American Football Focus Podcast: SuperBowl XLIX Preview

Fred Stanley is joined by Will Winthrop for a Super Bowl XLIX Preview Special of the American Football Focus Podcast. Both the NFC and AFC Championship games are also discussed, as well as the head coaching vacancies across the league that have been recently filled. Have your say on Super Bowl XLIX by heading to americanfootballfocus.blogspot.co.uk or tweet @fredjstanley

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AFC Championship Game Preview: Indianapolis Colts @ New England Patriots

New England tight end Rob Gronkowski is a match-up nightmare for any defense

Where
Gillette Stadium, Foxboro
When
6.40 PM (E.T)

Tom Brady and Andrew Luck meet in the AFC Championship Game in a battle of old versus young, as the upstart Colts aim to reach their first Superbowl since the Peyton Manning era while Brady and Patriots coach Bill Belichick attempt to make it to their sixth Superbowl together. As the number one seed in the AFC New England earned home-field advantage, but the Colts showed last week in Denver that they won’t be intimidated in any situation this post-season. Brady, of course, has three Superbowl rings to his name, but with no championships since 2005 he’ll be desperate to add to his legacy and make up for New England’s two most recent Superbowl appearances, which both ended in defeat to the New York Giants.

When Indianapolis has the ball…
The Indianapolis offense begins and ends with Andrew Luck, the number one overall pick in the 2012 draft who has helped the franchise make a seamless transition from the Peyton Manning era. Luck has a big arm, high intelligence levels and underrated mobility that allows him to escape collapsing pockets. His main weapon on the outside is mighty mite T.Y Hilton, who has emerged as an elite deep threat this year. Reggie Wayne remains a reliable option although age has slowed him, while tight end Coby Fleener has shown flashes of ability over the past couple of seasons. A lack of a running game hurts the Colts, and the decision to trade a first round pick for Trent Richardson looks worse by the second. New England’s defense is led by Vince Wilfork and the mammoth nose tackle makes running inside against the Patriots an incredibly difficult proposition. The secondary is an under appreciated unit containing safety Devin McCourty and former Seattle cornerback Brandon Browner, and they’ll have to be at the top of their game as they take on Luck and the Colts aerial attack.

When New England has the ball…
In last year’s play-offs the Patriots were able to run all over the Colts defense, and it’s likely they’ll attempt to do so again this time around through a combination of Jonas Gray and LeGarrette Blount. The other big weapon New England possess is, of course, tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is a match-up nightmare for any defense. Too big for safeties and too quick for linebackers, Gronkowski is Tom Brady’s favourite target and he comes into his own in the red-zone where his big body can be best utilised. On the Colts side Vontae Davis is their number one corner, although the veteran can be exposed at times. Big hitter LaRon Landry roams centre field from the safety position, and former Browns linebacker and tackling machine D’Qwell Jackson is at the heart of the defense.

Special Teams
Adam Vinatieri was perfect for the Colts right up until the season finale, and the former Patriot also has one miss in the post-season. The former New England kicker is money when the game is on the line, however, and is set to appear in a record 30th play-off game. Returner Josh Cribbs is always a threat, although hasn’t taken a punt or kickoff back to the house this season. Vinatieri’s replacement in New England Stephen Gostkowski was nearly as good as his predecessor in 2014, missing just two kicks and making 13 of 14 kicks from over 40 yards. Punt returner Julian Edelman had one touchdown return during the regular season.

Prediction
Colts 24, Patriots 33

Who do you think will win the AFC Championship Game? Tweet @fredjstanley or leave a comment

NFC Championship Game Preview: Green Bay Packers @ Seattle Seahawks

 

Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch will look to shoulder the offensive load against Green Bay

Where
Century Link Field, Seattle
When
3.05 PM (E.T)

Green Bay travel to Seattle in a week one rematch as the two teams battle for NFC supremacy and the right to compete in the Superbowl two weeks from today. The Seahawks will hope to earn the chance to defend their Superbowl crown, while the Packers are in search of their second world title in the Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers era. Seattle’s well documented homefield advantage will be tested to the full by Rodgers and co in a classic battle of offense versus defense, although the odds are firmly stacked in the Seahawks favour after they lost just one game at home all season, including a resounding victory over the Packers in week one by a score of 36-16.

When Green Bay has the ball…
Rodgers was limited by a calf tear last week when Green Bay rallied late to beat Dallas at Lambeau Field, though despite his limited mobility Rodgers was still an extremely effective passer, topping 300 yards on the day and not throwing any interceptions. The Packers number 12 could be in for a tougher time this week, however, with the Seahawks vaunted pass rush likely to move him in the pocket far more than the Cowboys managed to last week. In an effort to keep the ‘hawks D honest Green Bay will hope running back Eddie Lacy can gain a respectable amount of yards per carry, although the second year back missed time last week after he suffered a shortness of breath. Wide receiver Jordy Nelson was largely contained by the Cowboys, but in his place rookie Davante Adams stepped up with over 100 yards receiving, as did Randall Cobb. In week one Rodgers stayed away from Richard Sherman’s side of the field completely – if the Packers are to win tonight they might want to reconsider that strategy, good as Sherman is.

When Seattle has the ball…
One of the reasons Seattle were so successful in week one against Green Bay was their use of jet screens, enabling them to utilise the speed of Percy Harvin. Harvin, of course, was traded to the Jets midway through the season, and since that week one offensive outburst the Seahawks have been heavily reliant on the play-making ability of quarterback Russell Wilson. Wilson’s elusiveness has brought him time in the pocket when his protections have broken down, something that Packers linebacker Clay Matthews will look to exploit this evening. Cornerback Sam Shields leads the Green Bay secondary and he’ll likely be tasked with guarding Doug Baldwin on the outside, though the Seahawks lack a true number one threat. Ultimately the game could come down to the Packers ability to stifle, or at least contain, Marshawn Lynch, who can take over a game and enable Seattle to control the clock with his punishing efforts on the ground.

Special Teams
Packers kicker Mason Crosby has a big leg and has made four kicks from over 50 yards this season, however he’s also missed seven kicks and is liable to inconsistency at times. Although the Packers haven’t generated much from kick returns Micah Hyde does have two touchdowns returning punts, and averages 15 yards per return this year. The Seahawks Steven Hauschka is one of the best kickers in the NFL, although his leg isn’t as strong as Crosby’s. Seattle has lacked a weapon in the return game since Harvin was traded, with the club registering zero scores in the return game.

Prediction
Packers 17, Seahawks 20

Who do you think will win the NFC Championship game? Tweet @fredjstanley or leave a comment

NFL Wild Card Weekend Predictions

Can DeMarco Murray lead Dallas to their first play-off win in two decades?

The NFL play-offs are finally here, and while the top two seeds from each conference will enjoy the action from the comfort of the living rooms having earned a bye, four teams from both the NFC and AFC will duel for the right to face them in the divisional round next week. For American Football Focus’s predictions for each of the four games this weekend just keep reading.

Arizona @ Carolina
The Cardinals quarterback woes continue with Carson Palmer’s original back-up Drew Stanton ruled out of action for this wild-card match-up, meaning third-stringer Ryan Lindley starts in his place. Lindley threw two touchdowns and four interceptions in the regular season, so don’t count on the Cardinals passing game pulling up any trees in the post-season. With starting running back Andre Ellington also sidelined for the remainder of the season the Arizona offense figures to remain as anaemic as it was towards the end of the regular season. Carolina meanwhile come into the game in fine form, having destroyed Atlanta in what was effectively the NFC South championship game. Cam Newton struggled throughout most of 2014, throwing for just 18 touchdowns and missing time due to an unfortunate car crash, but the Panthers defense has shown signs of real improvement in recent weeks and led by Luke Kuechly it’s hard to see Newton failing to outscore Lindley and the Cardinals. Home win for the 7-9 Panthers. Cardinals 10, Panthers 17

Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
These two AFC North rivals do battle for the third time this season, with the Steelers relying on an explosive offense rather than a stout defense, as would normally be the case. Antonio Brown has without question been the best receiver in the NFL this season, certainly on a statistical front, and his 129 receptions have been backed up by running back Le’Veon Bell  and his 1,361 rushing yards. Ben Roethlisberger threw 32 touchdown passes on the year, including a two game stretch where he tossed for 14 scores. Baltimore’s defense isn’t the force it used to be either, although Terrell Suggs is still going strong having recorded 12 sacks on the year. Ultimately home-field advantage and the fact that Roethlisberger should outplay Joe Flacco gives the Steelers the edge at home over their rivals.
Ravens 16, Steelers 27

Cincinnati @ Indianapolis
AFC North and South do battle in Indiana as the Colts host the Bengals at Lucas Oil Stadium. In the absence of any sort of a running game Andrew Luck has carried the Colts, tossing 40 touchdown passes and throwing for over 4,700 yards, with T.Y Hilton emerging as his favourite target. Hilton averaged 16.4 yards per reception in the regular season, and his speed has helped stretch opposing defenses as veteran Reggie Wayne has slowed down. Bengals QB Andy Dalton had a mediocre touchdown to interception ratio of 19 to 17 in the regular season, and he’ll be without his favourite target in A.J Green, who will miss the tie with concussion. If the Bengals are to keep pace with Luck and Indianapolis it’s likely their ground game will have to do the damage, with Jeremy Hill topping the 1,000 yard mark for the first time in his career this season. Unfortunately for the Bengals it might not be enough, not with the inconsistent Dalton leading the offense.
Bengals 24, Colts 31

Detroit @ Dallas
This game is the best of the four when you consider the records on show, as both the Lions and Cowboys finished 2014 with 11-5 records. Dallas has managed to recreate the triumvirate of play-makers that characterised their title winning teams of the 90’s, with Romo, Bryant and Murray performing the roles of Aikman, Irvin and Smith. The Dallas offensive line is also one of the best in football, with rookie guard Zach Martin earning all-pro honours earlier this week. The Lions offense revolves around Calvin Johnson and he’s Matthew Stafford’s primary target on most downs, however the likes of Reggie Bush and Golden Tate are more than capable of picking up some of the slack. One area in which Detroit definitely have an advantage is one defense, where Ndamukong Suh leads a ferocious pass rush and water tight run defense. That edge, combined with the struggles Dallas should have when it comes to covering Johnson, has led me to pick the visitors and the upset, setting up an NFC North rematch with Green Bay next weekend. Lions 28, Cowboys 27

Who do you think will progress to the Divisional Round of the play-offs? Leave a comment or have your say on twitter by tweeting @fredjstanley