Sport Editor Alex Alton examines the recent trials and tribulations of West Ham United both on and off the fieldWritten by alexalton1 on 18th March 2018
NFL Post-Season Preview- Part 1: AFC
James Law gives Part 1 of his NFL Post-Season preview, starting with the AFC
The NFL’s regular season has come to an end, and in a year filled with ups and downs, both on and off the field, the post-season is right around the corner. Teams have either crashed and burned in a beautiful 0-16 mess or petered out in a manner so boring and disappointing that surely it would have been worth signing a certain proven NFL quarterback to have a less horrendous season. But hey, at least Trevor Siemian isn’t a distraction.
Twelve teams, however, managed to get through the season and win enough matches to get the privilege of further concussion – so who has managed that? And how likely are they to go all the way?
Part 1: AFC
6th Seed: Buffalo Bills
After reversing the frankly obscene decision to bench quarterback Tyrod Taylor for half a game in week 11, the Bills squeezed into their first playoffs since 1999 thanks to a fortuitous series of events in the final week of the regular season. They beat Miami, and the Cincinnati Bengals did them a favour by humbling the Baltimore Ravens when they really could have taken the night off.
As 6th seed, they must go on the road and get past the best defence in the league – the Jacksonville Jaguars’ – in order to get any further. It’s a tough one to call, since the Bills' transcendent (albeit potentially injured) running back LeSean McCoy always carries the ability to move the ball up the field and give his team a chance to make things happen. However, whether the team can pull through three consecutive away games in a league where home field advantage can make the marginal difference every team so desperately needs remains to be seen. Even if they do win their wildcard match against the Jags, I can’t see them going to Foxborough and beating Tom Brady’s New England Patriots. I am almost constantly incorrect with sporting predictions though, so don’t place your bets.
“the Titans do not have any individuals who can lift the team up with them
5th Seed: Tennessee Titans
Another team making a playoff return, making the postseason for the first time since 2008, the Titans clinched their wildcard spot with a 9-7 record following their win at Jacksonville. They face the formidable Kansas City Chiefs in the first round, a team many tipped for a Super Bowl appearance following their storming start to the season. The Titans, despite their final week victory, have been in poor form late on this season, coming off of three consecutive losses, two of them from non-playoff teams (the Cardinals and the 49ers). Their victories this season have been largely against teams with poor records too – with the main positive being that they beat the Jaguars twice which could bode well if they meet later on in the playoffs.
I don’t think they’ll be able to get any further than this round though. Mariota has struggled to take control of games very frequently this season, and is rated 19th of all the league’s Quarterbacks according to Football Outsiders. The team is also plagued with inconsistency, and unlike their playoff rivals, including their first opponents Kansas City, the Titans do not have any individuals who can lift the team up with them. They have a solid pair of running backs in Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray, but Mariota’s lack of quality receiving targets, combined with the 21st ranked defence and the fact that they have conceded more points than they’ve scored this season, the Tennessee Titans should struggle throughout the playoffs.
4th Seed: Kansas City Chiefs
After a storming start and strong season end punctuating a grim 1-6 slump in midseason, the Kansas City Chiefs are back in form and raring to go for the playoffs. Alex Smith, buoyed by the competition brought by rookie Quarterback Patrick Mahomes, has had his best season in his entire career, throwing for 26 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions. Smith and coach Andy Reid will hope to continue their forward momentum into their first home playoff game against the Titans, and have a great chance to advance further into the divisional round if they play their best football. Rookie Running Back Kareem Hunt has taken the league by storm and leads in rushing yards whilst also bringing a receiving threat out of the backfield, which has helped the Chiefs strike an offensive balance that they have lacked in recent seasons.
The offence has the ability to carry the defence fairly well, which has struggled without safety Eric Berry and conceded the 5th most yards per game during the regular season. I believe the Chiefs can outplay their statistics, however. They did beat the Patriots on the opening day of the season, so they can beat anyone on the right day. This team is in form, and if the defence can come through at the right times, opposing defences will struggle to keep Hunt and wide receiver Tyreek Hill out of the endzone. The Chiefs will hope that Alex Smith can elevate his game in the playoffs as he was unable to do last season, falling to the Steelers at the first hurdle.
3rd Seed: Jacksonville Jaguars
Apparently, ‘offence wins games, but defence wins championships’. Jaguars fans will hope that is the case, as their defence has almost constantly held opposing offences to low scoring and yardage. The Jags have difference makers at every area of their defence from the likes of Calais Campbell’s elite pass rushing ability and Myles Jack’s hard-hitting linebacker play to cornerback Jalen Ramsey’s ability to shut down any wide receiver in the league to the extent that they get so frustrated they try to choke him out. This defence has been ridiculous in the 2017 regular season - so ridiculous that it made quarterback Blake Bortles look decent. Bortles actually threw for fewer yards per game and touchdowns this season than in his last two, but his production kept the offence ticking over with a strong running game, led by the bloody massive touchdown machine Leonard Fournette.
The Jaguars have a genuine chance to do big things in the playoffs. Obviously, they won’t be anyone’s favourites for the Super Bowl, but I think they can feel confident in stifling LeSean McCoy and Buffalo in the Wild Card round, which would set them up against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have some question marks and potential key injuries. They could well be beatable. When your team’s defence has the ability to silence any given team’s offence, you always have that chance, even without a ‘clutch’ or ‘elite’ quarterback leading the charge. Having said that, imagine if they did have a really good QB. That’d be outrageous.
“the Kansas City Chiefs are back in form and raring to go
2nd Seed: Pittsburgh Steelers
Not many wide receivers have ever been in the conversation for the MVP of the entire season, but Antonio Brown this season forced himself into the picture. Arguably the best receiver in the NFL before the season started, he cemented his place at the top with a season filled with big plays and match-saving performances in which he bailed out quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a number of times. This in turn allowed players like rookie receiver Juju Smith-Schuster to shine, as Brown diverted the attention of opposing defences who needed to mark him with two players to even have a chance of stopping him. The offence was the talk of the Steelers’ season, but their defence allowed the 7th fewest points in 2017. Unfortunately, two-time Pro Bowler Ryan Shazier suffered a horrific, career-altering spinal injury in early December, and the Steelers will miss him enormously in the postseason.
How will they do then? Well, I’d have had them down as a shoo-in to beat whoever they play in the Divisional round, whether it be the Titans, Chiefs, or Jaguars. That was before Antonio Brown’s calf injury in week 15, though. The Steelers are stacked with offensive talent, including the aforementioned Juju Smith-Schuster, running back Le’Veon Bell, and powerful receiver Martavis Bryant, but with such a vital piece of the puzzle being still questionable, the wildcard teams could cause them some problems. If Brown is healthy, Pittsburgh should make it through to the AFC conference game, but their admittedly controversial defeat to the Patriots in week 15 makes me worried for them should they come up against the Brady-Belichick machine. The Patriots won’t want to get that close again.
1st Seed: New England Patriots
At the beginning of the season, many thought the Patriots were petering out. The Tom Brady dynasty was faltering, beginning the season at 2-2, without a top-10 defence to help him. That seems like a long time ago now, having won every game but one since their week 4 loss to the Carolina Panthers. Tom Brady is having an MVP-calibre season, and the Pats have reaffirmed their trust in him by trading away backup Jimmy Garoppolo. Most of their games have been comfortable victories too, and they will go into each playoff matchup as strong favourites.
As long as Tom Brady can stay healthy throughout the playoffs – which is a big ask given that he has taken a whopping 35 sacks this season – they are likely Super Bowl contenders. They are not unbeatable, though. I feel like the Steelers would be the most likely team to overcome the Patriots. It’s a dangerous team with a healthy Antonio Brown, and a quarterback who has proven himself on the largest stage of them all. They’d also be playing with a chip on their collective shoulder in the wake of a refereeing decision that cost them their regular season match against the Patriots, and home field advantage in the playoffs. The Patriots defence, clearly missing Don’t’a Hightower, allowed the 4th most yards during the regular season, but managed to be the 5th most efficient at keeping opposing teams from scoring. Bill Belichick’s team will hope that this ability to hold the opposition when it matters most will be a difference maker, and that jilted former Steeler veteran James Harrison will be able to help. Maybe he’ll even spill some secrets about the Steelers’ defensive playbook should that matchup come up.
The AFC has a very intriguing playoff picture, with teams that have had long stays without a playoff appearance wanting desperately to upset the big boys. Let’s hope for some tense, explosive action, not sure I’m up for watching New England blow everyone out before clinching their millionth Super Bowl appearance.