What to Watch For This Sunday

Can Andy Reid lead the Chiefs to 4-0?

Week four of the NFL season began on Thursday when the San Fransisco 49ers destroyed their division rivals St. Louis on the road 35-11, and continues this afternoon with another 13 games. Here I break down five things to watch when you settle down in front of your television sets as the season reaches the quarter mark.

Will Kansas City and the Giants recent form hold true?

The unbeaten Chiefs welcome the winless Giants to Arrowhead Stadium this afternoon in a must win game for New York if they are to salvage their season. However Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, who of course coached against the Giants multiple times while in Philadelphia, has turned the Kansas City franchise around and has led the team to more wins already in 2013 than they managed in 2012 when they finished 2-14. Eli Manning was sacked seven times last week and Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston leads the league in sacks with 7.5, so the G-Men will have to contain Houston and the rest of the Kansas City pass rush if they are to be successful offensively this week and get into the win column.

Can Ahmed Bradshaw continue to outshine Trent Richardson for Indy?

After giving up a first round pick in next years draft to acquire Richardson, Colts head honcho Chuck Pagano  predominantly gave the ball to incumbent running back Bradshaw who broke out for 95 yards on 19 carries as Indianapolis upset the 49ers 27-7. In comparison Richardson could only muster 35 yards on 13 carries in his Colts debut. Because the Colts face the hapless Jaguars today they should, in theory, be in a position to run the clock down in the second half and both RBs could see plenty of reps. It’ll be interesting to see if last week was an aberration in terms of the split of carries and whether or not Richardson can make the most of his opportunities as he tries to justify his hefty price tag.

Which team will kick-start their season with a win in London: Pittsburgh or Minnesota?

Both the Steelers and the Vikings are yet record a win this season, unfortunately diluting the quality on show in London this evening. However the game should be tight which is more than can be said for some of the other International Series games in the past. The London game (or games this year, the first where two will place) throws up a different set of challenges than usual for NFL teams as they adjust to a different time zone, different practise facilities and a different environment in general. Neither team is loaded with talent but the Vikings do have Adrian Peterson, a genuine superstar who they’ll look to as they attempt to grab a W in front of a sold out Wembley Stadium.

Can Peyton Manning keep up his historic start to the season?

Through three games Peyton has 12 TDs and no interceptions, on pace for a 64/0 ratio over the course of the entire season. Obviously the odds of that actually happening are long, but he does has a real chance to beat Tom Brady’s record of 50 TD passes in a season set back in 2007 if he maintains his current form. The Philadelphia Eagles secondary has been awful so far this year so Manning could enjoy another stellar day as he picks on the likes of Nate Allen, Cary Williams and rookie safety Earl Wolff in the Eagles secondary. Additionally, thanks to the up tempo Philly offense Manning should get plenty of opportunities to get his hands on the ball and things could get really ugly in the thin Colorado air. As an Eagles fan this match-up is the type that gives you nightmares before a game.

Are Seattle for real? Can anyone stop them?

The Seahawks (3-0) have been mightily impressive so far this season, while the Texans haven’t been too shoddy themselves on their way to a 2-1 record. With just one loss between them this game might just turn out to feature the highest quality on show this evening, so make sure when 6 o’clock (GMT) comes around you’ve got it on your screens. New England versus Atlanta should also be a humdinger in the night game, but while both of those teams are strong with top tier QBs I think both Seattle and Houston are more rounded and the Seahawks D could be the best in the league. Keep an eye on Texans receiver Andre Johnson  and his battle with Seattle corner Richard Sherman, where two of the premier players in the league at their respective positions go head to head. The player who wins that individual battle for their team could go a long way to securing the overall victory in this contest.

So those are the five things I’ll be keeping an eye out for as the action gets underway in an hour or two. Let me know what you’re watching by leaving a comment or tweeting me @fredjstanley. Here’s to a top day of football, both stateside and in London.

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Special Ones Chelsea Reunion Not Going to Plan

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The Special One: More Take That or East 17?

 

When Jose Mourinho was rehired by Chelsea’s Russian owner Roman Abramovich this summer fans of the blues (and the British media) rejoiced. The self acclaimed “Special One” was a resounding success during his first spell at Stamford Bridge from 2004 to 2007, winning two Premier League titles, one League Cup and one F.A Cup. However his second tenure has got off to a rocky opening, resulting in Chelsea’s worst Premier League start in the Abramovich era which is now in its tenth season. Factor in Wednesday’s home defeat to Basel in the Champions League and things do not currently look pretty in West London. While there is clearly a long way to go this season and plenty of time for Mourinho to turn things around lets take the time to look at why the blues haven’t yet made it out of second gear.

Perhaps the strangest decisions Mourinho has made so far concern his handling of Chelsea’s striker dilemma. Going into this campaign the position was a question mark with Demba Ba, Fernando Torres and Romelu Lukaku compromising Jose’s options up top. Ba performed adequately if not spectacularly upon his arrival from Newcastle last January, Torres was still struggling to recapture the form that persuaded Abramovich to part with a British transfer record £50 million to sign him while Lukaku had just come off of a promising season long loan spell with West Brom, scoring 17 league goals. Yet while Torres and Ba were retained for this season Lukaku was loaned out again, this time to Everton, and aging Cameroonian Samuel Eto’o was signed to supplement the remaining attacking options. Jettisoning Lukaku was a strange move after he showed he’s capable of excelling in the Premiership last season, particularly when you compare his statistics and attributes to the other strikers employed by Chelsea. Mourinho’s pursuit of Wayne Rooney was well documented and because that deal failed to materialize you get the impression that Eto’o’s signing was little more than a panic buy. Chelsea’s dearth of striking options was probably best demonstrated when none of the above were selected to lead the line when they visited Manchester United in the seasons second week, winger Andre Shurrle preferred instead.

Another peculiar action of Mourinho’s has been his handling, or mishandling, of ace play maker Juan Mata. Mata is good enough to command a regular starting spot in Spain’s enviously talented midfield, featuring the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and David Silva. So why not Chelsea’s? Rumour has it that Mourinho is not impressed with Mata’s defensive work rate and thus prefers Eden Hazard and the Brazilian Oscar. However that comes across as a weak excuse especially when you consider the positive impact Mata has had in his two seasons at Stamford Bridge. He was voted the clubs player of the season last year and when I saw him play at Upton Park against West Ham he certainly passed the eye test. The likes of Hazard, Oscar and the evergreen Frank Lampard are all fine players but most would agree that they are not yet in Mata’s class. I’d even go so far as to say Mata would get in any eleven in world football.

One positive for Mourinho is that defensively there has been little that would trouble him so far. Gary Cahill has impressed alongside whomever he has partnered at centre back, be it John Terry or David Luiz, and Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic have remained pillars of stability at full back. Petr Cech is still a world class keeper, so conceding goals shouldn’t be the blues problem this season. However they do lack a holding midfielder of any stature, something Mourinho was able to enjoy during his first spell with the club when both Claude Makelele and Michael Essien (pre-knee trouble) filled that roll. John Obi Mikel is a long way from the calibre of those two players, so that could be an area Jose looks to upgrade in the January transfer window.

One of the oldest sayings in football and life in general is “never go back”. Going back didn’t work for Kevin Keegan. Nor did things pan out for Kenny Dalglish and Liverpool. Dirty Den’s second stint in Eastenders wasn’t quite the same as his first.  Katie Price’s reappearance on ‘I’m A Celebrity’ was never going to be as successful as her first, when she met the legendary Peter Andre. Gary Barlow and Take That may be the exception to the rule, but you see where I’m going with this.  In his introductory press conference Mourinho declared himself “the happy one”. Unfortunately his second term with Chelsea has contained little moments of joy thus far.

Reaction to the Blockbuster Trent Richardson Trade

Next stop: Indy..

Late last night the Cleveland Browns sent their star running back Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for their first round pick in next April’s college player draft. Richardson himself was the third overall pick in 2012, two spots below his new teammate and Quarterback Andrew Luck.

The move is surprising and spectacular in equal measure for a number of reasons. Firstly, trades during the season are normally limited to fringe players and late round picks. These trades themselves are rare enough so to see an elite talent like Richardson change scenery is, in one word, shocking. Another reason the trade caught everyone off guard is the talent level involved. Players do get traded for first round picks, albeit infrequently, but usually these moves are a stretch made by Quarterback needy teams. Defensive end Jared Allen is one exception (he moved from Kansas City to Minnesota for a first, second and third round pick in 2008), with Darrell Revis this past off-season another. However while both of those players are elite (or were elite at the time of the trade) both were veteran players in the league, not sophomores like Richardson. Andy Reid is famous for swindling opposing coaches when trading his back-up QB’s for draft picks, but even though he managed to get second round picks for both A.J Feeley and Kevin Kolb he never netted that elusive first rounder (note that both trades were also made during the off-season).

The final reason the swap is unusual is that by making this move the Browns have, in effect, given up on the 2013 season after just two games. It’s a gutsy move and one that won’t be popular with the majority of the Cleveland fan base, but I can see the reasoning behind the decision. With a new owner (Jimmy Haslam) and CEO (Joe Banner) in place the move helps the new regime break farther away from the old one and the acquired draft pick could should be used to draft Quarterback Brandon Weeden’s replacement next April. After an 0-2 start making the play-offs in 2013 is highly unlikely despite the AFC north’s lack of top tier teams, and running back has increasingly become a position that can be addressed in the later rounds of the draft. The trade actually more closely resembles a baseball trade than a football one by nature. In baseball, teams that are out of contention come the trade deadline often look to deal sought after veterans for minor league prospects who can help the team down the line. While the Colts didn’t receive a prospect as such in the deal they did obtain a high draft pick which in all probability will be turned into a vital piece of their teams future.

From the Colts side of the deal the move reflects a ‘win now’ attitude as Indy looks to build on their play-off appearance last season. Even though Richardson is in just his second year in the league and is only 23 it’s worth remembering that running backs have a notoriously short career expectancy in the NFL. Ten years of high end production from Richardson is very unlikely. This is where a trade for a RB differs from one for a QB; you expect the latter to produce at a high level (health permitting) until his mid-thirties as opposed to mid-to-late twenties. For the trade to be a success the Colts need Richardson to produce right away.

But what about Richardson himself? Is he worthy of the lofty price tag that was paid for him? I’m not so sure. His statistics in the league thus far during his career are underwhelming: in 17 games he has 1,055 yards at 3.5 yards per carry along with 11 rushing touchdowns. He has, admittedly, been playing for a team with a poor offensive line and an even poorer Quarterback. Yet try telling that to Adrian Peterson or Jamaal Charles, who have both thrived in less that ideal offensive situations. Richardson was a great college back and has fantastic potential; but the pressure is definitely on for him to deliver immediate results if he’s to live up to expectations in his new city.

I firmly believe that trades, much like the draft, cannot be truly evaluated until at least two years down the line. Often trades that initially look like masterstrokes turn out to be a disaster. Maybe the Browns draft the leagues next star QB with the Colts first round pick. Maybe Richardson helps lead Indianapolis to a deep play-off run this season. However without the benefit of hindsight this trade can’t yet be judged one way or the other, and it’ll be a while before we have answers to the questions this deal has posed.

Three Up, Three Down from Week 2; MNF Prediction

Copyright ESPN

Beginning with a sloppy contest between the Jets and Patriots on Thursday night week two of the NFL season saw plenty of close finishes and talking points as the season really kicked into gear. Below are three players, coaches or entire units who enjoyed the best and worst of the second week of the season, as well as my prediction for tonight’s Monday Night Football match up between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Both have started the season 0-1 and the contest will be crucial to both teams chances of usurping the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC north.

Three Up

Phillip Rivers

The San Diego QB lit up a porous Philadelphia secondary on his way to 419 yards and three touchdowns as the Chargers bounced back from their week one collapse against Houston to move to 1-1. The game was as close to a must win as you can get this early in the season, yet Rivers excelled when it mattered most and he was especially good on third down where he lead his team to 10 out of 15 conversions. Rivers used all his tactical nous and veteran experience to milk the clock at every opportunity, in the process frustrating Chip Kelly and the Eagles up tempo offense while also giving his own defenders a much needed rest. Rivers had a somewhat below par 2012 season so he’ll be delighted to have made a strong statement early doors in this campaign.

Mario Williams

Williams racked up 4.5 sacks during Buffalo’s thrilling 24-23 victory against the Carolina Panthers. Like Rivers, Williams drew criticism in some quarters for his play last year after he received a monster contract from the Bills and this early season pass rushing extravaganza will have gone some way to quieting his doubters. Cam Newton isn’t the easiest QB to bottle up thanks to his speed/size combo making Williams’ effort, a Buffalo record, look all the more impressive. Buffalo could quite easily be 2-0 and although they find themselves just 1-1 thus far they look to have every opportunity to challenge a weakened New England in the AFC east.

Seahawks Defense

How do you stop Colin Kaepernick? CAN you stop Colin Kaepernick? Those were the questions being asked around the NFL after the 49ers offensively fuelled run to last years Superbowl and their excellent performance with the ball against Green Bay in week one, yet Seattle managed to limit the vaunted San Francisco O to just three points in last nights 29-3 rout. Seattle have the potential to be a genuine Superbowl contender themselves this year and while their offense led by Russell Wilson is efficient it’s their defense which will win games on its own. Cornerback Richard Sherman talks a good game and he backed it up by limiting week one star WR Anquan Boldin to just one catch. Kaepernick was picked off three times; to put that in perspective he’d only been intercepted three times in his entire career spanning 17 games before last night.

Three Down

Ryan Lindell

For the second week in a row Tampa Bay lost in heartbreaking fashion, but rather than a penalty essentially costing them a win it was a missed 47 yard field goal by the usually dependable Lindell. Kickers have a tough gig and their mistakes are often highlighted more than any position on the field barring Quarterback, something Lindell will be all too aware of after his miss allowed New Orleans to drive down the field and beat the Bucs with a field goal of their own with just seconds left on the clock.

Mike Shanahan

No team has underwhelmed through two weeks as much as the Redskins, who were embarrassed yesterday by Aaron Rodgers and co in Green Bay. Robert Griffin III’s health was the main topic of discussion heading into the season and although he’s played in both games he hasn’t looked anywhere near as explosive as he did last season. That can probably be attributed to rust for the most part; unfortunately for Shanahan the same can’t be said of his defense. Philadelphia ran rough shed over the Skins in week one and Green Bay followed suit yesterday. For all the flaws in the Washington D allowing Green Bay’s first 100 yard rusher (James Starks) for over three years is the most worrisome sign, and Shanahan is under real pressure already to turn things around in the ultra competitive NFC east.

Eli Manning

In the much hyped third instalment of the ‘Manning Bowl’ the younger brother failed to live up to his end of the bargain as his elder sibling Peyton showed him how it’s done as Eli slumped to 0-3 in the series. Eli admittedly doesn’t have too many options in the passing game this year and the running game is so bad Brandon Jacobs was re-signed during the week, but his four interceptions can’t be blamed on a poor supporting cast. I’m firmly in the ‘Eli is overrated’ camp, and although he’s often proved me wrong in the past I’d be very surprised if he led the Giants makeshift offense into the post season this year.

MNF Prediction – Steelers 17, Bengals 28

The Steelers were so bad in week one, especially on offense, that I can’t see them winning this one. Ben Roethlisberger will do well to lead Pittsburgh to my predicted 17 points. I don’t however think the defense will be able to stop Andy Dalton, A.J Green, who is truly elite, and the Bengals passing game. Comfortable hoem win.

 

Why England’s 0-0 Draw in the Ukraine Was A Very Good Result

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“Ooh, ah Malia!”

 

Last night’s 0-0 stalemate in Kiev between England and Ukraine saw the three lions retain their one point advantage at the top of group E. However this hasn’t prevented Roy Hodgson and his players performances last night coming in for some heavy criticism, not least concerning the team’s style of play. But before we bury England and their World Cup hopes in Brazil next summer, let’s analyse both the performance and the result that leaves qualification in English hands.

Firstly, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that a clean sheet last night meant that England have now conceded just three goals in eight matches during this qualifying campaign. While the overall stats are impressive last night’s effort could be even more indicative of a rock solid defense, as Joe Hart was largely untroubled thanks to a watertight back four performing without the injured Glen Johnson and Phil Jones, who both would have likely featured instead of Tottenham right back Kyle Walker. Gary Cahill was outstanding and my MOM, while Joe Hart commanded his area well without making an error; most reassuring after his slightly uneven start to the season. In fact only two teams in the whole of Europe have conceeded less goals than England during this qualifying campaign, Spain and Belgium, who have both conceded just twice although Spain have only played six matches compared to England and Belgium’s eight. So now that we’ve established the defense is just fine thank you very much, lets take a look at England’s much maligned lack of creativity and goal scoring threat..

Before 2010, Ricky Lambert had never played a single match above League One level. Last night, he spearheaded his country’s attack after they were left thin on the ground up top thanks to a rash of injuries and suspensions. Never mind the fact that Lambert looks like he’s just finished a season as a rep in Malia, it’s pretty clear to anyone with a trained football eye that he’s not England’s long term nor first choice number nine. Wayne Rooney, love him or loathe him, is England’s best striker and a player with world class pedigree. How would Holland look if you took Robin Van Persie out of their lineup? What about Brazil without Neymar? England minus Rooney has exactly the same impact as if you took any world class player out of their international side’s starting eleven. As if losing the Manchester United ace wasn’t enough Roy Hodgson was also without the services of Danny Welbeck who has started the season off in fine style, as has Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge. Andy Carroll started and scored at Euro 2012 but he also was unavailable for selection with a long term achilles injury yet to heal. Ricky Lambert’s call up was an act of desperation from Hodgson, but in his defense what other options did he have? Jermaine Defoe is ill suited to playing alone up front due to his size, or lack of it, and for some unexplained reason Carlton Cole is still a free agent and as a result lacks match fitness.

Taking the top four striking options out of your squad means you’ll probably struggle to score. Consequently, I believe Hodgson’s decision to play it safe on the road was the correct one in a game England couldn’t afford to lose. Not must win, but couldn’t afford to lose. England drew and the equation for their final two games is simple: win both. What if England had won 8-0? A draw and a win would suffice. But if they’d lost? They would have had to win both games just to qualify for the play-offs. It wasn’t pretty, not by any means, but last nights result got the job done in difficult circumstances and ensures their fate is in their hands with two very winnable home games left to come. I’ll leave you with one last stat: England have scored 25 goals so far in qualifying, bettered only by ze Germans (28). Make of that what you will.

 

Week 1 Early Games Recap

Copyright ESPN

Eleven of sixteen week one games are now in the books, including Thursday nights opener in Denver and ten early games this evening. As I sit here watching Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers take on Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay here’s are my take on the games that have already taken place.

– Peyton Manning threw an incredible seven touchdown passes on Thursday night against Denver as the Broncos racked up 49 points. For all the talk of how much the Ravens would miss Ray Lewis it was their secondary that suffered, a unit that had to replace three quarters of its members over the summer. Future hall of fame safety Ed Reed left for Houston, corner Cary Williams signed for Philadelphia and Bernard Pollard, the oft penalised strong safety, landed in Tennessee. The absence of those three clearly showed up as Manning picked apart their replacements with surgical precision, and for a team that built a championship winning team on a strong defense that is a major concern. They won’t face a QB as good as Manning every week, however, and the AFC north looks to be fairly poor offensively with Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati combining for just 40 points in week one.

– Speaking of Pittsburgh, they were upset 16-9 at home by the Titans. The opening play of the game was a boneheaded safety from Tennessee kick returner Darius Reynaud, who caught the ball at the one yard line before retreating and inexplicably taking a knee in the end zone. Those two points were all the Steelers could muster until garbage time in the fourth quarter, but more significantly for the hosts they lost centre Maurkice Pouncey for the season with what looks like an ACL tear. Pouncey was the one bright spot on a weak offensive line heading into the season and Ben Roethlisberger will have an even tougher time staying on his feet without Pouncey protecting him. Big Ben also looks short of options in the passing game with Mike Wallace now in Miami and the rushing attack appears incapable of picking up the slack.

– Tampa Bay literally gifted the Jets one in New Jersey thanks to the most idiotic play I’ve seen for a while. With Geno Smith casually ambling out of bounds at around midfield, and well out of field goal range, Lavonte David decided it would be wise to push Smith as he slowed down outside of the field of play. 15 yards were added to the play, and with seven seconds left Nick Polk dispatched his kick straight through the uprights. Smith wasn’t great but he also wasn’t nearly as bad as everyone thought he would be after his terrible pre-season, giving head coach and professional self publicist Rex Ryan a bit of respite from the pressure that comes with being better at talking a good game rather than coaching a good one. Both teams were as bad as each other in a sloppy contest, which doesn’t bode well for either.

– Matt Ryan came just short of rallying Atlanta to a last minute victory in the Superdome against New Orleans as his fourth down pass with seconds left was picked off in the end zone after the Falcons had four attempts to score from within four yards. After the Saints had the worst defense in NFL history last season Rob Ryan, Rex’s brother, should receive credit for keeping the high powered Falcons offense in check. Both Drew Brees and Ryan threw for over 300 yards but neither could strike the killer blow as both defenses turned the screw in the red zone. Steven Jackson ran for 77 yards on 11 carries on his Falcons debut and was perhaps slightly underused as Atlanta took to the air, ultimately unsuccessfully as Sean Peyton got the W on his return to coaching following his bounty gate induced suspension,

– Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson didn’t quite have the monstrous games predicted in this battle of superstars as new Lions running back Reggie Bush stole the show. Bush went off for 90 yards rushing and 101 yards receiving along with a touchdown, while Christian Ponder did nothing to dispel doubts about his ability to be an effective NFL quarterback as he threw three interceptions. Ponder’s errors would prove telling as Detroit emerged as winners by a score of 34-24.

– Buffalo lost a heart breaker to New England after Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 35 yard field goal with just seconds left on the clock to grant the Patriots a 23-21 win. Bills rookie E.J Manuel, the fifteenth overall pick in this years draft, was impressive as he threw for two scores and no picks. Former Ram Danny Amendola was sharp in his first game hooking up with Tom Brady, catching 10 balls for 104 yards as he helped offset the post season loss of Wes Welker. Shane Vereen rushed for 101 yards on 14 carries as the new look Patriots offense stuttered past Buffalo in their first game under new coach Doug Marrone, whose outfit put up much more of a fight than many people, myself included, expected.

– Old Eagles and new Chiefs coach Andy Reid won his first game in charge of Kansas City as they rolled Jacksonville 28-2. If you get a chance head over to NFL.com and find the highlight of Blaine Gabbert’s second interception of the afternoon. It truly was the kind of play that gives hope to any casual NFL fan that they too can play quarterback with the pros.

– Indianapolis edged past Oakland late on thanks to an Andrew Luck touchdown scramble as the Colts were run close by Terrelle Prior and the Raiders. Prior was ridiculed as Oaklands QB choice before the game and though he threw two picks he rushed for 112 yards on just 13 carries as he demonstrated his dual threat capabilities. The fact that the game was even close should give Colts fans cause for concern as they attempt to make consecutive trips to the post-season, and they’ll face far stiffer tests as the season wears on.

– Miami comfortably handled the Browns in Cleveland as the hosts week one record at home since their reinstatement to the league fell to 1-13. If Brandon Weeden has to throw the ball 53 times during a game, you’re probably not going to win.

– Russell Wilson wasn’t spectacular but he was efficient as he helped Seattle top the Panthers 12-7 in a defensive battle down in Carolina. Wilson completed 25 of 33 passes for 320 yards and a score and the Seahawks shut out the Panthers in the second half. Cam Newton only managed to pass for 125 yards, rush for 38 and did little to encourage fans who were worried by some of his sub-par performances last season.

– Chicago came back late at home to beat the Bengals 24-21. Chicago forced three turnovers including two picks from corner Charlies Tillman while Brandon Marshall (who else?) racked up 104 yards receiving on eight catches including one touchdown. A.J Green went for 162 yards and two scores and by now he has to be in any conversation about the best wide out in the league.

That’s it from me on the games that have already concluded, so I’m going to get back to watching what looks like a great battle in San Francisco. Who’s your money on in that one? Let me know in the comments, or on twitter @fredjstanley.

                                    

2013 NFC Season Preview

Following on from my AFC preview yesterday, here are my predictions for the ultra competitive NFC and the upcoming season, complete with rookie of the year and conference champion predictions. So just who do I think will produce the goods this year? Keep reading to find out..

NFC West

San Francisco 49ers

There’s not a lot between the niners and Seattle in the west, but for me San Fran’s performances in the play-off’s last season along with their stellar D gives them the nod. Colin Kaepernick was simply breathtaking on his NFL debut last season, with his most impressive performance being his almost single handed destruction of Green Bay at Lambeau Field in January. Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman are also the best inside linebacker combo in football. I have doubts about the 49ers ability to get back to the Superbowl because playing in such a tough division may take its toll, and Superbowl runners up have an infamous track record of failing to get back to the big game the following season (the last team to do so were the Buffalo Bills in 1994).

Seattle Seahawks*

Russell Wilson joins Kapernick on the list of most promising quarterbacks in the league following his dazzling rookie season, and he also has the luxury of being able to hand the ball off to the bruising Marshawn Lynch. Pete Carroll has built a very good defense in Seattle, although it’ll be interesting to see how that unit fares without Gus Bradley running that side of the ball. The trade for Percy Harvin was supposed to give Wilson a legit deep threat but his subsequent injury means he won’t play until week seven at the earliest.

St. Louis Rams

Coach Jeff Fisher began rebuilding the Rams last season and the teams 7-8-1 record was quite an achievement following the 2-14 debacle in 2011. QB Sam Bradford has been given a new weapon after Fisher drafted WR Tavon Austin eighth overall, although running back Steven Jackson’s departure for Atlanta will leave a hole at running attack. The defense has also been rebuilt through the draft in recent years, with first round picks spent on Alec Ogletree (linebacker), Michael Brockers (defensive tackle), Robert Quinn (defensive end) and Chris Long (also DE) since 2008. Unfortunately for Fisher and the Rams the Seahawks and 49ers will be difficult to ocompete with at this moment in time, although the second wild card spot is within reach.

Arizona Cardinals

The Kevin Kolb era was mercifully ended this off-season when he was jettisoned to Buffalo (where he unfortunately suffered another concussion) However the man brought in to replace Kolb, Carson Palmer, has an equally unimpressive record since he came out of ‘retirement’ one and a half seasons ago. The Cardinals are very much in rebuilding mode and new coach Bruce Arians will know that his squad is in for a long season.

NFC North

Green Bay Packers

In some ways, there are a lot of parallels to be drawn between the Patriots and Green Bay. Both have recent Superbowl success, an excellent coach and a future hall of famer behind centre. However both have also struggled to add another ring over the past few seasons in large part due to porous defenses, an issue the Patriots have done more to fix than the Packers. Green Bay does still have enough on both sides of the ball to remain perennial play off contenders, and while Greg Jennings loss isn’t ideal the Packers still retain a wealth of recieving options led by Jordy Nelson.

Detroit Lions

Though the Lions stumbled to a 4-12 record in 2012 they actually started the season 4-4 before they capitulated and lost eight on the spin. Matt Stafford had a real down season which I expect him to bounce back from, and Calvin Johnson remains a monster of a receiver for him to target in the passing game. Ezekial Ansah was added in the draft to give the D a pass rushing threat, and combined with the duo of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley the Lions should have a fearsome defensive front. Their indiscipline sometimes holds them back, but it also makes them one of the most entertaining teams to watch in the NFL.

Chicago Bears

The Bears probably won’t win as many games as they did last season (10), especially after they opted to surprisingly part ways with head coach Lovie Smith. Brandon Marshall is the teams one true weapon on offense and he’s been struggling with injury this summer. The team couldn’t reach agreement on a contract extension with long time linebacker Brian Urlacher, leading to his retirement. Chicago probably needs a couple of years to reload before they can think about rubbing shoulders with the leagues elite teams.

Minnesota Vikings

Yes, I know the Vikings made the play-offs in 2012. And yes, I know they have one of the best running backs in NFL history in Adrian Peterson. But as good as Peterson is he’ll struggle to replicate his historical season, and Christian Ponder figures to continue to struggle at QB. Add Percy Harvin’s departure to the mix and the Vikings could struggle to win half of the ten games they won a season ago.

NFC East

Washington Redskins

Robert Griffin III has been declared fit for the Redskins season opener on Monday night against Philadelphia, and though his playing style may well result in further injury down the line his understudy Kirk Cousins looks to have all the ingredients to succeed in the NFL. Alfred Morris was a revelation at running back last seasonand combined with RG III there aren’t many more potent ground games in the NFL. Brian Orakpo is one of the better rush linebackers in football.

Dallas Cowboys

Miles Austin is reportedly healthy after he struggled throughout last season with various leg issues, giving Tony Romo another stellar target opposite Dez Bryant. Defensively the team isn’t as strong as it once was, with Jay Ratliff a shadow of his former self and the rest of the players adjusting to a new system (the team is moving from the 3-4 to the 4-3). It remains to be seen how Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware adjust to playing defensive end as opposed to outside linebacker, although they both remain elite pass rushers.

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles finally parted ways with Andy Reid at the end of last season, hiring former Oregon supremo Chip Kelly to replace him. Kelly will be hoping that Michael Vick can return to his old self after he won a quarterback battle with Nick Foles as the team operates Kelly’s patented up tempo offensive system. LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown might be the best one-two punch at running back in the NFL. The defense will struggle, but expect points galore from the Eagles offense.

New York Giants

I don’t think the Giants will be terrible this season, but in a competitive division often compared to college footballs SEC in some quarters two or three wins could be the difference between worst and first. Eli Manning gives them a chance to win most weeks, but he’s not his brother Peyton so asking him to carry a team on his own is a step too far.

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons

Matt Ryan and co. won 13 games a year ago with an absolute stacked offense, which could be even better this time around. Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez are joined by former Ram Steven Jackson who’ll add punch to the ground game that Michael Turner could no longer provide. Osi Umenyiora was added to the D line and he’ll have plenty of opportunities to rush the passer as opposing teams play catch up.

New Orleans Saints*

Sean Peyton is back as coach following his suspension for the bounty gate scandal and as a great coach with a Superbowl ring he’ll make the world of difference to New Orleans. Last year was practically a write off as the team dealt with Peytons absence amongst others, but Peyton and quarterback Drew Brees reunion should lead to a return to the Saints former offensive prowess. Defensively they were disgustingly bad last season, I mean some of the play would make you vomit. But the stability of the returning coach should help the unit gain at least some respectability.

Carolina Panthers

After beginning 2012 3-9 the Panthers won four straight to finish just below .500, which could prove a mirage heading into this season. Cam Newton is an exciting player but he’s showed immaturity during his NFL career and the defense is very average with the exception of Luke Kuechly, who is already one of the best defensive players in the league.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs also finished 7-9 last season, but unlike Carolina I see little upside on their roster. Josh Freeman has been a mediocre QB since he entered the league and the rest of the team is little better. Unfortunately I can’t see an improvement this year in Tampa, and it’s unlikely that they’ll make too many waves in this campaign.

Rookie of the Year

Tavon Austin is an exciting player with supreme speed and with Sam Bradford chucking him the football he’ll be in a great position to make an immediate impact in the league. Lane Johnson looks primed to have a solid debut season in Philly so he’s another candidate for the award, while Ezekial Ansah should do well in Detroit.

NFC Conference Winner

Atlanta Falcons

 That wraps up my predictions for the coming season and all that remains to be said is I hope this season provides as many memorable moments as the last one did (Superbowl power cut notwithstanding!).