing touchdowns against the Colts and ran for 234 yards total. The Patriots lack of a superstar receiver minus Rob Gronkowski was easily overcome with Blount in particular’s big day but if the Broncos can tighten up against the run it will be interesting to see how Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman fare against a secondary that gives up too many big plays. The Patriots defense scooped up four interceptions from Andrew Luck last week and the unit tries to mix up coverages and give opposition signal callers a variety of different looks to cause confusion. Manning will enjoy such a battle and his excellence at changing plays at the line of scrimmage could tie the Patriots in knots. The defense of New England has to have some success up front to give them a chance here. If they can attack running back Knowshon Moreno at the line of scrimmage and get some pressures on Manning they should be able to force a few punts but if Manning has time and a viable check down run game to audible to the Broncos dominant offense could be unstoppable.

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Denver’s offense is not just about Manning, the arsenal of offensive weapons at his disposal is what terrifies opponents. Demaryius Thomas is their number one; he is the big bodied dynamic deep threat. Eric Decker runs fantastic routes, catches well and is a danger with the ball in his hands. Wes Welker faces up to his old team here and remains the premier slot receiver in the game, his ability to find a small crease in the center of the field to get open is unparalleled. Julius Thomas has been the surprise of the year; the tight end is a real threat in the red zone and his combination of size and wide receiver speed causes matchup nightmares. Running back Knowshon Moreno is also having a career year, the former first round pick is a tough inside runner who excels near the goal line. The Broncos defense has been up and down throughout the year but seems to have a knack for making big plays just when they need them. They held the Chargers top five offense to just 17 points last week but couldn’t cope with Keenan Allen. Star pass rusher Von Miller’s season ending injury could yet haunt the Broncos and in this game they could really do with him. New England do a great job of keeping Tom Brady upright so minus the superb Miller it will be interesting to see if and how they pressure him.

Both defenses are flawed here so this one will come down to which defense can make a stand every now and then because we suspect the majority of drives will result in points. Expect the Broncos to priorities stopping the Patriots running game after last week and try to turn this into a shootout. If that becomes the case Manning’s superior weapons will be key and for that reason we expect Denver, the AFC’s best team to indeed win the AFC.

ATPF PredictionBroncos 38 Patriots 27

San Francisco 49ers @ Seattle Seahawks

These two NFC West powerhouses hate each other and on the field blood is always spilled when they do battle. The two teams are very similar and that’s what makes their contests so fascinating. They both won their home clash against each other with Seattle beating San Francisco surprisingly easily here early in the season.

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The Seahawks only lost once at home this season and their 13-3 record was the best in the NFC. They built their success around the league’s number one ranked defense and the unit gave up just one touchdown in two meetings with the 49ers. The Seahawks are dominant and deep upfront with giant Red Bryant playing over the strong side tackle and speedy pass rushers Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett all rotating in to get after quarterbacks. Cornerback Richard Sherman has gained virtual shutdown status, his physical style and ability to intercept passes strikes fear into opposing quarterbacks. Playmaking strong safety Kam Chancellor and center field hawk Earl Thomas are easily the best duo in the league and round out a fantastic defense. Seattle’s offense isn’t far behind, sophomore quarterback Russell Wilson has climbed to the top of an extraordinary quarterback draft class of 2012 with his brilliant play this season. Wilson is as dangerous with his legs as he is with his arm but even when he sets off he keeps his eyes downfield looking to throw rather carry the ball and his accuracy on the move is as good as anyone in the league. As good as Wilson is veteran running back Marshawn Lynch remains the bread and butter of the offense. Lynch is a relentless battering ram who has a knack of making people miss and is as tough to tackle as anyone in the league. Lynch’s inside running opens up lanes for Wilson to scramble to the edge and make plays. The Seahawks look like missing playmaker Percy Harvin again but he has barely been sighted all year and that hasn’t stopped them.

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San Francisco are in their third straight NFC Championship under head coach Jim Harbaugh and after making the Superbowl at the second attempt they only have eyes on winning the Lombardi Trophy this time around. Like their rivals defense is the strength of the team and after a slow start they ended up as the fifth best unit in the league. A week ago against the Panthers two interceptions of Cam Newton were vital in a game that was considerably closer than the final score suggested. Linebacker Patrick Willis and safety Donte Whitner were the two interceptors and both are top drawer defenders. Willis’s partnership with Navorro Bowman is the heart of this unit with both undoubtedly in the top five inside linebackers in the league and as a unit the two can take over a game at times. Upfront the relentless power of defensive end Justin Smith sets the tone and defensive end/linebacker Aldon Smith is one of the most physically gifted pass rushers in the league.  Continuing the similarities between the two teams the 49ers offense revolves around their power running game. Veteran Frank Gore has been a fine player for the 49ers for a long time and he sets the tone. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick may be the most explosive runner at his position in the league and his speed off the edge makes him a big play threat every time he tucks it and runs. The 49ers passing offense languished near the bottom of the rankings all year but Kaepernick’s favourite target Michael Crabtree’s return has given them a jolt. Hardnosed veteran Anquan Boldin and lightning fast tight end Vernon Davis combine with Crabtree to give Kaepernick a strong arsenal of weapons.

These two know each other so well and such games tend to come down to turnovers. Who will make the crucial error when it matters, who will make the big play that swings the game in his teams favour? We can’t split the two on paper but they reckon home field advantage is worth three points and at deafening CenturyLink Field it may be worth a little more so we are going to give Seattle the edge.

ATPF PredictionSeahawks 17  49ers 13

 


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ATPF Preview Divisional Round

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Wildcard weekend proved to be a thriller. The Colts started the ball rolling with a 28 point comeback against the Chiefs in which they had plenty of luck and plenty from Luck. The Saints then got over their road woes to beat the Eagles. Andy Dalton’s postseason struggles returned and he was pretty abysmal as the Chargers made light of the cold weather to beat the Bengals and the weekend concluded with the 49ers continuing their recent dominance over the Packers in a game that was tense and close throughout.

New Orleans Saints @ Seattle Seahawks

When these two NFC powerhouses met earlier in the season in the same stadium the Seahawks completely dominated proceedings winning by 27 points. What was most surprising that day was the way Seattle’s defense completely stifled the Saints offense with Drew Brees averaging less than 5 yards per pass attempt. Seattle meanwhile moved the ball with consummate ease with Russell Wilson averaging over 10 yards per attempt as the turnover free Seahawks racked up over 400 yards against Rob Ryan’s defense which has been excellent on the whole this year.

The Saints were only 3-5 on the road in the regular season but did manage to win in Philadelphia last week. They will need two more road wins if they are to be NFC Champions which looks a tall order. The Seahawks were 7-1 at home and there are few louder or more hostile stadiums around than Centurylink field. The Seahawks defense was the best in the NFL during the regular season and the unit is ultra disciplined yet able to make big plays as well. Their offense led by the relentless running of Marshawn Lynch and dual threat of quarterback Wilson can beat you in a variety of ways and they will hope to make big plays when Ryan takes his big gambles. The Saints need their defense to get pressures, hits and sacks on Wilson and to limit Lynch’s effectiveness to have a chance. Their offense is almost certain of a bolder showing and they will hope that Mark Ingram can be productive as he was last week to take a Seahawk out of coverage.

It was a surprise to everyone that the first meeting was so one sided but we expect the Saints to make a game of it here although we still think Seattle will prove too strong.

ATPF PredictionThe Seahawks advance to the NFC Championship with a 27- 24 win.

Indianapolis Colts @ New England Patriots

The Colts were dead and buried when they fell 28 points behind against the Chiefs last week but Andrew Luck suddenly found his rhythm and led his team to a thrilling comeback. Luck has been a little more reserved than we expected in his sophomore year but he threw for 443 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions in a true gun slinging performance. T.Y. Hilton is one of the more underrated receivers in the league and despite the lack of a viable receiver opposite him he had 224 yards receiving and two (including the game winner) touchdowns.

The Patriots have had plenty of problems this year and have been decimated by injuries so to get a first round bye was remarkable and it should have helped heal a few of the stricken. Unfortunately though it won’t heal Rob Gronkowski, their superstar tight end who is one of the most feared weapons in the league and it won’t heal Vince Wilfork their man mountain nose tackle who has been sorely missed since his season ending injury. Tom Brady minus Gronkowki for most of the year and with both Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez gone has not put up nearly the numbers of years past and there is no getting away from the fact that his receiving corps is substandard.

Both teams are pass first teams here and both have average defenses but both groups are capable of making big plays. It should be quite close but Luck seems to be the man with the Midas touch and he and main man Hilton can be crucial. Tom Brady’s legacy was set long ago but he has struggled in the playoffs in the last few years and he looks short of targets here so we favour a road win for Indianapolis.

ATPF PredictionThe Colts take another major scalp as they beat the Patriots 31- 27.

San Francisco 49ers @ Carolina Panthers

These two teams met in week ten when the Panthers won 10-9 in San Francisco. There may be a few more points scored here but expect defenses to dominate again. The hosts Carolina led by brilliant young linebacker Luke Kuechly won twelve of their last thirteen games and only once in that stretch allowed over twenty points. San Francisco were just as stingy, allowing over twenty just once in their last thirteen games and they have two superstar linebackers in Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman as well as superstar pass rusher Aldon Smith and consistently dominant lineman Justin Smith.

Both teams will look to lean heavily on their run games with San Francisco sure to offer a heavy dose of bruising Frank Gore and plenty of read option looks to try and get the speedy Colin Kaepernick to the edge where he is so dangerous. Carolina aren’t too dissimilar with veterans DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert all effective runners and Cam Newton an even bigger danger on quarterback keepers. The difference maker for this game in our view is San Francisco’s receivers. Michael Crabtree is back and has been lauded by his head coach for his catching ability while Anquan Boldin is as tough as they come and has bucket loads of playoff experience including one winning and one losing Superbowl appearance. Vernon Davis remains one of the fastest tight ends in football and he will be a real threat running the seams between these two receivers. Carolina still have veteran Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen has had a nice season but there is little doubt San Francisco is stronger in this area and we think it will be key in a game where points will be at a premium and touchdowns like gold dust.

ATPF PredictionThe 49ers make a third straight NFC Championship, we think the score will be something like 17-13.

San Diego Chargers @ Denver Broncos

The Chargers seem to have the football gods smiling on them of late but make no mistake they are playing some good football as well. A whole catalogue of events got them into the playoffs at Pittsburgh’s expense two weeks ago and they rode a catalogue of Andy Dalton errors to victory at Cincinnati’s expense last week. Their next game may on the face of it a daunting one but the Chargers were the lone team to beat Denver in this stadium this year so they won’t be overawed.

The Broncos have been the most entertaining team in the NFL this season with their league best offense scoring over thirty points in thirteen of their sixteen games. Crucially they managed just twenty in that shock defeat to the Chargers which was all the more surprising given the Chargers defense is pretty average and their secondary short on top level talent apart from safety Eric Weddle. Denver’s orchestra of offense has been led sublimely by veteran Peyton Manning who has had a career year. Receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker both had 1000 yards season for the second straight year and both Wes Welker and Julius Thomas would have gotten really close but for injuries. Running back Knowshon Moreno has had a fine year also as an every down back whose rugged style is perfect as a change of pace to the much feared passing game.

The Chargers offense ended the year a top five unit also with Philip Rivers enjoying a remarkable career renaissance under new head coach Mike McCoy, formerly of the Broncos of course. McCoy is an expert in teaching quarterbacks and has again excelled with Rivers. Veteran tight end Antonio Gates, breakout rookie Keenan Allen and journeyman Eddie Royal have been among Rivers favourite targets and talented running back Ryan Mathews has finally stayed healthy. The Chargers defense will have its work cut out; Manning and co won’t fall for the same tricks as in their last meeting so it will be interesting to see the Chargers defensive game plan. When the Broncos won these two teams first clash in San Diego the Chargers too often had to settle for field goals rather than touchdowns. They must find the end zone on drives here because the Broncos defense is significantly weakened by the loss of explosive edge rusher Von Miller.

The Chargers have performed admirably to get this far but we expect a different Broncos team to the slightly complacent one they beat a month ago. It’s hard to see the Chargers secondary coping with all the talent at Manning’s disposal although both offense should have plenty of success.

ATPF PredictionThe Broncos offensive juggernaut leads them into the AFC Championship; our score prediction is 41-31.

 


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ATPF Preview Wildcard Round

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What a crazy week to finish the season. The Steelers mustn’t be able to comprehend how the Chargers ‘won’ their game against the Chiefs backups. The Bears must also be hurting, they had their winner takes all game in their grasp, Julius Peppers had Aaron Rodgers in his grasp, Rodgers escaped, Green Bay escaped and piled more misery on their deadly rivals. There was a familiar theme even minus Tony Romo in Dallas as for the third straight year the Cowboys lost a winner takes all NFC East clash; all three teams have beaten them in the three year skid. The coaching carousel is in full swing too, Gary Kubiak’s position was untenable, Mike Shanahan and Greg Schiano had lost their locker rooms and both Leslie Frazier and particularly Jim Schwartz had failed to meet expectations relevant to the talent level on their rosters. I do feel most for one year head coach Rob Chudzinski, fired by the Browns. Chudzinski inherited a woeful roster and organisation which knows only how to lose, admittedly they fell apart once the season was lost but if Michael Lombardi thinks anyone is making this team competitive in one season he is very much mistaken.

Anyway to look back, we went 13-3 in our condensed week 17 preview, our best week of the year. In our first season we went 151-87 on predictions; we have had plenty of fun and a few headaches along the way but turned out reasonable numbers. Onto the playoffs now and the stakes are raised, we are excited about the next month but hope it doesn’t go too quick.

Kansas City Chiefs @ Indianapolis Colts

A fortnight ago the Colts beat the Chiefs 23-7 in this stadium so will certainly enter this game with confidence. They have been giant killers in an 11-5 AFC South winning season, San Francisco, Denver and indeed Kansas City were all favoured but all beaten by the Colts. The Colts are not without their flaws but they certainly have the winning knack. Their defense ranked 20th in yards allowed but eighth in scoring, allowing just 21 points per game and the 27 turnovers forced by the unit were vital. Offensively the Colts haven’t been ultra dynamic, Trent Richardson has disappointed on the whole but showed a few signs down the stretch and the loss of Reggie Wayne has put a lot on the shoulders of T.Y. Hilton who has had a solid sophomore year. Andrew Luck hasn’t yet reached the pantheons of the likes of Manning, Brees or Rodgers but is smart, accurate and more athletic than many realise.

The success of the Chiefs, 2012’s worst team has been surprising but not completely shocking. They have a lot of talent; we already knew that and in Andy Reid brought in a highly respected, experienced and successful coach. Reid has got the best out of a team that past managements got the least out of. Kansas City have been led by Jamaal Charles, their superstar running back who was deprived of a 2000 yards from scrimmage season by being rested for the final game and had nineteen total touchdowns. Quarterback Alex Smith’s accurate short and intermediate passing has been an ideal fit for Andy Reid’s west coast offense and Smith has had arguably the best year of his career. Kansas’ defense is laden with stars and boasts one of the league’s most feared pass rushes and most talented secondaries. Few teams in fact can boast the talent that K.C. can on defense with playmakers throughout the starting eleven.

In the first meeting Kansas uncharacteristically committed four turnovers, couldn’t complete on third down and lost the time of possession battle by almost seventeen minutes. They are a team built to not turn it over, not get in third and long situations and to control the clock so the game went all wrong. Andy Reid will want to shut down the Colts run game here first and foremost and allow Jamaal Charles to both control the clock and make big plays. The Colts will hope to do a better job on Charles than in the last meeting but he can make plays in so many ways. Kansas defense is entirely reliant on pressure but they couldn’t get at Luck nearly enough last time and when their blitz doesn’t get home they can be vulnerable.

ATPF PredictionThe Colts finished the season strongly including a verdict over the Chiefs. Kansas City are more solid as an all round team but the Colts were able to exploit all of their weaknesses last time out. Reid will want to correct many of these issues but the Colts won comfortably that day so have to get the edge. It will be closer however this time; we predict the Colts win by a score of 27-20.

New Orleans Saints @Philadelphia Eagles

All credit to Chip Kelly who took the Eagles from worst to first in the NFC East behind one of the league’s most feared offenses. The Eagles finished the season 7-1 to power past the Cowboys and will enter the playoffs with great confidence. Their offense went from explosive but self destructive under Michael Vick to just flat out explosive under Nick Foles. LeSean McCoy led the league in rushing and DeSean Jackon came back to his best as the dynamic deep threat that terrified defensive coordinators in his first couple of years in the league and a word must be said about the offensive line which paved the way for McCoy’s great season at a tempo which is hardly comfortable to men weighing around 300 lbs. The Eagles have languished in the bottom five of the defensive rankings all year yet they have allowed over 22 points just once in their last 12 games.

The Saints finished the season with an 11-5 record but lost the NFC South to the shock success story of the Carolina Panthers. The Saints are imperious at home but won just three of their eight road games this season and none of those were convincing. Defeats to the substandard Jets and Rams on the road, a crucial loss to the Panthers and a whipping in Seattle further backup the view that this team needs the comforts of home to be at their best. Their best is however arguably better than the Eagles best so there is hope if they can find their best form. The Saints always prolific offense ranked fourth in the league and Drew Brees’ pass attack was good for second best overall. The biggest difference for New Orleans this year was their fourth ranked defense which was second best in the league against the pass. Rob Ryan’s defense uses many different formations, sub-packages, coverages and blitzes and he will hope to disguise his plays from the relatively inexperienced but usually unflappable Nick Foles; it will be an interesting battle.

Offenses grab the headlines in these two cities but don’t be fooled, the Saints defense is the best we have seen for years and I include their Superbowl year in that and the Eagles are way better than the stats suggest too. The Eagles have great momentum, are at home and will find conditions much more to their liking than their opponents. The Saints are a very experienced postseason team and can go toe to toe with anyone but their away form just doesn’t add up to the same as their home form.

ATPF PredictionThis game won’t be an offensive shootout like some are suggesting but nor will it be dull. The Eagles were brilliant in the snow against Detroit a month ago so minus 6 celsius (21 Fahrenheit) temperatures shouldn’t be an issue. The Eagles have enough in their favour to upset the better side here and we see something like Philadelphia 34 New Orleans 28.

San Diego Chargers @ Cincinnati Bengals

As we spoke of earlier San Diego winning their decisive week 17 game wasn’t far short of miraculous. I have heard a few cynical whispers but the Chiefs did not want their AFC West rivals in the playoffs so such talk is ridiculous. The Chargers have been behind the eight ball all year as their West rivals Denver and Kansas City blazed such a trail yet beating both in their own backyards gave them hope and their win last week saw them in against the odds. They look the most flawed team in the playoffs but their schedule has been brutal so a 9-7 finish was no mean feat and they have one major thing in their favour here. That is quarterback Philip Rivers who has led them to a top five ranking in total offense and in passing. Defensively the Chargers are in stage one of a major revamp and there are some obvious holes particularly in their secondary.

The Bengals at last won the NFC North from perennial Lombardi trophy contenders Pittsburgh and current holders of the trophy Baltimore. In their third straight year in the playoffs they need to win at least one postseason game and with a home game in the cold against the Southern Californians they will fancy their chances. Few teams are as strong on both sides of the ball as Cincinnati; their defense has been strong for a few years now and despite some big name injuries they ended the season as the third ranked unit in the league. Their offense is full of talent too; superstar receiver A.J. Green is among the league’s elite and Marvin Jones has emerged as a valid number two. Tight ends Jermaine Gresham and rookie Tyler Eifert are both good pass catchers and running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard form an effective one-two. The lone issue on this team is quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton enters his third straight postseason needing a win and needing to prove that he is capable at this level. Dalton passed for a seventh best in the league 4296 yards and a third best in the league 33 touchdowns but his 20 interceptions is the most of any quarterback to make the playoffs. If Dalton can hold it together and use his weapons the Bengals will be tough to beat.

The Chargers need Phil Rivers to be at his best as he has been for much of the year here against a very stout defense capable of constant pressure from just their four man rush. The Chargers will also hope that Dalton errs as he has in the last two postseasons.

ATPF PredictionThe Bengals shouldn’t struggle against the Chargers defense and should score plenty of points. San Diego will score points also despite the Bengals defensive strength but we can’t see them matching their rivals on the scoreboard. Our prediction is Cincinnati 34 San Diego 24.

San Francisco 49ers @ Green Bay Packers

There is history here and it favours the 49ers but the Packers will be ready for Colin Kaepernick this year but minus Clay Matthews they may still struggle to contain him. The bitter weather of Lambeau Field may have been a problem to 49ers teams of the past but strangely the blue collar 49ers ought to be more suited by it than the dynamic Green Bay Packers. San Francisco are a run first, ground and pound offense and veteran Frank Gore sets the tone. The Niners ended the year with the third ranked ground game in the league but they will need more from their passing attack. Michael Crabtree stepped up on their run to the Superbowl last year and they will need more of the same from him having missed the majority of the year. The 49ers ended the year ranked fifth in total defense and haven’t given up thirty points once this season.

The Packers scored 28 against that stingy defense in week one but it wasn’t enough. Their offense has struggled on the most part this season with Aaron Rodgers missing more than half of the season but we all know how dangerous they can be with him at full speed. He was slow to get going on his return last week but typically made a brilliant game winning throw inside the final minute. Randall Cobb is back also and caught two touchdowns against Chicago, Cobb, speedy James Jones and Rodgers favourite target Jordy Nelson are a formidable trio especially when you consider that the Packers have run the football the best that they have since their Superbowl campaign of three years ago. Their defense is one of the weaker units in the playoffs and injuries to their front seven will certainly give Dom Capers some headaches when you think back to the way Kaepernick consistently got to the edge in the playoffs last year and then picked up huge chunks of yardage en route to a quarterback rushing record.

The Packers are a team everyone will fear now but perhaps less so San Francisco who have such a fine recent record against them. The Packers must pick their poison with San Francisco’s multi faceted offense but the matchups seem to largely favour the 49ers.

ATPF PredictionThe Aaron Rodgers factor will be big here but the 49ers are a more talented all round team so they again hold the edge in this matchup. It was 34-28 last time and a similar score is likely. We are going to say 30-28 this time.

 


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ATPF Preview Week 17

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Its week seventeen in the NFL already, where has the season gone? For twenty teams this will be their last game for nine months.

We know five of the six AFC playoff teams and the winners of all four AFC divisions. The Broncos will get homefield advantage with a win and New England will be second and get a first round bye with a win. The Chargers, Dolphins and Ravens should fight out the sixth spot although if all three lose Pittsburgh could still sneak in.

In the NFC there is far less certainty. All four divisions remain up for grabs and the last wildcard spot could still go to either New Orleans or Arizona.

It is also Christmas week of course. While the NFL is at the forefront of our minds time is not on our side so this week’s predictions will be kept very short but hopefully very sweet. Merry Christmas and happy holidays from ATPF!

Baltimore Ravens @ Cincinnati Bengals

The Ravens have to win this to keep their wildcard hopes alive but Cincinnati still have a chance of the AFC’s second seed so they won’t be letting up. The Bengals are the better all round team and can end their AFC North rivals dreams of returning to the Superbowl.

ATPF PredictionCincinnati wins this one by a field goal.

Jacksonville Jaguars @ Indianapolis Colts

The Colts are still just about in the race for the AFC’s second spot. They are the upset kings of the NFL and will be feared by all in January. Jacksonville have battled away all year but are a very average team and can’t be given any real chance here.

ATPF PredictionColts are a comfortable ten points too strong.

New York Jets @ Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins have to win this game and we expect an unusually loud, unusually full Sun Life Stadium. The Jets would love to play spoilers but their rookie quarterback Geno Smith will likely give the Dolphins a few gifts to ensure success.

ATPF PredictionMiami win this crucial game by a touchdown.

Carolina Panthers @ Atlanta Falcons

The Panthers must only win to tie up the second seed in the NFC which would be a fantastic achievement for Ron Rivera’s team. They face a Falcons team coming off a short week and a disastrous season so they should win but a word of caution. Atlanta are better at home and have played better the last month.

ATPF PredictionPanthers made to work hard but prevail by six or seven.

Washington Redskins @ New York Giants

The ‘other two’ NFC East teams do battle here in a meaningless contest. The Redskins have been absolutely terrible of late so we prefer the Giants.

ATPF PredictionNew York ends a disappointing year with a two touchdown win.

Cleveland Browns @ Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers have a very slim chance still so will have to give this their all although they will no doubt become aware if things aren’t going their way elsewhere. The Browns season has capitulated so it should be simple for Mike Tomlins’s men at least.

ATPF PredictionSteelers win by two scores.

Houston Texans @ Tennessee Titans

Two more teams who have nothing to play for although in Houston’s case they won’t want to give up the first overall selection in the draft right now. Tennessee can hand them a fourteenth straight defeat.

ATPF PredictionTitans win by ten.

Detroit Lions @ Minnesota Vikings

The Lions are just getting used to the fact that they won’t be in the playoffs but the Vikings have known for weeks. In what will likely be Jim Schwartz’s final game we think the Vikings can send him out with a whimper.

ATPF PredictionMinnesota prevail by ten.

Green Bay Packers @ Chicago Bears

The NFC North rides on this game. It also likely rides on Aaron Rodgers health. With Clay Matthews and Eddie Lacy banged up the Packers really need him now, we however are presuming he doesn’t play when we predict a Bears win.

ATPF Prediction Chicago win by a touchdown.

San Francisco 49ers @ Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals are extremely hard to beat at home and won on the road in Seattle last week. San Francisco will be feeling good after their playoff clinching win against the Falcons but on a short week we can’t see them becoming just the second team to win in Arizona.

ATPF PredictionArizona keep their side of the bargain, win by a field goal.

Kansas City Chiefs @ San Diego Chargers

The Chargers have already won in Kansas City and Denver this year. They can beat the best teams and can do the double over KC here in a game they have to win.

ATPF PredictionChargers win by a touchdown.

Buffalo Bills @ New England Patriots

The Patriots can seal a bye next week with a win although it’s unlikely that Denver gifts them a shot at the top seed. Buffalo should pose few problems to Brady and co here.

ATPF PredictionThe Patriots win by fourteen.

Denver Broncos @ Oakland Raiders

The Broncos lost Von Miller to injury last week which could be big in the postseason. As far as this game they can’t be opposed but will be scared of further injuries.

ATPF PredictionDenver locks up home field advantage with a two touchdown win

Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ New Orleans Saints

The Saints look like finishing second now in the NFC South behind the inspired Panthers. Priority for them now is winning this to get into the playoffs against a Bucs team who would love to stop them. New Orleans at home however should be too strong.

ATPF PredictionThe Saints win by ten.

St. Louis Rams @ Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks were shocked at home by Arizona last week but it’s hard to see lightning striking twice. The Rams offense will pose few problems to Seattle who should ensure home field advantage here.

ATPF PredictionSeattle win by ten.

Philadelphia Eagles @ Dallas Cowboys

Is Tony Romo going to play for Dallas? Their 32nd ranked defense means that they will need to score a lot of points and under a rusty backup quarterback that wouldn’t bode well. Even if Romo plays we fancy the Eagles against a toiling Cowboys team.

ATPF PredictionEagles win by ten to clinch the NFC East.

 


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ATPF Preview Week 16

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Week fifteen proved a hard one to predict. We went 8-8, only our second none winning week this season. Few could have envisaged the Rams beating the Saints, the Chargers beating the Broncos or the Vikings beating the Eagles and even wins for Miami and Pittsburgh ranked minor upsets.

Still just four playoff spots are guaranteed with two games to go, the other eight are up for grabs. Division titles, wildcards, homefield advantage, first round byes, so much is still up in the air and this week will be absolutely critical to the aspirations of so many teams, we can’t wait!

Minnesota Vikings @ Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals are making hard work of finishing off the job in the AFC North but they end the regular season with back to back home games, whatever happens this week they would win the division with a win over the Ravens next week. The Vikings without MVP Adrian Peterson got just their fourth win last week against the red hot Eagles.

The Bengals put in an abject offensive display in Pittsburgh last week. The Steelers completely shut down their run game and Andy Dalton struggled to string together completions. Ben Roethlisberger meanwhile was able to pick apart the Bengals with relative ease, completing 21 of 25 passes as Pittsburgh scored thirty which equalled the season high conceded by Cincinnati.

The Bengals certainly won’t find the Vikings 31st ranked defense such a struggle. Minnesota have given up thirty or more points seven times and even in their shock win last week they allowed thirty points and almost 500 yards of offense to Philadelphia. Their offense, the league’s 13th best saw a near 400 yard day from backup passer Matt Cassel and saw Matt Asiata who nobody had heard of until a week ago run in three touchdowns. Peterson and backup Toby Gerhart should both be back this week so Asiata likely will see a vastly reduced role but the key is can Matt Cassel replicate? None of the three quarterbacks who have started this year have been anywhere near good enough and it will be interesting to see how the Vikings approach the position in the offseason considering the desperate needs of their defense.

The Bengals really should win this game. Their 10th ranked offense and particularly A.J. Green should have their way with the Vikings woeful defense and their 6th ranked defense will be a different proposition for Minnesota to the 30th ranked Eagles unit which they had their way with latest. Minnesota are 0-7 on the road and it’s impossible to see a lone road win of the season coming here.

ATPF PredictionBengals keep the pressure on the Ravens, win by fourteen.

Miami Dolphins @ Buffalo Bills

The Dolphins have blown hot and cold this year. They started well, cooled off and looked to be falling away only to win three straight. Their latest win means they can still win the AFC East although it’s hugely unlikely but they are only tie breakers away from a wild card spot. AFC East rivals Buffalo beat the lowly Jags last week but a 5-9 record is about par for the course for them.

The Dolphins latest win over the East leading Patriots saw their sophomore quarterback Ryan Tannehill have maybe his best game to date. Tannehill passed for over 300 yards and three touchdowns, he didn’t throw an interception all game and it was Tom Brady who threw the backbreaking, ultimately game deciding fourth quarter pick. Tannehill and big money recruit Mike Wallace have belatedly got on the same page and the result has been that at last the Dolphins can really stretch the field. Their defense features a strong front seven but a young, thin secondary.

The Bills chances hinge on rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel. He threw four interceptions against Tampa Bay in week 14 but completed 17 of 23 passes for a couple of touchdowns and ran one in against Jacksonville last week. The Bills offense centres on their running game and their duo C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson both had success against the Jags. Buffalo’s defense like Miami’s is held back by a below par secondary but does have a strong front seven.

This is no gimme for the Dolphins. As much as Miami need this and want this game the Bills would love to beat them and end their playoff charge. The Bills will take heart from having beaten the Dolphins already this season and there are reasons to fancy them here. Their defensive line should have success against a poor offensive line and their run game always demands respect. The Dolphins will prioritise stopping the Bills run game and even with their secondary they will fancy taking on E.J. Manuel. We are scared to death by the inconsistent Manuel but Tannehill is becoming a quarterback you can trust so we are just favouring the Dolphins.

ATPF PredictionMiami win by a touchdown.

Indianapolis Colts @ Kansas City Chiefs

The 9-5 Colts visit the 11-3 Chiefs here with both safely into the playoffs but both looking to improve their position ahead of the postseason.

After losing three straight the Chiefs have clawed their way back level with the Broncos but unfortunately for them Denver has two easy games to finish off the job in the AFC West. The Chiefs have won by 35 and 25 in their last two and they are great at finding weaknesses in opponents and exploiting them. Running back Jamaal Charles is the star of the show in KC and has 370 yards from scrimmage and 7 touchdowns in his last two starts, staggering numbers. Accurate passer Alex Smith completed seventeen of twenty last week as he simply let Charles go to work. The Chiefs defense slid down the rankings in their three game skid with injuries really hurting them but they have Tamba Hali and Justin Houston back now and they are one of the league’s best pair of pass rushers.

The Colts have lost in the last three even numbered weeks but win in the last four odd numbered weeks. Such a record is only coincidental yet shows the lack of consistency that has blighted the Colts so far this season. In their three losses since their bye week Indianapolis opponents have scored 42, 40 and 38. Their defense which converted to a 3-4 alignment two years ago still looks short in too many areas although Robert Mathis is even better as a stand up outside linebacker. The Colts offense has missed veteran Reggie Wayne since his injury but T.Y. Hilton continues to produce and Trent Richardson had a decent game last week albeit against the lowly Texans.

The Chiefs continue to just win football games and they look to have the edge in a few key matchups here. The Colts defense is reliant on turnovers and sacks to get off the field but Kansas’ quick release west coast style of attack limits the opportunities for both and obviously stopping Jamaal Charles is a very tall order. The Colts are inconsistent at running the football and if they get one dimensional they could find the Chiefs Arrowhead inspired pass rush hard to handle.

ATPF PredictionKansas win a twelfth game this season, do so by two scores.

Tennessee Titans @ Jacksonville Jaguars

The 4-10 Jaguars who have won four of their last six host AFC South rivals Tennessee who are just a game ahead having lost eight of their last ten games.

Things have gotten ugly in Tennessee after a promising start to the season. Their offense has struggled since Ryan Fitzpatrick took over for the injured Jake Locker. Fitzpatrick has thrown ten interceptions whereas Locker for his faults was really looking after the ball well. Chris Johnson continues to be a shadow of his former self and could be in his last year in Tennessee as the team desperately needs an offensive facelift. The Titans defense is ranked 14th overall but doesn’t make enough big game changing plays.

The Jags are feeling pretty good about themselves right now as long as they don’t watch too much game footage of likely first overall pick Teddy Bridgwater anyway. Their defense has found a way to create turnovers of late with two or more in their last four games which has at least offset some of the deficiencies of the 28th ranked unit. Their offense is finally off the bottom of the rankings but they gave up four turnovers last week in a loss to the Bills.

Two teams whose season is long over here but the Jags seem fired up of late whereas the Titans have given up on their season. The Titans defense is their best chance of pulling the upset but we are going with the team with forward momentum.

ATPF PredictionJacksonville win their fifth game with a narrow three point victory.

Cleveland Browns @ New York Jets

Two more teams out of the playoff race here with the 4-10 Browns visiting the 6-8 Jets.

The Jets have lost four of their five games since their bye week with rookie quarterback Geno Smith wildly inconsistent and clearly overmatched at times. The Jets rank 30th offensively and 31st in passing and Smith has thrown a crippling 21 interceptions. The defense of Gang Green has been solid, they are just outside the top ten overall but the team has given up too many points off turnovers.

The Browns may be in even worse form than the Jets. They have lost their last five and eight of their last nine. Their defense, a strength of the team early in the season has allowed 27 points or more in each of their last five including 38 to the Bears last week. Cleveland’s offense has seen a whole host of different quarterbacks but none are starting material. Josh Gordon has emerged as one of the best young receivers in the game and he and sophomore tight end Jordan Cameron are two good players for their next quarterback to target.

Two more out of form teams you couldn’t meet. The Jets have won five times at home and Smith seems considerably better in the confines of MetLife Stadium. When Smith hasn’t turned the ball over the Jets have looked a decent team and here we see him leading them to victory.

ATPF Prediction New York win by a touchdown.

New Orleans Saints @ Carolina Panthers

The game which should decide not only the NFC South but also the NFC’s second seed which of course carries a first round bye. The Saints won pretty easily in the Superdome two weeks ago but a surprise loss to St. Louis last week has set this up as the likely decider.

The Saints are a totally different team on the road; they were beaten last week, completely outplayed in Seattle and also lost in New England and New York. Narrow road wins over the lowly Bucs and Falcons don’t dispel that notion either. They had three turnovers in St. Louis and the Rams did a great job of taking both Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles away. Rob Ryan’s defense was brilliant in the last meeting of the two but couldn’t contain running back Zac Stacy last week and they must toughen up against the run.

The Panthers did what they had to do against the Jets but must have had one eye on the prevailing upset in the gateway to the West. They need to learn from that first defeat and from what happened to the Saints last week. They have to establish the run to wear down the Saints and keep Brees on the sidelines. Cam Newton tried to go toe to toe with Drew Brees last time but he can’t win that fight. The Panthers need to be better at getting pressure too, Brees picked them apart from the pocket last time and he will again if they can’t get him moving around.

Watching the first game you can’t see past the Saints but they are a different team at home. Their last two road performances have been poor and with Bank Of America Stadium likely to be as loud as it’s ever been and with the Panthers knowing this is their biggest game in many a year we think it will be too much for New Orleans.

ATPF PredictionIn a game that goes to the last second Carolina cling on and win by six.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ St. Louis Rams

Neither of these teams has ever been in playoff contention but both have improved hugely as the season has gone on.

The hosts got their biggest win of the year last week when beating the Saints and have won four times at home this season. Sam Bradford’s season ending injury thrust Kellen Clemens into the starting lineup and the veteran has had his struggles. The Rams struggled to find a running game post Steven Jackson but Zac Stacy has been a revelation since midseason. The rookie is closing on 1000 yards and has six touchdowns. St. Louis’s defense has been a disappointment collectively but Robert Quinn is our defensive player of the year and the unit got three turnovers off the Saints last week.

The Bucs have won four of their last six after an 0-8 start. Their defense has been playing well of late but was worn down last week as the 49ers had almost 40 minutes of possession. Rookie quarterback Mike Glennon has done ok since coming in midseason. He has good arm strength and looks after the ball well and has a top class receiver in Vincent Jackson.

The Bucs can’t be underestimated; only the Panthers and 49ers have beaten them in their last six but St. Louis at home are a strong team. They will look to copy San Francisco’s ground and pound style here with Zac Stacy.

ATPF PredictionThe Rams win by a field goal.

Dallas Cowboys @ Washington Redskins

The Cowboys had one of their legendary late game, late season collapses against the Packers last week, luckily for them the Eagles lost too but they must presume it will take back to back wins now to win the NFC East. Washington have lost six straight and are a team in turmoil but they may be able to put their differences aside against their hated rivals.

The Redskins will once again have Kirk Cousins under center after benching RG3 for the year. Head coach Mike Shanahan could be facing the axe from inpatient owner Dan Snyder after a catastrophic season. Shanahan’s decision with RG3 was controversial and it appears there are real differences there. Cousins led the Redskins to what should have been a game tying drive as time expired in Atlanta but Shanahan went for two points and the win, it failed and the Redskins lost by one. Washington had seven turnovers in Atlanta so to come so close was miraculous. The Redskins defense actually played well in Atlanta and has improved of late.

The Cowboys should be two or three ahead in the NFC East but there unmatched magnetism for catastrophe has seen three games slip away where they looked home and dry. A twenty three point half time lead meant nothing last week as journeyman backup Matt Flynn and rookie running back Eddie Lacy tore the Cowboys league worst defense apart in the second half. We waited patiently for Tony Romo’s fourth quarter meltdown and sure enough it came with two late interceptions. Dallas have finished 8-8 for two straight years and behind a horrendous defense, awful offensive play calling and quarterback incapable of keeping his nerve when it matters they look unlikely to better that in 2013.

The Redskins are still a team with ability. They despise the Cowboys and would love to knock them out of the playoff race here. Dallas can’t stop the run so Alfred Morris could have a field day here and Cousins will find the Cowboys secondary very much in the Christmas spirit of good will to all quarterbacks.

ATPF PredictionWashington beat the suicidal Cowboys by a touchdown.

Denver Broncos @ Houston Texans

The league’s worst team host one of the league’s best here. Denver must win their last two to guarantee the first seed in the AFC; Houston must lose their last two to guarantee the first pick in the NFL draft.

It’s hard to find anything that has gone right in Houston this year. They have lost their last twelve games. Coach Gary Kubiak was sacked, quarterback Matt Schaub was benched, running back Arian Foster ended up on IR and their defense can’t turn production into big plays. The Texans new head coach will almost certainly draft a quarterback first, presumably Teddy Bridgwater and from there Houston will start again.

The Broncos don’t quite look the same irresistible force that they did earlier in the year and they were shocked at home by the Chargers last week. The Chiefs are keeping the pressure on but the Broncos will be massive favourites in their last two games. For the Broncos it is just about doing a professional job here and avoiding injuries.

ATPF Prediction Broncos win by between two and three turnovers.

New York Giants @ Detroit Lions

After a great performance on Thanksgiving the Lions have lost back to back games and are now third in the NFC North, they have to win their last two to have any chance and Jim Schwartz’s job depends on it. The Giants fought back into the NFC East race but since their chance slipped away they look to have downed tools and were shutout at home last week.

The Lions are so dynamic offensively at their best and while week 14 could be forgiven due to the blizzard they faced in Philadelphia last week was all on Matt Stafford. Stafford threw three interceptions and completed barely half of his passes as the Ravens rode six Justin Tucker field goals to victory. Detroit need more from their defense too, they can look pretty dominant at times (see Thanksgiving win) yet can also be the architects of their own downfall like last week. They were able to hold Baltimore to no touchdowns but had eight penalties for 89 yards and time and again these led to field goals.

Eli Manning has matched his 2010 total of 25 interceptions and should ‘better’ it by season end. In 2010 Eli threw 31 touchdowns, this season he has sixteen in easily the worst season of his career. Last week things went to new levels as he was picked off five time against the Seahawks who shutout the Giants and Tom Coughlin must be considering benching him for this one. New York threatened a defensive revival but their once formidable pass rush is now quite ordinary and their secondary is an easy target.

The Lions have to win this one but couldn’t wish for a much better matchup. Their defense needs to cut down on the Christmas gifts because they could have a field day here if they do. Stafford is under pressure but should have success here and the Giants have nobody who you can see containing Calvin Johnson.

ATPF PredictionStruggling Lions stay alive with a ten point win.

Arizona Cardinals @ Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks are absolutely relentless, they have a great chance to clinch the NFC’s top seed here and in doing so end Arizona’s brave bid for the postseason.

The Seahawks response to defeat in San Francisco was emphatic; they shutout the Giants, grabbing five interceptions along the way. Their defense is the league’s best and suspensions have had little impact; they have depth to go with quality. Offensively their quarterback is mentioned in MVP terms and their running back is also a certainty for a pro bowl selection.

Arizona have far outperformed expectations to be 9-5 but they face quite possibly the best two teams in the NFC back to back to end the season. The Cardinals have five or six superstars on defense and their seventh ranked unit can compete with the very best. It is offensively where they are still a notch or two off the best, quarterback Carson Palmer is a stop gap and you would expect a new addition under center next year. Still, in Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd they have a couple of fine receivers so this is still a dangerous team.

The Seahawks are the only team to win in Arizona all year. The Cardinals aren’t the same force on the road and Seattle themselves are better at home with their infamous twelfth man so it’s hard to see Arizona upsetting the Seahawks.

ATPF PredictionSeattle clinches the top seed with a ten point win.

Oakland Raiders @ San Diego Chargers

The Chargers have had ten days to prepare for this after their brilliant win in Denver. The Raiders have lost four straight and are limping to the end of the season.

San Diego have won in Denver and Kansas this year but at 7-7 look unlikely to make the playoffs this year; they may be the best team who doesn’t get in. Their offense has been fantastic, they are sixth ranked in the league and Phil Rivers has rolled back the years, he already has over 4000 yards and will get his thirtieth touchdown pass before his tenth interception. The Chargers need to add to their rebuilt defense next year but defensive ends Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes are good building blocks.

The Raiders need to decide whether either of Matt McGloin or Terrelle Pryor is good enough to start next year or whether they need to continue their seemingly endless pursuit of a franchise quarterback. McGloin will likely start again here but his four picks against the Chiefs last week marked his worst performance to date. Oakland have been better defensively but have been overwhelmed a couple of times and they are lacking talent on this side of the ball.

The Chargers need a ton of help to make the playoffs but should at least keep their side of the bargain with a win here. Their offense should have few problems and the Raiders usually gift wrap a present or two on offense themselves.

ATPF PredictionThe Chargers are two touchdowns too good for the Raiders.

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Green Bay Packers

Two of the most storied franchises in football face off here with the loser out of the playoff race, the Steelers need a minor miracle anyway.

Pittsburgh have been playing catch up all year after an 0-4 start. A big win over the AFC North leading Bengals last week kept them alive just but it all looks too little too late. Their defense was really good against Cincinnati but their inability to stop the Dolphins in the snow the week before is still a painful memory. Offensively the Steelers have been hurt by a lack of options. Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders have all had decent seasons but there has been little else and rookie running back Le’Veon Bell averages less than 3.5 yards per carry.

The Packers looked dead and buried in Dallas last Sunday but Mike McCarthy’s team showed great heart and took advantage as the Cowboys basically beat themselves in the fourth quarter. Aaron Rodgers loss has been softened slightly since Matt Flynn returned and Flynn looks likely to be in action again in this must week game. Rookie Eddie Lacy looks a certain rookie of the year but will face a battery of hits by the physical Steelers. The Packers defense has been hurt by a lack of turnovers this year but found just the tonic in Tony Romo and they will hope to carry that momentum forward here.

This game could go either way with both absolutely desperate. We think that Pittsburgh can edge it, Ben Roethlisberger is as clutch as they come and in complete contrast to last week’s opponent we see him guiding his team to a game winning drive.

ATPF PredictionThe Steelers prevail by three or four points.

New England Patriots @ Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens have shown exactly what sort of team they are, they have won four straight but must keep it going with Miami just behind on tiebreakers and only one of the two can get the sixth spot. Miami will be watching this game closely and are in a no lose situation because if the Patriots lose they can still beat them to the AFC East crown, a Pats win however clinches the division and a playoff spot.

Tom Brady couldn’t get the ball into the end zone against the Dolphins to win it with four attempts last week and the lack of Rob Gronkowski was huge. Brady and the Patriots will have to find a way to get by without the superstar tight end if they are going to play deep into January but with Wes Welker and of course Aaron Hernandez not about the receiving corps are a shadow of what we are used to in New England. The Patriots defense has similarly been hit by a crucial injury. Vince Wilfork has proved just how important he is for this defense as the unit which was playing so well early in the year has capitulated in his absence and given up over twenty points in every game since he was injured.

Baltimore are a proud team as Sueprbowl Champions and have battled back from the brink to now have destiny in their own hands. It will take a tough team to deny them now. They couldn’t manage a single touchdown in Detroit but they did what they do, found a way, that way was six Justin Tucker field goals. They must find a way to convert drives and forgotten running back Ray Rice could play a major part for them, there is surely more in the tank than we’ve seen from him. Their defense picked Matt Stafford off three times in Detroit and such big plays can so often be the difference in a game.

These two know each other so very well and the last two years they have played out the AFC championship between them. Neither has reached such heights this year yet this game is no less important. Tom Brady very rarely loses back to back games but the Ravens can  take advantage of the Patriots key injuries and inflict back to back losses on them.

ATPF PredictionRavens win by a touchdown.

Chicago Bears @ Philadelphia Eagles

The Bears have battled back to the top of the NFC North and the Eagles despite seeing their five game streak ended last week lead the NFC East also.

The Bears got fantastic performances from their backup quarterback Josh McCown in Jay Cutler’s absence but Cutler returned last week and led his team to 38 points and the win against the Browns. Cutler has often been criticised for not winning the big one but he has the weapons too now. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery may be the best receiving tandem in football; Matt Forte is an outstanding every down back and late developing tight end Martellus Bennett is a huge target. Cutler finally has a solid line infront of him and his huge arm could really take the Bears to the next level. Chicago unusually however have been poor defensively, they rank 27th in the league and haven’t been able to stop the run in Lance Briggs’s absence, Briggs has a chance to play here and the Bears could really do with him.

One of the reasons Briggs could be so important is the Eagles reliance on Shady McCoy, the NFC’s best running back this year. McCoy is devastating behind a big, athletic line which can pull defensive linemen all over the field and open up cut back lanes for him. McCoy has been ably assisted too by Nick Foles who has been sensational since getting the start midseason. Foles has thrown 23 touchdowns to just 2 interceptions and has outstanding deep accuracy. What let the Eagles down last week was their 30th ranked defense which allowed the paltry Vikings offense minus Adrian Peterson to score 48 points and rack up over 450 yards. Previous to that the Eagles hadn’t given up over 21 points since week four and they have to make sure last week was just a blip on the radar.

Offenses should dominate here. The Eagles 2nd ranked offense look too much of a match for the Bears 27th ranked defense but Chicago’s seventh ranked offense equally looks too much of a match for the Eagles 30th ranked defense. It’s hard to find an angle where one team has a clear edge here so we are going with the obvious one, home field advantage.

ATPF PredictionThe Eagles may clinch the NFC East with a three point win.

Atlanta Falcons @ San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers look like being the sixth seed in the NFC which spells bad news for the third seeds, currently Philadelphia. Atlanta got their fourth win of a hugely disappointing season last week as the Redskins failed on a two point conversion for the win.

The Falcons needed all seven Washington turnovers and that controversial failed two pointer to get the win. Their offense is slightly healthier than it has been most of the season but without Julio Jones there is no one to stretch the field and the Falcons aren’t making any big plays. Their defense grabbed seven turnovers last week but it was something of a one off for a team ranked 29th on defense.

San Francisco have the league’s third best defense and the unit has only once given up over twenty points in their last eight games. Offensively they love to run the ball and keep opposition offenses off the field. They will need a little more from the passing game in the playoffs but Michael Crabtree’s return should help. Colin Kaepernick has more weapons now and needs to use them and keep his dynamic running back as a surprise play for their opposition.

The 49ers look head and shoulders better than Atlanta and we expect a very easy win.

ATPF Prediction49ers win by nearly twenty points.