NFL Season Preview: NFC Predictions

Can Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly help his team retain the NFC South crown?

With the NFL season due to kick off in Seattle next Thursday when the Packers come into town to take on the defending Superbowl champion Seahawks, it’s time to look at who’ll be competing in the play-offs come January and who’ll be on the golf course. American Football Focus will start proceedings by looking at the NFC – can anyone dethrone the “12th Man” of Seattle?

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles
The defending NFC East champs should return to the top of the pile in 2014, despite releasing speedy receiver DeSean Jackson. Nick Foles established himself in 2013 as one of the top Quarterbacks in the league, and with the Eagles players more comfortable in head coach Chip Kelly’s system than they were a year ago it figures that Philly should improve on the 10-6 record that saw them win their division.

Washington Redskins
Speaking of Jackson, the diminutive wideout was signed by the Redskins new coach Jay Gruden in a bid to give Robert Griffin III a legitimate deep threat in the passing game. The Washington offense should improve under the guidance of Gruden, who’ll also have running back Alfred Morris at his disposal. The defense, however, was porous in 2013 and it figures to be similarly disappointing this time round with the secondary looking particularly weak.

Dallas Cowboys
2013 was a poor year for the ‘boys, and with Quarterback Tony Romo’s back playing up again this off-season it could be another long season in Big D. The offense could still be effective with Dez Bryant beginning to fulfill his potential, however much like Washington the defense leaves much to be desired and with Jason Garrett still in charge nothing figures to change as they look likely to battle New York for the NFC East wooden spoon.

New York Giants
Eli Manning is still a bad Quarterback and unfortunately the talent around him isn’t up to much either, which isn’t good news for Giants fans. The wheels really fell off in the Meadowlands last season despite the best efforts of coach Tom Coughlin to keep the side competitive, and although cornerback Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie should improve the play in the defensive secondary the pass rush was non-existent in 2013. After two Superbowl titles in four years between 2008 and 2012 the Giants could be in for a fairly lengthy rebuilding period unless Manning unexpectedly bounces back.

NFC North

Green Bay Packers
Green Bay returns Aaron Rodgers, who alongside Peyton Manning and Tom Brady is one of the best players at his position in the NFL, and any time you can boast a top QB your chances of making the play-offs are pretty good. The discovery of running back Eddie Lacy gives Rodgers someone who he can hand the ball off to 20 times a game, while Jordy Nelson has developed into one of the better receivers in football. How far this team goes depends on the defense and Clay Matthews in particular – especially with division rivals Chicago emerging as an offensive powerhouse.

Chicago Bears (Wild Card)
Marc Trestman’s troops nearly won the division in his first season in charge, but even though they failed to make the play-offs there were positive signs for the Bears going forward. Jay Cutler may not be universally liked but he’s been a consistent QB for a while now and if he can stay healthy he’ll have the dynamic duo of Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall to throw to. Matt Forte is still a more than capable back, and while the defense is a concern (much like in Green Bay) the offense is high octane and could lead to a wild card berth for the Bears.

Detroit Lions
Is this the year that Matthew Stafford finally puts it together? I’m not so sure, even if he does have Calvin Johnson at his disposal. The Lions also added tight end Eric Ebron in the draft and still have Reggie Bush at tailback, but a defense that  can’t seem to put it all together is holding the Lions back. New coach Jim Caldwell has pedigree as the offensive co-ordinator on the Colts team that won Superbowl XLVII, but as head coach in Indy Caldwell saw things unravel when Peyton Manning went down with injury in 2011. Not all coaches get a second chance in the NFL; Caldwell has been given one and he’s got a fantastic opportunity to make the most of it with plenty of offensive talent at his disposal in Detroit.

Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings play outdoors at the University of Minnesota this year as their new stadium is completed in time for them to move into it next season, and while the move won’t affect star running back Adrian Peterson it could have dire consequences for Matt Cassel, who is set to start the season at QB. The Vikings are more-or-less in rebuilding mode and with the three teams above them all clearly more talented and possessing better Quarterbacks it doesn’t look promising for Minny.

NFC West

Seattle Seahawks
Last years Superbowl champs return largely intact, with defensive standout Richard Sherman and star QB Russell Wilson both set to lead the team back to the post-season. The greatest threat to the Seahawks crown probably lies in the form of their division rivals San Francisco, who despite being a good team don’t the same homefield advantage and title winning pedigree that the ‘hawks posses. Seattle also has an uncanny ability to come up clutch in the big moments and coach Pete Carroll will know back-to-back championships is an achievable goal.

San Francisco 49ers (Wild Card)
The Niners were so close to making it to the big game last year, but Colin Kaepernick’s untimely interception in Seattle ended their season in dramatic fashion for the second straight year. NaVarro Bowman’s gruesome knee injury sustained in that game sets the defense back a fair bit as he’s one of the premier defensive players in football, however the offense remains an effective unit and it would be a massive surprise if the 49ers failed to make it back to the playoffs in 2015.

Arizona Cardinals
The “Ugly Sister” of the top three teams in the NFC West, Arizona actually had as good a defense as San Fran a season ago but was let down by inconsistent play from Quarterback Carson Palmer. Palmer, however, has looked much improved this summer and with Larry Fizgerald in tow he could be primed for his best season in years. If Palmer does enjoy a renaissance then the play-offs are a possibility for the Cardinals, providing the defense (led by Patrick Peterson) can replicate its stellar play from 2013.

St. Louis Rams
With QB Sam Bradford already done for the year with a knee injury this season figures to lost for St. Louis, who despite a number of high draft picks in recent years have failed to be competitive in the NFL’s best division. The defensive line is menacing with the likes of Chris Long and Robert Quinn rushing the passer, but offensively the cupboard is bare although mighty mite Tavon Austin could break out in his second professional season.

NFC South

New Orleans Saints
The Saints aren’t the juggernaut they once were, but they still have Drew Brees under centre and maintain a huge homefield advantage at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The addition of safety Jarius Byrd in free agency from Buffalo should also go a long way to shoring up a previously suspect secondary, however the rest of the defense leaves a lot to be desired after it’s record breakingly poor performances during the previous two campaigns. Keep an eye out for rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks, an explosive playmaker in the mould of former Saint Darren Sproles who could tear it up on the Superdome turf.

Carolina Panthers
Cam Newton finally matured into a top-10 NFL Quarterback last season and with his dynamic blend of arm strength and immense physical stature it figures Newton will stay there for years to come. The loss of Panthers legend Steve Smith will hurt, however, and after finishing last in the NFL in plays over 20 yards in 2013 Carolina will need to generate more big plays if they’re to retain their NFC South crown. The defense is one of the NFL’s best, led by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive end Greg Hardy, making Ron Rivera’s unit a tough nut to crack.

Atlanta Falcons
After last years 4-12 debacle head coach Mike Smith will be hopeful of a bounce-back season from Matt Ryan and co as Atlanta attempts to regain its status as one of the NFC’s premier teams. Injuries decimated this team in 2013 and if the likes of Julio Jones and Roddy White can return to the field and be as effective as they were before the Falcons will be capable of putting up points in bunches, something they were unable to do a year ago. The offensive line is porous, however, and the defense isn’t much better so it’ll be difficult for Smith’s men to overtake the Saints and Panthers in what is shaping up to be a very strong division.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Former Bears coach Lovie Smith was recruited in Tampa Bay to turn things around after the mess left by former head honcho Greg Schiano. Schiano oversaw an undisciplined and ultimately unsuccessful regime, highlighted by the dire attitude and performance from former first round pick Josh Freeman, who was released half-way through last season. Josh McCown is a solid replacement at QB and Doug Martin has the potential to be a top running back in the league so there is hope for Tampa; it’ll take a couple of seasons before they’re competitive in the NFC South again, however.

Rookie of the Year – Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints

MVP – LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles

Who do you think will make the play-offs from the NFC this season? Will Seattle be able to defend their Superbowl title? Leave a comment or tweet @fredjstanley to have your say
 
 

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England v India ODI Series: 5 Things to Watch

Alex Hales looks set to make his ODI debut against India

Alex Hales looks set to make his ODI debut against India

Following England’s stirring comeback in the test series against India, the three lions will be looking to press on against the same opposition in the 50-over format with the ODI World Cup in Australia just around the corner. Here are five things to keep an eye on as the five game series gets underway:

Is Alex Hales the man for England in all three formats?

Previously viewed as just a twenty20 specialist, Alex Hales looks set to earn his first ODI cap against India and there have even been whispers a profitable series could catapult him into the frame for a test spot. Hales imperious form of late has seen him notch centuries in both four day and one day cricket, and the man himself has admitted he’s in the best form of his young career. England have often been criticised for being dull and unimaginative with their team selections; should Hales force his way into the test team as a David Warner-esque bully at the top of the order it would certainly represent a change of philosophy from the England hierarchy.

Which England all-rounder will stake a claim for the role?

The omission of Ravi Bopara from England’s 15 man squad came as a surprise; however with Moeen Ali, Ben Stokes and Chris Woakes all selected the hosts still have a range of options to choose from when it comes to all-rounders. Ali has the best record as a batsman in domestic cricket and his status as a spin bowler also factor in his favour, while Stokes’ impressive showing amongst the chaos in Australia last winter and his aggressive attitude make him an appealing option. Woakes, meanwhile, has steadily and somewhat quietly improved since his test debut at the Oval last August against Australia, adding a yard of pace and impressing as captain of the England Lions last winter. All three could have a role to play in the ODI series and with places on the plane to Australia for the World Cup up for grabs every single one of their moves will be closely monitored.

Can Virat  Kohli bounce back from a disastrous test series?

Kohli, the golden boy of Indian cricket, staggered to a batting average a shade over 13 in the five test series, failing to live up to his billing as one of crickets most exciting young players. His technique was revealed to be far from watertight against quality seam bowling, the likes of which was provided by James Anderson and Stuart Broad. Kohli also struggled with the short ball, a flaw that needs to be corrected if he’s to ever transfer his ODI form into the test arena. There is no doubting Kohli’s prowess in the shorter format, however, so don’t be surprised if he responds in a big way over the coming couple of weeks.

Who will man the number three position for England?

After Jonathan Trott departed the Ashes tour of Australia last winter, Gary Ballance laid claim to the coveted number three role in the test side and hasn’t looked back following a sterling summer in the format. It’s unclear, however, whether Ballance will get the chance to man the role in the ODI’s, or if he’ll even be selected. Ian Bell is set to move down the order to accommodate Hales at the top of the order alongside captain Cook, so the Warwickshire man is one alternative for the number three slot. Team director Peter Moores could even spring a surprise and fill the role with wicket keeper Jos Buttler, who does seem slightly wasted at number seven. Whoever gets first dibs on the position will be keen to impress, with a plethora of one day games scheduled over the winter culminating in the 2015 ODI World Cup.

Will Alistair Cook rediscover his one day touch?

Despite regaining form in the final three test matches of the summer, Alistair Cook still failed to reach three figures and a run of poor scores in the limited over games could lead to renewed questions about his position in the one day side. Cook’s once paced batting style doesn’t count in his favour at the best of times and the inclusion of Alex Hales indicates that team management want to play a more aggressive brand of cricket, as does the promotion of Jos Buttler to the test side. Cook deserves the chance to lead the side in a World Cup, but he might not make it that far if England are humiliated in this series by the current world champions, or if he himself doesn’t trouble the scorers.

Who do you think will win the ODI series between England and India? Leave a comment or tweet @fredjstanley to have your say

 

 

6 Stories from Training Camp

Baltimore RB Ray Rice has been suspended for the first two games of the NFL season

With the NFL season just a few weeks away and teams across the United States well into their training camp programmes, here’s six stories from across the league as teams gear up for the upcoming 16 game slog:

Eagles Lane Johnson Tests Positive for PEDs

Last years third overall pick, tackle Lane Johnson, is to miss the first four games of the NFL season after he tested positive for a banned substance during the off-season. The news is a blow to Philadelphia and head coach Chip Kelly, who were relying on Johnson to anchor the right side of the Eagles offensive line as they bid to retain the NFC East title in 2014. Johnson struggled at times last year but he still projects as a player who can retain a starting spot for a decade or more – though he’ll have to watch from the sidelines as the Eagles latest campaign gets underway.

Geno Smith to Start Jets First Pre-Season Game

After signing former Eagles and Falcons QB Michael Vick in the summer Jets head coach Rex Ryan has named incumbent Geno Smith as the starter for New York’s first game of the pre-season. Smith had his struggles as a rookie in 2013 and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him supplanted by Vick at some point this year, particularly with Ryan’s job seemingly on the line. However Smith will have first crack on the role, and Vick will have to wait for the second team to take the field to make his mark.

Johnny Football Not the Browns Starter.. Yet

Like Vick, Browns QB Johnny Manziel will also be consigned to playing with the second string in the first round of pre-season contests. Brian Hoyer will start for Cleveland under first year coach Mike Pettine, who has declared the competition under centre wide open. Normally the pre-season is a time for tuning up and avoiding injury – not so for these two pairs of quarterbacks, whose immediate and long term futures are on the line.

DeSean Jackson Picks Up Ankle Injury

Newly acquired Redskins receiver DeSean Jackson is set to miss the first pre-season game with his new team after he picked up a slight ankle knock during training camp. The injury appears to be minor on the surface, but Washington will be keen to get Jackson back as soon as possible as he figures to be a key part of the offense as Robert Griffin III and the Redskins aim to bounce back under new coach Jay Gruden. Jackson’s ability to stretch the field is well documented – as is his tendency to cause trouble off the field and in the locker room, hence his sudden release by the Eagles.

Ray Rice Banned Two Games for Domestic Abuse Incident

After being involved in an ugly domestic violence incident, Ravens running back Ray Rice received what many perceived to be a lenient suspension from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. While players such as Lane Johnson (four games) and Josh Gordon (eight) were punished heavily for drug related misdemeanours Rice was handed just a two game ban for what is, in most peoples eyes, a more serious issue. Rice struggled mightily in 2013 and had what was probably the worst season of a decorated career, including a Superbowl title in 2012. If the former Rutgers man is to bounce back he’ll need to do so in just 14 games, as opposed to the usual 16.

Josh Gordon Reportedly Facing Eight Game Suspension

As Browns fans celebrated a successful first round of the NFL draft back in May, topped by the selection of Manziel with their second pick in the process, news broke that receiver Gordon had tested positive for marijuana for the second time in the past couple of years. Originally it was feared he might miss the entire season – as it’s transpired it’s likely his suspension will be half of that. The knock-on effect of Gordon’s ban could be significant: without a top target to throw to coach Mike Pettine is less likely to throw Manziel into a hazardous situation, with Miles Austin the next best option in a depleted Cleveland receiving corps and the offensive line far from reliable with the exception of left tackle Joe Thomas.

Stay tuned for the ‘American Football Focus Podcast’ and predictions for the upcoming NFL season. Tweet your views to @fredjstanley

PR Season in Full Swing

Ashley Young opened the scoring for Manchester United in front of 109,000 fans in Michigan

Ashley Young opened the scoring for Manchester United in front of 109,000 fans in Michigan

After a short post-World Cup break, football teams across Europe are well into their pre-season preparations for the upcoming campaign. But just how much do those teams tailor their preparations to the needs of their players and staff, as opposed to replenishing their not so empty coffers?

Just this weekend Arsenal are participating in their own annual event, the Emirates Cup, while Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City have been competing in the United States against other European giants including Roma, Real Madrid and Inter Milan. West Ham and Newcastle have both been halfway across the world to sample a taste of Kiwi football in New Zealand, with the both teams deciding that the 46-hour round trip wasn’t quite enough traveling for one summer as they’ve since been to Germany for yet more friendlies.

It’s a far cry from years gone by when teams would play a selection of local sides from lower divisions in an effort to ramp up the intensity levels before the season started, without having to compromise familiar home comforts. For example Arsenal used to play an annual fixture against their north London neighbours Barnet, a game which the Gunners didn’t schedule this summer. So are these pre-season tournaments in far flung parts of the world better preparation for the upcoming Premier League season then the previous tried and tested method? Or is it simply a ploy to sell more shirts abroad and secure mega money kit deals in a bid to earn a few extra million?

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between. There are positives about going abroad to play in pre-season tournaments against illustrious competition: the standard is higher, which should better prepare players for the season ahead, and playing in warm climates such as the USA is a great way to get players into shape ahead of the looming 38-game slog. Of course, the financial benefits aren’t too shabby, either.

Yet there are clear negatives. Travel, particularly when going to the Far East and Australasia, is a real issue. Players need time to recover after games and sitting on a plane for 12-hours at a time (even if it is in first class) is far from ideal. Additionally the surfaces that these teams are forced to play on in some of these countries are terrible, which can lead to both impact injuries and muscular strains. For instance, the pitch used by Manchester United and Real Madrid on Saturday in Michigan is designed for American Football use, with the grass tending to be thicker and also more prone to ‘cutting up’ during the course of a football match.

Will these pre-season preparations have a noticeable impact on the form of the affected teams once the Premier League season begins in two weeks time? Only time will tell. But with the bottom line more important than ever in football it should come as no surprise that clubs are branching out further every year in an effort to market their brand. And with 109,000 fans crammed into the ‘Big House’ in Michigan last night, who can honestly blame them? The English national team may still be a laughing stock, but make no mistake – the Premier League is as popular and powerful as ever.