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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 Week 7

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Week six in the NFL went unusually pretty much to form, we selected ten of the 15 winners but of the losers most rue the Saints inexplicable inability to put the game away against the Patriots in the last three minutes. We went for a couple of upsets with winless teams, the Steelers rewarded us but Tampa lost again, we have frequently backed them but they have always let us down. The Saints defeat leaves just the Broncos and Chiefs unbeaten, both belong of course to the unusually strong AFC West, neither was at their best in week six but neither had to be against modest teams.

Still winless are the Giants, Jaguars and Buccaneers, the latter play the Falcons who only have one win themselves and the others are both at home against teams with a .500 or worse record so you would expect at least one to break their duck. This week’s bye teams are the Raiders and Saints. Oakland at 2-4 are at least fighting hard and have some winnable games when they return although their December stretch looks tough. They have played about as well as could be hoped for a team in full on rebuild mode and by finding quarterback Terrelle Pryor they have added the potential cornerstone of the new era. The Saints could have really enjoyed their bye but for a late capitulation against the Patriots, still they would have taken 5-1 and a three game division lead going into their bye if you had offered it to them. Sean Payton is once again proving his worth as one of the league’s best head coaches and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has vastly improved this defense. The Saints are locks for the playoffs and the NFC South as long as Drew Brees stays upright but need to keep winning to challenge for home field advantage in the playoffs; the Superdome truly does give them an advantage.

Seattle Seahawks @ Arizona Cardinals

Each week we stress that the Seahawks on the road can be beaten and the overachieving Cardinals, a 3-3 divisional rival are a potential banana skin. Arizona are unbeaten at home and gave San Francisco a real game for a long time last week. Quarterback Carson Palmer has been patchy and committed too many turnovers for the Cards but at least he can move the ball unlike last year’s band of misfits at the position. Arizona’s defense is pretty solid and will try to pressure Russell Wilson here; slowing Marshawn Lynch down of course is equally vital.

Seattle responded to their first defeat by beating Tennessee in a hard fought, low scoring battle to get back on track. Their defense needs little introduction as one of the league’s best but their offense could desperately do with getting Percy Harvin back to provide a spark. Wilson has just eight touchdown passes so far and despite ranking second in the league in rushing Seattle have just an average offense at the minute.

The key to this game is Seattle’s enormously talented defense and the turnover prone Carson Palmer’s battle. You would expect the Seahawks to create turnovers and they look after the ball well themselves so should win the turnover battle which is always big. On the road they edge it in another war.

ATPF PredictionA brutal encounter goes to Seattle by just a point or two.

Buffalo Bills @ Miami Dolphins

At 3-2 the Dolphins are still well in contention for a playoff berth and should be well prepared to go again after their bye last week. The 2-4 Bills lost in overtime against the Bengals but have been well beaten in both road games so far and rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel remains out with a knee problem.

Miami’s solid start has been powered by the improved play of quarterback Ryan Tannehill and a turnover hungry defense. They still give up way too many sacks and pressures and their run game frequently disappears but there is talent upfront, players just need to execute better.

Buffalo’s much vaunted running duo of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson have flattered to deceive and again injuries have bit both. Quarterback Thad Lewis has patiently awaited his chance in the league but was solid last week when he got a go, rushing for a touchdown and throwing two strikes without interception. Buffalo’s defense rely on turnovers as they can’t seem to slow anyone down or get off the field on third down, Tannehill could give them chances but he will also fancy putting points up.

The Dolphins are outplaying Buffalo and at home, facing a backup quarterback they have to be favoured. Buffalo must win the turnover battle to have a chance but are second favourites in that race too.

ATPF PredictionMiami are too strong, win by a touchdown.

Dallas Cowboys @ Philadelphia Eagles

The winner of this will have control of the NFC East but both 3-3 teams are deeply flawed despite having some elite talent. The Eagles have won back to back games and been re-invigorated by quarterback Nick Foles’s return to the starting quarterback job. Foles came off the bench to throw two touchdowns in week five and threw three more without interception against Tampa Bay; he doesn’t have Mike Vick’s dynamic abilities but is accurate and looks after the ball. The Eagles defense will keep the pressure on their quarterback; they have given up more yards than any team in the league and average three touchdowns conceded per game.

Dallas lost a remarkable 51-48 shootout in week 5 before a relatively uneventful, special teams inspired win over the Redskins last week. The Cowboys are 0-2 on the road but got within a point of Kansas City in week two, that looks a useful effort now. The Cowboys are starting to get thin in some areas due to injuries. All-pro lineman DeMarcus Ware leads the casualty list, other starting end Anthony Spencer is out for the year and primary backup Tyrone Crawford was lost for the year in preseason, the Cowboys are struggling upfront and have struggled with Shady McCoy in the past. Tony Romo is having another fine season; he has 14 scores to two interceptions but has been conservative on the road so far, nevertheless Dallas are the second highest scoring team in the league. Romo has talented receivers, particularly Dez Bryant but with running back DeMarco Murray out any ground game would be a surprise.

Dallas are the concensus best team in the NFC East but with no run game of their own and LeSean McCoy having torched them here in the past they are highly vulnerable in this matchup. For the Eagles, Nick Foles must offer enough to complement the running game while Dallas will prioritise slowing McCoy down; Romo versus Foles is a matchup they would like.

ATPF PredictionThe Eagles beat the battered Cowboys by a field goal.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Atlanta Falcons

Two teams having nightmare seasons meet in this all NFC South clash. The winless Buccaneers travel to Atlanta who have just one success themselves. Injuries have been Atlanta’s main problem while Tampa have been let down by poor quarterbacking. Both are better than their records but confidence is low in both camps.

Tampa arrive on the back of a defeat to the Eagles, Mike Glennon their new starting quarterback is still learning the trade and has a tough matchup here in the loud, hostile Georgia Dome where the Falcons usually are so strong. Glennon has weapons, receiver Vincent Jackson and running back Doug Martin are both talented but the Bucs are struggling for an identity and rank 31st in both offensive yards and scoring. Their defense has plenty of talent and has actually improved for the enormous investment it received in the offseason but they aren’t good enough to carry the hapless offense.

Atlanta lost Julio Jones for the season and Roddy White, Steven Jackson and Sam Baker are all again in doubt. At least they have a few starters back on defense where pass rush or more specifically lack of a pass rush has been huge. Quarterback Matt Ryan has been excellent considering what he has around him; he has 10 touchdowns to three picks and has the Falcons second in the league in passing yards per game. Getting either White or Jackson back would be a big boost for the offense but even without Ryan can move the football.

The Bucs search for a win is likely to continue, the Falcons defense can have success here and Matt Ryan should at least engineer a few scoring drives to guide his team to success.

ATPF PredictionAtlanta win a low scorer by a touchdown.

San Diego Chargers @ Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars are still seeking that first win but actually played quite well against the Broncos last week and the way they kept fighting impressed, receiver Justin Blackmon was unstoppable and in him the Jags have a potential superstar. San Diego beat an in form Colts team to keep their playoff hopes alive although the brutal AFC West gives them plenty to do in that regard. Early in the season the Chargers heavily rebuilt defense was really struggling but they are starting to get some chemistry going and are much improved of late as seen on Monday Night.

Quarterback Phil Rivers’ renaissance has been the headline in San Diego and with a fit at last Ryan Mathews in the backfield the Chargers have the league’s sixth best offense. Recent improvement has seen their defensive ranking climb to 21st and this is no longer a vulnerable unit.

Jacksonville backup quarterback Chad Henne is outplaying starter Blaine Gabbert as he did last year and with Henne the Jags will likely sneak a win somewhere. The non-existent running game hasn’t helped the mediocre signal callers, Jacksonville are dead last with running back Maurice Jones-Drew again injured. The Jags have the legaue’s worst offense and Blackmon is the only bright spot. Their defense have battled on to their credit but lack talent in too many areas and are never off the field long.

San Diego haven’t been great on the road thus far and have just six days to prepare for this but are still a vastly superior football team to Jacksonville. The Chargers improved defense should enjoy this matchup and Rivers is certain to rack up yards so San Diego can’t be opposed.

ATPF PredictionChargers win by around ten.

New England Patriots @ New York Jets

The miraculous win which the Patriots pulled from the hat on Sunday did little to hide their weaknesses but they nevertheless are in control of the AFC East. The Jets are trying to keep pace but losing to an 0-5 team is not the way to do it and they could be virtually eliminated from the race with defeat here.

The Patriots are hoping all-pro tight end Rob Gronkowski can return to their embattled offense; even with Tom Brady under center they have just one passing touchdown in their last two games. In addition to their already shopping list of injuries they lost guard Dan Connolly and receiver Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman is now battling an injury also. Their defense is starting to catch up now too, starting tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are joined by corner Aqib Talib on the treatment table and several other contributors are nursing injuries also.

The Jets are comparably healthy but rookie quarterback Geno Smith is inconsistent and turnover prone. The Jets want to run the ball but aren’t the force they were a few years ago on the ground and they have particularly struggled in the redzone. Defensively as we have come to expect under Rex Ryan they are very sound and may be the league’s strongest team against the run where a host of high draft picks upfront are starting to payoff. Getting pressure on Tom Brady is always a help but they should have ample talent to contain the Pats receivers anyway and if Gronkowski doesn’t make it again they could come up big.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are the only reason the Pats keep surviving and being 5-1 with the players they have turned out is remarkable. The Jets and their passionate fans will really fancy their chances in this grudge match and if they can establish the run which they should do they can get the upset.

ATPF PredictionGang Green win a war by a narrow margin in this low scorer.

Cincinnati Bengals @ Detroit Lions

Consistency is what is holding back both of these talented teams. The Bengals are all about defense whereas the Lions offense is there strong point. Both won on the road to get to 4-2 last week but the Bengals remain inconsistent away from home and needed overtime to beat the inferior Bills.

The spotlight in Cincinnati is permanently on quarterback Andy Dalton. He has been better in his last two outings and has to understand his own game and limitations. With a battery of talented receivers led by the brilliant A.J. Green and a dynamic duo in the backfield Dalton really should be flourishing. The Bengals feared defense boasts one of the league’s best defensive lines and they rank eighth overall and have eighteen sacks.

Detroit led by Matthew Stafford’s four touchdowns outgunned the in-form Browns last week and their talented offense can compete with anyone. Despite injuries to Reggie Bush, Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson the Lions have a top ten unit and with Johnson and Bush both on the field they really are a dangerous offense. The Lions defense remains vulnerable and inconsistent and the almost constant lack of safety Louis Delmas is a major factor in them giving up big plays.

The Lions offense versus the Bengals defense is a mouth-watering clash but equally important will be how Dalton performs, if the Lions can get points to pressure him into making throws they become favourites.

ATPF PredictionThe Lions are tough to stop at home; they beat the Bengals by a touchdown.

St. Louis Rams @ Carolina Panthers

Two teams unlikely to make the playoffs do battle here but both won on the road by 25 points last week so an upturn in form is possible for the victor here.

Hosts Carolina got a big performance from inconsistent quarterback Cam Newton and their defense grabbed two picks as well as stifling Adrian Peterson in the metrodome. Newton’s inconsistency shows with the Panthers ranking a lowly 27th in passing but he has little talent at the receiving position in fairness. The Panthers rank top ten in rushing and will hope to establish their ground game early on here. Their third ranked defense has been a surprise but makes plenty of appeal against a team which isn’t particularly physical on offense.

Sam Bradford is quietly having a good season in St.Louis, he has thirteen touchdowns to three picks but is over cautious at times and isn’t backed up by a viable running game. Rookie Tavon Austin was meant to provide a major spark on offense but has been of little influence by and large. The Rams defense has taken a step back after coming on strong in 2012; they are giving up nearly 400 yards per game and haven’t been the strong point they were supposed to be.

Both teams could reignite their season with wins here but Carolina’s solid run game and defense gives them the edge. Their two wins this season have come by a combined 63 points so close games are not their modus operandi.

ATPF PredictionPanthers win by around ten points.

Chicago Bears @ Washington Redskins

The 1-4 Redskins are on life support after defeat in Dallas but the 4-2 Bears who easily beat the winless Giants are still fighting tooth and nail in the too close to call NFC North.

For Washington RG3 remains someway short of full speed and without his dynamic running the ‘Skins have lacked an x-factor on offense. They have moved the ball, they are 4th in total yards but can’t find the end zone and rank an out of proportion 20th in points scored. Dallas defense should have been the tonic last week but field goals still outnumbered touchdowns. Defensively Washington have bigger problems, they are aggressive in pass rushing but when the blitz breaks down they are too often burned for big plays. They have conceded the 28th most yards in the league and are constantly pressurising the offense to get away from their favoured fun first style.

The Bears have had ten days to prepare for this road game and are a sound football team. Quarterback Jay Cutler can be self destructive but the strong armed veteran has more talent around him than ever before and the Bears offense are now a top 10 unit. Chicago have had better defenses than this in the past and they will not be happy with their 20th ranking in yards conceded. Turnovers are the focus of this unit however and they already have seventeen to their name.

Washington’s homefield advantage will be nullified by their playing surface being similar to Soldier Field and the Bears with the extra three days and a far more complete roster look strong favourites.

ATPF PredictionChicago have too much and win by a touchdown.

San Francisco 49ers @ Tennessee Titans

The NFC West’s 49ers at 4-2 visit the AFC South’s Titans who are 3-3. The 49ers, the NFC pre-season favourites have recovered from a slow start while the Titans are playing better than expected and remain bang in contention in a wide open division.

Tennessee were outlasted by the Seahawks last week but gave them plenty to think about which is no mean feat in the Hawks nest. Quarterback Jake Locker has missed the last couple but is in contention to return here, his ball security and mobility are both upgrades over Ryan Fitzpatrick on a team who pride themselves on not turning it over or giving up penalties. The Titans defense, so poor last year have been excellent, the most points they have given up in four quarters was 26 to the unbeaten Chiefs and they rank 10th overall, a huge improvement.

The 49ers resurgence has been aided by the return to form of their relentless running attack led by Frank Gore. The San Francisco offense is a different beast with their running game grinding opponents into submission, it is especially important with a Michael Crabtree-less Colin Kaepernick short on targets, the return to form of Vernon Davis a week ago was certainly welcome from that perspective. San Francisco’s defense has been among the leagues best for a few years now and 2013’s unit rank in the top 10 in most categories.

Two excellent defenses go head to head here but San Francisco have the edge due to their more consistent rushing attack and healthy starting quarterback; even if Jake Locker plays for Tennessee he can’t be 100%.

ATPF Prediction49ers outlast the Titans, win by between a field goal and a touchdown.

Houston Texans @ Kansas City Chiefs

Each week we marvel at the schedule handed to Kansas City, they are 6-0 and we are 6-0 in selecting them to win. This looked a tough one before the season but the Texans are in absolute crisis and both head coach Gary Kubiak and starting or not as the case may be quaurterback Matt Schaub are staring down the barrel. Despite that the Texans are still close enough to compete in the AFC South but they look to be in a spiral of decline. Kansas City march on relentlessly and even the Arrowhead faithful, so used to mediocrity of late are setting records.

We don’t mean to knock the Chiefs when we mention their schedule, all they can do is win out on Sunday and each week they do. Last year they did a great job of minimising talent, this year they are doing equally well at maximising it and surely Andy Reid is a lock for coach of the year. The Chiefs offense is heavily reliant on running back Jamaal Charles an MVP candidate but has been well marshalled by quarterback Alex Smith who is playing smart, cautious football. Defensively the Chiefs are truly star studded and their ultra aggressive unit sacked Terrelle Pryor ten times and picked him off three times a week ago. This is one of the most talented defenses in football and crucially this year, healthy.

These two teams’ fortunes couldn’t be more different and for the Texans, so short on confidence a tougher game they could hardly find. The raucous Chiefs fans and dominant defense could again overwhelm their opponent’s offense.

ATPF PredictionKansas City win again, easily, by ten or more.

Cleveland Browns @ Green Bay Packers

Green Bay remain heavily banged up but are clawing their way back into the race in the NFC North and as long as they have Aaron Rodgers they have a shot. Cleveland’s unfamiliar territory of a winning record slipped away last week and they have another tough game here but they are outplaying expectations.

The Browns won three straight before defeat to the Lions where they fell away in the fourth quarter. The strength of the Browns is undoubtedly their seventh ranked defense, a cohesive unit with a dose of top notch performers and no obvious weaknesses. Offensively they are still desperately low on talent so have to focus on sensible, conservative plays to put the emphasis on their defense.

Green Bay’s offense conversely is hugely dynamic. Led by all-pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers they are 2nd in yards and 5th in points and are in the league’s top 10 in both passing and rushing yards. The offensive line play has been inconsistent but does seem to be improving; the new found faith in running the ball should help the quintet also. Green Bay’s defense remains a middle of the road unit and injuries particularly to Clay Matthews have certainly been an issue.

Can Cleveland’s defense stop Rodgers and co? They are good but on the road, not that good. With the pressure likely to be cranked up on Brandon Weeden turnovers could ensue.

ATPF PredictionPackers win comfortably; the margin will likely be over ten.

Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers

Always a hard fought brutal game between these two and while the formbook points to the Ravens, Pittsburgh returned from their bye with a win and at home will play like men possessed to try and claw their way back into the AFC North.

In that win against the Jets, Pittsburgh held their opponents to just two field goals and forced a couple of turnovers. It wasn’t quite vintage Pittsburgh defense but was a step in the right direction albeit against a modest offense, that said the Ravens are hardly rivals to Denver offensively. Pittsburgh’s offense has struggled behind poor line play and lack of receiving talent but the return of rookie running back Le’Veon Bell after injury has provided them a shot in the arm.

Baltimore likewise have been better defensively than offensively but are still giving up too many yards behind an aggressive scheme which has yielded 22 sacks already. Eight defensive players are on this week’s injury report so again the unit aren’t likely to be at full strength. The Ravens offense rank 22nd in the league and their inept running game is heavily to blame; Ray Rice’s uncharacteristic injury problems have been a big factor given how crucial he is to both the run and pass games.

This will be close again, Baltimore are so banged up at the minute and Pittsburgh are good enough to turn their start around. At home, Pittsburgh can get the upset.

ATPF PredictionSteelers win this ever close game by a field goal.

Denver Broncos @ Indianapolis Colts

The return to Indianapolis of Peyton Manning should be an emotional one but Manning is too professional to let it affect him. He should get a hero’s ovation and I fully expect him too. Manning’s Broncos are unbeaten and the consensus best team in the league through six games but the Colts are useful also. They lost in San Diego on Monday night but are still at a healthy 4-2 and lead the AFC South.

The Broncos have been sensational so far but dodged a bullet in a shootout in Texas before a lacklustre performance against the Jaguars who they knew were never going to be serious rivals. They will have to be much better here but their offense should quickly slip through the gears again. Defensively the Broncos were atrocious in Dallas and even against Jacksonville they couldn’t get off the field at times and had no answer to Justin Blackmon. The return of Von Miller after suspension can’t be overstated, he is easily Denver’s best defender and one of the league’s premier pass rushers, he should be a huge help to the struggling secondary.

Indianapolis opportunistic defense have made their living on turnovers so far but chances against Manning will be few and far between although Denver do fumble more than would be healthy on any normal offense. The Colts have strangely restrained quarterback Andrew Luck and instead relied on a heavy dose of running so far but here they must turn him loose to try and compete. Luck has a couple of good targets in veteran Reggie Wayne and constant improver T.Y. Hilton but if this becomes a shootout he will be challenged to consistently drive his team down the field and not turn it over. Tony Romo performed remarkably in such circumstances but he finally blinked and that was all it took.

You just can’t oppose Denver right now, Manning and his quintet of playmaking starters are a near unstoppable force. The Colts can use this as the measuring stick as to how close, or far they are from being contenders.

ATPF PredictionDenver’s offense is again irresistible, they win by ten.

Minnesota Vikings @ New York Giants

The lowly Vikings travel to the winless Giants, not exactly a Monday Night Football to saviour. Minnesota can hang on by a thread if they win but the Giants playoff boat sailed long ago. At least the Giants kept it close a week ago in a tough environment, the Vikings were hammered by 25 at home to the modest Panthers.

Minnesota’s offense of course is all about Adrian Peterson but they have a new starting quarterback this week, their third already this year. Josh Freeman was terrible in Tampa as he helped them to 0-4 so he offers little excitement in his debut here. The Vikings defense has given up nearly 420 yards per game so far, the second most in the league and have been in awful in every aspect of the game.

The Giants offensive implosion has been remarkable, with an elite quarterback and several talented receivers an 0-6 start was inconceivable but Eli Manning is having a horror season. His 15 interceptions is on pace for all sorts of unwanted records. The Giants defense, a disappointment last year have continued to decline although they haven’t been quite in the Vikings league for poorness.

Two struggling teams go head to head, if the Giants don’t kill themselves with turnovers they will win, they can’t be relied upon to not do but we will take a chance on them at home.

ATPF PredictionGiants win at last, one touchdown is the margin.

 


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ATPF Preview Week 2

With the first week out of the way teams have already been anointed with the titles not given out until December and January. Fans have given up on their entire season and or regimes, general manager’s are already looking at head coaches, head coaches are looking at quarterbacks and we already can vote all 32 teams in power rankings and read experts describing why certain teams and players are failures. All of this tells us that the NFL is back!

Across the pond football gave out our pre season opinions and after one week we haven’t jumped off or onto too many bandwagons but we are looking ahead to week two with the information provided to us a week ago still fresh in the memory bank. Below is our prediction for each game

New York Jets @ New England Patriots

In the legendary words of Herm Edwards ‘they are who we thought they were’. The Patriots are indeed who we thought they were. They are still a tough team to beat but they have lost some firepower and struggled to a late victory against the Bills. It was the sort of game where knowing how to win carried the Pats to success against a team who is trying to learn what that requires.

The Jets meanwhile rode rookie Geno Smith’s 300 yard debut and let their stingy defense grind Josh Freeman and the Bucs into submission. Ultimately a Nick Folk field goal with 15 seconds remaining gave the Jets the 1 point win. When the Jets were successful and able to give the Patriots a run for their money under coach Rex Ryan they played hard, physical defense, ran the ball well and won the close ones, running the ball still needs more commitment but otherwise the Jets practised what Rex Ryan preaches in that week one win.

Looking ahead to week two and everyone has the Patriots cruising to success, Vegas gives the Jets a 12 point start. Don’t be fooled however, this will be a close one. The Jets need to run the ball better; they need to give Geno Smith a chance on third down to put points up but this Patriots defense is still susceptible against the pass, particularly the play action pass. Rex Ryan will have his team right up for this and expect the defense to get in Tom Brady’s face.

ATPF Prediction- Patriots win by less than a touchdown

Carolina Panthers @ Buffalo Bills

The Panthers were desperate offensively in their season opener but the Seahawks may have the league’s strongest defense so things should get easier here. The Bills had the Patriots on the ropes but a heartbreaking late field goal saw excitement turn to the usual despair in upstate New York.

Carolina may have only put up seven points but their defense gave reason for hope. CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson are meant to be a dynamic duo out of the backfield but were stifled by the Patriots. The Panthers are excellent in the front seven and will hope to again frustrate the duo. Rookie EJ Manuel will then be pressured to make things happen but the Panthers will take their chances with the developmental prospect. Cam Newton should have some joy against the Bills if his line can protect him and more rushing production should help him and the team further.

ATPF PredictionPanthers win this one by around a score

Cleveland Browns @ Baltimore Ravens

The Superbowl Champion Ravens came down to earth with a bump in Denver but a tougher game this season they won’t have. As it turned out all four teams lost in the AFC North, a very rare occurrence but a bonus for the Ravens. The Browns meanwhile hung with Miami for a while until Brandon Weeden self destructed, his days as the starter look numbered.

The Ravens are still well coached, disciplined and above average in talent, the Browns have none of those attributes and a one sided game should occur. The Browns are unlikely to score many more than their 10 points in week one and the Champs should get back on track here,

ATPF PredictionThe Ravens take this one by at least 10

Dallas Cowboys @ Kansas City Chiefs

A pair of teams who got a W to kick off go head to head here. Andy Reid’s debut saw the Chiefs pummel a woeful Jacksonville side while Dallas won on the back of six Giants turnovers.

Key to this one could be Kansas’ excellent pass rushing duo Justin Houston and Tamba Hali teamed with the raucous Arrowhead faithful. Dallas’ offensive line was better than advertised in the opener but a year ago in a similar early season game the Cowboys were overwhelmed by crowd and pass rush in Seattle, a repeat is very much on the cards here. The Cowboys defense will struggle to match such opportunism as their opening win against an Alex Smith led offense which will concentrate on short passing and a heavy dose of electric rusher Jamaal Charles.

ATPF PredictionThe Chiefs get to 2-0 and win this one by between 3 and 7 points.

Miami Dolphins @ Indianapolis Colts

Both of this duo made the most of very friendly starts to the schedule with wins and both will fancy doubling up. The Colts got a bright start but then were under the cosh against the Raiders and had to come back under Andrew Luck in the fourth quarter while Miami only shook off the Browns in the fourth quarter.

Ryan Tannehill will be keen to show he is ascending closer to an excellent group of quarterbacks drafted last year, led by his rival here Andrew Luck. He received virtually nothing from his run game in the opener and if the Colts can stifle the rushing attack they will fully expect Andrew Luck to guide them to victory.

ATPF PredictionColts win this one comfortably

Minnesota Vikings @ Chicago Bears

A pleasant surprise last year, the Vikings lost an important divisional game to the Lions in week one. The Bears got a huge win over the talented Bengals meanwhile. Adrian Peterson still ran wild for the Vikings but he can’t do it alone, with Christian Ponder having a nightmare the Vikings came off the tracks in the second half and without a playmaker like Percy Harvin he could struggle this year.

The Bears are perennially excellent defensively and will be a match for Peterson; he will certainly be their main focus. If the Bears heavily revamped line can keep Jay Cutler upright he should again be able to lean heavily on star man Brandon Marshall and put up plenty of points for the Bears.

ATPF Prediction- Bears build more momentum with a comfortable win

San Diego Chargers @ Philadelphia Eagles

The Chargers blew a huge lead to the Texans in week one while the Eagles got a crucial win against NFC East rivals Washington. Chip Kelly’s high speed offense crucially got more out of running back LeSean McCoy, his best weapon and he will look to him again here. Phillip Rivers had less than 220 yards passing but four touchdowns, crucial to the Chargers inability to put the game away was their lack of success on the ground, a recurring theme since LaDainian Tomlinson’s departure.

The Eagles forced three turnovers from the usually careful RG3 in that opening win and Phil Rivers has a penchant for turning it over so that could be decisive here. With the Chargers secondary heavily rebuilt this offseason they could struggle with the tempo and diversity of the Eagles offense.

ATPF PredictionEagles put up some big numbers en route to victory

St. Louis Rams @ Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons couldn’t punch the ball in on their final drive to beat the Saints in week one but the Rams came from the dead to beat the Cardinals in a thriller. The gulf in class between the two’s respective opponents in those matches however is huge so expect a different story here.

The Falcons lost Roddy White to injury but former Ram Steven Jackson had an impressive debut and will be up for this. Jared Cook had a huge debut for the Rams but the Falcons will be ready for him. Key to this game will be quarterback Matt Ryan who is virtually unbeatable at home and should have success against a defense who impressed last year but struggled against the less talented Cardinals last week.

ATPF PredictionFalcons too strong for the Rams and win by around a touchdown

Houston Texans @ Tennessee Titans

The Texans performed a miracle comeback against the Chargers whilst the Titans revamped defense overwhelmed the Steelers offense in a week one win. The Titans know this is a big one for them, losing at home to the superior Texans would already put them behind the 8 ball. Houston meanwhile want to right last year’s wrong and get a bye in the playoffs so winning has to be a habit.

The defenses of these teams will be key but Houston’s more potent offense will put points up and they have a way where somebody always beats you. If it’s not superstar runner Arian Foster or superstar receiver Andre Johnson its quarterback Matt Schaub and tight end Owen Daniels as we saw last week. The Titans and quarterback Jake Locker don’t have such diverse talent and if running back Chris Johnson doesn’t come up big the Texans will fancy their chances, patience could be key in a likely defensive battle.

ATPF PredictionTexans win by around a score on the road here

Washington Redskins@ Green Bay Packers

The Packers were left with little doubt that the 49ers remain the team to beat in the NFC as they again found them too strong in week one. The Redskins meanwhile found the new look Eagles a tougher foe as a rusty RG3 took time to get going.

Green Bay needs to keep pace with the Bears and Lions so a home win here is essential. The Redskins ground teams out with battering ram Alfred Morris last year and used the magic of their quarterback to provide the x-factor. With Morris struggling in week one and RG3 still short of full pace the Pack will fancy limiting the Redskins offense and their potent Aaron Rodgers led passing attack should do the rest against an average defense.

ATPF PredictionThe Redskins can’t keep pace here and lose by at least ten

Detroit Lions @ Arizona Cardinals

The Lions offense came up big in an opening win over Minnesota while the Cardinals blew what could be a rare chance to win in week one.

The high powered Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush trio could wreak havoc on a rebuilding Cardinals defense missing star linebacker Daryl Washington. Carson Palmer showed himself to still be capable against a Rams defense at least as strong as the Lions so points are likely in this match.

ATPF PredictionThe Lions could put up big points here and win by upwards of a touchdown

New Orleans Saints @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers

A crushing, narrow defeat for the Bucs and a joyous goal line stand for the Saints sees the two meet in complete opposite moods here. Josh Freeman’s woes against a strong Jets defense and the Saints ability to make a stand on defense under Rob Ryan were the back page headlines but things may be a little different here.

With the Falcons so dominant in the NFC South of late the Saints looked like they had spent an entire nine months preparing for them and with a deafening Superbowl behind them they got the win. The offense is always potent but can they keep the ball rolling defensively in an equally important road game here? Tampa are dominant against the run and if Darrelle Revis can keep one target quiet they can hold the Saints juggernaut to reasonable totals. The Bucs meanwhile will look to star runner Doug Martin to earn them the time of possession battle and will expect Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams to cause the Saints secondary fits.

ATPF PredictionThe Bucs have to win this one and narrowly, they do

Denver Broncos @ New York Giants

The Broncos looked unstoppable in week one, annihilating the superbowl champions Baltimore, the Giants outplayed the Cowboys but six turnovers can’t be overcome. The Manning sons face off here with younger brother Eli needing a home win badly, Peyton meanwhile will look to guide his team to beating both of the last two Superbowl winners in as many weeks.

An offensive cast which looked deadly was all that and more in week one as Peyton Manning threw seven touchdown passes. The juggernaut rolls into the big apple against a defense no longer the force of old and it’s tough to envisage the Giants making many stands. New York’s offense put up huge numbers themselves against the Cowboys with three receivers having 100 yards and Victor Cruz scoring three touchdowns. This promises to be a pass fest between two high powered offenses but Denver’s defense are a solid unit even without Von Miller whereas the Giants have plenty to prove on that side of the ball.

ATPF PredictionDenver win an aerial dogfight by around a touchdown

Jacksonville Jaguars @ Oakland Raiders

Both minnows were beaten in week one but the Raiders showed some life, the Jags however were dire. With an extremely long journey out west things may not get much better for them here.

Quarterback Blaine Gabbert was injured for Jacksonville, journeyman Chad Henne steps in, little difference there. Terrelle Pryor has taken the start in Oakland, the dual threat had a nice game in week one and teamed with star rusher Darren McFadden could give the Raiders a dangerous run game. A defense likely to be spurred on by the ever passionate Black Hole can again pour misery on probably the worst offense in football.

ATPF PredictionRaiders win, yes you read correctly, infact they win comfortably

San Francisco 49ers @ Seattle Seahawks

The niners proved their worth with a repeat victory over the Green Bay Packers in week one, Seattle got in a battle with Carolina but they won it. One of the most eagerly anticipated rivalries of the season will be hugely affected by the two head to head clashes.

San Francisco had almost 500 yards of offense and 40 minutes possession in that opener. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is emerging into an absolute superstar, the dual threat quarterback had almost 200 yards rushing against the Pack in the playoffs and 400 yards against them passing in week one, pick your poison with him. Seattle’s defense is amongst the league’s toughest, no way will Kaepernick get close to either of those stats nor will receiver Anquan Boldin match the 200 yard debut he had last week against dominant corners Richard Sherman or Brandon Browner, Sherman v Boldin will be unmissable. The Seahawks offense struggled in week one and without Percy Harvin and possibly Sidney Rice the focal point will again be Marshawn Lynch, he couldn’t get going in the opener and the 49ers will no doubt make stopping him their first priority. The twelfth man of Seattle is always important but the talent of San Francisco’s offense makes them favourite nevertheless.

ATPF PredictionThe 49ers wear down Seattle’s defense en route to a hard fought victory

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Cincinnati Bengals

Both teams lost their openers but Baltimore’s defeat softened the blow. The Steelers were awful offensively against Tennessee, the Bengals lost a topsy turvy battle with the Bears. On that form there is little doubt that Cincinnati, at home, should be favourites here.

Two picks from Andy Dalton in that defeat did little to quieten his detractors and the Steelers at least in Ben Roethlisberger have the better quarterback. The Bengals gave up 24 points to Chicago but their defense is still among the league’s best and considering the way the Steelers struggled against Tennessee, one of the league’s worst defenses a year ago this could again be a long night for Roethlisberger and co.

ATPF PredictionThe Steelers make this a game but the Bengals outlast them


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ATPF Division Preview- NFC West

San Francisco 49ers– Head Coach Jim Harbaugh has made one of the finest starts by a head coach in history, two years in he has 24 regular season wins and has been to two NFC Championships and a Superbowl. All this after inheriting a 6-10 team. The 49ers as a result are many people’s Favourites for the NFC but history is against them. It has been twenty years since a Superbowl loser returned to the showpiece the next year, statistics aside however this team has all the attributes of a championship team.

The offense went from good to great when second year quarterback Colin Kaepernick took the reins in week 11, when Harbaugh left Kaepernick in as the starter after Alex Smith returned he was roundly criticised. A whole humble pie later and he was dubbed a genius for the move as Kaepernick put in two incredible performances en route to the Superbowl. Teams may be more aware of his diverse skill set after those successes but whether they can stop him remains to be seen. The tall wiry Kaepernick is the fastest quarterback since Michael Vick and he also possesses a huge arm and is surrounded with talent. Ninth year battering ram Frank Gore is as good and as punishing as ever but he will split carries with the speedy LaMichael James and big bodied Anthony Dixon. Tight end Vernon Davis, a leader on the field had a disappointing 2012 by his standards and was slow to find chemistry with Kaepernick but a full offseason together should remedy that and Davis can have a bounce back year. Star receiver Michael Crabtree tore his Achilles tendon in OTAs but may return late in the season, Anquan Boldin comes over from Superbowl champions Baltimore and softens the blow, Boldin is a hardnosed, extremely physical receiver but lacks speed. Opposite him the 49ers swapped second year pro AJ Jenkins for Jonathan Baldwin with the Chiefs, Baldwin is a prime breakout candidate now. Mario Manningham also starts the season ailing so early on depth at wide receiver is very limited. The 49ers offensive line is dominant in the running game, guard Mike Iupati in particular is capable of overwhelming numerous defenders on single plays and all five linemen return. With the running ability of Kaepernick and his stable of running backs this team will be top five in rushing. A lack of targets will hurt until Crabtree returns but this unit should still rack up plenty of yards and a top 10 finish isn’t beyond them.

San Francisco’s defense starts and finishes with the best linebacking group in football. Captain and tackling machine Patrick Willis has long been considered the best inside linebacker in football but was outplayed by colleague Navarro Bowman last year, both made the pro bowl. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith had 19.5 sacks in his sophomore year, second most in the league. Smith possesses power, quickness and outstanding speed and is expected to further enhance his claims as the new king of the position. Ahmad Brooks completed the quartet; he hasn’t Smith’s ability but is a relentless, physical presence on the strong side. Upfront Glenn Dorsey, a former first round pick of the Chiefs replaces Isaac Sopoaga inside but the key to this unit is end Justin Smith. Although he enters his thirteenth year Justin Smith is still one of the best linemen in football, his relentless power drives offensive linemen into submission and his teamwork with namesake Aldon is close to unstoppable. Opposite Smith, Ray McDonald starts with Will Tukuafu, Demarcus Dobbs and rookie Cornellius Carradine fighting for snaps. One pro bowler who the 49ers couldn’t retain was safety Dashon Goldson but they drafted rookie Eric Reid in the first round to compensate and he teams with strong safety Donte Whitner who went to the pro bowl in 2012, Whitner is another excellent run defender. Both backups at safety are good enough to start but while corner is the weakness of this defense it would be the strength of other teams. Tarell Brown was the team’s best cornerback last year and starts again, Carlos Rogers was torched a couple of times in the playoffs so Nnamdi Asomugha, once considered the best corner in the league comes in after a nightmare spell in Philadelphia to challenge for the start. It’s hard to envisage anyone running on this defense and the Smith tandem will ensure they are again a force rushing the passer. This unit was third in total yardage and second in points allowed last year but faces a raft of teams capable of putting up big numbers in both columns this year.

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49ers linebacker Aldon Smith

2013 Predicted wins13-14

Playoff PredictionTo go one better than last year the 49ers will need Michael Crabtree back and at full strength by January, all the pieces are there once he returns and this team is right near the top of the NFC pecking order.

 

Seattle Seahawks- Pete Carroll’s second spell in the NFL has been more successful than the first and the inspirational head coach believes he has a championship calibre team now, the Seahawks look one of the most talented all round teams in the NFC but unfortunately for them must overcome the mighty 49ers to win the division. Carroll’s bold decision to start rookie Russell Wilson last year paid huge dividends and Wilson was one of many mobile quarterbacks to profit from the read option scheme. Wilson is now the face of the franchise and huge things are expected of him going forward. The Seahawks are building their own hype as major contenders and in doing so have put expectations sky high this year, they simply must win at least one playoff game.

Wilson’s success was based on his passing accuracy and the danger he presents when he leaves the pocket. Written off due to his size, Wilson quickly proved that doesn’t matter once you’re outside the pocket and his ability to remain accurate on the move or tuck it and run for sizable gains turned the Seahawks offense into a dynamic unit. Running back Marshawn Lynch has found home, he coined the term ‘beast mode’ a few years ago and in a career year was in such throughout 2012, his violent running style causes mayhem once he gets to the second level and in rookie Christine Michael the Seahawks added a like for like player to continue the pounding on defenses. Percy Harvin became the highest paid player in Seattle as he transferred from the Vikings but starts the season injured and is likely to be out for around half the season. That is a blow but Sidney Rice and controversial Golden Tate both played well enough last year though neither has nearly Harvin’s explosiveness. Former raider Zach Miller isn’t a big part of the offense but will still hope for improved numbers in 2013. The line came good with better health last year and is now considered one of the league’s most solid units. Former first rounder Russell Okung at left tackle and Max Unger at center went to the pro bowl, Okung is a huge talent with his running ability extremely rare for a man of his size. Right tackle Bruno Giacomini must cut down his penalties and left guard James Carpenter struggles to stay healthy but both are talented and sophomore J.R. Sweezy will likely complete the starting group. Harvin’s injury hurts a team that needs to win a lot of games to keep pace but with Wilson and Lynch healthy this offense will be better than the 17th overall of a year ago.

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Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson

The defense is continually adding players to improve the unit and looks as daunting an opponent as the 49ers defense after another offseason emphasising improving weaknesses in an uncompromising manner. The secondary of the Seahawks is the league’s scariest, cornerback Richard Sherman is on the verge of being the next great shutdown corner in the NFL. He routinely nullified the opposition’s best receiver last year whilst reeling in eight picks and twice finding the endzone, he talks a lot of trash but backs it up. Brandon Browner took time to become a quality corner but is now one of the league’s best himself and the fact that the starters are 6 foot 3 and 6 4 respectively helps nullify the size advantage many receivers boast over their defensive cover in modern football. Fifteen year veteran Antoine Winfield joined to man the slot and safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas return; they are both elite game changers. Free safety Thomas has quickly become the best in the game, his speed, range, instincts and ball skills serve notice to opposing quarterbacks thinking about taking a deep shot at the Seahawks. Chancellor meanwhile is a brutal hitter who quickly puts receivers off the idea of trying to come inside to make catches. Second round pick Bobby Wagner had an incredible season and quickly became the dominant linebacker the Seahawks needed, his instincts belie his age and he looks set to be a very good player for a very long time. Speed is the name of the game for K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith who sandwich Wagner. Upfront the Seahawks spent big to get better and look to have succeeded. Cliff Avril is a consistent presence in opposing backfields and joins massive Red Bryant, and pass rushing specialists Michael Bennett and Bruce Irvin in a deep rotation expected to hugely improve a previously middle of the road pass rush. Tackle Brandon Mebane will start but rookies Jordan Hill and Jesse Williams will push free agent signee Tony McDaniel a journeyman signed from Miami. A defense which ranked fourth overall last year looks improved upfront and is as youthful as it is talented in the secondary, this could well be the best defense in football.

2013 Predicted wins10-11

Playoff PredictionThe Seahawks will win the majority of their games to make the playoffs but they could easily do so as division runners up. A road playoff schedule could see them travelling thousands of miles so the two games with San Francisco are vital and will be unmissable.

St Louis Rams The Rams rebounded from 2011s aberration to win seven games in this most brutal of divisions. They are making steady progress under Jeff Fisher but competing in this division will be extremely difficult. Sam Bradford stayed healthy last year and if he can do again this offense can start to make progress. The Rams defense is underrated, it may not match San Francisco or Seattle’s much vaunted units but under Fisher has become a physical, well drilled unit. Next step for the Rams is climbing a rung closer to their divisional rivals ahead of becoming contenders in the future.

The Rams offense looks like a copycat version of New England’s scheme. Brian Schottenheimer is planning lots of up tempo, no huddle plays for Sam Bradford and the Rams have a pair of dangerous tight ends like the Patriots did until Aaron Hernandez went crazy and Rob Gronkowski became injury prone. New signing Jared Cook is a Hernandez style player, a pure receiver who can line up in the slot, out wide or in the backfield; he is more a tall wide receiver than a tight end with his blazing speed. Third year pro Lance Kendricks came on last year and should again improve, he is a more traditional style tight end. A pair of second year receivers, big possession receiver Brian Quick and deep threat Chris Given are joined by rookie Tavon Austin who like Jared Cook can be moved around and is an electrifying playmaker in the Percy Harvin mould. Long time standout Steven Jackson departs after carrying this offense for most of his tenure, Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson will form a committee to replace his consistent production. Upfront former number one overall pick and regular pro bowler Jake Long arrived via trade to finally give Bradford a quality blind side protector. Rodger Saffold swings to the right side where he could excel and former Packer Scott Wells is a consistent veteran center on a line finally looking capable of protecting its highly paid quarterback. An offense filled with speed will look to edge into the top 20 under Sam Bradford, getting production from unproven running backs will be vital to progression.

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Rams rookie Tavon Austin

The Rams were tied for most quarterback sacks last year, starting defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn tallied 20 sacks and their chief backup Will Hayes had seven. Former Dolphin Kendall Langford and second year man Michael Brockers start inside, Brockers is a very powerful player who could easily have a breakout campaign in 2013. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis has long been the Rams most reliable defender and he continues to be, rookie Alec Ogletree is an intriguing prospect at outside backer. The former Bulldog has rare size and athleticism for his position and the Rams are counting on him becoming a sideline to sideline playmaker. Jo-Lonn Dunbar completes the starting group; he was a find last tear in free agency and showed a real nose for the ball. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins slid into the second round last year due to a host of red flags but he had four picks and four touchdowns as a rookie and has a young Asante Samuel about him. Physical presence Cortland Finnegan followed Jeff Fisher to St Louis and remains a solid corner also. Rookie T.J. McDonald is the latest Trojan safety to make it to the NFL and steps in as starting free safety. Fourth year pro Darian Stewart battled injuries last year but now healthy can retake his role as strong safety. This defense is built around the rush that the two former first round ends Quinn and Long provide. Alec Ogletree could take the linebacking corps to the next level but depth is the lingering concern throughout a defense that should again be in the top half of most statistics at season end.

2013 Predicted wins6-7

Playoff PredictionThe Rams need to become consistent before they can entertain a playoff run. To compete in the NFC West right now you have to be a Superbowl contender.

 

Arizona Cardinals The Cardinals have been a mess ever since Kurt Warner retired after the 2008 Superbowl. Ken Whisenhunt was regarded as a top coach back then but his inability to stop the decline in Phoenix saw his tenure halted after a 5-11 2012 season. In comes Bruce Arians who was interim head coach in Indianapolis when Chuck Pagano was ill to steady the ship during one of the heaviest rebuilds in the NFL. The Cardinals could be in for some real whippings from their elite neighbours this year.

Quarterbacking this team has been a poisoned chalice ever since Warner departed. They have tried rookies, free agents, backups, the lot, each has resulted in failure. To steady the ship comes Carson Palmer, a veteran who will at least be an upgrade over the four players who started games under center a year ago. Arians likes a vertical, stretch the field offense, so Palmer will use his strong arm regularly. The Cardinals signed running back Rashard Mendenhall from Pittsburgh, he and injury prone Ryan Williams will split carries but both have to prove they can stay on the field. Larry Fitzgerald has stuck with the organisation through thick and thin and thinner. He remains a top drawer receiver but constant double teams and woeful quarterbacks have hurt his numbers in recent years. Michael Floyd who they drafted in the first round a year ago was raw but should improve in his second season and provide a second viable target for Palmer. The depth at receiver is thin and journeyman tight end Jeff King is unlikely to achieve much from the tight end so it’s all on Fitzgerald and Floyd to produce. Drafting highly talented guard Jonathan Cooper in the first round was meant to help a woeful defensive line but he is on IR and will miss his rookie season. Left tackle Levi Brown is back healthy again at least, he is the Cardinals best lineman but with Cooper down the remainder of this woeful unit return, Palmer isn’t the most mobile and you have to fear for him. The NFL’s worst offense a year ago and only Palmer looks a significant upgrade, a bottom 5 ranking for the second year running looks likely.

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Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald

The Cardinals defense kept fighting until it finally drowned under the weight of the offense in a 58-0 annihilation in Seattle. There is talent on this side of the ball, Former first round pick Dan Campbell is flanked by two above average ends upfront in the 3-4 scheme new coordinator Todd Bowles favours. Arizona’s best player is linebacker Daryl Washington but he misses the first four games through suspension, three of which are on the road. Rookie Kevin Minter and free agent signing Jaspar Brinkley will audition for one job when Washington returns. Outside linebackers Sam Acho and O’Brien Schofield are average talents but with so much overhaul get another chance with age at least on their side. The athleticism of corner Patrick Peterson is unmatched and he reminds you of Deion Sanders with the ball in his hands. Long time San Diego Charger and talented but frail Jerraud Powers were signed to fight for the second and third spots. Free safety Yeremiah Bell enters his eleventh season in the league but will be replaced soon by talented but troubled rookie Tyrann Matthieu if the latter can stay out of trouble. Rashad Johnson is a decent starter at free safety to complete the unit. This unit is strong upfront and deep at corner, when Washington returns they will look quite strong but could be 0-4 by then. Finishing in the top 10 however looks beyond them given their schedule.

2013 Predicted wins2-3

Playoff PredictionMore chance of them winning the FA cup