The Play-offs Start Tonight

By David McDonnell 

Tonight, the football gets ramped up as we start the much anticipated playoffs. 

It’s knockout football, ladies and gentleman, from here until we get to the Superbowl in Glendale, Arizona in the middle of February. 

At 9.30 pm, we have a grudge match as the San Francisco 49ers come up against divisional rival Seattle Seahawks on the NFC side of the draw.

On the AFC side of Super Wildcard Weekend, I expect a very exciting game between two emerging superstar quarterbacks when Justin Herbert and his Chargers travel to Jacksonville to take on the Trevor Laurence led Jaguars at 1.30am GMT.

Seahawks v 49ers

The Niners are strong favourites having won their last 10 games in a row. Right now they look like the best team in football in many areas but there is still one big question mark over rookie sensation Brock Purdy, at quarterback after the two previous incumbents got put on injured reserve during the season. More on him in a bit. 

The Niners’ defence, banged up throughout the season, are fitter and healthier now than they have been all year.  Currently, San Francisco has the best defence in football, with All-Pro players at all three levels. They boast the NFL sack leader in Nick Bosa, who continuously wins at the line of scrimmage and looks to me as a shoe-in for Defensive Player of the Year. 

On the offensive side of the ball, the 49ers have in my opinion one of the top three O-lines in football, which helps with their zone running attack. They also possess an array of weapons that allows head coach Kyle Shanahan to scheme up attacks in a  variety of ways. It makes the Niners very difficult to stop as they can attack your defence in a multitude of ways. 

For example: Christian McCaffery is a top class running-back who is terrific catching the ball out the back field, while Deebo Samuel is a top wide receiver who is also used as a lethal threat rushing the ball. They have other receiving options with tight-end George Kittle, who has scored seven touchdowns in his last four games. One trait they all have in common is that they all make yardage after the catch with their athleticism. 

Add in receiving duo Jauen Jennings and Brandon Aiyuk who have made big plays on third downs all season and Pro Bowl selected full-back Kyle Juszczyk, and you have an offence with options. 

So, there is a lot of expectation in San Fran to get the the Superbowl this year and a lot of pressure on their rookie quarterback Brock Purdy who was Mr. Irrelevant in last year’s draft, after he was the last and 262nd player selected.  

Tonight he Purdy will become the lowest-ranked QB to ever start a play-off game. 

So far he has answered all the doubts and then some. In the games he has played, he has scored 13 touchdowns and thrown four interceptions. He has shown himself to be very calm in the pocket when there is a defensive tackle bearing down on him and also in the face of a lot of media attention and public scrutiny. So far he has been unruffled, but can Seattle turn up the pressure on his young shoulders?

The Seahawks are 6.5 point underdogs but they have a chance. They have two rookie tackles in Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas, who have impressed this year but they will have their hands full tonight. They also have a good corp of defensive backs but where they have struggled at times on defence is getting after the opposition quarterback. 

They have a Pro Bowl caliber QB in Geno Smith, two good receivers in Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf and an excellent running back in rookie Kenneth Walker. However, where this team has been especially inconsistent on offence is running the ball especially in the back half of the season. Should they struggle tonight with their rushing attack, then the 49ers will have a massive advantage in the trenches. 

However, if they can establish a run game, then this contest could be closer than expected. What the Seahawks have in abundance is knowledge of San Francisco, and a serious chip on their shoulder having lost to them twice already this season.

To put my cards on the table, I expect a 49ers victory and I would be shocked if Seattle pulled off a famous win. 

Chargers v Jaguars 

Of the two playoff games tonight, I am most looking forward to this contest as we get to see two of the emerging superstars in the NFL. 

I would put Justin Herbert in my Top 5 quarterbacks in the NFL, and he has the arm talent, size, strength and know how to keep his team in the game when they are struggling. He can also make the big throws when they need him to. If anything, I would like to see Herbert use his legs more in the postseason as he has it in his locker and it was a skill he was quite adept at using at Oregon in college. 

Herbert played  through a rib injury for most of the season and his form has increased as he has gotten better, especially after the Bolts mid-season bye week. In December, the Chargers’ offence was looking electric with the return of Mike Williams and Keenan Allen, and it is unfortunate that the former will be missing for a few weeks with a fracture on his back. 

It means that the Jags will be able to pay more attention to Allen and you might see Joshua Palmer see more targets. He is a good third option but does not have the size or big-play ability that Williams brings to the table. On the upside, their offensive line is going better than it had been with a number of players back from injury but unfortunately they are still missing Rashawn Slater.

The Chargers main source of scores this season has come from Austin Ekeler and he will be involved heavily throughout the game. 

Jacksonville are soaring right now and Trevor Laurence is balling out on a week-to-week basis and he has drummed up a great relationship with all his receivers, but especially with tight-end Evan Engram and duo Zay Jones and Christian Kirk. The LAC pass rush will need to slow down Laurence to give themselves the best shot at winning this game. With Joey Bosa back in the fray, that will help in a big way.

Jacksonville have a strong offensive line, especially on the right side with Jawaan Taylor and Brandon Scherff and an excellent running back in Etienne. 

The Jaguars defence is also playing well. Josh Allen and Trevon Walker give them pass rushing options from the edge and there is a terrific partnership at safety between Andre Cisco and Rayshawn Jenkins, while Tyson Campbell has done well in pass defence.

The Jags defence came up big in the final quarter in their last game of the season against the Titans, and I think they will need to do so again, in what I expect to be a contest that goes to the wire. 

Earlier on in the week, I was pulling for the Chargers and although Williams is a big loss, I would back Herbert to somehow make it happen on the road with the form that he is in right now. 

In and win for Jags and Titans tonight

By David McDonnell 

It’s been a very strange week in the NFL on the back of Damar Hamlin’s injury and most everyone who was watching on Monday Night Football would have been in some way affected by how the events surrounding his cardiac arrest played out. 

It is wonderful that he is alive with all his faculties intact and also to hear that he talked with his Bills teammates over the last 24 hours.

There has been a lot to reflect and learn from this near death experience and in my opinion, the most important is that every sporting organisation and club in every sport has immediate access to a defibrillator and have people trained and ready to put CPR into practice in an emergency.  

Such foresight saved Damar Hamlin’s life this week.  

It also brought home on Monday Night just how little importance football can seem when someone’s life hangs in the balance and I am glad that the NFL decided not to refix this game.

But let’s get back to talking football because it certainly has its place. Football is a game we love to watch, discuss and over-analyse and offers escapism from the pressures and obstacles that can be everyday life for many people.  It adds meaning to our passions and colour to our dreams. 

Titans @ Jaguars 

This is an in-and-win game for both sides tonight (kick-off: 1.15am) with the winner hosting a playoff game in seven days’ time. 

Let’s start with the Titans who had a four game lead in the division in November with a record of 7-3, before losing six games on the bounce. 

Six weeks ago, they boasted one of the most physical defensive lines in football and on offence had the best running back in football in Derek Henry and a play action specialist quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, who would throw some deep shots down the field with relative success. 

So what has happened?

Ultimately, a one-dimensional team picked up a few injuries and they have not been able to adjust. 

The injury to Tannehill has been significant as his replacement Malik Willis has not been accurate throwing the ball. The rookie Willis is a threat running with the ball and on option plays, but without the consistent threat of hurting teams with his arm, teams can pack the box more to better curb the influence of Henry. 

The Titans recruited QB Joshua Dobbs from the waiver wire three weeks ago after he was let go from the Browns once Deshaun Watson returned from suspension. Dobbs will start tonight but he is also without a top receiving talent on the roster and the general manager Jon Robinson lost his job for deciding to trade AJ Brown to the Eagles, a move that confounded most analysts during the draft last April. That AJ Brown has become everything to Philly that is missing in Tennessee, Robinson can have little complaints. 

The Titans defence has been laid low with a lot of injuries with the loss of Zach Cummingham, David Long Jr, Harold Landry and Bud Dupree all at linebacker has been significant to what had been a very tough defence to play against. 

It has left Tennessee with a banged up defence and a one dimensional offence and their hopes tonight will rest on the shoulders of Derek Henry. If he can be a dominant influence on this game, then the Titans have a chance.

The Jaguars have had an almost opposite route to get to this must-win contest. 

They were very inconsistent for most of the season but the turning point for me was in Week 12 when they beat the Ravens. In that game Trevor Laurence came of age and led an impressive two minute drill which finished with a Marvin Jones touchdown and he then found Zay Jones for the win with the two-point conversion. 

After that game winning drive, Laurence’s confidence at the QB position has been tangible and he is leading his team in much the same way he did at Clemson. Just as significant is that his teammates have rowed in behind him and this looks like the start of some memorable years to come in Jacksonville. 

Laurence isn’t short of passing options either. He has the safety blanket of his Clemson running back in Travis Eteinne on passing downs and has struck up a great relationship with Evan Engram at tight end. Earlier in the season he would routinely find Christian Kirk but most recently his favourite target has become Zay Jones. 

They have a strong offensive line, especially on the right side with Jawaan Taylor and Brandon Scherff and an excellent running back in Etienne. 

The Jaguars defence is also playing well. Josh Allen and Trevon Walker give them pass rushing options from the edge and there is a terrific partnership at safety between Andre Cisco and Rayshawn Jenkins, while Tysom Campbell has done well in pass defence.

Against the Titans I expect Jenkins and Cisco will drop down to the box, especially if Dobbs can’t get the Jags to respect the passing game. 

With the prime time audience, this is the most important game in Duval County since the Jags lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game in January 2018 and I am expecting Laurnece to deliver a win for the home side.

The Titans certainly have a puncher’s chance with Derek Henry but outside of that, I can’t see how they will win this contest.  

In the other Saturday Night game (9.30pm GMT), we have the Chiefs playing a divisional matchup against the Raiders. 

If the Chiefs win they will get a bye from playing wildcard weekend but it’s likely that any appearance in an AFC championship game will be played at a neutral venue after a vote by the NFL owners yesterday. 

From the Raiders point of view,  Jared Stidham has the chance to further his case to be the starting QB in Las Vegas next season, but my intuition tells me that Josh McDaniels will be bringing in a new player under centre in the off-season.  

And that player could be Tom Brady. 

Bills beat Dolphins in the Snow

By David McDonnell

Of the three games on Saturday, for me they saved the best for last and the Dolphins v Bills, was terrific fare from start to finish.  

In the end, a walk-off field goal from Tyler Bass was the difference between the sides after a four thrilling quarters. 

After struggling on offence last weekend, the Dolphins had no such problems this week and their rushing attack with Raheem Mostert was very much to the fore early on. 

However, it was Buffalo who got the opening two touchdowns. First Allen threw a great ball to Quintin Morris.

Then he found Nyheim Hines for a comfortable second quarter lead. 

Miami answered back when Salvon Ahmed finished an impressive drive by Tua Tagovailoa to leave a point separating the sides.

However, before halftime Allen bought time by scrambling right and flung a dart to James Cook in the endzone. 

At the start of the second half, Tua found Jalen Waddle for a wonderful touchdown.

On his next drive Tua found Tyreek Hill over the top to take the lead.

In the fourth quarter, Allen led the Bills downfield with his arms and legs and ended up finding Dawson Knox for a six-pointer. The Buffalo QB then superman dived into the endzone to pick up the two-point conversion to tie the game.

By this stage the snow was pelting  down. Allen led a late drive and Tyler Bass kicked the winning score as time elapsed. 

The Bills win the AFC East and remain top seeds in the AFC.

Vikings make NFL comeback history


By David McDonnell

Holy Mother of God, What a comeback!!!!

The Vikings were 33-0 down against the Colts at half-time, but staged a miraculous second-half comeback to send the game to overtime, where they won at the death to complete the biggest ever comeback in NFL history.

It is difficult even now trying to comprehend what we witnessed. 

At half time, it had been all so different. 

In the first half the Vikings kept getting punished from largely self-inflicted wounds with the Vikes being roundly booed by their home support as they trailed 33-0.

The Colts first touchdown came from a blocked punt, their second after Dalvin Cook had fumbled which led to a successful touchdown drive, and a third score came after Kirk Cousins was intercepted by Julian Blackmon for a pick six. 

The Colts took at 33-0 into half-time. 

In the third quarter touchdown a touchdown from the impressive KJ Osbourne looked like a consolation score. 

Even when they added a second, there wasn’t much of a fuss from anywhere but when Justin Jefferson got a third touchdown at the start of the second quarter, the whole mood of the stadium changed.

It made a two-score game with 13 minutes remaining and there was certainly a belief that a comeback could be on the cards. The atmosphere was rocking but when Cousins threw an interception with eight minutes remaining, everyone took a breath.

However two minutes later, Cousins was one-yard out with a first and goal and two plays later found Adam Thielen for a touchdown.

Before the two minute warning, Minnesota made a big stop on fourth down when Matt Ryan tried the QB sneak. The chains showed him to be just short and with 2.19 left, Dalvin Cook broke free from a screen pass and went 64 yards for a touchdown that exposed some poor tackling by the Colts. 

Cousins found Hockenson through the middle for the two point conversion to tie the scores, 36-36. 

The game went to overtime and with time threatening to run out, Greg Joseph kicked over from 40 yards to make history as the Vikings completed the greatest comeback in NFL history.

There have been 1551 games in the NFL,  and these Minnesota Vikings are the only team to comeback from a 33 point deficit. 

The win secures the NFC North title for Minnesota, while at the same time probably ending Jeff Saturday’s chances of keeping his interim coaching job past this season. His side paid the price for thinking the game was over and terrible clock management and play calling.

This comeback will live long in the memory.