American Football Focus Podcast 30/12/13

There’s always next year, Jerry

This weeks episode of the American Football Focus podcast is up over at Mixcloud and you can listen to it here. I’m joined by Scott Taylor and Alex Mohammed and the three of us discuss a range of topics, including head coach firings and some of the action from the regular season finales that took place yesterday. We also give our picks for the four games taking place in the first round of the play-offs next weekend and hand out awards for the regular season including MVP, defensive player, coach, goat and moment of the year.

Let us know what you think in the comments or on Twitter (@am24, @sstaylor13, @fredjstanley).

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Week 17 NFL Predictions

Guess who’s back..

Almost as quickly as it began the end of the NFL regular season is nearly upon us. Just one more round of games remain tonight as teams jockey for a spot in the play-offs or sleepwalk through the last week of a lost season. Coaches of many teams that fill the latter category are in danger of being fired come tomorrow as owners and general managers come to the conclusion that the buck stops with the man calling the plays. Keep reading to find out what I think will happen in this final act of the 2013 season.

Carolina @ Atlanta

The Panthers head to their division rivals knowing a win wraps up a play-off bye and the number two seed in the conference after they were able to beat New Orleans last week. Atlanta are pretty much playing out the string at this point although they deserve credit for fighting hard in recent weeks despite their awful record. Expect the vaunted Carolina defense to keep Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense in check, paving the way for Cam Newton to secure the win and the NFC south title for the Panthers. Panthers 24, Falcons 14

Baltimore @ Cincinnati

With the AFC north title already wrapped up the Bengals could be forgiven for taking this game lightly but it’s unlikely they will with their fierce rivals in town. The Ravens have to win if they’re to back into the play-offs as a wild-card. However in the Bengals jungle the Baltimore D could be in for a rough ride with Andy Dalton throwing bombs to A.J Green and Marvin Jones, one of the best receiver combinations in the NFL. The Ravens secondary isn’t what it once was and as a result I’m fearful for their chances of winning here and claiming a play-off spot.
Ravens 21, Bengals 28

Jacksonville @ Indianapolis

Indy already are assured of a home play-off tie next week so they’ll likely rest a few starters after a brief tune up this evening, with Gus Bradley’s Jaguars attempting to win just their fifth game of 2013. As much credit as Bradley deserves for coaxing even four wins out of a mediocre crop of players he’d do well to beat the Colts in Indianapolis, who should be able to head into the post-season on the back of a comfortable win – starters or not. Jaguars 16, Colts 28

New York Jets @ Miami

Rumour has it that Rex Ryan will keep his job with the Jets regardless of the season finale in Florida tonight, leaving New York free to play the role of play-off spoiler without being under pressure. The Dolphins stand a good chance of making the play-offs with a win so they’ll be going all out, but much like the Ravens I can see them failing to hold up their end of the bargain this weekend. New York under Ryan have been infamously unpredictable so with some added job security and the chance to finish the season on a high note I can see the Jets upsetting Miami on their own field. Even with Geno Smith at quarterback. Jets 24, Dolphins 21

Detroit @ Minnesota

This is the first game on the list that’s truly a dead rubber, with both sides already eliminated from play-off contention. Calvin Johnson is likely to miss out for Detroit who could see head coach Jim Schwartz fired at the conclusion of the season after a late season collapse. Despite their poor form of late the Lions still possess far more talent than the Vikings, which leads me to believe they’ll wave goodbye to to the Metrodome with a loss. It’s also worth noting that Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier is under just as much if not more pressure than Schwartz, so both of these teams could enter 2014 under new leadership. Lions 31, Vikings 17

Washington @ New York Giants

Like the above game this match-up features two teams who’ve had seasons to forget. Also like the above game both head coaches involved are under significant pressure heading into the off-season. Eli Manning has had his worst season to date and he’ll be up against Kirk Cousins, the Redskins back up QB who was handed the keys to the offense upon the shutting down of regular starter RG III. Both of these teams are a shambles but unlike Mike Shannahan Tom Coughlin almost always manages to get his team to fight to the last, a quality which should earn the G-men a hollow victory in the seasons final week. Redskins 20, Giants 24

Cleveland @ Pittsburgh

If the Steelers back into the play-offs it would be a monumental achievement given their awful start to the season and the relative lack of talent on the roster. But a win here combined with losses for Miami, Baltimore and San Diego would accomplish just that and I have absolutely no doubts about Pittsburgh’s ability to handle the Browns at Heinz Field. Cleveland have tailed off as the season has worn on, with the majority of their playbook now simply reading “throw it to Josh Gordon”. As good as Gordon is, and he is very good, the remainder of the offense is poor and the defense will struggle to contain an improving Steelers offense led by Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell. I can’t see anything other than a home win here, keeping the impossible dream alive for Mike Tomlin’s outfit.
Browns 13, Steelers 27

Houston @ Tennessee

This AFC south battle has about as much meaning as one of my awful puns, i.e not a lot. Penn State coach and former Patriots offensive co-ordinator Bill O’Brien is rumoured to be the favourite to take over in Houston next season so keep an eye out for any sign of him being smuggled into Tennessee to watch the game. Failing that, change the channel and watch a game that involves at least one competent team. As far as the actual game is concerned I’m backing Ryan Fitzpatrick to lead the Titans to an easy win against the team with the worst record in the NFL; your 2013 Houston Texans!
Texans 16, Titans 21

San Fransisco @ Arizona

This game could turn out to be between the NFC’s two wild-card teams, however for that scenario to play out the Cardinals will have to beat the 49ers which is no easy task. San Fran’s defense is truly elite, as is Arizona’s, yet I have serious doubts about Carson Palmer’s ability to avoid mistakes and not turn the ball over. A road win over Seattle was truly impressive last weekend and a similar defensive performance is needed if the Cards are to put heat on New Orleans. Colin Kaepernick has been extremely efficient of late and as a result I can see him outperforming Palmer and ending the Cardinals play-off hopes in what promises to be a defensive exhibition.
49ers 17, Cardinals 14

Green Bay @ Chicago

Another fascinating game between two play-off contenders, this winner takes all affair will decide the fate of the NFC north crown. Aaron Rodgers is back from his collarbone injury which changes the entire dynamic of the match-up, and after Chicago were destroyed by the Eagles last week it would be a brave man who’d back the Bears tonight. With Eddie Lacy primed to run rough-shed over the porous Bears run defense I expect Green Bay to put up a fair few points on Chicago and claim an unlikely play-off berth on the hallowed Soldier Field turf. Packers 33, Bears 24

Buffalo @ New England

Bills fans will be satisfied if not overly excited over the teams play under first year head coach Doug Marrone, while New England once more are gearing up for the play-offs with a first round bye as good as guaranteed. While a Denver loss at Oakland coupled with a Patriots win would see Bill Belichick’s men secure homefield throughout January that scenario is extremely unlikely, so the post-season implications are minimal. That won’t stop New England from tuning up for the play-offs with a convincing win however, as the Bills will find out just how far they are from competing with the team that has set the standard in the AFC east for so long.
Bills 20, Patriots 30

Tampa Bay @ New Orleans

Apparently Penn State are lining up Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano as Bill O’Brien’s replacement if/when he leaves for the NFL. Colour me confused as Schiano has done very little to impress me or anyone else for that matter during his time with the Buccaneers, although he deserves credit for cutting ties with former quarterback Josh Freeman. Freeman’s replacement Mike Glennon has performed well but he’ll have his work cut out for him in the Superdome against the Saints, especially as the hosts know a win is needed to secure the final play-off spot in the NFC. I don’t think the Saints will run away with it but it would be a huge surprise to see them slip up with so much on the line in the comforts of home. Buccaneers 21, Saints 27

Denver @ Oakland

Denver are very good. Oakland are very bad. Very, very bad actually. Peyton Manning should add a few more touchdown tosses to his record on the season and he also stands a fantastic chance of breaking Drew Brees single season yardage mark. While the Broncos are set the book homefield advantage throughout the play-offs the Raiders can go ahead and book their tee times for January and beyond. Broncos 42, Raiders 20

Kansas City @ San Diego

Should Miami and Baltimore slip up then the Chargers can sneak into the play-offs with a win here, although that’ll be no easy task against the post-season bound Chiefs. Kansas City have gone from a team with a stout defense and stuttering offense to a point scoring, point leaking side in the space of a few short weeks and even though they’re locked in as the number five seed in the conference they’ll still fight hard against their division rivals. I’ve gone for Baltimore and Miami defeats this week; I’ll complete a clean sweep by gunning for the Chiefs on the road here even if they decide to rest some starters as has been reported. Chiefs 27, Chargers 21

St. Louis @ Seattle

A shock defeat at home to Arizona was the Seahawks first home reversal in nearly two years but make no mistake – Seattle is still the class of the NFC and maybe the entire NFL. St. Louis have performed admirably in the absence of Sam Bradford for the second half of the season and with Washington’s first round pick to go along with their own in April they could be a team on the rise heading into 2014. Unfortunately for the Rams it’s still 2013, and they still don’t have much of a chance with Kellen Clemens squaring off against the best defense in the league. Rams 13, Seahaawks 24

Philadelphia @ Dallas

Dallas are without Tony Romo and Sean Lee for this NFC east championship game, which on paper makes the Eagles very strong favourites indeed. However I’m hesitant to jump to conclusions in such a monumental game for both sides. All statistics point towards a Philly romp yet while I think the birds will pull it out and advance to the play-offs the Cowboys won’t go down without a fight.
Eagles 31, Cowboys 24

Those are my picks, let me know what you think on twitter @fredjstanley or leave a comment. Happy New Year!

  

 
 

Australia v England – Fourth Ashes Test Preview

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A capacity crowd of 90,000 people is expected at the MCG for the first day of the Boxing Day test

 

Venue: Melbourne Cricket Ground (Victoria)

Date: 26-30 December 2013

Time: 23:30 (GMT)

The Ashes may have already gone at the earliest opportunity but there’s still plenty to play for between these great rivals. Since the third test at Perth Graeme Swann has retired from all forms of cricket and with the series decided England may well take the opportunity to ‘retire’ some other senior players as they look towards the future. Australia meanwhile will be going all out to whitewash the visitors in a similar manner to the great side of 2006/7, adding to the intrigue during the final two tests of the series. With 90,000 spectators likely to be crammed into the famous MCG the atmosphere promises to be electric during one of the biggest dates in the cricket calendar offering the perfect stage for any of the 22 cricketers on display to make a name for themselves. With speculation rife regarding a number of the England teams future there’s a strong possibility that some of them could very well be playing for their international careers over the next five days.

Team News

Australia look set to name an unchanged side for the fourth successive test, a far cry from the chopping and changing of the summer series. Michael Clarke’s back and Ryan Harris’s knees have held up well so far and as Clarke pursues history there’s no chance that him and coach Darren Lehmann will take their foot off the gas.

Likely team: Rogers, Warner, Watson, Clarke (c), Smith, Bailey, Haddin (wk), Johnson, Siddle, Harris, Lyon

England have once again been forced into making at least once change after Graeme Swann’s shock retirement, with Monty Panesar likely to replace him in the XI. Scott Borthwick and James Tredwell may come into contention for the spinners role at Sydney but for this test at least Panesar has the chance to re-establish himself as the visitors lead tweaker. Wicket keeper Matt Prior looks set to make way for Jonny Bairstow as Andy Flower looks towards the future while Boyd Rankin could make his test debut at the expense of Tim Bresnan, who appeared to be below his best at the WACA. Stuart Broad has overcome his foot injury and the likes of Kevin Pieterson and James Anderson have avoided the same treatment as Prior so they’ll keep their places in the team.

Likely team: Cook (c), Carberry, Bell, Pieterson, Root, Stokes, Bairstow (wk), Broad, Anderson, Rankin, Panesar

Pitch and weather

The second drop in surface of the series promises to offer early assistance to the seam bowlers before flattening out as the match wears on. Large boundary dimensions make the ‘G a difficult ground to take the slow bowlers on but with the wicket offering little turn it’ll still be tough for Panesar and Australian spinner Nathan Lyon to get much out of the surface.

There’s a slight chance of showers on the second day but apart from that the weather is set fair and a full compliment of overs should be completed during the five days. Temperatures on the Saturday could reach a scorching 36 degrees Celsius.

Umpires

Aleem Dar and Kumar Dharmasena

Prediction

Following one of the most lopsided three game stretches in recent memory it will take a minor Christmas miracle for England to turn this series around and repeat their Boxing Day success from three years ago. The task will prove especially difficult without Swann but there’s a fantastic opportunity for the likes of Monty Panesar and Jonny Bairstow to cement a place in the team for the fifth test and beyond. Australian teams are famously ruthless and having smelt English blood Michael Clarke will want to be part of the second Ashes whitewash during his storied career. Unfortunately I fear that the visitors are in such disarray that there’s little they can do to bounce back during this series, especially without team mainstays such as Swann and Prior in the lineup. As a result I fully expect Australia to make it 4-0 and edge ever closer to a dreaded whitewash.

American Football Focus Podcast – Christmas Special

Panthers QB Cam Newton looks set to star in the play-offs

This weeks American Football Focus podcast is up and it can be found here. Just follow the link to here myself, Scott Taylor and Alex Mohammed discuss a range of topics from around the NFL. There’s a review of the weekends games, Peyton Manning talk, a list of head coaches who have found themselves on the hot seat and much more. Feel free to have your say on any of those topics in the comments or you can tweet me @fredjstanley.

Week 16 NFL Predictions

Candlestick Park has been the scene of many famous NFL moments including ‘The Catch’ and Steve Youngs legendary scramble against Minnesota

With just two weeks of the 2013 NFL season remaining there’s still plenty to play for with the majority of teams in the NFL still in the play-off hunt. While the likes of Jacksonville and Atlanta saw their seasons ended many weeks ago there are tight races for a division crown in the NFC north, NFC south, NFC east, AFC west and AFC north. Home-field advantage throughout the play-offs is also undecided in the AFC after both Denver and New England were upset in week 15. Keep on reading to find out what I think will happen next in this most exciting of NFL seasons.

Miami @ Buffalo

The surging Dolphins picked of Tom Brady and the Patriots last week to move to 8-6 and within touching distance of a wild-card spot. Miami’s defense is performing admirably and with Thad Lewis slated to start at quarterback for the Bills this Sunday they’ll fancy their chances of keeping Buffalo’s offense in check. Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson is out with injury which will give Lewis one less option to throw to in the passing game so despite Buffalo picking up a win over Jacksonville last week the smart money is on the streaking Dolphins extending their run of wins to four. Dolphins 27, Bills 16

New Orleans @ Carolina

Essentially an NFC south title game, these two teams both sit at 10-4 with two games remaining this season. Carolina will be looking for revenge after they were beaten by the Saints in the Superdome just two weeks ago and after New Orleans lost last week in St. Louis they’ll fancy their chances at home. The Saints are peculiar in that they’re almost guaranteed to win at home, while on the road they transform into the 2008 Detroit Lions. Ok so they may not be quite that bad they are 3-4 away from Louisiana and that will give their fans cause for concern if Drew Brees and co lose on Sunday and are forced to go on the road in the wild-card round of the play-offs. Despite their poor road record I’m backing the Saints to buck that recent trend after they hammered Carolina the last time the two teams met a fortnight ago. Nonetheless whatever happens this is a game that you won’t want to miss.
Saints 28, Panthers 24

Minnesota @ Cincinnati

These two teams made the headlines last week for contrasting reasons; the Vikings pulled off an upset against the Eagles while Cincinnati blew a chance to move into position for a play-off bye when they lost to Pittsburgh. However despite those results the Bengals are heavy favourites at home against the lowly Vikings, who even after last weeks win are a pitiful 4-9-1 on the season. Flaws in the Minnesota secondary were shown up by Philadelphia when Nick Foles threw for over 300 yards so expect Marvin Jones and A.J Green to have big days on Sunday, in the process putting another nail in Vikings coach Leslie Frazier’s coffin. Vikings 21, Bengals 31

Denver @ Houston

Before the season began it wasn’t unrealistic to expect these two teams to be competing for play-off seeding when they met in week 16. Fast forward to the present day and the concept of Houston even competing for a spot in the post-season is laughable as they’ve stuttered to a 2-12 record after losing 12 straight games. The Broncos meanwhile are sitting pretty at 11-3 although last weeks shock defeat to San Diego means that they’ll have to win out if they want to hold of Kansas City and secure the number one seed in the AFC. Even though Houston ran New England close a couple of weeks ago I can’t see the same happening this Sunday and Peyton Manning should make hay as he chases the single season NFL touchdown record held by Patriots gunslinger Tom Brady.  
Broncos 41, Texans 21

Tennessee @ Jacksonville

After the Jaguars ran off a surprise three game winning streak they came back to earth last week when Buffalo sent them to their tenth defeat of the season. Tennessee meanwhile were unable to pick up the win against Arizona, although they were able to take the NFC play-off contenders to overtime. All told it’d been a season to forget for both of these AFC south teams but I think the Titans have just about enough talent to overcome the Jags this weekend. If the Panthers – Saints game is much watch TV on Sunday, this game is ‘must avoid’ television. Titans 20, Jaguars 17

Indianapolis @ Kansas City

This game could potentially be a play-off preview should Indianapolis end up the fourth seed in the AFC and Kansas City the fifth. For that to happen the Chiefs will likely have to win on Sunday and I fully expect them to be up to the task in front of the raucous Arrowhead faithful. A Colts win over Houston last week can’t hide the fact that over the past couple of months Indianapolis have gone from one of the most feared teams in the league to one every team in the play-offs would like to face. Trent Richardson continues to be one of the worst running backs in the NFL despite the Colts giving up a first round pick to acquire him from Cleveland, while Reggie Wayne has been sorely missed at wide receiver. Kansas City meanwhile have put up impressive points totals in each of the past two weeks as Jamaal Charles has firmly established himself as one of the leagues elite running backs. The Chiefs should be able to continue that trend against a very average Colts defense, and I’m not sure Andrew Luck will be able to keep up. Colts 21, Chiefs 34

Cleveland @ New York Jets

The Jets are 6-8. The Browns are 4-10. Neither is very good. Jason Campbell is better than Geno Smith, and Rex Ryan will almost certainly be fired at the conclusion of this season. Those are known facts, less tangible is the future for both of these embattled franchises. Cleveland fans should be optimistic as the Browns have shown signs of life during this season not least when they should have beaten New England two weeks ago. A questionable pass interference call hurt them that day, unfortunately for Jets fans Geno Smith rarely hurls the ball far enough down the field to get those kind of penalties. It probably won’t be a pretty game but I’m plumping for a Cleveland win and yet more misery for big apple football fans. Browns 16, Jets 10

Tampa Bay @ St. Louis

The Rams are currently without their franchise quarterback with Sam Bradford on injured reserve, while the Buccaneers may have found there’s in Mike Glennon after Josh Freeman was jettisoned earlier in the season. Although these teams share records with the Jets and Browns don’t be misled into thinking they are as weak as their AFC counterparts. St. Louis have the misfortune of being the the NFL’s best division while Tampa Bay have come a long way since they began the season 0-7. Last weeks win over the Saints really was a statement game from the Rams, who with talented youngsters such as Tavon Austin should be able to win their second consecutive game in the comfort of the Edward Jones Dome and inch ever closer to a .500 record. Buccaneers 21, Rams 27

Dallas @ Washington

When these two NFC east rivals meet you can almost always throw the form book out of the window, which thankfully for both the Cowboys and Redskins means ignoring their recent woeful records. Washington showed signs of life under Kirk Cousins last week who’s in for the embattled Robert Griffin III at quarterback. However they still lost by a solitary point to Atlanta and the dysfunctional ‘skins are one of the biggest messes in the NFL. Dallas threw it away themselves against a Green Bay side minus Aaron Rodgers, in the process making this weeks trip to Washington a must win. As bad as Washington have been I truly believe that Tony Romo’s poor December record plays on the quarterbacks mind during these crucial encounters, which leads me to believe that on the road against a division foe with something to prove Dallas will fall short when it matters – just for a change.
Cowboys 30, Redskins 33

New York Giants @ Detroit

Last week Eli Manning threw his 25th interception of the season (he’s thrown five in a game twice this year), in the process doing so for the second time in his career. Since 1990 there have only been seven such mediocre seasons, which obviously makes Eli a first ballot hall of famer. Moving on to the game at hand Detroit know they have to win this weekend after they’ve lost two in a row when their fate had appeared to be in their own hands at 7-5. With a 4-1 record within their division they hold the tie-breaker over both Green Bay and Chicago, although thanks to the Packers tie against Minnesota that will be irrelevant in any case. The Lions defensive front is one of the most feared in football and it’s tough to see how Manning will be able to cope in the face of a fearsome pass rush, especially with his favourite wide-out Victor Cruz sidelined with injury. It’s been a long season for the Giants and I fully expect Detroit to compound New York’s misery further with a convincing win on Sunday. Giants 18, Lions 34

Arizona @ Seattle

The Cardinals travel to the loudest stadium in football knowing that only a win will do if they are to stay alive in the play-off hunt. Unfortunately Seattle are unlikely to be in hospitable mood with home-field advantage on the line for the Seahawks, who with a win can ensure the road to New Jersey runs through Washington in January. Carson Palmer has played well this season but he has also been inconsistent, something that doesn’t bode well against the elite Seahawks defense. As good as the Cardinals are, and I think they are good enough to compete in the post-season, the schedule hasn’t been kind to them and I think they’ll suffer a terminal defeat against the best team in the NFL; not that there’s any shame in that. Cardinals 17, Seahawks 27

New England @ Baltimore

This rematch of last seasons AFC championship game could also precede a potential play-off tie next month following Baltimore’s late season surge as they attempt to defend the Lombardi they won in February. The Patriots hopes of clinching home-field took a blow after they lost in Miami last week and without Rob Gronkowski New England looks worryingly impotent on offense. Baltimore edged past Detroit on Monday night to keep themselves in the play-off hunt but Joe Flacco suffered an MCL sprain, though he’ll attempt to play through it tomorrow. Both of these teams are flawed and not quite as good as previous championship editions yet with Tom Brady still in tow you have to figure the Patriots will find a way to win this tough road encounter, especially with Flacco banged up. Patriots 24, Ravens 20

Pittsburgh @ Green Bay

Aaron Rodgers remains out for Green Bay with his collarbone injury, meaning Matt Flynn will have to carry over his second half form from last week if the Packers are to keep their play-off hopes alive. At 6-8 Pittsburgh’s own play-off dream is dead but they’ll still be keen to play the role of spoiler at a potentially snowy Lambeau Field. Eddie Lacy has provided a real spark to the Packers ground game and helping Flynn to settle in, and with the Steelers D a far cry from the impenetrable units of past years I’ve every confidence the Packers can push on from last weeks whirlwind second half. Should Green Bay make it through to January they could be the team everyone wants to avoid, however they’ll need help as their fate is out of their hands
Steelers 27, Packers 30

Oakland @ San Diego

While the Raiders season was rendered meaningless weeks ago San Diego surprisingly kept themselves alive with their shock win in Denver last Thursday. Oakland have struggled on offense and when the choices at quarterback are Matt McGloin and Terrell Pryor it’s easy to see why. However it’s their defense that’s been their real Achilles heal with only Jacksonville shipping more points in the AFC, so expect Phillip Rivers to take full advantage and put a lopsided number on the scoreboard. San Diego are no great shakes but it would still be shocking to see anything other than a Chargers win here. Raiders 17, Chargers 35

 Chicago @ Philadelphia

If Washington beat Dallas as I’ve predicted then Philly has a chance to wrap up the division and the number three seed in the NFC with a win tonight. However if Dallas were to win however then this becomes a dead rubber from the Eagles perspective, although Chicago will still have every incentive to win if they’re to stay atop the NFC north. Either way I’m not sure the Eagles will be able to live with the Chicago passing attack now that Jay Cutler is back in charge of the offense with both Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery offering him big targets on the outside. If Matt Cassel can look like Tom Brady against the Eagles pass defense then Cutler could turn into the 2004 Madden video game version of Michael Vick (basically superhuman and unstoppable) which leads me to believe Chicago will bolster their play-off hopes while damaging Philadelphia’s in the process.
Bears 34, Eagles 27

Atlanta @ San Francisco

Somehow this game has made it through the flex scheduling procedure without being shifted out of the Monday night slot, so if you want to watch any football tomorrow night you’ll have to put up with this mismatch to end all mismatches. While the Falcons are in prime position to nab a top five pick in the draft San Fransisco are busy jockeying for play-off position, although they’ll have to win on the road thrice to make it to the Superbowl with Seattle locks to win the NFC west crown. Colin Kaepernick’s been playing well lately which bodes well for the 49ers as they look to win their final ever game at Candlestick Park before moving into their new stadium in Santa Clara next year. Unless things go worryingly astray then they should be able to do so with ease.
Falcons 13, 49ers 28

Those are my picks for this week, let me know if you agree or not in the comments or tweet me @fredjstanley. I’ll be back later in the week with a Christmas special AFF podcast.

 
  

 

 

Alistair Cook’s Disastrous 100th Test and His Future as England Captain

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Alistair Cook received his first ever test golden duck in Perth courtesy of a Ryan Harris delivery

When Alistair Cook allowed himself the guilty pleasure of looking ahead to his 100th test match for England he probably envisioned a bat raised in acknowledgment of raucous applause form a partisan crowd, basking in the England captains latest record setting century. It’s all but certain that he wouldn’t have imagined even in his worst nightmare that it would transpire like it did this past week, suffering another pasting at the hands of an aggressive and ruthless Australian team which resulted in him handing over the Ashes to the old enemy.

If that sounds bad enough and you think the test couldn’t have gone any worse for the beleaguered England captain then you’d be wrong; Cook also registered his first test match golden duck during the desperate affair. When you compare Cook’s 100th test to other contemporary cricketers you can’t help but feel sorry for the man. Alec Stewart had the good fortune to score a century during his centenary match, while Cook’s opposite number during this series Michael Clarke wrestled the urn from Cook’s grasp after seven years of Australian pain this week. That both Cook and Clarke reached 100 test matches in the same game was somewhat of a coincidence, different as their paths to the landmark may have been, yet while Clarke was able to celebrate the achievement with champagne and a few lagers Cook wore a haunted look in his post-match press conference.

No matter what happens from here Cook will be remembered as one of England’s finest cricketers. He could retire tomorrow with the most centuries ever by an England test batsman and an average north of 47 – a fine figure for an opening batsman not to mention one who has to contend with the typical swing and seam associated with English conditions. Cook has also led England to a historic series win in India, something not achieved for two decades, as well as a 3-0 Ashes triumph this past summer that could well have been four – love if not for the failing light at the Oval in August.

Yet despite all this Cook is under enormous pressure heading into the final two matches of this series in Melbourne and Sydney. A 5-0 whitewash would make Cook’s position as good as untenable, much as Andrew Flintoff’s was in 2006/7 when his touring party failed to stop a rampant Australia team run the table and avenge the 2005 defeat. Flintoff compounded his poor captaincy record by taking an ill-advised trip on a pedalo during the following springs World Cup in the Caribbean, an act Cook is extremely unlikely to follow, but the real damage to his reputation was done during those five infamous tests down under. Flintoff is the only post-war England captain to suffer the humiliation of an Ashes whitewash and he never led his country in a test match again; should Cook fail to rally the troops and prevent a repeat over the coming weks he will likely lose the job himself.

Week 15 NFL Predictions

Joe Flacco is looking to lead another Ravens play-off charge

It’s that time of the season where every game matters, for the right or wrong reasons. Teams in the play-off hunt are desperate to earn a place in the post-season lottery while coaches of the sides at the opposite end of the spectrum are in a fight to save their jobs. Additionally play-off seeding and home-field advantage are up for grabs plus next April’s draft order is far from decided. Here are my picks for this weekends full slate of NFL games, where hopefully I can erase my incorrect prediction of a Denver win on Thursday after they were upset at home by the suddenly relevant San Diego Chargers.

Washington @ Atlanta

Both of these teams won their division a year ago, but what a difference twelve months makes. The Falcons have been awful on their way to a 4-9 record although in fairness they have suffered through injuries to stars including Steven Jackson, Roddy White and Julio Jones. The real story to follow here this week is the Redskins benching of Robert Griffin III (covered in this weeks AFF Podcast which can be found here) for backup Kirk Cousins, who’ll be looking to impress against a weak Falcons defense. After losing to the Matt Flynn led Packers a week ago I’m loathe to pick Atlanta here and as bad as Washington have been lately I’m backing Kirk Cousins to go out and have a good game in the first of his three game trial. Redskins 27, Falcons 17

Chicago @ Cleveland

The Browns will be wondering how on earth they didn’t hold on and beat New England last week, but unfortunately they’ll have little time to get over that defeat and they face tough opposition in Chicago. The Bears put on a clinic against Dallas last Monday and find themselves in a tie for first place in the NFC north after Detroit slipped up in the Philadelphia snow. Jay Cutler returns at quarterback for the Bears despite the excellent play of Josh McCown in his place during his absence, so one thing to keep an eye on is that situation should Cutler struggle early on. However with weapons such as Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery to throw to Cutler should be just fine and as long as Chicago don’t take the Browns lightly they should walk away from Ohio with a crucial late season road win. Bears 24, Browns 16

Houston @ Indianapolis

Neither of these teams are playing well currently and the Texans have been so bad that after last weeks loss to Jacksonville coach Gary Kubiak was relieved of his duties. Chuck Pagano has slightly more leeway with the Colts after his side raced out to a good start including wins over Denver and New England but he’ll still be aware that his team needs to pick up some momentum heading into the play-offs. Houston will be dangerous opposition here but I’m afraid the Texans are such a shambles that they’re just the medicine Pagano will have ordered for his stuttering team. Home win and a big day for Andrew Luck. Texans 18, Colts 30

Buffalo @ Jacksonville

 Much like the Washington – Atlanta game this matchup features no play-off implications. However both sets of players still have pride to fight for and the Jaguars have actually been one of the leagues better teams over the last month or so. Coach Gus Bradley has unveiled a few trick plays on offense including half back and wide receiver passes while the former Seahawks defensive co-ordinator has got that side of the ball playing steady football again. After Buffalo were hammered by Tampa Bay last week it’s difficult to pick them here and the form book certainly points towards a home win. I’m going to go by that book – however I think it’ll be close and could actually provide some entertainment to fans of these two ailing franchises. One final point; Jaguars wide receiver Cecil Shorts is likely to miss out with a groin injury while Maurice Jones Drew is doubtful with a hamstring strain so Bradley may have to get even more creative on offense. Bills 13, Jaguars 17

New England @ Miami

I have to admit I’ve been mightily impressed with how Joe Philbin’s Dolphins have rebounded from the unseemly ‘rookie hazing’ saga involving Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito, with Miami all of a sudden finding themselves well positioned to make the play-offs at 7-6. The Patriots survived a scare last week at home to Cleveland but they’ll have to be wary of a dangerous Dolphins team who could cause them some problems. New England know that three wins from three will secure them homefield throughout the AFC play-offs; an incentive to win if ever there was one. Ryan Tannehill will go up against the legendary Tom Brady in what promises to be a tasty AFC east affair and upon further inspection the youngster has eerily similar stats to the three time Superbowl champion on the season. With Rob Gronkowski out injured I have reservations about the visitors ability to put up points on a stout Miami defense. I also think Tannehill has enough weapons on offense, including speedster Mike Wallace, to out duel Tom Brady and complete the upset. Patriots 20, Dolphins 23

Philadelphia @ Minnesota

Both Adrian Petersen and Toby Gerhart miss out for the Vikings as they host the NFC east leading Eagles, which should make a difficult task that much harder. Philly have won five in a row through a combination of explosive offense (they lead the NFL in plays of 20 yards or more) and improving defense (they haven’t given up more than 21 points for six straight weeks). Matt Cassel starts at quarterback for the Vikings which should encourage Bill Davis’s defense further still and without their major threat on the offensive side of the ball it’s hard to see how Minnesota can keep this close into the fourth quarter. Although the Eagles will have to be wary that they don’t fall for the classic ‘trap game’ there’s such a gulf between the teams that I can’t look past a Philly win which would move them to 9-5 for the year. Eagles 31, Vikings 17

Seattle @ New York Giants

One of the leagues best quarterbacks this season, Russell Wilson, takes on one of the worst. Yes, I know Eli Manning has two Superbowl rings (Trent Dilfer has one) but he’s been atrocious this season en route to his worst season since he was a rookie. Factor in that he’s facing the unparallelled Seahawks defense and, well, it doesn’t look good for the G-men. Percy Harvin misses out with injury for Seattle but his loss is offset by the Giants own Jason Pierre-Paul hitting the sidelines. After a tough loss to the 49ers last week expect Seattle to come out hard tonight and bounce back with a convincing win, sending the Giants to 5-9 in the process. Seahawks 28, Giants 14

San Francisco @ Tampa Bay

While the 49ers are the clear favourites on paper here don’t write off the Buccaneers, who have played excellent football in recent weeks. They’ve won four of their last five and with Mike Glennon showing he can be the QB of the future in West Florida things are looking up for Greg Schiano’s crew. Whether or not Shiano’s done enough to keep his job beyond this season is questionable but a win here would go a long way to keeping him employed for 2014 and beyond. Both teams head into this one healthy which should lead to a competitive game. After last weeks emotional win against Seattle this just screams ‘let down’ for San Francisco, who could be in for a shock in the form of the surging Buccaneers. I think Tampa has enough about them on defense to control Colin Kaepernick and if they can break a few big plays with the ball they could nick a huge win and condemn the 49ers to a shocking defeat. 49ers 16, Buccaneers 17

New York Jets @ Carolina

I’m not sure how, but the Jets are 6-7 and not out of the race for the final AFC wild-card spot. Nonetheless I don’t give them a prayer against the Panthers who’ve impressed this season primarily with their stellar defense, a troubling sign for Geno Smith and New York’s terrible offense. Cam Newton should be able to make more than enough plays to outscore the pitiful Jets offense and it’s likely he’ll have favourable field position on more than once occasion if Smith continues to turn the ball over at his current rate. I’m going for a Panthers win (obviously), and I don’t think it’ll be particularly close. Jets 10, Panthers 30

Kansas City @ Oakland

This AFC west battle all of a sudden becomes that much more important for KC to win after Denver’s slip up on Thursday night, with the Chiefs knowing that a victory ties them with the Broncos at 11-3. Although the Broncos hold the tie-breaker over Kansas City courtesy of their head to head record Andy Reid will know that a first round play-off bye is within his grasp and he’s unlikely to let a mediocre Raiders side get in his way. Matt McGloin will start at QB for the Raiders a week after Terrell Pryor got the nod and performed terribly against the Jets (that’s how New York has won six games!). McGloin actually looked good during the second half of that game but thanks to his limited arm strength he can only do some much with the football and when you factor in running back Darren McFadden’s absence it’s likely the Raiders will struggle to keep pace with a suddenly prolific Kansas City offense. I’ve seen Andy Reid coached teams slip up in similar situations before but I just can’t see it happening this week. Oakland, I’m afraid, are just that bad. Chiefs 34, Raiders 17

Green Bay @ Dallas

The famous Bob Marley song goes “no woman, no cry”, and the Packers may as well rewrite their own lyrics “no Rodgers, no chance”. Except against the hapless Falcons, of course. Even though linebacker Sean Lee is missing for Dallas here I just can’t see Matt Flynn doing much against the rest of the Cowboys defense, although running back Eddie Lacy could have some joy on the ground. Tony Romo wasn’t at his best on Monday against Chicago but he’s still one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL and he should have no trouble putting the necessary points on the board to win this one and keep the Cowboys hot on the trail of Philadelphia. Packers 17, Cowboys 26

New Orleans @ St. Louis

There won’t be many times this season where the gulf in class between quarterbacks is as large as it is in this game, where Drew Brees squares off against Kellen Clemens. To be perfectly honest the Rams would be better off with a roided up Roger Clemens throwing the pigskin, but hey ho. A huge win against Carolina last week put the Saints in the box seat to win the NFC south and claim a first round play-off bye and they’ll be thankful they have this relatively easy game sandwiched in between the return game against the rival Panthers. St. Louis have a pretty good defense so they won’t go down in embarrassing fashion here but so long as the Saints stay on point they should have no trouble cementing their status as the second best team in the NFC. Saints 28, Rams 18

Arizona @ Tennesssee

While Bruce Arian’s Cardinals are still in contention for a wild-card spot in the NFC unfortunately the same can’t be said of Mike Munchak’s Titans. Tennessee had a slim chance of catching the Colts in the AFC south but after they lost the their divisional opponents that hope evaporated, yet Arizona know that after they beat St. Louis last week a win here would very much keep their play-off hopes alive. Ryan Fitzpatrick once had a good half season in Buffalo, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Carson Palmer probably had a good season once, too, but thankfully for him and Cardinals fans he’s surrounded by far better talent on the offensive side of the ball and he can also rely on a very good defense to get keep the opposition out of the end zone more often than not. Cardinals 23, Titans 14

Cincinnati @ Pittsburgh

Whisper it, but Cincinnati could be well on the way to establishing an AFC north dynasty. Coach Marvin Lewis has done a fantastic job of hiring the right staff, including co-coordinators Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer, as well as acquiring talent on the field. I still have my doubts about Andy Dalton’s ability to become a franchise quarterback and get it done in the play-offs but in fairness many people had the same doubts about Joe Flacco until he won a Lombardi in February. The Steelers are just about done for the season now after losing at home to Miami last week so it’s difficult to envision them keeping the Bengals at bay here, especially when you consider their poor defense and the fact they’ll be up against Cincy weapons A.J Green and Marvin Jones. There’s only one way I’m leaning here and that’s towards the visitors and their tenth win of the season. Bengals 30, Steelers 20

Baltimore @ Detroit

These two 7-6 teams square off in Monday Night Football with both in the knowledge that a loss will severely hamper their chances of reaching the post-season. Detroit looked strong early against Philadelphia last week but faded late, although it’s fair to blame the snow for their poor showing. Back in the under cover comfort of Ford Field they should be able to involve Megatron more this week and they’ll also be hoping to have Reggie Bush back after he tweaked a hamstring in the warm up last Sunday. Baltimore will be no pushovers however and they’ve enjoyed a good run of late by winning five of their last six games. This is a difficult game to pick but I’ve come to the conclusion that even though the Lions are at home they aren’t in the greatest run of form unlike their opponents, while Baltimore also have more big game experience following their Superbowl victory earlier this year. Ravens 24, Lions 20

Do you agree with those picks? Let me know in the comments or tweet me @fredjstanley. I’ll be back later in the week with the AFF podcast, so until then.